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What’s the difference between a nice landscape and one that makes you stop and stare in awe? Naturally, the artistry of the landscape and the finesse of the landscape maintenance team architect has a significant influence on the effect. But the success of that creative vision and expert care is dependent on how well the architect and garden management crew have mastered the concept of landscape layering.

The principles of landscape layering are employed to create a detailed composition that is balanced overall and at the same time highlights individual elements and focal points.

Early in the design process, a landscape architect must do three things based on a site analysis:

  1. select plant varieties that will adapt to the terrain and prevailing weather conditions
  2. place plants where they will receive the amount of sunlight and moisture they require to thrive
  3. visualize the entire site in three dimensions and break it down into zones

In this article, we are going to focus on that third item. We’ll explain how the landscape architect organizes spatial elements in layers to capitalize on the effects of height, breadth, depth, nuance, and variety throughout the landscape. We’ll show you how this layering effect results in a “wow” landscape that makes the best use of available garden space and establishes coherent thematic relationships between different use areas in the landscape.

Landscape Layering and Plant Selection

Each type of plant plays a particular role in the landscape. Generally, landscaping plants fall into the following categories beginning with the tallest:

  1. tall specimen trees both evergreens and shade (deciduous) trees
  2. ornamental trees including flowering and fruit-bearing
  3. shrubs both evergreen, deciduous, and flowering types
  4. flowers, grasses, and sedges of varying height and breadth
  5. ground covers

Tall trees work for the background layer and borders of the landscape. Tall shrubs work well as a secondary layer around property borders as privacy screening and as a backdrop for the more intricate landscaping in the middle ground of the view. Low shrubs do well to fill the space in between and as foundation plantings. Grasses and flowers come next, with sedges and groundcovers filling areas near walkways, patios, steps, and under trees.

Organizing Space on Multiple Planes

When designing a landscape and gardens, the landscape architect must organize the composition on two visual planes:

  1. arranged by height on the vertical plane: from treetop to eye line to ground level, and
  2.  arranged on the axis of proximity and distance: from foreground to mid to background

This basic compositional technique of staging or staggering plant groupings is a critical element of landscape layering.

The layering technique is what gives your landscape a consistent overall look and also highlights individual elements. Layering techniques include moderating elevations, grouping plants according to size, shape, color, texture and seasonal display.

Basic Landscape Layering Techniques

Repetition. Repeating the placement of a particular type of plant throughout the landscape will draw the eye and lead you into and through the landscape.

Scale. Size plants correctly to fill an area fully without crowding. Combine various sizes in groupings of plants so that individual plants support each other visually and make a statement together.

Depth. Arrange plantings with the lowest ones in the foreground and taller plants staged from the middle to the background. Add raised beds and terracing from the middle to background.

Balance. Weave patterns throughout the landscape by combining plant shape, size, texture, leaf shape, and color to extend and balance the compositional themes. It’s important to note here that evergreens and grasses come in many shades of green, so it is possible to get a lot of visual interest with greens alone.

Surrounds horticulturalist Tom Kniezewski says that modulating elevations by using raised or mounded planting beds is imperative for achieving a strong aesthetic effect in a landscape: “ If everything sits at the same level, you can’t see and enjoy the variety of plantings because it all blends together.” This is a mistake that is often made by amateur gardeners. Kniezewski notes, too, that raising planting beds serves a practical purpose because it facilitates drainage which protects the long term health of your plants.

Does your landscaping feel a bit flat and one dimensional? Schedule a consultation with one of our garden management specialists to talk about how we might bring your landscaping and gardens up to the full potential.

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Backyard Waterfalls Complement Other Water Features

Backyard waterfalls, when artfully done, can transform the way you experience the outdoor environment of your home. Aside from the obvious visual appeal, the sound of a waterfall creates a refreshing ambiance, one that is immediately pleasing and calming.

Waterfalls can be multi-leveled with multiple drops, or they can be as simple as a stream trickling over boulders arranged to mimic a glade you might come across on a hike in the mountains. The waterfall effect can also be achieved in a more “architectural style with a spillway from a pool or spa into a recirculating catchment.

Here are a few of the most popular ways of pairing backyard waterfalls with other favorite water features.

Waterfalls and Swimming Pools

Some of the best sites for pairing a naturalistic style swimming pool and waterfalls are in backyards with steep slopes. Using a combination of retaining walls and terraced beds, the pool can be set into the hillside with the falls dropping naturally from above. This approach works exceptionally well when the pool is a lagoon style that has a randomly curved shape.


Three naturalistic waterfalls streaming over massive boulders accent a fortress-like retaining wall running along one side of the swimming pool shown in the image above.

In this backyard waterfall design, water flows from a spa on the uphill portion of the yard, through the swimming pool, and into a catchment at the downhill end of the pool. The two spillways lend the waterfall idea a more studied and architectural look and are designed to create a zero edge effect when viewed from above.

Another application for swimming pool and waterfalls on a level to a moderately sloped site is to let the water drop through spouts in a retaining wall with plantings in the beds above the wall.

In either application, the waterfall adds visual and aural appeal to the pool environment and can provide a refreshing place to hang out and get massaged by the dropping stream of water.

Waterfalls and Garden Ponds

Pairing waterfalls and garden ponds requires the most carefully designed and constructed artifice to achieve a natural and spontaneous look and feel. The landscape architect must use stone and constructed elements in combination with plantings to disguise the artifice and give the impression of a naturally occurring grotto you might come upon while walking in the woods.

The little waterfall in the image above is designed to look and flow like a little feeder stream you might come across while out hiking. The elevation change from top to bottom is gentle, as is the sound produced by the flow. The stonework and plantings are designed to have a random and slightly overgrown look.

Crafting Sound Levels for a Backyard Waterfall

In nature, it is often the case that you will hear a waterfall before you see it. The sound of an unseen stream or waterfall produces an energy that is intriguing. So, when designing a backyard waterfall, the landscape architect designs for sound as well as for visual composition. The loudness and strength of the falls are determined principally by the volume of water running through the system and the distance water drops through the air onto a landing point. The particular quality of sound is created by the arrival surface of the cascade—either a pool or grouping of stones. The size and shape of stones guiding the flow will also affect sound quality.

A large waterfall with multiple drops will create a symphony. A gently sloped waterfall that feeds into a pond will create a softer sound quality due to the slower flow of water and the water to water impact.

Water trickling over rocks or splashing into a pool brings a kind of music into your outdoor environment. Backyard waterfalls, whether large or small, complex or straightforward, produce a refreshing and restorative effect. If you’d like to explore the possibilities of adding another layer of sensory pleasure to your gardens, schedule a free consultation with one of our landscape architects.

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This article is part two of a two-part story that focuses on the benefit of early collaboration between landscape architect and residential architect in a custom homebuilding scenario.

In part one, Imagining a Perfect Home From Outside In, we followed homeowners Tom and Nancy Stout on their journey from initial idea, to purchasing the homesite of the dreams, to researching and imagining the home they would build on that site.

Tom dove deep into his research, collecting information about the latest home technologies and design best practices. He then developed a detailed room-by-room guide that specified the function of each space and the particular feeling he hoped to achieve in each. At that point, he was ready to meet with the design professionals.

Assembling the Dream Team

With those initial thoughts on paper, the Stouts began the process of putting it all together with architect Tom Flach of Kohlmark Architects and landscape architect Howard Cohen of Surrounds. Cohen played a critical role in positioning the house on the site. Based on his analysis of topography, he implemented an aggressive grading plan that optimized the relationship between the house and the surrounding landscape. This made it easy for the owners to step out of the house onto gently terraced patios and the swimming pool beyond. Otherwise, there would have been a series of steps and stairways leading down a steep slope to the patio level.

Once the home and landscape designs were substantially complete, homebuilder Arjay West of West Homes and interior designer Sandra Meyer came on board to begin the construction phase. West and Cohen would coordinate landscape construction and home construction. Meyer would work with West to fine-tune interior details of the architectural plan.

I think the best decision we made was the four people we chose to do the project. I feel like we had a rock star team.

The Energy Efficient Home: Comfort & Luxury

The Stouts say their old house was always drafty partly because of the construction/insulation technology and partly due to an inefficient HVAC system. They wanted a high performance, airtight house and did a lot of research into proven technologies and materials that would allow them to achieve their goals of comfort and energy efficiency.

Using structural insulated panels (SIPs) instead of standard framing was the first step in achieving their goals. SIPs are pre-constructed wall units with 5” of foam sandwiched between engineered wood panels. It makes the walls test at R-15. Also, on the energy efficiency menu were radiant floor heating, geothermal climate control technology, and a fresh air circulation system by a Swiss company called Zehnder. This type of system is necessary for houses that are constructed to be (nearly) airtight. It works independently from heating and cooling systems to exchange stale indoor air with fresh outdoor air on a programmed schedule.

All of these specialties (except SIPs) command a premium, but they also deliver a superior level of indoor comfort. And the Stouts say they are committed to this house for the long haul. So, why not have it be exactly the house they want it to be?

Not Too Big, Not Too Small

Just right. That sums up the size of the house and how it relates to the surrounding landscape today. Just as the rooms inside the house were designed to flow organically from one to the next, there is a natural connection between the home and the outdoor environments. The kitchen/family room flows into a family-sized porch (a favorite hangout for the Stouts), then to terraced patios, and finally to the swimming pool, spa, and outdoor fireplace (you’ll find the children and grand-children here when they visit). It all makes sense. It feels right. The architecture of the house and the landscape architecture are one.

It’s a big house, but it doesn’t feel big. A lot of people have told us that, and we are happy because that’s what we were going for. It’s comfortable, just big enough for what we want. And we love how much natural light is in the house every day because the back is pretty much all windows or glass.

One of the side benefits of the grading plan introduced by the landscape architect is a walkout basement on the “downhill” side of the house.

The basement is set up for fun. In addition to a wine cellar (one of Tom’s favorite rooms) and a high-tech golf simulator, there is a pool table, ping pong, and shuffleboard—all of which get a lot of use during family gatherings. The kids love the golf simulator because it can be programmed for putt-putt golf.

Beauty vs Bureaucracy The landscape architect’s grading plan made the upper part of the yard line up with the house for easy access. At the lower level, a tall retaining wall and planting beds disguise biofiltration sinks that manage rainwater from the roof and hard surfaces of the upper level

Fairfax County requires new construction to implement approved rainwater management and landscape drainage designs. In this case, the County specified three bio-retention areas and an infiltration trench.

Naturally, the homeowners feared this would result in something pedestrian that would interfere with the aesthetic of their landscaping, but the landscape architect turned this bureaucratic requirement into a pleasing feature.

The bio-retention areas are planting beds that sit on atop layers of sand and gravel. The drainage system distributes runoff from downspouts and hardscape surfaces to the beds—all of which are located on the downhill side of the lot. Excess water drains through the filtration layers into an underground catchment where it seeps slowly back into the ground thereby eliminating erosion and the adverse effects of stormwater surges on fragile streams and waterways.

Project Success Factors

Four factors made this project and the process of developing it a success for the homeowners and the professionals involved. The homeowners:

  1. were committed to their vision of the ideal home
  2. were proactive in doing research well in advance, so the ideas could begin to percolate and inform the design process to come
  3. engaged both a residential architect and a landscape architect to collaborate on the development of a comprehensive site plan that would determine how the dwelling would impact and interact with the site and surrounding landscape
  4. engaged both a builder and interior designer to collaborate on the construction and final detailing of the architect’s home design

The main lesson in this story is that it is never too early to bring your design and construction professionals together to start talking. Each party contributes their point of view as informed by their particular expertise. That makes for an exceptionally creative and disciplined process, which in turn produces an exceptional outcome for all.

If you are dreaming of designing and building your perfect home, be sure to contact a landscape architect as well as a residential architect. If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of a collaborative approach to landscape design and home design, schedule a consultation with one of our landscape architects.

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The landscape architect and residential architect worked together to site the home on the lot and design a grading plan that would optimize the relationship between the house and the land

For this two-part article, we are turning the spotlight on a collaborative homebuilding project that shows what can happen when homeowners possess both the vision and the patience (waiting for the right place and the right time) to design the entire homesite inclusive of landscaping from the ground up. The collaboration of the landscape architect and residential architect at the outset made for a nearly seamless transition into the construction phase many months later.

In part one, we track the progress of the project from the initial idea and discovery of the perfect site through the pre-design research and goal-setting phase.

Beginning with a grassy parcel of land occupied by a tiny old cottage, homeowners Tom and Nancy Stout envisioned their ideal home in which the dwelling would exist in harmony with the surrounding landscape. Altogether, it took a couple of years (patience) once they’d found the right place, but the results of their collaborative design and construction process are remarkable.

From Idea to Action: Making a Better Home

Nancy and Tom Stout had a vision and were able to accomplish something all too rare in the world of home building and landscaping: They followed through on it. They had the ambition and patience to do their homework and assemble the right team of professionals to carry out those dreams.

The story of the ideal home, the one they dreamed of, began decades earlier when Tom worked as a comptroller for a homebuilder and became intrigued with the business.

At that same time, the couple lived in a house that was about twenty years old. Over time they became aware of its many shortcomings. Tom recalls saying to Nancy, “Wouldn’t it be great to someday build our own house?” The two felt they could do better if they had the opportunity to build exactly the house they wanted.

Obviously, when you buy a house that’s been previously owned, you live with what’s there. And we had a long list of things that we would have done differently in design, also in mechanical systems and insulation.

Lot for Sale This is the sight that caused Nancy to stop her car and start snapping photos before phoning Tom.

One afternoon Nancy was driving and saw a small handmade sign that said “Lot for Sale.” It pointed to a side road that she’d passed thousands of times but never had a reason to turn down it. Now she did: “I drove up that road and saw this beautiful green rolling lot with a little white cottage on it. It was so pretty. I sat there in the car and took pictures.” She phoned Tom and told him she’d found a property, barely a mile from their own, that looked like the perfect place to build their house the way they’d always wanted.

I thought it would be a great opportunity to build exactly what we wanted, how we wanted it, and be involved in that process.

They called the phone number on the sign and arranged a meeting with the owners. As it turned out, there were two side by side lots for sale. One was vacant, and one had the house. The Stouts negotiated a two-part deal to purchase the vacant property and wait for the second one to become available when the owners were ready to move. About a year later they closed on the second lot, and the homesite was theirs.

Style, Size, Scale: Where to Begin? The new home is positioned deeper into the lot than the original was.

The Stouts took their time to think about the style of home they wanted to build. They spent time looking at houses around Vienna and taking pictures. They foraged for design ideas on the internet and paged through stacks of shelter magazines. They agreed on an architectural direction that Tom described as “kind of a Martha’s Vineyard/New England/Shaker/Craftsman combination thing.” Tom knew he wanted the exterior to fit with the country road feel of the setting. Nancy was determined that the interior of the house not feel cavernous and cold: No McMansions. They knew they wanted a house that, although it might be large, would feel comfortable and inviting to inhabit.

We’d been through a lot of large model homes where the master bedroom is 30 by 30 with a 15-foot ceiling, and there’s a king-sized bed in there that looks like a child’s bed because the rest of the room is so oversized. Being in a room like that felt cold.

An important influence on the process for Tom was a book he discovered called Designing a Perfect House by William Hirsch. Tom says, that unlike many books that lean toward a checklist of do’s and don’ts, Hirsch’s book taught him about scale and symmetry, and about how a house should “reveal” itself to you as you move through it. Using the book as a resource, he developed a detailed room-by-room guide that specified the function of each space and the particular feeling he hoped to achieve in each.

Part two of this story, Building the Dream (due online January 21), reveals how the homeowners assembled their architectural team to create integrated designs for the landscape and the home.

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The landscape drainage plan shown in this rendering brings excess rainwater to an infiltration trench at the front right side yard where it can seep back into the ground

The first questions I ask when I stand on a new site are: where is the water coming from, where is it going to go, and what’s going to happen when it gets there? Howard Cohen, Landscape Architect

Landscape drainage is a critical factor in the success of any landscape design project. And most Northern Virginia properties have pre-existing drainage problems that must be addressed within the scope of a landscape design project.

The first step for your landscape architect is to conduct a thorough site analysis and evaluation taking note of the existing slopes and elevation changes on the property, surface and groundwater (wet and dry areas), and soil composition. We want to be sure that rainwater is not puddling on hard surfaces but is directed to run off and sink into the ground. We want soil around plants and trees to drain efficiently so plants will stay healthy.

The Necessity of a Landscape Drainage Plan

The effectiveness of the drainage system on a property overall and techniques that support well-drained planting beds have a direct bearing on the health and longevity of your garden plants. A sound landscape drainage plan is comprised of two principal parts: one relates to hardscaping and the other to planting beds.

An aggressive re-grading of the slope, terracing, raised planting beds and permeable hard surfaces resolved drainage issues in this front entry area. PHOTO Morgan Howarth

Drainage and Hardscaping
The drainage system is built into the hardscape. The landscape architect may specify permeable surface areas with buried drainage pipes and retention wells that allow water to percolate naturally back into the soil.

We often use slot drains along the perimeters of patios and walkways to take rainwater straight into the ground. We also adjust grading on the property to control the direction and flow speed of surface water. We may direct rainwater toward a natural slope or to an area where we’ve installed a small culvert or drain box.

Drainage and Plants
In Virginia, we have dense clay soil that stays wet. We try to select plants that can take sustained periods of moisture. We also plant in raised or mounded beds with sand mixed into the soil–which ensures that water drains well away from plants and keeps the roots dry.

A raised bed will usually have low retaining wall bordering it. Mounding doesn’t require hardscaping. In both, we use a balanced blend of sand, soil, and compost to build up the mound so it is stable, provides nutrients, and drains properly.

Drainage Solution 1: A Damp Yard Reclaimed An infiltration trench, concealed by landscaping, allow excess rainwater to seep slowly back into the ground. PHOTO: Morgan Howarth

The owners of this McLean residence rarely used their backyard patio because it always felt damp and uncomfortable. During heavy rainstorms, water would sometimes flood the lower level of the house. A landscaping project not only beautified the backyard but permanently fixed their serious drainage issues.

We dug an infiltration trench in the front right corner of the side yard. All the downspouts from the house tie into it. An infiltration trench sinks about six feet into the ground. It is lined with fabric, filled with layers of sand, clean washed gravel and topped off with about a foot of well-draining topsoil. Excess water filters into the ground.

Although you can’t see it, this part of the drainage plan was vitally important the success of this landscape design project. If the property didn’t drain properly, plants and people would suffer from too much moisture. Making an outdoor environment beautiful is important, making it comfortable and fully functional is essential.

Drainage Solution 2: A Low Spot Becomes a Highlight

This Herndon residence had drainage problems that made it impossible to plant anything to make the front entry attractive. The ground sloped left along the front of the house toward a lot spot where water collected and pooled against the foundation.

A front entry landscaping project beautified the curb appeal of the home while solving the drainage problem.

We ran drainage pipes under the driveway to draw excess water away from the house, then built up the garden beds above the previous ground level and held them in place with a low retaining wall.

Drainage Solution 3: Beautiful & Practical

This Oakton residence sits on an expansive lot that had a combination of steep slopes and low areas. Extensive regrading and terracing made the backyard highly functional. A highlight of the drainage plan is the biofiltration sinks disguised by lush planting beds. The biofiltration sinks receive water from upper levels on the landscape and let it percolate naturally back into the ground—and at the same time feeding the moisture-loving bedding plants on the surface.

The Design You Don’t See

Drainage design is the part of every landscape design you will never see. But everything you see and enjoy above ground is supported by it. If you skip investing in landscape drainage to save a little money, you will end up with issues after the fact. And that could end up costing you more because you may have to remove expensive hardscaping and landscaping to install a solution.

All of the example projects began with a desire on the part of a homeowner to correct a drainage problem that was preventing them from using their yard or was interfering with the ability of landscaping plants to establish and thrive. If you feel that landscape drainage issues are preventing you from fully enjoying your outdoor living areas, contact one of our landscape architects to schedule a consultation.

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You might think you would need a large backyard to have a patio fire pit or fireplace fitted into your landscape plan, but fire features can be designed to fit almost any size area.
Depending on how much yard area is available, options range from stone fireplaces that are monumental in scale to fireboxes (a hybrid fireplace/fire pit), to simple campfire style fire pits.

There is no doubt that outdoor fireplaces and fire pits may add significantly to your landscaping budget. But many of our clients tell us that, whether they use theirs a lot or a little, having one adds considerably to their enjoyment of their backyard. They love the feeling of cozying up to that patio fireplace on a chilly evening outdoors. Some say they enjoy just looking at it as architectural element in the landscape.

In this article, we are going to focus on one patio fireplace project to dig a little deeper into what motivated the homeowners to invest in it, how often they use it and what it means to them. Then we’ll finish by walking you through a few different options fireplace/fire pit configuration beginning with a stunningly simple patio fire pit.

Create a Gathering Place in Your Backyard

Marc Borodin and Alexandra Simpson had thought of adding a porch off the back of their house as a way to make use of the long, flat backyard that they had not been using since they’d moved in. A landscape architect suggested they build a covered structure detached from the house. It would give them a reason to go out into the yard, a private space where they could relax together and enjoy being outdoors.

Marc and Alexandra loved the idea and right away had thoughts about how they would furnish the space with two couches facing each other. The idea of an outdoor fireplace naturally evolved out of that conversation.

Regarding the look and style of the fireplace pavilion, they were open to suggestions from the architect and eventually settled on a concept that hinted at Craftsman style with stout columns, exposed rafter tails, and decorative corner brackets. The interior style is more rustic with a natural beadboard ceiling, exposed rafters, and a rough-hewn timber mantle spanning the stone fireplace.

I grew up camping and having outdoor fires. I don’t consciously think about that, but it might be one of the reasons I like having the fireplace.

The first time they lit a fire in the pavilion, they brought chairs from indoors because they hadn’t furnished it yet—and couldn’t wait to try it out. They roasted marshmallows and made s’mores with visiting relatives. They don’t have fires now as often as they thought they would, but they still spend a lot of time relaxing in the pavilion. And Marc says that it is a joy to look out the kitchen window at it: “It doesn’t matter what angle you see it from or whether it’s day or night—I love looking at our backyard.”

Most of our guests or friends, when they come over, say that they would stay out here all day. Marc Borodin

Patio Fire Pit for a Small Backyard

This patio fire pit is a great example of what can be done in a backyard when there is barely 24-feet from the house to the back lot line. A fire pit by definition allows for seating all around. This hybrid fire pit is built against a retaining wall. So, the seating arrangement is the same as you would have with a fireplace. It works visually because lush landscaping is built up behind it obscures the nearness of the lot line.

Building up landscaping behind this patio fire pit masks the lot line in this shallow back yard Open Air Patio Fireplace The massive scale of this patio fireplace is perfectly proportioned for the size of the area it anchors

When there is more space available in a yard, you can introduce landscape elements that make a big statement. This massive open-air fireplace anchors one end of a large raised poolside patio. This may seem counterintuitive, but its height and size help bring a sense of intimacy to a large open area of the yard. As the chimney reaches upward, your eye settles upon the hearth nestled in the massive base of the structure. From a distance the fireplace is impressive, imposing. When you are sitting on the patio, the effect is grounding.

Adding a patio fireplace or fire pit to your backyard requires a site evaluation and landscaping design plan. With planning and the guidance of a talented landscape architect, you can plan the perfect outdoor fireplace for your backyard. You’ll be able to see where that fireplace fits into the whole picture. If you’ve been wondering about how to explore the potential of your backyard, please contact one of our landscape architects to schedule a consultation.

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Sometimes people think that landscaping a small yard won’t be worth the investment because they see the spatial limitations as an impossible obstacle. They fear they won’t be able to do anything meaningful with a small or oddly shaped lot. In this article, we’re going to present two example small yard landscaping projects that will put those notions to rest.

The two examples chosen for this article feature large new construction homes that replaced out-of-date, less desirable houses on standard sized lots in desirable neighborhoods. Both have well-proportioned front yards. The backyards, however, are limited due to the expansive footprint of the new house.

We’ll explore the creative challenges and opportunities presented by smallish or odd shaped backyards left over after an infill house replaces an older one on the same lot.

Large New House, Small Backyard

With some of the infill building going on around the Washington DC area suburbs, an old house is torn down and replaced by a larger home on the same lot. To get a marketable new house on an old lot, the builder has to strike a balance between the size of the house and how much yard to leave. Usually, the front yard setback requirement dictates how the house will be sited. And that often leaves the shorter end of the stick to the backyard and side yards. But that also provides an opportunity to make the most creative use of yard space within those limitations.

Small Yard Landscaping Design Guidelines

Before we review the two example landscaping projects, let’s consider some points that are crucial to developing landscaping design ideas that will work in small yards.

The site plan in example project #1 shows a challenging lot line that runs on the diagonal, making one end of the yard even more shallow than the other

1 Capitalize on Privacy
Make the most of a limited area by going with the restrictions rather than pushing against them. That is, embrace the appeal of coziness and privacy. Be selective about the elements you include instead of attempting to “do it all” and risk crowding the yard, making it feel even smaller.

2 Create Destinations
Plan your outdoor rooms by dividing the space into separate but related use areas each with its purpose and contribution to the whole picture. By using slight elevation changes, built structures, and screening plants, you can create visual points of interest that draw you into the scene.

At 24 feet deep, the project #2 backyard allows only the absolute minimum space for the landscape architect to work with.

3 Water feature
Adding sound to an outdoor environment brings a new layer of sensory engagement—and in smaller yards, it adds the sensation of depth to the space.

4 Soften the Edges
Go for height along the property line. Your designer may use terracing, raised beds, and tall plants around the perimeter to raise the eye line. This contributes a feeling of openness, much like a high ceiling would do in an indoor room. Layer lush border plantings in front of stone walls or fencing to disguise those hard visual barriers while gracefully creating a pleasing sense of enclosure.

Key Challenges to Small Yard Landscaping

In both of these example projects, the obvious challenge to the landscape architect was the small size of the area.

The water feature in the PROJECT 1 backyard was unusually challenging due to the location and limited space. The landscaping crew had to maneuver large boulders into place, and the feature goes vertical very quickly due to the limited depth of yard. But it turns out that this steep, high feature makes an impressive focal point and disguises the limitations of the yard—actually, making it seem larger than it is.

In project example #1, the water feature is at the deeper end of the backyard that runs diagonally. PHOTO: Morgan Howarth

In PROJECT 2, the rear deck covers a pre-existing basement stairwell that takes up nearly half the buildable depth in the yard (24 feet to the rear boundary). The landscape architect converted the stairwell to storage underneath the deck area. The architect says that this existing condition presented the greatest challenge of the two projects.

When you look at the landscape plan, you can see and feel it if one of the features is either too large or too small. There has to be a balance between all the elements and the overall design so that it flows nicely and one part doesn’t detract from another.
Chad Talton, Landscape Architect

Filling the Landscape Without Crowding

Landscape architect Chad Talton says he tries always to be thoughtful and creative in his attempts to maximize all the usable area on a property. Obviously on small sites, every square inch matters. Talton says, he puts a lot of care into balancing size, scale, and shape. He evaluates and plans how he can best use positive and negative space in the overall composition. These concepts are demonstrated in both of these projects.

A lot of times, I believe we are trying to create a feeling of comforting confinement by dividing the area into individual spaces. You want to avoid crowding the area with too many elements too close together. You don’t want to feel like by the surrounding landscape is smothering you.

Balancing Size, Scale, and Proximity This spa fits perfectly into a corner at the narrow end of the backyard in project example #2 landscaping plan

Creative small yard landscaping begins with a commitment to making the most of what you have. Counter to what you might think; small size can be advantageous because you can put more into it than budget might allow in a larger yard. It also presents an opportunity to design in greater detail with more variety using the highest quality materials to build up a lush backyard environment.

In both of these projects, the homeowners’ wish lists included a water feature, an outdoor grill, a covered structure, and so on. They left it to the landscape architect to figure out how to fit all of those elements into the allotted space. Talton is proud of the fact that none of their requests had to be dropped from the scope of work for lack of space or lack of imagination.

Do you feel “stuck” with your small or odd-shaped backyard? Don’t be. A talented landscape architect can see your landscape for what it is and what it could be. If you are interested in exploring the potential for creating a backyard retreat for yourself, contact one of our landscape architects to schedule an on-site consultation.

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The best landscape design firms and landscape management companies typically associate with top tier growers to maintain consistent quality in the plant materials they specify for your garden. Although growers cultivate new varieties of disease-resistant, high-quality garden plants each year, extreme weather conditions can cause problems with even the hardiest of nursery stock.

Following an unusually wet summer and autumn, the relentless weeks on end of damp and cloudy weather (65 days to be exact) created conditions perfect for setting off an outbreak of boxwood blight.

Boxwood: What It Is and Why It’s So Popular

Boxwood is probably the most ubiquitous garden ornamental plant found in Northern Virginia landscapes. Surrounds Landscape Architect Howard Cohen calls it a “timeless classic.” It is prized by Cohen and other landscaping professionals for its versatility: Boxwood, because it naturally grows in a variety of silhouettes and sizes, can be put to service as a hedge, foundation planting, or as an edging plant.
Robert Saunders of Saunders Brothers Nursery goes further, calling it “the aristocrat” of landscaping plants. A significant portion of Saunders Brothers annual nursery production is devoted to boxwood varieties because of its utility, longevity, and deer resistance.

Over the past sixty years, the grower has invested considerable resources to support research into the characteristic strengths and vulnerabilities of boxwood. This dedication makes Saunders the go-to source for information about the developing boxwood blight situation in Virginia.

What Causes Boxwood Blight? A grouping of “Grace Hendrick Phillips” boxwoods. PHOTO: courtesy Saunders Bros.

Landscape designers try to select garden plants with the best track record regarding pest and disease resistance. In truth, almost garden plants come with an attendant set of diseases and insect pests that prey upon them. Often, the damage wreaked by these invaders is merely unsightly.

However, some plants diseases can be deadly if they aren’t properly contained and are allowed to spread throughout a landscape. One such rare and fatal plant disease is boxwood blight. This fungal infection springs to life and spreads quickly during prolonged periods of the day and night temperatures between 60-70 degrees combined with abundant rainfall and high humidity.

Although boxwoods are characteristically resistant to most diseases, boxwood blight is their Kryptonite. Boxwood blight attacks all boxwood cultivars but is lethal when contracted by English boxwood.

Here are some key points about the disease adapted from Saunders Brothers 5th Edition Boxwood Guide:

Foliage infected with boxwood blight. PHOTO: courtesy Saunders Bros.
  • Originated in Europe and made its first documented U.S. appearance in 2011
  • The fungus develops rapidly in prolonged wet weather with little air movement
  • Fungal spores spread from plant to plant by contact with people and garden equipment, or by splashing water (rain or irrigation)
  • The blight goes dormant in dry conditions combined with either very hot or very cold temperatures—but returns when conditions are right
  • The disease can survive for up to five years in infected debris—so thorough clean-up is crucial
  • It is essential to remove all contaminated plant material, debris, and soil
How to Recognize Boxwood Blight & What to Do About It

When hiring landscape firms to clean up infected plants, it is important to hire reputable firms who are educated on the disease and take steps not to spread the disease to other landscapes. Saunders Brothers Nursery

The American boxwood may grow up to ten feet high. PHOTO: courtesy Saunders Bros.

Boxwood blight presents as brown spots on the foliage that darken to nearly black before falling off. You’ll also see black streaks on the stems. The plant will continue trying to put out new leaves, but repeated defoliations will kill it.

The best landscape management companies practice integrated pest management (IPM). There are two cornerstone principles that IPM employs to protect your landscape:

  1. expert plant selection and plant care practices to suppress disease and pest activity in lawns and gardens
  2. frequent visits to the property to ensure that disease or pest issues, when they do occur, are identified and correctly treated before widespread damage occurs.

The hard truth is that even with the best landscape maintenance and garden care, boxwood blight can spread quickly over the entire property. If you should notice something suspicious developing between service visits, contact your landscaping company immediately. Please do not attempt to remove infected materials yourself for risk of spreading the disease.

A horticulturalist from your landscaping company will come out and inspect, bag some samples, and send them to the Cooperative Extension for testing. Once they are sure about what they are dealing with, they can discuss an appropriate action plan with you.

For boxwood blight, the treatment is pretty drastic. Saunders Brothers recommend complete removal of the infected plant and adjacent boxwoods. The decision to remove/replace plants is best left to your landscape management company because they have the horticultural expertise to devise the best course of action.

If you suspect that your boxwoods or other landscape plants may be fighting some type of disease or pest infestation, contact one of our horticulturalists to schedule a consultation.

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This yard has three distinct outdoor living spaces defined by proximity and elevation. PHOTO: Morgan Howarth

Carefully planned, well designed, outdoor living rooms will feel like a natural extension of your home’s interior—only completely different. Outdoor rooms take the experience of indoor rooms to a different level. You enjoy total freedom to revel in all of your senses with no confining walls to constrain your imagination.

By defining use areas as outdoor rooms, the landscape architect maps out connecting paths that lead the eye (and the body) through a series of transitions into different kinds of places in the outdoor environments we create. The landscape design carefully balances the way various outdoor living spaces will interact with each other and how they will relate to the architecture of the home.

Privacy Without Walls in an Outdoor Room

A successful landscape design plan results in the creation of outdoor living spaces that transmit the pleasing sensation of enclosure, seclusion, or expansiveness depending on the size and positioning of the area in landscape layout.

To begin the process, your landscape architect will ask you to describe how you plan to use the space and what kind of feeling you hope to create within each “room.” The architect will factor those insights together with the information gathered from a thorough site analysis and evaluation to develop a landscaping site plan that divides the landscape into separate but related activity zones. That could include an outdoor living room and dining room and other areas designated for play, entertaining, family gathering, or even a secluded spot for quiet and reflection.

Low retaining walls and changing elevations help to delineate the boundaries of this outdoor living room How Sensory and Visual Cues Define Outdoor Rooms

Landscape designers use definition, transitions, and focal points to create the feeling of a room outdoors:

The footprint of this outdoor dining room is drawn by a cobblestone border around the pea gravel floor

1 Definition

  • structures such as a seating wall can define a perimeter, or a hedge may serve as a living wall
  • pathways bordered by plantings or trees create the feeling of corridors
  • an arbor, pergola, or overhanging tree branch may suggest a ceiling

2 Transitions

  • changes in elevation achieved by terracing or stepping up/down
  • variations in color, texture or type of materials underfoot may signal passage from one distinct place into another

3 Focal Points

  • positioning a fountain, arbor or plant grouping leads the eye and invites you into the landscape
  • framing views encourage intuitive flow from one place to another in the garden

The artful, balanced composition of these elements in landscape design can create an extraordinary experience of a series of rooms furnished with the sights, sounds, fragrances, and physical sensations of open-air living.

Relationship Between Indoor and Outdoor Living Spaces Terraced beds and retaining walls of varying heights combine with border plantings to create a pleasing sense of enclosure in this patio lounge

This process of designing an inter-related series of living spaces and assigning a unique purpose to each, the art of the landscape designer and interior designer overlap.

The prominent interior designer, Barbara Hawthorn, believes that interior designers must strive to break through that mental barrier of inside vs. outside to create living spaces that surprise, challenge, and delight the people who inhabit them. Hawthorn says “Indoor and outdoor spaces should be integrated and flow one into the other. Frank Lloyd Wright was a great advocate of that concept. You can see that locally at the Pope-Leighey house in Alexandria.”

The best interior designers in the industry agree that the principles of  landscape design and interior design overlap in some key areas:

  • Awareness of the changing effects of natural light during different hours of the day and evening
  • Selection and orientation of details with sensitivity as to how light and shadow fix color, defines objects and affects mood
  • Refining and balancing the vast palette of color and textures available in the materials used
  • Framing views and planning movement that naturally leads from one environment (or room) to another

Room design, whether inside the home or outside, attempts to achieve continuity. Outdoor rooms and interior rooms are connected by a series of transitions, by natural, intuitive flow that leads from one space to the next.

Ideally, each outdoor living space is designed to draw you in, make you feel comfortable enough to stay, and enjoy just being there.

Outdoor Living Spaces Improve Over Time This outdoor family room is both secluded and open to the surrounding walls of greenery

Something to keep in mind: While your home interiors may go out of style, become dowdy and dated over the years, your outdoor rooms will only get better. With consistent care and maintenance, your outdoor living spaces will start to fill out and reach their full potential in two to three years. Time is one element that makes landscapes great. As garden plants adapt to their surroundings and grow, they get better and better.

If you’d like to explore this idea of defining outdoor rooms that allow you to experience memorable moments in your backyard, contact one of our landscape architects to schedule a consultation.

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Lawn Care Services in Northern Virginia

Green industry best practices have evolved over the past fifteen years in Northern Virginia. And, although basic lawn care techniques are much the same, the materials and equipment we use in landscape maintenance have changed. They are more effective and more environmentally friendly now.

If you own a large property, the horticultural expertise and resources that a high-end landscape maintenance company will bring to your lawn care program will be a worthwhile investment in the health of your lawn.

More Effective and Environmentally Friendly

Tom Kniezewski, Surrounds Garden Management Team Leader, says lawn maintenance has become more “scientific” particularly in the way his crews use fertilizers and nutrients. Under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, the state imposes regulations on when specific treatments can be applied and in what quantities. Virginia closely monitors the use of fertilizers and other materials because we are situated in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The state requires a soil test to prove that adding phosphorus and nitrogen is necessary.

Also, fungicide and insecticide products are continually improving. Today they are more effective and more environmentally friendly. We use them sparingly, but when we have to, we can feel more comfortable about it. For example, the grub control treatment that Surrounds uses for its lawn care services has no cautionary labeling such as “dangerous” or “harmful” to bees, birds or mammals as other products that are available.

Our use of interventions is much more targeted now. Those of us in the green industry are absolutely concerned about preserving the health of the natural systems we work in. –Tom Kniezewski, Surrounds Garden Management Team Leader

Most of the time, Kniezewski says, his crews can avoid using pesticides because of their proactive approach to landscape maintenance and lawn care. The crews perform a variety of tasks in weekly rotation: inspecting planting beds and turf, managing weeds, and adjusting irrigation as needed. That’s the Surrounds approach. The lawn care services are one element in our holistic landscape maintenance system.

Crew members will snap a photo if a plant or section lawn looks off and send it to a garden manager so that we can respond without delay. –Tom Kniezewski

Four Fundamentals of a Lawn Care Program

The foundational practices for maintaining a healthy lawn are mowing, watering, weeding, and nutrient management. Let’s detail those lawn care practices one at a time:

Mowing
It is important to maintain grass at the correct length for weather conditions and season. The lawn grasses we use in the mid-Atlantic region thrive in cool temperatures. So, in spring and fall, we’ll set the blade at around 3.5 inches to keep the lawn at a manageable height. In summer, when growth slows down, we give it an extra inch or so because that helps grass blades retain moisture against evaporation.

Watering
The worst thing for a lawn is too much water. Too much water will cause grass to develop a shallow root system making it more vulnerable in hot, dry conditions. It is important to adjust moisture frequency and quantity to match changing weather conditions.

Weeding. If necessary, we spot treat with chemicals during the growing season to prevent weed seeds from sprouting. In the fall, when we are overseeding in the fall, we switch to pulling weeds by hand because chemical applications stop any seed from germinating including our grass seed.

Nutrient Management
Turfgrass gobbles up nutrients, so they have to be replaced periodically—about four times per year. Perhaps the only positive characteristic of the clay soils here in Virginia is that they tend to bind with nutrients and hold them in place longer. Whereas in a better-drained soil, nutrients would leach through and we’d have to make more frequent applications.

Reality Check: The Perfectly Green Lawn

Even with irrigation, is it realistic to expect a uniformly green lawn throughout spring, summer, and fall in Northern Virginia? Not really. A lawn is a monoculture, the same plant with the same growth requirements spread across a large area that consists of various micro-environments. That is, depending on the location–next to a driveway or walkway, in shade or sun, wet or dry area—you are trying to get one type of plant to adapt to and grow in different conditions. It can be done, but not without irrigation and expert lawn care services.

The turfgrass we use in Northern Virginia is cool season fescue. It thrives when the daytime temperature is 65 degrees and low 50’s at night. That’s why it grows rapidly in spring and fall. In summer it gets stressed from the high heat. Without irrigation, it will turn brown and go dormant. That’s normal. It will start absorbing nutrients and green up again when the temperature cools down.

Kniezewski says he’d prefer to let lawns go dormant rather than irrigate during the hot season because lawns that don’t depend on irrigation develop deeper root systems and will stay green longer anyway. Also, during weeks of high overnight temperatures combined with humidity, lawn grass becomes vulnerable to fungus—especially if it is being irrigated. And that will turn it brown in patches. But, Kneizewski says, most of his clients don’t want to see any brown grass in the summer. So his lawn care crews keep an eye out for any signs of trouble and spot treat them before they spread.

Consistency is Key to Expert Lawn Maintenance

A high-end lawn care services company is going to perform weekly inspections and annual soil analysis to ensure your lawn has the correct Ph balance and nutrient levels to achieve its full potential. Throughout the season, too, the lawn maintenance crews work through a rotation of tasks such as fertilizing, weeding, seeding, aeration at specific times.

Overall, the value of high-end lawn care services is the proactive and preventative approach employed that heads off problems before they spread and keeps your lawn looking its very best always.

If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of Surrounds’ holistic approach to lawn care, contact one of our garden management specialists to schedule an inspection visit to your property.

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