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.


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”.

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 (http://lurveys.com).

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.



Desert Living is Stressful

I overheard a man at Panera the other day telling a friend that since we are a month ahead this season, he was hoping the constellation would be that August would feel like September.  I am guessing there are more than a few people who feel the same way.  As I water my very well established plants for the third or fourth time in the last month I am starting to wonder whether they are all going to make it.  The most affected have been my Astilbe.  These water-loving shade plants usually bloom a hot pink around the fourth of July.  They’ve been done blooming their stunted shoots weeks ago and their leaves are dried and shriveled.


Above is a better shot than what they look like in my yard this year and to look this good they need consistent moisture.  I have already written about watering correctly, but in times of drought there are some last resorts to try when the plants appear to be beyond their breaking point as well as new issues to worry about.

Under normal conditions, plants should not be watered on the leaves.  This promotes diseases or can even burn the leaves once the sun heats up the water droplets on the leaf surface.  However, in very hot temperatures, the plants will wilt because they lose water faster through the leaves than they can take up by the roots.  The natural response would be to water when the plants shows wilting.  If the soil is moist or you’ve recently watered first water by misting the tops of the plants and they should bounce back once the temps begin to decrease at night.

Another stress sign for drought affected plants is that they may exhibit pest or disease problems that don’t normally cause an issue.  The best example we’ve seen this year is vinca minor.  My boss brought it to my attention and I first thought it was just drought stress.  This drought tolerant ground cover can be affected by stem blight during cool wet weather.  However, this year, it has become an issue the last few weeks, brought on by drought.  I was able to discuss this today with Jim Fizzell from James A. Fizzell and Associates, our industries’ plant guru.  The stems turn black and pull out easily.  The tops of the plants are straw brown.  At this point, it is important to not spread the disease by watering too much and leaves should be removed as much as possible to keep the disease from spreading.  Fungicides cannot be applied till temperatures are lower.


If a plant gets so wilted that the leaves are crispy, those leaves will probably not survive.  However, this doesn’t mean that the plant is dead.  If it is early enough in the season the plants may re-leaf.  I’ve seen this happen with Arrowwood viburnum commonly.  If the stems are still green, they can be saved.  If it doesn’t re-leaf in the same season it doesn’t mean that they won’t the following year.  The most important thing is to resist the urge to over water.  Without the leaves, the plant will not be able to deal with water as well.  Continue to water deeply and infrequently to get the best results.

Some commonly drought affected shrubs are Hydrangea, Arrowwood Viburnum, and Privet.  Some of the best I’ve seen holding up well are Cotoneaster, Rose, and Autumn Blaze Maple.  Others I don’t normally see a problem with, but have this season are Burning Bush and Spirea.  Some perennials to watch are Astilbe, Lady’s Mantle, Ferns, and Hostas which are mostly shade plants.  Drought tolerant plants are Ornamental grasses, Sedum, yarrow, Vinca.   Perennials I have seen dealing with drought stress that normally do well are Coneflower, Sunflower, and Phlox.  If the watering regime is kept up, most plants will come through with a few battle scars, but will be better for it in the end.


Coneflowers are blooming now and are beautifully showy from a distance.


One of the easiest groundcovers to grow.  These Creeping Sedum can be easily transplanted and fill in well even in the second year.

The best way to water is with soaker hoses since they will get the water to the roots the right way.  If something looks unhappy, but not dead, don’t take it out just because of its lack of perfection.  A little bit of struggle can help.  Many trees and some shrubs will show signs of stress in establishing about two to three years after planting, especially in poor clay soils.  I’ve noticed to be a particular issue this year because of the drought.  It is better to get them over the third year bump rather than starting them over. I recommend not to deter your planting projects, but water the right way and realize that these plants are here on earth because they’ve survived drought before and will likely do it again.









Just One of Our Guys

I was reminded this week by more than one of my clients just how awesome our construction crew workers are.  We have our father and son duo that work as a well oiled machine.  We have a great group of young guys that have made many strides in the last few years to be great leaders.  They make my job easier when they leave the job site in tip-top condition, they spend time thinking about the most efficient way to do a job, or ask the questions that make sure the project is completed the way the client intended.

Both clients this week were more than generous with their comments.  Our crews work hard with hardly a break in the heat, which has been particularly true these last few weeks.  They plan ahead on how they execute a project.  They let me know of changes so I can inform the client ahead of time.  One of our clients mentioned just how great it was not to be “surprised” by anything and how appreciative she was of the communication. The other client had mentioned just how much of a perfectionist our crew leader was and meticulous in his work.

Becca LaBarre

Here’s one of the crews working at my house on a project we did four years ago.

This pic was snapped by a client as the crew was working on their house.  He sent it to me in an email titled “Three Good Guys”.   They do smile on occasion…I promise!

Becca LaBarre

Here is one of our crew leaders planting some new Annabelle Hydrangeas.  Our other crew member wasn’t far behind trying to keep up on the watering during the sweltering heat.  We are currently working on a beautiful Lake in Antioch.

Becca LaBarre

Our driver is helping to clear some sod and create a berm at the same time.  This was during lunch, while the rest of us took a few minutes to eat.

I know I couldn’t do this job without the crew guys, not only for the obvious reason of the fact that I don’t have the skills to build a patio in the heat, with speed and agility.  That does bring up a good point of how hard their job can be.  Here’s to great co-workers!

Fur Friendly Landscapes

My favorite! image from triggerartist.deviantart.com

Planning an outdoor space for your family is a no brainer, but what about the four legged members of your family?  No, a landscape designer won’t think you’re crazy asking to accomodate your furry friend.  I have to remind myself time and time again to remember pets in my designs because I don’t own an animal.  When making a list of the desires of your landscape, keep in mind a few ideas to maximize your pets comfort, your convenience in caring for them and few tips to hide the more utilitarian aspects of animal ownership.

The lawn and short of it….

Having a pet can wreck havoc on your beautiful green lawn you’ve worked so hard to cultivate.  You can’t beat this, so why not just create a green space for your pet.  This can be out of a utility door like the side garage door where it is convenient and not as many people walk.  I once created a space with several larger boulders, and mulch with a few extremely hardy and less expensive perennials like daylilies.  The client taught their puppy to go to the bathroom on the rocks and leave the lawn alone.  The same can be done using lawn grass.  It might need replacing periodically, but a space that you don’t mind trashing works better, especially as a no chemical zone for weed killers and fertilizers.  If the space is still too unsightly, a well designed hidden green zone can work perfectly.  There are medications that can be given to a dog to minimize the damage on the lawn, but I’d refer to a vet before giving them any unnecessary chemicals that might have side effects.

Dog Runs that ruin the view…

The chain linked dog run of days gone by have been replaced more often with the underground electric fence and collar.  If you aren’t a fan, and would like to minimize the stark look of a dog run, what about a hardy vine to grow up the chain-link to hide it.  I don’t know if I should suggest it since it is on the invasive species list, but I really love Trumpet Vine.  Other vigorous growers might be porcelian vine, or sweet Autumn Clematis.  Smaller evergreen shrubs such as Green Mountain Boxwood or a dwarf Techny Arborvitae called Technito can help shield the look all year round.  Also depending on the size of the dog, uncoventional fencing could be used that are more decorative such as picket fencing or even an antique wrought iron or look-alike.  Also, these decorative fences can be designed into the landscape.  Maybe it could be part of a formal terraced area or take on a shape that doesn’t resemble a dog run, but is complementative of the overall design.

Plants to go gaga over…

Outdoor cats are most likely to be the most intrigued by the actual plantings in a garden.  I have actually witnessed barn cats at one of the nurseries I worked at lay for long periods of time in the catnip plants and come stumbling back to the sales yard pretty pleased with himself.  A herb garden with scented herbs like oregano, lemongrass, any mint are also big attractants.  Ornamental grasses for laying in, like fountain grass.  Like people, I suppose too much of a good thing, might not be a good thing.  There are some plants that can be poisonous to dogs and cats, and I usually don’t worry about these unless a client tells me that their pet is a huge muncher.  I recommend doing some research if you are concerned with your appetite voracious animal, and always consult a vet.  Underground pet fence can be laid before the actual plant bed to keep them from trampling the garden as well.

Please check out the ASPCA website for pet friendly landscape tips recommended by animal experts.

ASPCA | ASPCA Guide to Pet-Safe Gardening

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!

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.

You Can Grow That!

I recently read an article in “Nursery Management” by C.L. Fornari about a national campaign that the nursery industry is trying to start. The movement has big goals to create a sort of catch phrase out of the term “You Can Grow That”. It kind of reminds me of the phrase “There’s an App for That”. Eventually, all aspects of the green industry could rally behind the optimistic message that plants, gardening, and landscaping has something to offer the world; a great number of benefits from health, to happiness. It seeks to empower clients and avid gardeners to stay positive and work together to bring awareness and new ideas in design, plantings, gardening, and tree care. I don’t know where it could grow, but I like the idea of trying something fresh and letting it fly on its own.

Happy New Year and Happy new growth of ideas!

1.  Compost containers made to look chic?…You can grow that!

compost.comBuild or purchase compost containers that are stylish on the outside. Some cut down on the smell if you have a small yard or just blend in. How neighborly to keep your landscape tidy and doing your part for the earth at the same time.



2.  Recycled wine bottle and beer bottle countertops for outdoor kitchens?…You can grow that!


A great green concept that my husband and I first saw at an organic winery in Santa Rosa California, Inman Family Winery.






3.  New introductions of Panicled Hydrangeas?…You can grow that!

Hydrangea paniculata 'Fire and Ice'

I love to use them in landscapes because they bloom later than most shrubs, and can handle some shade. They are usually very large and don’t work very well in small spaces or in foundational situations that they are sure to outgrow. These new introductions that Ball Horticultural has been working on, such as Hydrangea paniculata ‘Bombshell’ and ‘Fire and Ice’ .  Bombshell is compact, and Fire and Ice has a very long bloom time and flowers that change from white to burgundy.  More varieties means there are more situations that will allow planting and increase diversity in the overall palette of plants.  Biodiversity is always a good thing!

4.  Permeable pavers to create a grand entrance?…You can grow that!

Some villages are beginning to restrict the amount of impermeable space on a piece of land because too many subdivisions have water runoff issues.  Large homes on small lots do not allow much more space for an entrance, patio or proper driveway size.  Some villages will allow permeable pavers to take up more space since the water will pass through into the ground, so you can feel good about making that elaborate entryway or driveway to allow extra parking.

5. Wildlife gardens?…You can grow that!


Taking the theme garden to a whole new level.  For properties with more space, manicured lawns can co-mingle with naturalistic areas to create a haven for native plants, animals, and insects.  I once created a landscape bed of native prairie plants and used no mow grass as an alternative to prairie grass, as the prairie plantings were impractical being so close to the residence(could not be burned or mowed).  Most suburban situations would restrict the use of this more “messy” look, so a little creativity is in order.  Check out wildlife garden ideas at www.wildlifegarden.com.