Garden Q&A: Mastering Microclimates in Alexandria, Virginia

Photos by Ryan Benoit

When my brother Neal Benoit and his family moved into their first single-family home in 2009 just south of the Capitol Beltway in Alexandria, Virginia, he also stumbled into an interest in gardening. Five years later, his garden is the talk of the block. The diversely floral world he’s created is a far cry from his previous condo houseplants — but also an echo back to the copious landscaping projects and yard work we did growing up in suburban Connecticut.

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Flashback to ’89: my brother (left) and I building a 44-foot-long fieldstone fence at our house in Ellington, Connecticut. Not a single stone was purchased for this project, and it took us an entire summer to build.

Neal Benoit Garden Tour

The back of each house in Neal’s development faces the road.

In a development with dozens of homes built in six different models, gardening is really the only way to bring distinction to the home’s exterior. Even then, gardening with homeowner’s association rules can be intimidating to a newcomer:
– Landscape plants should provide year-round interest. Annuals and perennials that provide additional color and enhance the appearance of the home during the warmer months are acceptable but not a replacement for plants that provide year-round foliage.
– Overgrown plants that can no longer benefit from pruning should be replaced. Dead or declining plants (over 50 percent dead) must be replaced.
– Installation of railroad ties, garden timbers, dry-stacked or mortar-set stone, or similar structures that will form a wall over 12 inches high and more than 8 feet long require an application and approval prior to installation.

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The front of the houses share a common green.

Neal met the challenge head on. One year after moving in, trucks were backing up to deliver eight yards of topsoil and three  pallets of stones for the raised garden beds. The original Virginia clay topsoil was not going to cut it for this undertaking.

Over the past few years Chantal and I have enjoyed watching it evolve, and I took lots of photos during our summer visits. Below, Neal tells us how it all came together, and what he has planned next for his much-talked-about landscape.

Name: Neal Benoit
Age: 39
Profession: Marine Engineer
City: Alexandria, Virginia
USDA hardiness zone: 7a
Years tending current garden: 4
Hours per week working in garden (in season, average): 3 hours

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Neal with wife, Wendy, on the west-facing side of the house in 2012.

What do you grow in your garden?
Everything under the sun. I get tons of it, so I go with it. The front of my brick house creates a microclimate of heat, so my plants need to be able to take a lot of heat. While my zone is 7a, I think my microclimate is close to 7b or 8.

How would you best describe your garden’s style?
I started off with an English garden look. But not being very experienced at gardening [led to] a tendency to plant everything closer together than the recommended, so I ended up with an overgrown cottage garden look. While cottage gardens look almost unkept, the upkeep is harder, because any weeding or pruning becomes very difficult as you wedge yourself between plants. Rose bushes = ouch.

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The west-facing side of house in 2013.

What was the first plant that gave you confidence?
My Stella d’Oros daylilies. Yes, they are easy to grow in my zone and they naturally bloom all warm season, but they gave me confidence as a beginner gardener. I had initially planted red wine ‘Pardon Me’ lilies with the gold Stellas for contrast until I remembered that I can create contrast with the existing hardscaping. In my case, my house has plenty of red brick as a backdrop for my gold Stellas. As for my Pardon Me’s? I give plants away to my neighbors all the time — along with a complimentary installation in exchange for a cold Modelo Especial. When nobody wants my purged plants, I have a plant refuge in the woods where I plant them in case I change my mind down the road.

Stella d’Ora Day Lilies, plumbago and a croton

From left, Stella d’Ora daylilies, plumbago and croton.

What’s your favorite plant in your garden? Why?
Hydrangea – besides looking so super sad in the winter, the long blooming period of my forced blue hydrangeas are awesome. I love when they’re covered in blue pom-poms. The contrast with my red brick is also impressive, as are the cuttings which my wife is constantly taking. Admittedly, whenever I see new cuttings in the house, I run outside to see if she left a gaping void of flowers on one of the bushes. Once hydrangeas find a good home, they are easy to care for but the two rules I should have taken more seriously were [that they need] morning sun and afternoon shade, and DON’T prune in early spring; it’s one of the only plants that get pruned in early October.

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The Benoits’ pooch Mason guards the hydrangeas.

How did you get into gardening?
I’ve lived in condos since 1997, so when we bought our first standalone home in February 2009, I was sketching up garden plans from the get-go. Our home was new and there was only sod laid down. It was a blank slate.

Do family or friends help with your garden?
No. Gardening has turned into the way I am in the kitchen. I prefer to do it alone and get lost in what I’m doing. If by “help,” you mean giving me a compliment on how nice the garden looks (or how good the food tastes), then, yes, I like “help.”

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Acer palmatum 'Sangokaku' (Coral Bark Maple)

Acer palmatum ‘Sangokaku’ (coral bark maple).

Hen and chicks.

Hens and chicks.

What is the hardiest plant you’ve struggled to keep alive?
A simple builders stock arborvitae! However I’m now convinced it is the plant placement [versus] the gardener’s skill. Part of my raised garden bed is bordered by an inside brick corner, which I’m pretty sure is just an oven. I’ve lost two arborvitaes and one Sky Pencil in four years. Last spring, I for some reason doubled down and put a very large (and expensive) Degroot’s Spire arborvitae in that location with a very large root bundle. The established root system will encourage it to survive.

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Clementis winds up the mailbox above black mondo grass.

This north-facing location works well for the hydrangea until August when they become burned by the afternoon sun.

This north-facing location at the back of the house worked well for the hydrangeas until August, when they burn from the afternoon sun.

What plant(s) are you most excited about this spring? Why?
I’m very excited for my three hydrangeas. In year one of my garden I had all the hydrangeas in the front of the house in direct all-day sun, and they burnt to shame, so I moved them to the mostly shaded deck area at first frost. They did great when spring came, but they were all browned by August, because the north-facing deck area gets very sunny and hot by late summer, while hydrangeas prefer the opposite, morning sun and afternoon shade/speckled sun. But since that drama, the crepe myrtle back in the front of the house has gotten pretty big with all the direct sun, and I realized that the crepe myrtle may be the hydrangeas’ perfect companion. The myrtle is leafless during spring, so the hydrangeas beneath should get the mild spring direct sun in morning, sending the hydrangeas into mega bloom in early spring, then when late June rolls around, the crepe myrtle will turn into a giant leafy umbrella, protecting the hydrangeas from any direct sunlight for the rest of the summer but still allowing speckled sun (provided I thin out the myrtle here and there). Okay, sounds good on paper, so let’s see how that pans out this summer. Oh, and the gaping void left from the displaced hydrangeas near the deck? I stuck three very hearty knock-out rose bushes there to bask in our afternoon desert.

After three years of direct sun, the crepe myrtle tree should provide enough shade to the full fleet of hydrangeas that Neal moved to this location in the front of the house.

After three years of direct sun, the crepe myrtle tree should be large enough shade the full fleet of hydrangeas that Neal moved to the front of the house.

What’s the best gardening lesson you’ve ever gotten?
Follow the recommended spacing for plants or your garden will get cramped really quickly. Your garden may look sparse for a few seasons, so I guess the real lesson is patience.

What’s the biggest disappointment you’ve experienced in your garden?
My Winter Red Holly. This winterberry is unique in that that twigs of the winterberry become covered in small red berries at the end of the summer, and when the leaves drop in the fall, you have a stunning winter interest plant. But, this plant requires both the male and female in close proximity for pollination, so I was careful to plant both. First season: no pollination, so I drove to the nursery to complain. I had my receipt for both, and they said to wait another season for the plants to pollinate. I thought they were planted too far apart, so I replanted them almost on top of each other so the bees don’t get sidetracked when they are doing their thing. I even went out and watched the bees do their job one day, so I was convinced I would have my red berries soon enough. Autumn came, and nothing. These plants were immediately transplanted to my refuge to see if they can figure it out later. That nursery has shut down since. I’m convinced someone messed up the plant labeling.

Green Gem boxwoods, Planters from Homegoods

‘Green Gem’ boxwoods, planters from Homegoods

What is the biggest inspiration to your garden?
I spend a lot of time on Pinterest.

What do you want to grow that won’t grow in your garden?
I want to grow a blue-tinged dinner plate cactus, because my garden needs something ironic. I’m still scoping out a place that it might work. I think a spot on my raised bed next to the house where it gets lots of heat and good drainage. I’d just have to peel back the irrigation to that area.

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Succulents provide patio interest.

What is the worst pest in your garden and how do you manage it?
My raised flower bed overflowing with tulips in the spring is like a buffet for the deer. Since it’s raised, they don’t even need to bend over much. I’ve tried lots of sprays with pepper, garlic, et cetera; none of it worked. I threw in the towel. Last spring I passed on the tulips and inserted 300 daffodil bulbs as the deer think they are meh and walk the other way. The deer should be happy, because I was getting desperate and was contemplating less humane ways to save my tulips!

Garden pests.

We spotted a rabbit during our visit, but Neal tells us that deer are the worst pests.

Smartie dahlias

Smartie dahlias

Any tips on watering?
Some type of irrigation system is a must. No matter how compulsive you are about watering, you will forget, and you may lose a few plants. Besides, my neighbors already think I’m compulsive about my garden, so if they see me watering it every day, it would just make matters worse.

Any pointers on fertilizing?
I never use any, but it is on my to-do list.

How do you feel when you walk into your garden?
I wish I could enjoy my garden, but every time I walk through it I always think about what I need to change or how it could be better. I think my wife “enjoys” my garden more than me.

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Honeysuckle vine

Honeysuckle vine.

What’s the secret to successful gardening?
I’ll tell you when I feel successful.

Where do you buy your plants?
Mostly local nurseries. At times, Home Depot will carry just what I need, but if not, my next step up is either Meadows Farms or Campbell & Ferrara. When I’m looking for a highly specialized plant that I can’t find anywhere else I get the premium shopping experience at Merrifield Garden Center.

Canna 'Pink Sunburst'

Canna ‘Pink Sunburst.’

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Delosperma cooperi "pink carpet"

Delosperma cooperi, AKA pink carpet.

Have you ever ordered a plant online?
When I’m cooped up on a rainy day, I’ll browse through some of the mail-order catalogs for interesting dahlias or other tubers and rhizomes, such as K. Van Bourgondien & Sons or Holland Bulb Farms. I actually bought a plant off eBay once, too. I was looking for a very small dwarf conifer for near my mailbox. It still is the 12 inches height that I bought it at, but I’m having to throw a Homer Simpson bucket over it every time we expect more than 6 inches of snow because I’m scared it’ll get crushed or a plow will hit it.

Blue plumbago

Blue plumbago.

What project are you most proud of in your garden?
I’m super proud of the fieldstone retaining wall of my raised garden bed. I literally had three pallets of stone sprawled out all over my yard and just worked weeks on it. I loved the challenge of fitting fieldstone together and the results. With a brick front house, I thought the easier fitting square stones would have been too matchy-matchy for a wall.

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Which plants do you bring the most into your dishes and drinks?
So common of a plant, but it’s definitely the basil. Second would be rosemary. I’ve grown cilantro, dill and parsley but you get such little bang for your buck with those.

Salvia officinalis or sage.

Sage (Salvia officinalis).

Dahlia 'Purple Gem'

Dahlia ‘Purple Gem.’

What do you wear when gardening?
It could be anything from pajamas to work clothes. I never really get ready to garden, I just suddenly find myself lost in it when something catches my eye. I need to cut back.

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What is your favorite non-gardening thing you do in your garden?
Decorating the garden for Christmas.

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[In] South Korea, I was impressed by the amount of effort that was put into training even the common sidewalk conifers, with elaborate cabling and all. I’m attempting to have this one look like a windswept pine on an ocean bluff, or basically a giant bonsai. We’ll see how it works out. The other complement to cabling this guy is selective removal of candling. If I were a pro, I believe you can manipulate the roots to get other effects, but that is probably only for your table-sized bonsais.

Angelica Blue Juniper

‘Angelica Blue’ juniper.

Alaskan weeping cedar

Alaskan weeping cedar.

Weeping Norway spruce

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Crassula 'Gollum'

Crassula ‘Gollum.’

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