September 6, 2017

7 ideas for hillside landscaping

“I just can’t handle it any more. We’ve tried everything we could think of, and it’s just constantly a weedy, muddy mess that feels like a total waste.” He sounded frantic. Desperate!


Hillside landscaping can do that to a person. Those steeply sloped beds seem to want to dump soil and mulch in your backyard, then fill up with every weed from miles around. Those problem areas can become opportunities – you just need to know what the problems are, and how to solve them.

Hillside landscaping and water

Water is the number one foe anyone has when developing a landscape plan for a hill. Water causes erosion, which just means that the soil you need up top ends up down at the bottom. That can lead to unstable slopes, exposed roots, even plants getting washed right down the hill. If you’re just getting started, consider reaching out to your local Virginia Soil & Water Conservation office for more info. 

before of hillside landscaping design

This is a before shot from an Arlington landscape design project that we recently completed. As you can see, it’s your typical northern Virginia “let’s shoehorn a big house onto a small lot and any problems will manifest themselves long after we’re gone” scenario. Water was ripping down that side yard, and just in the few months between phase one (lower patio) and phase two (the slope), a LOT of the soil had washed downhill. In another few months, we may have had issues with the driveway getting undermined. Curious what we did?

Idea 1: manage the water coming your way

Because the house sits lower than the road, a lot of water comes down the driveway. The asphalt guys pitched the driveway to channel water into the yard, but that left us with a lot to manage. We also had the downspouts to deal with. So, we plumbed the downspouts to come out farther downhill. We also created a basin with a 12”x12” drain that exits in the middle of the stone swale. What stone swale? Keep reading.

Idea 2: protect the soil and slow the water

We knew we would have a lot of water coming down the hill. We also wanted to make sure we weren’t dumping it on the neighbors, because that’s 1) rude and 2) illegal. To channel the water, we built a drainage channel, or swale, using what’s known as gabion stone. Gabion stone is large, angular chunks of stone like what you see along freeways, county road ditches, etc. It’s not as pretty as washed river rock, but it stays where you put it.

It also serves to slow the water down. The two primary factors that cause damage on a hillside landscaping project like this are water volume and water velocity. The volume is what it is – that’s determined by how everything grades towards us – but we can reduce the velocity of the stormwater, which makes it much less damaging. By using irregular, angular stone that just out at angles to the flow, we break up the water flow. Had we poured a concrete gutter or done something similar, we’d have the last hill on Splash Mountain. Not so good for erosion control!

Hillside landscaping and maintenance

Small hillside landscaping designs that are located right off a patio and only have a small hill are great. Often, all you need is a short wall, and you can stand in front of the wall and weed and prune and have a beautiful, easy landscape. We call these unicorns because they’re magical creatures that no one *I* know has seen.

Instead, most hillsides a nightmare to deal with. Most of the time they start out covered in grass (“because screw you guys,” quoth the homebuilder), and we get called when the homeowner is tired of mowing the Incline of Pain and Fear. We can plant the heck out of a hillside so you don’t need to mow it, but you’re still going to need to get in there occasionally.

Idea 3: use low maintenance plants

Low maintenance in this case is a double-pronged campfire weiner fork of awesomeness. Naturally we want plants that are, themselves, low maintenance. Anything you really don’t need to get in and prune is a winner for anyone with a serious hillside to deal with. If we can get plants that will also spread, fill in, and suppress weeds while cutting down on the amount of mulch used over time, that’s a tremendous win. What we use can depend on sun exposure and water availability, but plants like cotoneaster, prostrate junipers, evergreen perennial groundcovers can be a lifesaver.

In the above project, you can see that we used a LOT of cotoneaster. It’ll help lock in the mulch and the hillside, and provide a simple yet durable counterpoint to the other plants.

Idea 4: design for maintenance needs

Unless you spray an entire hillside with that rubber stuff they use on truck bedliners (would it work? hmmm) you’re still going to have periodic maintenance. It’s called nature – deal with it! You’ll need to prune and shape a few plants, clean up broken branches, pull weeds, and maybe even spray for pests or diseases. You would be amazed how many people design themselves right out of being able to get in their hillside landscaping. Don’t do that! Instead, provide yourself a path with which to get through the planting beds. If a path won’t work, at least give yourself “landing pads” so you can get from one end to the other. Consider it a little ninja warrior training.

Using your hillside landscape

It’s a common sight all over the country: from the back of the house, the lawn extends back towards the property line for 15-20 feet, and then shoots up at a stupid angle for the rest of the distance to the end of the lot. This causes homeowners to scratch their heads and wonder what the heck to do with this wasted space.

“Thanks for nuthin’, builder!”

Idea 5: get freaky with it

I’m a huge fan of reclaiming the “useless” spaces in the landscape. A lot of those collections of wasted square footage get a new life as utility areas, or small little focal point spots. If your backyard has an unused area at the top of the slope, you have a gift. Think about it: it’s probably tucked a little out of sight. It’s probably weirdly shaped. Your guests don’t go there. Heck, your partner probably never goes there.

*whispers* it’s all yours now. You don’t have to share.

Seriously. If you’re a plant geek and you can’t stop collecting weird hosta and hellebore varieties? It’s your collection garden. If you love pink flamingos and can’t have too many? It’s your museum. Heck, if you’re 67 years old and you want a sandbox, give yourself a damn sandbox. You deserve it!

It’s ok, I won’t judge.

Idea 6: get up in it (safely)

Because there’s no mountain goat DNA in my family tree, I find running up and down steep slopes to be kind of challenging. Wet slopes can get downright treacherous. If you’re going to be accessing something either above or below a hillside landscape bed with any frequency, you should put in steps.

Those steps can be whatever fits your budget and your style. These steps shown above are Tech-Bloc Rocka steps. They’re super easy to place if you have equipment or a couple of strong laborers.

These steps are on that Arlington job we mentioned earlier, and they’re made from 6×6 pressure treated timbers spiked together.

Here you see another application for Techo-Bloc Rocka steps, only this is a much more formal and constructed path to the backyard.

And, of course, if your style is super informal and natural-looking, you can use natural fieldstone steps. Whatever you decide, make sure that the steps are solid, stable, and safe.

Idea 7: make it the star of the show

So many articles about making hillside landscaping that works focus on just dealing with the hillside. It’s something to manage, to force into something that can be dealt with, so we can focus our attention elsewhere. What if we made it all about the hill?

Here’s a landscape design project we did in Bethesda. The backyard is exactly what I described previously, a short flat spot just outside the back door that shoots way uphill. Well, what makes so many water features look unnatural? The fact that the water source looks really contrived. What if it was built into the side of a big hill so it looked like a natural spring?

With this Sperryville landscape design project, you can see that we really took the “natural spring” idea to heart. One weekend I took the excavator up on the mountain and found a couple of large boulders. These were arranged so it looked like the water was coming out of a fissure in the rock of the hillside.

Landscape lighting can be the final, crowning touch in any hillside landscaping project, but especially ones where the hill itself is the star.

Do you have a hillside landscape that you just can’t seem to wrap your head around? Contact us today for a consultation, because friends don’t let friends have boring landscapes!

August 23, 2017

Are you ignoring the coolest feature of a crape myrtle?

If I asked you to tell me about crape myrtles, what would you say? My guess is the first thing you’d mention is the fact that the flowers are pretty spectacular (because they are). You might even say that it blooms in the summer, unlike most other trees and shrubs (right again – you’re good).  

crape myrtles behind the fountain at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, Richmond VA

BUT – did you think about the trunks? Hear me out.

Unexpected reasons to love crape myrtles

Crape myrtle blooms are gorgeous, but they don’t bloom all year. Heck, crape myrtles are deciduous, so they’re going to drop their leaves in the fall. They’re buck nekkid until spring! Since we tend to place crape myrtles in prominent spots, it’s a good thing they have some 24/7/365 assets.

Some crape myrtle varieties, like ‘Natchez’, have cool, exfoliating bark. There’s even a sweet color contrast, with the cinnamon-colored bark and the more silvery smooth bark.

exfoliating bark on Natchez crape myrtle

The trunks offer two more reasons to love crape myrtles. First, most tree-form crape myrtles – I don’t personally like the shrub form, so we’ll ignore them – are multi-trunked and vase shaped. It’s a useful shape in the landscape. We can use crape myrtles in layered plant beds, along driveways, and in all sorts of ways.

One other reason to love crape myrtle trunks is that the older the tree, the thicker and gnarlier the trunk becomes. If you live in a relatively new, suburban neighborhood, it’s entirely likely that you’ve only seen crape myrtles with trunks like fairly straight pipes. Go visit an older neighborhood with mature trees and you’ll see exactly what they have to offer.

My first time visiting Colonial Williamsburg was shortly after MJ and I moved to Virginia. Crape myrtles don’t grow in my home state of Rhode Island, and they sure as heck don’t grow in San Diego or Phoenix. At first, I was baffled by the old crape myrtles twisting and heaving along the brick sidewalks. What WERE these cool things??? Then I looked more closely, and examined the leaves, and I was hooked.

crape myrtles w twisty trunks

Here’s a great example of a situation where the trunks are what make the crape myrtles worth having. I was at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden this week, and came across these beauties. Look at the size of those trunks! And the twisty shapes? AMAZING. 

I hope that’s helped you see the value and the beauty in crape myrtles in more than just their blooms. If you need help with your landscape and want someone who can love both the conventional and the unusual parts of a plant – contact me today! I’d love to talk with you about your project.

60 things landscape designers should know

Guess what? July 2nd, I celebrated NINE YEARS of being my own boss. Ring that bell!

Yep, we party like rock stars on our anniversary

In that time I have learned so, so much. And I’ve gotten to work with and mentor newer designers, as well as get great advice and coaching from those who can kick my butt. I recently stumbled across this amazing list of 250 things an architect should know. I picked 60 for landscape designers because it’s the height of the busy season here – ain’t nobody got time for 250 items. Read on, and let me know in the comments what YOU think I missed. Even better, write your own list, and I’ll either share the link here, or post it for you if you don’t have a blog!

Note: I realize that this list skews a little heavy into the landscape construction side of things. That’s because I feel a lot of folks who get into this business do it out of love for plants, so that’s not the area that’s lacking. If our clients want us to know a little about everything, we should!

  1. The feel of dry grass on bare feet.
  2. What it’s like to walk across pea gravel in high heels.
  3. How far conversation travels in a neighborhood.
  4. How big a waterfall needs to be to drown out traffic.
  5. The cost to have someone mow a quarter acre for you.
  6. The cost to have someone maintain a lawnless quarter acre.
  7. The feeling of a sudden pollen-induced allergy attack.
  8. How slippery different patio surfaces can be when wet.
  9. How stone is laid.
  10. What a sun scorched hosta looks like.
  11. How to communicate using a sketch (no matter how bad the sketch is).
  12. What an appropriately pitched wheelchair ramp feels like.
  13. What it feels like to push a wheelchair through gravel.
  14. Or over grass.
  15. How to plant a tree.
  16. What the client wants.
  17. What the client thinks they want.
  18. What the client can afford.
  19. What the planet can afford.
  20. The feel of a sunny patio in winter in Ohio.
  21. The feel of a sunny patio in summer in Arizona.
  22. How to discover the shape a plant wants to be.
  23. Real japanese gardens.
  24. Uplift.
  25. Lateral movement.
  26. How to mitigate being in a subdivision lot.
  27. How to resolve neighbor disputes.
  28. How long it takes to plant a tree.
  29. How to weed a densely planted perennial bed.
  30. How to get along with landscape architects.
  31. How to talk to engineers.
  32. The behavior of different wood species.
  33. When to hold ‘em.
  34. When to fold ‘em.
  35. When to walk away.
  36. Three vegetarian dishes for the grill.
  37. How to talk to a dog.
  38. A good lawyer.
  39. How to communicate to a crowded room.
  40. Why David Lee Roth was the better frontman than Sammy Hagar.
  41. Another artistic discipline (I suggest playing an instrument).
  42. The scientific method.
  43. What % soil settles.
  44. The golden ratio.
  45. How to make a good Manhattan.
  46. Approximate project costs early in the discussion.
  47. How to turn green pond water clear.
  48. How to repair a broken irrigation head.
  49. What plants will let you cheat your USDA zone
  50. What plants will die if you try and cheat your USDA zone.
  51. The weight of a gallon of water.
  52. Voltage drop.
  53. The turning radius of an SUV.
  54. Which syllable to emphasize in “peony”.
  55. How to prune anything.
  56. At least rudimentary Spanish (Sesame Street or better).
  57. How to at least move any piece of equipment that may end up on your site out of the way.
  58. How to shoot grades.
  59. How to accurately locate a tree relative to the house.
  60. How to not take yourself so damn seriously.

In the comments – what would you add to this list?

How to build a gravel path the RIGHT way

There’s a certain appeal to gravel paths and patios. They somehow manage to at once be both casual and formally elegant. A gravel path says “let’s go somewhere, and you don’t need a tie to get there.” The thing is, a gravel path can be downright awful if not installed properly. Gravel can spill out and mix with adjacent grass and mulch. Weeds can overrun the gravel. Most importantly, a gravel path can be darn difficult to walk on if not constructed properly. If you’ve dismissed the idea of a gravel path because the last one you were on, it was like walking through the dunes at the beach – that was one bad apple. Here’s how you build a gravel path the right way.


Step One – Excavation

You can’t just dump a few wheelbarrows of gravel on the ground and call it a day. When we do a gravel path for a client project we dig down 4-6 inches. That lets us eliminate the sod and/or plant matter in the top few inches, and it allows us to create a cleanly defined shape for the path.

Step Two – The Prep

Once the path is excavated out, we run a plate compactor over the soil to give us a solid sub-base. We then cover the bottom with a woven geotextile fabric to keep the soil and the base layer separate – just like you would when starting a paver walk. For the sides, we usually recommend some sort of edging to keep the gravel separated from adjacent lawn areas or plant beds. Granite cobblestones are gorgeous but pricy; powdercoated aluminum edging is attractive yet unobtrusive and reasonably priced. I don’t love the plastic edging sold at the box stores as it never seems to hold up well and it does a lousy job of holding a true radius curve.

Step Three – The Base Layer

Do you know why a poorly installed pea gravel path (or patio, or driveway) feels like you’re slogging through beach sand? It’s because pea gravel is rounded and doesn’t interlock, so you really are moving the full depth of the path with every step. Even if we’re using an angular stone like ⅜” chip gravel (#8 stone) I still like to use a solid base.

culpeper patio walk

For this base layer we use 21A (aka ¾” minus, aka ABC stone, aka crusher run). We spread it evenly, then run a plate compactor over it. This process is repeated until we’re within an inch to an inch and a half of the desired path height. The goal is to have a compacted, rock solid base you could run a car over.

Step Four – The Pretty Stuff

We finish off the pathway with our decorative stone of choice. That can be pea gravel, #8 stone, or whatever works for the look you’re trying to achieve. If we’re using an angular stone like ⅜” chip gravel (#8) and it’s going to be a high traffic area, we’ll run the compactor over it a few times. We don’t use the compactor with pea gravel because a rounded stone won’t compact or interlock. May as well try teaching the dog ballet for all the good it’ll do.


And that’s it! Yes, doing all this does make the process take longer, but you now have a rock solid gravel path that is easy to walk on and way less likely to have any sort of weed issues. Trust me, it’s totally worth it.

April 12, 2016

Why you need to visit the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens

In Roman days, genius loci referred to the protective spirit of a given place. Today, we refer to it as the atmosphere or general “feel” that a location has. I’ve been to public gardens all over the country, and while they’re all beautiful I’ve never been to one that embodies its location quite like the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens.


Pittsburgh is one of my favorite cities. There’s just an honesty to Pittsburgh that you don’t get with newer, shinier, more sparkly towns. There’s beautiful architecture and some amazing culinary and cultural happenings, but underneath it all you can just feel that this is a city built on hard work. You no longer have to change into a clean shirt halfway through the day (yay, pollution controls!) but you can still feel the city’s industrial legacy. So naturally when MJ said she had a conference there, I happily agreed to make the 4.5 hour drive with her. I hit up my networks and Denise Schreiber, a fellow GWA member, got me a tour of the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens.

Martha Swiss took us around and gave us not only the grand tour, but the history of, and vision for, the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens. What started as an all-volunteer effort in the 80s has grown into the early stages of a great public garden. Our tour took place in early March so there wasn’t a whole lot of plant-based awesomeness happening but it was still a terrific tour that whetted my appetite for a return visit. Here are some key points that will help you understand what I mean by the garden’s genius loci (or terroir, if you’d rather drink your concepts. *hic*).

Developing the next generation of plant geeks

On our visit to Pittsburgh we hit a whole bunch of museums and attractions and they all did a fantastic job of providing activities and exhibits aimed at kids. The Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens are no exception.


This playhouse is the anchor for a sensory garden. While everyone loves a sensory garden, these can also be helpful for children on the autism spectrum. Plus, it looks really cool.


Located minutes from the city, the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens serves as a field trip destination for inner-city kids. One thing that they quickly learned was that for many of these kids, the woods were a terrifying place. The smart folks at the gardens introduced decorative elements to make the wooded paths less scary. I love this so much.


As soon as MJ and I saw this storybook cottage we both had the same reaction: “ohmygosh I would have had to have been DRAGGED out of this thing when I was a kid!” Inside are places to sit and books for kids to enjoy.


Using trunks from felled trees (this site was affected by Emerald Ash Borer), the craftspeople involved in the gardens have added to the magical fairytale feel of this part of the property.

Nature + Arts = awesomeness

I mentioned how strongly the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens are tied to the city. One of the ways the gardens have forged this bond is by inviting local artists and artisans to contribute.


A theme that ran through a lot of Martha’s tour was the idea of re-using as much from the site as possible. This sculpture was made from a tree that, due to disease, has to be felled. Its fairy tale appearance works beautifully in the storybook garden.


This dragon is maintained by the artist, and adds a touch of the unexpected as you walk down the wooded paths.

Coal country, baby

Pittsburgh grew as a city because of coal and steel. The Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens are built on an old mine site, much of which is still undergoing reclamation. In fact, the majority of the gardens haven’t been started yet because they’re waiting for the reclamation work to be completed. As you walk through the gardens you see evidence of the site’s past. Pipes and other industrial artifacts show up between trees, and mine carts and other abandoned tools have been discovered. Where practical, these have been left in place to remind visitors of what once was here – which I love. For me, the centerpiece of the gardens’ history, as well as a testament to what is happening here, is the lotus pond.


Coal mining exposes iron pyrite. When this is exposed to oxygen and water you end up with what’s called Acid Mine Drainage. According the folks at the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens the pH of this discharge is around 2.8. If you recall high school chemistry class that is crazy acidic. Adult fish can’t survive below 3.0 to 4.0, and their reproduction is impacted at even less of an acidic environment. Because water flows downhill, the site of the lotus pond was a toxic soup devoid of life.


The decision was made to bring the pond back to life. A system was devised whereby this discharge water would feed through buried chunks of limestone. Limestone is alkaline, and will therefore neutralize acid. Using this brilliant process, the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens have turned this pond into a clean body of water that supports life! It’s amazing, and I can’t wait to see the lotus pond fill up with beautiful blooms.


The Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens took a site that was ravaged by decades of mining activity. They’re now fixing the problems past stewards of the land caused, all while maintaining the heritage of the site but looking to the future. If that’s not a terrific metaphor for everything that’s right with Pittsburgh, I don’t know what is.  


As a bonus, on this trip we went to the Heinz History Center where they have a whole bunch of sets from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. How could I turn down a picture with King Friday XIII?


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