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.

Winter Container


When designing the look for a winter container, one might assume the options would be much more limiting than those of the summer container. Ostensibly that may be true as the evergreen choices are not nearly as varied as the myriad of summer flowers. However that does not mean that one cannot exercise flair and creativity with one’s winter greens. I thoroughly love to play with texture, foliage and the subtle color gradations of the winter stems and branches. Here I used some silver dollar eucalyptus, huckleberry stems, red twig dogwood, shore pine branches, a couple different types of cedar and some pine cones. There are plenty of other options as well: variegated boxwood stems, curly willow branches, spruce tips, noble fir branches, and winterberry stems. As you will see the results speak for themselves.


Annual Container


The above photo diptych is an annual container I planted for a client earlier this year. The first photograph was taken the day the flowers were planted on May 30th. The second shot or the after photo was from September 18th nearly four months later. What a transformation took place throughout the growing season. The client maintains an automated irrigation system. As such the annuals are well watered and allowed to thrive.