Planting a Memory

Landscape design is art on its most basic terms.  As with all art there is room for interpretation.  The funny things about landscape design, is that the functionality trumps the need for expression, in most cases.  I was honored to design a small garden in the Fall of 2010 with an important theme.  A garden with a purpose other than practicality.

The garden, planted in the Spring of 2011, honored the life of a wonderful teacher, friend, daughter and mother named Connie Johnson.  I’ve known her all my life. The garden is at Davis school in St. Charles, IL near the second grade classroom in which she taught and under the window of the room where my mother teaches speech.

I really didn’t know how to begin the garden design.  I was more than stuck trying to honor someone so important to me and my family, with the added eyes of all my elementary school teachers to throw in the mix.  It was probably one of the smallest areas I’ve worked with, but none the less I went over the details over and over, tweaking here and there.

In the end, the garden focal feature turned out to be a natural bluestone bench that allows students and teachers to pause.  I have to laugh at thinking that a garden meant to be free from function probably on any given day allows parents and preschool aged children to wait for their older siblings before the final bell of the day.  The Davis teachers spent time during the summer on a craft project, making stepping-stones to the bench from the sidewalk that incorporated designs that they felt reminded them of Connie.  Below are two EverGreen crew workers setting the legs of the bluestone bench in cement.

Gail Simpson

The plantings were chosen to symbolize much about Connie’s life.  We chose Blazing Star, Salvia and Russian Sage, all purple flowers that were her favorite color.  Many of the perennials that were used are butterfly attractants, which is a long-standing second grade science unit.  For this we used, Asters, Butterfly weed, Monarda and Blazing Star among others.  The first year of planting, the butterflies that developed through their life cycle were released into the garden.  One of Connie’s most notable talents was her musical gift.  She began her teaching career as a music teacher for Davis School before heading into the classroom.  Since she was one of my mom’s best friends, my siblings and I were among the lucky few to have Connie lead our birthday party goers in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” complete with piano accompaniment.  She and my father sang at my wedding.  To incorporate music in the design, I undulated roses and low junipers along a lengthy section of the garden to symbolize the music on a page.

Gail Simpson

I was thankful for the donations by Midwest Groundcovers and EverGreen Landscape to make the garden possible and the host of family and friends that helped to plant and maintain the garden.  The District 303 grounds crews came to the rescue during planting when the stumps of the rather large, old, crabapple wouldn’t budge out of the ground.

Gail Simpson

As far as art goes, this garden gave me a chance to express my feelings for a special person in my life.  An art form to honor an artistic soul.  A lasting stamp to mark a spot where her life had a lot of impact, near people who feel the same way I do.

Gail Simpson

Here are a few pictures a year later…the garden is growing!

Gail Simpson

Gail Simpson

Gail Simpson


Sketchup Writeup

This time of year as we wrap up a few last projects, it gets harder and harder to get things done.  Our piles of mulch and soil have a layer of frost that takes a few hours to thaw, its more difficult to dig in the ground, and our fingers and toes do not fare much better.  I start to begin to set my eyes on what we like to call “winter projects”. These are the things we’ve not had time for that better our company, teach us something new, and beef up our marketing and goals for the next season.  This last week at a seminar, I was able to get a great preview into a program that many companies have begun to use called Google Sketchup.  The program allows a designer to create 3-D and 2-D images of structures and has become increasingly helpful is giving visual life to a landscape design.  Take a look at some of the cool things you can do.

1.  Create Realistic Structural Images

Not only can a house look realistic, but this view can be changed to a wide variety of angles, depending on what view is more important.

2.  Added Color and Texture

As can be seen in the picture above, adding real texture to the roof, or siding to a house, will give you a real visual that can be true to the actual house.  Our instructor, Sean Kelley, was able to search through a wide database of brick patterns and add a brick texture to a home that mimicked the actual brick on the house.  A pretty neat tool in helping to illustrate house certain patio brick or plants might look in contrast to the house.

3.  Give Life to a Plant Design

The program contains countless images of plants of all shapes and sizes in 2-D or 3-D.  The plant material can have life-like textures to see how ornamental grasses might look next to a boxwood or how tall a serviceberry might be next the scale of a house.

4.  Show Shadow Patterns

I add shadows to my rendered drawing to give the plan a 3-D feel.  The shadows that can be created in Sketchup are on steroids. They are created by locking in the coordinates of the house or building.  From a panel of options you can select a month and time of day to give the exact shadow pattern.  This gives the most definitive answer that during August at 2:00pm, a pergola will indeed shade the table on the patio, or a shade tree in the backyard will keep a south-facing window in the shadows. Probably my favorite tool I’ve learned so far.

5.  Animated Walk Through Landscape

Besides 2-D and 3-D snapshots, there is an option to create a walk through animation of the landscape.  The visual gives a real feel of how the space will feel once the project has been completed.

I’m excited to spend the winter further exploring the use of the Sketchup.  If you are interested in being my guinea pig please send a shout out on the blog.


Trying to get a natural look from man-made can be a big challenge.  Whether it is highlights for your hair, faux-flower bouquets on your kitchen table, or fake fur coats the goals are always to be as close to the real thing as possible.  In development of new hardscape products this is almost always the end goal to keep the products as natural as possible.  Here are a few products that are made to mimic natural stone and their real counterparts.  You be the judge.

Unilock Rivenstone and Yorkstone

Rivenstone and Yorkstone are a close replica to geometric flagstone made from concrete.  They are made from the cast of actual stone pieces.  The above picture is the bluestone color and below is the actual natural bluestone.

Belgard Mega-Arbel Stone

These random assortment of pavers are made to look like irregular flagstone.  Below is a picture of how the different pieces come.  There are several interlocking shapes that fit together.

Below is a real flagstone patio.  In using real flagstone, larger pieces are better because smaller pieces can move out-of-place.  This picture depicts the use of small and large pieces.  I would encourage less small pieces in this case.  The variable nature of flagstone is one reason the man-made versions can be easier to work with.  They are all uniform thickness and fit together without larger gaps.

Rosetta Stone Outcropping

These very real looking outcropping pieces are actually made of concrete.  One challenge in using real outcropping is that they are all various thicknesses.  When using stone made to look natural it create the ability to work faster and lower labor costs.

Above is a stone wall and staircase using natural outcropping stone.

Rosetta Stone Belvedere Wall

Above is another Rosetta Stone product that much like drywall.  Natural drywall are pieces of stone usually various lengths and around 3-4″ thick stacked on top of each other without any glue or mortar.  The above stone is similarly laid, but does use glue to keep the wall together.

Becca LaBarre

Above is a natural drywall product made from fondulac stone.

There are many more hardscape products made to look like natural stone.  Checking out the websites for the various brick companies there are endless options.  Sometimes the purpose is cost savings, sometimes the products themselves provide easier application and sometimes “there ain’t nothing like the real thing”.