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.



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.

What Landscape Work Can Be Done in Fall and Winter?

I get this question a lot this time of year. I get my fall rush once the kids are back in school, it takes a few weeks to get through the design process, and suddenly we’re just past Halloween. Is it too late? It depends on what you’re doing.


Woody trees and shrubs can be planted almost year-round in Virginia. With the exception of last winter, I’ve had plants go in – and do well – all winter long. As long as the ground isn’t too hard for us to get a pick and shovel in, we can plant woody trees and shrubs. Perennials are another matter. They are generally too delicate to plant after about November 1st, because we’re pretty certain to get a hard frost after that point. I did a post a while back that talks about safe frost dates for northern Virginia.


Most asphalt companies in Virginia shut down sometime in December, and open up again in April. If we’re redesigning a driveway, we need to keep this in mind.

Concrete & Mortar

Concrete is going to be the happiest when the nighttime temperatures stay above freezing. That’s not to say that concrete work shuts down for the winter. On cold days, my masons have set up tents with propane heaters and laid stone all day long in t-shirts. At night, thermal blankets can be placed on flatwork to keep the temperatures high enough. Pointing up and cleaning can get slowed down a bit because the concrete stays “green” longer, but that’s not a problem as long as the mason knows what s/he is doing.


Pavers (and segmental retaining walls) can be tricky in the winter. The problem happens when you have a significant amount of rain, sleet, or snow on the base or sub-base. If this moisture is allowed to freeze, you can have long-term settling problems. The solution is to keep the area as dry as possible, and use thermal blankets or other means to keep the base material from freezing. Again, the work can be accomplished in the winter, it just requires a knowledgeable contractor.

Ponds and Waterfalls

These can certainly be installed in the winter, but temperatures below freezing can make working with water less fun than on a sunny, 70 degree afternoon.

Decks, Porches, Pergolas

As long as snow’s not a problem, these can be built all year long

And what if you’re just starting to think about the design process? Winter is a great time to start the design process. I’m currently booking December and January projects. If you have a project you’d like to start planning, send me an email and let’s get started!

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.

Good Fences, Good Neighbors

When we bought the house, the fence didn’t enclose the entire backyard. Instead, the big opening facing the main road just funneled the view into my yard. This year, with an ambitious garden planned- that will require us to exclude the rabbits- I decided to finish the fence. After multiple redesigns, this is what I came up with:


Obviously, I’m not quite finished, but I’m hoping to wrap up this weekend. Most likely this fall (because I am SO far behind), I plan on planting a fruit tree at each panel, and espaliering the trees. This will give me a mini-orchard, yet not take up too much space in my yard. Hey, it worked for George Washington, so how can I go wrong? Rabbit-proof wire fencing will extend up the bottom of the trellis panels, but the mix of low shrubs, perennials, and herbs will hide that.

The custom fence panels are constructed from pressure-treated lumber. To keep the 2x2s from warping and twisting, they’re joined with a deck screw every place they cross. It’s tedious, but the cost savings over cedar makes it totally worthwhile. The gate will continue the look and feel of the fence. A beam with corbeled ends, in the same style as the beam spanning the gate opening, will span the three posts you see rising above the fence panels. I’ll be able to tuck low-voltage downlights inside, to give things a little “pop” at night.

I acheived several design goals with this fence: first, it allows air to pass through. Everyone knows Virginia gets hot and sticky in the summer, so a fence that allows breezes in is a good thing indeed. Second, it’s a place for espaliering plants, and it allows light to pass through- which gives me more gardening space in the years it’ll take for the fruit trees to get established. Finally, I like to think that I’ve defined our private space, without creating the feeling of a giant KEEP OUT sign. After all the large-scale, concrete and stone structures I built this winter, it was a nice change of pace to build something light and airy.

Let’s be honest, this year we’re all looking to squeeze every bit of value from a dollar. If you need a fence, consider something that gives you multiple functions.