Part 1 – Plants living in their own debris aka mulching in place

Posted on Oct 03, 2013

I’ve always had mixed emotions about spring clean-ups. While being extremely cathartic, albeit slightly painful and time consuming, I was always a little confused as to why I was cutting back and removing some wonderfully composted leaves and debris and then paying for and putting down mulch, which of course was what I had just removed. I was therefore thrilled that while attending the inaugural FRED seminar last year, Christine and I had a chance to speak with Roy Diblik, of Northwind Perennial Farm, the extremely knowledgeable and helpful plantsman. Among other things, he’s done work for the Lurie Gardens in Millennium Park and the modern wing of the Chicago Art Institute. Due to the scope of those gardens, we were curious as to how maintenance was performed for those gardens. Knowing that budget is always a concern, the number of manhours spent cutting back and removing debris was mind boggling. That’s when he explained the concept of plants living in their own debris. In a nutshell, mimicing nature. In gardens with just perennials, it’s possible to just run a lawn mower over the beds several times, preferably in late February or early March, and leaving the debris on the ground to turn into mulch. It leaves a different look, admittedly one that takes some getting used to, less tidy than many people like. Roy has learned to plant spring blooming bulbs in those beds to help hide the mess.

The question then became, is this concept possible in homeowner gardens where there is a mix of both woodies and perennials?  We decided to try it in my gardens and the long and short of it is yes!  Not only is it possible, it was quicker, easier and much more cost effective.  The beds that we choose normally take about 12-16 manhours for my spring clean-up.  This season took an hour and a half, and as you can see from the photos we used a mechanical hedge trimmer.    All in all, a great time was had by all!  In the future, this will be my go-to cleanup process whenever possible!  (to see year two click here.)

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Makeover 101 Chapter One – A list or two

Posted on Oct 02, 2013

In any makeover, a great first step is to clarify the vision in your head.  While this might sound easy and seem a waste of time, as you can see by my own journey (below) it is at once both difficult and enlightening.  It forces us to slow down a little, think about what we have and what we want.  Sometimes easier said than done!   Below are three lists to make to get you started.        

List your:

  1. likes and dislikes
  2. must haves and wants
  3. what your goals are, i.e. privacy, texture, accent trees or shrubs, borders, etc.  Use    pictures of gardens you’ve visited or those from magazines to clarify what is most important to you.  Remember, it is possible to have completely different gardens in your yard, depending on the size, exposure, moisture and other variables.

Below is my own CHAPTER ONE-THE LIST OR TWO.  As fair is fair, we’d love to hear about your own chapter.  Please share your lists and let us know if we can help in any way.  Thanks!


Putting on paper what I like (L) and dislike (DL) about my gardens was an interesting exercise.  While most things had been rolling around in my head for some time, actually formulating the thoughts was difficult.  Prioritizing was especially challenging, but it did help me realize that while I like picking and plucking, as in picking a plant and plucking it into the ground, it has sometimes been counter productive.   Not one area of my beds is  is what you might consider done.  Or at least as done as a garden can ever be!

So after much thought, below is my Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde list:


L boxwood at kitchen door

L view from family room window.  Need less dirt/more plantings, more spring plants/bulbs

L idea of Oakleaf hydrangeas.  Three?


L/DL flagstone path

L/DL hydrangeas under dining/living room windows. Have been improperly pruned

L/DL crab at family room window.  Gets rust, funny shape.  Like the idea of a multi- stemmed tree in that area, maybe a weeping?

L/DL shape of my beds, need expanding

L/DL Lamiastrum at porch spreads, would like to keep some but keep in check.


DL curve around patio is grass/dirt, able to see plastic edging.  Would like bed around it.

DL lack of privacy around patio.

DL furniture placement.


MH privacy

MH shade

MH vegetables interspersed with ornamentals

WANT beech tree (a 60’ x 120’ lot might make this a little challenging!)

WANT more natives – I am not, however, a purist and believe that it is possible to mix cultivars and natives and still serve nature well

WANT birds, bees and butterflies

WANT a place for the grandkids to play

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are living in my garden

Posted on Sep 04, 2013

You might be wondering what these two very different gentlemen are doing in my garden and how they got there.  When I think back, I realize they took up residence with some of my very first plantings, chosen on the spur of the moment in a heat of plant passion, with no particular plan in place.  I still pick, choose and plant haphazardly, albeit with more knowledge of site and sun conditions, etc.  As a result, some of the very things I love about my garden are also some of the very things I would love to change about it.  Hence, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Take my flagstone path for instance.  I love my path.  It allows me to stroll through my gardens while also taking me to visit my neighbors.  I am not so fond of the flagstone itself.  There is an inordinate amount of purslane, clover and various and sundry weeds that have taken up residence and refuse to leave, despite my best efforts.  The flagstone itself is uneven and uncomfortable to walk across barefoot, one of my favorite summer activities.  The patio, again installed without much forethought and on a budget that caused me to panic about material selection, is an odd shape that does not allow for relaxing furniture and firepit placement.  I love not having to move things  when cutting the grass, but wish there was a better flow.  I also wish I had chosen a different material.  As you can tell, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde indeed.

The question now is what must stay, what can be changed and the best way to go about creating the vision in my head that has finally jelled.  I hope that by sharing our thoughts, plans and progress we will also help you, our clients and friends, along the way.  This will be a work in progress, garden coaching and garden consulting the Diig, Inc. way.  Check back early next week for phase one of my Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde makeover.

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Winter Interest – Color

Posted on Sep 03, 2013

Admittedly, the color in the winter garden is far more subdued, but even the grey days can be brightened up with a little flamboyant color. Here are a few photos taken during chilly but worth it visits to the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Aboretum.


Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’


Rosa ‘Flower Carpet Scarlet’


Intriguing doorway in the English Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden


Golden evergreen Chamaecyparis foliage to brighten dark winter days


Orange Ilex, or holly, berries

Starring Role

Japanese Maples with colorful bark, the yellow is Acer palmatum ‘Bihou’, the other is Acer ‘Sango-kaku’ or coral-bark Maple


In the Japanese Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden…showing that structure, form, texture and color can provide you with interest all winter long in the garden

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Brains and learning

Posted on Sep 02, 2013

In my last post, before our visit to Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, WI., I promised to let you know what we learned.  I had much to tell you, but a visiting grandson has caused my brain to partially turn to mush.  Well worth it, but mush none the less!  Luckily, Christine is functioning as well as ever, here are a few of her notes from the visit.

- saw a great shrub with cool pendulous berries – Phytolacca americana, common name – pokeweed.  Native.  Pokeweed berries are an important food source for wild life, including birds and small animals.  These animals help spread Pokeweed, which can be a problem as mature plants do get large taproots that are difficult to remove.  If you should find them planted in the middle of a bed where you don’t want them, simply cut the stem and paint it with Glyphosate, most commonly sold as Round-up. You might have to do this more than once, but it is well worth the trouble as it eliminates those pesky plants you don’t want while keeping the good.  We’d love to hear what works for you!

- leaving the spent seedheads of Allium ‘Summer Beauty’ looks great when mixed with Sporobolous, Prairie Dropseed.  It’s all about who your companions are because the alliums certainly don’t look great in my garden and am thinking that just makes more work (as in deadheading) for me.  Extra bonus, I’ve heard the stems turn a nice yellow in the fall.  Less work + more color = must try!

- another no fuss combination – Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ with Heuchera ‘Autumn Bride”.  One of my favorite Heuchs.

 Nurseries and garden walks are such fun and easy ways to learn new plants, combinations and so many other things.  One of my favorite ways to spend the day.  Almost as good as spending the day with a visiting grandson…but not quite!

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Garden shopping

Posted on Sep 01, 2013

Christine and I are headed to Northwind Perennial Farm Saturday in Burlington, Wi for their annual art fair.  I haven’t attended this event but was there for one of their monthly talks about ‘weeds, persistent competitors and coming to know those mischievous plants’.   Roy Diblik, co-owner of the farm, presented the talk.  If you’ve never met him or attended one of his other talks, be sure to check their website for upcoming events.  He is an absolutely amazing and engaging speaker.  He doesn’t lecture but rather draws you in, making you feel as though anything is possible.  He’s done work for the Lurie Garden, the Chicago Art Museum and the Louis Sullivan Stock Exchange Arch, growing many of the plants from seed.  He believes in choosing plants carefully so they work together to help prevent weeds and ’bully’ plants from taking over.  I can’t wait to stroll the grounds and see what’s changed since July.  I’ve also set my budget and have my plant list already so I’m not tempted to go a little overboard.  Well, hopefully!

If you’re interested in learning about the farm, be sure to check out their website at for their hours and directions.  We’ll let you know what we’ve seen and learned.  Hope to see you there!

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Thoughtful Design – Classic Bones

Posted on Aug 30, 2013

This summer Connie and I visited a lot of gardens, mostly through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program.   I love visting gardens to see what other people have created.  I’ve seen so many that have taught me a lot over the years.  After starting my own garden and quickly realizing a garden is more than just a collection of favorite plants, I’ve learned to look at the gardens I vistit in a way that reveals their secrets – why they work, what makes them special.  Always it is because the gardener/designer has taken the entire space into consideration and that often means turning the faults or less than ideal features into assets.  So it isn’t the pretty flowers that make the garden, it’s the thought to creating structure (aka the bones) that both hold the garden together without the pretty blooms as well as enhances those pretty flowers while in their glory.

These three gardens are all in the Chicago area and were designed by important garden designers of the early 20th century.  They have formal bones in a style you don’t see as much these days, with the current preference for curves in the landscape.  I love their strong architecture and geometry softened by exhuberant seasonal displays of perennials, bulbs and annuals.  While you might not elect to do this at home there is still a lot of food for thought here!

The Shakespeare Garden at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1920.  Designed by Jens Jensen.  This garden is open to the public year round.


Entering this garden is like walking into another world.  It is completely surrounded by hedges so it has the feeling of being hidden away.


The long borders are perfect for strolling and exploring and it’s worth coming here several times during the growing season.  The perennials have their moments to shine then fade into the backdrop as the next group to bloom has their peak.  These photos are from early May.


Low boxwood hedges, flagstone paths, brick edging, turf paths, and the ornaments – the sundial and benches - all contribute to the simple geometry that makes up the structure of this garden.  The flowers are just the icing on the cake.


I love how this photo shows the wide spiky foxglove blooms echoing the gable of the grey stone building beyond the garden.  Also, there isn’t a lot blooming in this view but the foxgloves don’t look isolated in a sea of mulch, they have all the different greens and textures of surrounding plants to provide a pleasing scene.

Crabtree Farm – Lake Bluff, Illinois, 1926-28.  Residence designed by David Adler, cottage garden by Ellen Biddle Shipman.


Pale pink roses frothing above a stone wall and two pots of purple scaveola flanking the open gate welcome you into this enclosed garden.


This garden tucked in close to the house proves formal can be soft, cozy and welcoming.


Crisply pruned boxwood hedges outlining beds and paths give strong structure no matter what time of the year.  This path leads to a place to escape from the sun’s heat, a shaded bench that curves around a circular garden pool.


The side of the house features an entrance charmingly covered with a wisteria draped arbor.


The view from the back terrace and out over Lake Michigan.

House of the Four Winds – Lake Forest, Illinois, 1912.  Residence and garden architecture designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw, plantings designed by Rose Standish Nichols, restored in 2002 by Craig Bergmann.

Simple - create an outline

Wavy hedges provide dark contrast to play up the colors of the plants in the bed.  The silver Perovskias echo the fountain and sparkling water, the spiky purple Salvias are repeated in the purple leaved beech that takes your eye beyond the hedges.


This espalier, which I think of as a Craig Bergmann signature, dresses up a chimney along with a trough planted with a mounds of colorful and cascading foliage.


Even with a layer of snow and winter’s low light this view thru the open gate must be just as inviting.


The lower garden planted with boxwood cones along the canal.  The shimmering water, glossy boxwood leaves, silvery foliage, pale lavender and white blooms all work together to provide a cooling effect that was refreshing on the hot afternoon of our visit.


The long view looking back at the house.  You can see the simple geometry that holds the garden together so it will look good all year long.

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Bull Valley Garden Walk Photo Share

Posted on Aug 29, 2013

Touring gardens is such a great way to learn what other gardeners do – to see firsthand how they deal with the conditions of their space and how they combine plants and create interesting vignettes.  I love seeing how plants grow and always enjoy talking with garden owners and fellow guests.  After picking up our tickets at the gorgeous and inspiring Kimball and Bean we went out to see what these gardeners were generous enough to share with us.
A cozy nook in a fence with a bench shaded by grapevines not only looks great but makes you want to investigate – what’s under there?  And then have a seat and look at the view.  A classic feature that stands on its own all year long.

This gorgeous view of Bull Valley is actually the edge of the garden which transitions without a hitch into the wilder terrain beyond.  The grasses you see in the foreground are part of the garden that the owners have been restoring to its original plants with the help of Landkeepers, LLC.  This company is able to replant the plant communities that were here before settlers came in and changed the natural habitats.  How cool is that?!

This nicely planned garden is not only low maintenance and good looking four seasons of the year but also is tough enough to make it through the dry spells we normally get during the summer.  The bold shapes and colors read well from a distance as this border is viewed from the house from across an expanse of lawn.  The upright group of grass planted to the right of the rounded golden shrub (Golden Privet) and to the left of the burgundy barberry is Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) which turns orange in the fall.  How striking will that be with the Blue Spruce which will then go on to contrast with the other green spruces it is grouped with, providing color interest all winter long.

This is another view of the same border and here you can see color from the daylilies and variegated miscanthus.  Come mid-August (though likely earlier this year!) the walk will be edged with the dusty pink blooms of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, attracting the eye and bees galore.  This well-known sedum’s horizontal blooms last forever, deepening in color before fading to shades of brown.  The spruces here are Serbians (Picea omorika) which are sharply outlined by the soft shape of a white pine (Pinus strobus) behind to the left.

This scene is the edge of a shady garden – a limbed up shrub which has been pruned into a small tree form. This a great way to create more room to plant more plants! If you have a small garden or space to fill you could plant a viburnum that grows to the size you’d like – there are many that are 8-12 feet tall – and have a small tree with a long season of interest that will provide some height and screening.

Here’s proof that shade is not boring! The variegated hosta in the foreground grabs your attention and echoes the pale color of the flowers of the Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) which will fade to tan as the season progresses.  Come fall this shrub’s leathery leaves will turn burgundy and the plant at its feet, toadlily (Tricyrtis hirta), will begin blooming its purple spotted white blooms all up and down its arching stems.  Subtle and wonderful!  In the distance you can also see a golden hosta which invites you to look a little closer and notice the textures of the waxy blue hosta under the feathery Hemlock and the glaucous blue foliage of the columbine to the bottom left, past bloom but still adding to the composition.

Here are two more Hemlocks, this time as a part of a simple, low care planting under two Locusts.  Combined with daylilies for early to mid-summer color and some burgundy Heucheras just out of the view of the camera, this spot will look good all year round.  For some spring color I’m going to add that daylilies make the perfect partner for masses of daffodils, which very well may be planted here.  The emerging daylily foliage hides the fading and yellowing remains of the daffodils after they have bloomed and takes care of that maintenance chore without you having to lift a finger.

With all the hot dry weather this summer this combination really caught my eye – the saturated colors of deep blue Balloon Flower (Platycodon grandiflora) and Jupiter’s Beard (Centranthus ruber) look great, don’t they?  I grow both, but not together.  What a mistake on my part!  In my garden these plants grow in two of my toughest, sunniest, driest spots and always look great.

This sculptural, simple view highlights the perfect way to grow a climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala spp. petiolaris), a gorgeous climbing vine that prefers shade and demands a sturdy structure to grow on.  It blooms early summer with flatheaded, lacy  blooms in creamy white.  It adds texture and interest all year long with its 3-D growth habit and exfoliating bark.

A relaxing and enjoyable day well spent, don’t you think?

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Garden walking

Posted on Aug 25, 2013

What a great day for a garden walk…and walk we did, thanks to The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days.  Christine and I only managed to walk the three in Chicago’s northwest suburbs but plan to head west to Elburn as that garden is also scheduled later this season.

If you’ve never attended one of these walks, and they are scheduled throughout the US, I would put it at the top of my ‘to-do’ list.  Each garden is only $5.00 and well worth the money.  You can pre-buy tickets (they don’t expire) or pay as you go, allowing for great flexibility.

What can I say about the gardens?!  All amazing, all different.  Two of the three were planted and maintained by the homeowners, albeit with a little bit of physical help for one.  Their passion and knowledge showed through their choices of plants, site selection, pairings, garden art and so many other things.  We spoke with one of the homeowners, a wonderful gentleman who even provided us with the names of two nurseries of which we had been unaware.  The second garden was more woodsy.  I saw my first Cypripedium reginae (Lady’s slipper).   Hope it’s not my last!  The last garden of the day was different still, as parts of it were overlooking a small ravine.  Outcropping was used to create a wonderful, natural looking wall with a wide variety of hostas planted below.  While neither Christine nor myself had the nerve to get to close, the view from a distance was stunning.

All in all, is there any better way to spend a lovely Sunday afternoon?.

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Garden Post – April in March

Posted on Jul 03, 2013

With the weather warming up here in Chicago so quickly and business getting busy, I only this morning had the chance to get out and take some photos of what’s up in my garden.

Everything is easily a month ahead of schedule.  The crocuses are gone, snowdrops toast and even the early daffs are done.  Oh well, the show must go on!

Hope you enjoy…xochristine


Anemone blanda – Blue Grecian Windflower


Narcissus ‘Mt. Hood’


Cercis canadensis – Redbud


Muscari – Grape Hyacinth


Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s Breeches. A spring ephemeral with the best name.


Hellebore with blooming pals Scilla and Chionodoxa


Narcissus ‘Trevihan’ doing a bit of synchronized swooning


Fritillaria meleagris var. alba – White checkered guinea-hen flower or snake’s head fritillary


Pulmonaria – Lungwort (say wert, not wart!). So named because it’s speckled foliage was once thought to cure lung ailments. Good to know.


Daffs and red tulips with chives in my potager. Design note to self – this fall plant bulbs that will bloom later with the chives to feel like a genius next spring!

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