Are you ignoring the coolest feature of a crape myrtle?

If I asked you to tell me about crape myrtles, what would you say? My guess is the first thing you’d mention is the fact that the flowers are pretty spectacular (because they are). You might even say that it blooms in the summer, unlike most other trees and shrubs (right again – you’re good).  

crape myrtles behind the fountain at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, Richmond VA

BUT – did you think about the trunks? Hear me out.

Unexpected reasons to love crape myrtles

Crape myrtle blooms are gorgeous, but they don’t bloom all year. Heck, crape myrtles are deciduous, so they’re going to drop their leaves in the fall. They’re buck nekkid until spring! Since we tend to place crape myrtles in prominent spots, it’s a good thing they have some 24/7/365 assets.

Some crape myrtle varieties, like ‘Natchez’, have cool, exfoliating bark. There’s even a sweet color contrast, with the cinnamon-colored bark and the more silvery smooth bark.

exfoliating bark on Natchez crape myrtle

The trunks offer two more reasons to love crape myrtles. First, most tree-form crape myrtles – I don’t personally like the shrub form, so we’ll ignore them – are multi-trunked and vase shaped. It’s a useful shape in the landscape. We can use crape myrtles in layered plant beds, along driveways, and in all sorts of ways.

One other reason to love crape myrtle trunks is that the older the tree, the thicker and gnarlier the trunk becomes. If you live in a relatively new, suburban neighborhood, it’s entirely likely that you’ve only seen crape myrtles with trunks like fairly straight pipes. Go visit an older neighborhood with mature trees and you’ll see exactly what they have to offer.

My first time visiting Colonial Williamsburg was shortly after MJ and I moved to Virginia. Crape myrtles don’t grow in my home state of Rhode Island, and they sure as heck don’t grow in San Diego or Phoenix. At first, I was baffled by the old crape myrtles twisting and heaving along the brick sidewalks. What WERE these cool things??? Then I looked more closely, and examined the leaves, and I was hooked.

crape myrtles w twisty trunks

Here’s a great example of a situation where the trunks are what make the crape myrtles worth having. I was at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden this week, and came across these beauties. Look at the size of those trunks! And the twisty shapes? AMAZING. 

I hope that’s helped you see the value and the beauty in crape myrtles in more than just their blooms. If you need help with your landscape and want someone who can love both the conventional and the unusual parts of a plant – contact me today! I’d love to talk with you about your project.

Winter plant damage: watch for these 3 problems

winter plant damage VA

If you’re like a lot of homeowners, you’ve been looking at your landscape plants with a little bit of worry lately. The cold has been brutal. If the Weather Channel is saying that Valentine’s weekend was “potentially life-threatening cold,” what does that say for the trees and shrubs that can’t come inside to warm up?

As I’m so fond of saying, a big part of landscaping and gardening is just getting out of Nature’s way. In many instances that damage we see will fix itself as soon as spring hits. In others, though, you may have a problem. Here are some things to look for.

Winter plant damage: dessication of broadleaf evergreens


Broadleaf evergreens are prone to winter damage, especially if they haven’t had an opportunity to develop strong root systems. After the screwy winter we had 2014-2015, I won’t do fall or winter plantings of broadleaf evergreens any more. Here’s why: the plants have these wide leaf surfaces that let the wind and sun suck moisture away mercilessly. If the plants don’t have established root systems they can’t replace the moisture and they dry out (dessicate). Affected plants can include:

  • Hollies (especially Oakleaf, Mary Nell, Nellie Stevens)
  • Southern Magnolias
  • Laurels
  • Rhododendrons and azaleas
  • Aucuba

Winter plant damage: freeze damage to crape myrtles and figs

Last year we saw damage on several crape myrtles that didn’t become evident till the trees leafed out. On a multi-trunk crape myrtle, one or more trunks failed to leaf out. On closer inspection we saw numerous suckers coming up from the base and violent-looking splits in the wood just above the ground. In talking to our consulting arborist we learned that this is not an uncommon issue here in northern Virginia.

We saw similar issues with fig trees. For many varieties of fig, northern Virginia is sort of marginal in terms of safe planting range. Last winter saw many figs die all the way back to the trunk. Luckily figs are vigorous growers so as soon as spring hit they started bouncing back.

Winter plant damage: critter damage


Is it a coincidence that “deer” is a four letter word? I say no. Deer are a problem for many gardeners across the DMV and the problem only gets worse in the winter. If they run out of food to browse – or it’s buried under snow – your plants may make the menu. If all of a sudden your shrubs seem a lot smaller, or you see fresh wood at the ends of the branches, you may have inadvertently helped feed all creatures great and small. Deer are a prime culprit, but so are rodents, especially when it comes to bark.

What can you do about it?

Do you need to freak out or will your plants be ok? It all depends on the amount of damage and the strength of your plant. It’s always darkest before the dawn, and winter damage always looks the worst before spring. What I tell people is that for the most part, let the weather warm up. Let life start flowing back into the plants, and see what happens. If you’re really worried though, take a pic and email it to me. I’m always up for talking plants.

Protecting your landscape from winter storm damage

Winter storm Jonas (why are we naming them again?) is barreling towards us, and that’s caused a number of friends to send me panicked texts and Facebook messages like “will this destroy my new plants?” and “help me save my trees!” I figure if they have questions, maybe you do too. Here’s what you need to know to prevent landscape winter storm damage.

Winter Storm JONAS

Protecting your plants from winter storm damage

Snow and ice damage to plants was pretty widespread after Snowmageddon a few years ago. There are some trees and shrubs that are particularly vulnerable to this sort of damage. A great example is arborvitae – the multiple delicate, vertical branches are susceptible to getting weighed down and flopping apart, resulting in a “split” appearance to the plant.

Since a branch is weak but many branches are strong, you can essentially “splint” the branches with one another. Using something that won’t cut or dig into the bark (I like wide tie-down straps), lash the branches together ⅔ of the way above the crotch. Just be sure to untie them once the danger has passed, because if you leave them tied up going into spring it can girdle and damage the plant.


If your trees and shrubs do droop and bend with the weight of the snowfall, don’t just run out and bang the snow off of them. The sudden drop in weight will cause them to try and snap back into shape, which may cause more damage than if they slowly eased back into shape. Remember this: plants have been surviving winters without us knocking snow off with brooms for thousands of years. Trust Mother Nature – she’s smarter than we are.

Protecting your hardscape from winter storm damage

It’s rare that the DC area sees the type of light, fluffy, powdery snows they get in Colorado. Wet snow + melting + refreezing = lots and lots of slip and fall potential. As a result, you’ll likely end up salting your walks and steps. But is your salt bad for your investment in hardscapes?


Aggressive, magnesium-based ice melt products can damage concrete and stone surfaces. If you have a basic asphalt or  concrete driveway and path and you don’t really care what happens to it in the long run, knock yourself out – salt away with the big guns. But if you want to be sure that you’re not pitting or staining the surface, consider calcium based products. Rock salt is also considered safe by many manufacturers, but be sure to check and see what the makers of your paving products recommend.

After the storm is past

If you still end up with damage to the landscape – from snow, plows, ice, or whatever – give us a call!  I’m now working closely with a tree guy and landscape specialist and he’ll go as far east on 3 as Fredericksburg, or up to Fauquier, Prince William, and southern Loudoun counties. No matter what, be safe, have fun, and enjoy the snow!

Plants Map: because paper gets wet and we forget stuff

I’m always on the lookout for new tech tools, especially ones that could make life easier for my clients. A few months ago I stumbled across Plants Map, a cloud-based way to document and record plants you’ve planted, plants you’ve found and loved, and more. Winter’s the best time to share these new finds with the landscape and garden obsessed, but I’m having the busiest January of my life. What else could I do but punt, and ask Plants Map’s co-founder Bill Blevins for a guest post. Read what Emily from the Plants Map team has to say:


How to get organized in the garden with Plants Map

It’s that time of year when gardeners are poring over seed catalogs, ogling new offerings at plant shows and otherwise dreaming of great things to come in the 2016 growing season.

But how do you keep your seed-buying list organized and separate from the pie-in-the-sky garden wish list you keep adding to? How can you organize all of your garden notes and pictures from last year in a way that allows you to build on them in the seasons to come? And where can you get professional-looking, durable garden signs to add context to your landscape?

Tags Sign Bill

All of those questions were on the minds of Bill and Tracy Blevins when they founded Plants Map two years ago.

Plants Map is a website that allows you to catalog the plants in your garden, the plants you encounter and admire, the seeds you’ve ordered and the big plans you have for your landscapes.

Longleaf Pine

Getting started with Plants Map is easy, and once you start filling out a profile, you’ll be amazed at how many ways you can use this tool to broaden your garden horizons. Here are a few ways to use Plants Map to get an organized start to the 2016 gardening season.

  • Take control of your wish list. Whether you find them in catalogs, magazines or at garden centers, plant ideas are everywhere. The great thing about a plant wish list on Plants Map is that it’s with you wherever you go on your smartphone or tablet. You can snap a picture to add to it on the go or reference it to see if what’s on sale at the garden center is in fact that specimen you’ve been pining over. Read Tracy Blevins’ thoughts on how to set up a great Plants Map wish list here.
  • Easily order garden signs that will impress all the neighbors. Want to instantly make your landscape look polished and professional? Plants Map makes it easy to order durable garden signs and tags once you have documented your plants on the site. These tags are made of aircraft-grade aluminum and come with a QR code that can link anyone with a smartphone to the online profiles of the plants they label.
  • Keep track of what works and what doesn’t. Plants Map allows users to tell the story of their plants (See some great examples in the profile of Dr. Annkatrin Rose.). Start a profile for a plant and you can document your efforts to identify it, journal its journey from seed to maturity and make notes on where it thrives, what pests like it and other lessons learned. When you need to remember what you did last year, just scan your Plants Map tag and read your notes.
  • Explore, learn and connect. Plants Map isn’t just for one particular type of gardener. Schools, universities, botanical gardens, nonprofits, home gardeners and various plant associations have all found a home here. Once you have a Plants Map profile, you can “follow” these organizations, so that every time you visit, you’ll see a customized feed of the groups you’re interested in and what they’re up to. You may not have the travel budget to visit gardens in California and Pennsylvania in the same year, but with a quick visit to Plants Map, you can keep tabs on growing seasons in a variety of climates. This kind of exploration helps us all to learn and grow as gardeners.

Spend some time exploring at Maybe start by creating a collection for your 2016 seed orders. If you need any help along the way, a large collection of help articles and direct contact with the team running the site are just a few clicks away.

Plants Map Squares 470

Plants Map was created and is run by avid gardeners who are constantly trying to solve the garden organization problem while also making public landscapes in the United States and beyond easier to explore and learn about. Come join this growing community in 2016.


Case study: An Alexandria landscape design all about the dog

This was a great Alexandria landscape design project. Sometimes you roll up to a new potential client’s home and you see something that makes you say, “we’re totally working together.” That was the case with this project. As I drove slowly down the street, looking for the house number like a pizza delivery guy in a blizzard, the giant Cor-Ten steel dog in the front yard told me I was in the right place.

Alexandria Landscape Design before construction

The client brief

The client’s goals for this Alexandria landscape design project were pretty straightforward:

  • all eyes on the dog – it’s the focal point
  • eliminate the grass in the front
  • deal with the grade change from the lawn to the sidewalk
  • new front walk
  • make it all blend with the awesome Craftsman home

After getting the signed design proposal I took measurements and a ton of photos and got started.

The design

Alexandria landscape design plan

Instead of the usual narrow front walk that most of the homes in the neighborhood have, I wanted this Alexandria landscape design to create a broad, welcoming entry. The wide front porch of the Craftsman home deserved it. So I designed a generous pad flush with the city sidewalk to funnel guests in to the walk. Pushing into the yard like this necessitated a small retaining wall; I opted for a stacked stone wall, both for aesthetic reasons and for budget.

Alexandria landscape design progress

The finished product

The end result was a design that the homeowner loves. Using liriope as a groundcover creates a low maintenance alternative to grass, and the plantings all complement the home. Westmoreland stone was used for the sidewalk, as I wanted a darker color that would look like it had been in place longer. Most importantly, the dog sculpture (by artist Dale Rogers, if you have to have one for your yard) is front and center in this Alexandria landscape design project. Plants + stone + steel dog = a great project. Who knew?



Creating a book-themed reading garden

reading quote

I was a voracious reader as a child. It didn’t matter what you put in front of me, if it had letters imprinted upon it I would read it. Books, magazines, cereal boxes, newspapers, shampoo bottles, I read it. I was well known at the local library and my parents had given me license to check books out from the grownups’ section. This led to some unfortunate choices – as a 10 year old I probably shouldn’t have read Jack Douglas’s “The Jewish-Japanese Sex and Cook Book and How to Raise Wolves” though I naively assumed there’d be some good stuff about raising wolves in there (wrong) – but reading made me the curious, inquisitive person I am today.

A reading garden for a school in Virginia

A few years ago I was asked by a local elementary school to design a reading garden. They wanted a space where the kids who would rather read a good book than play kickball (my people!!!) could hang out. As you may have seen by now, I can’t ever do anything by half measures, so I decided to go all out. Why just create a garden for reading, when we could create a garden that was also about reading? And so began my trip down the rabbit hole.

I decided that the logical way to go would be to pick a whole bunch of plants that appear in children’s literature and use those, planting around them with more traditional offerings. There were a few issues with this idea. First, a lot of the kids’ books that feature plants heavily were written by British authors and therefore set in Britain (or a fantasy world equivalent). The other problem was even bigger: a lot of plants referenced in books are used to maim or kill other characters. Rule #407 of the landscape designer’s code clearly states “thou shalt not kill clients or end users even if thine invoices goeth unpaid.” Who am I to argue?

Prop wand box by an amazing artist, click the image for his deviantart page
Prop wand box by an amazing artist, click the image for his deviantart page

So I took a few liberties and chose plants both based on actual appearance in books and the fact that they had names that worked with the idea. For example, the Harry Potter books were a rich source of inspiration. Mandrakes, sadly, were not an option, but many of the trees and woody shrubs from which Ollivander’s wands were made work here. So I included yew and boxwood and holly in the reading garden landscape plan.

Playing off Harry Potter and other books, I created a “dragon’s garden”. Tucked in amongst boulders, just as a dragon’s lair would be, I placed Sedum ‘Dragon’s Blood’ for the name, and Yucca for the spiky texture. Honestly, this is the type of project that were I to do it again I would want to involve the kids. I think they’d have a blast, and getting the next generation of plant geeks started is never a bad thing. I haven’t had a chance to check in and see how it turned out, but here’s the finished plan:


Case Study: Virginia Landscape Design with Native Plants


Several months ago I got a call to do a Bristow landscape design project (for those not in the know, Bristow is a little town in Prince William County, Virginia). The client, Janice, wanted to take the boring expanse of soggy grass in her backyard and create a space that would be welcoming to her and to wildlife.


As you can see it was  a pretty bleak setting, even ignoring the late winter blah-ness of the day I took these photos. The back “landscaping” consisted mostly of lawn and a stand of trees that the builder preserved. Everything weak and damaged had long since been removed, leaving a large oak and a number of cedar trees.


We also faced the challenge of a poorly drained backyard. You can see in the picture here that there’s a low spot at the sundial, causing water to pool and not drain away. Additionally, the raised bed in the back corner prevents water from exiting at the lowest corner of the yard. We didn’t realize it till we started digging but the previous homeowner added one more drainage challenge: the downspouts on the back of the house ran into 4″ corrugated drainpipe that joined together and ended, just under the ground, right at the sundial. It was a mess.

Creating a low maintenance landscape plan and layout with native plants

Janice wanted lush, beautiful plantings and was realistic about the work that entails, but I still wanted to make this a garden that could be maintained without obsessive levels of effort. To accomplish this I decided not to make the entire backyard one big garden bed. Instead, I kept portions of the lawn intact to serve as easily maintained pathways around the planting areas.


I also changed the topography of the site. The far back corner, where we’d remove the planter, would be raised up just a bit to push water to a swale. Similarly, we’d add several yards of topsoil to the bed in the center of the former lawn area to help move water to the back of the property.


Janice requested that I use more native plants than non-natives. It meant striking a bit of a balance between natives and plants that weren’t native, but that I could be confident would do well here. After all. I knew there would be some spots that would stay wet. A Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) was a native focal point in the central bed, and we included other moisture-loving natives like inkberry holly (Ilex glabra), Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), and winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata).

The finished Virginia native plants landscape design


Just a few short months after installation, you can see how well everything is filling in. We’ll be checking in on this project from time to time as we make small changes. No landscape is 100% finished at installation. Because plants are always growing and changing, we need to help steer things in the right direction – but mostly we’ll get out of the way and let Nature do her thing.


Do landscape professionals hate native plants?

One of the benefits of being quite possibly The Most Approachable Guy in the World is I get into a lot of conversations. When these conversations are with folks from the gardening community, and the subject of native plants arises, it gets really interesting. Oftentimes the question arises, “why won’t more professionals use native plants in their landscape designs?” The answers are actually really simple, but at least they reflect a reality that (I think) is changing.

Why wouldn’t a landscape pro use native plants?

The scarcity of native plants

The situation has improved drastically since I moved to Virginia in 2005 but it can still be hard to track down native plants at retail garden centers. There are certainly some natives, like Sweetbay Magnolia and Itea, that everyone loves and wants more of, but the overall selection tends to be pretty lean at retail. I think it’s a classic chicken and egg scenario. Garden centers would stock more native plants if they felt the demand was there, and the demand would be greater if people saw cool native plants for sale at the nursery. But there’s a big reason why you may not see as many natives for sale…

Tree reduced

The aesthetics of young native plants

Don’t misunderstand me, I think native plants can be gorgeous. Here I’m referring to what they look like when young and full of potential, sitting in that pot of soil. In the trade there’s what we refer to as “retail ready” plants. This refers to plants that are full and beautiful and downright irresistible to even the most jaded “I have a brown thumb” non-gardener. It’s as close as we get in this industry to exciting packaging.

Because the retail demand for native plants isn’t that high (yet), a large proportion of them are being grown for commercial and municipal projects. When you have a crew of volunteers planting 1,200 native plants in a remediation area, it’s ok if they look like a stick and two leaves. Getting a walk-in retail customer who doesn’t know plants to get excited by that plant sitting on the shelf with a $20 price tag is a whole other ball of wax.

When we’re getting paid to do an installation for a residential client, they have a certain expectation of what their yard will look like once we’re done. That expectation is based on the big, full landscape plants that we’re all used to. Even my hardcore native plant fans get a little disappointed when they see what a one gallon sumac – which was maybe all we could get – looks like.

You may say “that sounds like a crappy excuse full of weaksauce and mumbles, Dave” but the fact is that we’re only as good as our last job. How can we best delight that customer, whom HGTV has trained to want an amazing transformation?

The economics of using native plants

I have this client, Janice, who was a delight to work with. She wanted a majority of native plants in her landscape but was flexible enough to allow some non-native plants as well. Her job turned out beautifully, and we’re adding to the landscape a bit at a time.

We turned this boring backyard into a strolling garden filled w/ native plants. Blog post coming soon!
We turned this boring backyard into a strolling garden filled w/ native plants. Blog post coming soon!

Janice referred me to a friend of hers who had a DC-area landscape designer draw up a set of plans for a garden that was all natives and edibles, and was looking for someone to help oversee the installation. I usually hate getting involved with projects I didn’t design (you diva!) but this was a super cool project. Then I looked at the plant list and specification sheet.

Given what was called out there were a lot of plants that were only available really small. The biggest tree was 3 feet tall, and most everything else was one gallon or smaller. I require a certain amount per day to be on site and I told them up front, “you’ll be spending more on me than you would on the plants. I can’t add enough value to your project to make it worth you spending that money.” I referred her to three other contractors in here area, and none of them could make it work either.

The majority of planting jobs are completed by landscape companies that are set up for medium to large projects. They have certain overhead recovery requirements that they have to hit to be profitable and stay in business, and that can make dealing with small jobs difficult. Those companies are going to look to use plants that they can source readily, ideally from one vendor, and complete the job as efficiently as possible while leaving behind a project that looks “finished”.


Are there companies that do great work with natives? Sure, but they’re often harder to find because they’re small. The perfect outfit for doing a planting job with a lot of perennials and small plants is often a professional gardener or horticultural maintenance company. These are folks rolling up in a small pickup or transit van, not a massive dump truck with a bobcat on the trailer.

So what’s the answer?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use native plants. Even though I take a more nuanced approach to native plants than some, I still love them and think we should use more of them. So how do we address the issues I raised above?

  • First, I’d love to see retail garden centers get in a broader selection of native plants and also promote the heck out of them.
  • I’d also love to see growers work on getting native plants to market a little prettier. Yes, they’re doing a thankless yet important job by propagating these plants, but they also need to think like marketers. Why would weekend warrior Bob grab your plant instead of that burning bush?
  • More native plants and more mature native plants would go a long ways towards helping move them, but we do still need to change attitudes towards what a finished job should look like. Even something as simple as getting great jobsite photos of plantings 1) right at install 2) 6 months later and 3) a year later, and posting them prominently, would be great.
  • Those of us in the industry need to find and/or develop the small operators who can rock these jobs out. I believe that even if we nail the first two bullet points, it can all fall apart if the busy homeowner doesn’t have someone he or she can hire to get it all done.

The bottom line? Landscape pros don’t hate native plants. They just require a bit more outside-the-box thinking to go from wanting it done to enjoying the finished landscape.



Your fall landscape is boring if you don’t know about these 8 plants

The great thing about this time of year is that the days are cooler (well mostly, it’s supposed to hit 87 today), the humidity drops, and we start to shake free from summer’s brutal grasp. The not-so-great thing is that most plants are done blooming by the time my birthday rolls around in early October. What’s a gardener who loves plants and colors and such to do? Luckily there are some fall landscape plants that continue the show well into the cooler months. Here are a few – 8 to be precise.

My favorite fall landscape plants

1. Beautyberry

Callicarpa Americana

There’s something magic about beautyberry (Callicarpa). As summer fades the bright purple berries come out, and they persist past when the leaves drop off, leaving bare stems covered in clusters of bright purple berries. Calliacarpa americana is described as having a spread of 3-6 ft high and 3-6 ft wide, and it seems to do pretty well in everything from full sun to moderate shade. It’s a winner for me, and I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t love it.

2. Winterberry Holly

Winterberry Holly

When most people think of hollies they think of the evergreens with dark green, glossy leaves and red berries. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) has the red berries but it’s a deciduous holly. Similar to the beautyberry above, winterberry drops its leaves to reveal massive sprays of berries, except that on winterberry they’re a bright red. The photo above was taken in December so you can see just how much mileage you get from this amazing shrub. When choosing, read the tag as there are several different varieties and they vary from 3 ft to 12 ft in size. You’ll probably want to know which one you’re buying.

3. Oakleaf Hydrangea


Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) doesn’t take center stage for long but when it does, it’s worth it. The leaves turn a deep burgundy color that’s made all the more amazing by the fact that they were just “meh” green leaves all season. ‘Alice’ can get up to 8 ft tall and wide; ‘Pee Wee’ is smaller, 3-4 ft high and around 3 ft wide. Just be aware that ‘Pee Wee’ really will get to that size, so plan accordingly. Luckily they transplanted well for me.

4. Solidago


Goldenrod, aka ‘Solidago canadensis‘, is one of my favorite fall perennials. Late summer is when it starts the show, producing thin lines of yellow akin to a blonde Poirot’s mustache. Here in Virginia you’ll see it in ditches and fields everywhere in fall. There are also wonderful commercial varieties, my favorite of which is ‘Golden Fleece’. And for those who would say “but my allergies…” I was told that goldenrod and ragweed bloom concurrently. You see the goldenrod, so it gets blamed for what the ragweed does. Stupid ragweed.

5. Fragrant Sumac

Image source: Phipps Conservatory

I’ve ignored sumac (Rhus) for much of my career. Especially here in Virginia it pops up so easily in disturbed soils that I wrote it off as a weed. Dummy. ‘Grow-Low’ (Rhus aromatica ‘Grow-Low’) is an especially charming variety for several reasons. It stays short, topping off at around 1-2 feet, but it spreads about 8 feet if allowed to. When crushed, the leaves give off a pleasant fragrance (thus the genus name ‘aromatica’). But we came here today to talk about fall color, and that’s what sumac is all about! When the leaves change, expect them to put on a show with a blaze orange going to red that’s hard to miss. Even better, ‘Grow-Low’ is something a lot of your friends won’t have seen so you can expect a lot of “whoa what is THAT?!” at your next fall BBQ. Because sometimes plant lovers just want to show off.

6. Dwarf Fountain Grass


NOTE: be sure to check with your local extension office to see if Pennisetum is considered an invasive in your area!

What a lot of people don’t realize about dwarf fountain grasses (Pennisetum alpecuroides) is that they’re ok singly or in small groups, but they are amazing as a massed planting. Come fall, the sense of movement that the delicate grasses evoke is amplified with the huge foxtail-looking plumes that grace the tips. My two favorites are the ever popular ‘Hameln’ and the purple-tinged ‘Moudry’. Expect both to make 18-30″ high and wide at the max.

7. Maples


There are approximately 1.5 gazillion maples to choose from, give or take, but several are well suited to providing spectacular displays of fall color. ‘October Glory’ (Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’) turns a brilliant red in the fall. ‘Commemoration’ Sugar maple (Acer saccharum ‘Commemoration”) turns an orange that would make a duck hunter’s safety vest feel inferior. Even the yellows can be bold and brilliant. I’m unsure what the one across the street from our house is (pictured) but I adore it. It should go without saying that maples get big, so plan accordingly.

8. Southern Magnolias


This may seem like an odd choice. How exciting can an evergreen tree really be? Thing is, Southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) holds up visually really well throughout the season. Even hollies can look a little grayed out as mid fall heads towards winter, but the deep glossy green leaves somehow manage to hold up.

Magnolias are also extremely versatile. What do I mean? Your “typical” ones like “DD Blanchard” get huge, up to 50 ft tall and 35 ft wide. But you have dwarf magnolias too, like ‘Teddy Bear’ and ‘Little Gem’ topping out at around 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. An added bonus is that ‘Little Gem’ can be trained to grow on a trellis, giving you a unique evergreen screen for a small space all year long.

If you haven’t jumped into plant geekery’s deep end yet I hope this list was helpful. On the other hand if you have, what are some fall and winter plants that make your landscape great?

Proper tree spacing and selection: what it is and why you need to know it

When I design a landscape there’s an order of operations that I always follow. Hardscape elements (decks, patios, walls, etc) get designed first, followed by trees, and then shrubs and perennials. The reason for this is simple: shrubs and perennials can be shifted relatively easily at the time of planting but trees are big enough that they potentially impact everything around them. That can mean limbs growing to touch houses, tree canopies growing into one another, or walks and patios becoming all but unusable. Proper tree placement is critical for a landscape design that will work for decades.

Things to think about when choosing and placing trees


People are the #1 most important consideration when deciding where trees should go. What good is it to have a beautiful front walk if people have to step off the path to get around it? Here are some considerations to bear in mind:

  • Will the tree drop a lot of unpleasant debris in a busy area? If you have a sweetgum tree you can forget walking barefoot in the summer. An American holly overhanging the bed where you change out annuals all season long becomes a prickly menace.
  • If the tree will overhang sidewalks or patios, can it be limbed up to allow people to pass, without making the tree look hacked up?
  • Will the tree provide shade or screening or another benefit to the people who use the space?

Structures and hardscapes and other man-made items

root heaved sidewalk

Trees can impact everything around them and not always for the better. You need to think about how a tree can negatively impact the permanent structures and spaces around them.

  • Is the tree known for weak wood? Weak trees can drop limbs in the slightest storm, potentially damaging whatever’s underneath. Bartlett pears are so notoriously weak that we call them “rental trees”.
  • Will the tree, at maturity, be canopying over the house? This can be a gorgeous effect. It can also be deadly.
  • Does the tree’s natural shape make sense with where you’re planting it? Some trees branch out more laterally (parallel to the ground) than upright. These will give you many fewer years before you’re pruning branches away from the windows.
  • Are the trees you’re considering known for shallow or aggressive roots? Nature is amazing. It happens slowly over time but those innocent tree roots can heave sidewalks.

It’s enough to make you consider trees “the leafy menace” or something, isn’t it? Except that with a little planning and forethought it doesn’t need to be that way. I love trees and can’t plant enough of them. Here’s how you can use trees to create successful, beautiful, long lasting landscapes.

What can this tree do for you?


You can’t control for the other factors unless you have a solid idea of what you want your tree to DO. Are you looking for a shade tree? A specimen evergreen? A screening tree? What about a flowering tree? Unless there’s a tree you’re in love with that you’re designing around, start with the goal and find the tree that fits that. Think of it like buying a car. If what you’re looking for is just reliable transportation that holds a lot of stuff, that could be any number of vehicles on the market.

Know the tree’s size and growth habit

One of the saddest statements I hear (right before we agree to rip out a healthy tree in the absolute wrong place) is “we had no idea it got so big!” You guys. It’s 2015. We have the internet, do some research. Even plant tags can be wrong.

Who can you trust? There’s a lot of bad info on the internet, and bad information when it comes to tree sizing can spell disaster for the innocent homeowner. Here’s what I look for:

  • In print, it’s really hard to go wrong with Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs (Amazon affiliate link). It’s an industry bible, and at 900+ pages it could be a great multitasker.
  • Online, your safest bet is often sites that end in .edu BUT you want to make sure that it’s a college or institution near you. What’s invasive in Florida could be an annual in Minnesota. Plants behave radically differently in different parts of the country, just like people. Example: you drop a New England Patriots fan into a bar full of Dallas Cowboys fans and he’s probably a pretty quiet and reserved, friendly guy. Drop the same Pats fan into a bar in Dorchester and you’ll have a very different experience (much love to all my family in New England!)
  • Another resource that I use a lot is the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder tool. If you type in the plant you want to learn about, and you’re in most temperate regions of the US, you’ll find a phenomenally detailed page of information that includes USDA hardiness zone, size, growth habits, and a ton of info on the plant and sometimes even its history. If you’re not in Missouri it can be helpful to balance their info with that local to you, but it’s honestly what I turn to first. I’m at the point where I’m probably going to become a member because Catholic guilt compels me.

Look up (what they NEVER do in horror movies)

There’s a variety of street tree called “Wireless” Zelkova, so named because it’s been bred to be appropriate for planting under power lines. If you’re planting ANY tree near powerlines you need to consider what the eventual size will be and how it will potentially conflict with the power lines. Because if the tree does conflict with the lines, the power company will send a crew through and you may end up with something that looks like this:

power line tree

Avoid the heartache, consider the surroundings.

How do I figure tree spacing?

Tree spacing comes down to a little research and a little math. Here’s how we do it.

Let’s say that because every %^&%^& suburban home in America apparently needs a pointy evergreen on the corner (pet peeve alert), we went to the nursery and decided to bring home a Nellie R. Stevens holly. Missouri Botanical Gardens’ Plant Finder entry on Nellie R. Stevens says it has a spread of 8-12 feet, which I think is conservative for here in Virginia. This is why I recommend cross referencing with a source local to you as well. Exhibit A:


Anyhow, let’s go with the higher number, 12 feet. That’s the eventual (projected, typical) diameter of the tree, meaning the radius is 6 feet. Unless we’re planning to shear this tree every year, you don’t want it any closer to the house than 6 feet. 7-8 feet gives you a safety buffer, and lets you get behind the tree more easily to prune the tree and maintain your home.

“But Dave!” You exclaim. “That puts the far side of the tree 18 feet from my house! Our property line is only 15 feet from the house, that won’t work!”

Yep. That leaves you with two choices. Find another tree, or commit to shearing the heck out of that thing every single year so you can plant it closer. Have fun when that Nellie R. Stevens holly reaches 20-25 feet.

Long term pruning

The above example highlights the fact that with a commitment to pruning, you can cheat the system. For this project I needed something that would fill in an otherwise dead, boring corner, and I wanted something that would pop against the white brick. I wanted a ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese maple. The problem is that they want to get 15 feet across and we’d have to put it pretty close to the house.


Doesn’t matter. In this case, knowing how I wanted to maintain the garden was part of the landscape plan. It’s a slowish growing tree so every year we just do a little pruning to keep it off the house and it just keeps getting prettier and prettier.

What about spacing trees for an allee, or a screen, where I’m repeating trees?

The same principles apply if you’re doing a repeat planting of trees. For an allee, if you want the branches arching into one another you can plant them rough the mature diameter apart. The tree has a 20 ft mature spread? Place the trunks 18-20 feet on center. Want space between the trees? Add some feet to that dimension.


For screening trees you’re walking a fine line. Too far apart and you’ll be waiting forever and a day for any privacy, but too close and you’ll have unhealthy trees. Take a tree like an Emerald Arborvitae, with an average width of 4 feet. Planting them 4 feet on center gives you good start and they’ll fill in nicely. If you’re starting with small trees you may be tempted to halve that, but I wouldn’t.

And when deciding how far apart to plant Leyland cypress, my preferred method is to leave them at the nursery and let them become someone else’s problem.


That’s a quick overview of selecting and planting trees in your backyard. This is one of those questions that comes up time and time again, so hopefully this helps. If you want more info like this but delivered right to your inbox, sign up for my newsletter in the box on the right! You’ll receive my newsletter twice a month and that’s it. No crazy sales spam in between, and I never sell, rent, or share my lists. Let’s make some beautiful landscapes!