Fresh Recipes for Fresh Produce

If you have access to fresh vegetables the flood gates have been opened.  We’ve been fortunate at our office, it is in the sticks after-all,  to have an abundance of produce for the taking.  The office has taken it on as a special project and are diligently keeping the conference table stocked with cucumbers, eggplant, squash, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini. If you have a vegetable garden or have connections to the gardens of your friends and family, you may have already exhausted your dinner possibilities and want a few new ideas.  Here are a few recipes from the EverGreen Landscape staff recipe books.  Quite of few of them have made it to our lunch table and have been quite the topic of conversation.

Chicken and Vegetable Stuffed Acorn Squash

• 1 acorn squash cut in half with seeds removed
• 2 slices of sweet onion chopped
• 1/2 of a small-medium zucchini chopped
• 1/2 of a red bell pepper – chopped
• 2 oz of cooked chicken – chopped
• 1 tsp dried cumin
• 1 tsp chili powder
• 1 tbsp salsa
• 1 Mini-Babybel Light
• Dried Cilantro for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place one of the racks on the lowest setting. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and spray with non-stick cooking spray.
Lay the squash cut side down, slice off the top to help stabilize it when turned over.
Place the squash on the lowest rack to help caramelize the flesh. Roast for 10-15 minutes, then turn the squash over, sprinkle with a little salt, and move to the center rack.
Roast for 10 more minutes or until the flesh is soft to the touch.
While the squash is in the oven, sauté the onion, zucchini, and peppers in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Let the veggies get scorched a bit by leaving it alone on the heat for 30 seconds to a minute and then toss. This adds TONS of flavor.
Once the veggies are soft and browning, add the chicken, cumin, chili powder and salsa. Toss and cook for a few more minutes, allowing all the flavors to merge.
Pile the chicken and veggies into each squash half, it will be a lot, so you have to pack it in there.
Cut the Mini-Babybel Light into small pieces and scatter them on top of the stuffing.
Return to oven until cheese melts, approximately 5 minutes.

Greek Salad
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
• 1/2 teaspoon fresh chopped garlic
• 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
• 1/2 teaspoon oregano
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 3 large tomatoes, seeded, coarsely chopped
• 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, coarsely chopped
• 1/2 red onion, peeled, chopped
• 1 bell pepper, seeded, coarsely chopped
• 1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, coarsely chopped
• A heaping half cup crumbled feta cheese
1. Whisk the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, vinegar, and oregano together until blended. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. (Can be prepared 3 hours ahead. Re-whisk before using.)
2. Combine the tomatoes, cucumber, onion, bell pepper, olives in a bowl. Toss with dressing. Sprinkle cheese over and serve.
Yield: Serves 6.

 Stuffed Zucchini Boat 

4 medium zucchini
1 egg
1 cup chopped fresh spinach
3/4 cups dry bread crumbs
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 can (14-1/2 ounces) diced tomatoes, drained and finely chopped
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded reduced-fat Swiss cheese
Trim ends of zucchini; place in a steamer basket. In a saucepan, bring 1 in. of water to a boil; add basket. Cover and steam for 5 minutes. When zucchini is cool enough to handle, cut in half lengthwise; scoop out pulp, leaving a 1/4-in. shell. Set pulp aside.
In a bowl, beat the egg; add spinach, bread crumbs, tomato sauce, Parmesan cheese, onion, garlic, salt, pepper and zucchini pulp. Spoon into zucchini shells.
Place in an ungreased 13-in. x 9-in. baking dish. Bake, uncovered, at 350° for 20 minutes. Top each with tomatoes and Swiss cheese. Bake 5-10 minutes longer or until cheese is melted. Yield: 8 servings.

Eggplant Parmesan

Roasted Red Pepper Tomato Sauce:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 roasted red peppers, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 (28-ounce) cans plum tomatoes and their juices, crushed with your hands
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
3 tablespoons freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons freshly chopped basil leaves
1 tablespoon freshly chopped oregano leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Honey, to taste
5 cups fresh dried breadcrumbs (made from dried day-old bread)
Butter, for greasing the dish
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 large eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons water
2 to 3 medium eggplants (about 2 1/4-pounds), cut into 1/2-inch-thick round slices (need about 18 slices)
All-purpose flour, for dredging
Vegetable oil, for frying
Roasted Red Pepper Tomato Sauce
12 ounces grated mozzarella (not fresh), plus1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
12 ounces grated fontina
3/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano
Fresh basil leaves, torn
For the Roasted Red Pepper Tomato Sauce:
Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until soft. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook for 1 minute. Add the red peppers and cook for 1 minute.

Add the tomatoes, bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and process until smooth. Return the mixture back to the pot, add the parsley, basil and oregano and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 10 minutes longer and season with honey, if needed.

For the Eggplant:
To dry out the bread crumbs:
Preheat the oven to 300 degree F.

Evenly spread the bread crumbs on a large baking sheet and place in the oven. Bake for 5 minutes, turn the oven off and let the bread crumbs sit in the oven for 30 minutes or until just dry.

Raise the temperature of the oven up to 400 degrees F. Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a 15 by 10 by 2-inch baking dish and set aside.

Place the bread crumbs into a large shallow bowl. Add the herbs, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper. In another medium shallow bowl, whisk the eggs and 2 tablespoons of water together.

Season each eggplant slice on both sides with salt and pepper. Dredge each eggplant slice in the flour, tapping off excess, then dip it in the egg, and finally dredge it in the bread crumb mixture. Shake off any excess breading and transfer the egg plant to a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining eggplant.

Heat 1/2-inch of oil in 2 large straight-sided saute pans over medium heat until the oil reaches a temperature of 385 degrees F. Working in small batches, fry a few of the eggplant slices, turning once, until golden brown, about 3 minutes per batch. Using tongs, transfer to a paper towel-lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining eggplant.

Cover the bottom of the prepared baking dish with some of the tomato sauce and arrange 1/2 of the eggplant over the sauce. Cover the eggplant with some of the sauce, grated mozzarella, fontina, Romano cheese and some of the basil. Repeat to make 3 layers ending with the sauce. Top with the fresh mozzarella and remaining Romano and bake until hot and just beginning to brown, about 30 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes before serving.


What’s in your Soil?

Thinking about the basics in the success of any landscape project, I am reminding of a phrase from one of my father’s favorite literary characters.  As Sherlock Holmes would say, “Its elementary my dear Watson”, and so are the elements needed for plants to thrive at your home.  The major player is the soil that surrounds the house and unfortunately is one aspect that most people have no control over.  There are several keys to know about soil in the Midwest that can be changed and some areas where a change in plant may be the only solution.

The Midwest is plagued with clay soil, but once compacted a million times by bulldozers and striped of topsoil, your yard is a desolate wasteland.  Above is a picture of good topsoil.  A yard should have at least 6” of topsoil for the best growth for lawn, perennials, and other more shallow rooted plants.   More than six inches would be better.  If the soil has been compacted use a rototiller to break up as much of the soil as you can.  To aerate the soil, sand can be added and for groundcover an addition of compost to help it grow together faster.  Below is a shot of clay soil.  It is typically very difficult to work and may require an ax and not a shovel.

For trees the issues are more complicated.  The ball of the tree is going to be in the clay soil unless you amend the soil more aggressively than is practical.  The most important thing to remember is to dig the hole for the tree bigger than the rootball.  The soil that is put back around the ball, must be the same as the soil dug out of it.  This is why amending the soil around the tree will not be helpful, but harmful.  After the tree roots grow through the amended soil, the tree will have difficulty breaking through to the clay.  If sides of the hole are particularly smooth from digging, such as if a tree spade has been used, rough up the sides to help the roots make it through.

I have found that in some cases a poor site can only be remedied by planting trees that can handle the soil.  Some of the most successful larger trees are Autumn Blaze Maple, River Birch, and smaller ornamentals are Crabapples and Japanese Tree Lilacs among others.  Evergreen trees are especially susceptible to having difficulty in poor soil mostly because clay soils trap water that will kill the roots.  If an evergreen or other less tolerant tree must be used the ball of the tree can be planted a little higher than normal and drainage tiles can be used as a French drain system to alleviate water pooling near the ball of the new tree.

Becca LaBarre

Here is an example from my own work that was a very difficult case.  Almost all the evergreens on this property struggled to establish.  I had Jim Fizzell check this out and the verdicts was that these trees were sitting in water due to clay soil, even the ones that were on a berm.  I was pretty frustrated.  We ended up replacing the trees and planted them higher than normal.  For the worst offenders we planted a few water loving trees instead like River Birch.  I am happy to say that once established the trees took off and are now providing the screening we intended them to provide.

Dealing with poor soil can be a losing and frustrating battle.  I was once told by one our landscape consultants brought in from time to time to help solve difficult cases of dying plants, that it should be expected that a new home site could lose 20% of the plantings due to the poor soil.  It is for this reason that I do find myself sticking to tried and true plants time and time again, especially in areas of newer construction.  Even though soil is an elementary piece to the landscape puzzle, trying to plant in certain soils without care can be like trying to make two plus two equal five.  It just won’t add up.  You may not always win the uphill climb that soil 101 can cause, but follow a few soil rules and you may just beat the odds.

A Change is in Order

Change the color of your living room wall, add a tabletop accessory, and move the location of your bedroom furniture.  Sometimes a little change can go a long way to spicing up life, or for our purposes, a garden.  I design landscapes for mostly clients who seek advice because they are not of the green thumb persuasion, or they don’t enjoy it, or the work involved in making sure they do it right, is not worth the time and money of doing it wrong.  Here are a few tips to making small changes with big reward.

1.  Forget singing in it, how about transplanting in the rain.  Ok, maybe not in the rain, but on a cloudy morning with a hint of drizzle.  Rule #1 is…Don’t mass transplant at the wrong time.  I will often move plants around if it is worth saving, or I think it will survive, but being smart about transplanting can mean the difference in the look of your new garden.  Move plants in the cool of the morning or an overcast day.  No hose can do what a dose of real rain can, so timing is crucial.  Spring can be a great time to transplant especially items that can be injured in the move.  Hostas for example, can be easily split just as their shoots are emerging.  Once they’ve leaved out fully they are cumbersome and if the leaves get broken they may look sad the rest of the season. Another great time is late summer to fall because most plants already look tired, are done blooming and the extra beating they take from transplanting is not important.  However, if you have to transplant in the heat of the summer (and as professionals we will do it with stipulations) it’s all about the water.  This is one of the times when it is ok to keep a plant continuously moist.  Professional transplanting is an art form and harder than it looks.  Our crews are able to put a large root ball on a plant to help save as many roots possible.  Also, you have to be willing to sacrifice blooms, or even stems to accomplish a successful move.  I will usually cut most perennials down about 6-12″ above the ground and plant the remaining “sticks”.  They might look ugly, but you’ll never know next year.

2.  Color me with Petunias.  Or maybe Impatiens, begonias, or Vinca.  Adding bedding annuals can help supplement during weeks where your perennials or shrubs are not in bloom.  Impatiens are by far the most useful annuals as they provide bright color in shady spots.  Shade is a difficult because there are very few long blooming perennials and I often get asked about adding color to shade and I love to use annuals to accomplish this along with foliage plants like Coralbells and Hostas.

Becca LaBarre

3.  From Concrete to Fabulous.  A great way to add luxury in a small way is to cover an existing stoop with natural stone.  A concrete stoop can get pitted over time, have hairline cracking, or look bland and dirty.  As long as the structure is secure, sweep the unsightly under a rug of stone and no one has to know.  If it is not in budget to use stone in abundance, using it in smaller areas like a stoop can allow you to add a special touch.  Because stone is thinner than a paver. the capping of the stoop maybe able to be done without having re-pour any concrete to fix the heights of steps.  Here is a before and after stoop.

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre


4.  Focus on the Obvious.  An additional focal feature like a trellis, garden art piece, or small water feature can dress up a view that is previously not worth looking at.  How about trying to bring down the size of a tall, stark wall on the house by adding some greenery.  I also like to look out the windows of a house to see where the views are coming from the most and what will be seen out the windows where you spend the most time.

Just in case your change in hair style is boring you, make a few small changes to your landscape instead.  Not all small additions will make a punch of impact, but take away a few idea to get you off in the right direction.




Nature Inspired Suburban Life

There is a reason my alarm clock has three less obnoxious settings, chirping birds, babbling brook, and crashing waves. I’d rather be coerced out of my dream like sleep with images of grassy fields, a hike up a mountain to a glacier fed lake or a sandy sunset along the beach, than a noise that sounds more like a fire engine running directly into my bed room. I like to think that I am like most people out there, and perhaps that it why my whole job is centered around bringing nature into the lives of normal, suburbanites, that don’t usually get to start their mornings with a jog around the Grand Canyon or a breath fresh aspen air at their high perched cabin. Though it is true that many people seeking my help, just want a few nice plants to highlight their home, or a basic patio, the underlying request is to create relaxing spaces, and views they can enjoy all the time.

The green screen is by far the most requested nature inspired landscape feature. Whether it’s the neighbor in their bathrobe, or the busy road, everyone wants to block some views, and enhance others. A fence does great for keeping children and animals in, but not much for the view from your kitchen table. A wall of green is less like a fortress and more like a forest.

Before: View to the neighbors and utility boxes

Immediately After: No more utility boxes and view to the neighbor is softened.  A few more years and the evergreens will enclose the lower patio.

Enjoy the sights and sounds of nature instead of the four lane highway. A pond or pond-less water feature can look natural when designed into the landscape using boulders,  and planted with ground cover to hide the man-made elements. At EverGreen we tend to go a little heavier on the pump size and add a valve to lower the water flow, so that the water can be more or less raging rapids depending on your taste. It won’t take long for visitors like frogs, raccoons and herons to make frequent appearances or take up residence. Just watch the raccoons and herons if you have fish or they may make an expensive snack out of your new pets.

A nature inspired finishing touch or two….

Becca LaBarre 2010

These boulders are part of the dry land garden at Cantigny Gardens in Wheaton, IL. The boulders are unique for what can be found for sale in the area. The look could be duplicated using New York Boulders (

Becca LaBarre 2011

The Water Stairs at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.  The water flows in the railings.  The palace had an enormous amount of water inspired features where the sounds of a fountain were hardly ever an ear shot away.  The over all feel is that of a sanctuary of luxury. My quest to find the perfect client for this still hasn’t happened, but I will continue to seek.

Gail Simpson

Lastly, this is a custom-made bench made of bluestone done for my most favorite theme garden. The three pieces are irregular to look natural.  It was done in memory of a friend and dedicated educator, Connie Johnson at Davis School in St. Charles, IL.



A Tour of the Trendy

How do I spend an afternoon off of work?  How about touring some fabulous gardens on the North shore of Chicago.  Am I obsessed? If you’ve been reading this blog for any number of posts, I can almost hear the resounding “yes” among you.  I love getting a chance to see how area trends in landscape design can change even driving an hour away from where I work.  The patios are all bluestone, walls are stacked stone mortared in place, and the plantings full of unique and unusual varieties. It’s an inspiring array of reminders to always try something new and shamelessly steal ideas from other designers.  Just so you know, we all do it.

This next garden walk and probably my final of the season was planned by the Landscape Design Association and consisted of five homes in and about Evanston, Wilmette, and Glenview, IL.  My gracious besty and fellow garden fan, Mary, joined me and put up with all my oohs and awes, picture-taking, and shop talk.  As it was a self guided tour, I probably would have been touring alone, so I enjoyed the company and a chance to have one on one quality time that seems to not happen often in adult life.

Of the cool take aways of the day, the best was a grape-vine trellis on the second home we toured.  The home, deep in the heart of Northwestern University student housing, had a redesigned backyard full of special touches.  The grape vines are harvested and purchased in any length desired.  They were twisted around two beautiful pillars anchoring the back porch.  Two Sweet Autumn Clematis twine around the trellis covering it completely.  Then, during the winter, the vines die away and the grape-vine trellis provides an organic element instead of an exposed mechanical look of more unnatural materials.

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

Another special touch noted on most of the patios is that they rough up the edges to make the bluestone look old.

Becca LaBarre

The garden walk incorporated some sustainable elements showcased in the walk.  One of the last houses on our walk was an explosion of plantings that worked with the grade as the property had one of the lowest points in Glenview.

Becca LaBarre

This prairie style works with the low spot and is planted with plants that can deal with the periodic rains that have created as much as four feet of water on this side of the property.

Becca LaBarre

The above shot shows how the vegetable garden on the left has been incorporated into the beds with perennials and even a few trees.  It is a great way to save space and make the vegetable garden a part of the beauty of the landscape.


Becca LaBarre

The chain hanging down to the water feature acts in place of a downspout.  It is a more decorative option that flows into the feature to replenish during a rain.  I do think a bigger pump in this case would have allowed the water to splash more instead of slowly falling, and prevent the drilled holes in the boulders from being seen.  I am digging the moss that has developed on the wet boulders.

I leave this post with a picture of an inviting space worth pause.

Becca LaBarre

There are no fancy curved lines, just a correctly proportioned space for a relaxing evening with friends and family.  I enjoyed getting out of the western suburbs for an afternoon designed to get any designer out of a design rut. I can’t wait to use a grape-vine trellis in a new design.  Any takers?