Get in the Zone

Global warming or just better math?  New to 2012, Chicago city proper has moved hardiness zones from 5b to 6a and the western suburbs are solidly a 5b zone instead of 5a. The change is due to better data collection that bases the zones on a wider range of years studied. What does it mean for plant connoisseurs and landscapers alike?  It means we can try some fun new things, but it doesn’t come without consequences.  The temperatures in certain years can still dip down to zone 4 temps that can kill plants on the “fringe”.  Here are my favorite fringe plants for protected areas.  Want to live dangerously? Locate these plants in areas with surrounding trees, solid fences, south-facing walls, and under overhangs or alcoves.

1.  Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’-Bloodgood Japanese Maple is the most hardy of the japanese maples and also a larger specimen.  There are other varieties, some that are smaller with more ferny-like leaves.  They are generally small trees with purple leaves, but can be green in color as well.  They can sometimes lose whole limbs from late frosts and harsh winters if not properly protected.

2.  Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’- Daphne

This is one I have only seen growing decent in one clients’ yard and her father happened to be a nurseryman.  This is the type of plant that is unique and worth trying if you are a gardener type that doesn’t mind a failure every now and then.  It is worth it for the unique variegated foliage, fragrance and interesting texture.  As will be a consistent theme for any broadleaf evergreen, winter winds can take moisture out of the leaves, which can take away from attractiveness.

3.  Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’-Forest Pansy Redbud

This redbud has all the same characteristics as the parent, but has purple leaves.  It would be best under the story of other trees.  The leaves can get burned in very sunny locations.

4.  Fagus sylvatica ‘Roseo-marginata’-Tricolored Beech

The EverGreen Landscape office inherited a specimen planted near the main entrance.  If it were not for the barn near by, this would not be a great location for the Tricolored Beech, especially as it is out in the open.  Planted on the north side of the barn, it gets enough protection from harsh summer suns, and protection in the winter.  The variegated leaves make it very unique.

5.  Ilex x meservea ‘China Girl’ and ‘China Boy’

For anyone looking for a shrub that truly looks like a holly shrub, this is one of the best bets for harsh northern winters.  The leaves often get burned by winter winds which drag moisture from the leaves.  Avoid south exposure, even in protected areas.


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”.

Tour de France, Pennyslvania, and British Columbia

Much like kid at Christmas or perhaps even Halloween, I too have a wish list, but mine involves the gardens I’d like to visit around the world.  My love of planning vacations began early.  Since I was the one planning our family outings, I would stick in a few of my own favorites.  On a trip to Michigan we went to the Fredrick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park and on more than one occasion to Nashville TN, the Cheekwood Botanical Gardens.   Some are closer to home than others, but I hope to get to check them off my list at some point or another.

1.  Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square PA

I’ve had my eye on this garden since college.  It was part of an internship program that students from our department could participate in over summer break.  Longwood Gardens has a long history that has grown to include festivals, performances, education and one of the best collection of trees in the country.

2.  The Butchart Gardens, Victoria, B.C.

The garden has a well-known display of annual plantings.  The amount of color in one spot is breathtaking.  It is best viewed in the early-mid summer before the annual plantings become tired.

3.  Chanticleer Garden, Wayne, PA

Another Pennsylvania garden worth visiting, is the Chanticleer Garden.  Some more nerdy garden sorts will be reminded of the Chanticleer Pear.  This is the stronger more upright version of the famous Bradford Pear.

4.  Versailles Garden, Versailles, France

There are many other sites to see in and around Paris, but this one would be a highlight for me.  Designing and maintaining such a formal space must leave the garden staff a little insane.

5.  Claude Monet’s Garden in Giverny France

The inspiration behind many of Monet’s paintings, the gardens at his home in Giverny France are still well cared for and on display.

A Change of Scenery

Part rest, part fun, and part adventure.  I count myself thankful for each and every trip away.  This last few days I’ve spent in a little town called Walla Walla, deep in the heart of Washington wine country and deep in a land of friendly happy people.  The trip celebrated a big birthday for my husband, and provided an opportunity to hear the stories behind how many of those we met ended up in a small dry desert town of 30,000.  Taking in a part of the country I’ve never seen solidifies observations that the country is made up of unique people and our diverse climates and landscapes mean we never get bored in our explorations.

Becca LaBarre

Above is a picture of the scene on all sides of Walla Walla.  These are the Blue Mountains and fields of the “Amber Waves of Grain” already harvested for the season.  The Mizzoula floods left this land rocky, dry and diverse.  Many trees that have a hard time with Chicagoland soils and temperature swings such as Sweet Gum were beautiful street trees along main street.

Becca LaBarre

This is one of the street trees along the main drag in Walla Walla. The locals couldn’t ID it for me.  Turns out it is a type of ash called a Raywood Ash.  The leaves are more delicate and narrow than the typical Green or White Ash found in the Midwest.  Pretty cool overall texture.

Becca LaBarre

The boulder wall above is made of dark, angular stone very different from the granite boulders found in the midwest.  The suppliers typically find their boulders from Wisconsin quarries and are light shades of pink, buff, and gray with few angles.  I am sure they blend into the landscape to the Walla Walla natives, but to a visitor, they are a beautiful change of scenery.

Becca LaBarre

Check out this rustic pergola against the Saviah Cellars tasting room.  The large-scale of the tree logs works in scale with the larger building.  Another winery landscape essential was lavender.  Even without the blooms the air was scented.  The lavender was planted not only for aesthetics, but also to increase the crop species on winery property and deter deer, but we all know how well that usually works!

Becca LaBarre

In contrast to the beautiful fall color display above, most of the planters still had their summer annuals.  The temperatures in Walla Walla are relatively stable and there has not yet been a hard frost in the area.  The fall colors were about three weeks behind too.

Becca LaBarre

The blue sky accentuates the blazing red sumac along the road.  This natural example of how beautiful the sumac looks in the fall against straw-colored grass is a reminder to incorporate this combination in homeowner landscapes.  The sumac would look great among Karl Foerster Grass or Fountain Grass, both turn a yellow color in the fall.

Becca LaBarre

This winery pup, also an important landscape feature in Walla Walla came to reside at Morrison Lane Vineyard as a result of a sled dog rescue.  The stress of a former life melted away, the now less shy Husky, Wolf and German Shepard mix has the life of leisure with her brother.  Like so many other stories, I encountered talking with the people of Walla Walla, the small town life of vineyard farmers might not necessarily be stress free, but no matter the tale behind their move, these many transplants came, fell in love and stayed to pursue a passion.  Just as I hope to accomplish my own pursuit as a designer, and just as I hope my passion for what I do will always shine through.

Until Next Week…

Becca LaBarre

Getting a chance to travel to new places near and far have provided much fodder for my blogs and landscape designs.  Here are a few pictures of some highlights of the past few years.  Above is a creek bed flanked by Ivy near a favorite winery in Glen Ellen, CA.

Jen Odegard

Above is walking the continental divide in Glacier National Park, MT

Brandon LaBarre

Just a plant nerd intrigued by the size of a boxwood growing in front of the campus of Belmont University in Nashville, TN.  The south provides the same phenomenon when it comes to Knockout Roses too.

Becca LaBarre

Creating a sense of calm in any landscape design can come directly from the ability to interact with nature and escape the everyday.  The rolling hills of a vineyard in Sonoma, CA  on the verge of fall color is definitely my place of calm.

Until next weeks’ post on Washington State landscapes.  Stay Tuned!

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.

October Sky

Before I get the words of Californian Dreamin’ by the Mamas and the Papas stuck in my head and all I can think about is how safe and warm I would be in LA during the long days of January and February in Chicago, I am first feeling very lucky to have a Illinois mailing address during the month of October.  This last week, I find myself driving with my eyes to the sky.  Most notably, yesterday with a crisp blue sky, I spotted this row of incredible crimson at Wilson’s Landscape Supply.

Becca LaBarre

The fall color ups the ante at a nursery with row after row of the same tree all ablaze at the same time.  These Autumn Blaze Maples are in full color now, but I’ve seen some that haven’t quite completely colored yet, while some of the actual red maples appear to be already past their prime.

This entire season has been marked with extremes.  Like a San Diego 4th of July firework display the flowers burst forth with all of April May and some of June’s buds opening all at once and now the same seems to be happening with the fall leaves as well.  There have been many years when there are several weeks between early fall favorites like the Ash trees in Late September (pictured below) and the years finally ending with Ornamental Pears in November.  This year the pears are already showing at least 25% fall color in some cases while the yellow foliage of the ash trees peaked late last week and the Autumn Purple Ashes are in the middle of their best color.  When I say best, I mean almost glowing.  Incredible!

Becca LaBarre

If you want to check out one of the most awesome neighborhoods for fall, check out the Sanctuary of Bull Valley, in Bull Valley, IL.  The houses are dotted among an Oak Savannah.  One of EverGreen Landscapes clients lives backing to a field of switchgrass, and big and little bluestem grasses.  Check out this fall smorgasbord view out of the back of the house.  I wouldn’t mind waking up to this on an October morning.

Becca LaBarre

Here are few other beauties I’ve seen so far this week….

Becca LaBarre

Above is a grouping of Sugar Maples.

Becca LaBarre

Not all perennials shrivel up and turn brown right away.  This balloon flower makes an impressive display next to the Russian Sage still in flower behind it.

Becca LaBarre

The above picture is Honeylocust in full yellow color. I’ve seen a large variance in these from those that just have a little yellow to some that look as though they may lose most of their leaves next time the wind blows.

Keep your eyes to the skies this October…Fall is Here!



Down in the Dirt Details

I love a steady supply of landscape projects as much as the next designer. Getting in the groove over a spring and summer of project after project can sometimes leave me a little lack lustre in the creativity department.  I can often focus on the big picture of plant bed, patio, walkway and have blinders when it comes to the nitty-gritty details.  I often refer to my clients, after all, they live in the house and notice many things.  For example, the back shade garden that needs a pop of color when they look out over the sink doing dishes, or a new vantage point spot to read a book other than the patio.  The details often come from the words my clients speak.  Its my job to listen and then create it.

Earlier in the year on a garden walk, I found this house was not lacking in the details.  Here are a few pictures of how the homeowner tweaked some areas to provide the most beautiful personal touches planned down to a science.

Becca LaBarre


Succulents used in planters in the new in vogue way to plant containers.  These colorful Hens and Chicks create color without flowers.  Nice addition to a hot patio that doesn’t require water.  You heard me, they are actually not supposed to be watered much at all.  After a summer like this one, a welcome trend!

Becca LaBarre

I love the contrast of the red pillow with the rest of the landscape, especially the blue hostas.  The eye is drawn to it, which is why it is such nice and simple detail.  I think it is especially cool to have darker colored fabrics on the furniture of a patio and keep the bright colors there rather than in the patio brick itself.  A patio should never take away from the house.  Color can be added back with splashes here and there.

Becca LaBarre

Though the picture above focuses mostly on the pond, which has many details of its own.  I was particularly interested in the planting detail to the right of the photo.  There is a small mophead Cypress with a multicolored groundcover, Ajuga underneath.  I don’t advocate that any landscape be a crazy mix of textures and colors or it can look messy, but an interesting contrast can also be eye-catching used in moderation.

Becca LaBarre

This makes me want to visit Cape Cod and eat some fresh seafood and I don’t even like seafood.  Check out the planter ring around the patio umbrella.  Time for a dinner party.