It’s Always Sunny in San Diego

It’s about that time of year for spring fever.  The annual dose of sun known as Spring Break  to the under 21 crowd and what I like to call “the calm before the storm” brought me to San Diego for a long weekend with my husband.  The goal was to get as south as possible on a budget and since I had been once before on a work trip and was not able to enjoy the sites, I got some redemption, took some plant pictures, and checked whale watching off my lists of things I’ve always wanted to do.  Here are a few of the pictures of the horticultural variety to help satisfy your need for spring.

My favorite stop was Balboa Park, which had more gardens than we had time to view in the waning hours of the afternoon.

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

This is the Alcazar Garden of which this tree provides the focal feature.  The maze of boxwoods are familiar in this formal garden reminiscent of a Spanish palace garden.

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

The center garden planting is a welcome spot of color while in Illinois there is nothing, but brown and white as far as the eye can see.  This was also a very popular picture spot for the many wedding and Quinceanera parties on a busy saturday.

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

Artistic tree roots on a slope.  One of many in a grove overlooking some walking paths for easy strolling.

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

Rhododendrons in bloom in February, well worth the trip!

Getting to Know You

Though I spent the weekend in a hotel ballroom with hundreds of other vendors, I was happy to speak with some very interesting people as they came through the “New House, Old House” homeshow at Pheasant Run Resort In St. Charles.  I met people sprucing up their vintage homes, moving to the area from other parts of the country, making updates to their childhood homes, or brand new homeowners excited for their first fixer upper project.

The show reminded me how much I’ve enjoyed getting to know my clients over the years.  From a client who would tell me about his days growing up in North Carolina, to one whose father who had a sparkling wine named after him, the world is never short on interesting people.  The life experiences of my clients help me to understand their lifestyles and how their landscape project can be an extension of that lifestyle.  For an active family with a big backyard, it might be necessary to leave room for two soccer nets, or minimize perennial plantings for the busy couple who do not have time to care for them.

The homeshow has brought us great potential this late winter when we are normally still digging ourselves out.  We met several people beginning their own custom home projects, an ambition we haven’t seen in years.  Here’s to a positive start to our season, and getting to know many more interesting clients.  I can’t wait to help put their personal stamp on their projects.  Oh, and check out our cool, swanky, new booth below.  We’ve really stepped up the professionalism.

Bob Stell

Bob Stell

Horticulture Locavores

The term Locavore, applying to eating local food is a movement that has gained a lot of attention these last few years.  Farmer’s markets, and farm to table cooking are springing up everywhere for the health of it.  The landscape industry uses this concept for purchase of plant material for the plant health of it.  The bottom line…support your local garden centers instead of running to the big box store.  I promise it will make a difference!

1.  Plants are genetically better suited for our environment.

It makes sense that a plant grown in the soil it will be planted in would adapt better.  I’ve actually seen a shrub come out of a pot to expose “red dirt”.  You don’t really have to be a horticultural expert to realize that plant was not grown in Northern Illinois.  It is more than just soil that determines a plants’ survivability.  A Red Oak grown on one side of a large forest will be genetically different from a Red Oak on the other side.  This is the main reason planting local plants will make a difference in how well they adapt.  If you plant a Burning Bush that was grown in southern California, that shrub will grow slower, be more susceptible to disease and cold hardiness issues only because the genetics of that shrub are not as well suited for the freeze/thaw and clay soils of Chicagoland.  We purchase our trees and shrubs from local nurseries from Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin to ensure they are either grown in similar situations or maybe even a little more cold tolerant than ours.

2.  Planting native perennials ensures plant diversity

Native perennial gardens are becoming more common.  They don’t provide the pop of color or length of bloom time that their more genetically altered, alter egos give a garden, but they do provide the most adaptable species that need the least amount of environmentally damaging fertilizers, pesticides, and supplemental water.  The former Natural Garden in St. Charles, IL was one of the foremost caretakers of native plants in the area.  Before going out of business in 2011, the Natural Garden kept files of dozens of types of native carex grasses, for example.  There were so many types some were indistinguishable from one another.  Normally, a garden center would not sell varieties with similar characteristics because of the redundancy.  The Natural Garden, not only made sure to keep alive these various varieties of one species, but also was vigilant in keeping their seeds sources within a 90 mile radius of St. Charles to guarantee they were truly native to the area.  Thankfully Midwest Groundcovers has taken over the task and carries the Natural Garden line of native perennials helping to ensure that no one species can be wiped out by disease or pest.

3.  They know their plants

Purchasing local can also help ease frustration when you have questions.  I know if I have a question about a new plant or a tree I don’t normally use, the nurseries will be full of useful information to aid in making the right choice.  Many times, the box stores will have little more than a warm body taking care of the plant material and the plants can often look neglected after a few weeks on the shelf.  A local garden center will usually employ professionals or garden enthusiasts who know a thing or two.  They know how to water and deadhead potted plants to keep them looking their best even after an entire season.  They can also make suggestions for types of plants given your specific requirements and desires.

B. Burr

B. Burr

More than Mud Pies

It’s been awhile since I held my first job, customer service at The Natural Garden in St. Charles.  I still occasionally run into coworkers from that first job, but one particular favorite of mine was Dr. Joe.  He was a retired doctor who decided to call it quits early to pursue his leisure passions.  Always the gardener, he talked plant tips with patients until he left to teach his grandchildren about the greener things in life.  I always enjoyed hearing about the new plant projects he was planning with them, and the joy he found in their discoveries of the natural world.  I often wonder if his grandchildren remember him for the time he spent with them, digging in the dirt.  The following are a few projects that Joe did with his grandchildren and some I suggest to anyone wanting to cultivate a love of gardening in a young mind.

1.  Growing Snapdragon from Seed

Snapdragons are an easy to grow annual flower that could be planting directly in a garden bed or started early in a west-facing window.  The reward in the end is the unique flower that open and close when pinched. The colors are bright and fun too.

2.  Planting a Children’s Perennial Garden

Along with interesting flowers like snapdragon a children’s garden can be planted with a variety of other interesting perennials.  Try Balloon flower with buds that look swollen just before they open.  You can actually make a popping sound if you squeeze the buds just before they are ready to open and it won’t hurt them.  Just don’t do it too early.  Other options are scented flowers like Catmint or butterfly attractants, like Butterfly Bush, Liatris, or Monarda.

3. Helping with a Vegetable Garden

Allowing children to be in charge of an area or particular type of plant is a great lesson in the entire food growing process.  Trying to keep their attention with abundant producers like green beans, or tomatoes, or satisfying a short attention span with a fast grower like lettuce.  Pumpkins germinate fast though they are not harvested until fall.

4.  Flower Press Christmas Presents

This is one I did as a child and loved.  I collected flowers in the backyard like Roses, and wildflowers like Chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace.  Had I taken the creativity further, I’d have laminated them onto bookmarks, or framed them as art.  A great way for a child to make a christmas gift for a teacher, or grandparent.

5.  Creating a Garden Hideout

If you have the room, how about creating a secret hideaway garden.  This one goes against many “good” landscape principles, but in a house with children, a little non-formality won’t hurt.  Some ideas are creating a teepee, or planting tall perennials in a circle such as hollyhocks.  Hollyhocks can be planted 12″ apart with room left for a doorway.  A fun place for a tea party on a summer day.

Beauty in the Brown

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but can you find beauty in the straw brown landscape of a January garden?  A landscape is designed for many seasons of interest.  The anticipation of spring flowers, the textures and lush green of summer leaves, and the striking contrasts of burgundy, orange and yellow in October.  The balance of winter color is usually accomplished with evergreens, but doesn’t always have to be.  A perennial loving gardener with an appreciation for the structures of plants can still have a beautiful winter garden among the dry neutrality of frozen beds.  Here are a few of my favorite perennials in winter.

1.  Purple Coneflower:

While the petals fade away, the cones are food for birds in winter.  They provide an interesting rounded texture and have a dark brown color to contrast the lighter straw colored foliage.


2.  Sea Holly

These seed heads have an interesting configuration clumped together and give the same texture as the coneflower.  They stand up well against snow.


3.  Annabelle Hydrangea

The large white blooms of the Annabelle Hydrangea fade to cream, then green, then finally brown.  By winter they are a mere skeleton of themselves.  Though not a perennial, these shrubs do get cut down in the spring to provide sturdy stems.  Dried fall blooms also make beautiful dried flower bouquets for the house.


3.  Ornamental Grasses

The taller of the grasses will get matted down after heavy snow, but until then, the seed heads, and thin blades collect the flakes until they create a beautiful canvas for freshly fallen snow.  The front perennial in this photo is sedum which also collects snow beautifully.


5. Vinca

How about a perennial that remains green all winter.  This low growing groundcover keeps most of its color in the winter and is better than looking at old sun bleached mulch.


New Tricks of the Trade


Ever want to rub shoulders with a ton of landscape professionals?  Good thing we do.  As in many industries we make our own good company and in an industry with passionate people, there are bound to be a few shop talk moments. Today was my venture to Chicago for the Midam tradeshow, our one show a year that allows us to meet up with the who’s who of landscape and everyone else too.  We catch up with colleagues, old classmates, suppliers, contractors and take various business classes.  Here are a few of my new finds this year.

1.  Hocus Pocus groundcover from Midwest Groundcovers.  The tag line is that they “cover like magic”.  They are made up of many tried and true groundcover, but the increased size pots will aid in their ability to grow in fast.  My favorites are the six different sedum and creeping thyme.  They are all drought tolerant, and with the way things have been going we need every drought performer we can get.

2.  FX LED lighting fixtures with more power.  We’ve been slowly switching to LED lighting fixtures.  Until this year the FX downlights (for placing in trees and various other elevated locations) were made with an output of no more than 3LED which visibly looks like about 20watts of light.  This season they are introducing a new light, the DE,  which will output up to 9LED which visually looks like 50watts.  This is great for higher locations that will allow a lot of light to pool onto the ground.  FX really stepped up this season and also showcased a new Luxor system which allows for customization and versatility in the low voltage lighting system.  Now, like a sprinkler, the lights will be put on zones and the system can tell the lights to dim when needed.  Now mood lighting can be customized for every situation.  Need more light during a backyard pool party, or less during a romantic stargazing event.  The choice is yours.

3. The Belgard truck trailer stopped by for a visit.  This entire truck trailer is retrofitted with a fireplace, water feature, outdoor kitchen, grill and the floor is laid with pavers to show all their products without ever having to set up for another tradeshow.  Brilliant!  The back even has a working pizza oven and grill for those shows where the convincing is done through demo and a taste for brick oven pizza.  Belgard recently purchased another company, Hanson Hardscape, which gives them access to some new product lines.  This one below is part of the tile line.

Something Borrowed

It was once said to me that designers are the best at stealing ideas from each other.  In fact, in school, modifying an idea from someone else was often encouraged.  Perhaps the modern-day version of stealing ideas from each other can be summed up in one word.  Pinterest.  Interestingly, I’ve never used Pinterest as a means of stealing landscape ideas, though I have for just about any other creative venture I have tackled from party hosting, to Christmas gifts.  Whether it’s Pinterest, flipping through magazines, or walking through nature, the smallest detail can spark an idea and no one is the wiser to the fact that it might not be 100% original.

One of my favorite ideas of all time that I received and modified, was during a design seminar taught by Greg Pierceall, a design instructor formerly of Purdue University.  He had planted the tread of some stone steps to help soften the look of one slab on top of the other. He offset the steps so that they did not overlap and left about six inches to plant sedum groundcover. The idea was that most of the time people do not step that close to the next step, so why not use it for greening up the area.

Below is an idea of how it would turn out if English Ivy was used.

I decided to use the idea to plant groundcover between two different spaces of a patio.  A lot of time different levels of patio can define one space unique from another space.  The level change can signal a different use.  However, it isn’t always practical to use two levels.  I decided to make this patio the same level, but define the spaces with a six-inch break and Creeping Thyme planting in the gap.  This way, the patio can be broken up with some green space without compromising the functionality.  Here is the result pictured below.


Becca LaBarre

So, my secret and those of countless other designers, it out.  Designers have been “Pinteresting” for years.  How convenient that all creative people have collaborated together and made our job so much easier!

What Do You Do All Winter?

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

New Years resolutions have taken all forms this week.  From the extra people in my aerobics class yesterday, to facebook posts, to the many blog writers who have weighed in on their goals for 2013.  While, I do have several goals both professional and personal, I wanted to put a spin on my goals and answer a question I get asked atleast a dozen times each December through February. “What do you do all winter?”.

I always love this very valid question because in all honesty the job that keeps us running crazy all summer resembles only a glimmer of what it is during Spring, but shifts into something else equally important.  Every moment of thought of how to improve the job, streamline processes, or gain new skill gets shoved into a compartment in my brain I like to call “winter projects”.  Here are a few of my goals for the winter that I can only hope will be accomplished before St. Patrick’s Day.

1.  Techie Talk

We all know that technology has its place for making our lives easier (and more complicated) and I have planned to use my newly purchased ipad to its full advantage.  My goal is to make a killer database of pictures that are categorized more effectively by types of materials, projects, plants, and ideas.  Instead of having to flip through a book of a few pictures of ideas in no clear order, I can take a client right to file labeled for example “outdoor kitchens” and cater the pictures that are shown directly to their landscape needs and wants.  Also, the ipad will be able to take pictures and video of projects that will eliminate my need to download photos onto a computer.  To go a step further, I am currently designing a small video to help explain our design process to help potential clients understand what to expect.

2.  Get over the Learning Curve of Sketchup

I recently downloaded a copy of the popular design program formally by Google and am working on trying to learn how to use it for 3-D imaging.  If you are a facebook fan of EverGreen Landscape check for a contest coming later this month for your chance to win a Sketchup Design of your landscape, compliments of my much needed practice.

3.  Update Pricing

This is a goal we accomplish together as an office every year to make sure that we have all our prices correct in the system.  This year will be especially labor intensive as we will no longer have software support which means we will be typing every plant price in by hand.  Yikes!

4.  Marketing Efforts on Steroids

This is the time for planning what kinds of marketing we will be doing throughout the season.  Once we get rolling in the Spring, there is hardly time to implement it, so planning ahead is key.    Last year, we launched a Facebook campaign complete with ideas for contests, and giveaways.  This season, our main focus is changing up our website.

5. The Show Goes On and On

From our yearly tradeshow Midam, continuing education seminars to the homeshows and tradeshows that we participate in around the area, we have a busy winter spent in a lot of conference centers.  I especially enjoy the classes we take and getting out and seeing collegues that are hard to see during the season when I feel like I spend more time with the company minivan than actual people.

Hopefully, if I’ve written these down for anyone to see that means I am actually going to accomplish all of this during the winter, as there are only two more months left.  This is the reason why I love to answer “What do you do all winter?” as it is more of a question of “What can you get done this winter?”  I plan to take full advantage.

A Bloggers Blog Picks

The christmas cookies are still fresh and a few more cheers are left to be said.  Does that mean that we are not yet ready to dream of spring during the long winter days ahead?  Perhaps it does.  If you are a year round landscape enthusiast and never tire of a beautiful scenery to view, here are a few more landscape blogs to check out that I have enjoyed reading this last year.

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

Miss Rumphius’ Rules is written by Susan Cohen a landscape designer who also owns her own company and founder of leaf magazine.  Her blog focuses on landscape design and pulls together a lot of visuals that help inspire and showcase her style.

Chicago Garden is a blog that focuses on..well…Chicago and events surrounding gardening in this area.  For example, right now there are links for the Lincoln Park Zoolights.  Previous topics have included tours of local garden centers, events at the Lurie Gardens, garden walks around Chicago and much more.

Dirt Simple | Gardening and Landscape Blog by Deborah Silver focuses on all the small details of garden design.  The abundance of pictures is a great idea generator.  I especially enjoy some of the decorations that are featured to highlight the writers second business, Detroit Garden Works, a shop devoted to unique metal and various other types of garden decor both new and vintage.

The Experts Weigh In

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

Who doesn’t want a panel of experts in their field to bounce off ideas?  I’m very glad I have some go-to people to ask advice, construction applications, or find out the latest and greatest must haves.  Here are some of my collegues greatest advice to homeowners from perspectives all over the board.  From designers, to brick salesman, maintenance gurus, and growers their diverse backgrounds mean that collectively they’ve seen just about everything.

Kathy Richardson
Landscape Designer

One thing I always try to tell people when helping them with their landscape design is to think about the big picture. They might just want a couple of plants, but know that they need a patio in a couple of years. So instead of just popping some plants in willy nilly, try to plan for your future landscape. Most people can not landscape their entire yard all at once. Not only is that a big maintenance undertaking all at once, but the cost of installing your dream landscape is usually not budget friendly. Dream big, and install a phase at a time. Plan your garden by laying out a master plan – or hiring a great designer to include all of the items you want in your garden into a master plan. There’s no reason why everyone can’t eventually have the landscape of their dreams. Install a patio one year, some foundation plants the next, stepping stone path and some accent plants the next and so on. It does take a bit of planning and patience, but you can’t beat the end result. That way, your garden and all its parts look like they were supposed to be there and you’ve got a functional and beautiful well thought out landscape.

Mickey Bittenbender

Maintenance Operations Manager
To prevent your lawn from turning brown during the hot summer months apply one inch of water per week with a lawn sprinkler, anything more is just a waste of water and money. If you choose to let your lawn go dormant during the summer months keep in mind this does not eliminate the need to water. During extended dry periods (3-4 weeks with no moisture) it will still be necessary to apply at least a ½” of water to help prevent costly lawn repairs due to turf grass die off.


Jim Clesen
Ron Clesen’s Ornamental Plants, Inc.


[My advice] basically, is for the homeowner to realize that they need to have an active part in the planning stages. Educate themselves. And, after all the decisions have been made then sit back and let the professionals do their job.  Working with designers before I know there are two types. Ones that plan for the product that they feel comfortable, for many reasons including they are just who they are, or what is overstocked in the nursery.  The other is one that will listen to what your needs are AND form fit the plantings, along with some of their previous experiences, to what your needs and wants are.  Asks important questions like “who will be maintaining these gardens or how much time and effort can you give?”
Jim Slattery AIA,CES
Illinois Brick Company

Material Sales 

The one tip I would give a homeowner is this, “Make sure your landscape design has color through-out the year”. I call it “Keeping your Landscape Alive” I drive around and looking at many landscape designs and see lots of color during spring, summer and fall months. But after the leaves and pedals have fallen off most designs look lifeless. The proper selection of trees, shrubs and ground cover is imperative to maintaining inviting color through-out the year to any landscape design. Ask a Landscape Professional on which plantings will work best for your property.