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.




Book Review: Rain Gardening in the South


I was fortunate enough to get a review copy of the above book, Rain Gardening in the South: Ecologically Designed Gardens for Drought, Deluge, and Everything in Between. I have to say, I’m a fan!

I read a lot of books. In fact, I read a lot of books about gardening, landscape, and architecture, which is why MJ is always trying to get me to do a hobby that is not related to what I do. Most of the books I read are either very detailed sets of technical instructions, or a very broad overview of a topic, packed with beautiful pictures, flowing prose, and not a whole lot of useful info if you wanted to roll up your sleeves and get dirty. Ms. Kraus and Ms. Spafford actually managed to pull from the best of both extremes, and the result is a book that I finished in a couple of sittings, but one that I’ll also keep on my shelf as a quick reference.

Rain gardening is certainly not a new concept, but it’s becoming more and more commonly used in the landscape world. Not only are people with an interest in “greening” their gardens choosing them, but some municipalities are mandating rain gardens in certain situations. I know that several counties in Virginia have enacted ordinances limiting the amount of impervious surfacing (roofs, driveways, patios) allowed on a parcel, calculated as a percentage of the lot size. If your desired percentage exceeds what it allowed, you may be able to move forward if you also construct a rain garden or infiltration trench (an infiltration trench is essentially a rain garden on steroids, but since it’s designed by engineers, the name isn’t as pretty). I’ve seen rain gardens in Northern Virginia, typically in situations where the homebuilder had to put them in so he could squeeze an extra couple hundred square feet into the home. What they usually do in these situations is the dreaded “minimum code requirement”- excavate a shallow bowl, plunk in a bunch of viburnum and sedges, and throw down wood chips. This is why people think they don’t like rain gardens!

What the authors have done, on the other hand, is collected a variety of photos of different rain gardens. In so doing, they’ve shown that with proper attention to plant design, a rain garden can be effective AND beautiful. It’s also refreshing that they include photos of a rain garden at planting, and then the same garden after the plants have had the chance to fill in. After all, it’s important to design with the mature size of the plant in mind, but this means that you’ll have a season or two until the garden looks “finished.”

Speaking of design, the authors include several sample plans for rain gardens for specific situations: sun, shade, etc. It’s great that they use this as a chance to share what plants are appropriate to each exposure, but they also take the time to explain the design choices that are responsible for the individual plant selections. They explain they value of evergreens, overlapping masses, and planting based on viewing angle- all the little things that can help a home gardener take a planting bed from “nice” to “wow.” They’ve also compiled a large list of plants for rain gardens, broken down by sun exposure. “The South” is a big area, so be sure to check with your local nursery about the appropriateness of a plant in your area, but it’s a great start.

All in all, Rain Gardening in the South is a great addition to the home library. It’s informative, but it also presents rain gardens in a way that gets you excited to build one. That’s a victory for any author.

You can buy it via Amazon, or your check with local bookseller.

Designing a Compost Bin

three bin compost sketchAs soon as we moved in, I started a compost pile. I’ve done a fair bit of reading on the subject, but it all comes back to a simple principle- throw it on the pile, cover with dirt, and it’ll rot. Nature’s easy that way. It’s worked pretty well up till now, but my sprawling compost heap’s shortcomings are becoming more pronounced. It’s not compact and organized enough to get truly thermophilic and kill weed seeds, and it’s kind of ugly. Even if I was managing to keep the weeds off it (I’m not) and faithfully cover everything daily (nope), it’d still be a mound of happy soil sprawling between a couple rows of concrete masonry units. We need to impose some order on decay!

I’ve read and reread the book “Let It Rot,” and took the author’s recommendation for a three-bin system. I bought everything on the materials list, brought it home, and… promptly began a different project. That was in December. Since then I’ve snagged the lumber and hardware for other, more pressing projects around the yard. Now that I’ve been told to finish the bins before starting another project, I decided to take the principles I’ve seen other people use and build a better compost bin.

The biggest design flaw I saw with most three-bin systems is stability. They’re built from standard dimensional lumber, basically 2×4 frames nailed or bolted together. I don’t see it. I mean, three 3’x3’x3′ bins full of compost in various stages of cooking? That’s a fair bit of weight, and I would think that as you’re turning or removing compost you’ll be putting some stress and strain on the joints. Plus, they all use 1×6’s in a “track” to hold the compost in on the front side; I would imagine that if such a flimsy bin setup were to get racked and go out of square, adding and removing slats would be a nightmare. No thanks.

So here’s my proposed bin system: 4×4 (or 6×6, still unsure) posts, 2×6 lumber for outside framing. The sides and back will be that stout metal poultry netting/hardware cloth, since I already own a roll. The winters have been mild enough that my compost still cooks, so I figure that if I needed some insurance I could always stack straw bales against the bin for insulation, then compost the straw in the spring.

This weekend should be a continued reprieve from our earlier hot temperatures. I’ll post photos when it’s done.

UPDATE:  The bins are done! If you found your way here via a search engine, click here to see the finished setup. All in all, I’m totally pleased with how it turned out, and it’s made life SO much easier. We collect all the kitchen from our household and that of another couple, so we’d have a sloppy mess without the bins.