Pros and Cons of Native Plants in the Landscape

This week I got an email from someone interested in hiring me to do a planting plan. One of the things she said that stood out to me was “some of the other designers are trying to convince us to go away from native plants..but we don’t want to.” Hmmm. I’m already intrigued, but I feel like any conversation about native plants has me looking like this:


Let’s establish something important, shall we? I’m a huge treehugger. Edward Abbey is on my list of authors I wish I could’ve met, we recycle, we compost, we have a strong preference for fuel efficient little cars, I was using LEDs before they went mainstream, etc. Ok? So don’t accuse me of eating baby harp seals for my more nuanced position on natives.

I often talk about two things you need to consider in landscape design, science and aesthetics. That glosses over a third, very important, consideration: emotion. Native plants hammer on the emotional buttons, especially for us treehuggers. After all, natives are indigenous to where we are so a) they must do really well here and b) putting more native plants back in the ecosystem must be the right thing to do, right? Well…. yes, BUT. Here’s what you need to consider:

native plants
Ilex verticillata – Winterberry Holly


I’m in Virginia. Therefore any plant that’s native to Virginia should be all but guaranteed to do well, right? Not really, for one important reason. Many native plants are going to do best in a certain type of environment (forest floor, marsh, meadow) that we just can’t replicate in your suburban backyard. While it’s common sense that a shade-loving fern will do poorly in full sun, you also need to consider other factors. Some plants will do best in the rich, fertile soil of the forest floor. If we stick them in the nasty clay the builder left for us, they’re not going to do abundantly well.

Aesthetics and Availability

When it comes to utilizing native plants I’ve found there’s a bit of a gap between peoples’ expectations of how it’s going to look, and the reality. When I first moved to Virginia ten years ago it was exceedingly difficult to find native plants. My first trip to MANTS (the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show, our big industry event every winter) I was excited to find ONE vendor doing them. Last year at MANTS I think there were half a dozen or so. But you have to remember that these plants aren’t being grown for the retail garden center market. The biggest demand for natives isn’t for residential, it’s for restoration and remediation projects. The agencies funding these projects aren’t looking for a handful of gorgeous, full, showy specimens. They’re looking for the best price on thousands of beech saplings. As a result, if we’re going full-on native we’re often planting stuff that will look great down the road, but when we leave the site today it looks a bit… scraggly.

There’s also the issue of what the plant beds will look like if we use all natives. Natives often lend themselves to the looser, more natural look that *I* personally prefer, but if you like a more manicured landscape you may be out of luck. You also don’t have as many extravagant blooms or sexy evergreens available to you. And that’s fine, we can work with that, but you need to adjust your expectations. Your landscape won’t look like the builder’s model home (not that that’s a bad thing). If you want a great resource for native plant lists in Virginia, here you go.

I guess this is a long and winding way of getting to my point, that when asked if I can design a landscape with natives my answer is “it depends”. There are gobs and gobs of natives we can use that will be successful, plants like sweetbay magnolias and winterberry hollies and dogwoods, and I tend to lean on these in my designs anyhow. But there are some design goals that can be better achieved using introduced species, and I find that a mix of natives and non-natives can create the most beautiful, most successful planting. At the end of the day my job is done if you love your landscape every time you look at it. You want to do natives? Me too, but let’s keep some options open that will help me get you where you want to be.

Facebook, Snake Oil, and “All Natural” RoundUp Alternatives

When I was my sickest from Lyme disease I did a lot of research online, because it was about all I had the energy for. What I soon realized was that if someone has an affliction that they’re mystified by, they will have no trouble finding a “cure” (usually that someone is willing to sell them). Even the free folk remedies are… nutty. No, I’m not making an elixir of lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil and drinking it naked during the full moon. MJ would not bail me out if I got arrested for chugging salad dressing in the buff.


Persistent garden weeds sure don’t cause the same feelings of panic and despair as chronic debilitating illnesses, but folks sure want an easy cure-all. As more and more people have become disillusioned with synthetics in general and Monsanto specifically, there have been recipes for RoundUp-alternatives proliferating on Facebook like wispy facial hair in a freshman dorm. Here’s the one I’m seeing the most:


I call shenanigans. Besides the fact that I NEVER trust anything written in Comic Sans, here’s why:


Ok, what’s meant by vinegar? There’s the white vinegar we keep on top of the washer for a variety of household tasks, but it’s pretty dilute. There’s horticultural vinegar, which is 20% strength, and that’s some gnarly stuff. But the thing is, vinegar is not a one for one replacement for glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp). In his book The Truth About Garden Remedies, Dr. Jeff Gillman talks about the experiment they did to see how different vinegar solutions affected weeds:

The most interesting result we observed was the tendency for plants that appeared to have been killed by vinegar to grow back within a week or two, The reason for this is that vinegar is a contact poison, meaning that it kills the part of the plant that it touches but doesn’t affect the parts that it doesn’t touch.

In other words, you know how mom or dad always told you that when you pull weeds you have to get the roots or it’ll come back? Same thing here.


This I don’t understand. I mean, as a salt the purpose is likely to act as a dessicant, killing the plant by drawing water out, but… Epsom salts are often used as a soil enhancer, because they contain magnesium and sulfur. I always use Epsom salts with my tomatoes because they really need that magnesium. So to me, this is like trying to kill someone by giving them a multi-vitamin. If anyone knows, I’d love to hear the explanation. I’ve looked and while I’ve found a number of folks saying to use Epsom salts as an herbicide, no one has said WHY.


It’s a surfactant, which means that it helps the plants absorb the other ingredients. That’s all it’s there for.


If you use this concoction you probably won’t hurt anything, but you probably won’t achieve the desired result if you have more than a couple of weeds coming through cracks in the sidewalk. If your goal is to avoid synthetic weed control products your #1 best bet is manually removing the weeds. Beyond that? Science is your friend, if you want to learn what organic controls actually work, and why. I highly recommend both of Dr. Gillman’s books, The Truth About Organic Gardening and The Truth About Garden Remedies, as well as the Garden Professors Blog. There is no great mystery to organic gardening, it’s all just the science we learned in eighth grade.

Looking for a no-nonsense approach to your landscape design? That’s what we do! Give us a call at 703-679-8550 to schedule a consultation today.

Replacing Storm Damaged Trees in Virginia, Maryland, or DC

Well, it looks like Winter Storm Titan!!! (cue dramatic music) is fizzling out already, but that’s not to say it didn’t bring ice and snow with it. Luckily it’s still early enough that deciduous trees haven’t leafed out yet so those should be ok, but ice and snow are heavy. What if your tree (or shrub) sustained storm damage?

Ice damage tree Virginia

The first step, obviously, is to wait to evaluate things until it’s safe. This means no going out in the midst of a storm, standing in the road while the plows are trying to do their job, or no going anywhere near downed wires. It seems silly to have to say but I’ve seen some crazy stuff.

Next, look at your storm damaged tree and evaluate how much of it’s been damaged. If you prune off the affected limb(s), will it still look good? Will it still be balanced enough not to be at even more risk from the next storm? If you’re really just talking about a broken limb or two, a little pruning could be all that’s needed. If you’re at all unsure, a licensed arborist is the sort of professional who can better advise you.

If it’s clearly thrashed, it’s time to replace that storm damaged tree. I prefer to call my tree guys for this type of work as they’re better equipped to do the job safely and efficiently. They’ll secure the area, address the most dangerous limbs first, and then (depending on the location of the tree) either drop it in a safe spot, or cut it into pieces which are then lowered safely to the ground.

If you want to actually replace your storm damaged tree and not just remove it, you’ll want to remove the stump as well. Your tree service can typically grind the stump for an additional fee. Just be sure that, if you want a new tree in the same spot, you have the grindings (wood chips) removed and the hole filled in with topsoil. Trees can’t grow in wood chips. It’s like a weird cannibalism thing.

Deciding on a replacement for the tree is a great reason to involve your favorite DC area landscape designer. Maybe the tree got damaged because it was the wrong plant for the place. We can make that determination and move forward from there. If you want professional guidance in selecting a great tree, contact me for a consultation. We’ll turn that tree damage into the best thing that’s happened to your yard this week!

Good neighbors don’t plant running bamboo!

I’ll admit that I’m not always the most extroverted person. When we visited the beautiful Annefield Vineyards in Saxe, Virginia, the thought of an old house in the middle of 100 rural acres sounded… pretty darn awesome. That said, we live in a downtown neighborhood and I like to think I’m a good neighbor. That’s one reason why I’ll never plant running bamboo on my property.

To back it up a step, there are two main classifications of bamboo, running and clumping. Clumping bamboo is well behaved, staying in tight little clumps (thus the name). The problem is that most clumping bamboos that grow in the DC area don’t get that big or look that flashy. They’re a good solution for a shady area or a tight spot that could use something vertical, but you don’t really get excited about clumping bamboos.

Running bamboos are the exciting ones. There’s black bamboo, with the deep, dark stems, if you want color. If you want screening, some running bamboos will easily make 20-30′ tall in our area. And if you want big, thick Gilligan’s-Island-construction-materials bamboo, it’s running bamboo. However, as with many desirable things (muscle cars, the promise of power from following Voldemort) there’s a darker side to running bamboo. It’s called running bamboo for a reason.

Bamboo Rhizome - Source: Armin Kubelbeck
Bamboo Rhizome – Source: Armin Kubelbeck

Everything in Nature exists to reproduce, right? The way running bamboo does this is underground, via rhizomes. These rhizomes don’t respect property lines or fences, and they’ll even pop up on the far side of a sidewalk or a driveway. Because so much of its mass is underground and it grows so fast, herbicides don’t do a lot to running bamboos. The only sure way of eradication is mechanical.

We’re doing a DC landscape design project right now where the neighbor, many years ago, planted running bamboo. Our client is having everything on her side of the fence removed (as best we can – there’ll be continual maintenance for a good 12-18 months), after which the guys are trenching down 28″ and installing a flexible bamboo barrier. It’s a lot of labor, which means it’s not cheap, all because someone didn’t thoroughly research what they probably thought was a good privacy plant.

Bamboo in DC

Can bamboo be kept contained? According to the experts, it can. The bamboo barrier we’re installing is one way. An old-school approach is a poured concrete wall around the planting. I hesitate to recommend this because concrete will crack eventually, and all it takes is one errant shoot and you’re done. Bottom line: I have a hard time recommending that anyone with nearby neighbors plant running bamboo. Even if you take all the right precautions, something can still go wrong, and then your neighbors hate you.

If you found this post useful, be sure to like my Facebook page! And of course, if you want to create a gorgeous backyard (that won’t make your neighbors hate you) I’d love to talk with you. Contact me here!

Sorry, you’re not getting a landscape company to buy your tree from you

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

I got a phone call the other day from a gentleman who wanted to sell me his Japanese maple. It was large and beautiful, he assured me, and “all [I] had to do was come get it from his yard.” He went on to tell me it was a great deal because he’s seen trees like his sell for $5,000! When I explained (nicely, I thought) that I wasn’t interested and no one else would be either, he cursed at me and hung up on me.

Times like this, the three-word phrase “people are funny” is what keeps me from throwing stuff.

disappointed bowie

So why wouldn’t I want to take advantage of this sweetheart of a deal and sell his tree to a client down the road? The list of reasons is long, but here are a few:

  • your typical homeowner doesn’t work to prune and shape a tree like a tree farm does
  • your typical homeowner doesn’t have a pest management program to ensure the tree is free of insect and disease issues
  • there are steps growers take with field grown trees, like root pruning, to ensure that the tree transplants well
  • if the tree’s as big as he says it is, it would cost me a pretty penny to dig it, get it, store it, water it, keep it healthy, and then plant it for a client. I’d need some assurance that it wasn’t going to die on me, and the first three bullet points show that that’s not the case.

If we were doing a job on this person’s property and the tree needed to come out and I wanted it for my yard, I might be willing to make a deal. But I’m not rolling the dice on stock of uncertain provenance when my clients want (and deserve) the best.

So what’s the moral of the story? If you have a nice, mature plant to get rid of that you think has value, don’t waste your time calling designers. Just list it on Craigslist, and maybe you can get someone to trade you enough topsoil to fill in the hole when they take the tree.

Who cares for your landscape? That’s the last step in the design!

If I had a penny for every client who included “I want a low/no maintenance design” as part of their wish list, well… 170 pennies are in a pound, so I’d have a stack that weighs more than my biggest cat. I get it. We’re all busy, whether it’s work or kids or church or all of that, and we want something that will look as good in two years as it does today. But wait, landscapes don’t work that way.

culpeper landscape design

If you have an interior designed for you, maintaining that space comes down to keeping it clean and tidy (and maybe the occasional fresh coat of paint). If your landscape was well designed, it doesn’t look its best the day we pull off. It looks its best a few years down the road when the plants have all started to fill in and mature and create that beautiful, layered, effortless look. However, the wrong person caring for that landscape can inadvertently keep it from ever reaching its potential. As landscape architect Michael Van Valenburgh stated,

If you leave plant management decisions entirely to horticulturists who remain on the site after you, you are surrendering too much of your design. On the other hand, your design will be ill fated if you don’t collaborate with people who know horticulture. Collaboration—this is the unheralded key to management.

I came up through maintenance, then construction, before coming into design. I feel pretty comfortable designing with the long term in mind and I personally handle the pruning for a few clients because it allows me to guide the landscape in the direction I want it to go. I can’t do it for everyone in the nation, though, which is why I think it’s important to talk about what you’re looking for when seeking someone to care for a designed landscape. It’s not complicated:

  • Knowledge – can they identify what you have?
  • Skill – Do they know proper pruning techniques?
  • Vision – can they tell (by looking at the plans, looking at the landscape, or talking with you) what the goal is and how to get you there?
  • Professionalism – proper plant care is going to take more time than a mow and blow approach. Do you feel confident that they’ll use your time wisely? Can they provide you with a synopsis of what they did after each visit?

Whoever you select will play a large role in shaping your garden now and in the future, so I recommend selecting someone with whom you’re comfortable and with whom you can communicate well. Do that and you should have an easy relationship and a beautiful landscape.

Is your landscape still a great design away from needing a guiding hand to maintain it? Contact me to set up a consultation! I’d love to learn more about your project.




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?


Are you planting bedding impatiens this year? No you’re not…

Impatiens are a common, easily grown summer annual that lights up shady yards throughout the country. When I worked for my brother in Rhode Island, we used to plant over 20,000 impatiens each year at our family pediatrician’s home. It’s quite possible that you use them as well, either in your beds or in containers. I wanted to give you the bad news that this year, you probably don’t want to use bedding impatiens. It seems there’s been a disease called impatiens downy mildew sweeping through Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia. Plant experts are predicting that it will wreak havoc in the US this year.


What does impatiens downy mildew do?

The disease can start as a white, downy growth on the underside of the leaves. According to what Dr. Armitage said in his talk (see? You should have gone) the plants will chug along just fine until the leaf and stem color turns really light, leaves and petals drop, and eventually the stems collapse. There’s nothing that can be done to save the affected plants. Not only do the spores stay in the soil but they are also airborne. This means even your containers will likely be affected.

That’s just great. Is this ALL impatiens?

The good news is that impatiens downy mildew does not affect all types of impatiens. It affects the common bedding impatiens, Impatiens walleriana, in the photo above. You can still plant New Guinea impatiens and the funky cool SunPatiens. Even if your soil contains the spores for impatiens downy mildew, the disease does not affect other bedding plants. You can mix it up this year, planting begonias, coleus, New Guinea impatiens and other great bedding plants.

I’m certainly bummed out by this news, but it’s better to know this before planting, right? If you’re unsure how to still get great color in your annual beds go talk to someone at your local independent garden center. Unlike the big box stores they’ll be happy to help you out and will have great alternatives for you.



Wood chips, nitrogen, and one of my least favorite myths

I love a good conspiracy theory. The more outlandish the better, too. If you can connect Justin Timberlake, Kim Jong-Un, and the moon landing – we might be best friends.

What I don’t love is a pervasive myth that keeps spreading via people who really, really should know better. Just recently a garden writer wrote an article stating that fresh wood chips should NOT be used as mulch because they rob the soil of nitrogen and are therefore bad for plants, especially trees and shrubs.

Survey says?

survey says

When there’s a landscape or gardening “truth” that can be verified using science, I turn to scientists. Scientists are always asking important questions and trying to understand our world better. Two researchers who have published very accessible books about science for the landscape are Jeff Gilman and Linda Chalker-Scott. In a post on Garden Rant talking about wood chip mulch, here’s what Dr. Chalker-Scott had to say in the comments:

From a scientific viewpoint, there are few drawbacks to using arborist wood chips but many benefits. It mimics what you might find in the duff layer of a forest – which is really what we should be shooting for in many of our landscapes that are based on trees and shrubs. I can say definitively that if wood chips are used as a topdressing and not worked into the soil they will not tie up nitrogen. We’ve demonstrated this in laboratory research as have others. For readers who would like a challenge, I’d invite you to read my review of the scientific literature comparing landscape mulches, published last December in the Journal of Environmental Horticulture. It also addresses many of the misconceptions held about wood chip mulches. You can email me for a free pdf of this article if you like.

From an aesthetic standpoint, fresh wood chips may leave a little to be desired, and if they just came from a brush job with thorns or poison ivy it may have some unpleasantness for you, the gardener. But for your plants? Bring on the wood chips if you want to suppress weeds, hold in moisture, and save a few bucks. The research does show that there might be an issue with shallow rooted plants like annuals and vegetables so don’t use chips there, but everywhere else? Game on.

NOT Dr. Chalker-Scott
NOT Dr. Chalker-Scott

I am not a scientist but I do my best to keep up with the latest research. If you want a landscape designed for beauty, function, and the well-being of your plants in mind, contact me!

Simple Container Plantings for Winter

This year I really got into containers. Sourcing unique containers is a blast and when I couldn’t find the perfect color… well, spray painting pots always makes me feel like I have my own HGTV gardening show because that seems to be 1/3 of what they do. I’m really happy with how the containers turned out. These were planted by me but the plants and the design were provided by Karen, who runs the best annual and perennial farm in Virginia.

Of course, annuals and perennials offer only fleeting beauty, and frost eventually claims even their most beautiful blooms. Every year I do containers for one of my Fredericksburg landscape design clients, and by this time of year the plantings can end up a little tired and worn. To create an evergreen planting that would last all winter, last year we planted dwarf nandina in each planter. I like the juxtaposition of a wild and woolly, loose textured plant in a rectilinear, metal container:

Even if it works, doing the same thing twice is boring. This year I decided to go with a clipped, rounded boxwood in each container. Business is really good in our industry right now, so the two beautifully shaped boxwood I saw at my wholesaler three weeks ago were gone when I came to get them. This is what I had to work with:

Luckily I had good music and good pruners, so I set to work. They got matching haircuts, and with a little potting soil and a few maroon pansies this is the result:

Over the last 18 months I’ve come to really appreciate the beauty that containers can add to the landscape. Whether you own a business or you want your houseguests to experience beauty every time they come to the front door, contact me. I’d love to provide your containers.