Hidden landscape gems in Culpeper

There’s a lot to love about Culpeper. Our downtown has terrific shops and restaurants and a great little museum. Speaking of the museum, every year they organize a day where families can get up close and personal with preserved dinosaur tracks right here in the county. We have the Library of Congress film archives and a state of the art soapbox derby track. Most importantly, however (in my opinion), are some of our kinda-secret landscape and garden spots! 

Old House Vineyards

Now I’ll admit that I’m biased, because we are responsible for pretty much all of the landscape design that’s happened out at Old House Vineyards. That doesn’t change the fact that there’s a lot of cool stuff out there for plant lovers. If you visit, you can see several varieties of boxwood and hydrangeas, full shade gardens, full sun gardens, wet soil gardens, and more. MJ and I got married at a gorgeous farm in Vermont, and I’ve tried to capture some of that magic with the plantings. 

Looking at plants is fun, but what if you want to know what you’re looking at? We’re working on getting our catalogue of plants at Old House Vineyards updated and complete on Plantsmap. What’s Plantsmap? You can learn a little about it here, and you can see the collection here. Bring your phone or tablet and explore (but remember that it *is* a business, so do the right thing and buy something if you go!)

The sports complex at Eastern View High School

Since we don’t have kids I never knew what was out there at the sports complex. Then last year I learned about the Bright Spot Park, a fully accessible playground that the county was building out there. Through our work at Old House Vineyards I knew John Barrett, the director of the county parks and rec department, so I gave him a call and offered to donate the landscaping. Getting involved in that project led me to learn more about other projects at the sports complex. 

Bright Spot Park – Like I said, I designed and donated the landscaping. The county has made a big push to start integrating more native plants in their various sites, so I made natives a key part of the design. 

The five senses garden – A few hundred yards from the playground sits a five senses garden. Several years ago some volunteers got together to create this garden. Because this was a 100% volunteer garden it’s not managed by the county, so it fell into a little disrepair when the original volunteers moved on to other things. Last year a local Girl Scout troop decided to rehab the garden as their service project. I helped with plant selection and got them going, which was a blast. It could use a little help this year, so if you’re interested let me know and I’ll connect you with the right people. 

Labyrinth – Next door to the five senses garden is a labyrinth. For those who don’t know, a labyrinth is not a maze. Rather, it’s a path that one follows from the outside to the center, allowing the user to meditate and ponder as they make their way to the middle. Mike Skelton, a facilities manager with parks and rec, did a fabulous job (and showed how you can create something very cool without spending hardly any money). 

Turf trials – This one blew me away. I’m not a lawn/turfgrass person, so I suppose I just took that part of what the parks and rec crew does for granted. They’ve created test plots for [QUANTITY] different types of grass to see what varieties will do well. If you want some ideas for what to use at your property, check it out! 

Pollinator garden at Yowell Meadow Park

While I wasn’t involved in this garden, I get to enjoy it when we walk landscape dawg and landscape dawg deux through Yowell Meadow Park. The Star Exponent has a good writeup about it here. The garden is one more example of how our little community values nature, and it’s another wonderful resource for homeowners looking for inspiration. 

I feel like our adopted hometown is doing a lot of things right when it comes to plants and gardens. If you’re a fellow plant nerd, check out my suggestions above, and let me know about anything I should see!

Don’t make these 3 hardscape mistakes

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Some hardscape mistakes are minor. The summer picnic equivalent might be putting too little salt in your potato salad. Others are major. Those are the equivalent of using pureed Spam in your cherry pie. Whatever you do, avoid Spam in your pie and avoid these hardscape mistakes.

Built-in firepit seating

As it is, I’m not a fan of built-in firepits. They take up a lot of patio space, which means that part of the patio only has one function, and they suck up a lot of the budget for what they bring to the party. But fine, if you have to have a built-in firepit, DO NOT compound the problem with built-in seat walls/benches. 

Paver catalogs are filled with pics of built-in seating, because paver manufacturers want to sell product. The problem with these “features” is that they ignore the #1 rule of firepits: getting the perfect temperature for more than 10 minutes is all but impossible. Every time we use our firepit, MJ and I spend the evening scooting our chairs closer and farther away, over and over. What do you do with a built-in bench? Climb up the back and perch there like Christopher Walken in The Prophecy?

I don’t get the appeal. There are way cooler ways to use your budget. 

Cheap corners on stonework

We all have our pet peeves. My big one is poorly done corners on stonework, specifically walls, columns, firepits, etc. built with a thin veneer stone. If we’re using a veneer stone, we’re attempting to create the look of a solid stone feature without the expense or labor involved with dressing and laying full building stones. When using building stone, your corners look like this:

When using thin veneer stone, they’re all flat pieces. Inexperienced and/or discount masons will lay their corners like this, which kills the illusion of real masonry work:

How do we avoid this? If we’re using thin stone veneer on a project, we buy matching corners from the vendor. They make a pair of cuts in the stone at 90 degrees to one another, giving us this:

[veneer corner]

When used properly, the corners give the illusion that the stone we used was full thickness building stone, not some lick and stick flat thing. It costs a little more than just overlapping flats, but you can’t argue with the end result:

Thin flagstone as caps and treads

The least expensive flagstone squares and rectangles are around an inch thick and have sawn edges. They’re perfect for creating patios and walks. They’re not perfect for applications where you see the edge, like column caps or step treads. The scale is just all wrong:

Instead, we use 2” thick flagstone (or thicker) for these applications, with either a thermal edge or a chiseled edge. It looks better, and it also holds up significantly better over time. 

To some, these may seem like petty issues. To me, they’re the small details that can make or break a project. A few years ago I explained the issue of corners on stone veneer to a client who hired us for a retaining wall. Several weeks later she said to me, “now that I know that about the corners I see them everywhere and you’re right, they look CHEAP!” Once you know, there’s no going back. 

Plantings at the Bright Spot Park

What are those plants?

Culpeper County has been working hard to plant Virginia native plants around the county, so I made that a focus of this design. Here’s the plant list:

Willow Oak, Quercus phellos
St. Johns Wort, Hypericum spp.
Virginia Sweetspire, Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet
Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium purpureum ‘Baby Joe’
Blue False Indigo, Baptisia australis

How I got involved

Last year I was scrolling mindlessly through Facebook, as one does, and I saw the Star Exponent article about the new playground being built by Eastern View High School. What really caught my eye was the fact that it was designed as an inclusive playground, with equipment to allow kids with disabilities to have fun. I immediately reached out to the Parks and Rec department to find out if they needed landscaping.

Parks and Rec director John Barrett confirmed that yes, they could certainly use someone willing to donate the landscaping, so I volunteered. As you may recall, 2018 was a nightmare year for rain, and the project faced delay after delay. Kids were using the playground, but 2018 ended with the playground still waiting for plants.

Late this spring, we finally had some room open up in our schedule and we could do what we promised! It took us about a day to get everything in and mulched, and it looks great. Culpeper has been good to us, so it felt wonderful to give back.

Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’

The usual common name for Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’ is Japanese Andromeda, which I will not use. I’ve never heard a homeowner call it “Andromeda”. I’ve heard pieris, I’ve heard japonica – that one’s fun, since there are a gazillion plants that are blahblah japonica – but never andromeda. Now you kids get off my lawn!

In all seriousness, I have always loved Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’. Its eventual size is predictable, growing super slowly to a max of 6 to 8 feet tall and 3ish feet wide. It takes a good decade for it to crack 4 feet tall. Like I said, super slow. That’s a good thing in a lot of home landscapes.

What’s less predictable is what Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’ will look like as it grows. These plants love being in the partial shade of a backyard with mature trees, but they’ll also grow in full sun. They need soil that drains well. That’s a more important consideration than exact light requirements. As with most plants, the more sun they get the fuller and bushier they’ll be. In the shade, they’ll get thin and woody and get a whole lot funkier looking. The ones shown above were planted in a spot where they got a decent amount of sun. You can see that the foliage is still pretty dense and they have similar shapes to one another. Now look at this one.

This is a Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’ that’s grown up on the shady side of the house. It’s right at about 8 feet tall, but the trunks are visible and the shape is pretty cool.

Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’ gets covered with clusters of hanging white blooms in the springtime.  It got the name ‘Mountain Fire’ because new growth comes in a beautiful red, fading to green over time.

Want to buy Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’ in Virginia?

Compact Inkberry Holly | Ilex glabra ‘Compacta’

When I say “holly” it probably puts a very specific image in your mind: bright green, shiny leaves with lots of jagged edges, and bright red berries too. Compact Inkberry Holly (Ilex glabra ‘Compacta’) is different, with its dark green leaves and dark bluish purple berries.

Inkberries are American native shrubs. They also tolerate wet soils, making them one of the few evergreen shrubs that do. Inkberry holly can be planted in full sun to partial shade. They will grow in full shade, but they get super thin and woody. A great example of this is along Davis Street in Culpeper, down by the Depot. The inberry have grown large, but the foliage is just this thin “crust” of green along the outside of the plants.

Compact inkberry holly grows to 3 to 4 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide. It’s a good evergreen foundation plant as long as it won’t need sheared or hedged. Inkberry’s natural shape just looks better than anything you may force it to be. I also like to use it for massing, especially creating large drifts along the edge of the woodline. Deer tend to leave inkberry holly alone, so it’s a good plant for spots where deer are a concern but you don’t want to use boxwood.

Want to buy Compact Inkberry Holly in Virginia?

St Johns Wort | Hypericum ‘Hidcote’

St Johns Wort (Hypericum ‘Hidcote’) is a plant I didn’t use a lot initially. Then we were asked to quote a landscape installation for a client in Great Falls. They had just completed a major addition, and the county required that they add a LOT of plants to offset the construction. The engineering firm’s drawings called for a whole lot of Hypericum ‘Hidcote’. 134 of them, in fact.

Hypericum ‘Hidcote’ (I’m not using the common name in this post because way too many plants fall under the umbrella of ‘St Johns Wort’) is a low growing deciduous shrub that grows to 2 to 4 feet tall and wide. It blooms yellow, with pretty showy flowers. It likes well draining soil, and we’ve had a lot of success with it in deer-heavy areas. In fact, in the project I mentioned above the deer completely ignored them.

If, like me, you’ve wondered what Saint John had to do with all this, some cultivars of Hypericum (probably not this one) were used to treat wounds and nasty infections for centuries. Presumably because it was such an important plant, the leaves were gathered and burned to help protect against evil spirits. This was done on – wait for it – the night before St. John’s Day. As someone for whom many prayers have been made to St. Jude (the patron saint of hopeless causes – no mom, no offense taken), this makes sense.

Jamain [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Want to buy Hypericum ‘Hidcote’ in Virginia?

Sixteen Candles Sweet Pepperbush | Clethra alnifolia ‘Sixteen Candles’

I can only assume that there’s a clever link between Sixteen Candles Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia ‘Sixteen Candles’) and the Molly Ringwold movie, but I’m an embarrassment to Gen X. I’ve never seen it. Haven’t even caught the movie between commercial breaks while flipping channels. What I DO know is that this Sweet Pepperbush is a great little Virginia native shrub that pollinators love.

If I can go on a tangent, the genus name Clethra comes from the Greek klethra. That means alder, and the leaves of Sweet Pepperbush resemble alder leaves. The species, alnifolia, means… leaves like alder. So the botanical name is essentially Alder McAlderbush. I retract any previous claims about botanical names not being stupid. Anyhow.

Clethra is a native shrub that will tolerate wet areas. In fact, wet spots in partial shade will make clethra very happy, although they will tolerate full sun. “Sixteen Candles’ grows to 3 to 5 feet tall. In the summertime you’ll see it covered in upright, long white blooms that look like candles. Probably more than sixteen of them, but I ain’t no scientitian. Clethra ‘Sixteen Candles’ also has a lovely compact growth habit, which is a nice contrast to some of the more loose and rangey plants out there.

Want to buy Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia ‘Sixteen Candles) in Virginia?

Spreading Japanese Plum Yew | Cephalotaxus h. ‘Prostrata’

Why do I love spreading Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata’)? I grew up with the sandy soils of southeastern New England. That freely draining soil meant that yew bushes (Taxus spp.) did phenomenally well. The house I grew up in was a ranch built in the 1950s, with landscaping to match. On the corner of the garage was a yew bush that my dad kept sheared into a perfect, Roomba-looking disc. It was about 3 feet tall and easily 8 or 9 feet in diameter.

English yews don’t really care for our clay soils here in Virginia. I did a mass planting of them as part of a Culpeper winery landscape design, and while they’re still alive and kicking, they’ve barely gotten any bigger in the last several years. The deer also love munching on English yews. Luckily we have spreading Japanese plum yews.

Spreading Japanese plum yews have long, dark green glossy needles on gracefully arching branches. They’ll grow to 2 to 3 feet tall, with a spread of 4 to 5 feet. Their growth habit makes  them a terrific substitute for ‘Repandens’ English yews (Taxus baccata ‘Repandens’). I really do think that spreading Japanese plum yews are way underused in the landscape here in Virginia.

Want to buy spreading Japanese plum yew in Virginia?

Hinoki Cypress | Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis’

Maybe I watched too many cartoons as a kid (not possible), but I have a thing for weird looking plants. Shaggy, weepy, contorted, twisted, it’s all good to me. Hinoki cypress (Chamecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis’) scratches that itch, but it still has enough “normal” looking structure that it works in most landscapes. It’s a lovely dark green, so it doesn’t tend to scare off customers, either.

According to my plant nerd resources, “Hinoki” means “fire tree” in Japanese. If accurate, I can totally see it. If you did a quick flipbook of photos of similarly sized Hinoki cypresses, it would look like dancing flames. Hinoki cypress likes full sun to dappled shade, but I can tell you that it will actually grow in pretty deep shade. It won’t get much bigger than how it was at planting, and the foliage will thin, but you’ll end up with an even funkier looking tree with peeling, reddish brown bark.

In the typical suburban landscape, ‘Gracilis’ Hinoki cypress will eventually grow to 15 to 20 feet tall and a 6 to 10 foot spread, but don’t go buying that birdfeeder that hangs off a 10 foot rope. It’s a slow growing tree so it’s going to take some time to get there. Your landscape design will have plenty of time to fill in around it.

This cultivar was developed in Japan a long time ago. In the 1860s it was brought to Europe by Phillip Franz von Siebold, a German botanist. I love plants like this that must have seemed so unbelievably exotic when they first arrived in Europe. People like you and me have been nerding out over this for a long time, which I think is super cool.

Want to buy Hinoki Cypress in Virginia?

Kousa Dogwood | Cornus kousa

Every landscape designer wants their customers to be successful with their plantings. That can be hard when our clients want plants that are a little fussy or finicky. I like recommending nearly bulletproof plants like Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa).

Kousa dogwood blooms in late spring, with loads of large, white flowers. After flowering, the tree sets small red fruits. The fall color is also a treat, with the green leaves turning reddish-purple as the season wears on. Kousa dogwoods work well for everything from planting along the woods’ edge to a focal point tree. Unlike native dogwoods, I’ve seen Kousa dogwoods thriving in full sun, as parking lot trees. That’s a tough tree!

Kousa dogwoods range in size from 15 to 30 ft tall and wide, depending on location.

Want to buy Kousa dogwood in Virginia?