Amazing Old Stonework

My mother-in-law was in town this past week. The way I was raised, when you have company from out of town staying with you the right thing to do is run them all over the state (or even other states) until they either go home or fall over. Last weekend we decided to head up to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

If you like natural beauty, it’s a great town and National Park to visit. If you like old buildings and funky shops it rocks too. What really had me giddy like a schoolgirl was all the old stonework. When you build your town where the mountains and the river come together, you build with what you have… and what you have is stone.

Even the steps to the church at the top of the hill are carved from the very rock it sits on, which is really cool. It’s also something I plan to point out to my masons the next time they grumble that my designs are too complex.

There are some huge stone retaining walls holding up vast chunks of this town. Any time I go to an old town I’m humbled by the reminder that even with all of our fancy technological tools and calculations, there’s no substitute for expert craftsmanship.

Stamped Concrete Steps

In the post I just did about stamped concrete, I failed to mention one of my other issues with stamped concrete: the vertical surfaces (steps, turndown edges, etc) often look badly done- like a child’s attempt at making Fred Flintstone’s house out of Play-Doh. This is one more area in which I’ve been impressed recently. Here’s a shot of a set of steps that a stamped concrete contractor in northern Virginia just did for one of my clients:

I grew up in New England, where it’s not unusual for someone to use big slabs of stone for their front steps. This is actually pretty impressive, and I figured it was worth sharing.

Overused Plants?

Thanks to the magic of Twitter (do you follow me?), I stumbled across the Garden Designers’ Roundtable, a really cool blog to which designers from around the country contribute. Their latest group of posts is all about super cool, underutilized plants for the landscape. It got me thinking about OVER-used plants, and how I feel about them.


I plant a LOT of Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm,’ sometimes referred to as Black-Eyed Susan. It has a lot going for it: vigorous self-seeder, inexpensive ($9.99 for a 1 gallon pot at Stadler), hardy, mid to late summer bloom time, and you really have to work to screw it up. I use it on residential jobs, I’ve used it at banks, I’ve used it at the winery. Driving around, it’s pretty clear that a lot of people are using it as well. Does that mean we should avoid it? Hardly. Its positive attributes make it a winner, and Rudbeckia still has a place in the garden. Just use it judiciously, artfully, and make sure that it’s sharing the stage.


MJ hates liriope, which I think is a shame. Ubiquitous? Heck yeah. But man, it is a useful little plant! Now, not every bed needs to be lined with a border of liriope, and you do need to occasionally cut it back and divide it so it doesn’t look like a tribble gone wild. I like to use liriope where I want to create a line to “push” the eye around a curve or down a path. Just like boxwood, liriope connote order and formality- but both can also be used to free a space.Some varieties also make for a great groundcover, but know that it will spread throughout that bed whether you want it to or not.

crape myrtle

Yay, we live in a climate where we can grow crape myrtles! And boy, do we. This is one that I really struggle with, because what about the crape myrtle is awesome? It’s a summer blooming tree, it has a gorgeous multi-stemmed growth habit, has well-behaved dwarf varieties, the bark looks really cool on varieties like ‘Natchez,’ and it’s also pretty tough. The down side is that they are everywhere. Every subdivision, every strip mall, every office park, they all seem to have dozens of crape myrtles. Often I’ll agonize over plant selection because a crape myrtle just seems right for the space, but too expected. So I specify something else, and when I present to the client they say “Your plan is beautiful, but I just have one change- we really really want a crape myrtle!” I don’t have a ready answer for this one, because crape myrtles actually are pretty awesome, even if they’re as unusual as belly buttons.

I’ll admit that I don’t use Knockout roses a lot, but they are everywhere you look. For good reason, too: you get the incredibly long bloom time, the resistance to bugs and disease, and a plant that you could run over with the mower and it’ll bounce back a little angry but otherwise okay. Why yes, I anthropomorphize a bit. Why do you ask? Anyhow, I love Knockout roses for commercial sites because even the goofiest mow and blow outfit would have to work to screw these up. They’re also good for giving a pop of color on that often-neglected, full sun side yard where the house is one big blank expanse of vinyl siding.

Plant trends are cyclical. That’s one of the neat things about my job: I get to travel around to all different homes built and landscaped at different periods. Old farmhouse? Yep, there are the lilacs and spiraea. Brand new subdivision home? Inkberry and azaleas. Subdivision home from the early ’90s? Oh crap, they actually like the Alberta spruces trimmed into spirals? At the end of the day you need to select the plants that are going to work for your site, your budget, and the maintenance you’re willing and able to take on. Sometimes the first answer IS the right one.