A Capitol Hill Garden Design Primer

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Building the garden in the hot sun is hard work. Photo: Cheryl Corson

In spatial contrast to the predictable, steady rhythm of historic row houses on the street, the typical Capitol Hill back yard is an empty rectangle full of possibilities. In social contrast to increasingly vibrant public spaces – parks, school and community gardens, and commercial corridors – Capitol Hill backyards are predominantly private, with typically opaque fencing above eye level.

These garden spaces are more or less elongated rectangles, which may or may not have garages, public alleys, or mature trees in or near one’s property. The ground level is close to or a few steps below the rear door to the house. There may be views toward something interesting to inform a design: a mature tree, a church window, or even the Capitol. Parcels vary in their soils, moisture, air flow, light and topography, so some site analysis will help guide you. Pre-design, your own rectangle may look and feel like a box, but it is really an empty stage upon which complex dance moves may be choreographed.

The final result makes the most of the small space. Photo: Dan Mullins

In fact, some choreography tips apply: use the entire stage; consider entrances and exits; and break up lines of direction, including the vertical. But this is not what most people do. The most natural and usually least successful design move is to create garden beds and seating areas that outline and reinforce the property line, which is usually also the fence line. We learned to color inside the lines in kindergarten and it’s a hard habit to break.

We usually arrange furniture this way too. But what if we put the couch perpendicular to a wall, on a diagonal, or in the middle of the room? We may find that by “using up” more space we also create the perception of more space. It’s counter-intuitive, but when there is visual and spatial complexity, something to see around, or something else partially revealed, the space becomes more interesting and feels bigger. This is why unfurnished rooms look smaller than furnished ones, as your real estate agent will probably tell you.

The Stage and the Frame
If we attended a dance performance and the dancers only moved around the stage’s perimeter, it would look strange. So would a painting that merely traced bands of color in increasingly smaller parallel lines relative to the picture frame (Josef Albers aside). By contrast, Piet Mondrian arranged orthogonal shapes on the picture plane in such a way as to challenge the actual boundary of the painting. This can be done using right angles, or with curves. The strategy is the same, and can be successfully employed in garden design as well as in painting.

Lines on paper translate into spaces on the ground that facilitate the flow of water, create shade, enhance desirable views, or screen unwanted ones. The dance between plan drawing and spatial reality is one of the most exciting things to witness as a garden project is built. Designing within a small rectangle can be as free and exuberant as designing anything.

What Do You Really Need?
The most helpful thing you can do for yourself, or any designer or contractor you may work with, is to ask yourself what you really want. Why do you want to design, or re-design the garden right now? Your answers will help guide you, your designer, and the design itself.

Here are some examples of what can motivate people to undertake their project:

  • “My youngest just left for college and I need a project that’s just for me”
  • We need the yard to look better when we sell the house next year”
  • “I’ve decided I’m happy being single, and this isn’t the temporary house I thought it was ten years ago.”

While you’re taking stock, also ask yourself:

  • How long do you intend to remain in your home?(not always knowable, but worth a guess)
  • Are there things you absolutely must have (Pink dogwood, bee hives, walking outside barefoot)?
  • Do any existing conditions pose a threat to your home and/or garage (dead overhead branches, damp or wet areas, loose bricks that need re-pointing)?
  • Do any existing conditions pose a threat to your safety (rickety steps, above-ground electrical conduit, uneven paving, poison ivy, loose hand rails, rotting deck)?

Knowing these things in advance will help everyone.  The design and construction sequencing can be properly planned. Cost estimates and value engineering can be most accurate. “Value engineering” is a prioritized list of what can be cut or substituted without sacrificing the overall design intent. So spend some quiet time noting these things before you send that first email inquiry and you’ll be on more solid ground.

Water-Wise Gardening
Designed with care, your new garden can help reduce the load on the Hill’s 19th century plumbing which mixes rainwater (which is non-potable) with water used inside the home (potable) that must be treated before being released into the Anacostia River. This is called CSS, a combined sewer system. Modern systems, by contrast, separate potable and non-potable water.  One third of all DC’s water is in combined sewers, including most of Capitol Hill, and this puts a strain on our municipal water treatment facilities, and the river, when the overloaded system overflows during big storms. If your garden design includes disconnecting your downspout from your storm drain, and creatively uses your water on site, you will become part of the solution.

The District’s RiverSmart Homes program offers individual homeowners up to $2,400 in incentives for incorporating garden features such as shade trees or permeable paving into new designs. They also offer guidance. For details, see: https://doee.dc.gov/service/riversmart-homes-overview.

One water wise garden tip that might seem counter-intuitive is to plant more densely. You might think that more plants would require more water, but in fact, widely spaced plants with expanses of mulch in between dry out the soil more quickly plus encourage weed seed germination. Your densely planted beds will create a leafy canopy that retains soil moisture and prevents weed seeds from landing on receptive ground. Learn to divide perennials planted three years ago or more, and you’ll find that you have plenty of plant material to go around. Divide and conquer your plant beds as one more water wise gardening tool in your toolkit.

Do No Harm
Consult with a local garden center, or with a designer or contractor to be sure your garden plans are suited to your site and local regulations. The District regulates the size of trees which may be removed without a permit, for example.  (https://ddot.dc.gov/page/ddot-special-tree-removal-permit ).

Fences, decks, and patios may require building permits, as may construction occurring on the street side, where yards may be in what is called “public space.” The Capitol Hill Restoration Society offers some guidance on this (http://chrs.org/). The District Department of Transportation’s Public Space Regulation Division provides more detail: https://ddot.dc.gov/page/ddot-public-space-regulation-division-psrd.

The District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, DCRA, has a Homeowner’s Center designed to serve individuals in navigating the permit process for your fence, deck, or patio: https://dcra.dc.gov/service/homeowners-center.

And remember that your neighbor’s tree has roots extending into your yard, so do your best to protect these largest members of the plant world offering us shade and comfort. Community is the Hill’s strongest asset and our trees remind us that we are all connected. Happy Gardening!

Cheryl Corson is a licensed landscape architect and writer practicing on Capitol Hill and beyond. She is author of the Sustainable Landscape Maintenance Manual for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, http://cblpro.org/downloads/CBLPMaintenanceManual.pdf. Cheryl enjoys helping people learn about and enjoy their outdoor environments.