Landscaping for Privacy and Better Neighborly Relations

We visited our friends Stephen and Michael at Annefield Vineyards last year and I was a little jealous. Not only is their tasting room/house a beautifully restored mansion (and the wines are quite good, you really should go, or at least look for them at your local wine shop) but it sits smack dab in the middle of a huge acreage. Conversely, we live in a historic downtown with our nearest neighbors less than 12 feet away. I sat on their expansive front porch and dreamed of what it would be like to look around and not see… anything. Landscaping for privacy isn’t even an issue for them!


There’s a flip side to everything, of course, and that was made clear when we checked into our B&B down the road from Annefield and the closest dinner option – Burger King – was 25 minutes away. Neighbors it is.

If you’re in a similar situation and you’re surrounded by neighbors, you know that sometimes the best way to get along is to keep a little separation between you. I grew up in a neighborhood that when it was built in the 1950s, covenants were passed that fencing in the property was forbidden. It was never enforced so over the years that changed, but even in the 80s you could stand in the backyard and see 6-8 backyards in either direction (and these were decent lots). When I moved to San Diego it was a bit of a culture shock. Not only was every (tiny) yard fenced, the “fence” was a wall made of stuccoed concrete block. I went from the open pastoral suburb of my youth to a virtual honeycomb of urban living. I think the answer to living with your neighbors lies somewhere in the middle.


For a lot of Northern Virginia/Maryland/DC residents this is a simple choice: you can pick the fence your HOA (Homeowners Association) allows, or you can go without. For those wacky rebels who are willing to trade having their design decisions made by a board for freedom, you need to give it some thought. Here are some considerations, and my thoughts on each:




  • 3 foot – pointless. We had a 3 foot fence when we lived in El Cajon, California. It kept the neighbor’s Guinea Pig out of our yard but afforded us no feeling of privacy.
  • 4 to 5 foot – this is the standard for a lot of HOAs around the DC metro area and I think it’s the shortest you can go for any functionality. Most dogs will respect a fence of this height even though they can certainly climb or jump it, and it’s just high enough that you feel like you have some separation from the neighbors – but it doesn’t feel like a racquetball court.
  • 6 foot – this is what we have and I love it. We get a good amount of privacy, and when we have other dogs over we feel secure that they won’t get out.
  • 7 foot and above – unless there’s a compelling reason for such a big fence, know that your neighbors refer to your place as “the [your last name] family compound” and have probably asked the ATF to keep an eye on you.


In any design endeavor we look for the intersection of function, beauty, and cost. Material choice can make a big difference.

  • Pressure treated wood – this is likely your least expensive option. It’s fine and gets the job done, but p/t wood can have issues with warping, twisting, and cracking. If you want less maintenance you may want to look at cedar fencing.
  • Cedar – My fence is cedar and I love it. It’s weathered to a nice soft silver. On a fence that surrounds a 1/4 acre lot I probably have to replace 2-5 fence boards per year, which given that our fence is now about a decade old, that’s not bad.
  • Vinyl – I’m not a huge fan of vinyl fences but when it comes to maintenance, they can’t be beat. My issue with them is that I want the fence to weather and fade into the background. You have to work to get that with a white vinyl fence (although in the photo below, I think we succeeded!)

landscaping for privacy


Not me! I built the last section of my own fence and while I did such a good job that several people stopped to try and hire me for their fences, I’m management. There are plenty of fence companies in the area. Check references, ask to talk to past clients, and get a detailed proposal that answers all your questions. Unsure what type of fence to go with, how to place your gates, and how to make it all work as part of a cohesive landscape? If you only want help with the fence, that’s not what we do. But if a fence is one piece of the landscape master plan that will give you the ultimate yard, call us at 703-679-8550. Let’s get a consultation scheduled!

Pros and Cons of Building a Pergola in Northern Virginia

I get a lot of requests from people interested in adding a pergola to their landscape. They’re cool to begin with and they’ve been made all the more popular by HGTV, etc. over the years. Is a pergola right for you, though? Here are some pros and cons to consider.



First, so we’re on the same page, let’s talk terminology. A pergola is an overhead structure without a solid, fixed roof cover. Make sense? Good. Here are some pros:

  • a pergola is generally less expensive than a roofed structure. You’d be amazed how much cost AND weight plywood and shingles add to a structure, and that structure needs to be beefy enough to withstand those loads. A pergola can be built a bit “lighter” because it’s carrying a lighter roof load. Because it’s an open-topped structure, it also doesn’t have to support a couple feet of snow. A roofed structure is also more subject to “uplift”, which is what it’s called when winds blow underneath and want to lift the roof like an umbrella.
  • Your pergola is available in a wide range of material choices. There’s basic pressure treated wood, and then there’s cedar. There’s fiberglass. There’s aluminum. We can look at your budget and your maintenance requirements and pick something that will fit those.
  • With systems like Shade FX, you can still get solid, retractable shade with your open-topped pergola.
  • A pergola helps define an outdoor “room” and as such makes your yard way cooler than your lame-o neighbors.



  • A pergola doesn’t provide the same practical cover as a pavilion or other roofed structure. You can overcome the shade issue by using a product like Shade FX as mentioned above, but you’re still going to get damp if it rains.
  • There’s no ceiling in which to hide stuff. We’re wrapping up a pavilion that has recessed lights, ceiling fans, outlets, surround sound speakers, and home automation wiring hidden behind the ceiling and soffit panels. There’s nowhere to hide in a pergola (well, unless you do a fiberglass pergola and hide stuff in the hollow beams and rafters).
  • There are kits out there, but buyer beware. Some are great quality and will last a long time. Others are a step above a $99 screened box from Target. Know what you’re getting, and know that nothing in life is free.
  • A pergola won’t love  you like a dog will. (sorry, pergolas are awesome. I ran out of cons)

Naturally I think your first stop when considering a pergola should be a landscape design firm. In fact, how about a landscape design firm serving McLean and the rest of Northern Virginia? But that’s one (great) option.



There are also the Amish-built outdoor stuff dealers you pass on the road. They have some nice products. The one issue I ran into is my clients wanted to use them for the pergola I designed. Because of the size of the span, they wanted to stick a post right in front of the fireplace. After some back and forth they agreed to explore engineered lumber. I get that the Amish are going to move at a different pace, but – six weeks to return a proposal that involved swapping out one beam? And in the end, my local carpenter was only $300 more (on a $12,000 project). So their kits = awesome, but outside the box = problem.

And of course there are lots of internet vendors. I’ve worked with some who are great, some who are ok, and one who was a horrible experience such that I hope every parking meter they use from now till eternity is defective and gets them lots of tickets. When considering one of these, ask for some local customers who have bought and installed their product.

So there you go! Pros and cons of building a pergola in Northern Virginia. If you’re ready to plunge ahead but you want your pergola to be more beautiful and more functional than anyone on your block has ever seen – call us for a consultation at 703-679-8550.

Transparency in the Landscape

As modern humans, we spend our days surrounded by solid, imposing “stuff”. We live in big brick and wood houses, drive two-ton steel vehicles to work on concrete and asphalt freeways, and go work in big concrete and steel buildings. It makes sense, then that we carry this through to the landscape. Need to block a view? Throw up a fence panel, or maybe a solid hedge of evergreens. Looking for shade? Build a pavilion with a big shingled roof.

photo credit: Mine Daelemans

I ran across an article the other day while catching up on my design blogs that got me thinking about transparency and visual weight (you can read it here). It features the church that’s pictured above. My first thought was “ok, it’s clearly built of steel, but other than that – what’s the big deal?”

photo credit: Kristof Vrancken

Oh! That’s the big deal. The designers, Belgian architects Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh, kept the overall form of a church but created a large, sculptural space that looks like it’s trying to turn to smoke in front of us.

Not everything needs to be solid and expected. How does this translate to the landscape? Sometimes you just need to distract from a view rather than block it. That’s where a simple trellis can stand in for a fence panel, like in the photo below. Adding in a line of low boxwood and hydrangea leading towards the front of the house will be the finishing touch, using rhythm in the landscape to move the eye past the undesirable view.

The same idea holds true for plantings. I love this picture I took on the grounds of the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art in DC. They have subtly created defined exhibit spaces for the various pieces using the shapes of the pathways and the planting. In this one, you can see that the higher canopy of the crape myrtles and the lower ground plane plantings create gaps that you can see through yet you can clearly see the boundary of the space. That’s great.

Transparency can be used to great effect in the landscape, whether it’s with structure, sculpture, or plants. If you want to see a designer doing it beautifully with perennials, you need to check out Piet Oudolf’s work. It’s like I keep saying with all the different facets of landscape design: lighten up and have fun!

Fredericksburg Pool, Patio & Pergola Design

This week I stopped off to check in with a landscape design client in Fredericksburg, Virginia. This is probably one of my favorite projects of the year. I’ll do a more comprehensive post (showing plan and elevation drawings, etc)  in a couple of weeks when a few more details are completed, but I was too excited to wait.

The architect responsible for the addition figured out the orientation of a pool and the upper patio, and I ran with it from there. The homeowners were an absolute blast to work with, too.

The pergola is cedar, and was fabricated by The Cedar Store and assembled by the poolbuilder.

It makes for a pretty sweet outdoor space.

The plantings are still “too young for prime time” but it won’t take long till they look great. Give it a couple of years and this will be a swoon-worthy garden! Plantings were completed by Stadler Nurseries.



How to Build a Round Deck

Step 1: Build a square deck.

Step 2: Cut off all the corners.

In all seriousness, building a round deck isn’t all that different from building a rectangular deck. I’ve designed several. The basic framing has the same considerations as any other deck. You need appropriate footers, ledger attachment, beams, joists, and railings. I have that basic information in this post about building a deck in northern Virginia.

The important thing to keep in mind is that unless you have a curved beam designed and certified by an engineer, a straight beam – or a beam made up of straight segments – is your best bet. This is a curved deck I designed several years ago.

If we orbit the model to where we’re looking up at the structure of the deck, you can see that the structure is very similar to that of an octagonal deck.

The goal here was to design a deck that would not require an engineer’s stamp to get a permit. As such, we made sure that there was no part of the deck where the joists overhang the beam by more than 24″ and we made sure our post spacing was 8′ on center or less. When the joists were installed, they were run slightly long. The carpenter then set his center point and scribed an arc, cutting the ends of the joists to create a single radius curve.

The joists on this project were 2x10s, so the rim board was a kerfed 2×10 bent into place and attached to the ends of the joists. The deck structure was then wrapped with AZEK composite trim lumber, giving it a finished look.

That’s really all there is to it. With the right design and skillful execution, a curved deck is entirely possible to construct, and looks great.

Making Multi-Level Decks Work

I’ll be honest, I don’t really care for multi-level decks. They can look stunning, but if they’re not well designed they can be a waste of money. After all, those additional levels can require additional materials and framing. Still, with the right design – and the right budget – they can be made to work well.

Credit: archadeck (click to go to site)

This photo is a rare example of a multi-level deck that works. Let’s take a look at what works here, and what typically makes a multi-level deck not work.

  • The deck is big enough to create good-sized “rooms”. All too often I see people throw a step or three into a deck design to make it a super-cool multi-level deck, when it’s just not big enough. A moderately sized space cut in two doesn’t give you two moderately sized spaces, it gives you two really really small spaces. You can see that the designer of the deck in the photo created a dining space with loads of room for additional people when entertaining, so it actually works.
  • There was a reason to divide the space. If the only reason a deck is split up is because it looks cool, that’s a waste of space and resources. In the photo above the hot tub has its own space, not just for the tub but for seating adjacent to it. That’s pretty cool. It makes sense.
  • The proportions work. The hot tub area is an occasional use, private space; the dining space is more regularly used and public. The proportions make sense, and the deck hasn’t been arbitrarily divided.
  • The deck is still easy to traverse. You exit the house on the raised portion by  the spa, and only have one step down to the dining area. I can live with that. Still, I would hesitate to recommend this deck to an older client, especially one with existing mobility or vision issues. I’m 35 and healthy and I’ve occasionally missed a deck step and wiped out hard. Throw cataracts and a cane into the mix and you’re looking at a recipe for disaster.

I really think that if you want a multi-level deck, or one with multiple functional spaces, a good designer is really important. We can make sure that it all works, because the most sustainable designs are the ones you use and the ones you keep.

Interested in a deck design consultation? Contact me and we’ll set a time!

Pros and Cons of a Fiberglass or Wood Pergola

“I want zero maintenance.” If you wanted to know how many times I’ve heard these words in my career as a designer, I’d say to take the number of presents under a spoiled kid’s Christmas tree and multiply by five hundred. Sadly, zero maintenance doesn’t exist. You can, however, reduce maintenance needs by selecting the right materials.

fiberglass pergola virginia

I do a surprising amount of custom trellis and pergola design. The majority are built of wood, but I’ve worked with fiberglass on a couple of them. I also designed one that was built of AZEK composite lumber, but unless you have access to just a phenomenal carpenter, I wouldn’t go there. So what are the pros and cons of wood and fiberglass pergolas?

Wood Pergolas


  • Cost – pressure-treated is generally the least expensive, with a decent price bump for cedar.
  • Availability – you can find wood for sale locally, no matter where in the US you live.
  • Ease of use – If you have a carpenter, he or she has worked with wood before. Wood is easy to work with and it’s easy to fix minor mistakes.
  • Information – wood is a known quantity. There are span tables galore to tell you what you can do with it, and your local permit store will know what to make of a wood pergola.


  • Weight – Cedar is pretty light, but pressure-treated wood can be pretty heavy. Depending on the application, you’ll need to consider this when it comes to footers or deck attachment.
  • Span – Depending on what size boards you use, your span distance can be limited.
  • Movement – Pressure-treated wood left to the elements will always warp, check, crack, or move in some other (less than ideal) way. Cedar is more stable, but if you’re going to have overhangs or unsupported runs, you need to know how it will behave.
  • Upkeep – to keep wood looking its best, you’ll typically want to paint or stain it. There’s no such thing as a lifetime treatment.

Fiberglass Pergolas


  • Weight – Fiberglass pergolas are really light. The one we installed on a deck was attached to a plate that attached between the joists. Easy.
  • Upkeep – The vendor I used will ship your pergola painted in any color offered by Sherwin Williams or Benjamin Moore. The pieces get knocked around during shipping, so they include a couple gallons of touch-up paint. Since fiberglass doesn’t move like wood, you’re looking at years of life from a coat of paint.
  • Span – A fiberglass pergola can span almost 20 feet with no intermediate posts. That’s pretty great.
  • Installation – They ship from the factory as kits. End details are done, everything is cut to length, all you have to do is put it up and screw it together.


  • Cost – You’re looking at 2-3x the cost of wood for a fiberglass pergola.
  • Availability – there are only a handful of manufacturers, so odds are you’ll need to have the kit shipped to you. This also means that you need flawless drawings, because you’re getting what you asked for. Because it’s fiberglass, you’re stuck with what you get.
  • Lead time – Ordering in the spring or early summer? Prepare to wait. We were promised 3-4 weeks, which we promised the client. That grew to 5-6 weeks, then 10-12 weeks.
  • Installation – Yes, it’s a kit. That’s good. The down side is that it’s difficult to field modify the kit to account for bad measurements.

At the end of the day, you have to decide what’s right for you and where your priorities are. Cheap and easy? I’d go with pressure-treated lumber, and just design around the wood’s limitations. Moderately priced and cool looking? Cedar. Super low maintenance, or a big open space with no posts breaking it up? Fiberglass or another composite, just know it’ll cost you.

Commercial Landscape Design Project- Old House Vineyards in Culpeper, Virginia

Yes, I do commercial design work as well. Not bid work- I’m a firm believer that when the only deciding factor is the lowest bid, everyone (including the client) loses- but work for property owners who believe the quality of the landscape design impacts their customers’ enjoyment of the space. I was fortunate to get to work with Pat and Allison Kearney, owners of Old House Vineyards in Culpeper, VA. They’ve decided to host weddings at their farm winery and built a large pavilion in which to hold receptions. I’m told that with capacity for 200 guests, Old House Vineyards has the largest outdoor wedding venue of any winery in Virginia. The design process started last year, and began with a new sign at the entrance to the property.

Rendering of Virginia Winery Entry Sign

With the magic of great carpenters, you can see that the finished product looks just like the rendering (minus the instant perennials, of course).

Photo of Old House Vineyards Entry Sign

From there, I created the landscape plan for the area immediately around the pavilion. One of the challenges was fitting in parking for the expected number of guests and providing a space for limousines to turn around, all without getting cars too close to the grapevines.

Landscape Plan for Old House Vineyards

As with any project, changes were made to the plan throughout the installation as other factors presented themselves. Even with that, I’m thrilled with how things turned out. Keep in mind that the plantings are still too soon for prime time (like the sign). Next year, as plants really take off, it’s going to look great!

Here’s what we started with:

…and an empty island as well:

The building went up quickly

As did the wedding arbor

Then, we started the landscaping with the path to the bridge. Landscape design for a large site is all about scale.

Needless to say, progress on my end of things ground to a halt once Snowpocalypse 2010 hit. Luckily we only lost a few plants, and this spring we really hit it in earnest. The last few weeks have seen a flurry of activity. Here are some shots from a few weekends ago:

And, in what may be may favorite photo, here’s a shot that the owner sent me of the wedding arbor at night:

Night Photo of the Wedding Arbor at Old House Vineyards

What to Look for in a Trellis

custom pressure treated trellises

The #1 most important thing? Scale. I hate to say it, but the majority of off-the-shelf trellises and arbors you can buy are woefully underscaled. Walk into your average big box store- or even many garden centers- and you’ll see sad, rickety little things made from such small pieces of softwood that they’re joined with staples. Staples!

The fact of the matter is that if you own a home in a populated, suburban area of northern Virginia, your home is probably fairly large for the size of your lot. In looking at the property, you’ll see a large (2000 sq ft+) home that may only have 5-10 feet of property to either side of the house. Proportionately, you’re skewed vertically. Tall is important, but you also need heft, beefiness, oomph. In the above photo (a landscape project in Bristow), my homeowners (who are on their way to becoming certified plant geeks, which I love) had the patio installed before I was part of the process. I was left with a narrow bed, right alongside a blank garage wall. Obviously we were going up and staying narrow, but we needed to offset the mass of the garage. What you see is a trellis made of pressure-treated 2×4 lumber, with climbing hydrangea growing on it. The homeowner built the trellis I designed, and he had the great idea to paint it black. The dark color adds to its visual weight and presence.

air conditioner screening trellis

Here’s another example. In this case (a landscape project in Aldie), the air conditioner was flanked on either side with shrubs that will screen it quite well, but our property lines were so tight that we had to take the path right up next to the unit. The trellis we built here is narrow, but made from 4×4 posts and 2×2 cross pieces.

This takes us to the other important consideration when buying or building a trellis: material. The least expensive route is pressure-treated lumber. Actually, the least expensive route is untreated lumber, but that would be a tremendous mistake unless you wanted a disposable piece. Pressure treated lumber’s price is an advantage, but its use carries some risks. It’s much more likely to warp, twist, check, or move in a way you won’t want it to. You can see that in both of the examples above, the trellises are made of straight pieces of lumber butted up against one another. The thinner you make a piece of pressure-treated lumber, the more likely it is to move or crack.

Another issue with pressure-treated lumber is that what you buy at the store today- especially the big box home improvement store- is pretty green and wet. You have to allow it to dry out for several weeks before you can stain or paint it.

An excellent choice for building trellises is western red cedar. It’s a durable wood that tolerates exposure to the elements, and it’s much more stable than typical pressure-treated lumber. It’s also much lighter. I built a gate for my house out of pressure-treated lumber last year, and I’ve regretted it every day. This spring I will likely replace it with one made of cedar. Knowing what I know, why didn’t I do that the first time? Cedar is significantly more expensive than pressure-treated lumber. I made a lot of improvements to my landscape last spring and like everyone else, I had a budget. Don’t worry, the wood will get rolled into another project.

What about composite lumber, like Trex, Evergrain, AZEK, or the like? The problem with these choices is that they aren’t inherently structural. They’re not stiff and they’ll sag if not properly supported. So you can build a trellis with pressure-treated lumber for the framing and clad it with composites if you want to create a low-maintenance feature. Just be prepared for the cost- composite lumber is often 2-3 times the cost of pressure-treated lumber.

Trellises are incredibly versatile components of a landscape. They’re great as stand-alone art pieces, but they can serve a variety of functions: screening utility equipment or unwanted views, framing a desirable view, adding a little privacy, or just providing a place to grow a beautiful climber like honeysuckle or clematis. Take a look at what’s out there, but look at it critically and put in something better.

Designing a Deck

Deck Framing Plan

From time to time, I’ll get a request to design a deck for one of my clients. Decks fall under the whole “anything for the outside of a home” category that defines my business and they’re a lot of fun, so I’m always happy for the challenge. It goes without saying that I believe you should have an experienced professional design your deck, but I know many folks feel confident that it’s a DIY project. Here a few things to take into consideration if you’re taking on a deck:

1- Know the law. In the vast majority of cases, your local town or county is going to want you to come to them for a permit. Don’t skip this step, whether you’re building the deck or a contractor is! Sure, you have to pay for a permit, and the deck will be listed as an improvement to your property on the next tax assessment. But, the folks at zoning are going to make sure that where you want the deck is legal- it’s within the setbacks from the property line, not within any easements, etc. The building folks are going to review the plans to make sure that the deck as proposed will meet code. Making sure you can do what you want to do is the first (if unglamorous) step in the design process.

2- Know what the lumber can do. There are all kinds of tables and calculations that engineers and architects use to determine the loading of a structure. Depending on where you’re located, you probably don’t need to know these. Your county quite likely has a set of typical deck details available at the permit office and online. These deck details cover it all, from posts to beams to joists to railings. It’s your county giving you a big old paint-by-numbers kit. Follow the directions and you’ll have a safe, sturdy deck that complies with the jurisdiction’s codes. Deviate from these and be prepared to show your calculations. Scroll all the way to the bottom of this post and you’ll see links to deck detail packages for cities and counties around northern Virginia.

3- PULL A PERMIT. I don’t care if you’re building the deck or you’re paying someone else; if your municipality says you need a permit, you need a permit. Yes, I know, it’s one more level of government involvement. It’s also a layer of checks and balances. Someone who looks at hundreds of deck plans a year will look at yours to make sure you have a good plan. An inspector will come out to make sure your footers are right, your attachment to the house, your framing, and finally your railings. Trust me, you want a permit, you want inspections, and you want the blessing of the inspector on the final inspection.

4- Don’t get in over your head. I don’t just mean tackling too much by yourself, although I have been in the unpleasant position of realizing that I’m stuck under a beam, there’s no one around, and my cell phone is out of reach. If you’re uncertain that your skills are up to the challenge, there’s no shame in bringing in someone else to do the job. Shoot me an email (there’s a contact link at the top of this page) and I can help point you in the right direction.

Here are the links I promised. (These are what I found on the county websites as of February 21, 2010. If you decide to use these in the design of your project, you MUST call the county permit office to verify that the version you are looking at is the same version that the county is currently using. These links are for informational purposes; I make no guarantees about the information that they contain.)

If you’re building a deck in Prince William County (Manassas, Gainesville, Bristow, Dumfries, Occoquan, Haymarket, etc.) you can find your deck detail package here.

If you’re building a deck in Fairfax County (Fairfax, Clifton, Oakton, Chantilly, Burke, Centreville, McLean, Great Falls, Mount Vernon, etc.) you can find your deck detail package here.

If you’re building a deck in Loudoun County (Leesburg, Middleburg, Purcellville, Hamilton, Brambleton, Ashburn, Sterling, etc.) you can find your deck detail package here.

If you’re building a deck in Stafford County (Stafford, Falmouth, Aquia Harbor) you can find your deck detail package here.

If you’re building a deck in Spotsylvania County (Spotsylvania, Massaponax, Chancellorsville, etc.) you can find your deck detail package here.

If you’re building a deck in Culpeper County you can find your deck detail package here.