One That Got Away: Challenging Retaining Wall in DC

One of my favorite things to do on this blog is to profile recent projects. It’s a fun opportunity to show what’s possible, and maybe brag a little. Hey, my clients let me create some great landscape designs for them!


As I was thinking about a recent sale I didn’t close I realized I should blog about it as well. After all, what killed the deal were the realities of the site and the budgetary challenges they created. There might be something to learn from this, especially if you’re planning a DC landscape design project of your own.

The site: A rowhouse in DC. It’s in a hilly neighborhood off of Rock Creek Parkway and there is a HUGE amount of elevation change between the street and the front porch.

All the homes in this neighborhood have a 10-12 foot tall stone retaining wall right at the city sidewalk. This client’s wall had deteriorated, so last year he had the wall rebuilt. Such a wall requires a huge cantilevered footing, which meant digging way back into the hill. Because the wall was being built right at the city sidewalk all excavated soil was hauled off site. The new wall was built, including a 4 foot wide set of curved steps, and only some of the removed soil was brought back.

The project for which I was called: Prior to the new wall’s construction, the homeowner had an 8-10 foot wide level piece of lawn in front of his porch. Since the wall builders didn’t bring all that soil back, it now plunged off like a ski slope. The homeowner, therefore, wanted one or two natural stone retaining walls built behind the big wall to level off the yard, new landscaping, and new low voltage landscape lighting.

Wowsers. The client wanted to have a sense of the budget, so my masonry contractor and I sat down, had some coffee, and talked it over.

The challenges:

– Access. Parking in DC is a challenge, and with the sheer wall right at the sidewalk there would be nowhere to stage materials. Everything would have to be hand carried up the steps and staged at the top of the lowest wall. If the steps were a straight shot, we could have laid boards as ramps and wheeled materials up – but that wouldn’t work on the curved steps. Getting concrete up to the wall footers would require a pump truck.

– Work area. The only space to stage materials and mix mortar is a small flat pad at the top of the new retaining wall. That means a lot of shuffling things around every day, reducing efficiency.

– Backfilling our new walls. Again, the material that was here originally never came back. This means that we would need to bring in between 40-60 cubic yards of fill dirt and topsoil. To put that in perspective, a full load in a standard tri-axle dump truck is 12-14 cubic yards.

So how would we get this quantity of soil up to the top of the site? As mentioned above, wheelbarrows were out. Hiring a ridiculous number of laborers and doing a bucket brigade would be just… ridiculous. We settled on having Sislers Stone put the soil in super sacks (sturdy bags that can hold a ton of bulk material), truck them to the site with a flatbed, and lift them into place with a rented crane. Logistics!

– Safety. Any time you have a retaining wall on a slope above another retaining wall, there’s a possibility that it will exert forces on the wall below. I let the client know that as part of the landscape design process I would have a structural engineer look at my drawings, and if he felt it required his involvement that would be an additional cost.

After all this, the landscaping and lighting were a small portion of the project cost, but it all added up. In the final analysis, we figured it would cost a minimum of $30,000 to complete the project. It was more than the homeowner wanted to spend, so we’ll hopefully revisit it later.

The unfortunate thing is that this is a $30,000 landscape installation project that could have been avoided, or at least reduced. The company that rebuilt the wall clearly didn’t work off of detailed plans or specifications. I know this because the client told me they built the steps in the wrong place, and there was clearly no communication up front about the soil hauled off site being brought back. This is yet another case where starting with a landscape designer – someone who could create a detailed set of drawings and a complete scope of work – could have saved thousands of dollars.

I would love to save you thousands of dollars! If you’re looking for a landscape designer for a project in northern Virginia, DC, or Maryland, contact us for a consultation!

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!

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.




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.


Just Because It Doesn’t SAY It’s Landscape Lighting Doesn’t Mean It Can’t Be

Over the holidays I went to the Leesburg Outlets with MJ and her mom. While it was a little nutty and crowded, I discovered that Jos A Banks actually sells clothes that fit tall guys with Magilla Gorilla arms. That was one bit of excitement.

More relevant to this blog, however, was the discovery of the awesome lighting at the Restoration Hardware outlet store. I love lighting; had I continued my schooling in interior design, that’s an area of specialization that really interested me.

chandelier 1

The thing about landscape lighting is that the goal is to see the effect and not the source. We focus on grazing walls, highlighting objects, playing with shadows, and making sure paths are safe and easy to navigate. We aren’t necessarily looking for a fixture that commands attention, one that says hey! Look at this! What I found were ceiling light fixtures that called out for attention. Any big, open space would be perfect for these, whether it’s a barn, a huge screen porch, or even a patio in a grove of trees, where a stout branch provides support, The possibilities are endless.

chandelier 2

What do we think? Is this something you would do? And one more fixture – how great is this for over an outdoor dining table?

chandelier 3

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!




Simple Container Plantings for Winter

This year I really got into containers. Sourcing unique containers is a blast and when I couldn’t find the perfect color… well, spray painting pots always makes me feel like I have my own HGTV gardening show because that seems to be 1/3 of what they do. I’m really happy with how the containers turned out. These were planted by me but the plants and the design were provided by Karen, who runs the best annual and perennial farm in Virginia.

Of course, annuals and perennials offer only fleeting beauty, and frost eventually claims even their most beautiful blooms. Every year I do containers for one of my Fredericksburg landscape design clients, and by this time of year the plantings can end up a little tired and worn. To create an evergreen planting that would last all winter, last year we planted dwarf nandina in each planter. I like the juxtaposition of a wild and woolly, loose textured plant in a rectilinear, metal container:

Even if it works, doing the same thing twice is boring. This year I decided to go with a clipped, rounded boxwood in each container. Business is really good in our industry right now, so the two beautifully shaped boxwood I saw at my wholesaler three weeks ago were gone when I came to get them. This is what I had to work with:

Luckily I had good music and good pruners, so I set to work. They got matching haircuts, and with a little potting soil and a few maroon pansies this is the result:

Over the last 18 months I’ve come to really appreciate the beauty that containers can add to the landscape. Whether you own a business or you want your houseguests to experience beauty every time they come to the front door, contact me. I’d love to provide your containers.

Space Planning to Make a Beautiful Vienna Virginia Backyard Better

I’m often called in to make an existing landscape function better. The client doesn’t to rip it all out and start from scratch, but they need to fix… something. Usually it’s my job to figure out what that something is.

This project is a great example. You can see in the photo above that they have a cool little water feature, built with big chunky boulders. It’s a great feature but you can only see it well as you come in the back gate and sort of ok from the screen porch. From the deck, this is all you see:

Because of the railing and the massive yews, you’d hardly know there was running water there. As a result, I made the decision to eliminate the railing and yank out the yews and extend a level area closer to the pond.

It’s completely changed the dynamic of the space. Now the water feature is part of the deck space and the small seating area is simultaneously its own space and a means of enlarging the deck. This project is an example of how you don’t need to spend a ton of money to create a large change.

5 First Steps Towards Fixing Your Homebuilder Landscape Package

If you bought your home from one of those big corporate homebuilders, you probably had some cool options available to you on the inside. On the outside, you likely got the basic landscape package everyone else did. The good news is that the plants you received probably won’t attack your family like the Whomping Willow at Hogwarts. The bad news is that they might be less than stellar. Since most new homeowners aren’t looking to drop a ton of money, here are five steps to take after moving in: Continue reading “5 First Steps Towards Fixing Your Homebuilder Landscape Package”