Fine Gardening Regional Report

Photo of chelone plants

Plants for Sun and Shade

It was such an honor to participate in the August 2024 Fine Gardening Magazine Regional Report ! I’ve been reading this esteemed publication for years so it’s great fun to be able to contribute something.

Check out the article for some recommendations on plants that are very adaptable to a range of site conditions. I use these in the Northern Virginia/ DC region clay with no soil amendments and no problems!

A few extra notes:

  • I am experimenting with both Carex woodii and Carex socialis in my garden as turf grass substitutes. I’ve put my little plants about 10″ apart but I may get impatient and add even more. I’m hoping they’ll fill in significantly in the next year but, of course, we all know the sleeps, creeps, then leaps pattern.
  • I typically use a cultivar of Ilex glabra because I want a smaller, more compact habit. Last year I found a couple of ‘Forever Emerald’ cultivars and planted them in my garden, but I haven’t found them again since! They look a lot like little ‘Hoogendorns’ right now. Check out this interesting discussion by Michael Dirr on cultivars.
  • I use Chelone so often! You don’t see Chelone glabra as much but I really like the white flowers for something different. All varieties are so tough, they make a nice clump, and deer don’t seem to like them. Such a great plant!

Enjoy the report and the rest of Fine Gardening Issue 218!

Seasonal Garden Containers Bring the Drama

Photo of spring planter
Mixed pansies, hellebores, dianthus, euonymous for early spring

Seasonal garden containers are the throw pillows of the landscape world! Yes, there are actual throw pillows for the outdoors, but nothing adds instant drama to the landscape like a container planting. Refreshing my pots is one of my favorite ways to mark the changing seasons, and it’s a great place for weekend gardeners to unleash their creativity.

While you can certainly do whatever you like in your garden, here are a few useful tips to get your best containers ever this year:

First, consider the containers

  • Start with the right size pots. Most people err on the small side because containers can seem overwhelming when you see them empty at the garden center or online. A rough guide for your front porch is to select containers 1/3 the height of your porch. Note that this might include your plantings, so if you have a very high roof cover, don’t feel you have to find 48″ high pots!
  • Consider the container material. Is it too heavy for you to move? Will you have to water every day because the pot is porous? If so, how will you do that?
  • Create groupings if you have the space. Everything doesn’t have to be symmetrical, but strive for balance across your garden area. This is also a good way to use smaller containers to bigger effect.

Next, choose your plants

There are many schemes for filling containers, but here are some top options:

  • Plant a specimen tree or shrub. This option needs no embellishment, though you may decide to underplant.
  • Follow the “Thrill, Fill and Spill” formula with a tall anchoring plant, mid-range foliage and flowers, and trailing vines.
  • Choose a mono-planting. A container planting of hot pink impatiens is just as impactful as a pot full of variety.

If you’re choosing one of the last two options, it’s critical that you pack your containers full of plant material to get that professional-looking drama! Disregard any instructions on spacing that you see on your plant tags, especially with annuals. Remember- these are seasonal containers, not long-term plantings. Instead, remove most of the dirt from your plant roots so you can really jam your containers full. If you can see dirt, you can fit more plants!

A simple mono-planting of perennials that come back each year.

Of course, the most important thing of all is to have fun with this. Try something new, safe in the knowledge that it will soon be time for your next experiment!

Design Plans for 2024

I’m so looking forward to 2024! I have some clear priorities this year:

  • Design my own garden! We renovated our house last year and the builder pretty much demo’ed or suffocated most of the garden. (It’s a small site, I guess it was inevitable.) It was a little depressing, but I’m taking it as an opportunity to reconsider our hardscape and to create a sod-free planting plan. I enjoyed my garden before, but it’s fun to be more intentional from the start with a mostly native palette that looks designed and beautiful. So many people have a bad impression of native plantings and I’d like to use my own garden as an example of natives in a cultivated setting.
  • Take fewer projects and give the ones I do take more attention and more intention (always my goal). I want to be sure I’m really listening, that I’m creating something truly special for each client, and that I’m maximizing the opportunity to intentionally build healthy habitats with my design.
  • Continue to slowly grow my maintenance service so that I can offer it to each new client who needs it.

As I type this we’re wrapping up January, a month I always fill with classes, lectures and other types of continuing education. It’s time to get serious about the designs we’ll install this spring. I can’t wait for it all to start happening. Here’s to 2024 and the wonderful things we can do together!

Homegrown National Park

Are you on the map?

There’s a movement afoot and it’s gaining momentum in a big way. Started by Doug Tallamy, developed with the professional know-how of Michelle Alfandari, the concept is simple:


– Homegrown National Parks Website

In other words…

Instead of waiting for the government, or a corporation, or an “expert” to tackle our ecological challenges, we as homeowners can make a huge impact on our own! Every time we make a small change, we start to create a network for nature that rebuilds and reconnects habitats right now.

It’s so easy

Here’s how easy it is- if you’ve ever done a project with me, you’re already in the Homegrown National Park. If you’ve ever replaced a little part of your lawn with pollinator- or wildlife-friendly native plants, you’re in the Homegrown National Park. If you’ve planted container gardens with native plants- you’re in the Park! And when your neighbor makes a little change, you start connecting to a bigger network. That’s it.

But I hate messy gardens!

Guess what? So do I! As a designer, I’m on a mission to help us rethink what a so-called native garden needs to look like. I personally think this level of wildness is beautiful in a defined area:

A small area of sod was reclaimed for a native garden on a busy street corner.
This garden brings a lot of smiles and waves as people drive by- happy insects, happy people.

But maybe you’re not a fan of billowing perennials! Guess what? This is also a native garden!

Trees and shrubs are also hugely beneficial to insects and other wildlife! You don’t need a garden full of perennials to make a difference.

A beautiful Redbud tree (Cercis canadensis ‘Hearts of Gold’), hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Incrediball’), some native ferns- so simple and so beneficial. Or how about this manicured perfection?! We added native hydrangeas- a great start!

You can use native plants in a manicured garden.

The bottom line

Homegrown National Park is a simple umbrella concept that says everyone can make a difference. If you’re already designing a new garden, it’s no more effort to include native plants than non-native (strive for a mix of 70-30 native/non-native). And if you want to make a little change, more and more plants are available at the garden centers. Maybe you just plant a little tree or some shrubs, maybe you want summer flowers, or winterberries for color when everything else is dormant. Keep it simple and record your changes on the map!

Still not sure? I can help.

It’s 2023- Happy New Year!

Finishing up a 2022 project- this one took a while!

Landscaping in 2023

As we head into 2023, my family is moving out of our house so we can start a renovation project! Of course, that also means we’re going to have to put the landscape back together when we’re done, which is pretty exciting. I’m asking myself all the usual questions:

  • What do I like about the garden I already have?
  • Which plants do I want to rescue for transplant?
  • How should the layout change to fit the house updates?
  • Do I want to have a lawn anymore?
  • Should I move the bins to the other side of my house?
  • How much is this all going to cost?!

I’m looking forward to dreaming up some fun elements, but I also know the hardest thing to do is to think about one’s own property. That’s why it’s so nice to hire a designer! I know I’m going to run my ideas by some colleagues for a fresh perspective.

My Front Garden Wish List

  • Pathways that connect to the front door and side gates so I can easily move the bins around, get to my car, etc
  • A majority native plant palette that reads easily, has adequate support and containment for neatness, and makes my house feel happy and welcoming
  • Updated lighting (I love my landscape lighting by Olson Weaver Lighting)
  • Something quirky like a Corgi topiary or some unusual plant

Well, I’m excited for my projects in 2023- how about you? Is it time to update your outdoor space? Maybe you’ve renovated, maybe your tastes have changed, maybe things got out of hand. Whatever it may be, I’m here to help! Let’s work on it together.

Happy New Year!

Design for Awkward Spaces

New Patio
New Patio

Do you have a small garden or an awkward space that you’d like to use more efficiently? These areas often end up being the most interesting part of your garden! Here are 2 tips for working in a difficult space:

1. Work the angles

Using angles is a standard approach in awkward spaces. They can give you the longest axis when you don’t have much width, or they reclaim a corner area that would otherwise be unused. In this layout, the dining area is on an angle, keeping it tied into the main patio while using and softening some corner space for good energy!

2. Use grade to your advantage

A sloping yard can be difficult, but it also gives you a natural opportunity to use a tiered layout which adds depth and interest to your garden. In this design, we’re gradually working our way from high to low as we move from right to left across the design above.

The downside? Cost. You can’t have tiers without walls, which means more construction, which means a bigger budget. Even in a small garden this can start to seem a little daunting sometimes. Is it worth it? Yes! As long as it doesn’t destroy the budget.

New Patio
New Flagstone Patio
Back Garden
Back Garden, Before

Look Familiar?

Do you have an awkward space you’d like to reclaim? Chances are it could become your favorite place in the garden! Designing now for Spring 2023 installations.

Front Garden Makeover

  • Front Garden After
  • Front garden before renovation

Dramatic Before/After projects are so much fun! This front garden renovation is well underway for a major update to the previous landscape. The clients started with a big patch of bamboo that was a constant challenge to contain; a driveway that covered the front of the house; and a lot of lost space due to previous grading choices.

We changed the entire look of the front garden by moving the driveway to one side, moving the retaining walls to create a larger level area, and removing the bamboo forest. The result is an open and welcoming space with a beautiful view of the house through the specimen maple tree. Poured concrete, updated carpentry and lighting have really changed the style of the garden, with more improvements to come in the form of painting and staining.

I’m really looking forward to following the progress of this beautiful project! What would you like to do at your house?

Spring is here!

And we’re off!

It’s wonderful to feel the weather turning (or trying to!) and to see things coming to life everywhere. Spring really is in the air. The cherries are nearly done and the Redbuds are starting to come into their own. Bulbs are blooming everywhere, Creeping Phlox is making a colorful carpet (I have a friend who says “It looks like a unicorn threw up”- the nerve!), and the smell of Koreanspice Viburnum is wafting on the breeze!

How are your garden plans coming along? We’ve got walls, steps, driveways, plants, lights, custom sheds- you name it, it’s on the schedule for spring. Schedules are pretty full, but don’t be discouraged if you haven’t gotten started yet. Let’s start planning now and you could be enjoying your new outdoors for late summer and a beautiful autumn!

Designing for Spring

Robin's nest with eggs
Nesting in my wall planter

I say the same thing every year- it’s time to design for spring! In fact, if you’re reading this and we aren’t already talking- we might be designing for summer or fall.

Expect to spend an average of 2-3 months on the design process- from consultation to installation contract.

That may seem long (sometimes it’s longer), but the time flies by. We’ll have a consultation and then a first concept a couple weeks later. Then there’s time for contemplation between revisions. Sometimes you get busy, sometimes installations take up more of my time. And we have to get on a contractor’s schedule, which can be booked 8-12+ weeks out.

All this is to say, if you’re dreaming of changes outside- contact me! But only if you’re ready.

Are you ready for a 2022 project?

The Mount, Home of Edith Wharton, is an inspirational garden for homeowners everywhere.
The Mount offers plenty of garden inspiration that could be scaled to a smaller property. (photo by Maureen Robinson)

As I work on 2022 projects, I’ve been looking back through this year’s photos. Nearly every trip I take involves a garden visit at some point! It’s a great way to add a little structure to a vacation, and there are always places to see if you do a little research. This summer we had a laid-back getaway to the Berkshires where we spent a really nice afternoon at The Mount, former home of Edith Wharton. It’s a traditional layout which I always enjoy- easy to walk through, easy to “read”, and easy to visualize on a smaller scale. (As with so many other gardens, I saw a lot of native plants starting to sneak in to the palette. I especially liked the shorter Joe Pye Weed at the back of the border, maybe Eupatorium purpureum ‘Little Joe’).

Are you feeling inspired by gardens you’ve seen to plan a 2022 project at your own home? If so, I’m currently working with clients for Spring 2022 installations, or possibly winter hardscape projects. Maybe we can work on your project together.