How 40 Pounds of Dog Has Changed My Plans for 10,000 sq ft of Yard

I finally wore Mindy down this fall and we adopted a dog. This is my sweetheart Bonnie, a German Shorthair Pointer (GSP) mix who came to us via the Mid-Atlantic GSP Rescue. Say hi, Bonnie!

 Landscape Dawg

Anyone who’s met me knows it’s no secret that I’m an animal lover. Pets are something I always take into account when designing a yard, mostly as regards how the pups will move around the yard and how we can keep them safe. I didn’t think my proposed design for our backyard was an issue until we started spending time in the yard with Bonnie. Here’s what’s changed for me:

1. It needs to happen NOW. GSPs are a high energy breed. Sometimes, to help Bonnie run off excess energy, we’ll invite PJ over. PJ’s our neighbors’ rescue greyhound and the two of them tear the heck out of the flat, muddy parts of the yard. We need to deal with those, stat.

2. I need more lawn than I thought. I hate mowing in hot weather, and to the chagrin of my neighbors that becomes quite apparent. I know, I should live in a cave miles from other people. But I love downtown Culpeper! Anyhow, the original plan was to shrink  the lawn to a teeny tiny bean and have the rest of the backyard as strolling gardens. But I discovered that when throwing the Chuck It or Kick Fetch (best dog toys EVER btw), we need room for B-Dawg to get up to speed if I’m going to wear her out.

3. Too much privacy will bite me later. A section of our fence is an open trellis-style fence. The original plan was to cover a chunk of it with big oakleaf hydrangeas, but dogs get barky when they can hear what’s outside the fence and not see it. Since our neighbor kid rides his skateboard in endless loops in front of our driveway, Bonnie would bark herself hoarse if she couldn’t see him. And I don’t really want to install one of these:


4. A clear line of sight is important. One thing that’s common to high energy breeds is a penchant to get into trouble in the blink of an eye. While you can’t watch the dog 100% of the time, 66% is a good goal. So structures and planting beds shifted to make it a little easier to monitor the dog.

Assuming the snow ever melts and the ground softens enough to dig, I’ll start my backyard renovation and share updates here. If you’re looking for help on how to make your backyard work better for your four-legged compadres, contact me and let’s do this!

8 Simple Tricks to Get More From Your Landscape in 2021

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

It seems odd to write something about outdoor enjoyment on a day when temps have been in the single digits, but let’s go with it! Obviously there’s no end to the major changes that can make a huge difference in the landscape, but what if there were small ones that could make a difference? Would you do them?

1. Consider your space planning

Space planning is at the core of everything I do when designing a space. It has the biggest impact on not just how you use the space, but whether or not you’ll even choose to spend time out there. Before spring hits, take a look at the spaces you used the most and the ones you used the least. What’s great about each? What’s bad about each? It’s crazy but sometimes a miniscule change can make a world of difference. If you’re always squeezing around your grill, maybe a 3 ft x 6 ft bumpout will get the grill out of your way. Think hard and you can get the most out of what you have!

2. Address hardscape maintenance

There’s no such thing as a maintenance-free landscape. Even concrete cracks. I don’t care how beautiful your patio or wall or deck was on install, after a few years it needs spiffed up. Consider the following:

  • pavers – pressure wash, top off polymeric sand, and seal (when temperatures permit)
  • decks – pressure wash and seal wood, oil exotic hardwoods like ipe and garapa, or give composite decks a good scrub
  • masonry – remove any loose mortar and repoint the joints

If you own a house there’s always something you could be doing!

3. Take a hard look at your plants and play botanical Hunger Games

Hakonechloa macra

Am I a treehugger and plant fanatic? Well, duh. Yes! But I’m not a sucker. That plant has a job to do in my landscape, if it’s not doing it, it needs to go. Maybe I can transplant it somewhere else on my property, perhaps someone else wants it, or sometimes it just needs to go. Here’s what I ask when looking at plants:

  • is it growing the way it should? If not, is it growing in a cool way that won’t cause problems down the road?
  • is it happy where it is? (right sun exposure, right water)
  • is it causing problems? For example, I’m 6′-4″ tall. Any trees growing over the grass are pruned up to 7 feet. If it was the type of plant that I couldn’t successfully prune like that, either it would have to go, or I’d have to redesign my lawn area.
  • am I bored? A gazillion peonies came with the house. Every few years I divide them and give them away, because while I love peonies they’re pretty lame from about, oh, May through March.

4. Be really, really good to the plants remaining

Prune broken and errant branches, address pest or disease issues, and if something doesn’t look right, call in a pro. I don’t really get into plant health issues but I have a fantastic arborist who does. He gets calls from me throughout the year.

5. Extend your season

basic virginia firepit

I fell in love with design as a career when I lived in the southwest and my aesthetic reflects that. The fact that I grew up in New England but view cold weather as a personal affront is what led me to choose a grill recipe for Christmas dinner this year. In summer, shade can make a huge difference when making a space more liveable, especially if you have the dreaded southwestern exposure. In winter it’s all about the heat. Patio heaters, firepits, and fireplaces, properly situated, can make a world of difference.

6. Extend each day

One of my clients was grilling and using his iPhone’s flashlight app to check the meat when he dropped the phone IN the grill. Whoops. Landscape lighting is a great way to make your yard seem bigger at night, get more hours of enjoyment from your yard… and not suffer the humiliation of your significant other seeing grill marks melted into your phone.

I count lighting as a simple, small fix because if you know what the end goal is, a landscape lighting system is totally modular and you can start with a very few lights.

7. Figure out the worst aspect of your yard and fix it – even if it’s a “for now” fix

GSP Bonnie

This is Bonnie. We adopted her this year and I love her, but she’s making the path between the back steps and the gate a muddy mess, which of course leads to mud in the house as well. That’s the area I’m focusing on this winter. Whether it’s doggie damage or a place to stash the trashcans, I’m guessing there’s something small you can do that will make you incredibly happy. Focus on that for the win.

8. Take a photo a day

It sounds stupid, I know, but what better way to force you to get out and get to know your yard better? The more you explore the yard the more likely you are to love it!

Here’s to a great new year in the garden! If your goal is to get a lot more from your landscape in 2014, a consultation with a landscape designer is a great first step. Learn how the process works, or just contact me to discuss!

Why Landscape Design for Plant Collectors is So Haaaaaaaaard (and How to Make a Cohesive Collection)

One can break landscape design clients into general categories. There are the “I don’t care whatever you want” types; the ones who are excited about the project and invested in the result but only really care about what I think is important to their yard; and then there are the plant collectors. You might think that plant collectors would be the easiest client because they’re so excited and love what I love, right? Not necessarily, because plant collectors are collectors.

starwars collection

Maybe those of you who are less geeky than I am don’t have friends like this, but I have friends who are hardcore collectors. One of my friends is into everything Disney. Another friend is into everything Star Wars. And one of my past clients collects movie props. The common thread among these friends is that being a collector means that they simply must have that new Disney figurine, or that Han Solo in carbonite that just showed up on eBay. Except for the uber-rich, these are still collections that fit in a reasonable amount of space. Not so with plant collectors!

"I know I signed the design contract a week ago but I got bored and found these. Can you work these in too?"
“I know I signed the design contract a week ago but I got bored and found these. Can you work these in too?”

Your classic plant collector cannot pass up a plant swap or garden center sale. Your classic plant collector will pop in their fav garden center every weekend, you know, “just in case anything new came in.” If the staff at the garden center calls you by name, you’re probably a plant collector. And these folks rarely leave empty-handed. Here’s where the trouble starts, because those plants aren’t going to do well sitting in their pots for weeks and weeks. They need to go in the ground NOW but it’s ok, it’s just temporary, the collector will move things around later. When they’re done buying plants for a bit.


In many cases, the spouse or partner of the collector insists that they call me. Like a college girlfriend freaked out by all the anime posters in her beau’s dorm room, the partner knows this looks a little weird and needs some help. The collector begrudgingly reaches out to me for help because word on the street is that I get plant geeks, and I might just be one myself. We set the initial consultation, and when I show up it’s everything I feared. But there’s always cool stuff for me to work with.


That may or may not be a real Mozart quote. I found it online so who knows. But the idea is sound. In cohesive design, everything can’t be the focal point. Rhythm and repetition can move the eye around but without unity it’s all still crazy. If you want to know why plant collectors can be challenging clients, here’s why plant collectors choose their botanical booty:

  • foliage color (collectors love yellows, reds, and blues)
  • leaf shape
  • riotous blooms in colors that would confuse even the most hardcore Deadhead
  • crazy conifers and weeping evergreens

Imagine a living room with no furniture but 843 throw pillows, each one a different color, some with fringe, some with tassels, some with bells, and even one or two dozen with strobe lights and speakers that play the Woohoo song. This is often what I walk into. Luckily, I’ve done enough of these that I have a plan.

1. Budget for a really detailed site analysis

As I lay out in my discussion of the landscape design process, I estimate how long the various portions of the process will take me and that is factored into the design fee. My assistant and I recently measured a plant collector’s garden and the two of us invested a total of 8 hours just to measure and inventory everything and then draw a landscape plan of existing conditions. But, to get it right we have to know what we have to work with.

2. Accept that it all has to go somewhere on the property

Maybe the collector client searched everywhere for that hakonechloa that looks like Celtic runes under a blacklight, or maybe the peonies came from his grampa’s farm that’s no longer in the family. Unless I’m explicitly told “I don’t care about that xxxxx, it can go” I assume that the client has a story, memory, or association for every plant he or she owns.


3. Make three categories and work from there

The three categories are trees, unifying shrubs, and everything else. I would say that in about half the cases, when I work with plant collectors there are no unifying shrubs. What are these? They’re typically evergreen shrubs like hollies, laurels, or boxwood. I often get pushback from collectors on these because they’re soooooooo boring, Dave. And yes, compared to those neon chartreuse heucherella, they are. That’s the point. A fuchsia chair gets lost against a pink and orange paisley wallpaper, but it leaps out in front of a gray wall. So I place my trees, I create massing with my unifying shrubs, and then I start grouping everything else.

4. Find a common thread for how to group everything else

This is different for every plant collection. If there are a bunch of weird dwarf conifers and sedums, we can do a rockery. If we have lots of colorful foliage we can throw in some dark green plants to set them off. If the collector is a bloom fanatic, let’s group to get something blooming for as much of the year as possible. There’s always a way to tie it all together.

5. Leave room for future plant purchases

The only time a plant collector stops adding to her collection is when she’s six feet underground. Go ahead, tell me you’re done with plant acquisitions. I know better. You’ll be at the farmer’s market and spot a little 2.5″ pot of lime basil and hey, I wonder what a lime basil mojito would be like? I should buy that, it’s only one plant, and… my, that’s a nice full rosemary plant! Yep. Again, I’m one of you. You can’t fool me. So I always leave room. I try to give guidelines for what should go in a given space (leaf color, bloom time, etc) but at the end of the day it’s not my garden.


To be clear, I’m not saying plant collectors aren’t fun clients. They’re generally a blast, and I love geeking out over oddball cultivars with passionate hardcore hort peeps. But it’s far from easy turning chaos into cohesion.

If you’re looking for a landscape design solution to your crazy plant collection and you’re in northern Virginia, DC, or Maryland, call me at 703-679-8550 to set up a consultation. We’ll gush over the plants you’ve acquired along the way and then I’ll help you showcase your collection.



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

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

culpeper landscape design

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

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

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

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

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

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




What Concrete Paver Goes with My Brick House?

I get asked that question a lot, as you can imagine. After all, Virginians love their brick homes, so I design a lot of patios for brick homes. I always look at two things: color and size/style.

brick house landscape


Color is the easiest to deal with first. If you have a red brick home I will do everything in my power to talk you out of a reddish concrete paver. The reason is simple. You will not get a match. Not gonna happen. Instead, you’ll end up looking like you attempted to match, and failed. That’s why on a house with reddish-brown brick, I recommend using a gray paver. After all, gray flagstone looks beautiful with brick, right?

virginia paver patio design
source: Techo-Bloc


I will also dissuade you from selecting a brick-sized paver, like the Techo-Bloc Victorien. One reason is the same as my color reason – you’ll look like you tried to match and failed. But also, brick creates a pretty busy pattern. I prefer to use larger pavers because the size creates a pleasing contrast with the brick. If your home uses a traditional brick, the smallest size I’ll want to use is a 6″x6″ or 6″x9″ paver/paver mix.

source: Techo-Bloc
source: Techo-Bloc

I’m not crazy about the pavers that attempt to look like irregular flagstone as I just don’t think they pull it off successfully. When I talk about style I like the look of a tumbled paver, and possibly even a paver with a wet cast finish that looks like natural stone. Again, it’s all about creating a pleasing contrast with the brick.

The Big Exception to Matching

A lot of people don’t realize that clay pavers are an option as well as concrete pavers. They’re tough, durable, and according to the Brick Industry of America, they have a compressive strength equal to or greater than concrete pavers. So if you use a clay paver, I feel that you can match what’s on your house. Again, you just need to design it in such a way that you don’t have a ferociously busy visual that looks like a giant moire pattern from a distance.

Overwhelmed by the options? Filtering through the myriad options and selecting the best one for your home is what we do. Contact us for a consultation!

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.


Three Tips to Being a Plant Collector and Still Having Great Design

The longer you work with people the more you see that there are different “types” of people, and landscape design clients are no exception. There are two types of clients when it comes to plants: the ones who like plants and are generally happy with anything that looks good, and the ones who loveloveLOVE plants and can’t have enough.

The challenge that my plant-collecting clients face is that it’s hard to have unity and harmony in a design where every single plant is different.I get it, I really do. Plants are awesome, and if you watch the sales you can score specimen plants at amazing discounts (a current client picked up 6′ tall weeping evergreens at about a third of what I would pay buying from the grower – no joke). The problem is that unless you’re very fortunate, you only have one yard.

So how do we balance our love of funky plants with a need to not be the crazy cat person of landscaping on our block? Sometimes I find that relating the outside of the house to the inside makes everything clearer.

Step 1: Pick your beige first.

One rule of design is that if everything is an exciting focal point, nothing is an exciting focal point. This is why ruby-colored pillows look so stunning on a gray sofa, why that turquoise blue vase looks great on a black shelf; heck, it’s why the rest of the jazz combo backs off when it’s time for the trumpet solo. In the landscape, my “beige” is typically evergreen shrubs. The dark green foliage of laurels or hollies will make that golden or variegated plant pop. I’ve photographed literally hundreds of landscapes and what I’ve found is that the background plants all blend together to emphasize the foreground plants.

Otto Luyken Laurels (photo taken at La Grange Winery in Haymarket VA)

Step 2: Paint around your featured plants with a big darn brush.

Once you’ve selected your massing plants that create the backdrop, use them generously. If you go to an art gallery you’ll notice that none of the canvases are touching. Rather, each is surrounded by an expanse of (usually white) wall. The more continuous the background is, the more your exciting plants will leap out.

What I find to be the best way to design a yard for plant and/or outdoor sculpture devotees is to design simple yet interesting massed plantings throughout the landscape. I then designate where the “fun” plants will go. I look at it as having built the gallery, painted the walls, and hung empty frames wherever artwork will show the best. This way the client can shop to his or her heart’s content, knowing the exciting new finds will have a home.

Step 3: Exercise restraint.

This is the hard part for any plant lover. Do as I explained in step 2, and know how many spaces you have for new plants. This way you’ll feel comfortable knowing that your amazing find already has a spot. Otherwise, what happens is the garden looks cluttered or the plants sit in their pots for weeks while you try to figure out the perfect space. If you run out of room before you run out of love for plants it may be time to reevaluate your collection.

Sometimes my job is to help my clients through these steps. If you feel like your landscape would benefit from a designer, I’d love to talk to you!

And just remember – even Mozart had to choose!




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!