Simple Tricks Can Brighten Your Backyard

From vibrant flower gardens to shady trees and luxurious backyard renovations, it is possible to achieve that backyard oasis you’ve been looking for. Where to begin? These experts know the way.

Now that spring has officially sprung and the frost is gone, it’s time to get outside and enjoy the warm weather. While there’s plenty of outdoor fun to be had throughout our region, having your own backyard getaway is a fantastic way to make sure you and your family always have a place to gather and enjoy the sunshine.

Here’s how you can improve your home’s curb appeal and create a vacation destination right in your own backyard.

Flower Power

Flower gardens are an inexpensive and effective way to add a burst of color and life to your backyard. Whether you’re planting vibrant blooms like zinnias and marigolds or setting delicate pastels like roses and lilacs, a few strategically placed flowers can brighten even the drabbest outdoor spaces. By mixing and matching different plants, you can create one-of-a-kind color combinations that will make you the envy of your neighborhood.

Hayley Krull is the production manager at Countryside Flower Shop and Nursery, a beloved fixture that has been a part of the Crystal Lake gardening scene at 5301 E. Terra Cotta Ave. for more than 60 years and recently opened a new location at 42W075 Ill. Rt. 38 in Elburn. She recommends that novice gardeners make pals with perennials.

“Perennials are great because they come every year and become a permanent outline of your garden’s design,” she says of the flowering plants that bloom for multiple years.

Perennials also have deep root systems that make them a fantastic soil stabilizer. They also can find moisture and nutrients and spread them to other plants.

“Perennials help with certain environmental factors, such as erosion control,” says Krull. “That’s why it’s important to include them in your landscape.”

Also, unlike annuals, which complete their life cycle in one growing season, perennials are hardier and a bit more forgiving.

“A lot of beginner gardeners love their plants a little too much,” says Krull. “Perennials are a good low-maintenance option because they’re planted in the ground, which allows excess water to drain better than a container. They also become pretty self-sufficient after their first year.”

Perennials come in a wide range of colors, shapes and sizes. There are thousands of species to select, from groundcover plants like the self-seeding yarrow to tall, dramatic blooms like the plucky hyssop.

Another advantage to perennials is the boost they give to the local ecosystem. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds may become regular visitors to your backyard flower garden, depending on which flowers you decide to grow, making you a friend to the environment.

When it comes to annuals, Krull is a big fan of dragon wing begonias.

“They’re a great option for gardeners who like to swap out their landscape annually,” she says. “They can handle sun and shade, and they like it on the dryer side. They also do well either in the ground or in a container.”

Plants need sunlight to survive, but if your backyard is on the shadier side, there’s nothing to fear. Krull has a list of flowers that can not only survive but thrive in shady spots.

“Impatiens are great because they fill out a space very well,” she says. “Sunpatiens are a good option because they can handle both sun and shade.”

There are plenty of options for sunny spots, as well. Krull keeps a few favorites up her sleeve for people living in solar-soaked spaces.

“Petunias and verbena are the way you’ll want to go,” she says. “Both plants are great groundcover and can handle high sun and high-heat areas. Both come in a wide variety of colors.”

Moisture is also a factor. Some plants like to drink a lot, while others are teetotalers. For high-moisture areas, Krull suggests salvia, a woody, herbaceous member of the mint family and a favorite of bees and hummingbirds.

“Working in a greenhouse, you really get to know a plant’s likes and dislikes,” she says. “Salvia is one of those plants that really wants a drink of water on a hot day, so they do better in wetter areas of your yard.”

For dry spots, Krull recommends begonias.

“Begonias tend to like it on the dry side,” she says. “Their waxy leaves really hold on to a lot of moisture, so they can go a bit longer between waterings.”

As a longtime gardener and nursery employee, Krull has seen her fair share of trends blossom and fall away.

“One of the things that I’ve seen trending is native species,” she says. “With more and more talk about the endangerment of pollinators and other environmental declines, more customers are including pollinator plants to do their part to help.”

Krull is also seeing an uptick in cut flower gardens, which provide homeowners with their own supply of fresh flowers for home-grown arrangements.

“More customers are being inspired by the up-and-coming cut flower gardens around us and are asking what items they need to purchase to make their own at home,” she says.

Cut flower gardens can be grown in a wide range of settings, from small urban plots to vast rural areas. Popular flower choices include roses, dahlias, zinnias, lilies, sunflowers and snapdragons.
“We recently opened a cut flower garden here at Countryside, which is getting customers inspired,” says Krull.

Trees: Not Just for Forests Anymore

Trees are a quick way to spruce up your property. They provide a host of practical benefits like shade and privacy, they can reduce storm water runoff, they curb soil erosion and they help with flood prevention. Birds, squirrels and other tree-dwelling animals will thank you, as well. Putting a tree in your yard is like giving Mother Nature a high-five.

Homeowners can either plant mature trees or start from scratch with a sapling or whip. Sean Ducey is a horticulturalist and manager at Whispering Hills Garden and Landscape Center, another McHenry County mainstay that recently expanded at 8109 Ill. Rt. 31 in Cary. He points out that raising a baby tree is a big job for any gardener.

“If a customer wants to put in the time, energy and effort that it takes to raise a tree from a whip, we’re more than happy to help,” he says. “But there is a lot of pruning involved and a lot of know-how. That can be a lot for a busy family. With a finished plant, the grower has taken care of that hard work and the plant is ready to go.”

New tree owners can opt to put the tree in the ground themselves, but if the tree is too big, Ducey and his staff are ready to lend a shovel.

“Some of our trees can weigh up to 1,000 pounds,” he says.

Since trees don’t come in one size or species that fits all, Ducey likes to sit down with tree buyers and ask questions that will twig the right fit.

“We want to know the light conditions,” says Ducey. “Will the tree get full sun, or will it be competing with other trees? What’s its purpose? Is it for shade or to screen something? What are the soil conditions? Things like that will help us narrow it down.”

Another consideration is root systems.

“You want to avoid putting trees with aggressive water-searching root systems near septic fields,” he says. “Trees like birches and willows are better suited for other areas, like a low spot in your yard that is out of the way.”

And, of course, don’t forget to call before you dig. Joint Utility Locating Information for Excavators (JULIE) is a free service that will help you locate and mark underground utilities, so you don’t find out the hard way.

“That’s huge,” says Ducey. “We will make the call for you, but it’s always a good idea for homeowners to know just where all their lines are, to avoid surprises.”

Once the tree is up, there isn’t much left to do, other than hang a hammock on it and enjoy the shade.

“Prune, if necessary,” says Ducey. “But if you have the right plant in the right space, it should be able to grow and thrive without any manipulation for the rest of its life.”

The exception to this is watering.

“Water is crucial for the first year or two of the plant’s life, but you don’t want to over-water,” says Ducey. “I always recommend watering on the side of dryness. It’s always easier to add more water than to take it away.”

Ducey also points out that a good indicator of how much and when to water is the soil type.

“A thoroughly saturated, heavy clay soil can probably hold water for a good two weeks,” he says. “With a sandy soil, where the water will leach out, you’re looking at three to five days.”

Make an Addition

If you want to generously expand your living space without seriously contracting your bank account, a backyard renovation might be the solution. By consulting an expert, you can create a beautiful outdoor living area for relaxation, entertainment and communion with the great outdoors.

Brian Hogan is the owner and founder of Hogan Design & Construction, a Geneva based, full-service design-build firm that has been specializing in luxury high-end remodels, renovations and new home construction throughout the Chicago suburbs since 2000. If you have an idea for what you want to create, he recommends sitting down with a design team and mulling over options and considerations.

“When we sign someone up with a design contract, that involves a feasibility study,” he says. “We need to know what the design will be. What will the facades, finishes and flooring be? Are we installing glass or screens? We also need to know about the lot coverage and any restrictions. Once we know that, we go to our trade partners and vendors to determine pricing.”

While this may seem like a heady process, this is all in a day’s work for a design-build firm. A pool house that Hogan designed and built took about 12 weeks of planning with another eight weeks of construction. And that includes the pool.

“In our world, it’s much easier to contract out the pool,” he says. “That way, we can work directly with the company putting in the pool and communicate how everything ties together.”

Swimming is fun, but many of Hogan’s clients are looking for a place to relax. For the recline-inclined customer, a screened-in porch is a popular choice for an addition.

“We just finished working with Cara Mamott, from Haven Design Group, on one of my favorite porches we’ve ever done,” Hogan says. “It has phantom screens, which drop like garage doors with the touch of a button.”

Another rising trend among suburban homeowners is the “she shed,” a small outdoor structure that’s typically used as a personal retreat or workspace.

“They’re like a little living room,” he says. “They typically don’t require plumbing, just air conditioning or heating.”

Take a Load Off

Whatever the weather is this summer, there are plenty of ways to make your backyard a relaxing escape, and plenty of experts in our region can make your blue-sky ideas a reality.