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The August Thing

August 20, 2009

Viette Nursery 0731 2009 (2)

How gorgeous is that? A few weeks ago, MJ and I were driving around west of Charlottesville. Being the crafty opportunist that I am, I said “hey, we’re really close to a nursery I’ve wanted to check out for years. Can we can we huh? Pleeeeeease?” So, we plugged the address for André Viette’s absolutely stunning nursery into the GPS and stopped on by.

The place is amazing. Viette’s has a really good variety of perennials, which makes sense- the Viette name is synonymous with horticultural awesomeness. I totally embarassed myself, getting excited that they sold a lower-growing variety of Rudbeckia that Mr. Viette hybridized, “Viette’s Little Suzy,” that can be tricky to find. Of COURSE they sell it. Sheesh.

Viette Nursery 0731 2009 (7)

Anyhow, while the selection of plants, including literally dozens and dozens of daylily varieties, is astounding, the crown jewels are the display gardens. Mr. Viette’s private residence is right next to the garden center, and is jam-packed with stunning combinations of trees, shrubs, and perennials (do I sound like a complete fanboy yet?). Apparently, sometimes he’s out in the garden, but we didn’t get that lucky this time around. We took a ton of photos, and I’ll post them here and there, but you know what? Go check it out for yourself. Fishersville is a lot closer than I thought, and there are a lot of fun things to do in the area. Make it a day trip; if you have the time, make it part of a weekend visit to the area.

In unrelated matters, business is good. If anyone knows of someone interested in an assistant landscape designer position (part time to start), please email me!

Late Summer Lawn Health

August 13, 2009

wedding locationI can’t take credit for this landscape OR the photo- it was taken where MJ and I were married in Vermont five years ago. There’s a lot to love about the shot: walking across the lawn are my two brothers, my sister-in-law, and two of my nieces, it’s a great example of what I mean when I discuss “framing” views in the landscape, it’s a beautiful setting, and it’s where we got hitched. It also illustrates the value a healthy lawn can bring to the landscape. Note that I said healthy, NOT perfect.

This is the perfect time of year to start thinking about how you’re going to build the soil and improve your turf’s health, so that next year you can have a beautiful and low-input lawn. Early fall (September-October) is an ideal time to work on your lawn, but if you wait till then to gather materials or start calling contractors, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Plan ahead!

So what can you do for your lawn in the fall? Odds are, it could stand at least a little improvement. Overseeding is good; aerating and overseeding is better. If you really want to build a lusher lawn, lay down some fine compost, aerate, and overseed. Most lawns don’t need nearly the nitrogen that the big fertilizer companies say they do; compost provides a good bit of slow-release nitrogen that’ll keep your lawn well fed.

If you want more tips, a good resource is Paul Tukey’s book, “The Organic Lawn Care Manual.” I won’t lie, it’s not a riveting read, but it’s packed with good information. Or, you can set up a consultation with your friendly, neighborhood landscape designer & garden coach, and you’ll get to learn more about compost and nitrogen than you ever thought existed! Either way, enjoy the cooler weather to come, and get outside and play.

My First Column!

August 2, 2009

Have I mentioned that this has been a year of small milestones for me? Well, last week saw the publication of my first newspaper column, in the Culpeper Times. In it, I discussed several summer-blooming plants. I’ll post later this week and go a little more into depth on each.


July 28, 2009

Just thought I’d point out that someone took the basic idea of my three-bin composter, and built it from more standard-sized, dimensional lumber (and it looks like they took a little more care in the construction process). Thanks for the shoutout you guys, and it looks GREAT!

Designing an Outdoor Kitchen

July 26, 2009

The first outdoor kitchen I ever helped build was in San Diego in 1998. They were just starting to become popular again (remember the ones from the late 70s?), and I thought they were the coolest thing ever. Fast forward to today, and they’re still a wildly popular option. After all, northern Virginia has a great climate for outdoor entertaining, and with a couple of patio heaters you can almost eke out year-round use from your space. There are some big considerations to think about.

BBQ Grill closeup

Base Materials

There are two primary means of building an outdoor kitchen. The most common (and my preferred method) is to pour a footer at frost depth and build up with concrete block. The resulting structure is then capped with a countertop and the sides are typically covered with stucco, tile, or stone. Built properly, a masonry kitchen should last for decades.

  • Advantages- durability, strength
  • Disadvantages- cost, difficulty of construction

The other common method of building outdoor kitchens is to create a frame from steel studs (usually 2x4s), cover the structure with concrete backerboard, and top with the countertop. The sides are also stuccoed, tiled, or veneered with stone, although it’s more common to see man-made stone veneers used. Kitchens built this way don’t require as aggressive a footer, and will often be built on a 4 inch concrete slab. This makes them much simpler to add as a retrofit to an existing landscape.

  • Advantages- lower cost, less difficult to build
  • Disadvantages- not as indestructible as solid masonry, framing openings to support heavy components can be more challenging than building up openings in masonry

Most outdoor kitchens you see in barbecue or pool store showrooms are steel framed; most of the ones you see as part of a larger landscape installation are masonry.


If you ignore the sustainability issues, granite is probably the number one choice. It’s dense, weather-resistant, heat-resistant, and gives a lot of service without demanding a lot of care. Manmade alternatives like Silestone can give you a similar look and functionality. Polished concrete countertops are gorgeous, but require a little more maintenance (sealing) due to their porous nature. I’m least likely to advocate using porous stones like flagstone or sandstone for countertops. While they can represent a large cost savings, they’re very easy to stain. Consider the components of a great evening cooking with friends- burger, brats, and red wine- and think of what those could do to a light-colored, highly absorptive surface.


How much do you want to spend? As with a lot of other appliances, brand names will cost you. Viking and Wolf make beautiful grill units, and you’ll pay a premium for the nameplate. I’ve actually found that the Turbo Grill, from Barbecues Galore, is a great value for the money.

So, what about taking your exisiting grill and modifying it to be a built-in? It’s not really that simple. A drop-in grill (one that was manufactured to be installed into a countertop) has all the proper mounting hardware required to safely install it into a masonry or framed opening. A free-standing grill doesn’t have any of those mounting points, so it’s not like you can just cut the legs off and call it good. If you have a freestanding grill and don’t want to spend the money for a new drop-in unit, you could always design the space in such a way that you’d wheel the grill into an alcove. It won’t look as seamless as a drop-in grill, but you’ll still get the use of the countertops to either side.


Don’t understimate the importance of task and area lighting! While I do it, I’m not a fan of holding a flashlight in my teeth while attempting to view my instant-read meat thermometer. You can buy low-voltage lights that can be wired into your landscape lighting system and mounted to the countertop. Focus Industries makes my favorite fixture for this application.

Accessories/ Appliances

The options are limitless- you can buy side burners, refrigerators, trash compactors, warming drawers, almost anything you can imagine, suitable for outdoor use. Every cook has different needs, so I won’t even begin to discuss options, but I will say one thing: don’t skimp on the outlets. Once the unit is built, the patio is built around it, and the landscape project is done, it gets a lot more difficult (and expensive) to add that outlet for the rotisserie, fridge, or blender.

The most important thing to consider with an outdoor kitchen is how you plan on using it. Many of the same principles used in designing indoor kitchens come into play outside, and if your space doesn’t function well, it’s nothing more than a costly pile of stone. Plan ahead, and you’ll have an outdoor kitchen that brings your family years of enjoyment.

Deer-Resistant Plants for Virginia

July 19, 2009

The deer are a persistant problem for landscape contractors and designers in Virginia. As development reduces their habitat more and more, we see the effects of population pressures in our neighborhoods. Some days, it feels like my homeowners are locked in battle with the deer, to see who gets claim to the garden. So what can you plant that the deer won’t wipe out?

First of all, there is no such thing as a deer-proof plant. If they get hungry enough, deer will eat nearly anything. However, there are a few plants that, in my experience, are pretty deer-safe.June 23 2009 (30)


  • Aucuba japonica
  • Nandina domestica
  • Mahonia bealei
  • Pieris japonica
  • Daphne odora
  • Buxus (var.)
  • Cephalotaxus
  • Sarcococca


  • Ferns
  • Liriope
  • Pachysandra
  • Astilbe
  • Tiarella
  • Paeonia
  • Miscanthus spp
  • Pennisetum spp.

Obviously, there are plenty more deer-resistant plants, but this list will get you started. This is where consulting a local pro can save you dollars and heartache, because we see what plants the deer have historically left alone, and what they eat. Someone at the big box store may have no industry background, and at best they’re going off a list, written by an extension agent in another state.

That said, I’m finding this year that all bets are off. I just finished a project in Clifton where the deer have decimated Rhododendrons and Aucuba, two plants that we’ve always considered darn near impervious to deer. So remember, you’re dealing with wild critters- they won’t get the memo that they’re not supposed to eat your plants. The farther you go from the house, the more you should use plants that deer don’t like or you don’t care about. If your heart is set on tender perennials or herbs and veggies in a deer-heavy area, consider fencing from Benner’s Gardens. It’s a great product, relatively inexpensive, and if you install it in the right place, it’ll be nearly invisible. The deer have adapted to us; if we want to keep our plants, we need to adapt to them.

5 Quick, Cheap Fixes for Your Landscape

July 13, 2009


Whether you’re trying to get your home ready for a party, a family visit, or just to take advantage of what you have, there are some simple projects you can take on that will make a huge difference in your yard’s appearance.

1- “Bring out your dead”- This is an easy, yet often overlooked bit of maintenance. Deadhead any spent blooms, remove any plants that didn’t make it, and prune the dead branches out of your woody ornamentals. Nothing says ugly like a yard full of dead plants.

2- Weed, edge & mulch your beds- Nothing makes your beds pop like a clean, tight line of demarcation. I’m not typically a fan of edging products in cool-season grass lawns, as the steel edging is costly and the poly edging is ugly, hard to work with, flimsy, and generally a complete waste of time and money. If you live somewhere with a warm-season, creeping grass lawn, you probably need an edging to keep the grass from overtaking your beds; but, since I do landscape design for northern Virginia, that’s not really an issue. Anyhow, my preferred edge is a simple spaded edge, sometimes called a Victorian trench (no clue why). You take a sharp, flat-bladed spade, and push it into the grass edge a good 3-4 inches. If your soil is on the sandy side, you can kick the back of the spade, and it’ll dislodge the chunk of sod and create a smooth profile on the bed bottom. Every northern Virginia gardener just thought to themselves, “you can do that?”, because in heavy clay soils, your best bet is to do a section of vertical cuts, then come back with the spade at an angle on the inside of the bed, cut out the sod, and smooth the bottom. When done, a good edge will look like this:Stark 0605 2008.jpg (12)

3- Conduct a thorough inspection of hardscape elements- How many times are you going to walk by that missing picket, or step on that wobbly stone? If you’re like me, you have a number of places around your yard that need attention, but you only really notice them when you’re jumping in the car to head off to a 12 hour day at the office. Grab a pad of paper, a cup of coffee, and take a stroll. If it’s something simple that you can fix immediately, go for it. Otherwise, it goes on the list. The funny thing about punchlists like these is that no matter how daunting they may appear, you can usually knock them out in a fairly short time.

4- Set out some container plantings- Especially if you’re dressing your home up for sale or for a party, containers can be a fun, inexpensive way of expanding your landscape beyond the bounds of the plant beds. Unsure of what to plant? Well, you definitely want to make sure everything will still fit in the pot when it fills in, so if you’re at all unsure, go to a good-quality local nursery for your plants. (Note that I didn’t say for advice only. If you spend 20 minutes pumping a small nursery staffer for info, and then go to a big box store to buy the plants for a buck less, you’re not a very good person. Just sayin’ is all)

5- Do some long-term planning- There are only so many quick fixes that you can do, before the plants either assert themselves or give up. Take a hard look at what you have, and if it’s not what you want, start dreaming! There are not only a ton of resources at bookstores and online, but there are also qualified pros who can help you plan the next step.


July 1, 2009

Several of them, actually. First off, this is my 100th post to this blog. This blogging thing is kind of addictive, and I’ve gotten some great comments and emails about some of my posts. Seeing what search results have sent people here has been pretty funny, too.

Second, tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of taking the business full time. While I officially started in 2005, I ran David Marciniak Designs as a non-competing sideline to my job with a landscape design/build firm in northern Virginia. Business slowed, and it soon became apparent that if I was to continue designing landscapes,  my only choice was to go it alone. Despite her misgivings, MJ agreed, and has supported me throughout my first year. And what a year! I’ve designed tiny little planting beds, and large estates; I have projects where I’ve built personal relationships with my clients, and I’ve done more anonymous, large-scale commercial projects, like subdivision streetscapes, entry monuments, and model homes. My job involves constantly meeting new people, analyzing their properties, solving their problems, and creating something beautiful and functional that they live with every day. I also get to color, and occasionally play with my clients’ dogs and cats. I love what I do, I’m blessed to be able to do it, and I bring that energy to every single project.

And apparently, that energy is contagious! My third milestone is a big one: my business has grown into Prince William and Loudoun Counties, to the point that I have acquired an office in Manassas Park. It’s not big, it’s not flashy, but it’s a space that can hold a six-foot drafting table and a whole lotta love for landscape design. So consider this post a gigantic thank you  to all my friends, clients, and colleagues, who have alternately supported me and pushed me, depending on what I needed at that moment. Keep watching this space- there’s a lot of cool stuff coming.

And check out this video, and enjoy his love for his art. This video just makes me happy:

Recent Project- Drystacked Walls & Plantings

June 24, 2009

Just finished this one, a tearout of most of the exisiting landscape and new drystacked fieldstone retaining walls and  plantings.

Here’s the before:Before

And, the after:DSCF0004

Deer are a huge issue in this neighborhood, so selecting deer-resistant plants was a must. It’s apparent that the deer population is getting out of control, because at this house I saw evidence of two plants, widely regarded as ignored by deer- Rhododendron and Aucuba Japonica- severely munched on. One of the plants I used- that I consider to be an under-used gem of a plant- is the Japanese Plum Yew (in this case, Cephalotaxus harringtonia var. ‘Prostrata’). It’s similar in habit to a Weeping English Yew (Taxus baccata ‘Repandens’), but the needles (fronds? leaves?) are larger and longer. Most importantly, they have a reputation as a plant that deer hate to eat.DSCF0006

You may also wonder, how did that stone retaining wall get installed if the site was so flat? Well, the grade at the sidewalk remained the same, and we built the stone wall at the edge of the bed. Then we just brought in enough topsoil to raise the grade to the wall, and sloped it gently back to the sidewalk. It allowed us to add the wall and gave us a nice raised planting space, that should drain a lot better than the native soil already on site.

Any questions, let me know!

Weekend Update

June 21, 2009

June 21 2009 (12)The great thing about gardening is that it gets exciting all at once. The pole beans and cukes are working their way up the fence, and the bush beans are flowering (above). Tomatoes are coming along quite nicely too!June 21 2009 (16)

Speaking of getting excited, I braved the morning downpour (and subsequent humidity) and went to the Piedmont Alternative Energy Expo Saturday. If you didn’t go, you missed a great show- bookmark RLEP’s website, and make sure that next year’s show gets on your calendar!June 21 2009 (1)

The indoor exhibitors were a mix of solar power dealers and installers, architects, geothermal heating companies, a company out of Fredericksburg selling residential wind turbines, and several other providers and organizations. I picked up a ton of literature, met some great, passionate people, and learned a lot. Among the outdoor exhibitors were electric cars and their builders. On the one hand, it was a little discouraging to see how far we still have to go: the incredibly awesome-looking car pictured above would never get me through a 200-mile day on just one charge. But the technology changes so fast, who knows how far the next generation will go?

On the other hand, it was great to see the innovation going on. I’m not just talking about big companies, either. I got to talk with someone who converted an older Mazda pickup truck to a completely electric vehicle. Now, he’s not your average tinkerer- he’s an auto mechanic- but still, the technology is available today, and within the reach of those of us who aren’t independently wealthy. With what I do, I’m not yet in a position to get away from the internal combustion engine, but electric cars are getting much closer to a viable option for many.

So, the bottom line? The show is a great way to spend a few hours, and the five bucks is a ridiculously good bargain. I’m glad I went; it was a great way to recharge my batteries! (Get it?)