The Great Outdoors

Experts offer tips on achieving your perfect green space.

Experts offer tips on achieving your perfect green space.

By Jennifer Shapira


The perfect backyard is a landscape colored with four-season interest, is high on style and low on maintenance. Achieving the combination makes for an ideal garden, but even scoring some of those details is a welcome start.

Everyone wants to make their outdoor space more inviting, more in keeping with their lifestyle. Everyone loves the idea of grow-your-own vegetables, or herbs, of being able to snip off some basil or rosemary and toss it into a summer night’s dinner.

Who doesn’t want fresh-cut flowers, like whimsical, sun-loving hot-pink cosmos or cheerful black-eyed Susans cut right from your own plot? Or sitting beneath the cool shade of a sugar maple in summer that in autumn turns a bright red? Or the gorgeous springtime sculptural dogwoods that bloom white or pink in early spring?

Sound like a fantasy? Local experts can help you make that a reality. They’ll visit your property, complete a total site analysis, paint a picture catered to your wants and needs, show you what will do well in your yard (and inform you of what won’t) by helping to identify proper plantings, suggest the right hardscaping materials and add in the all-important design accents, making it all come together.

For the creative homeowner, much of this, if not all, might seem like a series of do-it-yourself projects, but to get everything just right, it’s best to seek the advice of a professional, says Tom Harley, landscape designer at Meadows Farms Nursery. Such collective experience will keep your project on schedule and free of errors, and you will no doubt be pleased with the final results.


Getting Started

In Northern Virginia, Harley says, most of the landscaping requests he receives are modest. He hears a similar checklist from almost every homeowner. “They want low-maintenance, color all year and inexpensive—that’s what they’re hoping for,” he says.

Sounds simple enough. But plans, materials, plants and accents can start to add up. So how to proceed on a budget?

Courtesy of Tom Harley

“A lot of times people will come to me and have no clue what they’re looking for,” says Harley. “They just know they want their backyards to be beautiful. They want to soften the architecture, get plants into the ground that grow in and just keep getting better every year.”

But he, like many experts, cautions homeowners that a “no-maintenance” backyard simply doesn’t exist: One still has to water and weed.

You’ve got to do some work to get things established. But once established, you shouldn’t have to do anything ever,” he says. “You shouldn’t have to prune, or do anything, if it’s done right. That’s the whole reason we’re there.” 

Through a series of in-depth lifestyle questions: (How should your garden grow? What styles do you like?) Harley is able to dissect a homeowner’s bullet/wish list and help them to realize a vision for their outdoor space. Quite often, he says, he’ll insert himself into the design plan: If the space were his, how would he design it? What trees and plants would he choose? That’s when he says a mix of knowledge and creativity goes a long way.

“Maybe they show you a picture in a magazine,” he says. “A lot of it has to do with budget. You’ve just got to be ever-mindful of certain things: budget, drainage, engineering. Then it’s taking all those factors and coming up with a solution.”

While there are a number of common denominators, Harley, like most landscape professionals, is quick to point out that no two jobs are exactly alike. But he has noticed that more people are focused on a beautiful landscape, and that’s usually where more of the money goes.


Project Timeline (Job Process)

Tom Harley, Landscape Designer at Meadows Farms Nursery

1. Client contacts Meadows Farms.

2. Meadows assigns lead (usually within 24 hours).

3. I call client to set appointment to meet (usually day I receive the info).

4. Appointment is set with client (anywhere from the next day to two weeks out or more, depending on clients/my schedule…usually about a week).

5. Goal is to provide a plan and estimate at the time of the appointment (and to get deposit for job at that time); however, depending on the scope of the job it can take longer. Ninety percent of the appointments I go on, the plan and estimate are completed impromptu.

6. The job is entered into “the system,” a computer contract is generated which needs signature and deposit, plan all in order. (This can be done in a hour or over several days.] Then, the client has to put down their deposit, usually 50 percent down. and, it’s really up to them when they are ready to proceed.

7. Once everything is turned in and approved by management it goes to scheduling (takes about one day) and the client is called to schedule an installation date. Usually the job is scheduled to begin within two weeks of the deposit, although this can vary depending on the clients’ preferences. Most often the work is completed in one day, although depending on the scope of the work, it may take a weeks to complete.

8. The balance due for the job is collected upon completion and this is usually the last item to be taken care of. However, there may still be additional work to be done such as add on work, any plants not on site because it was not in inventory, etc.

9. Follow up of whatever is necessary is done as soon as possible, depending on the situation. There is also a lifetime warranty on all the plants we install, so even years after the job is completed we may be called on.


Some Things to Note:

Generally, it takes about a month from womb to tomb for an average job of $1,000 to $20,000. However, if you are constructing a swimming pool in Fairfax County it is going to take four months minimum from the time you submit your plans until you to get your permit. It will take even longer if you are in an RPA (within a hundred feet of stream). Larger projects like this can take months or even years; require engineered plans, impact studies, etc. Other projects, like decks that require permits, can be in your hands in one day to two weeks. It really varies, but in general the bigger the project, the longer it takes. No permits are required for plantings or most patios and walkways.


(May 2013)