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.




Travertine Paver Patio Installers in Virginia – What to Know

When I was designing landscapes in Arizona, one option we had available to us was travertine marble tile. These were actual tiles – typically 12″x12″ and less than a half inch think – so they had to be laid in a mortar bed on a concrete slab. Shortly after landing in Virginia in 2005, I started seeing travertine pavers make an appearance.

These are really cool because they’re an inch thick and are laid just like a concrete paver. You build up with a base layer of compacted gravel (21A or crusher run), then use a one inch layer of sand as your bedding layer. Once the pavers are in place they’re compacted and polymeric sand is swept into the joints. That’s it. It’s a beautiful finished product that has the ability to flex and move like a traditional concrete paver patio in Virginia. From the test data I’ve seen online, travertine pavers have a compressive strength similar to concrete pavers and can even be used for driveways!

The biggest challenge I’ve found with designing travertine paver patios in Virginia is making the materials make sense. Travertine in California or Arizona doesn’t look out of place. It can look a little foreign here, though. I recently designed a fireplace, seat wall, and travertine paver patio as part of a winery landscape design project. I used a plum-colored flagstone to tie in with the warm tones of the travertine and the rich reddish colors in the fireplace stone, and I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. All those color theory classes have finally paid off.

I’m starting my next travertine paver patio project this week, and I may have one more in the pipeline as part of a swimming pool project. The travertine pavers are a great product that (unlike concrete pavers and flagstone) aren’t in every other backyard. Making it work requires someone who can integrate this new material in the landscape design while blending all the colors harmoniously. In other words, you need a landscape designer. Contact me to set up a consultation if you’re looking to build a travertine paver patio in Virginia, Maryland, or DC and I’ll be happy to talk with you about it!

10 Tips for Landscaping with Kids

With the end of another winter upon us, I’m reminded of my mom’s summertime refrain: “David, go outside and play!” Here’s a list of ten things to think about when creating a play space for your kids (or grandkids, or nieces and nephews, or whomever):

1-    Love The Lawn.

With a little imagination a lawn is a soccer pitch, waterfight battlefield, or a perfect spot from which to lay back and analyze puffy clouds. Do not underestimate the lawn!

2-    Sometimes, the simplest play spaces are the most fun.

A sandbox is easy to put together and provides an inexpensive space that can be repurposed when the kids are older. Just make sure you incorporate a lid; neighborhood cats don’t differentiate between Tidy Cat and play sand.

3-    If you’re adding a playset or other equipment, keep it safe!

Most manufacturers recommend a minimum six foot buffer zone around equipment, and you want a soft surface to cushion falls. Grass doesn’t hold up too well under swings and it can be a hassle trimming around slides and posts. Recycled rubber mulches and specially-engineered wood mulches are popular with community playgrounds but can also be purchased in reasonable quantities for home playsets.

4-    Outdoor toys need a home.

Even something as simple as a bench with storage inside can keep toys out of the rain, and off the grass when it’s time to mow. If you have the space and the budget for a larger solution, why not combine a playhouse with some storage?

Now that's a path!
Now that’s a path!

5-    Plan for paths!

Remember that the shortest distance between two points is often over or through Grandma’s heirloom roses, unless there are several clearly identifiable ways around them.  It may be urban legend, but I was once told that when a new building is built at a college, the designers wait to see where the students create paths before they install the sidewalks. If you’re starting from scratch, why not see where the kids go?

6-    Learn what plants are especially poisonous, and make sure that they’re not planted where they’ll be a temptation.

You can find a number of great lists online (websites that end in .edu are often the best), or contact your local County Extension Office.

7-    A garden full of edible plants can help kids learn where food comes from and why plants are so important.

Even something as simple as a “Pizza Garden”- tomatoes, basil, oregano, peppers, and onions- can encourage healthy eating and a little help pulling weeds.

8-    Edibles are great, but don’t forget to plant for the other four senses!

Those, of course, are smell (lavender, roses, mint, lilac); sight (sunflowers, hosta, Echinacea, hydrangea); touch (globe amaranth, lambs’ ears, silver artemesia, sedum, river birch); and even sound (ornamental grasses, Chinese Lantern Plant)


9-    The magic of gardens is that they’re not just about the people.

Encourage pollinators, birds, frogs, and other critters to give kids a chance to see Nature in action. The National Wildlife Federation even has a program through which your backyard can be recognized as a Certified Wildlife Habitat. You can learn more at www.nwf.org/backyard/

10-    Think about the future when planning your child’s play space.

After all, he or she won’t be this age forever. When I was little, I clamored for a treehouse. My dad and I built one, but it was not your “normal” backyard tree fort. The treehouse was beautifully framed, and built to adult proportions so that when we were grown, the structure could be lowered with house jacks and converted to a garden shed. A wise man, my father.
I should include a rule # 11- just be open to using your imagination and having fun. Listening to my neighbor’s kids screaming, laughing, and running around, I think they’re doing just fine without my Top Ten list. Get outside, spring doesn’t last forever!

Elements of Design: Line

We all know what a line is: a connection of two or more points. In design, line happens when two planes meet, or when we see an object in silhouette. Line helps us play with scale and proportion by emphasizing height, width, or movement. There are several types of lines, each with a particular effect that it creates.

Straight Lines

Horizontal lines: Horizontal lines are secure, restful, and stable. They can emphasize the horizontal nature of a space, and they can lead the eye to a focal point. In the photo below, you can see how the horizontal lines of the house give it a sense of grounding, without a lot of excitement.

Vertical lines: Vertical lines can be inspiring, drawing the eye towards the heavens – which is why they’ve been used in church architecture for centuries. Too many vertical lines and it can feel like a prison, but the right number… good stuff. I love ecclesiastical (church) architecture, and occasionally I’ll stop the truck for pics of a really cool church. The picture below is of a church somewhere off of I-81 that I fell in love with from the road. Look at the vertical lines of the front of that church! And they continue into the three crosses. Too cool.

Angular Lines

Diagonal lines: Diagonal lines show movement and action, yet they’re still considered stable. Diagonals can be a great way to add emphasis to design. In the photo above, you can see that the roof of the church leads the eye to the dramatic vertical structure of the front wall. If you haven’t yet figured it out, I really like this building.

Zigzag Lines: Zigzag lines show a lot of exciting action and movement. They also introduce rhythm. In the photo below, you can see where this set of steps is still very comfortable and easily navigable, but is much more interesting and dynamic than a simple, straight set of steps would be. Too much movement, or too many repeated zigzags, can be overwhelming.

Curved Lines

Curved or Circular Lines: Circular lines help balance the straight, angular lines of a house or structure. They can also provide emphasis while giving a more human character to the space. In the photo below, the circular medallion defines a dining area while also providing a pleasing counterpoint to all the angular lines of the flagstone patio.

Flowing Lines: Everyone likes flowing lines in their landscape design. They provide a gentle sense of movement and grace in the space. Done correctly, you can’t help but want to walk down a gently curving path!

So, that’s line. Such a cool element of landscape design!

Next up: Texture!

Elements of Design: Shape or Form

We often think of shapes as two-dimensional: squares, rectangles, circles, and triangles. This isn’t how we perceive them in the landscape, however. We see them in three dimensions, like cubes, spheres, and cones. Shape (or form) in the landscape can even dictate how a space feels.

This is a backyard I did for a client in Phoenix, Arizona (sorry, pygmy date palms aren’t going to work in your McLean landscape design). As you can see the shapes are all sinuous curves with nary a straight line in sight. This gives the yard a much more casual, relaxed feel.

Here, you see a lot more angularity of design. This house is a very dominating, simple, rectangular shape, so it made sense to carry those lines all the way to the street. In so doing, you can see we also used the principle of unity (part of harmony). It all ties together!

Part of the reason that I think it’s important to discuss shape in the landscape is that I see a lot of folks forgetting that the shape of their home is a dominant part of the design. Everyone wants flowing curves on everything. Well, I wish I could wear a paisley suit jacket, but I’ll never be able to rock that look. Such is life.

Unless your home was designed by Frank Gehry (or you live in an igloo), your home is a box. Or it’s a grouping of a few boxes. Regardless, the dominant form is rectilinear. That doesn’t mean that you’re limited to a simple rectangular patio, for example.

In the photo above, the house is a massive, two and a half story brick edifice. The client initially wanted big sweeping curves on the patio. I tried, but nothing worked. It was as wrong as sticking a trucker cap on the Queen of England’s head. So, we did a stepped edge on the patio to break up the profile and allowed all the plant beds to swoop and curve and blend the landscape design into the woods. The design finally worked, and what’s even better – the client loves it.

Shape’s fun to play with. It’s one of my favorite parts of landscape design.

Next up: Mass!

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.