Wen Bill Gay bought a 700-pound, 6-foot-tall, bronze water-spouting dragon in New York City, he wasn't exactly sure what he was going to do with it. Luckily, inspiration came from the company that maintains his lawn — Christie's Fine Gardening and Creative Landscapes — which designed a castle-themed garden around the unusual piece at his Fan home.
Finding the right landscaper to design your yard is like finding the right interior designer to decorate your home. "The landscape is an extension of the home, and it is also a reflection of the personality of the homeowner," says Neal P. Beasley, horticulture specialist/landscape designer for Timmons Group and former manager of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.
Beasley says that before you choose a landscaper, you need to do some homework: "I usually recommend that people study up on some plants before they meet with a designer." He suggests searching the Internet, looking through magazines or visiting Lewis Ginter, where plants are labeled. Local nurseries are another good spot to visit for information and ideas as you try to determine which plants appeal to you. "The better the homeowner can express themselves and be specific, the better the designer can help to direct and lead them into the design."
Doing the Work
Bill and Carol Gay chose Christie's Fine Gardening and Creative Landscapes after visiting the company's Web site and realizing that it did a lot more than just cut and maintain lawns. "People come to us for the ‘wow' factor," says owner Christie Barry, whose team strives to "bring art into the garden" from design to construction to planting and maintenance. Her associates are members of the Virginia Society of Landscape Designers (VSLD), and they also have art backgrounds, having taken undergraduate courses in applied arts and art history. Barry herself has an art minor in ceramics from the University of Richmond.
The team created a garden that incorporated the dragon for the Gays' home. To make the dragon appear as if it belonged, they used dramatic colors and textures for the plants and built a wall that resembles a medieval castle, using natural stone and a jagged edge. The dragon shoots water into a pond, aiming toward two oncoming trumpeting elephants — bonuses the seller threw in when Gay purchased the dragon. (See "Designing a Dragon-Centric Garden" for details.)
The time it takes to design, construct and plant a landscape varies greatly in terms of complexity. Beasley says it takes an average of 15 to 20 hours for a designer to complete sketches. The Gays' dragon garden took about a month to design and install, while it took about three months for John and Dottie Cox's Ashland backyard — complete with a pond, a waterfall, a putting green and a pavilion — to be completed.
"We were back and forth with design plans," says Dottie Cox, who, along with her husband, worked with Ken Gustafson, the owner of Ashland Berry Farm. "We would talk about it one week and the beginning of the next week he would come back with a sketch. Then we would walk around and make changes."
Gustafson did extensive excavation and brought in three tractor trailers full of boulders to create the waterfalls. He used aquatic plants not only for naturalization and color but to create a living filter system. "It is a replication of nature," he explains. "We used a lot of parrot's feather around the edges at the top. We also used yellow water irises and purple pickerel. The roots are the filter system and extract nutrients from the water that the algae require, so it is competing with the algae."
Knowing the capability of your landscaper before you sign a contract is important. A "certified" landscape architect has passed a statewide certification exam on site construction, gardening, drainage and irrigation. Although there is no state certification for a landscape designer, the VSLD certifies members through a review process in which landscape designers submit plans and references and are reviewed by the VSLD board. "It is like a fraternity of designers, not a true licensing through the state," Beasley explains." But it is a great way to get the names of individuals that are proactive on a regular basis and have been through some classes."
Even if your prospective designer or architect is certified, it's still valuable to check references and look at previous work.
Bill and Sybil Sparrow of Chesterfield asked landscaper Nancy Dransfield to design their backyard garden. They wanted to re-create the woodland trails found at Winterthur, a former Du Pont estate located in Wilmington, Del., that's renowned for its gardens. They had already used her for a previous project.
"In the woods we put in huge sweeps of white and yellow daffodils," says Dransfield, who also planted wild azaleas, rhododendrons, dogwoods, red bud and native Virginia white fringe. Native wild perennials like the tall white spiral flowers of snakeroot, white and pink bleeding heart, and yellow-blooming green and gold bring color to the woodland floor.
Around the house Dransfield planted more formal, manicured plants including boxwoods, otto luyken and laurel. She put a bluestone terrace in the newly created courtyard with a bluestone pathway leading to a reflecting pool. A stone wall by the pond is full of spring and summer color with pink crape myrtles, white dogwoods, pearly pink phlox and late-blooming azaleas. Along the pathway Dransfield chose low-growing plants — blue-blooming ajuga and creeping sedum — so the view from the screened porch would not be obstructed. "That is where we live, so we can look out into the garden," says Sparrow, talking about the porch.
Flexibility is the greatest factor in any landscape project, from what plants will work to how to configure hardscapes. Even the best-laid plans sometimes need to be revised once they come face to face with landscaping reality. "Just remember that it is a creative process that can change as it goes along," says Gustafson, explaining that in designing a waterfall, until you actually add the water you cannot be sure of where and how the water will flow. "You can design a waterfall on paper all you want but once you build it and add water, nature sends the water where it wants and you have to deal with it."
Designing a Dragon-Centric Garden
Christie Barry describes how she uses serendipity and senses to design a landscape.
Q: How did you work with a 6-foot-tall bronze dragon?
A: We knew it needed a backdrop, but because it is so flashy, you have to complement it and not upscale it. We knew we needed a retaining wall, so the area behind the dragon served as the backdrop, with the wall designed to look like the back of a castle.
Q: What did you have to do to prepare the site?
A: We removed the existing stone wall. We dug down one and a half feet then put down gravel, crushed gravel and stone dust for a stable base. We put in the electrical for the pump and then laid the terrace on top.
Q: What materials did you use for the hardscapes?
A: We used a brownish tan paver tile for the terrace. For the wall we laid concrete block then mortared South Bay thin stone to it. For the reflecting pool, we put sand on the bottom then built a 2-by-4 frame for the pond liner. We took the tiles and cut them in half and laid it around the top of the liner. We made a pedestal for the dragon out of the same stone as the wall. The tricky part was measuring how far it spits, so it spits right into the center of the pond.
Q: How did you choose the plants?
A: The dragon is pretty big and menacing, so behind it we used more texture and dramatic color with autumn ferns; hypericum that blooms yellow in the summer and has a textured burgundy leaf; mahonia that is an evergreen with dramatic blue berries with a dramatic yellow bloom; and a craggily leaf like its spine. The bed in front of the dragon is mundo grass. On either side of the dragon in pots are red geraniums and white canna lilies.
Got roots? Surface roots from trees can break and crack hardscapes (sidewalks, walls, driveways, etc.). Most of the time you can go in and prune the roots, but be careful. "Remember that the tree has as much surface below ground as it does on top. You also do not want to cut an entire side off or you will disconnect a whole line of roots," says landscape architect Nancy Dransfield. If you're in the design stage, try to keep hardscapes away from trees, like maples, that have more surface roots.
Interviewing? VSLD's Web site lists a few questions you should have answered before meeting with a landscaper:
• What result do I want when the project
• Which areas need to be improved, and how will they be used?
• What is my budget?
• What is my time frame?
Then ask to see potential landscapers' portfolios and check their references, education and credentials. Also request a written proposal that clarifies the design and specifics.
What does it cost? There is a cost for the design, the materials, labor and installation. "Designers can charge in a general range of $85 to $150 an hour just to do a design," Beasley says. According to the VSLD Web site, a good rule of thumb on how much to spend on the entire project is 10 percent to 15 percent of the value of your house and property.