Europe Inspired!

Can you find inspiration for a quarter acre landscape in a palace garden?  Can you take an old world style and give it a modern twist?  I was given a great opportunity to visit Spain last year and check out a few landscapes that I found very inspirational.  The primary location was the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.  For me, it was a trip of a lifetime to finally get out of the country and see something with more than 200 years of history.  I was amazed by some of the work put into the patios at the palaces with each one inch pebble placed perfectly in a mosaic to create the ground plane.  A labor cost I could never fathom in our landscape contractor world.  Here are a few pictures.  I hope you find them truly inspirational.

Becca LaBarre

This very geometric summer palace garden was designed for relaxation.  It is just up the hill from the main palace at the Alhambra and incorporates open floor plans and lots of water to keep the household cooler in the summer.  For a geometric look in your own landscape, use boxwood to border beds.  To help drown out traffic for an in town garden add a small water feature.  You’ll be surprised how even a small feature can be a sound benefit.

Becca LaBarre

These stairs are called “the water stairs”.  I am still waiting for a client to want a water garden built into the railings of the stairs.  I promise it would be awesome.

Becca LaBarre

The hidden garden entry, a great way to down play a home with two front doors.  If you’ve ever seen a house where you aren’t sure where to walk or a secondary entrance has taken center stage the idea of hiding one door and making it a private entrance with some plantings, can direct visitor traffic. Short of placing a sign with a big arrow at the main entrance, the concept of a private, more hidden entrance is the next best thing.

Becca LaBarre

This, like many other patios was made stone by stone.  I love the symmetry and single focal element.  Use this idea to create a focal element in your backyard.  To make it obvious, it should be in line with a main view.  Perhaps a fountain out of a bay window, or a beautiful ornamental tree at the end of a patio.

Becca LaBarre

Wrigley Field on steroids.  Imagine this garden wall without the ivy.  It would be a massive, harsh brick wall.  The idea of breaking up a large flat space with a little green is a great way to add some plantings to screen a view when a traditional option is impractical.

Before and After: Part 1

Have you ever been to a Cracker Barrel as a kid (or adult) and played one of those puzzle games? Some of them mirror a rubix cube where the object is to move around the squares in the puzzle until each of the cubes sides display a solid color. You might get to the end only to find out you are one move away from solving the puzzle, but the pieces just don’t add up.

I am not a mathematician, and those that know me may chuckle at my arithmetic short comings, but the part about design I love the most is taking the pieces of the puzzle and putting them together so that my client can realize their dream landscape. I get to take desires such as more entertainment space, a place for storage, a front walk that invites, a view to hide, or a concrete foundation to soften. Then we throw in a few objectives like kid friendly spaces, price points, pets, large and small families, extra vehicles, homeowner association or village rules and the challenge begins.

It can be easy to work with a clean slate. No 100 year oak trees in the middle of patio space, or recently redone front walk that doesn’t really “flow”. I find the renovations however, can be the most rewarding because it takes time and effort to make a design work around those beautiful old trees, or reuse a clients existing paver brick. The project I’ve selected for the first installment of before and after is one such renovation with a very rewarding outcome for both client and designer.

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

The patio was very rectangular and though it had a lot of space, it lacked interest, it didn’t segregate any specific spaces for entertainment, grilling or enough length to allow a large table to have its own space. Also, the yard beyond had a very clear shot of the busy road and anyone passing by could see into the back windows of the home. This lack of screening and the new subdivision openness produced heavy winds that knocked over the grill quite frequently. The actual paver used in the original patio were still new, and matched well with the house and clients’ taste. The patio had several sunken spots that needed to be addressed. The objectives were to increase screening, cut down on the wind, while upgrading the barbecue for the family that enjoyed cooking, increasing the size and livening up the patio design, and reuse the existing pavers if it fit into the overall scheme.

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

The patio is outlined by a double border in a complimentary color. This allows the patio to be upgraded in size without a noticeable difference in the age of the old and new pavers. The barbecue now has its own space, which will no longer blow over in the wind, gives ample countertop space for preparation, and is not part of the rest of the patio thus allowing grilling to be done out of the traffic of a party in full swing. This unit is by Weber Grill and is made for a built-in barbecue, but stands alone unlike the traditional cook tops usually used in a built-in setting. The furniture and added fire pit also increase the function and entertainment value of the space. The back corner of the yard was planted with several evergreen trees and larger fast growing shrubs. There are several ornamental grasses that match with the rest of the property and neighborhood, as this home is part of a larger subdivision that incorporates prairie restoration.

Another great part of landscape design is that there are probably a hundred other ways this could have been done and still get the overall effect. I love that part of design too. No two projects are alike, and there are no wrong answers. Only multiple right answers…Puzzle Solved!

Too Good to be True Perennials

I get asked a lot by clients to include long flowering, colorful, and unique perennials in their designs. When a new perennial comes out on the market claiming to be one or more of these, I always proceed with caution.  I’ve been disappointed before. Here are a few perennials that fell flat and a couple tried and true perennials that can’t be beat.

1.  Limerock Ruby Coreopsis. This was a true red flowering lace-leaf coreopsis introduced about 12 years ago. It seemed cold hearty for Zone 5, but was originally tested on sandy soil, not clay, which is found over much of the midwest. It is now considered a tender perennial in the Chicagoland area, which means that in mild winters they will often survive, but in typical seasons may not.  Try Moonbeam or Zagreb Coreopsis for a light and dark yellow option of this perennial that has proven cold hardiness. I prefer it in an informal setting like a back border or cottage garden because it re-seeds freely.

2.  Frosty Morn Sedum. I point this one out to explain the caution using any variegated plants. I had purchased Frosty Morn Sedum for my parents yard years ago before I knew better. Slowly non-variegated stems began to grow in with the white tipped leaves of the variegated stems. After a season or two the plant had reverted back to the parent plant. This is very common with variegated plants. They are essentially mutants that are bred for their unique characteristics, but thus are unstable.  The tried and true version is called Autumn Joy Sedum. For a darker flower that has shown hardiness try Autumn Fire Sedum.

3. Sunset Coneflower. One of the first orange coneflowers is fairly unstable and the seeds produced by the plant will yield purple flowers, not orange. The Chicago Botanic Garden has introduced the Meadowbrite series, which show promise. Coneflowers have been in the spotlight for interesting cultivars like Double Decker which has flower petals on the top and bottom of the cone and a host of others. I have proceeded with caution on planting thus far and stuck with Magnus,  or Kim’s Knee High.

4.  Butterfly Blue Scabiosa. This one isn’t a total flop, but I’ve tried it many times and have had issues with powdery mildew. My guess is that clay soil is a contributing factor in preventing the plant from drying out quickly between waterings. This variety was grown for its compact size and blue flowers. I would prefer to get blue flower color using Catmint. I use Walker’s Low for spots that can handle the spreading habit. I have been using Kit Kat for a few years for areas that cannot handle the spreading habit, but it isn’t as floriferous.

5.  Dwarf Fountain Grass. This is a perennial I have seen do very well in some locations. Often the straight species does the best and if I do plant it, that is the one I try to stick with. As with many of the other plants I’ve found to not be hardy, the problem seems to lie in the soil. Hameln, Little Bunny and Little Honey are all varieties that have not survived over the winter. However,  the worst survival rates, we found, were in the new subdivisions where much of the soil is disturbed or lacking.  At homes with a lot of topsoil, the survival rate was better. I have been on a quest to find a compact ornamental grass that my clients have liked equally as well as Fountain Grass and so far haven’t been greatly successful. I substitute Prairie Dropseed for compact clump forming grasses and have tried Tufted Hair Grass, though it needs a special location because the seed heads grow very tall and the grass foliage is very low.

Also some newer varieties or rediscovered perennials I am in love with right now are Summer Beauty Allium, Amsonia ‘Ice Blue’, Heuchera ‘Obsidian, and Stachys ‘Hummelo’ to name a few.

Any stories of your favorites tried and trues or disappointments? I’d love to hear about it.

Design Off Challenge

Becca LaBarre

Supposedly you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Luckily, I’m not that old and don’t ever plan on being old enough to have this apply to me. Every winter our landscape jobs switch gears. We swap out fresh air, and sun for office procedures, price updating, and goal setting. Every winter, I get the chance to learn new things through continuing education, seminars, and a book or two written by a confident salesman who claims to have all the answers.

Last week I was able to attend a unique opportunity that gave me great insight into the design process. An interesting title, “The Design Off” , was actually far less cutthroat than Bobby Flay’s version of a throw down. In grand elementary school fashion, there were no winners or losers, only six different designs from the minds of six different designers all working with the same real life client and their beautiful real life property. The event was through an organization of which my boss and I are new members. The Landscape Design Association was originally formed by a few designers taking classes at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, IL in the late 1980’s. I had not heard of the group until this last year and their newly redesigned website really took me by surprise. The group is now over 180 designers and other landscape professionals.

Not knowing what to expect attending my first event, I was blown away by the relevance to my actual job. The atmosphere was intriguing, as it is focused on mentorship and learning from one another. I was welcomed by the new member hosts and several other members.  Each designer presented for about an hour.  They explained their design thought process,  how they overcame challenges, and how they solved the clients’ problems. They did it all by wrapping it up into a nice package that held all the clients’ hopes and dreams for their home.

The homeowners, who were present, had never seen the six designs until the day of the presentations. They asked awesome questions, along with the many professionals in attendance, and took an immense interest in all the work done by all of the presenters. I would have hated to be the homeowners, who had the task of deciding between all the projects because I myself had several  “A ha” moments from the different ways in which each person approached the designs.

There was the beautifully rendered design that excelled on plant design and balance, the contemporary design that went so beyond the box to gain a fresh prospective, the hand drawn design that had every nook and cranny thought out to create the most inviting spaces of all, the design that took nature into account, the design that really listened to the needs of the family, and the design we could all learn from.

In the end, the client was overcome with emotion at the work put in by the six landscape designers.  Bingo!  That’s what it is all about. I can read any number of sales books, and they all do have some good points, but it all comes down to one vital point, which I observed last week at the Design Off. My job is to listen, and then listen some more. I hope I never approach a meeting as just another “sale”. A client will never be overcome with emotion, have their breath taken away at a finished product, or go ga-ga over a plan of their home if it is just another “sale”. Not to mention how little I would actually like myself at the end of the day. Thanks goodness for winter down time to revamp, re-energize, re-prioritize and learn something new.