The Interior Designer Client

Is it simply hubris, or just plain styoopid to put forward my design skills to this next client, a talented and charming Interior Designer and rowhouse owner? What could I possibly contribute in terms of style and composition to her home’s exterior that she hasn’t already considered and/or implemented? Well, as it turns out, I’m a firehose of ideas and conceptual frameworks from which to pick and choose! First, the bad news:

It is unfortunate that many developers & builders use a tortured and Byzantine formula in order to arrive at the absolute minimum legally-required ‘greenspace’ for their homes– such is certainly the case here. Such a small space is the equivalent of a brief brushstroke on an enormous blank canvas of surrounding light reflecting and heat-absorbing impermeable surfaces.

Very quickly after chatting with the client I saw her to be a brilliant and passionate designer with a great eye for spatial organization and clean lines– her work emphasizes flow, light and air, and a certain crispness that’s quite compelling. So, I knew that whatever I did, I had to make the landscape work as a statement about her profession and talents. The good news is, the bad news means that anything we do, as long as it is not truly savage, will work (as long as I honor those ideals I see in the client’s own artistic work)– there is nothing to reference architecturally or stylistically here, so we are left with limitless possibilities for design concepts free from restraint.

Ok, so I lied– the space pictured above does in fact have to tie in visually with this poor strip of soil:

2 feet by almost 19 feet in length, this slit of fertile earth is orphaned and in need of careful thought and attention. One possibility, which will give the space structure (good bones) and also reference the somewhat imposing vertical lines of the 3 story houses behind, is the judicious use of evergreen fastigiate trees like Sky Pencil Holly, Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’:

File:Japanese Holly Ilex crenata 'Sky Pencil' Plants 2448px.jpg

Thought of as brush strokes, these are emerald green upward stroked single gestures in the landscape.

Between these vertical elements we can install containers, 24″x26″x40″, made of COR-TEN steel, which will form the framework for countless compositions and arrangements seasonally. COR-TEN is a type of steel which oxidizes quickly and then stabilizes with a wonderful orangey-burnt umber patina. The older it gets, the better it looks:

A quick sketch or two:

I would especially like to see these planters in the winter months, stuffed with evergreen boughs, or perhaps whimsically, wrapped Christmas presents and ribbons around the hollies. At other times of the year they can be lovingly stuffed with a huge variety of plants which thrive in containers. Let’s look at the postage stamp again:

A simple rectilinear shape which begs for some bold containers on the landings (and with such good fortune, the neighbor to the left is all for us utilizing her landing as well). Onto this small space, endless combinations of abstract forms can be placed as a backdrop for those containers:

Seasonally, any number of plantings would look great:

(I meant ‘New Wave Petunia’, not Pansy, above.)

You get the idea!


Despite the unusually chilly spring (is it Eyjafjallajokull?), design work, installations, and general landscaping has reached its typical insane pitch here at greeneyedesign central. Several weeks ago I began container designs for a new client, Fresh Lunch Catering. The owners, Matt Bressan and his irrepressible, wildly creative wife Jenn, found a wonderful new location recently on the first floor of the historic Joshua Gunnell House in old town Fairfax:

Joshua Gunnell House

Another view of the Joshua Gunnell House

The good news is that the space conveyed with a gorgeous old brick courtyard in the rear of the house. There’s little doubt that the construction was much later than the house’s build date (sometime around 1830), nevertheless it’s quite old and the patina is fantastic. The previous tenants have, over the years, made some unfortunate design choices (or lack thereof), the result being a hodgepodge of plants and shrubs that really don’t need to be memorialized in photos. Oh what the heck:

Interestingly, the high degree of calcium inflorescence you see in the center wall segment perfectly mirrors a small lined pool & fountain on the other side. Time for a new liner?

These lovely trees need to be limbed up and thinned, and deadwood pruned out.

The rear entrance– really charming, but all these plants have to go (except the large Saucer Magnolia, all it needs is a good Christmas light de-wiring)

Eventually the owner would like to have a professional outdoor kitchen from which to serve lunch. Here perhaps? These poor Rose of Sharon have to go. An espaliered fruit tree will go in at the base of the wall on the left. Uplit at night, it will look fantastic.

The courtyard is a lovely 3 levels of interest, with almost limitless possibilities in terms of staging and design. I knew early on that I would like to contrast the old brick walls and floor with eye catching container arrangements with an emphasis on ‘edible compositions’. The space conveyed with a variety of disused terracotta pots and urns, all of which sported old soil of dubious quality and about 10 billion cigarette butts– EW! With a launch date of June 1, the pots, troughs, and urns are all potted up with a lovely variety of annuals, herbs, and veggies like Dinosaur Kale– also known as Lacinato Kale or Italian Heirloom (cavalo nero, ie black cabbage):

Dinosaur Kale, (Brassica oleracea ‘Nero Toscana’), Sage

Million Bells™ Calibrachoa, Lavender Hidcote, Arp Rosemary, Mint

Variegated Lemon Sage, Fiberoptic Grass, Limelight Licorice Plant, Sweet Allysum

Scotch Moss, Columnar Variegated Basil, Million Bells (white bloom)

I am looking forward to photographing these arrangements in place one they have rooted and filled in– they will look spectacular. Just before staging them, I will lay down fir bark nuggets to topdress the soil and eliminate soil splashing up onto the leaves in hard rain or when watering. I’m leaving it off for now to keep the soil as warm as possible to encourage root growth.

Terracotta jumbo box, Creeping Thyme, Lavender ‘Munkstead’, Sweet Allysum, Lavender ‘Jean Davis’

Grow, grow my little ones!

‘Limelight’ Licorice Plant, ‘Nonstop Yellow’ Tuberous begonia, orange blooming Profusion Zinnias, Basil ‘Purple Ruffles’ ,  Calibrachoa ‘Superbells® Dreamsicle’

Stay tuned!

The Old Town Client

(client photo)

Another lovely old townhouse in Old Town Alexandria for me to design. I love working in this area for many reasons– of course, the historic aspect of Old Town is reason enough, but the architecture and the detail in this neighborhood is positively charming. The brick is fabulous! Seen above is the project before any renovation and cleanup began; decades of neglect resulted in a chaos of random growth and site strangulation. Much work was needed to get back to the bare bones.

More recently, this home is in the final stages of a complete renovation and interior redesign; as a part of that process decades and decades of happenstance vegetative growth was stripped away from the front and rear of the tiny lot:

In this intensely urban environment space is at a premium, and the rear courtyard garden is completely landlocked with no entrance save through the backdoor to the house. Thus, a crane was employed to remove some of the trees and shrubs.

We can see a charming older home behind all that detritus:

Here my friends, is the real treasure, the back courtyard:

I really can’t express how excited I am to be designing in this lovely space! The patina is just amazing.

In The Garden, Signs

This week in the garden:

Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’

Forest Pansy is a lovely red-leaved variety of our charming Redbud

Ginkgo biloba ‘Princeton Sentry’

The newly emerging leaves are like miniature versions of the fully matured leaves, apple green and thinner though…

Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’

One of my favorite Magnolias, the best yellow I think– not brassy at all and spectacular in conjunction with the still-closed Redbud flowers…

Viburnum carlesii

aka Korean Spicebush, this fragrance is staggering and can be enjoyed all over the garden. The still-closed flower buds have a charm all their own.

Ulmus parvifolia ‘Corticosa’

A somewhat rare, extremely corky-barked Chinese Elm, this one is destined for a bonsai pot this year.

Carpinus turkzaninowii (a Hornbeam of Korean origin, somewhat rare)

Spectacular fall foliage, this delicate small tree is a real prize.

Cotinus x coggygria ‘Golden Spirit’

Almost fluorescent yellow leaves with red veination throughout the growing season

Viburnum davidii

Camellia x ‘April Dawn’ (C oleifera x C japonica)

Amelanchier canadensis ‘Autumn Brilliance’

The Canadian Serviceberry is a wonderful native tree for any garden. The early spring flowering is followed by gorgeous metallic blue berries that taste wonderful (if you can steal them from every songbird in your region, who positively mug these trees when they’re fruiting)…

Leptinella squalida 'Platt's Black'

New Zealand is the origin of this zesty little tough groundcover.

Tolerant of light foot traffic, this feathery fern-like little perennial is green with gray purple and dark black tints.  In spring and summer, periodically tiny yellow button like flowers appear a few inches above the foliage-completely charming.  Very tolerant of shade, Platt’s Black isn’t particular about soil and is also drought resistant once it’s established.

Use Platt’s Black as a tough groundcover between pavers, in rock walls, troughs, and slopes near eye level.

The Semi-regular 'Oh Hell No' Mention


Arguably the most hideous planned garden ever… The sad thing is, the plant selections are all quite lovely… it’s just their absurd and oafish placement, as well as such niceties as a tiny non-functioning wooden wheelbarrow, 3 types of edging materials, and bright red dyed mulch all combine to make this truly horrific…

Gardens like this make me angry– I think it’s the duality.

Yes, duality.

Here we see a garden on which massive amounts of tender loving care and sweat equity are being lavished in copious amounts. And yet, that energy is so misguided that the end result is the exact opposite of what they desire. Indeed, this landscape is worse than if they had done nothing.

Panorama (click to see much larger version)

Tour Notes, Too

On with the flora show!


Native Pitcher Plants

Orchids of unknown tribe

I found the cool grey blues of these dormant orchid bulbules (Calanthe sedenii Becky) really lovely

Living Sphagnum Moss… they use it to assist in moisture retention as well as to gauge moisture levels.

Until next year!

Tour Notes

So my sweetness & light and I had a most excellent time touring the USBG Production Facility yesterday. The scale of the facility is hard to grasp when one is inside the glass houses, mainly because each house (although technically all under one roof) is maintained as a glass-walled separate entity (meaning 17 unique climates for raising plants from all over the planet). Nevertheless, the entire growing facility is a mind-boggling 85,000 square feet under glass.

The facility is responsible for propagating and maintaining all of the flora on display in the main USBG conservatory, as well as maintaining historically valuable flora and also certain rare or illegally-obtained plants seized at US borders (for example, they are currently caring for several rare Vietnamese Slipper orchids). They rotate out indoor tree and shrub displays for the Legislative branch (under whose auspices the USBG operates) and also engage in large scale propagation of several hardy bulb displays around Washington, DC. Here is the main avenue down to the separate house entrances:

Once you get down to the main elevation, the T intersection leads off on either side to row after row of individual (very large in their own right) glass houses. The entire facility’s environment is computer controlled, so optimal temperature and humidity fluctuations for each house’s climate zone can be maintained. The main drag is filled with potting stations and equipment. It was quite simply the most awesome setup I have ever seen.

Believe it or not, the above gargantuan Cycad (Cycas circinalis) is one collected during the original Wilkes Expedition of 1838. Some time ago it stood twice as tall as you see now and was completely unmanageable. It was sawed in half, and the upper portion was rooted in to a new container (it’s the half now in display in the main conservatory). This bottom half sprouted anew at the top and seems to be none the worse for wear.

In the desert climate house, we saw an enormous and diverse collection of xeriscape flora:

Creepy, Parodia scopa

The textures and coloration was just extraordinary:


I’m not very knowledgeable on many of these species, please feel free to comment below if you spot any you know!

I will continue in another post, picking up with orchids and bog plants!

inside the work, clients, & life @greeneyedesign