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.

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!

Understanding Flagstone: Sawcut, Thermaled, and Chiseled Edges

You’ve decided to use flagstone in the landscape. Good call! You may not be done making decisions, however. If the stone will be used in an application where you see the edge of the piece (step treads, wall caps, etc) you’ll have to think about the finished look.


The first thing to consider is the thickness of the stone. The typical stone we use for a wet-lay patio can vary in thickness, from a hair under an inch to over two inches. When building steps or a cap, you want to see a consistent thickness of stone all the way across.

Something else to consider is that often a thicker stone will look better. That 1″ thick flagstone can look wimpy. A 2″ piece has a lot more heft to it. In some cases you may want to go even thicker, but just be aware that now you’re looking at significant additional costs.

The Edge – Sawcut Flagstone

The most common edge “treatment” isn’t really even a treatment. The rectangular slabs of flagstone are cut with a giant saw, and you can often see the marks from the blade on the stone. It’s fine, but it’s certainly not an aesthetically exciting finish.

The Edge – Thermaled Flagstone

One of the most common edge treatments (and one that I think looks great) is thermal-treated. This is accomplished by taking a piece of sawcut flagstone, wetting down the edge, and heating it with a torch. Done correctly the water turns to steam and pops off small pieces of the stone, resulting in a smoothly textured and very consistent surface. Done incorrectly, the piece overheats and splits. This is why most stone yards offer to provide thermaled stone.

The Edge – Chiseled Flagstone

Another way of treating the edges of flagstone is to give them a chiseled appearance. It’s another technique that’s simple to describe and more difficult to do: the mason uses a chisel to remove small, evenly sized pieces of material from the edge of the stone until it has a very cool, consistent rock-faced look across the edge. Some companies do this on site, but most get the stone from the stoneyard like this.

When designing with stone there are so many variables to consider. While it seems inconsequential at first, the right edge treatment can make the difference between a good result and a great result. If you’re looking for help achieving that great result, contact me for a design consultation!


Virginia Deck Design Explained, Part 1: Footers and Ledger Attachment

My name is Dave Marciniak, landscape designer and owner of Revolutionary Gardens, and I use jargon.

I’m deeply sorry.

However, the fact is that when it comes to building everything has a name. It’s easier to use the technical term than a long-winded explanation. A great example is the French phrase “l’esprit de l’escalier.” It’s literally translated as spirit of the stairs, but the meaning is “thinking of the right comeback in an argument after it’s too late (and you’re walking down the stairs).” So in the interest of making myself easier to understand, I’m going to do a multi-part guide to understanding the key parts of deck construction, starting with the first step of construction: the footers and ledger. If these parts of the deck aren’t right, your deck could fail pretty spectacularly.


Before we get started, a disclaimer is in order. This is not intended to be a how-to guide for designing or building a deck, just an explanation of terms. I recommend working with professionals to design and install your deck, and at a minimum you should ALWAYS pull permits and have your plans and construction reviewed by the municipality in which you live. Got it? Good.


Unless you’re cantilevering your deck (which is another post), you need posts. Those posts need to be anchored firmly in the ground, and your county probably sets out the minimum requirements in a Typical Deck Details packet. The current standard is to use a 6″x 6″  pressure-treated post. The size of your footers is dictated by the framing they’re supporting, but minimum requirement is 16″x16″ square, up to 24″x24″ square. As for the depth, you need to dig down to the locally accepted frost depth. In most of Northern Virginia, that is 24″ down. If you live farther north, you may be digging down three or four feet. All of your footers need to be anchored in concrete.


In most counties you’ll need to have the ledger board in place when you call for a footer inspection. The ledger board is the framing lumber (usually a 2X? piece of lumber) that is attached to the structure of the house when building an attached deck. I prefer building a deck this way, because it means I don’t have posts right up next to the house.

The ledger attachment is critical to the success of your deck project. After all, if you do it wrong your deck can fall off. Therefore, there are detailed specifications on how to install the ledger. If you’re attached to the home’s band board (it’s the board along the perimeter of the home that’s in line with that level’s floor joists) you’ll need to remove the siding, install flashing, and attach directly to the board. Sandwiching the siding between the house and the ledger is bad.If your home has a brick veneer over the wood, the county may require you to remove that brick. I don’t recall ever being allowed to simply drill through the brick if it’s not structural.

If you’re attaching to masonry (poured concrete walls or block walls), you’ll use either expansion anchors or epoxy anchors to hold the ledger board in place. The great thing about working with approved details is that they even tell you exactly how many anchors to use and how to space them out. You don’t need to be a master baker to make brownies, you just have to follow the directions on the box. Just be sure you get good directions. Hiring a landscape designer who designs decks for homeowners in Virginia, Maryland, and DC could be a good place to start. Click my contact page and we’ll talk.

Alternately if you’re just looking for an off-the-shelf solution, to check out my friend Joe’s deck plan packages Click Here!

Next week we’ll talk framing: beams, joists, and how they connect to the ledger and the posts. The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone, and all that good stuff!

7 Tips For Getting Through The Landscape Construction Process

A few weeks ago I was talking shop with my good friend, architect Francisca Alonso of AV Architects. No matter what projects we’re discussing, the conversation always comes back to the people for whom we’re doing the work. Anyone in my role who doesn’t realize that we’re in the people business is doing his or her clients a disservice.

It’s easy for me to remain calm throughout a project because I know what the outcome will be, I know what the next steps are, and let’s be honest – I live with construction-based chaos every week. My landscape design clients? Not so much. They may get it – intellectually – that things will have to look worse before they look better, but seeing a swath of destruction where just last week the kids were playing soccer can be a little jarring. Having helped lots of folks through the process, I came up with a few ways to make getting from demolition to amazing finished product a little less painful.

1- Have a plan

Yes, a designer is telling you to have a design. Shocking. The thing is, that drawing is the only way that you can be certain that what you want, and what your installer thinks you want, are the same thing. I’m amazed when I hear people say things like “I signed a contract for $20,000 worth of work. I really hope I like it.” What?!

2- Hire people you’re comfortable with

This sounds so perfectly logical that it seems stupid to even say it, and yet we ignore our gut instincts way too often. Part of being comfortable with someone is a personality fit, but doing your homework will also make you more comfortable. Trust, but verify. On a large project you’ll be seeing these people for months.

3- Define a realistic communications process

Especially on a bigger project, questions will arise. If we need to ask you something, how readily available are you? Along the same lines, find out who your point of contact is on the job. Is it the foreman, the contractor, or the designer? Who’s the backup? What’s a reasonable time frame to hear back?

4- Be an active participant

Ask questions. If something isn’t what you expected, let’s talk about it. If you can be there when everything is being laid out with string lines and marking paint, that’s a great time to get clarification. After the concrete is poured is NOT a great time. It’s your house – never, ever be shy about asking a question.

5- Keep track of changes

Ideally, you started with a detailed plan and a solid contract that spelled out the details. If you have the contractor make changes along the way, make sure you know what the changes add to your price. I know of one carpenter (who will never be allowed on one of my jobs) who happily makes all kinds of changes throughout the course of the job and whenever he’s asked how much that adds to the cost, says “it ain’t that much, we’ll just settle up on everything at the end.” The final bill comes in, and it’s 20-30% more than the original contract. Not cool. Change orders protect both parties.

6- Keep a photo journal

First, it gives you a record of what’s been done. Second, it lets you go back and see that, ok, a lot of progress really has been made. And finally, if you always take your pictures from the same spot you can create a really cool time-lapse slideshow. Neat.

7- Give yourself an alternate space to use while we’re working

If you’re living in your house during a kitchen remodel, you probably have a fridge, microwave, and hotplate set up in the dining room as a temporary kitchen. Treat the outside the same way. If it’s going to be a long, protracted process, make sure you have somewhere for the kids to play, for you to grill, or even just to grow some herbs. Whatever you love about being in the yard, try to keep a piece of that available.

If you’ve been through a big project, what’s worked for you? If you’re in the industry, what helps your clients?

Why Is This Retaining Wall Failing?

I walk by this wall whenever I walk to the post office in downtown Culpeper. Walls like this are pretty common in older neighborhoods like mine. Leaning and generally unhappy walls are, sadly, pretty common as well. So what gives? Why do these walls look like they’re ready to flop over on the sidewalk?

There are several possible explanations. The first is insufficient footer, or failure to tie the wall in with the footer. When building a masonry retaining wall in Virginia you generally want to dig down 24″ below grade, so you’re below the frost line. You then pour a beefy footer (thickness varies depending on application), often with rebar coming up from the footer to tie the wall to the footer. Our home was built in 1906 and renovated in the 1950s, and I can tell you with certainty that there was not a lot of digging to frost depth being done way back then.

Another possibility is insufficient drainage behind the wall. Water is a wall’s worst enemy. Hydrostatic pressure is a major cause of wall failure. The way we avoid a buildup of pressure is by using a “drainage chimney” of clean gravel behind the wall, along with periodic weep holes.

What makes this wall great for illustrative purposes is the fact that the wall likely started to fail because of hydrostatic pressure (water buildup behind the wall). This pushed the top of the wall forward, creating a gap between the wall and the slab. What’s right above the slab? Downspouts! So not only do we have a gap, we’re pouring gallons upon gallons of water behind the wall with every storm. Awesome.

So how would I fix this wall? I think we’re beyond the point of fixing something like this, and it needs to come out. Improper construction is hard to correct, and when it gets this bad – there’s no Band-Aid big enough.

Principles of Design: Harmony in the Landscape

As a band geek , I’m going to work the music I love into any post I can.  Anyhow, harmony is what happens when you combine all your architectural elements, furnishings, and design elements into a successful, pleasing whole. The shorter definition is “when everything works together and makes you nod your head and say yeah.” Harmony relies on two subordinate principles, unity and variety.

Unity means a single, cohesive identity. This can be established with color, or by keeping all the furniture styles consistent in an interior space. Outdoors, it can be a continuity of materials. For example, in designing the wedding arbor for the grounds at Old House Vineyards I used the same white oak that was used on the pavilion.

If, like me, you’re a Project Runway fan then you’ve probably heard Michael Kors call out designers for being too “matchy-matchy.” Too much unity can result in a very matchy-matchy landscape. It’s why you rarely see a large brick home with a brick patio, brick columns, and brick pathways. Even overuse of a plant can spoil an otherwise good design. This photo is from a greenhouse at Wollom Gardens in Culpeper, but I’ve seen monoculture landscape plantings like this too.

The other essential part of harmony is variety. Variety brings in different colors, textures, and materials, and adds interest to the space. However, variety on its own is also undesirable. Without unity to pull everything together, the design can be chaotic and displeasing. In the photo below, you can see that the stone veneer on the home is echoed in the stone on the columns and the step risers by the curb, creating unity; the brick on the home and the flagstone walk are of a similar character yet still provide interest and variety.

It’s easy to create a landscape design where everything is exactly the same. It’s also easy to create a design where everything is different. The value of taking the time to create a landscape plan is that you’re better able to combine unity and variety to get a beautiful, satisfying landscape.

Next up: the elements of design!