Why the anti-lawn movement bugs me a little

There’s a movement afoot to convince people to ditch the lawn in favor of other plants, be they edibles, ornamentals, or a mix of the two. This is not a terrible thing. A mature, layered landscape can require significantly fewer inputs and labor hours to be healthy, happy, and beautiful. It’s also much more aesthetically interesting (done well) and you’ll get many more happy critters if you select great plants. There are many reasons to hop on board the train to NoLawnville, but I just can’t. Here’s why.

lawn landscape mclean va

1. There is a middle ground and many anti-lawn folks ignore it

One of the (pretty compelling, actually) arguments I hear against lawns is that they waste a ton of water with irrigation, herbicides and pesticides are bad for the ecosystem, and fertilizer runoff is a huge issue. I 100% agree, but here’s the thing. Lawns don’t have to cause all this misery.

For the sake of brevity, let’s refer to my mix of grass and weeds that stays generally green as my “lawn”. Now, I don’t irrigate, I don’t fertilize, and I don’t use chemicals. My neighbors might also complain that I don’t mow as often as I should, but I’m busy. Things happen. Anyhow, my lawn is generally green and looks decent. I grew up in lawncare, manicuring yards to look like verdant carpets, so it’s been a journey to get myself to accept a lawn that doesn’t look like a putting green. If I can do it, anyone can. The trick is getting people off the Scotts/Miracle Gro treadmill, recognizing that unless you’re on a Superfund site the grass will do just fine without massive inputs.


2. Lawns have a purpose

Two purposes, actually: functional and aesthetic. Nothing holds up to foot traffic and hard use like turfgrass. I have met with literally hundreds of homeowners and in the landscape design consultation they ALL say the same thing: “I want to keep as much lawn as possible for the (kids and/or dogs) to play.” We don’t have kids but someday we hope to have time for a dog, and in the meantime we enjoy croquet and bocce and horseshoes. In a huge proportion of my backyard designs I make an easy, open transition from the patio to the lawn so that when the homeowner has a big party, they can expand their outdoor “room” just by placing tables in the grass.

Lawns also serve an aesthetic purpose. Rich, layered planting beds (which I love creating) need something to tie them all together. Lawns also provide some visual relief, a place for the eye to rest while it digests all the botanical awesomeness around it. Generally speaking, a thoughtfully shaped lawn area can make plant beds all the more impactful. The examples of ugly lawns that the anti-lawn folks trot out are always these sterile, wall-to-wall carpets of dull green, usually in a new subdivision. Well, that’s not the goal for most people, it’s what they can do. Which leads me to point #3.

3. Ditching the lawn requires knowledge and money

A lot of the folks I talk to say they have all lawn and very little planting space because they don’t know what to plant and they don’t know how to care for it. As a plant geek it’s easy to say “cut the sod out, plant these, they’ll fill in and look awesome and voila! Less lawn and less maintenance.” Someone who knows little to nothing about plants sees that as a daunting task that they’re terrified of screwing up.

And then there’s the money issue, and this is why the anti-lawn movement strikes me as a bit classist. While I think everyone should hire a landscape designer (ideally me), I’ve talked to enough people to know that’s not always in the budget. To go it alone can mean a lot of research into unfamiliar territory – which takes time. Many working people don’t have that kind of time.

Once you know what you want to do, executing the design is expensive. Removing a lot of sod either requires renting equipment and working hard or working long and hard with hand tools. Once it’s all up, it needs disposed of unless you live in a neighborhood where you can pile it in a corner to break down. And then there’s the cost of plants. Let’s say I want to plant a 500 sq ft front yard (that’s a small Alexandria front yard) with liriope spicata, a groundcover that fills in rapidly. Planted one foot on center that’s 500 plants. 500 liriope at $5.99/ea = $2,995, plus amendments, plus mulch. Or for $150 you throw down seed and straw.

Now clearly, I see the value in making this transition. The maintenance is a lot less and many groundcover “lawns” look way cooler than turfgrass lawns. But to say that it’s what everyone should be doing ignores the fact that many people who want to do it, can’t. I hate my front yard. I would love to convert it to a Japanese-inspired boulder and conifer garden. Those are thousands of dollars, though, that currently get reinvested in the business.

If you have and love a lawn, I’d ask that you keep the inputs as minimal as possible and maybe- when the kids are older – consider reducing the size of it and adding plants. If you’re pushing the anti-lawn agenda, I implore you – don’t push people away by not recognizing shades of gray. We can all work together to make awesome happen.

What do you think? Are you a lawn person, a no-lawn person, or one of the millions somewhere in the middle?


Guest Post: Gardening Tips for April

One area of my industry I’ve wanted to do more with is garden coaching- working with homeowners to teach them how to care for their gardens themselves. The curse of running a small business is that there are only so many hours in a day, and rather than clone myself (way too controversial), I went one better and teamed up with a great garden coach. Thomas Bolles hold s a Masters in Agricultural Education from Virginia Tech, and has spent over a decade teaching people agriculture and horticulture. He even spent six months training agriculture students in Afghanistan- temperate Virginia has to be a walk in the park, compared to Afghanistan! I’ve invited Thomas to provide periodic guest blog posts so that you can get to know him as well. If you’re interested in working with Thomas as your garden coach, give me a call at (540) 308-5411 and we’ll set it up.

Enough from me; here’s Thomas!

April is National Gardening Month and the ideal time to break out of your indoor routine and get into the garden.

You need to have an idea of what nutrients are in your soil before you add more to it. If you haven’t already done so, get your soil analyzed. Virginia Tech tests soil for Virginia and Maryland . Contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office to get a soil test kit. Test kits are free but the standard analysis will cost you $10 if you’re a Virginia resident or $16 if you’re out of state.

The average last frost date for Northern Virginia is April 15th. Keep in mind it’s an AVERAGE. Keep an eye on your favorite meteorologist until mid-May to make sure you can protect your young plants if there’s a late frost. Plants started indoors need to be hardened off – gradually exposed to outdoor sun, wind and temperatures each day as you approach time for them to go into the garden. Forgetting to harden off may result in dead or stunted plants after a cold night. You can also help your ground absorb and retain heat by covering your beds with black plastic. This will get soil temperatures up so the seeds you sow directly in the garden will germinate faster.

To sow or not to sow is a question many of us never think about. Some people would rather start their own seeds. Some people are intimidated by the idea of germinating their own seeds, don’t have the space to start a lot of seeds or like the convenience of not having to mess with seeds. Personally, I like starting seeds, but for some plants I would rather buy seedlings. If you do buy seedlings, it’s important to do a few simple things to make sure you’ll be successful.

  1. Inspect the plant for any sign of disease
  2. Make sure the plants aren’t excessively root bound
  3. Make sure you know if your plant dealer has kept the plants inside or out (see hardening off above)
  4. Make sure the plants look vigorous and are not excessively leggy.

If you’re thinking lawn care, now is NOT the time to fertilize if you have cool-season grasses (fescues, bluegrasses). When you fertilize in the spring, cool-season grasses grow more leaf area which means more mowing. It also can mean Brown Patch, a rather ugly fungal disease, latter in the summer. When you wait for the Fall before fertilizing your lawn, your cool-season grass will focus more on growing roots. Strong roots will do more than just carry your grass through winter dormancy – it will also allow them to tap moisture deeper in the ground next summer when it’s hot and dry. If you have warm season grasses like Bermudagrass and Zoysia, you can fertilize from May until Fall, but keep in mind that fertilizer plus no water equals a weaker, more stressed plant. So make sure you give your grass plenty of water when you fertilize.

Also of Interest: Virginia Historic Gardens Week is April 17th – 25th this year. See http://www.vagardenweek.org/schedule.htm for details.

5 Quick, Cheap Fixes for Your Landscape


Whether you’re trying to get your home ready for a party, a family visit, or just to take advantage of what you have, there are some simple projects you can take on that will make a huge difference in your yard’s appearance.

1- “Bring out your dead”- This is an easy, yet often overlooked bit of maintenance. Deadhead any spent blooms, remove any plants that didn’t make it, and prune the dead branches out of your woody ornamentals. Nothing says ugly like a yard full of dead plants.

2- Weed, edge & mulch your beds- Nothing makes your beds pop like a clean, tight line of demarcation. I’m not typically a fan of edging products in cool-season grass lawns, as the steel edging is costly and the poly edging is ugly, hard to work with, flimsy, and generally a complete waste of time and money. If you live somewhere with a warm-season, creeping grass lawn, you probably need an edging to keep the grass from overtaking your beds; but, since I do landscape design for northern Virginia, that’s not really an issue. Anyhow, my preferred edge is a simple spaded edge, sometimes called a Victorian trench (no clue why). You take a sharp, flat-bladed spade, and push it into the grass edge a good 3-4 inches. If your soil is on the sandy side, you can kick the back of the spade, and it’ll dislodge the chunk of sod and create a smooth profile on the bed bottom. Every northern Virginia gardener just thought to themselves, “you can do that?”, because in heavy clay soils, your best bet is to do a section of vertical cuts, then come back with the spade at an angle on the inside of the bed, cut out the sod, and smooth the bottom. When done, a good edge will look like this:Stark 0605 2008.jpg (12)

3- Conduct a thorough inspection of hardscape elements- How many times are you going to walk by that missing picket, or step on that wobbly stone? If you’re like me, you have a number of places around your yard that need attention, but you only really notice them when you’re jumping in the car to head off to a 12 hour day at the office. Grab a pad of paper, a cup of coffee, and take a stroll. If it’s something simple that you can fix immediately, go for it. Otherwise, it goes on the list. The funny thing about punchlists like these is that no matter how daunting they may appear, you can usually knock them out in a fairly short time.

4- Set out some container plantings- Especially if you’re dressing your home up for sale or for a party, containers can be a fun, inexpensive way of expanding your landscape beyond the bounds of the plant beds. Unsure of what to plant? Well, you definitely want to make sure everything will still fit in the pot when it fills in, so if you’re at all unsure, go to a good-quality local nursery for your plants. (Note that I didn’t say for advice only. If you spend 20 minutes pumping a small nursery staffer for info, and then go to a big box store to buy the plants for a buck less, you’re not a very good person. Just sayin’ is all)

5- Do some long-term planning- There are only so many quick fixes that you can do, before the plants either assert themselves or give up. Take a hard look at what you have, and if it’s not what you want, start dreaming! There are not only a ton of resources at bookstores and online, but there are also qualified pros who can help you plan the next step.

Planting Shrubs and Perennials for Cut Flowers

While I was driving around today, I kept hearing a commercial for one of the big box home improvement stores, advertising a special on Knockout (R) roses. In the ad, they talk about how easy they are to care for, and “they make great cut flowers.”shrubby-roses

Are they high? Seriously, Knockout roses have their place: if a client wants months of blooms on a plant that requires almost nothing from them, they’re great plants. I actually use them a fair bit on commercial sites, because Knockouts aren’t susceptible to many of the common rose issues, they’re inexpensive, and you could throw a rookie landscape crew member at them and he or she would be hard pressed to screw up so badly as to kill the plant. But as a cut flower? Not so much. If you want roses for cut flowers, plant real, old-fashioned roses. We all know what a rose is supposed to look like, and Knockouts are just different enough that they’ll disappoint you.

Anyhow, it got me thinking about some good cut flowers. Whether you’re entertaining or just treating yourself, a vase full of flowers can brighten up your home. Here’s a list of a few you can grow yourself very easily:

  • Solidago (Goldenrod)- Beautiful bright yellow flowers- this one’s a favorite. As a perennial, it grows like a weed… because in many cases, it’s regarded as a weed. There are some gorgeous, prolifically flowering varieties like “Golden Fleece,” or you may even find it growing wild at your place.
  • Achillea (Yarrow)- Achillea comes in a wide range of colors, from gold to pastel pinks. It’s a really bulletproof little plant, too.
  • Paeonia (Peony)- This one’s a nice spring bloomer. You can find peonies in some very soft, pastelish hues of pink, as well as pure white. However, my color preferences are in the “obnoxious” family, so I like the fuchsias and magentas. ‘Felix Krousse’ is a beauty in that range.
  • Daisy-looking flowers- These include Echinacea (Coneflower), Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan), and Leaucanthemum (Shasta Daisy).  Rudbeckia, especially, is a tough little plant. It’s also a self-seeder, so… give it some space. Trust me.

There are also shrubs that can provide beautiful cut flowers:

  • Hibiscus syriacus (Rose of Sharon)- Beautiful, small, hibiscus flowers, BUT be warned: it’s an aggressive spreader, and one rose of sharon wil pop up all over your bed. I finally cut mine down, yanked the stump, and built my compost bunker over it. If you have the space, or the free time to stay on top of it, though- very pretty!
  • Rhododendron- I love rhodies. They don’t feel the same way about northern Virginia or the Piedmont, though. Rhododendrons love a sandy, well-draining soil, which means your best bet here is to plant them on a hillside or a mound. The blooms make it all worthwhile, and one in a bowl is a centerpiece.
  • Beautyberry (Callicarpa)- not for the flowers, but the berries. The branches get covered with bright purple berries.
  • Forsythia- They’re such a classic harbinger of spring that we even time gardening tasks by them: “Oh, forsythia are blooming? Time to put down pre-emergent!” Forsythia can also do a great job of brightening up your house as we head out of winter.

Obviously, this list is far from exhaustive; any flower can make a gorgeous cut flower. However, these are some easy ones to get the wheels turning. If you want it all worked out for you, give me a call- I’d love to help create a cutting garden for you!

My Compost Bin Plans

One of the fun things about a blog is that I get to see the search terms that got you here. Over the last week or so, I’ve gotten quite literally dozens of hits from people searching on compost bins. My design may not be the end-all, be-all of home-built composting systems, but it’s working really well for us, our neighbors, and our friends. It handles that much material that well!

So, because I love the idea of more people composting, I’m laying it all out there: materials list, step-by-step instructions, everything. My bin may be a tad overbuilt- Thadd did refer to it as the compost bunker, after all- but that’s because I plan on using this for a long time. So let’s get started. First, a review of what I have:dsc00008

We built a 3-bin system, which seems to be the standard for a heavy-use setup. All upright posts are set in dry-pack concrete, and the lumber used is a mix of locally sourced white oak (I got a great deal) and some pressure-treated boards. I realize that there are concerns about using pressure-treated lumber in compost that may end up around food crops, and while I’m not completely convinced it’s a danger (before you tell me arsenic kills, note that copper is now the primary treating agent and arsenic is no longer in use), cedar would have been my first choice. But, I’m a landscape guy and this was done over the winter- cedar just wasn’t in the budget.

Because I’m tall, I built my bins to a height of 40 inches. This gives me plenty of room inside the bins, but thanks to my long arms I can still get all the way to the bottom with a pitchfork. I didn’t include height dimensions here, because you should build these compost bins to the size that’ll be the most comfortable for you to use.

For this design, here is the materials list:

  • (16) 80lb bags of Quikcrete (whatever the cheapest pre-mix is; no need for high strength or fiber-reinforced)
  • (8) 4x4x8ft posts
  • (3) 2x6x16ft boards
  • (12) 5/4x6x16ft deck boards (you could also use 1x6x16ft boards, but I happened to have a cheap supply of 5/4 board)
  • (2) 2x2x8ft
  • 10 ft of 1/2- inch hardware cloth/ poultry netting
  • Box of 3-inch deck screws (if using pressure treated wood, be certain to get z185 galvanized OR stainless steel screws)
  • Staples for attaching the hardware cloth- the ones you pound in one at a time with a hammer hold more securely than a staple gun

You’ll also need stakes, stringline, tape measure, circular saw, drill, and a level. If you can swing the five bucks for a post level- a little L-shaped piece of plastic with two levels and a rubber band attached to it, it is money well spent. For setting the posts, you’ll need a shovel and whatever else helps you get through your local soils, and a digging bar (spudbar) is a big help for packing the concrete mix. Let’s start!

Begin by picking a relatively flat, level part of the yard that drains reasonably well. If you get standing water in a spot, it’s not a great candidate for a compost bin. Next, you’ll want to lay out the footprint of your compost bin using stakes and stringline:dscf0008

Here, I opted to run a string line parallel to my back fence. Then, I measured from the side fence to get the distance I wanted to offset in, and ran a line perpendicular to to the first line. From that line, I measured over the width of the bins, and set my third string line. The final step was to run one more string line for the front face of the bins, measuring off the first stringline.compost-bin-step-1

This gave me a box, within which I could dig my footers. However, note that there are also four intermediate posts in the design; normally I would set two more string lines, one for each set of posts, but this is a rotbox, not a deck. A shortcut here or there isn’t going to mess you up- however, you want to make sure the post spacing is exactly correct. If you lay the posts out as I have drawn, you’ll have a the same-sized opening for each bin, which means that the removable slats are interchangeable.

So as you can see, I dug a footer under each intersection of stringline. Here in Virginia, our frost depth is between 18-24 inches, depending on who you ask. I dug a 1 foot x 1 foot  hole to frost depth for each footer, then poured in a bag of Quikcrete, and tamped the heck out of it with the flat end of the digging bar. I then stood the 4×4 post in the hole, aligned with the intersection of the strings, and made sure it was perfectly plumb (this is where the post level is a huge asset). I then poured in the second bag of Quikcrete, tamped it around the post (continually checking the post for plumb), and then backfilled and tamped the soil. Dry-packing like this is a great way of setting posts for fences and things like bins, because it’s much easier to get the posts level and you don’t have to brace them while wet concrete sets up. I still recommend having a helper, especially if you don’t do this type of thing regularly; but in a pinch, this is a great way of getting this done by yourself.

Portland cement loves water, so it’ll pull water from the surrounding soil and set up hard as- um, concrete- in a day or two. If you’ve done a really good job of tamping the concrete and soil around your post, you *should* be able to screw to it immediately after setting. However, since I’m only an occasional carpenter, I prefer to give the mix time to set up.Erchiniak Working CAD Plan 8x11 (3) (1)

Now that your posts are set, it’s time to build structure. Cut your 2x6s according to the plan, and attach them with the screws. Start with the longest boards first, on the back of the structure. Then attach the left and right side boards, so you have now created a 3-sided bin. Now, you can attach the 2x6s that divide the bins. If you look at the plans, you’ll see that the way I laid them out, not every bin is the same size. This isn’t a mistake; my goal, when I designed this composter, was to use the simplest means of attachment that would also be very strong. Minor variations in bin size are a non-issue here; the important thing was to keep the bin openings consistent.compost-bins-1102_2008

Ok, now that we’ve made a frame sturdy enough to hold a truck, let’s go about keeping our materials in the bins. Cut your 5/4 boards as called out, and attach them to the backs and sides of the bins. I left a gap between each board to facilitate air flow; a little compost falls through when I turn it, but not enough to matter.

Now, take your poultry netting and cut it to fit. Attach it to the 2x6s, and also to the posts. Be generous- the staples are cheap, and you’ll be cooking a lot of material here.compost-bin-step-3

The final step is to create your channels to hold the front slats in place. Cut the 2x2s to length, and screw them to the centers of the posts (check the spacing as you go, of course!). Now, screw a 5/4 board over each 2×2. All that’s left is to rip your slats to length (34 inches, if you put it all together as drawn), and you’re ready to compost!

If you opt to build your bins based on these plans, or a variation thereof, please let me know in the comments. Also, if you take pictures, I’d love you to post a link in the comments, whether they be on your website, flickr account, or whatever it may be.

Getting the Most Value for your Landscape Dollar

seeds started in homemade newspaper pots
seeds started in homemade newspaper pots

If you’re like everyone else, you want to improve your home and garden, but you also want to get the most value for your dollar. That’s something I help my clients with, so I put together some recommendations:

  1. Work from a master plan– This may sound like self-serving advice, but it’s absolutely true. A master plan is a road map to where you want to be. It also allows you to break up your landscaping into smaller, more manageable phases, while still working towards a unified vision. If you have to move plants or, worst case scenario, part of a patio, because where they were initially placed no longer works- that’s an unnecessary cost that could be avoided with a master plan. A master plan also helps you determine what is truly important to you in the landscape, and allocate resources accordingly. It really is a budget tool as much as it’s a planning tool.
  2. Take care of what you have– One of the best things about plants is that they increase the value of your property as they mature, provided that they’re healthy, attractively cared for, and were placed appropriately to begin with (see #1). Basic horticultural maintenance is an inexpensive way to get a continued return on your landscape dollar. You can hire a pro to care for your plants, or…
  3. Do some of the dirty work yourself– I would love to tell you that gardening is big, scary, spooky science and magic, and you’re better off hiring me and taking the kids to the zoo. But, come on- would you really believe me? Gardening is a blend of eighth grade science and basic technique, and just like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get. Of course, if you’re still a little uncertain and you’d like to “garden with training wheels”…
  4. Hire a garden coach– Garden coaches are people who love to work with plants AND people. If you do a search, you’ll likely find a coach in your area (northern VA, Culpeper, or Fredericksburg people- you found one!) who will come out to your home for an hourly fee and show you how to care for your plants: dividing, transplanting, even bed prep and other tasks. If, like me, you enjoy adding to your tool collection, I’ll also show you some of the specialized tools I use and where to buy them.
  5. Start small– I installed a 4 inch caliper, 16 foot tall maple tree in my backyard last year. I could do this because I got it free. The truth of the matter is that smaller plants will often recover from transplant shock more quickly than big ones, and will therefore grow faster. A big tree is great, don’t get me wrong; it makes you feel like “yes! My yard is that much closer to what I want!” But if budget is a factor, a smaller plant is better than no plant, in my mind. As an example, I’m looking at the retail availability for a local nursery. A 5-6 foot Norway Spruce is $225; an 8-10 foot, $450. If you want a spruce but the big one is out of reach, get the smaller one. It’ll grow.
  6. Start from seed– This is really not as daunting as it may sound. Following package directions, plant your seeds, keep them moist, and then wait for germination. The dollar savings is incredible. Around here, I think I’ve paid anywhere between $1.50-$4.00 for a starter plant for tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. The photo above shows our starts for probably 6 or 8 packets of seeds, for which we paid around $2-$3 each (from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange– it’s not too late!). We’re doing six varieties of heirloom tomatoes, so if you then also take into account not having to pay $5 a pound at the Farmers Market, we’re coming out ahead.
  7. Buy local plants– The road too heartbreak is paved with out of state plants that just won’t do well. I’m not saying to throw away your mail order plant catalogues, but they take a little more careful research. On the other hand, when I buy perennials from people who grow plants here in my county- people like Karen and George from Morningside Farm & Nursery– I can feel confident that these are plants that will do well in my area. Farmers Markets are another place to buy local plants, so keep an eye out there as well. Plus, you’re supporting the local economy- everyone wins!
  8. Use the internet– There is a wealth of gardening information online. Some of it’s good; some of it is dangerously bad. As with anything else, search wisely, consider the source, and try to find multiple sources that agree on a given point. Websites ending in .edu are typically the most easily trusted, as are the ones affiliated with botanical gardens. From there, it kind of heads into the Wild West, so just be sure to factcheck and trust your gut.

Finally, remember that gardening/landscaping is a journey, not a destination. Learn what works for you, but don’t be afraid to try something new. Make connections with other gardeners. Plant swaps- formal or spontaneous- are a great way to get new plants that clearly work in your neighborhood, and you can learn a little something about your neighbors as well.