shellyShelley Russell loves a blank slate.

A shopping center with 30-year-old landscaping desperate for an update. An elementary school that needs a playground redo, and maybe a pollinator garden so kids can observe monarch butterflies.

Russell, a Level Green Landscaping designer, is an artist. And the ground is her canvas.

Russell gives us a peek into her bag of landscape design tricks.

First, What’s The Goal?

“The main thing is to find out the goals of the client,” Russell says. “Do they have a budget they need to stay within? Is their main goal year-round color?”

The number one request she gets for landscape design is low maintenance, she says. Better curb appeal is another big one.

“Clients want more people attracted to their shopping center, or they have vacant space and want more tenants,” she says.

Whatever the goal, she’s got this.

Next Up: Check Out The Site

Landscape design is a hands-on endeavor. Russell visits the site to check things out.

“What plants will we keep?” she says. “What will we move? What will we get rid of?”

She carefully measures the site. And there are lots of other considerations.

“Is it sunny? Is it shady? Is it really windy? Do they have deer?” she says. “All of that affects what plants I choose.”

Does the site need a French drain or a dry rock riverbed to handle excess water?

“You don't want water to collect,” she says.”Then it can freeze, and people can slip and fall.”

And, she listens.

“If you're next to the 495 highway — the major beltway around DC — you might need large trees to buffer the sound,” she says.

Before she leaves the site, she takes “a million photos” to use as reference when she gets back to her desk.

A Love Of Layers

Once Russell dives in to create a landscape design, she draws on her training, skills and experience. That includes a liberal use of layers.

“I was trained in the layered look,” she says. “One huge hedge is just boring. So I come in with maybe a back layer of evergreens, a deciduous middle, and a lower layer that's a ground cover or perennials and annuals for a pop of color.”

layered look

Repetition Reigns

Russell loves repeating plants throughout a landscape design to unify it and offer a sense of continuity. It might be a ground cover that pops up here or there, or repeating clumps of annuals.

Variegated liriope is one of her favorites for this tactic.

“It's tough, it’s evergreen, and, as a bonus, it flowers,” she says.

Color offers repetition, too.

“If you have Hydrangea ‘Endless Summer’ in your back layer, repeat that blue color in the front layer with a grouping of Amsonia ‘Blue Ice,’” she suggests. 

Success With Scale

Russell is a stickler for scale.

“A 10-story building needs to be surrounded by larger scale plants and trees,” she says. “If you plant small perennials and flowers around it, they’d be lost in the landscape.”

But a smaller building calls for smaller plants.

“You wouldn’t want to plant large trees or shrubs around it that would block potential views from inside the building.”

Great scale of design at University of Maryland

Great Grasses

Russell loves ornamental grasses and the graceful movement they create.

“Even this time of year, they still offer interest,” she says. “And they’re low maintenance. In March, cut them down to about a foot, and that's it.”

She typically plants these grasses in big groups for visual impact.

“They’re also great on a hillside, which can be a tough spot because of drainage,” she says. “Not only do they prevent erosion, but a big sweep of grasses offers color, movement, and seeds for birds.”


Out With The Old — Add What’s New

Reviving old, dated landscaping is one of Russell’s specialties.

“Junipers and hedges and huge old azaleas — all of that just looks really outdated,” she says.

What’s new?

“There are newer azaleas called ‘Encore’ that bloom three times a year instead of once,” she says. “People want evergreens that flower, and this flowers in spring, summer and fall.”

Boxwood is always a classic, she says.

“It’s evergreen, it’s low maintenance and it looks great framing a doorway.”

Consider A Conifer For Color

Another of Russell’s go-to landscape design moves: conifers.

“Conifers provide year-round color and there are so many to choose from, with varying textures and shapes,” she says.

A favorite: Hinoki Cypress ‘Nana Lutea,’ with yellow foliage. She loves it with something purple, like Salvia ‘May Night.’

“The reason those colors pop so much is because they’re opposite colors on the color wheel,” she says. “It all goes back to elementary school art class.”

We told you she’s an artist.

The Natives Trend

“Native plants are a trend for sure,” Russell says. “They also tie in with LEED certification, if a company is interested in pursuing that.”

She loves the native Inkberry holly that looks a bit like boxwood. Virginia sweetspire offers multi-season interest, which a lot of clients request.

“It blooms in early summer, has nice green foliage and in the fall it has bright red leaves,” she says. "It's really tough, too. It can handle drought, or sit in wet soil.”

Seeing in 3-D

Russell uses sophisticated software to create landscape designs on the computer. With one click, she can add a pergola or switch from an above view to a 3D view, wowing customers and giving them a realistic sense of what their improved property will look like.



“I can do a photo of a site with an entrance sign, then add the plants to the photo to see what it would look like,” she says. “It’s like a photo mock-up.”

She can even create a video that shows the landscaping as a client “walks” through it.

“This is especially helpful when a property manager is trying to sell an idea to the owners, who may not know anything about plants.”

Delighting In Design

“My job never gets old,” Russell says happily. “Every project is different. The wide mix of projects we get to do makes things really interesting.

“It might be an elementary school, where I spruce up the playground or create a pollinator garden and help kids learn,” she says. “Or a university where I can change the main quad and it will last for 20 years.

“I get to create a space that’ll live on,” she says. “That’s pretty neat.”

Bring Your Landscape Design To Life With Level Green

If you think Russell’s ideas sound great here, you should see them in person.

If you’re not already a Level Green Landscaping client, we’d love to add you to our growing list of happy customers. Our focus is on commercial properties like offices, mixed-use sites, HOAs, municipalities and institutions in Maryland, Washington DC and parts of Virginia.

Contact us at 202-544-0968. You can also request a free consultation online to meet with us one-on-one.

We’d love to hear from you.

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