Diggin’ In: Do homework before landscaping

March 7, 2016

In the 1960s, Jeff Willett’s father was a career union pressman running a large commercial printing press. Off the job, he had a passion for growing vegetables.

"Being his only son at home I was by default his built in laborer," says Willett, 59, now living in southeastern Virginia

"I didn’t like it at the time, but early on in my career I was very appreciative of my initial introduction into gardening. My father and eldest sister were instrumental in guiding me toward the horticulture field."

Today, Willett is a landscape designer for McDonald Garden Center in Hampton, Va., where his 41-year career has included positions in sales, management, production, installation and design.

Willett says his landscape style is eclectic, a personal style he’s developed from more than four decades of watching other people in the industry. He likes to mix styles — contemporary with formal elements or large woody masses with heavy perennial influences. He also favors decorative hardscapes and garden art.

"I am not a cookie cutter designer," he says.

"I don’t feel a particular style of architecture requires a specific garden style. Style is an evolutionary process."

Willett believes landscaping should not strike fear in your heart. Instead, research, and think outside the box, he encourages homeowners looking for a different look in their yard.

"If you like something that is culturally compatible with the area, go for it," he says.

"Think of your property like you do your home — as a series of rooms that you don’t need to decorate all at once. Take baby steps."

Before you do a landscape makeover, analyze your property’s layout, determining exposures such as sun and shade. Study your home’s architectural details and equipment around it, such as trash cans/enclosures and heating/air conditioning equipment. Know your soil’s growing conditions, evaluating different spots because soil can vary from the front to the back of your property.

Lastly, determine a budget.

"Gardening is, in my mind, a cerebrally calming endeavor," says Willett.

"You’re planting things in the ground, doing something environmentally responsible and most importantly you’re making your property more beautiful."


—Japanese maples for ornamental values; there are hundreds of cultivars and one for every design need.

—River birch for its upright habit and exfoliating bark; fast grower.

—Red oak for fall color

—Crape myrtle for bark color, form and flower power.

—Upright European hornbeam for great formal habit and fall color.


—Japanese barberry for leaf color and minimum maintenance.

—Mojo, Wheeler’s dwarf pittosporum for its tropical appearance and minimum maintenance.

—Dwarf Hinoki cypress for its interesting texture and eye-catching appeal.

—Hydrangea for long-lasting flowers.

—Drift roses for Knock Out rose-like features without the large size; most Knock Out roses outgrow planting spaces.


—Hosta for great texture in shade.

—Carex as better ground cover substitute for overused liriope.

—May Night salvia for superb blue color.

—Heuchera, nicknamed coral bells, for fabulous color range and textures.

—Coreopsis, or tickseed, for continuous blooms and wonderful foliage.

When choosing plants on your own or with the help of a professional landscape designer, consider plants that will behave and be happy where they will grow, Willett advises.

"Early in my career I planted several spec houses in a development with shrubs that looked great in three-gallon pots at the time — flash ahead two years and you can’t see out the first floor windows," he says

"I like to use the analogy that a Great Dane puppy is great in a studio apartment. A full grown Great Dane in a studio apartment is probably a big mistake."



Associated Press