What to Look for in a Trellis

custom pressure treated trellises

The #1 most important thing? Scale. I hate to say it, but the majority of off-the-shelf trellises and arbors you can buy are woefully underscaled. Walk into your average big box store- or even many garden centers- and you’ll see sad, rickety little things made from such small pieces of softwood that they’re joined with staples. Staples!

The fact of the matter is that if you own a home in a populated, suburban area of northern Virginia, your home is probably fairly large for the size of your lot. In looking at the property, you’ll see a large (2000 sq ft+) home that may only have 5-10 feet of property to either side of the house. Proportionately, you’re skewed vertically. Tall is important, but you also need heft, beefiness, oomph. In the above photo (a landscape project in Bristow), my homeowners (who are on their way to becoming certified plant geeks, which I love) had the patio installed before I was part of the process. I was left with a narrow bed, right alongside a blank garage wall. Obviously we were going up and staying narrow, but we needed to offset the mass of the garage. What you see is a trellis made of pressure-treated 2×4 lumber, with climbing hydrangea growing on it. The homeowner built the trellis I designed, and he had the great idea to paint it black. The dark color adds to its visual weight and presence.

air conditioner screening trellis

Here’s another example. In this case (a landscape project in Aldie), the air conditioner was flanked on either side with shrubs that will screen it quite well, but our property lines were so tight that we had to take the path right up next to the unit. The trellis we built here is narrow, but made from 4×4 posts and 2×2 cross pieces.

This takes us to the other important consideration when buying or building a trellis: material. The least expensive route is pressure-treated lumber. Actually, the least expensive route is untreated lumber, but that would be a tremendous mistake unless you wanted a disposable piece. Pressure treated lumber’s price is an advantage, but its use carries some risks. It’s much more likely to warp, twist, check, or move in a way you won’t want it to. You can see that in both of the examples above, the trellises are made of straight pieces of lumber butted up against one another. The thinner you make a piece of pressure-treated lumber, the more likely it is to move or crack.

Another issue with pressure-treated lumber is that what you buy at the store today- especially the big box home improvement store- is pretty green and wet. You have to allow it to dry out for several weeks before you can stain or paint it.

An excellent choice for building trellises is western red cedar. It’s a durable wood that tolerates exposure to the elements, and it’s much more stable than typical pressure-treated lumber. It’s also much lighter. I built a gate for my house out of pressure-treated lumber last year, and I’ve regretted it every day. This spring I will likely replace it with one made of cedar. Knowing what I know, why didn’t I do that the first time? Cedar is significantly more expensive than pressure-treated lumber. I made a lot of improvements to my landscape last spring and like everyone else, I had a budget. Don’t worry, the wood will get rolled into another project.

What about composite lumber, like Trex, Evergrain, AZEK, or the like? The problem with these choices is that they aren’t inherently structural. They’re not stiff and they’ll sag if not properly supported. So you can build a trellis with pressure-treated lumber for the framing and clad it with composites if you want to create a low-maintenance feature. Just be prepared for the cost- composite lumber is often 2-3 times the cost of pressure-treated lumber.

Trellises are incredibly versatile components of a landscape. They’re great as stand-alone art pieces, but they can serve a variety of functions: screening utility equipment or unwanted views, framing a desirable view, adding a little privacy, or just providing a place to grow a beautiful climber like honeysuckle or clematis. Take a look at what’s out there, but look at it critically and put in something better.

Winter Storm Damage to Your Landscape

Oak with Snowy Branches

Now that Snowpocalypse 2010 is over (Snowmageddon was a close second for my fav name, with SnOMG a distant third), what has it done to your plants? It was a really wet, heavy snow; my river birch were almost bent completely over into the snow until the sun began to warm them up Sunday. Some plants aren’t so resilient. My neighbor asked me to take a look at her Little Gem Magnolia. The weight of the snow had pulled the very top of the leader down and broken it partway through. Can it be saved? Maybe, maybe not. We discussed options, and hopefully the tree will heal well and bounce back.

The only way to know how your landscape fared is to take a walk around your property, if you can. At the very least, look out as many windows as you can to assess any potential damage. Some things are critical and should be dealt with immediately, such as damage to large trees, overhanging branches, or anything touching your home or utility lines. In cases like this I highly recommend following the same rules I do: if I can safely remove a branch by myself, with both feet planted firmly on terra firma, it’s reasonable to do so. Having somehow survived making unsafe choices throughout my early 20s, I recommend against pruning anything that requires you to work on a ladder.

After a winter like this one, it could be a good idea to create a detailed landscape maintenance plan. Here’s what I do for my clients:

  1. Starting with a scale drawing of the property, locate all major features (hardscapes, utilities, trees, etc.)
  2. Inventory and locate all smaller trees, shrubs, and perennials
  3. Make note of ANY damaged plants or structures
  4. Create an action list of tasks to be performed, with photographic examples if appropriate

At that point, they can go one of three directions with the list. They can tackle it themselves; they can do the work with me there as a garden coach, helping them do it correctly; or they can have my crew perform the work. Whichever path they choose, a little pre-planning makes it easy to get the desired result.

Designing an Outdoor Kitchen

The first outdoor kitchen I ever helped build was in San Diego in 1998. They were just starting to become popular again (remember the ones from the late 70s?), and I thought they were the coolest thing ever. Fast forward to today, and they’re still a wildly popular option. After all, northern Virginia has a great climate for outdoor entertaining, and with a couple of patio heaters you can almost eke out year-round use from your space. There are some big considerations to think about.

BBQ Grill closeup

Base Materials

There are two primary means of building an outdoor kitchen. The most common (and my preferred method) is to pour a footer at frost depth and build up with concrete block. The resulting structure is then capped with a countertop and the sides are typically covered with stucco, tile, or stone. Built properly, a masonry kitchen should last for decades.

  • Advantages- durability, strength
  • Disadvantages- cost, difficulty of construction

The other common method of building outdoor kitchens is to create a frame from steel studs (usually 2x4s), cover the structure with concrete backerboard, and top with the countertop. The sides are also stuccoed, tiled, or veneered with stone, although it’s more common to see man-made stone veneers used. Kitchens built this way don’t require as aggressive a footer, and will often be built on a 4 inch concrete slab. This makes them much simpler to add as a retrofit to an existing landscape.

  • Advantages- lower cost, less difficult to build
  • Disadvantages- not as indestructible as solid masonry, framing openings to support heavy components can be more challenging than building up openings in masonry

Most outdoor kitchens you see in barbecue or pool store showrooms are steel framed; most of the ones you see as part of a larger landscape installation are masonry.


If you ignore the sustainability issues, granite is probably the number one choice. It’s dense, weather-resistant, heat-resistant, and gives a lot of service without demanding a lot of care. Manmade alternatives like Silestone can give you a similar look and functionality. Polished concrete countertops are gorgeous, but require a little more maintenance (sealing) due to their porous nature. I’m least likely to advocate using porous stones like flagstone or sandstone for countertops. While they can represent a large cost savings, they’re very easy to stain. Consider the components of a great evening cooking with friends- burger, brats, and red wine- and think of what those could do to a light-colored, highly absorptive surface.


How much do you want to spend? As with a lot of other appliances, brand names will cost you. Viking and Wolf make beautiful grill units, and you’ll pay a premium for the nameplate. I’ve actually found that the Turbo Grill, from Barbecues Galore, is a great value for the money.

So, what about taking your exisiting grill and modifying it to be a built-in? It’s not really that simple. A drop-in grill (one that was manufactured to be installed into a countertop) has all the proper mounting hardware required to safely install it into a masonry or framed opening. A free-standing grill doesn’t have any of those mounting points, so it’s not like you can just cut the legs off and call it good. If you have a freestanding grill and don’t want to spend the money for a new drop-in unit, you could always design the space in such a way that you’d wheel the grill into an alcove. It won’t look as seamless as a drop-in grill, but you’ll still get the use of the countertops to either side.


Don’t understimate the importance of task and area lighting! While I do it, I’m not a fan of holding a flashlight in my teeth while attempting to view my instant-read meat thermometer. You can buy low-voltage lights that can be wired into your landscape lighting system and mounted to the countertop. Focus Industries makes my favorite fixture for this application.

Accessories/ Appliances

The options are limitless- you can buy side burners, refrigerators, trash compactors, warming drawers, almost anything you can imagine, suitable for outdoor use. Every cook has different needs, so I won’t even begin to discuss options, but I will say one thing: don’t skimp on the outlets. Once the unit is built, the patio is built around it, and the landscape project is done, it gets a lot more difficult (and expensive) to add that outlet for the rotisserie, fridge, or blender.

The most important thing to consider with an outdoor kitchen is how you plan on using it. Many of the same principles used in designing indoor kitchens come into play outside, and if your space doesn’t function well, it’s nothing more than a costly pile of stone. Plan ahead, and you’ll have an outdoor kitchen that brings your family years of enjoyment.

Deer-Resistant Plants for Virginia

The deer are a persistant problem for landscape contractors and designers in Virginia. As development reduces their habitat more and more, we see the effects of population pressures in our neighborhoods. Some days, it feels like my homeowners are locked in battle with the deer, to see who gets claim to the garden. So what can you plant that the deer won’t wipe out?

First of all, there is no such thing as a deer-proof plant. If they get hungry enough, deer will eat nearly anything. However, there are a few plants that, in my experience, are pretty deer-safe.June 23 2009 (30)


  • Aucuba japonica   nope. Learned this one the hard way
  • Nandina domestica
  • Mahonia bealei
  • Pieris japonica
  • Daphne odora
  • Buxus (var.)
  • Cephalotaxus
  • Sarcococca


  • Ferns
  • Liriope
  • Pachysandra
  • Astilbe
  • Tiarella
  • Paeonia
  • Miscanthus spp
  • Pennisetum spp.

Obviously, there are plenty more deer-resistant plants, but this list will get you started. This is where consulting a local pro can save you dollars and heartache, because we see what plants the deer have historically left alone, and what they eat. Someone at the big box store may have no industry background, and at best they’re going off a list, written by an extension agent in another state.

That said, I’m finding this year that all bets are off. I just finished a project in Clifton where the deer have decimated Rhododendrons and Aucuba, two plants that we’ve always considered darn near impervious to deer (yeah, we were wrong). So remember, you’re dealing with wild critters- they won’t get the memo that they’re not supposed to eat your plants. The farther you go from the house, the more you should use plants that deer don’t like or you don’t care about. If your heart is set on tender perennials or herbs and veggies in a deer-heavy area, consider fencing from Benner’s Gardens. It’s a great product, relatively inexpensive, and if you install it in the right place, it’ll be nearly invisible. The deer have adapted to us; if we want to keep our plants, we need to adapt to them.

*Updated January 11 2015

Recent Project- Drystacked Walls & Plantings

Just finished this one, a tearout of most of the exisiting landscape and new drystacked fieldstone retaining walls and  plantings.

Here’s the before:Before

And, the after:DSCF0004

Deer are a huge issue in this neighborhood, so selecting deer-resistant plants was a must. It’s apparent that the deer population is getting out of control, because at this house I saw evidence of two plants, widely regarded as ignored by deer- Rhododendron and Aucuba Japonica- severely munched on. One of the plants I used- that I consider to be an under-used gem of a plant- is the Japanese Plum Yew (in this case, Cephalotaxus harringtonia var. ‘Prostrata’). It’s similar in habit to a Weeping English Yew (Taxus baccata ‘Repandens’), but the needles (fronds? leaves?) are larger and longer. Most importantly, they have a reputation as a plant that deer hate to eat.DSCF0006

You may also wonder, how did that stone retaining wall get installed if the site was so flat? Well, the grade at the sidewalk remained the same, and we built the stone wall at the edge of the bed. Then we just brought in enough topsoil to raise the grade to the wall, and sloped it gently back to the sidewalk. It allowed us to add the wall and gave us a nice raised planting space, that should drain a lot better than the native soil already on site.

Any questions, let me know!