More than Mud Pies

It’s been awhile since I held my first job, customer service at The Natural Garden in St. Charles.  I still occasionally run into coworkers from that first job, but one particular favorite of mine was Dr. Joe.  He was a retired doctor who decided to call it quits early to pursue his leisure passions.  Always the gardener, he talked plant tips with patients until he left to teach his grandchildren about the greener things in life.  I always enjoyed hearing about the new plant projects he was planning with them, and the joy he found in their discoveries of the natural world.  I often wonder if his grandchildren remember him for the time he spent with them, digging in the dirt.  The following are a few projects that Joe did with his grandchildren and some I suggest to anyone wanting to cultivate a love of gardening in a young mind.

1.  Growing Snapdragon from Seed

Snapdragons are an easy to grow annual flower that could be planting directly in a garden bed or started early in a west-facing window.  The reward in the end is the unique flower that open and close when pinched. The colors are bright and fun too.

2.  Planting a Children’s Perennial Garden

Along with interesting flowers like snapdragon a children’s garden can be planted with a variety of other interesting perennials.  Try Balloon flower with buds that look swollen just before they open.  You can actually make a popping sound if you squeeze the buds just before they are ready to open and it won’t hurt them.  Just don’t do it too early.  Other options are scented flowers like Catmint or butterfly attractants, like Butterfly Bush, Liatris, or Monarda.

3. Helping with a Vegetable Garden

Allowing children to be in charge of an area or particular type of plant is a great lesson in the entire food growing process.  Trying to keep their attention with abundant producers like green beans, or tomatoes, or satisfying a short attention span with a fast grower like lettuce.  Pumpkins germinate fast though they are not harvested until fall.

4.  Flower Press Christmas Presents

This is one I did as a child and loved.  I collected flowers in the backyard like Roses, and wildflowers like Chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace.  Had I taken the creativity further, I’d have laminated them onto bookmarks, or framed them as art.  A great way for a child to make a christmas gift for a teacher, or grandparent.

5.  Creating a Garden Hideout

If you have the room, how about creating a secret hideaway garden.  This one goes against many “good” landscape principles, but in a house with children, a little non-formality won’t hurt.  Some ideas are creating a teepee, or planting tall perennials in a circle such as hollyhocks.  Hollyhocks can be planted 12″ apart with room left for a doorway.  A fun place for a tea party on a summer day.


Beauty in the Brown

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but can you find beauty in the straw brown landscape of a January garden?  A landscape is designed for many seasons of interest.  The anticipation of spring flowers, the textures and lush green of summer leaves, and the striking contrasts of burgundy, orange and yellow in October.  The balance of winter color is usually accomplished with evergreens, but doesn’t always have to be.  A perennial loving gardener with an appreciation for the structures of plants can still have a beautiful winter garden among the dry neutrality of frozen beds.  Here are a few of my favorite perennials in winter.

1.  Purple Coneflower:

While the petals fade away, the cones are food for birds in winter.  They provide an interesting rounded texture and have a dark brown color to contrast the lighter straw colored foliage.


2.  Sea Holly

These seed heads have an interesting configuration clumped together and give the same texture as the coneflower.  They stand up well against snow.


3.  Annabelle Hydrangea

The large white blooms of the Annabelle Hydrangea fade to cream, then green, then finally brown.  By winter they are a mere skeleton of themselves.  Though not a perennial, these shrubs do get cut down in the spring to provide sturdy stems.  Dried fall blooms also make beautiful dried flower bouquets for the house.


3.  Ornamental Grasses

The taller of the grasses will get matted down after heavy snow, but until then, the seed heads, and thin blades collect the flakes until they create a beautiful canvas for freshly fallen snow.  The front perennial in this photo is sedum which also collects snow beautifully.


5. Vinca

How about a perennial that remains green all winter.  This low growing groundcover keeps most of its color in the winter and is better than looking at old sun bleached mulch.


New Tricks of the Trade


Ever want to rub shoulders with a ton of landscape professionals?  Good thing we do.  As in many industries we make our own good company and in an industry with passionate people, there are bound to be a few shop talk moments. Today was my venture to Chicago for the Midam tradeshow, our one show a year that allows us to meet up with the who’s who of landscape and everyone else too.  We catch up with colleagues, old classmates, suppliers, contractors and take various business classes.  Here are a few of my new finds this year.

1.  Hocus Pocus groundcover from Midwest Groundcovers.  The tag line is that they “cover like magic”.  They are made up of many tried and true groundcover, but the increased size pots will aid in their ability to grow in fast.  My favorites are the six different sedum and creeping thyme.  They are all drought tolerant, and with the way things have been going we need every drought performer we can get.

2.  FX LED lighting fixtures with more power.  We’ve been slowly switching to LED lighting fixtures.  Until this year the FX downlights (for placing in trees and various other elevated locations) were made with an output of no more than 3LED which visibly looks like about 20watts of light.  This season they are introducing a new light, the DE,  which will output up to 9LED which visually looks like 50watts.  This is great for higher locations that will allow a lot of light to pool onto the ground.  FX really stepped up this season and also showcased a new Luxor system which allows for customization and versatility in the low voltage lighting system.  Now, like a sprinkler, the lights will be put on zones and the system can tell the lights to dim when needed.  Now mood lighting can be customized for every situation.  Need more light during a backyard pool party, or less during a romantic stargazing event.  The choice is yours.

3. The Belgard truck trailer stopped by for a visit.  This entire truck trailer is retrofitted with a fireplace, water feature, outdoor kitchen, grill and the floor is laid with pavers to show all their products without ever having to set up for another tradeshow.  Brilliant!  The back even has a working pizza oven and grill for those shows where the convincing is done through demo and a taste for brick oven pizza.  Belgard recently purchased another company, Hanson Hardscape, which gives them access to some new product lines.  This one below is part of the tile line.

Something Borrowed

It was once said to me that designers are the best at stealing ideas from each other.  In fact, in school, modifying an idea from someone else was often encouraged.  Perhaps the modern-day version of stealing ideas from each other can be summed up in one word.  Pinterest.  Interestingly, I’ve never used Pinterest as a means of stealing landscape ideas, though I have for just about any other creative venture I have tackled from party hosting, to Christmas gifts.  Whether it’s Pinterest, flipping through magazines, or walking through nature, the smallest detail can spark an idea and no one is the wiser to the fact that it might not be 100% original.

One of my favorite ideas of all time that I received and modified, was during a design seminar taught by Greg Pierceall, a design instructor formerly of Purdue University.  He had planted the tread of some stone steps to help soften the look of one slab on top of the other. He offset the steps so that they did not overlap and left about six inches to plant sedum groundcover. The idea was that most of the time people do not step that close to the next step, so why not use it for greening up the area.

Below is an idea of how it would turn out if English Ivy was used.

I decided to use the idea to plant groundcover between two different spaces of a patio.  A lot of time different levels of patio can define one space unique from another space.  The level change can signal a different use.  However, it isn’t always practical to use two levels.  I decided to make this patio the same level, but define the spaces with a six-inch break and Creeping Thyme planting in the gap.  This way, the patio can be broken up with some green space without compromising the functionality.  Here is the result pictured below.


Becca LaBarre

So, my secret and those of countless other designers, it out.  Designers have been “Pinteresting” for years.  How convenient that all creative people have collaborated together and made our job so much easier!

What Do You Do All Winter?

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

New Years resolutions have taken all forms this week.  From the extra people in my aerobics class yesterday, to facebook posts, to the many blog writers who have weighed in on their goals for 2013.  While, I do have several goals both professional and personal, I wanted to put a spin on my goals and answer a question I get asked atleast a dozen times each December through February. “What do you do all winter?”.

I always love this very valid question because in all honesty the job that keeps us running crazy all summer resembles only a glimmer of what it is during Spring, but shifts into something else equally important.  Every moment of thought of how to improve the job, streamline processes, or gain new skill gets shoved into a compartment in my brain I like to call “winter projects”.  Here are a few of my goals for the winter that I can only hope will be accomplished before St. Patrick’s Day.

1.  Techie Talk

We all know that technology has its place for making our lives easier (and more complicated) and I have planned to use my newly purchased ipad to its full advantage.  My goal is to make a killer database of pictures that are categorized more effectively by types of materials, projects, plants, and ideas.  Instead of having to flip through a book of a few pictures of ideas in no clear order, I can take a client right to file labeled for example “outdoor kitchens” and cater the pictures that are shown directly to their landscape needs and wants.  Also, the ipad will be able to take pictures and video of projects that will eliminate my need to download photos onto a computer.  To go a step further, I am currently designing a small video to help explain our design process to help potential clients understand what to expect.

2.  Get over the Learning Curve of Sketchup

I recently downloaded a copy of the popular design program formally by Google and am working on trying to learn how to use it for 3-D imaging.  If you are a facebook fan of EverGreen Landscape check for a contest coming later this month for your chance to win a Sketchup Design of your landscape, compliments of my much needed practice.

3.  Update Pricing

This is a goal we accomplish together as an office every year to make sure that we have all our prices correct in the system.  This year will be especially labor intensive as we will no longer have software support which means we will be typing every plant price in by hand.  Yikes!

4.  Marketing Efforts on Steroids

This is the time for planning what kinds of marketing we will be doing throughout the season.  Once we get rolling in the Spring, there is hardly time to implement it, so planning ahead is key.    Last year, we launched a Facebook campaign complete with ideas for contests, and giveaways.  This season, our main focus is changing up our website.

5. The Show Goes On and On

From our yearly tradeshow Midam, continuing education seminars to the homeshows and tradeshows that we participate in around the area, we have a busy winter spent in a lot of conference centers.  I especially enjoy the classes we take and getting out and seeing collegues that are hard to see during the season when I feel like I spend more time with the company minivan than actual people.

Hopefully, if I’ve written these down for anyone to see that means I am actually going to accomplish all of this during the winter, as there are only two more months left.  This is the reason why I love to answer “What do you do all winter?” as it is more of a question of “What can you get done this winter?”  I plan to take full advantage.