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.




Plant Profile: Otto Luyken Laurel

Everyone and their brother does a favorite plant, plant of the week, etc. I decided to change it up a little and present the plants a little differently. I used to love the detailed background info that came with my action figures when I was a kid, so I took the idea of a personnel dossier and applied it to my plant profiles. Here’s the first one:

otto luyken action figure profile

I’m a fan of Otto Luyken laurels as a good, solid structural plant in the landscape. They’re quiet and unassuming, but with their broad, glossy evergreen leaves they provide a rock-solid base for your landscape year round. They are the bass player of the rock band.

Root-bound Plants

ruutballinBehold, a happy little one-gallon Stella D’oro daylily (please ignore the mess behind it- it’s a work truck). I picked up this one and 29 of its friends, for a great price from a wholesale grower. It’s a really full pot, and it’ll make an instant impact on the landscape. But when I popped it out of the pot, I saw this:


(insert horrified scream here)

This is a great example of what people refer to when they talk about root-bound or pot-bound plants. It’s a vigorous little guy to begin with, and he’s probably spent his entire life in that pot, getting plenty of water and liquid nutrition. Plants grow roots, but they can’t grow through plastic nursery containers- the roots have to go somewhere. So, just like marathon runners on a Carnival cruise, they go in circles. This is a bad, bad thing; if I were to plant this daylily as-is, it would do fine for the first year. Eventually, however, it’s roots would continue to wrap around itself, never reaching out into the soil and eventually strangling itself. This is an even bigger problem with trees and shrubs.

How much can the roots grow like this? I’ve teased out the bottom-most roots so you can see:ruutballin-3

That’s pretty impressive! Those are roots that could be working their way through the soil, seeking out water and nutrients. But let me back up for a second.

I have read, in many places, that you should always inspect the roots of a plant at the nursery or garden center before you buy it. If they look like this, we’re told, put it back! Well… yes and no. If I was contemplating the purchase of an expensive ornamental evergreen, for example, I would want to start with every factor in my favor. Perennials, or inexpensive shrubs? We can fix that. You’ve probably heard to “tease” the rootbal a bit before planting, to encourage the fibrous roots to push out into the surrounding soil. With some corrective root pruning, you can also encourage a pot-bound plant to do the same.  In short, you want to cut the roots short enough that you can manipulate them to grow laterally from the root mass. I find that I have to do this, to some extent, to almost every container-grown shrub I buy. I hate sharpening my expensive Felco pruners, so I keep an inexpensive folding knife ($9.97 at Lowe’s) on my belt for this purpose. That’s been a great investment; I’ve used that same knife for the last year to root prune, as well as cut rope, burlap, and plastic nursery containers. It’s still sharp, and it’s cheap enough that I never worry when I misplace it- although I’m such a cheapskate, I will spend twenty minutes hunting it down.

I’ve often found that root-bound plants are also incredibly dried out. If I go ahead and plant them the way they are, they’ll never really absorb water the way I need them to. For this reason, I always keep a few five gallon pails in the truck. Fill the pail with water and drop the plant in for five minutes or so. When you pull it out, that root mass will be completely waterlogged, giving your plants a good jump on their water needs.

There’s a danger here, though. After an hour of pruning off these long, fibrous roots, I had the worst craving for angel hair pasta tossed with garlic and olive oil.

When to Plant Perennials in Northern Virginia

april7_2007-003This weekend was the sort that gets me really excited for the growing season. It was warm and sunny, although I could have done without the gusty winds Saturday. Times like that, I could get lulled into a false sense of security and decide to hurry the season a bit and start planting perennials. That’s why I’m glad I have photos like the one above, snapped on April 7, 2007, to remind me that Nature will do what Nature’s going to do.

I’ve only lived in Virginia since 2005, so I don’t have the same wealth of experiential knowledge that my neighbors do. What has kept my plants healthy, however, is a respect for late frosts (I grew up in New England, after all), the knowledge of the pros who I count as part of my team, and cool little tables (love tables!) like this one. Or, the Virginia Cooperative Extension- probably the absolute BEST resource around- has a handy little map here.

Honestly, this is the time of year that you have to exercise amazing levels of self-restraint. Trees and shrubs are no problem at this time of year, and I’ve been planting those left and right. Perennials, though, can get zapped pretty hard, and that’ll impact how they look and grow all season long. Where I used to work in Northern Virginia, we served primarily Prince William and Fairfax Counties. We used May 1st as our cutoff date and that worked really well. If you observe conditions on your property closely over time and have a good understanding of microclimates, you may be able to cheat a bit- but think of it as an adventure club experiment, with the associated potential consequences. Microclimate gardening takes advantage of the variations that can occur on a single lot, as a result of specific site conditions: cool temperatures may be moderated by a masonry wall or pond, both of which absorb heat, as an example. If you really enjoy spending time in your garden, this is where keeping a gardening journal can help you in the long run. If you make a note of where the frost seems heavier, lighter, or non-existent, you can establish a pattern and find the places where you can squeeze out a longer planting season, or even plant something that our climate zone says we “can’t.”

The bottom line is, be patient. That’s what I keep reminding myself.