Tag Archive for: design

Great Trees and Shrubs for Screening

This post was originally published in July of 2015 and was updated January 3, 2018.


American Arborvitae

‘Emerald’, which matures to about 15’ tall and 4’ wide; ‘Nigra’, 15’ x 5’; and ‘Pyramidal’, 20’ x 8’ are three of our most popular varieties. Great for our Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, these varieties display dense, dark green foliage that is soft textured. They maintain good winter color.


As a young tree, cryptomeria has a very dense, full growth that begins to open up into a more irregular, graceful form with age. It matures to a height of 50’ – 60’ and a spread of 20’ – 40’. An elegant tree with attractive red bark, cryptomeria can be used as a specimen or to create privacy. Cryptomeria should be planted in full sun. Growing 30’ – 40’ tall, ‘Yoshino’ is the most popular type.

Eastern Red Cedar

Native to the mid-Atlantic region, Eastern red cedar is a narrow, evergreen tree that can mature to 25’ to 35’ tall. The dense and pyramidal form becomes slightly pendulous with age. Male plants have gold cones and female plants have blue cones that birds love. The two paired together are quite attractive in the landscape.

Foster’s Holly

Some homeowners are smitten with Foster hollies, which feature small, fine-textured leaves and narrow, upright growth. Their dense growth, dark green foliage and bright red berries make them an excellent choice for privacy screens. They mature to a height of 20’ – 30’, but with routine pruning they can be easily kept to a height of 12’ – 15’.

Giant (Western) Arborvitae

Native to the Pacific Northwest, this is often sold as ‘Green Giant’. Because of its fast rate of growth and soft-textured foliage, the variety ‘Green Giant’ is often promoted as an alternative to Leyland cypress. ‘Green Giant’ will grow 30’ – 40’ tall with a spread of 10’ – 12’. This tree has better resistance to deer than other arborvitaes or Leyland cypress.

Leyland Cypress

A hybrid tree that originated in Wales in 1888, Leyland cypress has exploded in popularity over the past 30 years. This tree grows very rapidly, and is capable of growing 3’ a year or more until reaching maturity at 25’ – 35’ tall and 10’ wide. It requires full sunlight and appreciates a bit of protection from harsh winter winds. Moist, well-drained soil conditions are ideal, although this tree will adapt to heavy clay

Nellie R. Stevens

A very popular, vigorous, hybrid holly that grows into a broad pyramidal form. It can mature to 25’ tall, but like all hollies it responds well to pruning and can be cut back in early spring if necessary. The berries are prolific with an orange-red color. Nellie Stevens withstands harsh, exposed environments better than other hollies.

Skip Laurel

This is a widely planted, versatile shrub that is suitable for many different situations. It will grow in full sun or full shade, preferring something in between. The white flowers appear in late April or May, and are attractive, but considered secondary to the glossy, dark-green leaves. Skip laurel will grow 8’ or more tall and 4’ – 6’ wide, but can easily be shaped by occasional pruning.

Southern Magnolia

Southern Magnolia

Prized for its glossy green leaves and fragrant white flowers, this is a great specimen tree that can also be used for screening. ‘Little Gem’ is a compact variety that grows to 20’ or more tall and about 8’ wide. Planting them in a location protected from harsh winter winds is best.



Chindo Viburnum

Similar to Southern Magnolia, chindo viburnum features leather-like, shiny green leaves. This evergreen shrub makes a good hedge because it is very dense with a pyramidal form. New growth often has a red hue.

Leatherleaf Viburnum

One of the few evergreen viburnums that can be grown in our area, leatherleaf viburnum features deeply wrinkled, tough textured leaves that are very interesting. The white flowers are attractive and the berries are bright red. Planting viburnum in groups will improve berry production.

Red Tip Photinia

This popular shrub boasts bright red growth that lasts a few weeks before maturing to green. Small white flowers appear in the spring and are followed by red berries. It grows to a height of 10 to 15 feet tall and 5 to 8 feet wide. Plant in full sun to partial shade with good air circulation.

Waxleaf Privet

Waxleaf privet makes an excellent screening plant. Although it matures to a height of 12 to 15 feet, it can tolerate severe pruning. This shrub has a profusion of white blooms, black berries and glossy, green foliage.

Turning a Tiny Backyard into an Outdoor Room

Mary Kirk Menefee, Merrifield Landscape Designer

Outdoor rooms are everywhere. On television, in magazines and on social media, they captivate audiences and elicit dreams of intimate gatherings, meditative solitude or perhaps the ultimate creative work space. Rooms are by definition limited by barriers or boundaries, enclosed and only so large. They are a perfect fit for smaller, more urban properties.

So why do I hear so many homeowners describe their smallish outdoor space in disparaging terms? “It’s just a townhouse backyard.” “I have nothing but a postage stamp.” “It’s small—there’s not much we can do with it.” Sometimes, I hear a hint of shame or a vague tone of apology, as though their little spot of earth isn’t worth good design. To that, I say STOP. Stop right now and begin to look at things a different way.

I also can say, I understand. So many of us who grew up in the suburbs or more rural locales have chosen a more urban setting in which to raise our own families. Our expectations of what a “yard” should be can be stuck in that suburban mold. You know the one: an ample deck or patio leading out to an expansive lawn, just right for a game of touch football, several well-placed shade trees, and maybe a play set or vegetable garden far enough away not to feel obtrusive. Your very own slice of nature. Letting go of that expectation can feel disappointing, but it can also feel like opportunity!

When my husband and I chose our row house in the Rosemont neighborhood of Alexandria, we knew we were choosing against the big yard. With lots of green space in a nearby park where our little boy can play, we don’t miss it. Instead we are designing a space that fits who we are – simply flagstone with areas for cooking, eating and lounging, a kitchen garden, a sandbox and a few ornamental plants. A place that is an extension of our home. A place where we can live.

How to create a beautiful small outdoor space

If the vision of a purposeful space in sync with your lifestyle has your wheels turning, you may need to stop thinking in terms of a disappointing miniature suburban yard and start thinking in terms of an outdoor room. First, consider what defines a room indoors. Indoor rooms generally:

  • Have a distinct purpose and have what they need to fulfill that purpose.
  • Use the whole space, wall to wall and floor to ceiling
  • Have a logical connection to adjacent rooms
  • Contain furnishings that make them useful and comfortable
  • Include details that make them special

When we bring those concepts outside, it’s easy to see that the outdoor portion of your property need not be nature in miniature nor a useless and ignored place devoid of personality. It can be a true extension of your home, treated with the same sense of purpose, design and detail.

To get there, follow these seven tips:

Embrace the space

Let go of trying to make a cozy space feel expansive or preserve a lackluster view—it’s okay if you can’t see the edges of your property so long as you feel good in the space.


The fewer uses for a space, the easier it will be to create a unified and pleasing design.

Straighten up

Take a cue from indoors—straight lines and angles often (but not always) help to maximize usable space.


Built-in seating, planters, storage, etc., can eliminate the need for bulky furniture and allow one piece to serve multiple purposes.

Think vertical

Pay attention to walls and ceilings, both of which are fair game for furnishings, art and plantings.

Details, details

Because, every inch of a small space will be noticed, attention to detail will make it special.

Make peace with maintenance

Plants—the one quintessentially outdoor furnishing—will grow and change. You can use dwarf cultivars to make the job easier, but a lush look will require some artful pruning and extra care for container plants.

Fire Up Your Outdoor Lifestyle

Mary Kirk Menefee, Merrifield Landscape Designer

Are cooling temperatures and shorter days making you think of a cozy gathering around a fire? It’s no wonder. Fires have a primal draw. They are a source of warmth, comfort and hospitality. They engage all of our senses, and as a result, seep into our memories.

For me, a crackling fire harkens back to so many wonderful times and places. When I was very young, my grandmother would take my sister and me to a spot of open land near a creek and teach us how to build a little campfire and roast hotdogs and marshmallows on sticks. She kindled not just fire but a love of the outdoors. Later there were campfire sing-a-longs at summer camp, bonfire pep rallies and gatherings with friends around all manner of campfires and fire pits.

As a designer, I love to have to the opportunity to bring this kind of experience home to my clients. This is good thing, because fire features have become very popular. Every year, I seem to get more requests to create space for a fireplace, fire pit or chiminea in a landscape. Everyone seems to be craving that warm, hospitable place within the garden. What’s more, the warmth of a fire extends outdoor fun well into the late fall and even winter months. You don’t have to move to California to enjoy year-round outdoor living!

What you do need to do is apply a little thinking, planning and creativity. Options for fire features are nearly limitless, so if you think only of a raised stone circle, think again. As you can see from the photos below, the fire features Merrifield has built in the past few years range from elaborate outdoor living rooms, complete with fireplaces, to rustic camp-style pits to movable fire bowls. Clients who have completed such installations tell me their fire features tend to be some of the best-loved and most-used of their landscape additions.

Looking beyond the DC area, there are even more creative options to discover. In the western US and Australia, where wood-burning fires are largely prohibited, many people opt for gas fire features with sleek, modern designs. With the ability to simply turn them on and off, they fit into all kinds of unexpected places. Check out Pinterest and Houzz for some stunning examples.  Maybe you’ll end up in the vanguard of homeowners bringing this trend to the East Coast. Whatever you do, don’t limit your imagination. A Merrifield Garden Center designer can help make your dream a reality.

When working with a designer on your fire feature, the first two things he or she will consider are the available space and how you intend to use it. While built-in fire pits and fireplaces generally need generous surrounding hardscapes and to be positioned 20-25’ from structures, such as your house, portable fire bowls and chimineas can be used in smaller, closer spaces. In general, it is not recommended to put fire features under roofs or pergolas or on top of wood decks (and yes, believe it or not, that is a common question). Wood burning fire features are ideal for people who want a campfire experience, gas features are better for those who crave the ambiance with a bit more simplicity.

A few questions a designer might ask when planning your fire feature are:

  • How much space do you have/want to dedicate to this particular feature?
  • Do you need this space to be convertible (dedicated to fire for small gatherings, open space for large-scale entertaining)?
  • Is there any space 20-25’ from a structure?
  • Should the space be an extension of your home or a destination out in the garden?
  • How many people would you like to have gathered around the fire?
  • Will you be using the fire for cooking?
  • What factors (e.g., hassle of getting it started, safety concerns, no dry place to store firewood) would prevent you from using the fire feature often?

Once you’ve honed in on the location and the type of fire feature you want, it’s time to think about feeling, style and materials. What feeling do you want to create? The memory of a cozy campfire? A luxurious resort? A romantic retreat? Think about whether the space should feel enclosed and intimate or open and exciting. What aesthetic choices will contribute to that feeling?

As you’ve seen, aesthetics for fire features are as varied as any home or garden. Ideally, the style and scale of your fire feature, home and garden would all be the same—yours!  If your home tends toward cozy and rustic, with exposed beams, lots of natural materials, and a loose woodsy garden, a grand brick chimney might seem out of place. However, it might be the perfect thing for a more formal home with a white-columned pergola and parterred herb garden.

To point to a more concrete example, recently, I designed an outdoor living area with a fireplace to be a true extension of a home. Because the home sits on a steep hill within a woodland of tall trees, the living area and the fireplace needed to be bold, with large proportions, to be in scale with their surroundings. They also needed to be one with the house to avoid looking tacked-on. To get this seamless look, we used a stone veneer that was already on the house to cover the fireplace and adjacent retaining walls. The bold proportions come from chunky, rough-hewn stone for benches and wall caps and large-scale pavers for the patio that echo the colors in the veneer. The result is very cohesive, as though the outdoor area was built right along with the house.

What are the stylist hallmarks of your home’s character that you can transport into the landscape with a fire feature and surrounding patio or garden?

Here are a few aesthetic notes to look for:


  • Stone – notice color, texture and visual weight
  • Brick – notice color, finish and age
  • Stucco/Dryvit – notice color and relationship to other materials
  • Copper – notice patina and degree to which it gives the house character
  • Wrought Iron – notice it’s shape and stylistic details


  • Formal – look for symmetry, heavier, traditional materials, classical details
  • Rustic – look for natural materials and details, situation within the landscape, feelings of “woodsiness” or “beachiness”
  • Modern – look for clean lines, spare or quirky details, asymmetrical and nontraditional spatial relationships.

Having a location, type, scale and feeling in mind and a few stylistic details for inspiration, you are ready to create the perfect place to warm those chilly evenings in the coming months. Invite some friends … open a bottle of wine. What could be better?

Designing Gardens Using Color Theory

Mary Kirk Menefee, Merrifield Landscape Designer

As a designer, one of the most common phrases I hear is “I want color!” It would seem to be a simple request, but stop and think about what it means, and there are suddenly too many directions in which to turn. What good is a handsome house with elegant hardscapes and a solid structure of trees, shrubs and generous planting beds if those beds look like every orphan plant in the annuals section came to take root in them?

Basics of Color Theory

Using color in an elegant and sophisticated way requires us to take a trip back to high school art class. Do you remember that project where you had to paint an elaborate color chart, noting each hue, tone, tint and complement? It’s time for a refresher!

The chart above summarizes the basics of color theory and introduces some important vocabulary:

  • Hue: A hue is the color itself. Red, yellow and blue are primary. Orange, green and purple are secondary. All of the hues directly between a primary and a secondary color are tertiary. Hues directly across from one another on the wheel are complementary.
  • Value: Value refers to lightness versus darkness or the addition of white and black. A hue with white is called a tint. A hue with black is called a shade.
  • Purity vs. Muting: Whereas tints and shades are pure hues, muted colors can be made by combining hues. Hues mixed with their complements are called tones. If combined in equal proportions, two complements will make a neutral, like grey or tan. Since tones can also be tinted or shaded, we now have a full range of colors.

Color Schemes

With the basics in mind, we can begin to think about crafting color schemes that will give the garden strength and meaning. In general, it’s best not to try to use every hue. Limiting your pallet can be a challenge when there are so many beautiful plants to catch your eye, but your restraint will be rewarded with a pleasing unity and harmony. You also will need to decide if green will play a role in the scheme itself or if it will serve as an honorary garden neutral. If you are unsure where to start, there are a number of color scheme “formulas” to try.

  • Monochromatic: This color scheme focuses on just one hue and explores all of its tints, shades and tones. Common examples are white gardens, where flowers and foliage range from grey to snow white to cream, as shown to the right. Another is a romantic pink garden, where flowers and foliage fall within the red-violet family, be it mauve, rose or maroon.
  • Analogous: This color scheme pairs two hues that are next to each other on the color wheel, such as blue and purple or orange and yellow.  Again, a range of tints, shades and tones can add depth and contrast.
  • Complementary: This color scheme pairs hues that are across from one another on the color wheel. One of my favorite pairings is yellow with purple. Each color is easy to come by in both flowers and foliage, so the combinations are endless and can produce strikingly different results as you can see in these two examples.


With any scheme, remember that the colors need not all be bright or loud. A successful variation of a double complementary scheme pairs a more pure hue with others pushed toward neutral, as in this green and grey garden. Can you spot all of the hues and how they relate to one another?

Plan Your Color Scheme

Now that you have a basic understanding of color theory, it’s time to get out the paints and put your scheme down on paper. If painting is not for you, visit your local hardware store and put together a collage of paint chips. Try to include no more than seven colors—remember this means a combination of tints, shades, tones and neutrals—not seven different hues. Make each one larger or smaller according to how much you intend to use it. Try a few variations. Your result might look something like this:

As you work through this exercise, here are some tips to help you build the perfect color scheme:

Start with hue

What color(s) do you want to use?
Tip: Limit color selection for more unity; pay attention to the underlying hues within neutrals to ensure harmony.

Consider contrast

How bold do you want to be?
Tip: Complements will be more— bold, changes in value and tone within the same hue can be more subtle.

Think about dominance

What leads? What accents?
Tip: Try a blend of neutrals and tones with one strong accent color.

Reflect on mood

What feeling do you want to bring?
Tip: Warmth and contrast tend to be energetic, while coolness and subtlety tend to be more calming. Blending these ideas can be edgy.

Don’t ignore your givens

What colors can you not avoid because they already exist as part of the space?
Tip: Diagnose the underlying hues in your house and hardscapes.

Plan for seasonality

How will the garden change throughout the year?
Tip: Group plants that shine at the same time.

When you’re happy with your color scheme, bring it to Merrifield Garden Center and look for stone, planters, garden art and plants with foliage or flowers that fall within it. Don’t forget that plants need to be able to thrive in your conditions or you might end up with some unintended brown.