Thursday, August 17, 2017  

Exterior Design
Designing exterior spaces in the Tidewater area

We need interior spaces to live in, so we obtain them (rent, borrow or buy apartments, cottages and homes) and then what? We want our spaces to say something about us, make us comfortable and offer a modicum of delight. So we set about to learn what we can about interior design. Our interior spaces are important to us.

So it is with our exterior spaces. This time of the year our view of them has changed. Gone are the bright greens and daily surprises of spring, the overwhelming lushness of summer and the deep hues of fall. The fingers of our garden gloves are worn through and our tools cleaned and oiled (OK, then if not, it is time!). The compost pile is high with the bounty of waste from the garden and the freezer and pantry hold gifts we can use for winter feasts.

Now we enter into our planning time. This is the time to contemplate what worked and what didn’t. “Never again will I plant that because it took over, died, it was too much work for the end results”……But, just as swearing off chocolate cake, milkshakes or ever having another baby…we weaken and start to spend inordinate amounts of time staring out the windows and perusing seed catalogs and gardening publications. Hope springs eternal. So let’s look at the value of the exterior design of our spaces.

Landscaping affects your property value. According to Money magazine, “not all improvements will increase the value of a house by the amount they cost to perform.” Landscaping, according to their research, has a recovery value of 100 to 200% “if it is well-done and harmonizes with foliage nearby.” So how do we determine how much of an investment to make in our landscapes?

Issues pertaining to investment include answers to the following questions: Are you planning on being in your house long term or selling it in the near future? What is your plan for the use of your exterior spaces and what is the general condition of the site? Have you thought about your needs to reduce the use of utilities as in heat and cooling, chemical use and yard maintenance? What about your time commitment, your style and your budget?

Take a look at the history of gardens. Gardens early in history were plots of land owned by the aristocracy. They were tended by crews of gardeners and meant for the delight of the wealthy owners. Throughout time, gardens evolved into public spaces, arboretums and parks for public use and enjoyment. Gardening has always existed and been used for agricultural reasons on a large scale by our farmers. During World War II, “Victory Gardens” sprung up at private homes as a means of conservation of our nation’s resources and food stuffs. 

Following World War II, housing developments popped up in response to the population boom. Small plots of land surrounded the houses and gardening was suddenly a part of everyone’s life. The term “garden” meant what happened in your own yard.

 Landscaping has historical phases closely linked to the architectural styles of the time. In Victorian times, gardens were highly stylized with elaborate ornamentation. During the times of Modernism and Post Modernism, simple elegant garden forms were dominant. In this present time of Urban Renewal, we are taking a new look at our city spaces. Parks can be small and personal. They can be creative, utilizing the arts with sculpture and providing venues for stage productions. They can be intergenerational with walking paths, tennis courts and playgrounds. Trees are gaining a new respect with roadside plantings for heat-reducing shade in the summer and structure in the winter. All of these spaces and applications take extensive planning.


Taking stock of your landscape can be as simple as taking a good look out your windows. This is your exterior landscaping inside out and your prominent view in the cooler months. We too often become so familiar with our exterior spaces that we fail to look at them from an objective viewpoint. Professional designers are skilled at viewing exterior spaces and making objective suggestions.

Taking time to view the plat plan of your property is of great value. They show magnetic north, easements, placement of property markers or pins, wetlands, setbacks and other valuable information. The placement of buildings and septic fields may not necessarily be current. Plat plans can be obtained from your local courthouse.

Using transparent paper such as onion skin, placed over your plat plan can enable you to sketch in flow, usage (utility, formal entrance, recreational…) and proposed needs (privacy screen, wind shield, cutting garden, etc).

Take a good look out the windows where you eat meals or spend time inside during the daylight hours. Views do not have to stop with the onset of cooler weather, they just change. Instead of the bright colors of flowers and blooming shrubs you view the structure of trees, shrubs and grasses.


Grasses come in all sizes and shapes. They excel in the cooler weather when their inflorescence or bloom is full. When placed in a western exposure where sunsets are reflected through them, they shine. As in all plantings, grasses are best in masses for impact. Grasses come in many forms, colors and sizes. In this Tidewater area, we have many natives. Remember when transplanting natives to duplicate the growing conditions. Grasses planted on shorelines move beautifully in the wind and aid in the retention of soil. Healthy shorelines support the growth of native grasses.


Planting our shorelines works wonders for the health of the water. Remember views are best framed and not cleared. Plant back from your waterfront by adding salt and wind tolerant natives rather than growing lawn to the water’s edge. This practice augments your view and provides habitat for wildlife while the roots filter toxins and stabilize the soil. Shoreline erosion should be examined by a professional. Look at the website for SEAS, a shoreline service offered by the Department of Conservation and Recreation for further information and assistance. The Master Gardeners of the Northern Neck are launching the I-SEA (Integrated Shoreline Evaluation Assistance) program in 2012. This service will provide skilled evaluation of your shoreline. Contact the Lancaster or Northumberland Extension office for further information.

Winter Interest

With the cooler temperatures, the deciduous trees and shrubs drop their leaves. The structure of trunks and branches gives us a changed view. Coral bark maple (Acer palmatum), birch (Betula) and sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) offer texture and color for our winter palate.

The dogwood shrubs (Cornus sericea and Cornus stollinifera) offer unique color for the wintertime. Preferring damp soil (wetlands), they tend to grow from 3-8 foot in height and 4-6 foot in width. Prune them to the ground in early spring and forget about them. The show begins when the leaves drop in the fall and the showy red (servicea) and yellow branches (stollinifera) add to your winter view.

Silky dogwood (cornus amomum), one of our natives, grows to a height of 6-12 foot, flowers in May-June, fruits in August with blue berries and has an amazing fall show of orange, red or purple. It can be used in forested wetlands, floodplains, shrub wetlands and stream or pond banks as well as clearings.

Our native bayberry (Myrica cerifera) is a wonderful addition to any landscape. From 4-12 foot in height, they are mostly evergreen. The female plants bear aromatic waxy berries. They tolerate shearing, gentle shaping or being allowed to grow to full height.

American winterberry (Ilex verticillata) comes in many colors as well. Predominately known as a small deciduous holly, it tolerates wet or dry conditions. When cooler weather approaches, it drops its leaves exposing branches covered with red or coral berries.

Some female hollies (Ilex) show off in the cooler temperatures with glossy green foliage and red berries. Our native (Ilex opacca) serves well for screening, wreath-making material and has the added advantage of being a snack not enjoyed by deer. Hollies also take well to shearing or pruning into desired shapes.

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginia), a deciduous shrub or sometimes a small tree, has growth 9-26 foot in height and flowers in the late fall. Its horticultural name means “together with fruit” because its flowers and indistinguishable fruit appear at the same time.

Our native blueberry comes in two delightful forms: (Vaccinium corymbosum) highbush and (Vaccinium angustifolium) lowbush. Both share yearlong interest with white bell-like flowers in early spring, followed by fruiting in late spring and early summer, and red foliage in the fall. Wintertime brings on a remarkable change as the branches take on a deep red/maroon tint. When brought inside and placed in a vase of water, they not only show up well against a lighter background with their wonderful oriental-like shapes but then they “force” or bloom early.

Exterior design is most effective if thought is given to color, texture, shape, form, and placement. Plant placement is best if done with full consideration of the mature size of the plant and the scale of surrounding landscape and structure.

As the seasons change your exterior design is viewed from another perspective. They may be viewed with snow or frost and in changing light as the sun dips lower in the sky.

Enjoy the view!