Now is a great time to tailor out outdoor landscapes. Learn from our local experts how to achieve a top-notch backyard landscape, so you can enjoy it all year long.
Spring is a great season to tailor our outdoor surroundings to our personal tastes. Whether outdoor entertaining, boundless blooms or green vistas suit your style, the possibilities are endless.
Northwest Quarterly checked in with some local experts for tips and ideas on their favorite landscaping topics. Here are some of their best ideas for transforming, revitalizing and enjoying your corner of the great outdoors.
Healthy Basics: Grass and Trees
“When spring arrives, a good, healthy lawn will pop up and grow well naturally,” says Andy Lutz, certified arborist with The Davey Tree Expert Company, East Dundee. “This is a good time to police the yard and look for problems, like fallen branches that have gouged the turf or might kill the grass, damage from the previous year, or matted or brown areas. Sometimes, raking these matted areas and throwing down some grass seed works. Other times, more extensive treatment is necessary.”
One cause for brown or matted patches is a microclimate, a small spot where the climate is different from the space around it; it’s wetter or drier, warmer or colder, less or more prone to frost. Another is snow mold, pink or gray fungi that appear as circles, caused by prolonged periods of snow cover on ground that isn’t completely frozen. Like any mold, it thrives in moist conditions.
“Grass will recover from snow mold once the ground dries out, and raking speeds up that process,” says Lutz.
Tree care is a bit more involved. “Pruning isn’t a high priority in the spring,” says Lutz. “You need to fertilize. We use a deep-root, slow-release fertilizer, as far as the roots can grow. Surface applications can be effective, under certain circumstances.”
Improper use of mulch can be a problem. “You want to turn over the old mulch, to freshen it and let it dry out,” says Lutz. “Don’t just add new mulch. And know your tree and soil characteristics. Shallow roots in a poorly draining clay base only need about 2 inches of cover. Other deep-rooted trees, in loamy or sandy soil, may need 3 to 4.”
Tree roots need to take in oxygen, and over-mulching can hold in too much water and block out air. Also, using the same type of mulch year after year can change the acidity level in the soil and cause toxic reactions or nutritional deficiencies to trees.
When mulching, avoid creating the “mulch volcano” – mounding the mulch in a cone shape against the trunk – which may cause decay and disease, and may attract burrowing pests.
“It’s best to leave about a 6-inch space between the mulch and the base of the tree,” says Lutz. “Roots can adapt. It’s better to let the roots be a bit exposed than to bury the trunk.”
Spring is a good time to talk to your arborist about future pruning. “It’s more complicated than cutting off a branch,” says Lutz. “You prune for lots of reasons, to thin the crown and encourage new growth, to remove diseased or damaged branches, to shape the tree. Trained arborists know pest cycles and species tendencies. For example, the diseases that affect oaks and elms are most active in spring and summer, so you always prune them in winter.”
Lutz advises seeking out certified arborists. To find one in your area, use the search functions on the websites of the two largest certifying organizations: the International Society of Arboriculture and the Tree Care Industry Association.
Adding Structure – Artfully
Patios, retaining and seating walls, pergolas, barbecues, planters and other structures add interest to a landscape. But it’s not as simple as just picking a spot and building something.
“We follow the art principles of repetition, variety, balance, emphasis, sequence and scale,” says Joe Runde, owner/president of Runde’s Landscape Contractors, 9N299 Ill. Route 47, Elgin. “Landscaping is my passion. I like the aspect of taking a bare slate and creating something beautiful and exciting.”
Runde’s is a full-service company that designs, excavates, plants and constructs both garden and lawn landscapes. “We like to say our passion is creating value in your view,” says Runde. “The hardscape – walls, paths, structures – needs to blend with the softscape – plants, trees, grasses. All of the elements have to complement each other, in order to pull a beautiful landscape together.”
Continuing education is important, says Runde, who has a degree in horticulture. “We attend a lot of trade shows and seminars, to stay on top of the industry and current trends,” he says. “We’re very excited about a new product called Rosetta Hardscape. It’s man-made, but it looks like quarried stone. We put in a deck this season made of a composite lumber called AZEK that looks really nice, just like natural wood. Man-made is usually more expensive at the outset, but it requires much less maintenance in the long run.”
Landscape designs can incorporate both natural and man-made materials, and options are limited only by imagination and budget.
“Small pergolas are popular right now,” says Runde. “They can screen a view, highlight an area, add a vertical element. And don’t limit yourself to hardscape for height – vertical grasses complement everything.”
Retaining walls and walkways on hilly terrain also can be done in creative ways. “We try not to do the cookie-cutter retaining walls off the front corner of the house,” says Runde. “For instance, we recently put in a tiered walkway on a steep backyard, which we interspersed with small retaining walls and planters, to break up the lines and add character.
“We pour a lot of concrete to support our landscapes, especially where there are vertical grade changes, like the tiered walkway I described. The earth settles – you can’t stop gravity – and things like ants and burrowing insects, or weeds that need to be removed, also cause it. Cement with rebar eliminates settling.”
The yard doesn’t need to be large, either. “The smaller the space, the more fun it is to do, in my opinion,” says Runde. “Of course, scale is important in all cases. We did one side yard that was maybe 20 feet wide, and we put in an eyebrow pergola against the owner’s house that actually complements the house next door.”
Not everyone realizes the potential of their yards, and that’s where experts like Runde come in. “We can design a creative landscape that gives the customer a beautiful view, whatever the space,” he says.
Using Natural Stone
When creating patios, walkways, driveways, planters or other such features, one of the first decisions to be made is whether to use concrete or natural stone. Each has advantages, but natural stone is, well, more natural.
“One good aspect of natural stone is that you can pick up the colors of the exterior or even the interior – the limestone of the chimney or facade – in seat pits, patios, driveway pavers,” says Jan-Gerrit Bouwman, partner, vice president of landscape sales and senior landscape architect for Grant & Power Landscaping, West Chicago. “The biggest advantage is that it keeps its color. Concrete discolors, but it is more uniform. Of course, application is a factor. Natural stone isn’t good for building a high retaining wall.”
Industry comparisons indicate that natural stone has a much higher compressive strength than concrete, and since concrete changes color as it ages, repairs never match the original. Unlike natural stone, concrete shrinks with age. However, Bouwman notes that concrete, aesthetically, is closer to natural stone than ever before, with stampings, dyes and other advancements that open up new areas of application.
Bouwman’s favorite features in a landscape design are columns made of Unilock concrete pavers with natural stone caps. “They add elegance, along with an eye-catching vertical element,” he says.
Overall, Bouwman prefers the more natural look of stone and finds it more aesthetically pleasing. “I like the clean lines,” he says. “Using natural stone requires a different skill set, and we employ stone masons. We tend to do more natural stone, largely because we have the crew.”
A specialty of Grant & Power is creating vignettes, several distinct areas separated by elements such as streams, paths or hedges. “I call them little surprises people find within their landscapes,” Bouwman says. “For instance, a path of pavers through a flower garden may suddenly open up to reveal a small waterfall. Another path heading away from there could lead to a patio with seating. They’re a very important part of our designs.”
Grant & Power has won numerous awards for its landscapes, both locally and nationally. Its three designers specialize in combining a variety of styles and elements in order to create distinctive, exciting and livable landscapes.
“We blend lines and curves on patios,” explains Bouwman. “Rather than finish with a square patio, we may use inverted curves on the corners. We’ll make a curved seat wall instead of a straight line. We use a combination of pavers, stone and brick in creating our vignettes.”
The company handles everything from driveways, walkways, and pool and spa decks, to outdoor kitchens, retaining walls that double as planters or seating, water features and lighting.
“We have our clients create their dream list, and we tailor the landscaping to their preferences,” says Bouwman.
Planting for Color
“You can get a nice look by mixing foliage, without even thinking about the blooms,” says Shelley Isenhart, perennial expert and landscape designer at Whispering Hills Garden & Landscape Center, Cary. “So look for varying foliage. Artemisia are very soft, with white, almost velvety leaves, that deer and bunnies don’t like. Silver mound is soft to the touch and stays close to the ground, growing to 10 inches high at most. Tufted ferns come in several varieties, and there are tons of variegated hostas. These plants are especially good for shady spots, where it’s difficult for many blooming plants to thrive, and they create a lot of visual interest.”
A variety of effects can be achieved through careful selection of plants. “One of my favorite things to plant right now is a moon garden,” says Isenhart. “It’s made up of all white blooming plants that seem to glow in the dark. The moon flower is a tropical plant that blooms at night and gives off a beautiful scent. The moon vine is like a morning glory, but it blooms at night, and then the flowers close up during the day. The fragrances of these plants are strongest at night, too.”
The moon flower is poisonous, Isenhart warns. Other species to use in a moon garden: evening primrose, night phlox and angel’s trumpet.
Texture is another consideration. “I have one customer who comes in for plants for a garden for her husband, who’s blind,” says Isenhart. “So she picks for texture, how the foliage feels to the touch, and for fragrance.”
Another possibility is a cutting garden. “People grow flowers for use in arrangements, so the layout of the garden isn’t necessarily a consideration,” says Isenhart. “Perennials are a natural here. Daisies and other mums, coneflowers, coral bells and dahlias are popular. Dahlias need to be dug up and brought in during the winter, though. Of course, tea roses are perfect for this type of garden, because the more you cut them, the more they bloom, and they have an awesome fragrance.”
Mixing perennials of varying bloom times with a variety of annuals helps to ensure color and cuttings all season. “Ageratum, geranium, dianthus, salvia and marigold bloom all summer, come in many colors, and provide different bloom sizes and textures,” says Isenhart. “Don’t forget also to use shrubs and small evergreens for amazing texture and foliage that give wonderful interest into the fall.”
A cutting garden isn’t just for flowers. “I have a winterberry bush, a form of holly, for making holiday arrangements,” says Isenhart. “Some people grow grapevines to make wreaths and much more.”
Most of all, gardening should be enjoyable, so don’t get hung up on details. “People want a garden to be perfect, but it’s nature – it’s not going to be,” says Isenhart. “There are so many fun things you can do.”
“Conifers add structure and stability, and can be used for privacy screenings, in edging and foundation plantings, rock gardens and conifer gardens, or for background,” says Gwen Van Steen, buyer/manager at The Gardens of Woodstock, 5211 Swanson Road, Woodstock. “With conifers, people tend to think of tall, spreading trees – forget that perception. We have those, but we also deal with dwarf, miniature and unique species.”
The variations are cultivated with cuttings and grafts from the original plant. Dwarf and miniature don’t necessarily mean teensy, though.
“The terms are in relation to the mother plant,” Van Steen explains. “Pseudotsuga menziesii ‘Torquis,’ or the emerald twister Douglas fir, is considered dwarf, but the original Douglas fir can reach 40 to 70 feet tall. So in 50 years, the emerald twister will be about 20 feet tall, with a spread of about 12 feet. It grows at a medium rate, and its twisting branches make it very visually appealing. The needles are soft and fairly short, and they have a pretty bluish-green tint, although new growth comes in as light green. Deer don’t like the taste, either.”
Van Steen points out a weeping Norway spruce on the Gardens of Woodstock grounds, in front of a contrasting stand of ornamental grass. “They look beautiful all year round,” she says. She also shows off groupings of weeping Japanese white pines, arborvitae and Abies lasiocarpa ‘Compacta,’ or dwarf blue fir.
Conifers don’t need a lot of water, and should be planted in well-drained areas, definitely not in swales or bogs. Plant with drought-resistant companions like roses, grasses or sedum. Van Steen also suggests using the natural needle drop as fertilizer and mulch, and underplanting with acid-loving plants such as Rhododendron and Azaleas.
Van Steen has suggestions for plantings that emphasize different aspects: height difference, textures, color. “Think of your yard like a wall, and the plants as paintings,” she says. “Go for groupings of paintings, instead of one big portrait. Put taller perennials among tall conifers, like Crocosmia ‘Lucifer,’ with its bright red flower, against a mature Abies lasiocarpa ‘Compacta,’ a fir with soft needles in a striking blue color. You really want to plant this conifer so that it’s visible from indoors and out. Keep textures similar. For instance, group the Tsuga canadensis ‘Gentsch White’ – a type of hemlock – with a Pinus strobus ‘Sea Urchin,’ blue Campanulas bellflower and Phlox subulata ‘Emerald Pink.’ You’ll get a mix of height and year-round color.”
“In rock gardens, plant conifers close to boulders so that they come together, instead of looking like single things in the same area,” says Van Steen. “The Juniper horizontalis ‘Mother Lode’ is one of my favorites. I can lay it right on top of a stone and drape it down the front or side.”
“The key to a successful butterfly garden is making sure the area gets at least five to six hours of full sun,” says Kim Hartmann, landscape designer, Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery & Garden Center, Crystal Lake.
And that’s not just for the flowers, although the types used to attract these delicate denizens do require it. “Butterflies need the sun, too,” Hartmann explains. “It dries out their wings and warms them and gives them energy, because they’re cold-blooded. So put out some flat rocks for the butterflies to bask on. This garden doesn’t need to be chock-full of plants and flowers. It needs some open spaces, too. Shelter from the wind is vital, behind some evergreens or on the east or south side of buildings. And don’t forget fresh water, not too deep, with sand and a few sticks or pebbles for them to light on.”
Butterflies need salt and other minerals not found in nectar. Because they don’t actually drink, but lick, keep the water level just to the top of the sand.
The true butterfly garden is actually made up of two parts. “Most people focus on the adult and forget about the other stages,” Hartmann explains. “There should be host plants where the adults will lay their eggs, and these are also the plants which the caterpillars will feed on when they hatch.
“Milkweed draws the monarchs, the bellwether for the season. Of course, there are many other beautiful butterflies like swallowtails, but we seek the monarch first. There are several types of perennial milkweeds – asclepias – that can be used.”
Host plants vary. The painted lady caterpillar, a common northern Illinois species, eats thistle leaves. Tiger swallowtail caterpillars prefer trees like magnolia and cherry. “Other good host plants include sunflower, anything in the clover family, hollyhocks, violets and snapdragons,” says Hartmann. These are also the plants where the caterpillars will form their cocoons, which will hatch into butterflies. “You may want to place these in less conspicuous areas, just from a practical standpoint,” Hartmann advises. “Whatever the caterpillar feeds on will look chewed up, though it’s not enough to kill the plant.”
The second part involves the nectar sources, from which the adult butterflies will feed. The colors that best attract butterflies are red, orange, yellow and purple.
“Nectar is universal, but butterflies don’t have the same long tongues as hummingbirds, so they prefer plants with short nectar sources,” explains Hartmann. Good perennial options include the butterfly bush, aster, coneflower, black-eyed susan, goldenrod, phlox, mums and joe-pye weed. Annuals include zinnias, verbena, pentas and lantana. A common mistake in butterfly gardening is planting only one nectar source. Adult butterflies have a very short lifespan, and planting a variety will encourage more butterflies to visit your garden.
These types of plants will also attract hummingbirds, and beneficial insects such as bees, ladybugs and dragonflies. Just remember to keep your butterfly garden pesticide-free. Plant marigolds, petunias, mint and other herbs that naturally repel pests.
Clearly, your yard can be more than a yard – an expression of your taste and values, an extension of your home, a haven to humans and wild creatures alike. It’s just a matter of adding the right mix of elements and expert guidance. ❚