Hardscapes Truly Craft a Backyard Oasis

The right combination of natural materials and colorful landscaping sets a perfect backdrop to summer fun. Here are a few starting points on the best outdoor oasis.

Your backyard is an extension of your home, so naturally you want it to look its best. And it’s those natural elements – things like greenery, stone and wood – that elevate your yard into a true oasis.

For many a landscape designer, the real secret lies in the hardscaping, those solid surfaces like stone and concrete that make up everything from patios and pathways to retaining walls and decorative accents. How do you get started, and what does it take to achieve a great look? It all begins with the right surfaces.

(Countryside Flower Shop and Nursery photo)

The Bedrock of Hardscapes

For the most part, good hardscaping will involve one of two products: manmade materials and natural stone. Manmade products like concrete or brick offer versatility and straightforward installation. Natural stone comes from quarries and is beloved for its unique textures and colors.
“Some people say water is the soul for the garden, but to me, it’s stone,” says Grace Karoluk, landscape designer at Countryside Flower Shop and Nursery, in Crystal Lake and Elburn. “The natural stone just gives your garden a third dimension.”

Karoluk has been a landscape designer at Countryside’s Crystal Lake location since 1999. For decades, she’s helped designers and installation crews to transform backyards with paver stones, fire pits, retaining walls, walkways and plenty of other landscaping accents.

For homeowners seeking a low-maintenance option, Karoluk recommends stamped concrete because it mimics the appearance of brick or tile while retaining the advantages of a concrete slab. Like stone and pavers, this option also allows for a wide range of colors, textures and patterns – which are then stamped into the slab.

As important as your material selection is, it’s also important to consider what’s underneath. This is the outdoors, where water abounds. Between the spring rain and winter’s deep freeze, water can wreak havoc on your hardscapes if they’re not prepared the right way.

Designers like Karoluk pay close attention to drainage and grading, doing everything they can to channel water away from the surface and prevent pooling in and around your patio or walkway. Good grading goes hand-in-hand, as it ensures there’s a level surface that’s easy for walking and preventing erosion.

“The basic thing is you want the water to go away from the house,” Karoluk says. “You want the right grading for a patio, too. We like to allow some space between the house and the patio for drainage. If it’s possible, add some plants to drain water before it hits the house.”

Karoluk and her designers recommend allowing 3 to 5 feet between a home, depending on what your space allows. Greenery in this space helps to soften the look of a hardscape while draining water away from the patio.

Beneath every hardscape is a foundation that ensures its long-term success. A layer of compacted soil and gravel will accept the weight of stone or concrete without settling or shifting.

In recent years, there’s been a shift toward what’s known as clear screening, which consists of clear gravel chips that come without crushed particles and dust between them. This product helps to further drain water away, especially when constant freezing and thawing are common in Midwestern winters.

It’s common practice to lay 6 inches of compacted three-quarter inch clear screening beneath an inch of three-eighths inch clear screening. The pavers sit right on top, without a sand layer, because that’s more likely to hold onto moisture, says Karoluk.

“You really want the clear screening, especially in an area like ours,” she adds.

(Runde’s Landscape Contractors Inc. photo)

Designing Your Oasis

Joe Runde has seen just about every backyard trend in the past three decades. As the owner of Runde’s Landscape Contractors Inc., 9N299 Illinois Route 47, in Elgin, he’s watched preferences go from traditional concrete slabs and stone patios to much more intricate oases.

Pavers are still the standard, and they come in many shapes, colors and patterns. Patios, too, can come in many shapes and sizes, even taking a multi-level setup when the land allows. But the trend lately is all about simplicity.

“The trend in patios is large slabs and more geometric shapes,” says Runde. “There are no rounded edges anymore. Everything’s a rectangular shape, even the patios.”

Straight lines in a patio help to define the area while also creating a sense of spaciousness. Vertical elements like sitting and retaining walls help to add depth, while horizontal lines create visual width.

“If you have 100 square feet of patio, but you implement curves, you’re going to lose the outside,” says Karoluk. “Using straight vertical and horizontal lines with the hardscape will get you the most out of your backyard. The garden beds can be curved, and then you can maximize the square footage you have.”

Trends abound, and so do ideas when someone is planning a backyard update. Perhaps the best way to maximize your planning is to find pictures of what you like.

“I can’t stress the catalogs enough,” says Runde. “Get the project moving in the right direction by telling me and the sales reps what you like. I use the word ‘brainstorm.’ Let’s get together, brainstorm, doodle, think out of the box and look at some catalogs.”

It’s important to look at the hardscaping elements, but that shouldn’t be your only task. Take note of supporting features such as trees, shrubs and slopes, as well as other hardscape elements like pathways. Most importantly, take a look at your own backyard and any of these features that already exist. If you’re not sure how to use an element, like a tree or a slope, remember that’s why you’re working with a designer.

“Start with a good landscape designer you have trust in, someone who’s been around,” says Runde. “I get a lot of my work personally off enthusiasm, creativity and education.”

We all tend to think about how the yard will look from the outside, but it’s easy to take for granted how your landscape looks from inside your home.

“I tell homeowners to live in the house at least a season and do nothing,” says Karoluk. “Learn about your yard and find out how you use it. You have different vantage points from different rooms, and you see things differently. You might think you’re going to spend all your time at the kitchen table, but then you find out you prefer the living room, so the kitchen table isn’t the most important view anymore.”

Along those lines, it’s also important to consider how people will travel between the inside and outside of your home. Think of your patio as having different zones, maybe somewhere for eating, somewhere for lounging, somewhere for a fireplace, and somewhere for walking.

“You can’t put tables and chairs where people are going to be walking – that interrupts the flow,” Karoluk says. “So, you want to maximize the design with your function, how you want to divide the backyard patio, what you want to screen off, where you want to design an outdoor kitchen or a fire pit, and so on.”

(Runde’s Landscape Contractors Inc. photo)

Maintaining Your Investment

Natural stone and concrete pavers generally are low-maintenance products, but the occasional upkeep will ensure their long-lasting appearance.

Power washing and cleaning should take place about every three to five years, says Runde, depending on factors like heavy usage, sun exposure, and pets or plants.

“Pavers can get dirty,” says Runde. “Dirt from flower pots can spill into the pavers. It’s as simple as scrubbing them with a hose and a broom occasionally.”

Weeds like to show up at inconvenient places, too. A little polymeric sand fortifies the space between pavers and blocks out weeds, says Runde. This sand contains polymer binders – a type of synthetic resin – that can harden when activated with water.

“We’re trying to get people low-maintenance products, so using polymeric sands is one way to keep your joints in the pavers stable,” says Runde. “Otherwise, they might get weeds and move and then degrade over time.”

Liquid sealants may also help to refresh older hardscape elements. It’s used to prevent stains and further inhibit the growth of weeds, but this is more of an infrequent task that should be approached with caution.

“Sealers help bring out the luster of the paver and keep out ants and weeds, but we see a lot of people who apply sealers too often,” says Runde. “Concrete has an absorption rate, and it will soak in oil, grease, ketchup, mustard, wine and even candle wax,” says Runde. “So, sealant helps bring out the color and make the joints between the pavers as low-maintenance as you can get.”

Nobody wants to spend all of their time maintaining a space – after all, it’s there for our enjoyment. Taking the time to set the right materials in the right design and the right layout to your yard will pay dividends in many ways.

“Hardscapes are an investment in your property,” says Karoluk. “If you install a nice patio and walkways, it will make your property value go up. So, it’s an investment. Not only that, it’s also about the memories you will make.”

(McCloud Aquatics photo)

Take a Proactive Approach to Pond Management
By Peggy Werner

Springtime brings the eagerly awaited sights and scents of the season, but it also ushers in unwelcomed growth in ponds, lakes and waterways.

T.J. McCloud, CEO of McCloud Aquatics in Elburn, emphasizes the importance of early prevention when it comes to aquatic weeds and algae.

“Maintaining a healthy water system requires proactive effort, as there is no quick fix once the situation deteriorates,” he says. “Addressing the problem promptly can save homeowners considerable time, money and effort, as cleanup can take four to six weeks when the situation becomes severe.”

A family-owned and operated business since 1904, McCloud Aquatics has provided service for aquatic vegetation control since 1962. It covers the Chicago area, northern and central Illinois, and southern Wisconsin.

Around this region, one of the most common problems for ponds and lakes is algae. It’s regarded as a nuisance vegetation that takes many forms, all of which can overtake water.

These growths usually arise as the result of nutrient imbalances. An excess of phosphorus and nitrogen will promote growth in algae and large aquatic plants, which then reduces oxygen levels and water clarity. “Be on the lookout for blue-green algae,” McCloud adds. “If you are unsure, call us.”

McCloud Aquatics manages ponds and lakes with organic products that are safe for the environment and in accordance with federal regulations. Each applicator is licensed through the state.

New customers should start with water and sediment testing to develop a comprehensive management plan, says McCloud. He also recommends services such as bathymetry mapping to assess pond conditions from the bottom up.

A pond manager’s work may include submerged weed control, shoreline vegetation management, duckweed and watermeal control, water enhancement, bacteria-driven dredging programs, full-season management programs, pond and lake aeration, fish stocking and fisheries management, shoreline restoration, lake mapping and wildlife management.