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.


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.


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!


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.


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.

Dry Streambeds for Drainage in the Landscape

Often when I’m meeting with a landscape design client in the DC metro area, drainage comes up as a concern. Sometimes the client knows he or she has an existing problem while other times I can look at what they want to do and see that we’ll then have to move the water somewhere. Around here it’s tough, because our clay soils are quickly saturated. If we’re running water across a lawn area and there’s sufficient slope that water doesn’t pool, it’s easy to move that water. When moving a good volume of water through a planting bed – especially on a significant slope – we need to control and direct that flow. That’s where a dry streambed can be a useful feature that also looks good.

In the case above, we pulled back the sod and we could see a defined channel (swale) where the water was already flowing. It was a couple of feet closer to the wall than I had it on plan, but one thing I’ve learned is that if you’re fighting water, come heavily armed or be prepared to lose. Rather than fight nature, we shifted the streambed to follow the existing flow.

As with any part of the landscape, proper construction is key to a good result. We clear and shape the area under the dry streambed, lay down a heavyweight fabric barrier that prevents silts from migrating up from the soils, and install the river stone. I use a mix of sizes, from boulders all the way down to 1-3″ river stone, to give it a natural look. Designed and installed properly, a dry streambed can help alleviate water issues – and look great doing it.

How Much Does a Retaining Wall Cost in Northern Virginia?

I recently spoke with someone who was looking for a retaining wall, four feet tall and ninety feet long. Before moving forward with a consultation he wanted a sense of what such a wall would cost.

He was surprised, to say the least.

There are a lot of design consideration for retaining walls in northern Virginia, and every site is different. Slope, soils, access, permits, and existing conditions impact the costs, so it’s not generally practical to create a proposal for a retaining wall based solely on square foot pricing. The best contractors examine the site, create a landscape plan (or have a landscape designer create a plan), work out all the materials needed down to the number of tubes of adhesive, and base the price on the labor and materials required to build that individual wall.

That said, I will use square foot numbers to at least start the conversation so I can help the client decide if they’re ready to move forward with the design. When we multiply the length of the wall by the height we get the total square feet of face, or SFF. Here’s how different materials can break down by SFF. Keep in mind that these are not absolutes, just starting points. Your site conditions may result in higher or lower costs.

Pressure-treated 6×6 retaining wall: Generally, a wall of this type will start at $35-45/ SFF. So in the example conversation with the homeowner who had a 90’x4′ wall (360 SFF), he’s looking at approximately $12-16K.

Segmental retaining wall: these are your interlocking concrete wall systems, EP Henry, Techo-Bloc, or similar. Depending on a lot of variables, walls average from $50/SFF to $75/SFF. For our homeowner with 360 SFF of wall, we’re looking at approximately $18-27K.

Concrete retaining wall with stone veneer and cap: This is the most attractive type of wall, and one I’m a huge fan of. Costs vary by site conditions, stone used, etc., but I generally ballpark $75-105/SFF when discussing budgets. My sample homeowner with 360 SFF would be looking at a range of $27-38K.

There are other types of walls (boulder, dry-stacked fieldstone, poured and stamped concrete, etc) but the above are far and away the most commonly requested and built in the DC Metro area. As you can see, retaining walls have the potential to use a good portion of the budget for a landscape project. This is why good design is key. Not only can a good landscape master plan ensure that the walls are where they need to be and and properly designed, it can potentially reveal options for using fewer or smaller walls – freeing up funds for the more exciting parts of the project.


Don’t Fear Your Irrigation System – Basic System Layout Explained

I’ve had homeowners paralyzed with fear, unwilling to make changes to their landscape because of the terror that lurks below the surface. No, not Tremors (though that may be some of Kevin Bacon’s finest work) – their irrigation system. Once you know how your system works, it really isn’t that terrifying.

Irrigation System Design Basics

Here’s a basic diagram of an irrigation system layout:

Some homeowners are terrified to even bump against an irrigation line. Folks, it’s not a water main. The valves have to be on before water flows through the lines.  Let’s follow the water through your irrigation system:

Step One: The backflow preventer


Where the irrigation system taps into your household water supply, code requires a backflow preventer. This prevents anything in the irrigation system water (dirt, sand, garden chemicals) from flowing back in and mixing with your tap water. This valve is sometimes located in the basement, sometimes outside.

Step Two: Main shutoff valve


Every system should have one. If yours doesn’t have a main shutoff valve, that’s worth a call to get one installed. Often they’re located at the backflow preventer, but not always. Even if your backflow preventer has a shutoff valve, if the backflow is in the basement you should have a shutoff valve outside.

Step Three: The main line

Your irrigation system will have a main feed line that runs from the house to the valve manifold. This line is always charged (has water running through it), which is why a system shutoff valve is so important. If you break the main line, it’s the part of the system that will stream water until it’s shut down.

Step Four: The valve manifold


Water flows to the valve manifold and stops until the appropriate valve is opened. Each zone on your controller has its own valve, so when your front shrub zone comes on, that valve opens and water flows to the zone until the controller closes the valve again.

Step Five: The individual zones


When the valve opens, water fills the pipes in that zone and comes out the sprinkler heads (or drip tubes, or flood bubblers – whatever’s at the end of the line). When the valve closes, there’s no longer pressurized water in that zone, although you may have water dribbling out of the lowest head in the system for a few minutes. That’s just gravity and is perfectly natural.

As you can see, irrigation systems are very straight forward to understand and not at all terrifying. You may still want to have a professional service your system (and I strongly recommend a pro to install your system), but at least now you know how your system works – and that you’re not going to blow up the world if you nick a line).



When Do I Call a Landscape Designer?

I get asked this question (or a variant thereof) a lot. After all, when contemplating a major remodel or new home, I’m needed to put the icing on the cake. Here’s where I fit in.

Remodel/ Renovation

If your remodel is changing the footprint of your home, we can start talking as soon as you have drawings showing where the new walls are going. As an example, yesterday I presented a completed landscape master plan to clients who are expanding their kitchen and adding a portico. The timing has been fantastic, because I got the drawings from their architect showing the new footprint of the house, they dialed in interior selections (cabinets, counters) while I was working on the landscape plan, and we can start getting landscape construction costs as the remodel work begins. This way I knew what I was working to, and the builder and I have an easy understanding of where his work stops and mine begins.

It’s also worth bringing in a landscape designer early on to make the county happy. Last year I worked on a project with Stadler Nurseries for a homeowner building an addition in the McLean/Great Falls area. Because of the size of the addition he had to have a plan for planting dozens of trees and several hundred shrubs. This plan was designed by the engineer, not a landscape designer, and was so boring I feel asleep while reviewing the plan. I fell asleep while laying it out for planting. Just thinking about it now, I feel I miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii – wait, what? Sorry, nodded off.

New Construction

Yesterday, I also met with someone tearing down a home in Great Falls to build a new one (yesterday was an incredibly productive day, apparently). When can I start the design process? As soon as the engineer has decided where the new home sits on the lot and has created a site plan with elevations, I can roll. I just need that and the architectural drawings of the home from the architect and I’m good to go!

The biggest mistake I see people make is calling a landscape designer after construction is 100% completed. Not only does this mean they’re stuck with a mess during the design process and ramp-up to installation, but there may have been some opportunities to better integrate the inside and outside spaces during the build-out. While the home or addition is under construction, a change can be minor. Once paint’s on the walls and the carpet is down, those minor changes become major changes – and they never happen.

No, my neighbors’ Pug Oscar has nothing to do with this post. But he’s awesome and I didn’t have any construction photos.

Formal Water Features in Landscape Design

Sometimes you want to wear flip flops and shorts, and sometimes you want to rock a more classic look. Formal water features never go out of style!

Gene Kelly is ALWAY classy.

Your garden feels the same way. How about some formal fountain ideas?

formal water features

Here’s a classic fountain. Concrete basin, carved stone or precast coping, and a statue. Very old school formal.

formal water features

The formal geometry of this fountain gives it formality. So does the way it sits in a very formal geometrically laid out garden, which unfortunately doesn’t really show in this photo.

formal water features

Reflecting pools? Almost always formal. This one sure is.

Don’t think that you have to live on a palatial estate with some grand home with turrets and a mansard roof to pull off a formal water feature. A formal fountain can be a great way of pulling some of the structure of the house way out into the garden. We design custom water features for our clients (like this Oakton Virginia water feature!) but you can also get a great deal on a fountain or water feature here. This is an affiliate link; I may get a commission if you buy from them. 


Using Dry Stream Beds for Drainage

Here in Virginia we have clay soils that don’t drain particularly well. We also get a fair bit of rainfall. When new subdivisions are built, especially in northern Virginia, the county-mandated drainage plan often moves water through everyone’s backyards towards a county storm drain. If you have a newer home, you may even have a legally designated stormwater easement on your survey plat.

What this means is that for many homeowners, you’re likely to have a fair bit of water moving through your yard during a storm event. When you moved in, the builder had probably sodded your backyard, and well-established grass stands up reasonably well to a decent volume of water moving across it.

Sometimes grass isn’t an option, though. Maybe trees have grown up and grass will no longer grow, and you’re experiencing erosion. Maybe your new patio or plant beds mean that water needs to be diverted. Or, as was the case for these folks, the slope was so steep that keeping the grass cut was a miserable experience.

So, the decision was made to turn the area in front of the downhill fence into a planting bed. Having all your mulch washed into a pile against the fence is never fun, so I looked at where the swale was most pronounced – this is where the water was flowing – and built a dry creek bed to carry the water.

We also used a number of plants to help hold the slope, including winter jasmine, cotoneaster, and pachysandra. As the birch trees grow up and fill out, this will be a nice little oasis in suburbia.

Fighting nature is hard. Working with it – whenever you can – is the better choice.