Stay Warm in Your Garden Through Winter

A propane-fueled fire table is a great option. (photo Maureen Robinson)

Getting outside is essential now.

2020 has been a year of rediscovering and relishing our gardens. It’s a huge privilege to have a little piece of earth (or balcony), and going outside has been a game changer for so many of us. With that in mind and fall just around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about heat sources to extend the season for as long as possible. What are our options to stay warm outside?

The trusty fire pit

Fire pits have been around a long time, and you might even have one. But do you like yours and do you use it? One of the biggest drawbacks to a fire pit is waving your hands wildly every time the wind shifts and then smelling like a pile of ashes at the end of the evening. For a smokeless option, I’ve been eyeing the Solo Stove for a while now, and I have a client who swears by them. I admit I don’t love the stainless steel exterior, but they are sleek, not to mention portable. Another smokeless option is a Breeo (below). I think I’m going to splurge on one of these for our gravel area. I want my daughter to be able to have some pod friends over this fall and this seems like a good way to do it.

The Breeo 24 can stand alone or be used as an insert in a built structure.

How about a fire table?

Fire tables are a great option, giving you extra room for food and drinks along with a warming focal point. Some of the best options have a gas source, like this propane table from Woodland Direct. Just be sure to check the details on the tank- sometimes it fits under the table, and sometimes it stands separately and you’ll want to think about where you’re going to hide it. (Pro tip- if you’re having a patio built, ask your contractor to bury a conduit to run the gas line through to another area, e.g. behind a seat wall.)

Fire table from Woodlands Direct

Stay warm with portable heaters

When you want heat without flames, a great option is a portable heater. These range in size from table top to free-standing. They generally run on propane, though some are electric. Here’s a good article I just saw with a few options.

But wait- how about a heated floor pad?!

Here’s what I’m definitely adding to my screened porch- a heated floor mat. Why didn’t I think of this before? With a mat like this outside, I’ll be able to stay warm from my feet up. They come in many sizes and are typically used to melt ice on walkways, porches, etc. You can simply hide one under an outdoor area rug if you don’t want the utilitarian look. Oh, you don’t have an outdoor rug? Splurge!

Outdoor rug from Perigold
Perigold has a great selection of outdoor rugs, and just about anything else you need.

Are you ready for fall and winter outside? I’ll let you know how my new additions are working out, and I’d love to help you set up your space, too. Have a project you’re thinking about? Let’s work on it together.

Using Pottery in the Garden

I’ve been thinking a lot about garden accessories lately, especially pottery. The term accessories seems to trivialize these items, though, while I’m thinking of them as the backbone of a design.

A typical strategy for planting is to work big to small, often starting with the trees, then the shrubs, and so on. In this approach, a large evergreen is often an anchoring piece, with shrubs creating outlines, and special plants with unique features serving as accents. The drawback in this plan is that unfortunately, sometimes plants fail, and that’s where man-made objects offer something unique.

Pottery is a simple and affordable way to bring made objects into your garden.

It’s not unusual to see large objects like a sculpture or pergola featured in a design, but more humble and accessible objects like planters have much to offer, as well. Depending on size and form, they can fill a myriad of roles and generally occupy space in a useful way.

Photo of Whichford Pottery Rhubarb Jar
Whichford Pottery Rhubarb Jar is a focal point in my garden- and fills a rabbit-eaten hole.

What can containers do for the garden?

  • Allow you to express your personal style;
  • Provide structure year round, i.e. a reliable form that won’t let you down when aphids or powdery mildew show up;
  • Elevate a simple plant into a specimen;
  • Serve as a focal point, a repeated motif, or a big jumble of planted exuberance.

If you have the opportunity (we can find one!), don’t hesitate to invest in pieces that will help define your landscape for years to come. Not sure where to start? I can help.

Pennoyer Newman
The Italian Terrace Collection

Hey, June!

Bouquet of Peonies
Few things are nicer than a vase of peonies.

Well, what’s going on?

It’s been months since I’ve posted, and the world is a different place than it was when I shared my first 2020 installation back in February. Did things came to a stop for you, or have you barely kept up with all your Covid-19 responsibilities? Here at the blue house we’ve all soldiered on in our own work spaces.

Everyone wants their home to be a beautiful safe haven.

I’ve had so many calls this spring. Many people in our area are fortunate to have job security. Apparently, as they look out their home office windows, they’re thinking- wow, we should get some landscape work done! I’m grateful for that and I hope I’m helping to make beautiful places where people can feel happy and safe. I know I’ve been so glad to have my own little garden that I can stroll through with my coffee, noting whatever new thing is happening that day.

What are you planning for June?

Will you brave a road trip, or, dare I say, a meal out at a restaurant? Plant some veggies or get back to the farmers’ market? Maybe you’d like to work on a landscape project together. I’m designing every day and I expect to be managing installations through the summer. If you’re reading this in June, now is a great time for us to talk about fall projects. Or, maybe you just want to breathe and be happy with what you already have.

I hope you’re well and you know where to find me.

Leaping into Spring Installations

Photo of patio
Almost ready for spring- just add leaves, perennials and cushions. And sun.

Today is February 29th, which means I have an extra day to relish wrapping up a new patio installation before spring even begins. My clients contacted me on January 6th, and we broke ground on February 14th- a very good progression that is only possible in the off-season.

What did we do?

The clients moved into their home last fall and knew right away that the layout wasn’t going to work for them. There was a small patio at the far back corner of the lot, and no patio space immediately behind the back doors.

Once we identified the program, we quickly arrived at the new design. We simply flipped the layout so that the outdoor entertaining space is immediately adjacent to the house, while the remainder of the yard is now play space. The homeowners already had furniture that needed to fit within the new patio outline, so the size and shape easily fell into place.

A few details:

  • The patio is Full Color Pennsylvania Flagstone, a classic choice that works almost everywhere;
  • We buried conduit with extension cords to both sides of the patio for the fountain and future string lights;
  • We placed the existing fountain in the garden bed for an integrated look and a bit of white noise between the seating area and the neighbor’s deck;
  • Small river rock and reused stone steppers connect the patio to the side gate;
  • Three single-leader Amelanchier ‘Autumn Brilliance’ trees line the back fence;
  • Other shrubs include Distylium ‘Vintage Jade’, Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’, Camellia sasanqua;
  • Lastly, we’ll add perennials in April when they’re at least breaking dormancy in their containers.

Next Steps for Spring?

Now we watch the plants leaf out, add perennials and cushions- oh, and the house is getting painted!- and start taking beautiful photos!

Do you have spring projects? Let’s work on them together.

Plan now for spring landscape installations

We’re already starting our 2020 spring installations!

When you think of being outdoors, your mind might go to summer, but for landscapers, there are 2 main seasons- spring and fall, with summer largely a time of maintenance and watering. Why is that?

1. It’s better to plant in milder temperatures.

Spring and fall are the best times to put new plants in the ground- the temperatures are milder, meaning they won’t be immediately frozen or scorched, and it’s easier to keep up with the watering. We generally find the best plant selection in spring (especially perennials), but a fall planting allows plants to settle in and go dormant over the winter.

2. It’s easier to build in milder temperatures.

Mild temperatures mean the ground isn’t frozen solid or hard as a rock from drought. Almost all outdoor construction involves soil disturbance, so this is an important factor. That said, mild winters are a great time for construction, and in fact, I started my first installation on February 14th.

3. It’s easier to work in milder temperatures.

Have you ever driven past a job site and thought, “I’m glad I’m not out there sweating?” Enough said.

We can’t install without a plan!

All this is to say, if you’re thinking about a new landscape installation this spring, it’s time to start your design. Check out my FAQs for some basic information and let’s work on it together!

Top Vote Getter for Landscape Design?!

Landscape Design

Well, this is embarrassing.

About 6 weeks ago an email popped up in my inbox from Arlington Magazine informing me that I was a Top Vote Getter for the the category of Landscape Design. I didn’t even know we were voting for that, so I was completely surprised. My first thoughts- I knew I should have had professional photos taken this year!! Should I get a new haircut, or at least a car magnet?! Now I really need to keep my garden tidy!

Seriously, I’m so appreciative that someone would have taken the time to vote for me. In turn, I’ve taken the opportunity to reflect on my business a little bit, and I made a list of priorities for 2020.

Here’s what I want to do:

  • To be absolutely clear on my process. I want you to know what our working relationship is going to be with a minimum of surprises (preferably none).
  • To ask myself after every client interaction- was I listening? Have I made it clear that I heard what my client said? Sometimes I have extensive follow-up conversations in my head that need to be distilled and communicated.
  • To look for extra functionality in every landscape design. Did I really consider harvesting the rainwater, making the seat wall a storage bench, using plants as screens or visual cues? And can our new landscape be not just functional but also regenerative? (Oh great, a new buzz word?)

How about you? Do you have landscape design goals for 2020?

If you’re ready to invest in your outdoor space, congratulations! You will not regret it. Maybe we can work on it together.

Yes, it’s planting time

Photo of Caryopteris shrub
Browsing around the nursery- Caryopteris is a fantastic late summer/fall bloomer.

Hang on to your pumpkin spice latte, because it’s planting time again. Where on earth did 2019 go?

Yes, fall is the best time to put in new plants. Why? Because the weather is cooling and many plants are starting to go dormant, which means they need less water and experience less stress. Even better, the chance to winter over means more robust and established plants coming up in the spring.

Let’s get your plan together now so we can plant before the first frost!

If you’re looking to plant this year, there’s still time to create your design and plan your installation for late fall. That said, you’ll have to make quick decisions in order to finalize our plan in the next few weeks. (For reference, I find that most design projects take at least 3 weeks between revisions and meetings.) Sound too rushed? Let’s plan for the second-best planting time- spring! Winter is the best time to work on designs for the coming year, and if we plan now you’ll be relaxed in the spring knowing you’re on the schedule.

Not sure what you’re doing and want some inspiration? Totally overwhelmed with the content on Pinterest or Houzz? Head over to one of my very favorite sites for browsing with my morning coffee, Gardenista. Then call me.

Pollinator-Friendly Gardens

Photo of Pollinator-Friendly plants: Coneflowers, Russian Sage and Butterfly Weed
The summer garden here at the blue house.

Summer is in full swing and it’s prime time for pollinator-friendly blooms. Anyone with just a little outdoor space can encourage pollinators by planting perennials, shrubs or trees that feed birds and insects. Adding to your garden doesn’t have to be complicated, and it doesn’t have to be messy (a common fear of perennials)- in fact, it’s better if your new plant project is simple and planned. Here are a few easy suggestions to bring some wildlife to your home with a minimum of fuss. (Find more tips and resources in this article.)

Simple tips for creating your pollinator patch

  • Pick a few plants that you truly like. I can’t emphasize this enough! There are so many plants to choose from that you will certainly find something you love at your nursery. You can start with just 1-3 varieties if you’re new to gardening, especially with perennials. If you’re unsure, ask the staff at your nursery and they will gladly help you with your selection. (When I’m shopping local retail, I go to Merrifield. The staff are so knowledgable and they’re always very happy to talk about their plants.)
  • Buy 3 or more of each kind of perennial. The idea is to create a grouping of plants because it will look neater than single plants. A mass of color is also easier for insects to find.
  • Plant your new specimens in an existing bed, a container, or a new plant bed if you’re expanding your garden. Again, greater numbers of just a few varieties will give you a neater look. If you have enough plants, you could repeat groupings around your garden beds for repetition, another effective design principle.
  • And now, water and enjoy!

The biggest takeaway to starting a pollinator garden- keep it simple and remember to enjoy all your new visitors!

~ Don’t forget to water new plants! ~

Landscapers are Problem Solvers

Photo of microwave plugged in outside

I love construction. It’s when all the dreaming and planning become reality. But aside from the actual work, I also enjoy the crews and the human details of the job site- like bringing your own microwave to work.

For landscape crews, the job site is their office.

If you work indoors, you don’t need to think about using the bathroom, storing your lunch, or reheating your coffee. But if you work outside, all of these things require some problem-solving.

Just like office workers, landscapers have different mindsets. Some leave the job site to get fast food for lunch. Others bring everything they need for the day and eat their homemade food in a shady spot on site. Oddly, this is the first year that many of us have noticed crews using microwaves. Is this a new trend that somehow made its way through the landscaper network, or have we not been paying attention before? I’m not sure, but this resourcefulness is just another thing that makes me smile.

Top 5 Virginia Trees

I like lists. I’m a sucker for anything that sounds like it’s going to cut to the chase, pare down to the essentials. So when I recently taught a class on garden design, I challenged myself to make Top 5 plant lists in a variety of categories. It was difficult, and in the end I was almost tossing a coin, but it was a great exercise that made me stop and think for a while.

If you could only have 5 kinds of trees, what would they be?

If space were no issue, here’s what I’d pick:

  1. Magnolia virginiana– the Sweetbay Magnolia. Much smaller than the Southern Magnolia (10-20+’), our native variety is more finely branched, and deciduous or semi-evergreen. It leafs out in April with white blooms in late spring, well after the Magnolia stellata and Magnolia soulangiana have finished. It supports wildlife (even butterflies), and tolerates wet feet (stormwater issues, anyone?), hence it’s other name, the Swamp Magnolia.
  2. Betula nigra– the River Birch, a tree loved by classic garden designers and modernists alike. River Birch are planted for their peeling bark, multi-trunk habit, graceful leaves, and fantastic ability to take up water. Choose ‘Heritage’ or ‘Duraheat’ for a slightly smaller variety (~40′). (Sadly, the only dwarf variety is more of a shrub, and not the proportionally scaled-down version we all wish for.)
  3. Nyssa sylvatica– the Blackgum Tree. The fall color alone is reason to plant this tree! The green, shiny leaves turn brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow in a superb display. The Blackgum (or Black Tupelo) is an incredibly tolerant tree that will take sun or shade, wet, dry, or even gravelly soil. It has a horizontal branching habit and can easily reach 40’+, so it needs space. If you have it, plant this tree.
  4. Cornus alternifolia– the Pagoda Dogwood. The botanical name of this gorgeous tree comes from its alternating, horizontal branching pattern, a graceful form that just floors me when I see it. Take a walk in a beautiful woodland garden like Macrillis Garden in Bethesda to see it in a magical setting. Use as a specimen tree or a wonderful understory tree at the edge of a wooded area for a layering effect.
  5. Taxodium distichum– the Bald Cypress. I wish I had a big pond so I could plant these all around it! The little needles seem as if they’d be evergreen like a Hemlock, but aren’t. The tree’s ‘knees’ are considered a highlight and make them easily identifiable. The species can hit 100′, so look for a smaller cultivar like ‘Peve Minaret’ if you have a small garden but want to try one.

What, no evergreens?

Yikes! Number 6, Pinus strobus, Eastern White Pine, and Number 7, Pinus parviflora, the Lacebark Pine.

Lists are all well and good, but I’m glad I don’t actually have to stick with them. I get to live vicariously through my clients and enjoy all kinds of variety. How about you? Maybe we could pick out some new trees together for your garden!