A Facelift for a Fresh New Season

The sun was shining today with temperatures in the 50’s.  It’s not quite Spring, but it soon will be.  In honor of March 1st and those daffodil bulbs that have been trying to come for weeks now, I thought I would give a few clean up tips for your spring garden.  I would begin most clean up at the end of March or early April, depending on how garden deprived you are.

This Old House

1.  Mulch…its not for everybody.  While shrubs and trees benefit from mulching to help keep moisture on the roots, perennials, annuals, and groundcover may not grow as well heaped with mulch.  Some perennials can have a hard time emerging in the Spring.  If you notice them struggling, try to remove some mulch right around the base to aid them.  Groundcover and annual flowers will not fill out as well with mulch surrounding them.  Using a compost around groundcover and perennials is a better alternative to give nutrients.  However, weed suppression is best with mulch, so I will usually mulch perennials, but with only 1″ of mulch instead of the typical 2-3″.  Remember mulching your beds in not necessary on a yearly basis.  Raking the beds to “fluff” up the mulch can make them look clean and allow the darker mulch underneath to surface.


2.  Who wants a haircut?  Ornamental grasses need a trim in March.  It is one of the more time sensitive clean up items on the list.  It won’t hurt them to wait, just make your life more difficult.  The goal is to cut the grasses 4-6″ off the ground so that the new growth isn’t peppered with dead grass stalks.  It will be a lot easier to trim back without having to work around new blades.  All other perennials can be trimmed back at this point, if it wasn’t already done in the Fall.  It really doesn’t matter which time of year the perennials are trimmed.  Some people like to keep them up for winter interest or as a winter food source for animals.  Sometimes leaving the dead plants up for the winter can help shelter the roots against the winter cold.


3.  Edging in on perfection.  Adding an edge with a spade to the beds in the spring puts a finishing touch on the clean up.  If you find your bed lines get bigger every year, which is almost inevitable, use grass seed and a blanket along the edge to scale it back, every 5 years or so.   A manual edge tool rather than a shovel will work best for novice edgers.  I don’t recommend plastic edging around beds.  They may help for a year or two, but they are widely unsuccessful in keeping the lawn from growing back into the beds and eventually heave out of the ground, get run over and ripped to shreds by the lawn mower, and generally don’t allow you to make as nice of an edge as simply doing it by hand a few times a year.

Kansas Forest Service

4.  No leaves, no flowers?  Not a problem.  A spring cleanup can provide a perfect time for minor and not so minor pruning.  Pruning in late February or March before a shrub or tree begins to flower or come into leaf provides some great advantages.  It is easier to see which branches are not contributing to the overall look of the plant and easier to see how to have a balanced pruning job in the end.  Also, certain shrubs (ask me for specifics) can benefit from “rejuvenation pruning”.  This means to cut back severely, to promote a lot of new growth.  A good example is an arrowwood viburnum.  Sometimes these plants can over escape a desired size and can be “hacked” back to a few feet off the ground to allow new growth to grow back in.  Early spring is a great time to do this because the cut marks will be hidden by the new growth and by the summer it won’t even look like it was pruned.  Doing the same thing in the summer will be noticeable during the rest of the season.


5.  Inventive Inventory.  The spring clean up is a great time to check on the status of missing plants, any winter damage by burrowing critters, chewed stems or rubbed bark by deer and rabbits.  If you are an avid gardener, you can get creative with a garden journal to catalog, doodle and dream up your next plan.  Maybe its time to revamp an area that has gotten over grown or lost its cohesiveness with too many onsie and twosie perennial combinations.  Lots of homeowners lose their steam for outside projects by the 4th of July.  Get started early to get on your landscapers’ to do list!


A Pictures Worth a Thousand Views

The final touch of a photograph or painting is the frame.  The color and style are often chosen to compliment the room or setting they are displayed in.   The frame of a landscape view can be the oversized living room window, a garden gate, an arbor, or a screen of plants placed to hide the landscape until the viewer walks around the corner at just the right moment. The way a landscape is framed can make it look different from different angles. Check out a few awesome frames that might just change your view.

Becca LaBarre

This window cut out of a hemlock hedge is part of the gardens at Chicago Botanic Gardens.  This frame blocks out the rest of the garden to focus on a single element like this urn.  Without the frame, and with the busyness of the rest of the garden the viewer may not notice it.

Becca LaBarre

Extra formality at Cantigny Gardens frames this view.  The lines of the rectangular pool draws the eye to the farthest location.  It was probably unintentional, but look at the tree turning orange.  Would it be as spectacular if it was on the edge of the frame?

Becca LaBarre

The water feature is in line with the narrow breezeway and gives the eye something to look at when walking to the backyard.

Becca LaBarre

The summer palace at the Alhambra in Spain is no stranger to framing a view.  Many courts, rooms, and windows all are characterized by arched doorways.  Think that’s not applicable to real life?  An arbor over the entrance to a garden can be the frame that fits in line with our backyards, unless of course you live in a palace.

Becca LaBarre

The gardens at Chataeu St. Jean in Sonoma, California have a ton of nooks and crannies and each garden is a room.  The designer carefully framed the views with several vine adorned walls creating mystery around every corner.

Bob Stell

This idea of using plants to hide the view beyond is done often by my boss. This project shows how any backyard can build mystery around every turn to add interest as the landscape unfolds.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Rules of Watering

Sacramento Tree Foundation

More than likely you’ve heard the term “green thumb”. Some people are said to have one and some do not. I like to believe that the term is synonymous with watering know-how and ability. One of the hardest skills in landscape to learn is how much to water and more often than not, I find that my clients love their plants too much rather than not enough. You’ve just spent a lot of money on plants and maybe your own back-breaking labor to install them.  It is an important concept to understand. I’ve struggled over my career to come up with the best watering instructions I can write. I believe over the last 7 years I have modified my instructions at least four times. Make them too simple and they are followed to closely, thus giving no wiggle room to the variance in plant requirements. Too complicated, and I instill fear in my client’s mind that they are not cut out for babysitting their new transplants every waking moment of the day.

Working in a nursery watering every day you get a feel for which plants are as I like to call them “the canary in the coal mine”. This is how I explain it to my clients. An Annabelle Hydrangea is one of the first to droop, sometimes years later during hot dry spells. It’s fine to let it get to this point, but make sure to water at this sign. Drying out a plant between watering is the best way to water. Think of what it means for the soil to be wet. It mean no oxygen for the roots, and rot will occur.

The best way to water is with a soaker hose, left at the base of a plant for deeper, more infrequent watering. Another option is for a hose to be left at the base at a “drip-drip” setting. The water should not be on high enough for the water to run off the plant, but soak in to the root ball. This is where many people go wrong. It takes a lot of time to move hoses around and to get a feel for which plants need more or less water. A quick soak means you will be back watering that plant in a day or a few days because it seems dry. It also means that the plant is being subjected to frequent watering that promote diseases and root rot.  Plants that receive water deep down in the soil are thus encouraged to reach their roots far and wide as it seeks water and to establish well. A secondary reason for watering the base of a plant is to keep water off the leaves, as will happen with overhead water systems.  This also promotes disease caused by fungus. In general, a perennial will need water 2-3 times per week while establishing and a tree or shrub will need 1-2 times per week for 30 min -1hr during the same time frame. Of course, a good rain negates the need for supplemental watering.

Other factors that play a role in watering can be types of soil, and age a type of the plant.  I have seen plants overwatered on a slope due to the heavily compacted clay soil that was used to make that slope.  This is one reason why newly constructed home sites are particularly hard on new plants.  Also, after a tree or shrub is established it might still be necessary to water once or twice during those hot mid summer months.  Certain perennials can dry out easier next to sidewalks and asphalt where the sun creates a hot surface that can burn and dry them out sooner.

Bart's Tree Service

Thinking a mild winter is good for your plants?  Not always.  I was reminded today of a sometimes forgotten principle.  Conifers…i.e.  a type of plants that is usually evergreen and has needles is green in the winter for a reason.  It doesn’t go dormant, and still moves water through its system, even in the frozen tundra of Chicagoland in February.  Usually they do this in the winter via snow coverage, but in year with little snow, and a ground that keeps pendulating between frozen and unfrozen, this can prove detrimental.  I encourage all my clients to water their new evergreens as late as possible.  A general rule of thumb is to give them a good soak right around Thanksgiving to allow them to begin winter on a well watered foot.  Many times in January, we get a week of warm up where the weather turns mild before plummeting to the sometimes single digits.  This is a good time to water again because the trees can dry out or desiccate.  In a case like this winter, several little warm ups can mean major water loss and new trees could benefit from watering every other week or so if the ground is not frozen.  Remember evergreens are one of the most touchy plants when it comes to overwatering and rarely recover once they show signs of it.  I was once explained this concept by one of the owners of Spring Bluff Nursery, Ken Norris.  I loved his stories to help illustrate his concepts because they helped clients remember them.  He used to say, remember that a person walking in the desert can be found in a day or so, dehydrated, but alive.  He’ll suffer, but will bounce back.  How long can a person survive at the bottom of a swimming pool?  A few minutes at most.


The kicker concept in the whole watering regime is that whether a plant is watered too much or too little, the signs look the same.  That’s when the questions must be asked.  Have we had adequate rain?  How often have I watered?  Does the ground around my plant feel moist?  Is there an underground sprinkler watering my lawn?  If there are droopy leaves, or leaves are turning brown and falling off the tendancy is to want to water more because the plant seems to be in distress.  If the signs point to plenty of water, then most likely it is an overwatering symptom.

Are you getting the picture.  Not an easy explained system.  After years of caring for plants, this becomes second nature.  Of all the possible negligence a person can bestow upon their landscape like lack of fertilizer, forgetting to weed, over or under pruning, or even improper lighting, it’s the most important to get the watering correct, or you have no need for performing the rest of the tasks. As I always tell my clients, if you have any questions about specific plants please let me know.  It is much easier than trying to revive a shriveled specimen of a formerly elegant plant.

All Spaces Great and Small

I begin with a quote from a show I used to watch.  “Bigger, Badder, Awesome” was the unofficial tagline of the “Ace of Cakes”.  If you’re not familiar it is a show about the creative, over the top cake designers of Charm City Cakes in Baltimore, MD shown on the TLC network.  In their world, over top equals career success.  Often times, in the landscaping world the same is true, or so many think.  “Smaller, Badder, awesome” doesn’t sound quite so exciting, but in reality a little space has some advantages over their larger counterparts and I really enjoy designing them. For one, smaller spaces can mean using higher quality material without a huge jump in price.  Also, the design can be more cohesive, utilizing a style or theme from edge to edge.  If you have a small space to work with, here are a few creative ideas.

1.  Using a water feature featuring a basin system…

A piece of pottery, stone, urn, etc. can be uses as a water feature sitting atop an underground tub that houses all the necessary pump and accessories.  There are various sizes of basins, but the smallest is about 3’x3′ and can fit in a space about 5′ across.  Below is a water feature from Ceramo Company Inc.  I purchase most of my pottery used in water features for my client at Ceramo. They had a local distributor in West Chicago, IL, but it is no longer being sold there.  I will have to find another option, as the shipping from their out-of-state location may prove cost prohibitive. Note:  The basin seen in this picture would be hidden underground and covered with decorative stone like mexican pebbles.

Ceramo company

2.  Using lattice fencing or garden wall systems for screening…

No space for an evergreen screen can mean more creativity in how to block views.  Earlier in the year, I was able to check out some planted screens.  These systems can even have their own irrigation to keep the maintenance down, but watering needs of the screens must be taken into careful consideration, or the plants will suffer.  I saw these screens at a annuals panel discussion at Ball Horticultural in West Chicago, IL. They had one made that looked like their logo made out of sedum and begonias.  Also featured was another using tropical house plants.  Below is that screens at Ball Horticultural.  It is thickly planted with tropicals and does feature the above mentioned watering system.

Betty Earl

3.  Using higher quality material…

Swap out concrete pavers and retaining wall material for clay or natural stone.  Concrete block and pavers do have some disadvantages over natural stone in that their color fades over time, they can break up under conditions of salt, and moisture.  In other words if it is possible to use the real thing, the look is much more subtle and material will last longer.  Below is a drywall retaining wall made from Lannon stone, out of Wisconsin.  This wall is used in a small backyard to elevate a space for a patio in a space that would otherwise be too sloped to accommodate one.  The pavers are Pinehall clay.

Becca LaBarre

4.  Using planters to add color and provide a space for vegetables…

If you crave something homegrown and don’t have the space for a vegetable garden, planting in pottery can be an alternative.  Herbs such as mint, basil, oregano, or rosemary work well or vegetables like lettuce, or tomatoes.  Tomatoes can be a bit trickier, as it seems that they do not produce quite as many tomatoes and can easily be over watered.  Also, some small spaces need to maximize patio space and can leave spaces void of greenery.  To achieve a spot of color, add planters of hot colored annuals like Coleus, Impatiens or Supertunias.  Even large-leaved tropicals can provide a lush backdrop and the larger leaves creates the same illusion as large tiles in a small kitchen.  Just remember to take them inside in the winter.


5.  Using creative planting spaces…

Here are a couple of ideas of places to stash a little bit of green.  In a small space, every inch counts.  Outside the normal planting bed creativity can be used in many capacities.

Saxon Holt

Above is a lettuce and beet garden planted in between flagstone.  A great multitasking space.

The previous photo depicts a very well designed small space that incorporates a lot of focal elements including the diagonal table, the bird bath, and balanced plant design along the arch of the circle shaped lawn space.

In a small space sometimes hardscape is needed more than plant space. Dare I admit that!  However, here is a creative use of plant space in the unused portion of the driveway.  In the midwest climate, I would opt for some well-traveled, tough as nails groundcover like creeping thyme.  They can handle dry and hot conditions like the concrete jungle of a driveway space.

So for Duff, the lovable, laid-back chef of Charm City Cakes, his claim to fame comes in the form of flour, sugar, and the occasional pyrotechnics. I’d never discount the use of pyrotechnics in a landscape if ever there was an appropriate opportunity, but for now, the challenge of small space design and creating a unique outcome will suffice.