Getting to Know You

Though I spent the weekend in a hotel ballroom with hundreds of other vendors, I was happy to speak with some very interesting people as they came through the “New House, Old House” homeshow at Pheasant Run Resort In St. Charles.  I met people sprucing up their vintage homes, moving to the area from other parts of the country, making updates to their childhood homes, or brand new homeowners excited for their first fixer upper project.

The show reminded me how much I’ve enjoyed getting to know my clients over the years.  From a client who would tell me about his days growing up in North Carolina, to one whose father who had a sparkling wine named after him, the world is never short on interesting people.  The life experiences of my clients help me to understand their lifestyles and how their landscape project can be an extension of that lifestyle.  For an active family with a big backyard, it might be necessary to leave room for two soccer nets, or minimize perennial plantings for the busy couple who do not have time to care for them.

The homeshow has brought us great potential this late winter when we are normally still digging ourselves out.  We met several people beginning their own custom home projects, an ambition we haven’t seen in years.  Here’s to a positive start to our season, and getting to know many more interesting clients.  I can’t wait to help put their personal stamp on their projects.  Oh, and check out our cool, swanky, new booth below.  We’ve really stepped up the professionalism.

Bob Stell

Bob Stell


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.


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


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”.

Spotlight on a Supplier: Aspen Valley Landscape Supply

A grocery store usually doesn’t get their milk from a cow, nor does a clothing company buy a tee-shirt directly from a cotton farmer.  Landscapers too have suppliers who provide the materials we work with.  One aspect of the landscape field most homeowners may not know a lot about is where the professionals go to find the products we offer.  We are proud to work with our suppliers where we are able to benefit from the service that we are then able to pass on to our clients.   Graciously, one of the sales personnel, Crystal Novy with Aspen Valley Landscape Supply answered a few of my questions to help shed some light on the relationship between a landscaper and their suppliers.

Simplescaping:  What unique perspective can the landscape supplier offer their clients?

Crystal:  We try to service our customers to the same standards their clients expect from them. Quality materials, timely delivery of product and the design support behind it.  We help our clients with everything from creative design to helping turn their vision into an affordable reality. It is all about the people and the relationships. Our customers are loyal to us as we are to them.

Simplescaping:  What is your favorite type of material to work with and why?

Crystal:  That is a tough one!  I love working with all our products (depending on the situation). Valders is amazing as it gives you absolute creative freedom.  There is nothing that they can’t produce.  If you have a vision they make it happen.  Bluestone is just beautiful and my personal favorite aesthetically.  Then there is Belgard – the support from Belgard is amazing and their product is top quality.  They carry the same beliefs in servicing the customer which is the core value in our company.

Becca LaBarre

Above is the Aspen Valley yard in Elgin, IL full of brick, stone, retaining wall, drainage, and more.

Simplescaping:  What is a common question you are asked by contractors?

Crystal: Measuring questions are the most common. We help contractors from start to finish and we have more of a value to the contractor when we can help them figure the project.

Simplescaping: How do you develop your relationship with contractors?

Crystal:  Listen.  First and foremost I try to listen to exactly what they need and are looking for in a supplier. Listening to what they need allows us to tailor our service to that specific customer. Relationships develop over time once they see that we follow through, stand behind our product and come through in the eleventh hour (which happens a lot in our industry!)

Becca LaBarre

Inside the sales office of Aspen Valley, contractors line up for help.  I find myself at Aspen Valley several times a month to check out material in the yard.

Simplescaping:  What is your favorite project you’ve worked on and why?

Crystal:  My favorite projects would have to be the ones where I am personally involved in helping the contractor/homeowner with their product/color choices. Knowing that they arrive at Aspen Valley feeling overwhelmed with choices and leave knowing exactly what they want is very gratifying.

Simplescaping:  What tools do you provide to contractors to help them with their clients?

Crystal: We provide our contractors with samples, literature, and as many training seminars as we can.  Whether it be for brick paving, sealing, pond building or installing landscape lighting. We try to offer the contractor the tools to succeed.  Contractors often send their clients to our locations to help in the decision processes and we happily meet with them to give them the direction they need in making color and product choices. We also help the contractors in estimating their jobs, making templates for custom natural stone, etc.

Becca LaBarre

Above is an extensive display of products to check out at the Aspen Valley yard.  I usually try to help a client narrow down some selections because the sheer amount can be overwelming.  For a client that needs to see a product in a large quantity, paver displays can be helpful.

Simplescaping: How do you decide what types of products to offer?

Crystal:  We tailor our product lines to our customer’s needs.  If we see that there is a demand for an item or product within our industry, we do our best to add it to our product lines.

Simplescaping:  What makes you unique to other suppliers?

Crystal: We have no fees for stock item returns, no section fees and we have no pallet deposits on brick/stone products.  We understand that time is money and if they are short they lose a laborer picking up more products. We would rather have them bring more to the job and stay until completed. Once finished return the unused product for full credit onto their account, whether it is one paver or 50 square feet, there are no questions asked.

Simplescaping:  What other jobs in the landscape industry have you held?

Crystal:  I am fortunate enough to say that Aspen Valley has been my first and only job in the landscape industry that I have held. I am in my fifth year with Aspen and I could not ask to work for a better company. I have had extensive training in all product lines and have cross-trained in multiple positions within our company.

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.

Go Green and Clutter Free

Greening up the world or least the average Chicago suburban home can be done with permeable pavers, rain harvest systems, organic fertilizers, and addition of oxygen producing trees.  I’ve been given the opportunity to participate in another way help the average homeowner gain green points and get rid of some junk as well.

As a part of a networking group through BNI, I have met a ton of great go-getters that have   endless ideas to help market themselves, their businesses and use their talents to give back to the communities in which we work.  A month ago, I was able to tag along for the first ever E-Recycle event put on conjointly with QCi restoration and Future Link IT.  Sheila Malchiodi, Marketing Specialist for QCi restoration began the brainstorm which eventually became a truck full of electronics provided by homeowners of the Thornwood Subdivision in South Elgin, IL.

The recycling of a huge number of electronics was free to Thornwood residents.  All they had to do was drive up and drop off their items.  We even had a few able-bodied QCi employees to load the trucks full.  I’m not kidding, they were filled to capacity.  All donations were used to support the ReStore in Downtown Elgin, which is a part of Habitat for Humanity.

Becca LaBarre

Becca LaBarre

Above are tube TV’s as far as the eye can see.  They were quite the popular item because it is illegal to throw out a tube television due to their environmental impact and was a perfect example of why a free recycling event is not only a great community service, but environmental service as well.

Our first event was so successful, we’ve decided to do another.  This time, in downtown Elgin, IL at the Harvest Market located on the corners of Kimball and Grove.  The market is held every thursday, but our Elgin’s eWaste Recycle Event will be held Thursday August 2nd, from 2-6pm.  The event will be sponsored by EverGreen Landscape, QCi restoration, Future Link IT, and ProShred  If you haven’t checked out the Harvest Market, our next event would be a great way to clean out the basement, support local green businesses, and shop organic.  Feeling good about yourself yet, just thinking about it?

Sheila Malchiodi

Here is Chris Higgins of Future Link IT after our first electronic recycling event.  Chris aided our participants in removing their hard drives in donated computers to allow safe and secure disposal.

Please join us for this free recycling event.  We’ve taken the work out of getting rid of your electronic clutter.  Come support Habitat for Humanity and downtown Elgin!


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.