Get a Head Start on Spring Landscaping

Don’t wait until the warmer weather arrives to jump into a landscaping project – especially in a year when home improvement is a hot topic. Now is the time to start planning all of your outdoor endeavors. Here’s how to get started.

Homeowners who think ahead and begin planning their landscape during the cold months will find themselves at a major advantage when the weather breaks.

It might be hard to think about right now, but eventually all that snow is going to melt, and when it does it’ll be time to get dirty and exercise those green thumbs once again.

Landscaping projects shouldn’t start when the snow melts. They should be starting right now. Whether you’re generating ideas for your own work or developing design concepts for a beautiful new yard, there are many advantages to thinking ahead.

“Start planning now while it’s cold and miserable,” says Sean Ducey, manager of Whispering Hills Garden and Landscape Center, in Crystal Lake. “Get on the web and scout out some cool projects that you want to tackle.”

Have a Plan in Place

Daniel Weingart, a landscape designer with Platt Hill Nursery, in Carpentersville, finds value hiring a professional who has knowledge and experience in developing prime landscapes for spacious yards.

“A professional will drum up a master plan of the outdoor area itself,” Weingart says. “If you’re a master gardener, always draw up your ideas on paper, so you can move things around and change it instead of doing it in the field.”

For those of us who aren’t master gardeners, the best time to consult with a professional is before the end of March. Most contractors book out their projects about 12 weeks ahead.

“That’s if you want your job installed by July, essentially,” Weingart says. “Once the beginning of April hits, they’re usually backed up 12 weeks, and you’ve lost much of your summer. I usually tell clients to call me in January, February at the very latest.”

When it comes time to select the type of plants to grow, Ducey, of Whispering Hills, says it’s important to select plants that fit with a homeowner’s style and taste.

“If you have a bee allergy, for example, find plants that flower at times when bees are not at their peak,” he says. “If you have small children who love getting into things, maybe a plant with thorns isn’t the one for you. Mention these types of things to a professional, and they’ll help find the right plants for you.”

When homeownersmeet with professional landscapers, they should be prepared to answer questions about their project, says Barb Kindinger, a landscape designer who’s been with Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery and Garden Center in Crystal Lake since 1980.

“Are there any plants you want to include or avoid? How much room do you have?” she says. “We have many services available from online advice to full-scale design work.”

Professionals have a good sense of what belongs where, and they should be able to quickly assemble a working plan.

For someone going it alone, it’s important to do the proper research first. Before you dig, understand the particular plant’s needs and the conditions of its location – space, amount of sunlight, soil type and water needs.

“There are a few plants that have been popular and are now becoming invasive,” Kindinger says. “Ornamental Pear is one example. There are also species that are either overplanted or prone to insects and disease, like the Colorado Blue Spruce. This beloved plant has declined in the country for various reasons, and it was once planted quite often.”

Certain kinds of invasive brush can be hard to clear and harder yet to keep clear. It can quickly crowd out the rest of your plants if left unchecked.

“Easy maintenance is important to most of our clients,” Kindinger says. “Planning and understanding the specific needs of the plants that you pick will help in the long term.”

And that begins with a little help from the pros.

Landscaping projects, like this one arranged by Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery and Garden Center in Crystal Lake, don’t just happen overnight. Several weeks of time and planning are needed when working with a professional. Even do-it-yourselfers can benefit from professional input. (Countryside Flower Shop photo)

Start Planting Indoors

A lot of landscapers have May 15 circled on their calendar. That’s the magic day to safely start planting outside. Threat of lingering frost is all but gone by this point in spring, so plants have an easier time starting, growing and developing.

Eager gardeners can get a head start by planting some seedlings indoors – especially more temperature-vulnerable plants, such as what you’ll raise in the vegetable garden.

“Some people like to start from seed because they’re very inexpensive and you can grow those inside,” says Weingart. “They’ll take the seedlings outside once it gets warm.”

Kindinger suggests getting seeds early this year. Since a lot of people are spending more time at home, she believes seeds might be in short supply this year.

“It’s wise to shop early,” she says. “Planting of trees and shrubs won’t even start until April at the earliest.”

Ducey says there are seed-starting kits that can get any project started quickly.

Planting seeds isn’t for everyone, though, and that’s OK. Flower nurseries carry a variety of new hybrid plants every year. They also carry plenty of other beautiful flora.

“If planting vegetables isn’t your thing, look at growing houseplants,” Ducey says. “There are plenty of varieties that don’t require an overwhelming amount of care.”

The local nursery has plenty of options, and lots of advice, to get you started.

May 15 is when it’s typically safe to start putting plants in the ground, says Daniel Weingart, with Platt Hill Nursery, in Carpentersville. That’s when the threat of frost is all but gone.

A Word of Caution

There are several mistakes that even the most seasoned planter can make. One of the most common issues, Weingart says, occurs when someone puts too much mulch around the base of a tree.

“When a spring cleanup comes along, people will cut bad edges and they’ll pile little volcanos up against the trunk of a deciduous tree,” Weingart says. “That’ll actually rot out the bark of the tree and kill it over time. That’s a big design fad that I’ve seen especially in the northwest suburbs over the past 15 years, and that’s a big no-no for sure.”

Weingart also says people will overwater their plants, essentially drowning them. At the same time, he sees homeowners who don’t water their plants enough.

“There is a balance on how much you water something, and it has to be monitored weekly,” he says. “The leaves dry out if there’s not enough water, and if there’s too much water the plant won’t look right. Some people recommend just putting your finger about 2 inches down in the soil. If it’s moist, it’s getting enough water, and if it isn’t, you need to water a little bit more. The rule of thumb is if the plant gets water two or three times a week, you’re doing pretty well.”

One mistake Ducey usually notices, especially at this time of year, is the amount of road salt that people use to eliminate ice and snow from their driveways and walkways. While it’s extremely tempting to load up on the salt, there can be too much of a good thing.

“People go crazy with the salt,” he says. “I understand that it helps, but too much salt will damage your plants, lawns and evergreens especially.”

To get an idea of how much salt to use, Ducey advises reading the back of the product and paying close attention to the directions.

“Usually, the amount needed for a magnesium chloride and sodium chloride blend, which works in minus 10-degree temperatures, is about 1.5 cups per 10 square feet,” he says. “People should try to use coarse sand to help with traction, if they can.”

Although shrubs and trees can beautify a home, it’s important to know how to plant them. Kindinger says she sees many people installing plants too close together.

“Plants can fight for space with the house or other plants and can become too large for the space. They won’t look their best,” she says. “Plants need to be planted at least 3 feet from the foundation of the home, and they need to be spaced according to each plant’s ultimate widths.”

When planning for hardscaping features like patios, steps and retaining walls, there’s a major advantage to working with professionals because they understand how to get the most out of the space. (Whispering Hills photo)

What about Hardscaping?

Before undertaking a hardscaping project – that is, a project with stone and hard surfaces integrated among the landscape – it’s important to know what the homeowner is looking to achieve.

“A good designer will design a patio around your needs, not just by square footage,” Weingart says. “If you’re going to use it for backyard gatherings, we’ll draw up a plan and include furniture, so you can really see the traffic flow and how it’ll be used throughout the year. Don’t go into a project saying you want a 700-square-foot patio, because that doesn’t mean anything.”

Instead, Weingart says it’s important for the homeowner to share their wishes and desires with a designer upfront.

“If you want a six-person table, a firepit and a lounge area, a designer will put that on paper, and you might see your 700-square-foot patio turn into a 500-square-foot patio, or vice-versa,” he says. “So, you don’t really want to design and install by square footage; you want to design for what you’re going to use the project for.”

Simply put, purpose, functionality and aesthetics rule the day.

“If you have a good blend of those three things, you’ll have a setup that you’ll be proud of and you’ll want to spend more time out there,” he says. “And, when you have a party, people will come over and say ‘Man, this is awesome.’”

The other advantage to working with a professional for major hardscaping is their knowledge of local ordinances surrounding patios, steps and other features, Ducey says.

“There are county code requirements that need to be followed and product guidelines that need to be followed as well,” he says. “I definitely don’t want to discourage people from doing the project themselves, but just get all of your ducks in a row before tackling that project.”

And, as always, it’s important to do the necessary homework before making any hires.

“Make sure they’re fully insured and also ask to see some of their jobs in person,” Ducey says. “You can do a lot with editing photos these days, so you definitely want to see their work in person.”

The Finished Product

Once a home is fully landscaped, it can soften the rest of the home while feeling inviting and welcoming to guests.

“The way I view landscaping for a home is like a painting-by-numbers picture that hasn’t been filled out,” Ducey says. “You can see what it’s supposed to look like, but without the colors and details, it just doesn’t carry the same impact. A well-done landscape will make a house look like a home.”