Building a Landscape

What does it take to build a landscape? How do you start with a vision and turn it into a beautiful, functional reality? It takes a lot more than muscle and the right equipment. With any landscape construction project, success starts long before the first sales call or bid. The quality of a finished project is often dictated by a company’s guiding principals, its dedication to fine workmanship and its internal and external partnerships.

Creating the “wow”

For Campbell & Ferrara Outdoor Living, Alexandria, Virginia, a successful landscape starts and ends with the customer relationship. Founded in 1945 by horticulturist Ed Campbell, the company began landscaping using plants and trees they propagated themselves on an eightacre farm in northern Virginia.

Now, as a full-service company offering custom design/build services, Campbell & Ferrara has received national recognition for its unique landscapes throughout northern Virginia, Washington D.C. and suburban Maryland.

While the award-winning company may be renowned for full-scale, often high-end residential installations, what really makes Campbell & Ferrara stand out is a dedication to meeting client goals at almost any budget.

“When we do a project, we’re always trying to give the customer the best value we can for the dollar,” says Jim Campbell, son of Ed Campbell and current president of the company. Whether it’s a $2,500 project or a $250,000 project, value always includes a thorough understanding of the client’s outdoor living dreams. “We like to figure out exactly how people are going to use the entire space for the next ten to twenty years,” says Campbel l .

“We get to know their lifestyle. Do they entertain outdoors? Do they want to sit by a fire? Do they like water? Do they want to spend more time outdoors without being bothered by mosquitoes?”

For Dale Profusek, a Campbell & Ferrara designer, quality is about delivering the “wow” factor. “If you can elicit that, you know it’s a success,” he says. “If your family and friends don’t come to your home and say, ‘Wow, this is really nice,’ that’s a failure to me.”

A project in Woodbridge, Virginia, illustrates the company’s ability to take a problem backyard and turn it into an inviting series of outdoor rooms.

“It started with a backyard that was pretty much unusable,” says Campbell. “The house was on a hill and the yard sloped steeply. The property fell about twelve feet from left to right.”

Problems with erosion added to the trouble. “Silt had built up over time and in some places, it was eight to ten inches deep,” says Profusek, who served as lead designer and project manager.

02.jpgTo solve the elevation, drainage and space problems, the company raised the yard with truckloads of gravel fill and created multiple terraces. This made room for an outdoor kitchen, a hot tub, a large screened outdoor living room with a stone fireplace, and a two-tiered waterfall.

The naturalistic waterfall and stone hardscape coordinate well with the home’s woodland setting. Boulders line the waterfall and the terraces are finished with retaining walls of dry stacked Pennsylvania fieldstone. More than 1,000 square feet of Pennsylvania flagstone complete the patios.

Hauling these weighty materials through the undulating landscape was tricky. “Access was extremely difficult,” says Campbell. “It was about 250 to 300 feet from the driveway to where we needed to go and there was nothing flat about it. We used small Bobcats and Dingos to cart material uphill and down and through a narrow passage on the side of the house.” Like many of the company’s projects, this design went through several revisions to make sure it was on target with the client’s needs.


“Design is a process, not an event,” says Profusek. “Some people crank out an idea, give it a cost and ask for the work. But a good design needs a series of refinements. Some people don’t want to put time into that, but it’s important to ensure outstanding results.”

The plan included strategies for saving landscaping elements that were already working well, including several desirable trees. Campbell & Ferrara’s expertise with transplanting older trees helped here. This contributed to the timeless look Profusek demands in a completed project. In addition to salvaging plants and trees when appropriate, he also likes to purchase a few mature specimens. “I vary the size of plant material so it doesn’t all look like it came from the nursery at the same stage of growth,” he says. “When we leave the home, it should look like it’s been there for awhile.”

The Woodbridge project started in October and continued through the following March. Campbell & Ferrara celebrated completion by hosting a large party on the new landscape for the homeowners and their friends. The yard received many “wows” at the party and several requests from new clients for Campbell & Ferrara’s services.

Greening the city

For Christy Webber, building a landscape often means carving a little piece of paradise out of a tiny, inner-city backyard. And when there’s no backyard, it can mean creating one on the roof. Webber has been helping to beautify urban Chicago since 1989. She started Christy Webber Landscapes because she wanted “to live in the city and work outdoors.” What began as a one-truck/one-woman maintenance operation has since evolved into a ful l service design/build/maintenance firm. Today, budgets for the firm’s commercial and residential projects range from $5,000 to more than a million dollars.

An abiding interest in the environment has shaped Webber’s career. This interest recently led her to form a new company, a development enterprise called Chicago Greenworks. The company’s first project is an award-winning environmentally sensitive industrial park created on a Brownfield site on Chicago’s west side. Webber’s own landscaping headquarters, located at the new park, achieved LEED Platinum certification.

In another project well-suited to her environmental commitment, Webber and her company were chosen to install a landscape for the new campus of Kennedy-King College on Chicago’s south side. The $3.4 million lands cape inc luded more than 700 t r e e s , 1 3 0 , 0 0 0 cubic yards of soil, and one of the largest green roof systems in the Midwest.

The company installed GreenGrid, a modular tray system from Weston Solutions. “The trays were sent to the nursery and filled with a filter fabric and a soilless mix,” Webber explains. “Then they were planted with sedum and hoisted up onto the roof by crane.” That was the biggest challenge, she says.

There was more than 70,000 square feet to cover and weight restrictions on the roof meant extensive unloading by hand. “The pallets had to be broken down while they were suspended in mid-air by the crane,” says Webber. “We had to unload them onto dollies one at a time, then roll them into place.” Completing the project in time for a scheduled ribbon-cutting ceremony was a tall order. “There was a significant amount of work that was added toward the end of the project,” says Russ Coate, project manager. “As landscapers, we’re always the last trade in, and our schedule is often shorted.”

Toward the end, many employees were putting in ten-hour days, six days a week, an expensive undertaking for any company. But the project was completed on time, including the very large expanse of green roof.

04.jpgThe art of construction

For Paul Hartman, owner of Changing Landscapes, Boulder, Colorado, building a landscape involves an artistic eye and painstaking attention to detail. Collaborative relationships with staff and other professionals also play a key role. In business ssince 1987, Changing Landscapes is an award-winning company specializing in unique water features and interesting, dramatic stonework. The company offers in-house design services, but Hartman frequently collaborates with landscape architect Tom Altgelt of Altgelt and Associates, Boulder. Hartman stresses the importance of this partnership. He frequently refers clients to Altgelt for design work. Altgelt in turn advises his clients to choose Changing Landscapes for flawless execution of his designs.

“We like to call ourselves a team,” says Hartman. “To keep the partnership working, I do everything I can to make sure his vision is expressed in the landscape exactly the way he intends it.” That vision often results in landscapes that exude a distinctive primal beauty. They feature meandering streams and waterfalls, rustic stone patios with primitive motifs, and massive boulders displaying striking, angular fractures.

While the elements in these landscapes often look and feel naturalistic, they are always planned and placed with fastidious care. A major landscaping project at the Taylor residence, a completely rebuilt Boulder home, showcases Hartman’s craftsmanship.

Among the landscape’s highlights are two pond-side patios separated by a stepped stone pathway. While the distance between patios isn’t far, the short path definitely invites a stroll as it winds up and down along two small cascading streams, past huge columnar boulders and over bridges. Like many of the projects the company undertakes, the Taylor property called for meticulous placement of boulders. For example, with one 5.7-ton specimen placed in the center of a pond, special care had to be taken to keep the boulder straight vertically while protecting the pond liner from the boulder’s angled base. It took an hour-and-a-half for Hartman and three employees working with an excavator to place the boulder.

Hartman knew the job could be done more quickly, but it wouldn’t be done right. “Setting boulders is something of an art,” he says. “I’ve seen some jobs where it looks like someone just set them down with a skid steer and drove off.”

In contrast, Hartman looks for the distinctive attributes of every boulder. He makes sure each one looks like it belongs in its space and attractively displays its own unique characteristics. He takes the same care with stone retaining walls, patios and other landscaping elements. Working around the construction schedule of this home redo posed another challenge at the Taylor residence. One setback came well into the project when a new feature was added to the home’s design. It called for a large pillar to be placed directly adjacent to the same pond, after it had already been completed.

To avoid marring their hard work, Hartman and his crew dug the footing for the pillar themselves. The area was no longer accessible to heavy equipment, so digging could only be accomplished by hand. But the extra labor was worth it to preserve the care that had already gone into the pond.

Hartman attributes the success of projects like this to the dedication and longevity of his staff. Generous compensation and a collaborative, respectful relationship with employees promote this longevity. For Hartman, paying higher wages makes good business sense because it helps build a staff that understands exactly what he’s looking for in every job. His employees know that if the work isn’t up to his aesthetic standards, it will be redone. While this sometimes happened in earlier days, it’s rare today. “Every person sees things differently,” he says. “I have a crew that sees the work the way I see it. To retrain another crew to do that would require a lot more time and money.”

The Taylor residence reflects the best of what Changing Landscapes offers. Hartman’s focus on choosing just the right materials, his attention to precision placement, and his ability to instill an appreciation for this level of workmanship among his employees all help create extraordinary landscapes.