Front yard transformation

In the late summer of 2016, I finally became a homeowner with the purchase of a beautiful brick bungalow in the Portage Park neighborhood of Chicago. For a landscaper like myself, the front yard stood as an open slate of possibilities. Thankfully it was a pretty easy transformation. First to go were those tired old Japanese Barberry bushes. Never a fan of turf grass, the lawn was next on the list for removal.

The transformation needed to move quickly as there were whisperings of a grand party the first weekend of October to celebrate three major milestones: the aforementioned house purchase, my fiftieth birthday and my tenth wedding anniversary. Those final two milestones occurring on back to back days.

I managed to pick up a few of my favorite plant specimens on sale at various locations around town. To the left of the staircase is a slender multi-stemmed Amelanchier, commonly known as a Serviceberry. Many friends and co-workers know of my unwavering love and use of this native in my designs and plantings. The Amelanchier provides multi-season interest with the arrival of bursts of white flowers in May that then turn to bluish purple edible berries clustered all over the tree. Finally fall’s arrival brings a wonderful array of pinks, oranges and reds to the changing foliage.

Behind the Serviceberry is another of my preferred native shrubs, the oak leaf hydrangea, Hydrangea Quercifolia. Like the Amelanchier, the Hydrangea provides multi-season delight. Large white conical flowers slowly turn pinkish red throughout the summer. Even as the blooms die and turn brown they remain clustered on the plant held high by erect branches that make for great cut arrangements or provide winter interest if left to be highlighted by the snow. Perhaps the greatest feature though is the fall leaf show. Large lobed and textured leaves turn a brilliant rich wine red color highlighted even more by that low late season Sun. Lastly even in winter the peeling exfoliating bark makes for further winter season interest bringing quiet intrigue when much else in the landscape is barren. The bark grows more and more gnarled and textured with age. Another selling point is the Hydrangea Quercifolia is a lover of shade and so can be adapted to most any garden.

Bringing both early bloom and aroma to the garden, I have planted a Korean Spice Viburnum and a Stellata Magnolia on either side of the staircase. Though the blooms last a mere two weeks, the heavenly fragrances that greet us on our walk up the front steps for those short days are well worth it.

Much of the rest of the front yard is a mix of native perennials and grasses. There is a scarlet red Monarda, a light blue dwarf Aster, Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Baptisia, Amsonia, Eupatorium. But my favorite perennial find was a garden Phlox called Laura. Found on a whim at Fiore’s nursery in Chicago, Laura proved to have the most glorious purple blooms with the faintest white eye in the center of the flowers. The plant maintained a constant flower display for a good three to four months. Perhaps the greatest reward was that Laura did not show any signs of the powdery mildew that seems to beset almost all other Phlox I have encountered.

In so describing the beauty of the end result I have glossed over the start of the story, the Milestone party. Well unfortunately that never happened that weekend. Having just moved in, and having barely got the contractors out the front door, we were too overwhelmed to open the front door to a cavalcade of guests. Thankfully though, the best present I gave myself was a new front yard.

Thanks for stopping by for a visit. Hopefully you have enjoyed the transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Spring is on the way

I always know that Spring is around the corner when I first start seeing the Snowdrops bloom. Although we have been stuck in the cold and snow for the greater part of February, the end I hope draws near. In addition to the arrival of the snowdrops I have seen tulips poking up through the ground both in my front and backyards here in Portage Park. Let us all breathe a sigh of relief for the inevitable warm sunny days ahead.

Winter Annuals

Foundation bed renovation.

Aging Junipers


For this project, the homeowner approached me to freshen up their front foundation bed. The existing plantings were very old evergreens that had long outlived their usefulness. Due to the extreme shade cast by the various street trees, said evergreens had grown spindly and bare and were in general decline.

My challenge was to create a more modern and clean landscape that would thrive in shade and provide a softer look for the classic brick of the home. Having met with my clients, we determined that the new project should utilize similar elements to some of the other yards and designs on the block. To that end, some of the common elements were Japanese Maples, hostas, and boxwood.

As such I opted for a traditional Acer Palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ for the shady west end, complimented by a trio of boxwood, accented by oakleaf hydrangea and then anchored on the slightly sunnier east end by an Amelanchier. To provide some perennial color and leaf texture I planted Astilbe, Aruncus and Pulmonaria.

To me the varying textures and shades of green even brighten what is often a dark, deep shaded corner lot.

Winter Containers



Winter containers are a wonderful way to celebrate the winter season. The variety of cut greens, boughs, decorative branches and berries really make the seasonal winter containers come alive. Though often related to Christmas decorations, the winter container can do so much no matter whether you celebrate the Christmas season or not. The beauty of a winter container or swags of garland merely brighten the often gray and snowy days of our often long and brutal Chicago winters.

McCracken School Rain Garden



I was approached  by Carrie Eccleston, science teacher, at McCracken School in Skokie, Illinois to help with two projects. The projects were more a joint project that involved taking a broad open space of turf grass that fronted various existing plantings bed both raised and ground level at the school’s main entrance, and converting it to a more user friendly space.

Eccleston’s hope was to create a hardscape patio space that could serve as both meeting area and potential outdoor classroom space where teachers and students could learn amidst the student tended vegetable and flower gardens. As a corollary to the patio project was an issue of an extremely soggy and wet depression in the existing landscape grade.

The solution proposed by Eccleston and her science class was a rain garden planted with native perennials. The rain garden would be twofold in its utilitarian nature. One, it would remediate rainwater and storm water runoff and two it would be an environment that attract local wildlife: butterflies, dragonflies and birds.

One of the more unique aspects of the garden and patio project was the true collaborative nature of the endeavor. At my initial meeting with Ms. Eccleston, she and I came up with a general spatial area to be covered by the work. Then, the students brainstormed shapes and design ideas for the proposed space. Next, my stone contractor Larry Asimow and I came up with a trio of design renderings that incorporated the student plans. After a final decision was made work began on a patio and garden that fleshed out the student designs in conjunction with the workable space and chosen plants and materials.

The final installation was an inviting space that blended the tumbled clay pavers of the the patio, river rock for drainage, native perennials of the rain garden and even a decorative stone centerpiece designed and created by the students.

Hot times in the garden

Even though we had a very cool and wet spring and early summer, the landscape can dry out fast. Plants out in the direct sun do not have the ability that we humans have of seeking shade and cool surroundings as the temperatures soar and the summer sun beats down. So just as you and I hydrate to stay at peak health, plants need regular water to survive. Please do not neglect your plants, new or old, perennial or annual during these hot days. Water, water, water.

Chicago city parkway conversion


To some of you non-Chicagoans you may scratch your heads at the designation “parkway” for that seeming no-mans land between the city sidewalk and the street. My St. Louis mother used to refer to it as the easement. I heard another refer to it as the “Devil’s” something or other. Regardless of the nomenclature, this area is often a repository of ill-growing grass and substantial weeds. Though it is technically the city of Chicago’s property, the responsibility for its upkeep falls to the homeowner.

In this case the homeowner wanted to turn the ragged patch of weeds and grass into a more appealing planting bed. The area is on the south side of a broad east-west thoroughfare. The sun conditions are dappled at best, more like deep shade. As such the options were for shade-loving perennials and groundcover.

The first order of business was to remove all the unwanted weed and turf to a depth of a few inches. Next I turned the soil in the length and breadth of the bed and mixed in a couple cubic yards of compost.

Finally the installation of my palette of perennials. Not wanting to return to any turf grass for coverage, the base chosen was Pachysandra for an eventual evergreen carpet. I then filtered in Matteucia ferns, Dryopteris ferns and Chasmanthium for height. Aruncus and Ligularia also provided for a sweep of taller perennials yet with the added feature of splashes of color and shape. Polygonatum, aka Solomon’s Seal, and Hostas of varying size, texture and foliage hues played nicely off one another. Likewise, a Citronelle Heuchera and a Jack Frost Brunerra provided interesting foliage even when not in flower. Lastly, a trio of Chelone promised a late season burst of pink flowers. With a final dressing of hardwood mulch, the new parkway shone brightly in the shade.

Annuals for the shade


Deep shade is a big challenge for annual container plantings. The usual suspects are new guinea impatiens, begonias, fuchsia, and coleus. Thankfully there are so many varieties of coleus in so many shades, hues and foliage colors that the opportunity to create stand out containers is only as limited as one’s imagination. Much can be done with leaf texture, height, and subtle changes in foliage tones that the lack of color one might otherwise find with the sunny perennials is rendered moot.

My philosophy with the shade annuals is that less is more. Rather than overload with too many plant varieties, I like to simplify my choices. Select a red and green caladium, pair it with a deep rust coleus, a chartreuse coleus, a bright red begonia, a red or white new guinea impatiens and a stunning annual display is born.

Zen Garden


My clients discussed their desire to remake their small front Bucktown yard into something of a quiet, Zen garden, a place of peace in the urban setting. Prior to the installation the yard’s lone memorable feature was the existing Japanese Maple. The only other plants were some tired, old boxwood and a misplaced Sambucus. So the renovation was relatively easy.

The new focal piece is the weeping Hemlock in the northern corner of the yard. A purple azalea sits next to the Hemlock for some early spring color. The subtle palette shades of greens, chartreuses and yellows arrive from Japanese Hakone Grass, Golden Tiara Hosta, Heuchera, Chelone and Chasmanthium.

Complementing the landscape were some simple yet elegant hardscape features. An inviting swerve of natural bluestone giving way to a trio of outcropping stones and ultimately ending with a seated stone Buddha.

This Zen garden to me really speaks to the beauty and peace that landscapes provide homeowner and passersby alike.