10 Tips for Landscaping with Kids

With the end of another winter upon us, I’m reminded of my mom’s summertime refrain: “David, go outside and play!” Here’s a list of ten things to think about when creating a play space for your kids (or grandkids, or nieces and nephews, or whomever):

1-    Love The Lawn.

With a little imagination a lawn is a soccer pitch, waterfight battlefield, or a perfect spot from which to lay back and analyze puffy clouds. Do not underestimate the lawn!

2-    Sometimes, the simplest play spaces are the most fun.

A sandbox is easy to put together and provides an inexpensive space that can be repurposed when the kids are older. Just make sure you incorporate a lid; neighborhood cats don’t differentiate between Tidy Cat and play sand.

3-    If you’re adding a playset or other equipment, keep it safe!

Most manufacturers recommend a minimum six foot buffer zone around equipment, and you want a soft surface to cushion falls. Grass doesn’t hold up too well under swings and it can be a hassle trimming around slides and posts. Recycled rubber mulches and specially-engineered wood mulches are popular with community playgrounds but can also be purchased in reasonable quantities for home playsets.

4-    Outdoor toys need a home.

Even something as simple as a bench with storage inside can keep toys out of the rain, and off the grass when it’s time to mow. If you have the space and the budget for a larger solution, why not combine a playhouse with some storage?

Now that's a path!
Now that’s a path!

5-    Plan for paths!

Remember that the shortest distance between two points is often over or through Grandma’s heirloom roses, unless there are several clearly identifiable ways around them.  It may be urban legend, but I was once told that when a new building is built at a college, the designers wait to see where the students create paths before they install the sidewalks. If you’re starting from scratch, why not see where the kids go?

6-    Learn what plants are especially poisonous, and make sure that they’re not planted where they’ll be a temptation.

You can find a number of great lists online (websites that end in .edu are often the best), or contact your local County Extension Office.

7-    A garden full of edible plants can help kids learn where food comes from and why plants are so important.

Even something as simple as a “Pizza Garden”- tomatoes, basil, oregano, peppers, and onions- can encourage healthy eating and a little help pulling weeds.

8-    Edibles are great, but don’t forget to plant for the other four senses!

Those, of course, are smell (lavender, roses, mint, lilac); sight (sunflowers, hosta, Echinacea, hydrangea); touch (globe amaranth, lambs’ ears, silver artemesia, sedum, river birch); and even sound (ornamental grasses, Chinese Lantern Plant)


9-    The magic of gardens is that they’re not just about the people.

Encourage pollinators, birds, frogs, and other critters to give kids a chance to see Nature in action. The National Wildlife Federation even has a program through which your backyard can be recognized as a Certified Wildlife Habitat. You can learn more at www.nwf.org/backyard/

10-    Think about the future when planning your child’s play space.

After all, he or she won’t be this age forever. When I was little, I clamored for a treehouse. My dad and I built one, but it was not your “normal” backyard tree fort. The treehouse was beautifully framed, and built to adult proportions so that when we were grown, the structure could be lowered with house jacks and converted to a garden shed. A wise man, my father.
I should include a rule # 11- just be open to using your imagination and having fun. Listening to my neighbor’s kids screaming, laughing, and running around, I think they’re doing just fine without my Top Ten list. Get outside, spring doesn’t last forever!

How Do I Keep Cars Off My Yard?

Last year I was working in the home office when I heard a horrible screeching noise, a thump, and I felt the house shake. I use the cats as a gauge to determine whether or not to panic; DaVinci was clinging to the futon with all his fur standing straight up, so I threw on shoes and ran downstairs to see what was going on. And there it was – a Ford Escort sitting in my front yard.

Now, I should point out that this isn’t unusual in Culpeper. In fact, it’s more a rite of passage to get a car in your yard than it is an aberrant event. Here’s a story about a naked woman who crashed a U-Haul truck into someone’s yard a few blocks away. There have been several other front yard crashes since we’ve lived here, including one where the mayor and the Commonwealth’s attorney chased the (drunk) driver down when he fled on foot. Wait, why do I ever complain about living here? This is fascinating!

So anyhow, the girl driving had no idea how she got there. Unsure whether she was messed up or just her car was, I made her sit tight till the cops got there. When they did… it’s a small town. There were fewer cruisers chasing OJ than there were parked in front of my house. It turns out that she had been making a left onto the side street when her tire blew, so she lost control and barely missed my house, skidding to a stop inches from my oakleaf hydrangeas. We can chalk this up as one more thing for which I’m grateful, but it brought up a new concern: how do I stop this from happening in the future? For those who live in normal towns, how do we keep cars from parking on the grass?

Clearly the “don’t park on my grass” sentiment is the more common issue. I grew up in New England, where putting a shovel 3″ into the ground means hitting a boulder. Since they were readily available, many of my neighbors placed large boulders along the edge of the grass to stop cars from driving across the grass. We also had a few folks who had curbs installed. It makes for a really nice, clean look, and can be done with either granite cobbles or a man-made product that looks similar.

In terms of stopping power (if that’s your thing), the curb won’t do a lot. The boulders will if they’re big enough, but there comes a point at which you have to decide if you really want to kill someone. The right answer is “no, I don’t,” in case that’s not clear. The video above is an extreme example, but it shows pretty clearly how powerful the forces at play are in a crash event like that.

What I’m probably going to do is look at a solution that will look really cool and provide a means of absorbing some of the speed and energy of an errant car, while not stopping them abruptly. Think of the arrestor hook on a plane landing on an aircraft carrier, allowing it to slow from over 100 mph to a dead stop, safely.

What works? Anything that will break away on impact but is heavy enough to slow the vehicle. Thick wooden fenceposts could work, as could a dry-stacked stone wall. Truth be told, anyone who misses their turn at my corner will probably be coming at such an oblique angle that I could use stone columns without feeling like I was going to hurt someone.

It’s crazy that I actually have to worry about these things, but that’s life in Culpeper. What’s the strangest design challenge you have?

Does This Tree Make My Yard Look Fat?

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Can we speak frankly? We’re friends, right? This is an issue that I encounter a lot:

A lot of folks are thinking too small when it comes to their trees. It’s a common occurrence: I go out to meet with someone who’s picking out trees for their standard, 1/3 to 1/4 acre subdivision lot. We talk about options, and I give a couple of recommendations, and they ask me “how big is that going to get?” When I tell them it’ll want to grow to about 30-35′ (for example), they’re aghast. “That’s too big!” they say, “I have a small yard!”

Now, I understand some hesitation, and worrying about causing a problem down the road. Just last week I met with a homeowner in a ten year old gated community that could be the setting for a horror movie about trees eating houses. If you plant a river birch eight feet off the corner of your house, yes, you will have problems. Obviously you need to know what a plant wants to grow up to be before you specify it.

It’s a question of scale. In the interest of research, I took a walk around downtown Culpeper and took some photos of some really pretty yards. These yards are what I would consider welcoming, in large part because the trees are proportional to the house.



If you own a newer home, odds are good your house is 35 feet tall at the peak (typical county maximum) and sits on a fairly flat lot. If we use a tree that tops out at 10-15 feet tall (which is what a lot of people seem to think they want at first), it’s never going to look right- the tree will always be underscaled. The house won’t feel as much a part of the landscape, because there’s no balance.

On the other hand, if we introduce some trees into the landscape that are proportional to the house, then the landscaping and the house become more of a unit. The trick is making sure that you’re allowing the tree enough space to do its thing. Bigger may not always be better, but smaller can just be silly. If you’re worried about making the right choice, buy from a reputable local garden center with knowledgeable staff, or find yourself a good landscape designer. We’re all in business to make your home look better.