Platanus occidentalis | American Sycamore

The American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is one of my favorite trees. Why, you ask? I’ve always had a thing for interesting plant textures, and trees with unique bark always catch my eye. Every child knows how to draw a tree: narrow brown trunk, fluffy green cotton candy-esque leaf canopy. Easy. l If you really stop to look at individual trees, though, you’d be surprised how few trees resemble anything close to that archetype. The sycamore is one such tree.

The artistry! Don’t forget the subtle trunk flare.

Really old sycamores grow massive trunks wider around than my arms can reach (and I’m 5’11, I have very long arms), but even the young ones have the same interesting bark texture. The smooth brown bark exfoliates, no skincare routine required, to reveal splotches of the younger, paler inner bark. On younger trees, this splotchy exfoliating pattern can look almost like camouflage, and sometimes the bark even takes on a pale green color. As sycamores age, this pattern can be harder to distinguish on the trunks, but they can still be easily identified by the same pattern on their heavy, thick branches.

Once you know what to look for, you start to see sycamores everywhere. From forests along the side of highways to residential streets, you can’t miss their striking mottled trunks. Maybe I just like them because even I can identify them with my terrible eyesight. In any case, I love seeing these trees everywhere I go.

If you want to plant one, make sure you leave plenty of room for it to grow. Walking home from class down residential streets of State College was always a great reminder of this, where hundred-year-old sycamore trunks completely fill the several feet of space between the road and sidewalk, in some cases forcing the sidewalk to actually divert around their massive trunks. Of course, you shouldn’t expect that kind of growth within your lifetime, but always be mindful when planting that your landscape will likely outlive you.

Did I pique your interest in planting your very own sycamore? Give us a call today!

Curating a Four-Season Plant Palette: Two Plants for a Pop of Winter Color

I know winter is the last thing on anyone’s mind right now, but if you’re considering planting any shrubs this year, you still need to consider how they’ll look in the winter. When you think of plants with winter interest, you probably think of evergreens. After all, they’re the only plants that aren’t merely bare brown twigs in the cold months, right? Wrong.

Enter winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) and Red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea). Both of these plants add a nice contrasting pop of red in any landscape. First, let’s talk about winterberry. While most hollies keep their leaves year-round, the winterberry sheds its leaves, revealing branches clustered with tiny, bright red berries. Not only do these berries add a much-needed pop of color in a barren winter landscape, but they also feed the birds that stick around in the winter months.

One thing to keep in mind is that only female plants produce fruit. Luckily, we have access to some amazing female-only cultivars of winterberry like “Red Sprite”, “Sparkle Berry”, and “Winter Red”. In order for these plants to fruit, though, they need a male plant to pollinate them. The general rule of thumb is that you need one male plant for every five female plants. This presents a fun design challenge, because you want these non-fruiting plants to fit into the design year-round without drawing too much attention to their bare branches.

Now let’s take a look at the red twig dogwood. In spring, Cornus sericea has pretty clusters of white flowers, and in the summer and fall it may look like any ordinary deciduous shrub. In winter, though, red-twig dogwood really has its moment to shine. Once the leaves drop, its bright red branches are revealed. These bright red canes look great in front of an evergreen backdrop and stand out against other deciduous trees and shrubs that lack winter interest.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to wait around for springtime to see beauty and color outside your window. Contact us today and we would be happy to design a landscape with a plant palette that’ll keep you smiling year-round!

I’m getting older – what that means for my home landscape

It was time to reclaim what was mine. I swung my Hori knife like a machete, slicing through thick stalks of pokeweed and tangles of morning glory vines. Woody saplings fell before my expensive, ergonomically designed pruners. In a matter of minutes I built a pile of cuttings and weeds that dwarfed the nearby pallet of fieldstone. I was once again a proud steward of the land! 

And then I tried to stand up straight again. 

Picture of a jungle temple, with text that says my body is a temple... ancient and crumbling... probably cursed... hardoring an unspeakable horror

It’s amazing how quickly the landscape can get away from you at the best of times. 2021 sure hasn’t been the best of times. Foot surgery just before Christmas 2020 caused my back problems to get even worse, which led to back surgery in August. I quickly fell behind on landscape upkeep. My success at soil amendment hastened my failure at keeping the weeds from overtaking the beds. Mindy and I once again had That Discussion, the one where I insist I can handle it and she reminds me that I’m no longer 22 and I have a (hopefully) temporary disability. It’s pretty awesome being married to a smart woman, but the thing where she’s perpetually right does get a tad bit annoying. It’s time to make some changes. 

Step one – better plant decisions

I would love to say that my backyard is a carefully curated collection of one of a kind plants, but I’d be lying. My rear garden is a jumble of jobsite leftovers sprinkled with a few really cool specimen plants. I yanked out all the shrubs that were likely to cause maintenance issues, but I need to make some tough decisions re: perennials. 

Photo of Echinacea in my landscape bed

The thing is, I’ve been doing this long enough that I know what will behave and what will get away from me. I just need to curate what comes through the gate. 

Trees – I’m just about maxed out on trees. Dwarf conifers and smaller Japanese maples are probably ok, and I might sneak a fig in there, but anything bigger is out. If I had more space, I’d focus on slow growing, robust trees like oaks; moderate growers but heavy show-ers, like saucer magnolias; and maybe some hollies like ‘Mary Nell’ and ‘Emily Brunner’ because I think they’re neat. I’d also make it a point to avoid messy trees. The leaves that American hollies drop hurt, the leaves from evergreen magnolias are a nightmare, and walnuts sound like a sprained ankle every other week during nut season. That is not low maintenance. 

Photo of a columnar culrivar of magnolia grandiflora at George Washington's Mt Vernon
Magnolia grandiflora

Shrubs – Knowing that space is limited I won’t be doing anything big like a lot of viburnums or common lilacs. As much as I love pruning I can’t count on being able to fight a plant’s genetic programming for size.  I don’t consider a little leaf drop from a small to mid-sized shrub to be anything problematic, so I’m going to focus on unique shrubs that make me happy. That means cool shapes and forms, unusual foliage, or flowers and/or berries. Instead of random inkberry hollies clogging up my plant beds, every shrub needs to earn its place. 

Perennials – I’m going to make dumb choices with perennials, but let’s lie to ourselves and say there’s a plan. Piet Oudolf-style big swoops of perennials that fill out the beds are my best bet to out-compete weeds and lighten my mulch load. My eupatorium ‘Gateway’ are floppy and annoying this time of year so they should go (but they won’t). I’ll content myself with avoiding perennials that will make impenetrable mats of roots like Leucanthemum or Miscanthus, so my mistakes can get moved. 

Step two – use landscape design to limit my plant impulses

I’ve already started down this path. Keeping the plant beds a little shallower means I need to use my best judgement when planting. Theming certain areas – succulents, ferns, pollinator plants – gives me constraints. And, of course, the increasing shade as my maple grows will be a limiting factor. Now that we’re down to one dog, and he’s a lazy potato, I can play with the edges of the lawn to get some funky shapes going. 

photo of Jazzy Dawg, a gorgeous copper colored hound mix

Step three – create destinations that will pull me out to at least see what needs done

Even if I need to pay my crew to do the actual work, I need to know what’s ready for some TLC. I have 15,000 lbs of stone sitting at my friend’s farm, just waiting to be made into a killer water feature. I promised Mindy I’d build her an A-frame outdoor office/reading nook. And, even if it has to go in the full shade of the river birches, I’m building my greenhouse at some point. 

Step four – put beds-to-be into suspended animation

What does that mean? Arborist wood chips! Anywhere that I’m planning to put plants, but not for a while, will get a hefty 6-12” of wood chips. Conditioning the soil while suppressing weeds is pretty great. Hopefully I’ll heal enough that I can at least schlepp around something as light as a few wheelbarrows of chips. 

That’s the plan. I think it’s totally doable, and it’s really just following the same advice I’ve been giving my clients for years. If you’d like to be one of those clients getting awesome advice, contact us today! We’d love to make your landscape the best on the block.

Custom stonework

As you look through our portfolio you may notice that we love natural materials. Our team takes pride in crafting beautiful plantings, artistic wood and steel structures, and of course, custom stonework. Stone is available in a wide range of colors and textures, demanding that the craftsman knows what it can and cannot be asked to do.

copper pot still set in fieldstone wall culpeper va

What type of stone is best suited for your project? I would have paid more attention in my 8 am college geology class had I known how important stone would become in my career! Basalt is widely used for columns and accent stones in water feature. The soft stone on historic buildings in the Manassas area is a rich red that was once quarried locally. Pennsylvania fieldstone is easy to shape with a hammer; New England granite is not.

Custom stonework means that we can design and fabricate stone in myriad ways for your project. With the help of cad landscape design we can have curved stone steps precisely cut to fit. The brackets that support this fireplace below were drawn and sent to a quarry that made them to our specifications, from stone that was local to them:

before and after of interior fireplace

You can even select special stone finishes. For example, flagstone can be natural cleft, which just means that you get it just how it was split. You can get it thermal treated, which means a kiln is used to create a smooth, even texture that’s sort of like an orange peel. For mantels and firepits, you can even get a glass-smooth honed finish, like we did for this custom stonework gas firepit:

photo of custom stonework gas firepit arlington

If you want to see what beautiful stonework we can design and install for you, contact us today!

3D & CAD landscape design

When you look out at your yard, do you see the same problems that have bothered you for years and you can’t figure out a path forward? That’s where our 3D and CAD landscape design comes in. We not only provide a fresh perspective, we can create drawings that will help you visualize everything your landscape can be!

photo realistic 3d computer rendering of a patio

Once we’ve agreed on the details of the design, we start the process of site analysis – a fancy way of saying we measure and document everything that matters. We measure windows and doors. We locate trees, we locate patio edges. If there are plants we want to reuse, we ID what you have and create an inventory. Since we find crawling around in the bushes relaxing, it’s like a spa day for us!

That site information is then basemapped in AutoCAD. This gives us a dimensionally accurate starting point for the cad landscape design. From there we start working out concepts, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes the ideas we discussed with you at your home work as planned. Other times, we have to move on to something even better.

For the 3D design work, we use a program called SketchUp. Sometimes we complete the cad landscape design and then move to 3D. In some cases we need the 3D to help us work out details before finalizing the 2D drawings. 3D modeling has helped us complete projects on time and on budget simply because we can identify potential construction problems in the office – not in the field.

hand rendered landscape plan

We don’t always do everything on the computer. Sometimes if it feels right, we do all or part of the design by hand. After years of designing, we’ve worked out some techniques that give us the beauty of a hand rendering with the precision of a computer generated drawing.

Above all, we recognize that the end goal isn’t creating pretty plans that don’t get built. The design work is just a tool to get us to the most important step: creating a gorgeous, one of a kind landscape that’s perfect for you.

If you want to find out just how much you’ll love working with us, contact us today!

Edible landscaping

At Revolutionary Gardens, it’s our goal to create outdoor spaces where you WANT to be. One way to ensure our clients interact with the landscape we design for them is to incorporate edible plants. The thing is, anyone can pick up a few blueberry plants and chuck them in their side yard. We see these plants as valuable design features, not just means to a (tasty) end.

From fruit trees and berry bushes to bountiful herb gardens, edible plants can serve you in so many more ways than just providing you with a snack. For example, cherry trees are touted from Washington, DC, to Bonn, Germany, to Japan for their delicately beautiful canopy of pink blossoms in springtime. You can capture that beauty in your own backyard- and end up with enough cherry preserves at the end of the season to feed your whole neighborhood! 

Your edible garden

The fact is- the edible nature of these plants is just one of their many characteristics. A cohesive edible garden design deftly intermingles its edible plants with the rest of the landscape. It considers their blooms, bark texture, shape, size, and all other notable characteristics just as if they were any other plant.

The result isn’t necessarily recognizable as an orchard or an herb garden, per se. Instead, it’s a bountiful landscape that appeals to all of your senses. You see scarlet pomegranate blossoms, hear the buzzing honeybees lazily drifting from flower to flower, smell the nostalgia of a home cooked meal as you run your hands across the soft mats of thyme and nodding rosemary fronds, and yes, you get to eat it all, too.

herb and edible garden in Culpeper VA backyard

As I get older, I realize more and more just how rewarding it is to eat and share a well-cooked meal you’ve prepared with your own hands. Even when the ingredient list was cultivated at the grocery store, enjoying a home-cooked meal with loved ones is something special. Now, when the ingredients themselves are the literal fruits of your own labor, that feeling is amplified tenfold. In this way, edible gardens really are a gift that keeps on giving. 

Let us do the heavy lifting to give you the edible garden of your dreams! Reach out and we can work together to design something perfect for your needs.

Outdoor Kitchens in Virginia

Food cooked outside just tastes better. I can’t tell you why that is, but I can help you have more fun cooking outside and get better results. The right equipment is critical to quality outdoor kitchens in Virginia.

Revolutionary Gardens sells a wide range of outdoor kitchen and outdoor living products. We also custom fabricate items like built-in ice bins, utility backsplashes, and more. I love to cook, I know what is possible to achieve in and outdoor kitchen, and I have strong opinions. These are three things you want to find in whoever says they can design outdoor kitchens in Virginia.

Grills & appliances for outdoor kitchens

Cooking requires heat, which is why we start planning your outdoor kitchen around the grill. We offer gas grills (both propane and natural gas), charcoal grills, and ceramic egg cookers. Many of our manufacturers also offer companion appliances, including side burners, warming drawers, and refrigeration. We offer Fire Magic, AOG, MHP, Delta Heat, and many more.

Cabinetry that lasts!

When I built my first outdoor kitchen in the 1990s, it was a massive concrete block affair with very little in the way of usable storage. It was, in other words, just like every outdoor kitchen built back then. Times have changed and so have outdoor kitchen storage options!

outdoor kitchen with stainless cabinets Danver

We’re proud to be a dealer for both Danver stainless steel cabinets and Brown Jordan outdoor kitchens. Their cabinets are just like the cabinets you have in your kitchen, except that they’re built of stainless steel to withstand the outdoors. We have rain gaskets, soft close doors and drawers, and you can even get the cabinets powdercoated to match your outdoor decor. If you purchase a Summit, True, or Hoshizaki refrigerator or icemaker with your cabinet order, we can even have the doors coated to match your cabinets!

We also offer cabinets, doors, and drawers available from our grill and appliance partners, so you have a lot of styles and price points to choose from.

Sustainable landscapes

Linden VA landscape w pavers and Virginia native grasses

I can’t think of a single argument against sustainable landscapes. If I told you we could design a landscape that would require less maintenance and fewer inputs, would last longer, would cost you less in the long run, and was good for the planet, would you be interested?

What makes a sustainable landscape

The American Society of Landscape Architects describes sustainable landscapes thusly:

Sustainable landscapes are responsive to the environment, re-generative, and can actively contribute to the development of healthy communities. Sustainable landscapes sequester carbon, clean the air and water, increase energy efficiency, restore habitats, and create value through significant economic, social and, environmental benefits.

Let’s focus on regenerative landscapes. A regenerative landscape helps restore the environment, it withstands the challenges of weather and climate, and it increases biodiversity. Restoring the environment means reducing the wall to wall grass lawns and incorporating plants that welcome birds and pollinators. That leads to increased biodiversity in plants and in animals. Even a tiny water feature can draw in frogs, and native plants can welcome back some of the local fauna.

Willowsford VA sustainable landscape with creek bed

Withstanding weather and climate keeps getting more important each year. Our Virginia clay soils have never been great at absorbing stormwater and they can get hard as rock in a drought. We work with the contours of the land and with the site soil to manage all that water and to sustain a beautiful landscape through the hottest months. This all comes from our core belief that while no landscape is maintenance free, a well designed sustainable landscape can make life a lot easier.

If you want to learn more about how sustainable landscape design could make your property better, contact us today! We’d love to chat with you, see your property, and figure out how to create a beautiful and sustainable space for you and your family.

Virginia Native Plants

eupatorium Virginia native plant perennial
Eupatorium pupureum (Joe Pye weed)

We love Virginia native plants, and you will too! More and more homeowners are discovering the benefits of incorporating natives into their landscape designs. These plants are a vital part of the ecosystem. Monarch butterflies, as well as other species, depend on certain native plants for food. The flowers found on many Virginia native plants are fantastic for attracting pollinators. A lot of critters rely on fruits and nuts from native plants for energy, especially in the colder months.

You may be asking “but Dave, I’m neither a songbird nor a squirrel. What can native plants do for ME?” Well, first and foremost, a landscape designed with native plants can be beautiful. Whether it’s the subtle grace of Virginia switchgrasses swaying in the wind, the bright flowers of native irises and butterfly weed, or the bold berries and gorgeous fall foliage of chokeberry, there’s a Virginia native plant that will thrill you. If you want a terrific source for learning more about natives, the Virginia Native Plant Society is a good first stop.

Clethra alnifolia a Virginia native shrub
Clethra alnifolia (Summersweet, Sweet pepperbush)

Native plants can also reduce your maintenance needs. Being well suited to our climate – their climate – means they thrive with fewer inputs from us humans. I’m a lazy gardener. The plants in my landscape have to earn their place by being awesome and by handling the periods where I’m way too busy fussing over other peoples’ plants to fuss over mine.

Will I like the look of Virginia native plants in the landscape?

Whatever you do, don’t dismiss a landscape featuring Virginia native plants as “messy” or “too wild”. A wild, natural looking landscape is a terrific look, and one we tend to love here at Revolutionary Gardens. We’ve also created formal landscapes, modern landscapes, and even commercial projects that celebrate the beauty of native plants.

If you’re ready to see how native plants can make your landscape more beautiful we can’t wait to talk to you. Contact us now for a consultation!

Can I lay pavers/brick/flagstone over my crappy old concrete walk?

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

When someone asks me, “can I lay pavers/brick/flagstone over my crappy old concrete walk?” I think about the difference between frugal and cheap. Frugal is shopping at stores like Aldi or Lidl. Cheap is shopping at stores like the grocery outlet in El Cajon, where I purchased – and ate, don’t judge – Mr T cereal… in 1998. 

PeeWee Herman eating MR T cereal

Sure, it had been discontinued for years at that point, but 50 cents a box is 50 cents a box. Trying to save money in the wrong place on your hardscape projects can cause more issues than an upset stomach. 

Here’s a great example of what can happen when you lay a new brick sidewalk over top of an old concrete walk. 

Herringbone brick walk with crack along width

Do you see that line where one row of brick is heaving upwards and away from the adjacent one? The homeowner definitely noticed and asked us what we could do about it. To figure out the fix I had to find the cause. It was as easy as removing a couple of the bricks.

Cracked concrete slab visible under brick walk

See that big yawning chasm in the concrete underneath? That was a weak point in the slab. More than likely, the ground under one part of the walkway settled or eroded. Because concrete doesn’t want to span holes or voids unsupported, it did what concrete does and it cracked. That crack telegraphed itself all the way up to the brick. Because the brick was dry set on top of the slab it just got pushed up. If the brick had been mortared to the slab, the joint may have cracked or it may have even cracked across the brick itself. 

Ok what now? 

Diagnosing the problem was the easy part. The fix isn’t quite so straightforward. One option would be a technique called mudjacking. The contractor digs along the side of the slab to find the void, and then pumps it full of concrete until the slab is leveled out again. It’s not cheap, and there’s no guarantee that this same problem won’t happen 15 feet farther down the walk. 

We could also cut out and repour that section of walkway, and replace the brick. That still leaves us with the problem that there’s no way to guarantee the portions of the walkway we didn’t repair. The only way we could guarantee the result would be a complete redo of the entire walk. That’s because at the end of the day, we have no way to know if the slab is thick enough along the entire length. Based on what we saw here, there’s probably no reinforcement in the slab to help carry the weight. 

This has been a long-winded answer to the question, can I lay pavers/brick/flagstone over my crappy old concrete walk? The bottom line is that you can, but you’re taking a risk. As accident prone as I am (Culpeper’s hospital needs a jello punch card or something), I’d rather spend a little more up front for a safe and durable walkway.