Native Trail

In the few and fleeting hours in the evening, after a landscapers’ work is done, there is little time in the spring and summer to spend on leisure.  Even in the orange glow of dusk, I try to find a little time to take a bicycle ride down the trails along the Fox River with my husband.  Even if we only make it 5 miles,  and even if I have the trail memorized, it’s a great way to unwind.  Since my one track mind is always on the radar for blooming plants, I’ve enjoyed taking a look at the spring wildflowers out this week along the path.  Here’s a few pictures of some spring flowers you might notice.  A great place to check them out is at Trout Park Nature Preserve near the underpass to 90 in Elgin, IL.

Becca LaBarre

Calthus palustris or Marsh Marigold blooms along the creek in Trout Park.  This can also make a beautiful edge to a backyard pond or pondless water feature.

Becca LaBarre

Geranium maculatum or Wild Geranium has a dainty pale lavender flower and is very popular along the Fox River Bike Trail.  It will work in partial shade and in moist woodland areas.  A great idea for a client with a natural woodland backyard and lots of space to fill underneath tall trees.  Another great spring bloomer for woodland gardens would be Virginia Bluebells which is just finishing flowering, and the mid summer bloomer, Woodland Phlox.

Becca LaBarre

Trillium sesille or Trillium has a burgundy flower sitting atop three leaves that dots the bike path.  As with the previous flowers it is found in moist woodland areas.  Trillium can also be various other shades of red, pink, with various types of mottled leaves.  Trillium, and the following plant pictured are called ephemeral flowers which are plants that have a very short lifespan of just a few month.  After their spring-flowering, ephemerals die back into the ground until next year.

Becca LaBarre

Enemion biternatum or False Rue Anemone.  Can be easily confused with other woodland flowers like Rue Anemone.

Becca LaBarre

Lonicera or Honeysuckle.  This is a beautiful weed that makes the air sweet while pedaling along the trail.  I don’t recommend planting it unless it is one of the cultivars.  It is commonly a spreading weed in the understory of the woods and it can be a major undertaking to keep it at bay.  Still smells great!

Artistic Possibilities

Framed photos on the wall, a handmade throw on a leather chair, knick knacks from a local shop purchased during a weekend away.  How do you make your house a home?    Personal touches don’t have to stop with the inside of the house.  A well placed accent used as a focal feature in the landscape can take many forms.  It may be inspirations from a well-traveled garden, a memento that morphs from one purpose to another, or a piece of art created by a friend.  These splashes of interest draw your eye around the yard and in doing so, paints a picture of the people who live there.

photo credit: Allan Mandell via Fine Gardening Magazine

This mosaic is designed to look like a persian carpet.  I found many similar designs used in the walkways of the palace gardens I visited in Spain last year.  I even joked at the amount of labor hours it would take a crew to do something like this.  I love the uniqueness in this design and how it give this garden an exotic flair.

Though I didn’t snap a picture at the time, here is an example of a wine bottle Tiki Torch.  A client I had about 5 years ago had a similar display.  She used pieces of rebar to mount different sizes, colors, and shapes of bottles at various heights. I appreciate it more now that my husband and I have gotten into wine.  This display has the potential to look a little messy, but it can work if done in the right scale, in the right backyard.  Perfect for a summer wine party.

Kathy Edgecombe

Something old turned into something new is the inspiration behind this piece of garden art. The artist, Kathy Edgecombe, learned her technique during an art class at River Art Studio in Algonquin, IL .  This piece was used in her own garden, a story to tell every time she invites guests to join her in her backyard.

Becca LaBarre

This whimsical swing was designed on-site along side one of my clients’ pond.  I wish I could still remember the artist’s name, but this swing fits the home perfectly, as it is an early american style farm-house. Most of the hardscape is flagstone and a lot of unique garden art dots the property, including a family of sheep made out of sheet metal and shipped from New Zealand.

Scaling Back? Think Again!

Walk in any garden center or big box store this time of year and you’ll find every shape and sized “cutesy” bird bath, whimsical garden sculpture, or artistic garden bench. Before you place that small feature in your landscape to add a finishing touch, here are a few tips for finding the right sized element that will be in scale once your landscape has matured.

1.  Big boulders to small pebbles…

Becca LaBarre

They may strike your eye now, but this is a new landscape and the boulders will slowly disappear as the landscape grows. When placing any stone in the landscape is important to put enough in the make a statement or don’t add it at all. It’s ok if it looks out-of-place right away. I like to add lots of groundcover or low perennials around boulders or outcropping to make the stone blend into the landscape. These two boulders are about 36 inch round and even though that may sound large the picture illustrates how small that can look in certain contexts.

2.  Water feature…small is still big

Pete Goodreau

This vase water feature sit about 40″ tall. The grasses behind them are brand new, but in a few years will be about 4-5′ tall. That will make them taller than the vase, thus making it appear smaller.

3.  Big house…big plants

This landscape is planted with all plants that will grow no more than 3 ft tall. Not only is there no diversity in sizes and textures, but the plants look lost in front of the large buff wall of the foundation of this house.

Bob Stell

It is typical to find landscapes using a million small round shrubs dotting the front foundation. Part of the problem is improper pruning, but the other part is improper scale. If you have a larger home, it makes a big difference if a larger specimen of plants can be used. To be more frugal, use a few larger trees of at least 7 ft tall ornamental trees or 3 inch caliper shade trees. I don’t get as hung up on planting larger perennials. They will grow in a year or two. The previous picture shows a newly planted landscape. The maple tree to the very right of the photo was planted at a 4-5 inch caliper tree.

Choose garden elements wisely and err on the side of oversized and you won’t be disappointed. In the scale of focal garden features…bigger is better!

A Great Start

I recently was given a great opportunity to sit down with avid gardener Colleen Gloss of West Chicago, IL.  Sitting on a Sunday afternoon on her back deck looking out on her corner potting shed, with Colleen, and her sister Kathy, I hardly asked a question before her passion for vegetable and perennial gardening came pouring out.

Kathy Edgecombe

She grows her abundant garden from seed when the long winter days still linger and the soil outside is chilled.  Her laundry room provides the perfect location to begin her flats of culinary herbs, vegetables, and heirloom perennials.

The tale begins each fall, as she gathers seeds from perennials, and her heirloom tomatoes and uses old screens to dry them out in the potting shed.  Once dried the seeds are placed in small wax envelopes, stuffed in recycled viles and saved over the winter in the cool temps of the potting shed.  Her two current favorite tomato varieties are Italian Classico and Amish Paste.   The remainder of seeds are purchased.  Colleen recommends the Seed Saver Exchange in Decora, IA for their reasonable prices and great information.  Check out to find out more about them.

Once planted and thriving in the laundry room, the colder season plants like lettuce can begin the transition to the cold frames on the south side of the house.  Colleen plants in succession of 7-10 day intervals, so there is enough lettuce to use throughout the season.  Once it is time for other plants like petunias and leeks to make their climate change to the cold frames, the cool season plants get kick out for the potting shed.  This triangle rotation gives the plants a chance to transition into the real world of the garden soil.

Kathy Edgecombe

Check out these cold frames which are currently housing leeks and heirloom petunias.  The flats sit atop a weave of heat coils attached to a chicken wire mesh to help keep the soil warm during chilly April days.  The coils are set in sand so that when they heat up, the entire sand base is warmed and provides even heat to the trays of plants.  The potting shed also has a similar system.

Kathy Edgecombe

Talking to Colleen, she makes her whole system seem like a breeze.  While many gardeners struggle with soil borne disease and pesky rabbits, Colleen credits her dogs for keeping the critters at bay, and her reused soil is rich with her own fresh compost and leaf mulch.  To start the small transplants she used seed starter mix which she finds has too much peat.  She then adds her own vermiculite to create the best soil for her new sprouts.

I admire Colleen’s approach to reuse of materials, down to the potting shed roof which takes run off water into a rain barrel and captures enough water for the vegetable garden during the summer.  It takes effort and more than a little research.  A few good resources like “Mother Earth News” and “The Herb Companion” are Colleen’s company for great ideas on staying true to nature.  If you are planning to try your own hand at seed starting she recommends “The New Seed Starter Handbook” by Nancy Bubel.  The text rich book is chock full of details on individual plants and their specific requirements.  A great guide for planting times are based on the information she receives from the “Farmer’s Almanac” and bases much of her plantings on the Lunar calendar.  The guide points to which days during each phase of the moon is optimal for planting.

Kathy Edgecombe

After a long summer of tending to her vegetables and herbs, the reward is plenty. Colleen uses the herbs wrapped in cheese cloth to infuse olive oil.  The oil can be frozen in individual servings to be used later.  She is also a great fan of pesto, and canning pickles.  Now that she has perfected her seed starting, Colleen knows how many plants of each type to grow to produce what she needs without getting carried away.  Her one tip for newbies is to stick with the tried and true varieties.  I whole heartedly agree with her on this one.

Above the bench in her potting shed is written this quote “Green fingers are the extension of a verdant heart” by Russell Page.  I thoroughly enjoyed learning from Colleen and her confidence in green practices.  It might be easier to run to the store for plugs of peppers and tomatoes, but there is much satisfaction in beginning from the beginning, and to take the organic approach.  “When I don’t take an hour after work to do a little work on my garden, I feel jipped”, Colleen explains.  Thank you Colleen and Kathy for teaching me something new.  I hope to come back in the fall for the harvest and pass along a few recipes!

Kathy Edgecombe