Does great landscape design make us happier?

Ever since starting my landscape design firm I’ve had an opportunity to meet with a lot of people, look at a lot of yards, and have a lot of conversations about how they want to get more enjoyment from their landscapes. There are recurring themes, no matter where my clients are (geographically or economically): they often want a space that they can live in and share with others.

happy family

It was with interest that I learned of a study of the positivity of the English language. Using computer analyses the researchers scored over 10,000 commonly used English words and assessed the perceived positivity of the words. In other words, what are the happiest words in the English language?

If you scroll down through the article, you can click on the link to Table S1 to download a list of the 50 most positive words. Here are some words I wanted to highlight:

  • laughter was #1
  • love was #3
  • celebration was #20
  • music was #23
  • weekend was #26
  • friendship was #34
  • holidays was #36
  • sunshine was #43
  • beautiful was #44
  • paradise was #49

Some of these words, or permutations of these words, come up in my client consultations. Many of these, even if they’re not actually spoken, are a part of how we envision spending time in a space. Celebrating, laughing with loved ones and friends, listening to music in the sunshine in our beautiful backyard paradise… according to how I’m interpreting this study, a beautiful backyard can lead to happy times!

It may sound sappy but what I love about what I do is we’re actually helping people live their dreams. Whether or not your favorite word made the list, I’d like to help you and your family create a space that will make you happy every time you see it. Call me or drop me an email and let’s get started.

 

Building a timber wall – will it last?

I like to play a game I call underrated/overrated. You can play it with bands, actors, foods, anything you want. Example: underrated/overrated = Hudson Hawk is a brilliant and underrated movie/ Sideways is an incredibly overrated movie that makes me want to guzzle Merlot out of spite. See how it’s done? Please leave your own under/over thoughts in the comments.

A part of the landscape that I think is underrated is the timber retaining wall. There are two objections that I see raised about them: aesthetically they aren’t great, and wood will eventually break down and the wall will fail. Both very valid points. However.

Pressure-treated timbers are typically what you use for a timber retaining wall. The fun fact about pressure treated wood is that it is warrantied – but putting it in continuous contact with the ground voids the warranty. Even so, you can reasonably expect to get anywhere from 10-20 years out of a timber wall. We did a job a couple of years ago where we removed a timber retaining wall so we could install a new Techo-Bloc wall. The existing wood wall was fifteen years old and we expected it to come apart like a castle made of wet Kleenex. Instead it took days of work with demo saws and pry bars. Fifteen years later and the wall was still solid. I was impressed.

Retaining Wall Detail
source: Fairfax County Wall Detail Packet

How do you get a wood wall to last so long? It all comes down to proper installation. I refer everyone to the Fairfax County Retaining Wall Detail packet, because it applies to most cases. You want a solid, compacted gravel footer; you want to make sure that every timber is level and true as it’s installed; you want to use 1/2″ galvanized spikes to hold the wall together; you want to use deadmen as shown to tie the wall into the grade behind it; and you want to backfill appropriately, including clean drainage stone, to keep water from causing the wall to fail. It may not be easy to execute (it’s still a lot of work and it takes skill to do well) but the principles are sound.

“But Dave,” you may say, “that doesn’t address the fact that a timber wall looks like a stack of lumber in my backyard.” Well, fair point my imaginary naysayer. This is why I don’t recommend a timber wall in every situation. If the wall is going to be front and center as someone drives into your property, it’s probably not the ideal choice. If you just need a functional wall  and you won’t often see it, though, a timber wall could be a great way to make room in the budget for something else. In this scenario, we had to build the grade up almost six feet to create a waterfall. Rather than spend thousands of dollars to retain the soil at the back of the falls with a gorgeous stone wall that only the deer and squirrels would see, we used a timber wall.

timber wall behind waterfall

Worried about the aesthetics? This is what it looks like from the house. Yep, you don’t see it.

pond waterfall design in northern virginia

There you have it: the humble timber retaining wall. It may not be glamorous and it may not be a forever solution, but if you need to stretch the budget and can conceal the wall, I hope you’ll at least consider it.

Are you making a major change to your landscape and looking for ways to stretch your budget and still make it look great? I can help with that! Contact me to set up a consultation. I’d love to help you fall in love with your property all over again.

 

Travertine Paver Patio Installers in Virginia – What to Know

When I was designing landscapes in Arizona, one option we had available to us was travertine marble tile. These were actual tiles – typically 12″x12″ and less than a half inch think – so they had to be laid in a mortar bed on a concrete slab. Shortly after landing in Virginia in 2005, I started seeing travertine pavers make an appearance.

These are really cool because they’re an inch thick and are laid just like a concrete paver. You build up with a base layer of compacted gravel (21A or crusher run), then use a one inch layer of sand as your bedding layer. Once the pavers are in place they’re compacted and polymeric sand is swept into the joints. That’s it. It’s a beautiful finished product that has the ability to flex and move like a traditional concrete paver patio in Virginia. From the test data I’ve seen online, travertine pavers have a compressive strength similar to concrete pavers and can even be used for driveways!

The biggest challenge I’ve found with designing travertine paver patios in Virginia is making the materials make sense. Travertine in California or Arizona doesn’t look out of place. It can look a little foreign here, though. I recently designed a fireplace, seat wall, and travertine paver patio as part of a winery landscape design project. I used a plum-colored flagstone to tie in with the warm tones of the travertine and the rich reddish colors in the fireplace stone, and I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. All those color theory classes have finally paid off.

I’m starting my next travertine paver patio project this week, and I may have one more in the pipeline as part of a swimming pool project. The travertine pavers are a great product that (unlike concrete pavers and flagstone) aren’t in every other backyard. Making it work requires someone who can integrate this new material in the landscape design while blending all the colors harmoniously. In other words, you need a landscape designer. Contact me to set up a consultation if you’re looking to build a travertine paver patio in Virginia, Maryland, or DC and I’ll be happy to talk with you about it!

Understanding Flagstone: Sawcut, Thermaled, and Chiseled Edges

You’ve decided to use flagstone in the landscape. Good call! You may not be done making decisions, however. If the stone will be used in an application where you see the edge of the piece (step treads, wall caps, etc) you’ll have to think about the finished look.

Thickness

The first thing to consider is the thickness of the stone. The typical stone we use for a wet-lay patio can vary in thickness, from a hair under an inch to over two inches. When building steps or a cap, you want to see a consistent thickness of stone all the way across.

Something else to consider is that often a thicker stone will look better. That 1″ thick flagstone can look wimpy. A 2″ piece has a lot more heft to it. In some cases you may want to go even thicker, but just be aware that now you’re looking at significant additional costs.

The Edge – Sawcut Flagstone

The most common edge “treatment” isn’t really even a treatment. The rectangular slabs of flagstone are cut with a giant saw, and you can often see the marks from the blade on the stone. It’s fine, but it’s certainly not an aesthetically exciting finish.

The Edge – Thermaled Flagstone

One of the most common edge treatments (and one that I think looks great) is thermal-treated. This is accomplished by taking a piece of sawcut flagstone, wetting down the edge, and heating it with a torch. Done correctly the water turns to steam and pops off small pieces of the stone, resulting in a smoothly textured and very consistent surface. Done incorrectly, the piece overheats and splits. This is why most stone yards offer to provide thermaled stone.

The Edge – Chiseled Flagstone

Another way of treating the edges of flagstone is to give them a chiseled appearance. It’s another technique that’s simple to describe and more difficult to do: the mason uses a chisel to remove small, evenly sized pieces of material from the edge of the stone until it has a very cool, consistent rock-faced look across the edge. Some companies do this on site, but most get the stone from the stoneyard like this.

When designing with stone there are so many variables to consider. While it seems inconsequential at first, the right edge treatment can make the difference between a good result and a great result. If you’re looking for help achieving that great result, contact me for a design consultation!

 

Why I Don’t Use Sweetgum Trees

Every once in a while I’ll look over a drawing from another designer and see sweetgum trees in the plant legend. If they’re near the house or in a commercial setting, I usually recommend a substitution.

Sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua) are quick growing shade trees that provide both food and cover for all sorts of animals. I have a big one outside the window of my home office and I have to admit, those big five-pointed leaves do a great job of blocking the summer sun. That’s the only reason I haven’t had it taken down and replaced with a different species of tree. Why do I feel so strongly? Because of these:

My phone* is there for scale. Mature sweetgum trees produce gazillions of these pods, and just to stick it to us silly humans these pods drop long after leaf season ends. I finished raking leaves the first week in December, and it wasn’t until the last week of the year that my yard was carpeted with these things.

Walking across a yard full of these with shoes on is like walking across a field full of spiky ball bearings. If you’re barefoot, they’re like Legos – they will find your foot, and they hurt. The final blow is that sweetgums are pioneer trees, excellent at colonizing fields and speeding the transition from meadow to forest. That’s great in the wild, but what that means in the home landscape is that come spring, your beds will be littered with sweetgum seedlings.

credit: fcps.edu (click to visit source page)

Now anyone who knows me knows that I’m the consummate treehugger, and with a few notable exceptions (poison ivy is a big one) I believe that every plant has its place. If you’re landscaping a large estate property in Fauquier or Loudoun County, this could be a great tree for out in the fields. The critters will love everything about it and the pods won’t bother the field mower at all. But anywhere that people walk, or in a bed with open space – there are better trees. If you need help finding the right tree for your home, give me a call!

*= yes, I’m fully aware that the damage to my phone looks terrible. However, it still works and I’m one of those people who researches his electronics before purchase. I’ll get there, I promise!

Virginia Deck Design Explained, Part 1: Footers and Ledger Attachment

My name is Dave Marciniak, landscape designer and owner of Revolutionary Gardens, and I use jargon.

I’m deeply sorry.

However, the fact is that when it comes to building everything has a name. It’s easier to use the technical term than a long-winded explanation. A great example is the French phrase “l’esprit de l’escalier.” It’s literally translated as spirit of the stairs, but the meaning is “thinking of the right comeback in an argument after it’s too late (and you’re walking down the stairs).” So in the interest of making myself easier to understand, I’m going to do a multi-part guide to understanding the key parts of deck construction, starting with the first step of construction: the footers and ledger. If these parts of the deck aren’t right, your deck could fail pretty spectacularly.

source: fairfaxcounty.gov

Before we get started, a disclaimer is in order. This is not intended to be a how-to guide for designing or building a deck, just an explanation of terms. I recommend working with professionals to design and install your deck, and at a minimum you should ALWAYS pull permits and have your plans and construction reviewed by the municipality in which you live. Got it? Good.

Footers

Unless you’re cantilevering your deck (which is another post), you need posts. Those posts need to be anchored firmly in the ground, and your county probably sets out the minimum requirements in a Typical Deck Details packet. The current standard is to use a 6″x 6″  pressure-treated post. The size of your footers is dictated by the framing they’re supporting, but minimum requirement is 16″x16″ square, up to 24″x24″ square. As for the depth, you need to dig down to the locally accepted frost depth. In most of Northern Virginia, that is 24″ down. If you live farther north, you may be digging down three or four feet. All of your footers need to be anchored in concrete.

Ledger

In most counties you’ll need to have the ledger board in place when you call for a footer inspection. The ledger board is the framing lumber (usually a 2X? piece of lumber) that is attached to the structure of the house when building an attached deck. I prefer building a deck this way, because it means I don’t have posts right up next to the house.

The ledger attachment is critical to the success of your deck project. After all, if you do it wrong your deck can fall off. Therefore, there are detailed specifications on how to install the ledger. If you’re attached to the home’s band board (it’s the board along the perimeter of the home that’s in line with that level’s floor joists) you’ll need to remove the siding, install flashing, and attach directly to the board. Sandwiching the siding between the house and the ledger is bad.If your home has a brick veneer over the wood, the county may require you to remove that brick. I don’t recall ever being allowed to simply drill through the brick if it’s not structural.

If you’re attaching to masonry (poured concrete walls or block walls), you’ll use either expansion anchors or epoxy anchors to hold the ledger board in place. The great thing about working with approved details is that they even tell you exactly how many anchors to use and how to space them out. You don’t need to be a master baker to make brownies, you just have to follow the directions on the box. Just be sure you get good directions. Hiring a landscape designer who designs decks for homeowners in Virginia, Maryland, and DC could be a good place to start. Click my contact page and we’ll talk.

Alternately if you’re just looking for an off-the-shelf solution, to check out my friend Joe’s deck plan packages Click Here!

Next week we’ll talk framing: beams, joists, and how they connect to the ledger and the posts. The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone, and all that good stuff!

Drainage and Infrastructure Are Not Like Milk Duds

I’m still recovering from Halloween – 538 trick-or-treaters is a LOT Of kids – and it’s still framing how I look at things. Of the nearly $200 we spent on candy we have a bowlful left, and as I was pawing through the bowl for a mid-morning snack I kept encountering Milk Duds. Boxes and boxes of Milk Duds. They’re ok, I suppose, but I’ve never met anyone who got excited about them. It takes some amazing skill to be able to combine chocolate and caramel, two awesome flavors, in a way no one loves.

A lot of people look at the essential foundations of the landscape as if they were Milk Duds, something that you can’t avoid but don’t love. It doesn’t have to be that way! I’ve already gone on and on about dry streambeds as an attractive way to move water through the landscape. It’s also possible to move stormwater in a more formal way, using it as a water feature. When I took care of the grounds at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, I got to see a really neat way of handling rainwater. Here’s the wide-angle view of the buildings:

Every floor has a balcony overlooking the central courtyard, but what architect Louis I. Kahn did was he stepped each balcony back as they got higher, so that the rainwater flowed off the flat roof onto the edge of the balcony, through the scuppers, and onto the balcony below that, and on and on for the six floors of the building.

Source: tourguidetim.com

The idea was to create a series of cascading waterfalls, and it was a really cool idea. Now, ideas do come down to execution. If you worked at the Salk and wonder why you never really saw this, sadly, the reality check is that clearly the concrete company who poured the floors didn’t get the memo. In a heavy rain, water pooled on the balconies and flowed the wrong way, right into the labs. Rainy days meant all of us – landscapers, carpenters, plumbers – grabbed long-handled squeegees and saved Science from Nature. Hm. Is there an allegory in there?

Regardless, Louis I. Kahn’s design intent shows that drainage and infrastructure can be handled artfully. Where a lesser architect may have channeled the water into drains and hidden plumbing runs that daylighted in the scrub above the cliffs, he made them a feature. That’s a testament to what design can do. Thus inspired, I’m off to see if maybe microwaving Milk Duds makes them better.

Winterberry Holly | Ilex verticillata

With fall comes an initial blaze of color as the trees turn, followed by a whole lot of brown and gray. Luckily we have a gorgeous plant for fall color: Winterberry holly, or Ilex verticillata if you like botanical names.  There are several varieties, but some of the more commonly seen winterberry hollies in the DC metro area are:

  • ‘Winter Red’ – a prolific berry producer that grows to 6 to 8 feet
  • ‘Red Sprite’ – a dwarf variety that stays to around 2 to 4 feet
  • ‘Apollo’ – a male pollinator that hangs out at around 8 feet. You can’t have berries without a boy plant. Yay, nature!

I was just measuring a site for a new client and the folks who did their original landscaping loved winterberry holly. Here’s a great example of what they do in late September:

And, here’s a different client site, taken in December. Oh no, where are the leaves?! Oh, that’s right. Ilex verticillata is a deciduous shrub, meaning that it will drop its leaves in the fall. With berries like this, who needs leaves?

All the berries make winterberry holly an excellent choice for those wanting to provide something for the birds. The above photo of the leafless holly was taken right before Snowpocalypse burst upon us a couple of years ago. The happy birds stripped the bushes bare over the ensuing weeks and were later seen looking for South Beach Diet birdseed. True story.


Want to buy Winterberry Holly in Virginia?

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.

 

 

Why Is This Retaining Wall Failing?

I walk by this wall whenever I walk to the post office in downtown Culpeper. Walls like this are pretty common in older neighborhoods like mine. Leaning and generally unhappy walls are, sadly, pretty common as well. So what gives? Why do these walls look like they’re ready to flop over on the sidewalk?

There are several possible explanations. The first is insufficient footer, or failure to tie the wall in with the footer. When building a masonry retaining wall in Virginia you generally want to dig down 24″ below grade, so you’re below the frost line. You then pour a beefy footer (thickness varies depending on application), often with rebar coming up from the footer to tie the wall to the footer. Our home was built in 1906 and renovated in the 1950s, and I can tell you with certainty that there was not a lot of digging to frost depth being done way back then.

Another possibility is insufficient drainage behind the wall. Water is a wall’s worst enemy. Hydrostatic pressure is a major cause of wall failure. The way we avoid a buildup of pressure is by using a “drainage chimney” of clean gravel behind the wall, along with periodic weep holes.

What makes this wall great for illustrative purposes is the fact that the wall likely started to fail because of hydrostatic pressure (water buildup behind the wall). This pushed the top of the wall forward, creating a gap between the wall and the slab. What’s right above the slab? Downspouts! So not only do we have a gap, we’re pouring gallons upon gallons of water behind the wall with every storm. Awesome.

So how would I fix this wall? I think we’re beyond the point of fixing something like this, and it needs to come out. Improper construction is hard to correct, and when it gets this bad – there’s no Band-Aid big enough.