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.


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!


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: (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!

Landscape Design for Small Yards

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes


I like my big projects, but there’s also something really rewarding about taking a “normal” sized yard and making it something special. I just stopped in at a year-old landscape install in Fredericksburg, and I think it’s a good example of what can be done on a fairly modest budget. Here’s the before picture:

A rather unimaginative landscape company reworked some of the builder-supplied plants, and at least made an effort to do a little more than the standard little bed tucked up against the foundation. Still, it wasn’t quite a win.

Front Landscape Plan

Here’s the landscape plan:

FW Completed June 3 2009 (2)

A few changes were made here and there during the installation. That’s really just par for the course. I try to think of everything during the design process, but sometimes I’ll see an opportunity to make things just a bit nicer. Here’s the finished product:I like how it turned out. We were able to keep costs down by reusing almost all of the existing plants. Everything was transplanted in July and is doing great, which really illustrates how important good transplanting practices can be- last July was HOT. And from a design standpoint, the house no longer feels like it’ s hiding behind a little plant bed. The liriope curves around to the sidewalk, connecting the house to the street; and by sweeping a large curve to the right of the front door, we balanced out the visual weight of the garage door. Once that crape myrtle grows up and really becomes a tree, the transformation will be complete.

Who’s next?

Getting the Most Value for your Landscape Dollar

seeds started in homemade newspaper pots
seeds started in homemade newspaper pots

If you’re like everyone else, you want to improve your home and garden, but you also want to get the most value for your dollar. That’s something I help my clients with, so I put together some recommendations:

  1. Work from a master plan– This may sound like self-serving advice, but it’s absolutely true. A master plan is a road map to where you want to be. It also allows you to break up your landscaping into smaller, more manageable phases, while still working towards a unified vision. If you have to move plants or, worst case scenario, part of a patio, because where they were initially placed no longer works- that’s an unnecessary cost that could be avoided with a master plan. A master plan also helps you determine what is truly important to you in the landscape, and allocate resources accordingly. It really is a budget tool as much as it’s a planning tool.
  2. Take care of what you have– One of the best things about plants is that they increase the value of your property as they mature, provided that they’re healthy, attractively cared for, and were placed appropriately to begin with (see #1). Basic horticultural maintenance is an inexpensive way to get a continued return on your landscape dollar. You can hire a pro to care for your plants, or…
  3. Do some of the dirty work yourself– I would love to tell you that gardening is big, scary, spooky science and magic, and you’re better off hiring me and taking the kids to the zoo. But, come on- would you really believe me? Gardening is a blend of eighth grade science and basic technique, and just like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get. Of course, if you’re still a little uncertain and you’d like to “garden with training wheels”…
  4. Hire a garden coach– Garden coaches are people who love to work with plants AND people. If you do a search, you’ll likely find a coach in your area (northern VA, Culpeper, or Fredericksburg people- you found one!) who will come out to your home for an hourly fee and show you how to care for your plants: dividing, transplanting, even bed prep and other tasks. If, like me, you enjoy adding to your tool collection, I’ll also show you some of the specialized tools I use and where to buy them.
  5. Start small– I installed a 4 inch caliper, 16 foot tall maple tree in my backyard last year. I could do this because I got it free. The truth of the matter is that smaller plants will often recover from transplant shock more quickly than big ones, and will therefore grow faster. A big tree is great, don’t get me wrong; it makes you feel like “yes! My yard is that much closer to what I want!” But if budget is a factor, a smaller plant is better than no plant, in my mind. As an example, I’m looking at the retail availability for a local nursery. A 5-6 foot Norway Spruce is $225; an 8-10 foot, $450. If you want a spruce but the big one is out of reach, get the smaller one. It’ll grow.
  6. Start from seed– This is really not as daunting as it may sound. Following package directions, plant your seeds, keep them moist, and then wait for germination. The dollar savings is incredible. Around here, I think I’ve paid anywhere between $1.50-$4.00 for a starter plant for tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. The photo above shows our starts for probably 6 or 8 packets of seeds, for which we paid around $2-$3 each (from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange– it’s not too late!). We’re doing six varieties of heirloom tomatoes, so if you then also take into account not having to pay $5 a pound at the Farmers Market, we’re coming out ahead.
  7. Buy local plants– The road too heartbreak is paved with out of state plants that just won’t do well. I’m not saying to throw away your mail order plant catalogues, but they take a little more careful research. On the other hand, when I buy perennials from people who grow plants here in my county- people like Karen and George from Morningside Farm & Nursery– I can feel confident that these are plants that will do well in my area. Farmers Markets are another place to buy local plants, so keep an eye out there as well. Plus, you’re supporting the local economy- everyone wins!
  8. Use the internet– There is a wealth of gardening information online. Some of it’s good; some of it is dangerously bad. As with anything else, search wisely, consider the source, and try to find multiple sources that agree on a given point. Websites ending in .edu are typically the most easily trusted, as are the ones affiliated with botanical gardens. From there, it kind of heads into the Wild West, so just be sure to factcheck and trust your gut.

Finally, remember that gardening/landscaping is a journey, not a destination. Learn what works for you, but don’t be afraid to try something new. Make connections with other gardeners. Plant swaps- formal or spontaneous- are a great way to get new plants that clearly work in your neighborhood, and you can learn a little something about your neighbors as well.

All-Too-Common Gardening Mistakes

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Landscaping, gardening, whatever you want to call it- it’s pretty forgiving. I’m of the school of thought that you can’t actually have flowers that clash with one another, and if you don’t have a perfect blend of textural variations in a mass planting, it probably still looks ok. But the one that will get you is “Right plant, wrong place.”dscf0017

Here’s a picture I took today. Those are crape myrtles right against the foundation- including one growing INTO the electric meter! Honestly, if that one was planted from a 15 gallon pot, the root ball must have been almost touching the foundation then. These trees are goners. The homeowner had no choice but to remove the trunks that were rubbing against the house. At this point, they no longer have that gorgeous crape myrtle form, and they’ll always be in the way. This is a new client, but if I have my way- they’re gone. I doubt I’ll get any argument.


That’s right, these were Leyland Cypresses, used as foundation plants. They continue on the other side of the steps, where the plant bed is less than four feet wide. Last year, I had Leyland Cypresses taken down in Reston, each over fifteen feet wide and fifty feet tall. I despise these garbage trees to begin with, so I felt no pain having these ripped out!

dscf0016If you squint, perhaps you’ll see that there’s a basement window back there. I would think that part of the appeal of a raised ranch is that you get tons of light on all levels of the home. Unfortunately, plant choice has eliminated that possibility here.

so1blueridgeThere’s a nice-sized older home back there… somewhere. I’ll bet that the Nellie R. Stevens Holly dwarfing the front entry was cute and innocent looking when it was planted.

So what’s my point? The biggest, and yet most easily preventable gardening mistake we can make, is to make no attempt to understand the mature size of the plants we select. The tag that you find on a plant at the nursery is a good starting point… sometimes. It’s important to remember, however, that many of the tags are put on by the grower, not the retailer. So, talk to the folks at the nursery and see if their experience matches what the tag says. Also, if you’re reading this, you have internet access- and volumes of botanical info at your fingertips. Simply typing the name of the plant into google gives you hundreds of sites. I usually start with the .edu sites nearest to me first, and work from there. 

Books are always awesome. If you ever want to show your appreciation for my slaving over this blog, I’m fine with paperbacks. Just sayin’. Seriously though, Michael Dirr is THE guru of shrubs. Any book by him will become an invaluable part of your library. And lastly, may I recommend talking to your local designer and/or garden coach? After all, we’re in the business of taking the stress and the guesswork out of your landscape endeavours!

Proper Paver Patio Construction


Concrete pavers have come a long way in the last decade. Back then, they were essentially a compromise product: if the client wanted a patio and didn’t want a concrete slab, but couldn’t afford stone, pavers were almost as good. Now, however, the manufacturers have really stepped up their game. Aesthetics and quality have actually pushed pavers into the role of design choice, as opposed to budget alternative. For me, the top paver brands available in Northern Virginia are Techo-Bloc, EP Henry, CST, and Belgard. I’ve also heard some good things about Rinox, although I have yet to use them myself.

One of the biggest selling points for pavers has always been ease of installation. Once your base and bedding layers are set, pavers do go down very easily. However, base prep is critical to the success of your project. Any mistakes with your base will be visible in the finished patio in the form of high spots, low spots, or an entire patio that looks like an ocean wave. The very first paver walk I installed over a decade ago had that problem, because I rushed my base prep. I have to say, I didn’t enjoy laying those pavers twice.

The standard for paver installation is set by the Interlocking Concrete Paver Institute. If you’re planning on building the patio yourself, they have excellent step by step instructions here. Most paver manufacturers also provide product and technical guides to assist you with installation; ask your supplier for one. In my experience, these are some of the most important considerations:

  • Maintain a grade away from your house. Pavers with polymeric sand joints act just like a solid concrete patio. If they slope towards the house, all that water will go right towards the foundation.
  • You really can’t go too thick on your base material. Use common sense- obviously, base material’s not free- but four inches is the minimum.
  • Spend the money to rent a plate compactor. I used to work with an absolute moose of  a man, who was convinced he could get adequate compaction from a hand tamper. We put it to the test; he was wrong.
  • Read the manufacturer’s instructions on everything you use. Efflorescence is a normal occurrence with a concrete product, and they make cleaners especially for pavers. Mix the cleaner as directed, or you may damage your pavers.
  • Take your time. A project like this will always take longer than you plan. Don’t decide to lay a patio the day before your Fourth of July barbecue.

Proper design can make a huge difference in your finished product. Cuts are one of the more difficult tasks to do properly, so I’ve designed patios with almost no cuts. My personal best is a 400 square foot patio with only 43 cuts.  Obviously, if you want to save some money and get the satisfaction of doing your patio yourself, I can design it for you to help you get the most function from your space. I can also help walk you through layout and construction if you feel you’ll need just that little bit of a push. Or, if you decide that it’s above your skill level, I can certainly recommend a good contractor. No matter how you decide to proceed, a new paver patio can be a great addition to your outdoor living space this spring.

Retaining Walls- Always Needed?

I’ve been conversing with a new landscape designer in Ohio, and sharing with him some of my thoughts and work processes. He asked me how to determine when a retaining wall is necessary and when it’s not, and I kind of ran with it. I ask myself that same question every time I design a project with grade changes on the site, and it’s a decision that’s impacted by not just structural requirements, but also my client’s budget and my own, personal design philosophy. Here’s what I wrote:

Easy question first: retaining walls. Now, here’s a caveat- while my design aesthetic is either very formal, classical garden-style or very loose, natural, blurring-the-edge-of-the-woods (it all depends on the site and architectural context), my heart is with the mid-century modernists. Form follows function, and the goal is restraint. Why make the client pay to build more than they need?
As that relates to retaining walls yes vs. no- in my opinion, a retaining wall is a last resort. If the only way to make the space function as required is to build a wall, build a wall. Otherwise, figure out a different solution. Obviously you need to consider your local factors- soil type, how much load is uphill, how much water is coming from uphill (and at what kind of velocity), and where the water is going from where you are. But typically, if I have a grade change of 12 inches or less- I prefer to cut and roll it. If you do that, you can even plant grass on the slope and still maintain it, if you grade properly. 24 inches or less? If I can, I’d rather roll it. Something to keep in mind is that the top of your wall doesn’t HAVE to be even with the top of your wall. If you need to retain just a little bit of soil, you can use a curbing product like granite cobbles or whatever Techo-Bloc’s curbstone is. You can also do a short (8-12 inch) drystack fieldstone wall, and allow the slope to pitch into the wall or curb. A wall can also be used for aesthetics (to visually expand a space, or define a courtyard) or multiple function (like a seat wall). So I’m not saying walls are bad. Just make sure you have a reason for wall, not just “there’s a grade change, so I must need a wall.” I’ve had jobs where I could’ve gotten away without a wall, but a little one did make it look a little tidier, and probably prevented mulch landslides until the groundcover got established. So… use them, but have a reason.
You’ll get a feel for where you need a wall and where you don’t the more projects you get under your belt. I really have to bite my tongue looking at some of these online landscape forums, because these guys are clearly all about strutting around and seeing who has the bigger wall. Think of it this way: 18-22 inches to top of wall, you have a seat wall. Those are functional and don’t really detract from the space. 24-36 inches, you’re still not impacting your aesthetics too terribly much. 36-60 inches, you’re going to start feeling boxed in. Anything over five feet and a) you need an engineer, and b) you just made your space feel smaller. And, you’ve dramatically upped the cost.
Example: I just presented a design for a client. They have a modest house on a pretty standard-sized lot. Off the back of the house, you go about fifteen feet and the ground shoots up at at least a 40% grade. However, it’s a 20 year old home, and the slope is heavily wooded. With all the brush, it’s a stable slope. They’re also not having water penetration issues in the rear of the home,  so, my design didn’t include a wall. I kept the design very simple and functional. They have a lot of shade and they’re not super into gardening, so I did what made sense for them. They could renovate the entire landscape- including a new front walk and a small BBQ grill patio in the back, both made from natural stone- for around $20K. Or, for that $20K, we could do a 42″ wall made of 6×6 p/t timbers that wouldn’t buy them any more usable space. Needless to say, the client’s thrilled.
Just a little food for thought. Have a great weekend!