A Landscape Architect’s Journey: Yes You Can Go Home Again
by Jennifer Horn, ASLA

The Dream: How It All Got Started

I am a landscape architect and horticulturist and have recently returned to the District of Columbia area to open my own high-end estate and resort design firm. This marks the culmination of a dream that began 20 years ago, not far from the nation’s capital.

In 1991, as a high school junior in Virginia, I first discovered my passion for plants. I had gotten a job working at a local plant nursery and was so inspired, that I envisioned myself eventually working at a design firm that specialized in high-end residential sites and, when I felt I had enough experience, starting my own design office.

I knew I had to back up this vision with some serious training, so after high school, I enrolled at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia where I earned a BS in horticulture and a minor in small business management. From there I went to the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia where I received my MLA.

Once I graduated, I was able to stay on track with my vision. I moved to New York City where I worked for a few years at New York City’s Department of City Planning and at the Bronx Zoo. I also was employed at design firms where I gained valuable experience designing landscapes in the Hamptons and Greenwich in New York; Aspen, Colorado; California; Hawaii; the Caribbean; as well as Athens, Greece; and Barcelona, Spain. I also was able to do some teaching, and I still teach courses at Columbia University in New York, and the USDA Graduate School in Washington, DC. In addition, I write a blog about landscape design called plantedcloud.com. When I was in New York, I wrote a blog: http://newyorkplantsandotherstuff.blogspot.com 

Observations about Landscape Professionals

In my twenty years in the landscape industry, I have noticed an interesting tendency among many landscape architects and garden designers, alike. Their own gardens often look less like a tailored design and more like a laboratory. When I lived in New York and was a student at Virginia Tech and at the University of Georgia, I did not enjoy the luxury of having a yard and thus, had no “lab” for experimenting with different plants or cultivars. Instead, when I visited my parents, I would frequently and impulsively buy perennials to install on their 1/4-acre home in Clifton, Virginia. I would forget all about the Lycoris I had planted in the fall until I got a quizzical phone call from my parents the following August, asking if I had anything to do with the pink lily growing rapidly in their backyard.

From Lab to Professionally Landscaped Site

While planting up my parent’s yard was a fun pastime, when I returned to the area this past year, I was anxious to use my professional skills to facelift their property and give them more structure. Their existing landscape had been installed with the help of a landscape contractor 20 years ago.

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The original overgrown and declining landscape. Image courtesy Jennifer Horn.

Besides being overgrown, we had witnessed various poorly–chosen species decline and ultimately die, including Pyrus calleryana (Bradford pear) and Prunus cerasifera (Purple-leaf plum); and needed to replace the snow-damaged Ilex crenata. We also had to remove the vigorously self-seeding Koelreuteria paniculata (Golden raintree) that was forever threatening to take over their yard as well as their neighbors’. Also, the oak and hickory forest abutting the backyard that was once nascent had grown significantly. Finally, the many experimental perennials I had planted behind the house were not getting the sunlight they needed (a lab lesson learned). These were all factors that I considered while re-designing the site.

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Diagram of plan for new front yard. Image courtesy Jennifer Horn.

I did not want to do a simple landscape scheme around the house by adding foundation plants and a few standard perennials. Instead, I wanted to enhance the colonial Williamsburg style of the architecture and create a more formal garden for the front that enhanced the view from the parlor and study that flank the front door.

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With the bluestone paving moved away from the house, the Chionanthus virginicus trees could be centered between the windows flanking the entry. A boxwood hedge surrounds the transplanted perennials. Image courtesy Jennifer Horn.

This past November, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. In the front, I created two boxwood gardens on each side of the front door and centered a native Chionanthus virginicus (White fringetree) between the sets of windows at the study and the parlor. The boxwood gives the front yard formality and structure, and within these gardens, I installed about 150 of the misplaced perennials from the backyard here so they would get more sunlight and be less tempting to our resident herd of deer. I also added Allium giganteum and Leucojum to the gardens. Because boxwood hedges hem in the perennials, the flower garden will not appear overgrown or messy if it is not regularly tended. This was important because my parents were not interested in a high-maintenance cottage landscape.

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The enlarged front terrace can now accommodate planters or a bench and creates place to congregate. Image courtesy Jennifer Horn.

The new scheme required an adjustment to the bluestone walkway to their front door. The previous designer had allowed only a 7 foot-wide planting bed between the front walk and the house. I widened this space to 12 feet so it could accommodate a small tree like Chionanthus. The extra 5 feet in front of the portico also allowed for a front patio, which could ultimately accommodate a bench or planter boxes.

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A band of 12"x12" bluestone abuts the house to minimize muddy splashback on the brick and replace the typical treatment of foundation planting. Image courtesy Jennifer Horn.

Finally, I added a band of 12x12 foot bluestones along the front of the house, which softened the transition from the brick façade to the garden beds without the need for a typical line of foundation shrubs.

In the spring, I’m looking forward to seeing the blooming fringetree sit among perennials like Iris cristata, Iris germanica, Lycoris, Geranium, Primula, Aconitum, Monarda, Pulmonaria, Myosotis, Dicentra, Aquilegia, Asarum and Hemerocallis, to name a few. In addition, bulbs of Allium giganteum (Giant onion) and Leucojum will peek over the boxwood hedges.
In the back, which is a more casual space, I maintained the general garden shape, but eliminated the common Euonymus fortunei (Emerald Gaiety) and focused on deer-resistant shrubs like Pieris, Aronia, Viburnum, Rhus aromatica, Clethra and Callicarpa. These plants primarily surround a wood deck where my folks spend much of their time during the warmer weather. The forest in the backyard slopes down to the house, which means the deck rests just 12” above the highest ground.

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The back deck sits low to the ground at the bottom of a slope where soil and leaf litter had accumulated. Image courtesy Jennifer Horn.

Over the years, leaf litter and soil had accumulated closer and closer to the wood joists and reduced air flow. This buildup would eventually shorten the lifespan of the members.

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A “retaining wall,” made of filter fabric, steel rods, anchor pins, and zip ties, keeps 6 inches of free air space around the deck. Image courtesy Jennifer Horn.

I excavated the soil around the deck and used a quick but practical detail to keep soil away from the deck and allow for air flow around the structure until plant roots can ultimately stabilize the soil. I hammered 24-inch iron stakes into the ground every 6 feet and then used plastic zip ties to attach silt fence fabric to the stakes. Anchor pins secure the fabric along the ground plane so soil can’t slip beneath this simple, but effective “retaining wall.”

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After installation and planting, the “retaining wall” is barely noticeable. Image courtesy Jennifer Horn.

It has been six months since installing this fix and the structure is still holding back the soil. Before long, the plant roots will do their part to stabilize the soil further.
My parents love the new design. And we are all committed to maintaining the newly-established design structure. Our biggest challenge will be to practice a bit more discipline when we go to nurseries, and resist making impulse purchases.

In my journey from high school dreamer to principal of my own landscape architecture firm, I think about the path I have followed, and marvel that I continue to find profound fulfillment in my career choice. Landscape architecture is a wonderful profession and one that I would choose again as the perfect career.

Jennifer Horn, ASLA, is the principal at Jennifer Horn Landscape Architecture in Washington, DC and can be reached at: jennifer@jenniferghorn.com. She still lives in an apartment, but is eyeing her sister’s home in Loudoun County as a potential new lab site.

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Jennifer Horn, ASLA, Co-Chair
(202) 573-7581

James Hughes, Affiliate ASLA, Co-Chair
(850) 294-3227