Thursday, October 9, 2014

Downtown on the Farm Gala 2014

On November 1st, Lambs Farm will be holding a benefit event in downtown Chicago. There will be lots of fun with gourmet dining, music from The Mix, dancing and auctions.

Check it out here and reserve your seat today!

More on Lambs Farm

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Seed vs. Sod: Which one is Better?

We live in a world of instant-gratification—movies on demand, meals ready to eat, next day delivery from Amazon…and instant turf grass.  During many landscape projects, the decision to seed a lawn or sod a lawn is debated, with each side offering good reasons to achieve that beautiful turf many Americans have come to love.  This week’s Dirty Little Secret provides the scoop on which turf grass option offers the best solution, depending on the circumstances.

The Good 
The primary reason many consider seed is an up-front lower cost.  Since a bag of turf seed can cover thousands of square feet, and one roll of sod covers 10, it’s easy to see how that single bag of grass seed can be attractive.  In addition, broadcasting seed is less labor intensive in the short term.  There’s also the argument over long-term root development and turf health—many argue that seeded turf yields better roots, and thus a healthier turf in the short term. 

The Bad
Seeded turf can be a great solution, if timing and environmental factors allow.  But the window of time in which seed can germinate is limited to after last frost until mid-summer, as temperature extremes prohibit healthy growth. Since bluegrass seed takes 15-30 days to germinate, there’s a lot of time spent looking at bare soil, during which time erosion, weeds, birds, and pets can quickly dig into that short term savings of selecting seed.  Seed also requires constant moisture to keep new seedlings viable.

The Good
Soil-backed sod is farm-raised mature turf, cut fresh and delivered daily.  Sod farms cover hundreds of acres, taking on the laborious front-end work of growing grass so turf can be transplanted for an instant impact. 

Since sod is mature turf, it only needs to be rolled out on a well-graded yard and watered in place.  And watered, and watered, and watered….  Depending on time of year and sunlight levels, new sod can become a chore to keep watered until its transplanted roots get reestablished.  An irrigation system can help, but adds cost to the project bottom line.  Since sod is already growing, it’s instant coverage, keeping mud off properties and pets.  It can be installed sooner and later in the growing season, and can be used quicker than seeded lawns can after establishment. 

The Bad 
Cost of sod is always initially higher than seed, to account for its growing, transporting, installation, and watering needs.  Since sod is grown in sunny fields from sun-tolerant grass seed, it doesn’t tend to work well in shady gardens, or will require extensive overseeding with shady seed as the turf transitions.  Since sod is heavily fertilized and dark green, there’s often a noticeable color difference when installed next to existing turf, at least for the first season. 

Final Thoughts
In the long term, the cost of the two turf options can come close to each other, especially when seed needs to be helped along with additional labor to become established.  Seed requires more patience, but can deliver a healthy turn over time if willing to invest in the additional establishing work.  Balancing time of year, cost and labor considerations, patience, and site conditions are the best way to determine which approach is the best.

An additional helpful perspective can be found at the University of Minnesota Extension page.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What a Mess!

During a recent all-day garden walk we hosted, dozens of guests complimented how clean and manicured the property looked.  Rewind a few weeks prior, and the guests would have taken away a different impression—why does everything look so torn up and disrupted?

If there is such a thing, a typical project follows the following arc of events:  existing conditions, removals, site preparation, construction, and details.  Since we have a moment, lets look briefly at each stage and share a few thoughts.

Existing Conditions—this is our starting point, and often is overgrown and not functioning well.  We assess what will stay, what will be removed, and what can be repurposed.  At this point, clients will often look at us and say, “you’ve got to do something with this place!”

Removals make the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time.  This stage peels back overgrown plants, exposes parts of the property that became hidden over time, and leaves clients often remarking, “who knew it could look so good, just by taking away all the overgrown things!”

Site preparation begins the messy work.  Earth is moved, drains are installed, machines are running, holes are dug, and it seems like soil and gravel are everywhere.  It’s the hardest time to “see” what a garden will eventually look like, because it’s hard to see past the conditions.  When it rains, we need to be careful, knowing that we can sometimes make a bigger mess if we try to push ahead before the ground dries enough to resume.  This stage generally sparks comments such as “I’m going on vacation, please make it better by the time I come back!”

Construction can be a short or long process depending on the scope.  The new garden starts to take shape, improvements are made, and clients begin to see glimpses of their new environment.  Seeing a landscape construction site in progress is like seeing the parts of a fine watch disassembled—you have to trust the parts will go together and will eventually run smoothly.  We tend to do a lot of reassuring during construction to remind clients of the final vision, which can be hard to see. 

Details take place after all of the heavy lifting has taken place.  These finishing touches include furnishings, groundcovers, perennial and annual flowers, and amenities.  They’re the most noticeable, like trim and crown moldings, and can “make or break” a garden.  These are the “garden walk-worthy” elements, which can make the messy parts of a project hard to remember.

So while most garden blogs will show off their end result, our Dirty Little Secret today will show off a few messes, knowing that sometimes to make a place look better, you have to tear it up a little first. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Winter Burn

On a recent nursery visit to southern Wisconsin, I rode with a grower through field after field of plants that were the wrong color, off color, or two different colors.  We were viewing their inventory of evergreens, and the grower was lamenting the loss of acres of shrubs damaged by our cold winter.  This was winter burn, and according to the grower, it was the worst he’d seen in over 25 years.

By now we’ve likely seen it:  evergreen plants that have turned orange, yellow, or pale khaki.  The species displaying the worst damage include Yew, Boxwood, and Arborvitae, but just like what I’d seen in the Wisconsin nursery, the impact of the cold weather seemed sporadic, damaging some plants, while sparing others of the same variety close by.

Repairing damage to a garden can take one of three approaches.  They are:

1.  Remove.  If the affected plant is in a high profile place (front door, container plant, or a spot you’ll see or drive by every day) or damaged beyond recovery, one option is to remove the plant, and replace it.  This can be the most costly, but can be the quickest way to return a garden to good condition. In “people-terms”, think of this as a surgical transplant.

2.  Repair.  For moderately damaged plants, or plants that may be in a less noticeable location, a combination of pruning, feeding, and patience can help, but the plant may be less than perfect-looking for a time.  Again, in “people-terms”, this is rehab after breaking a limb.

3.  Recover.  Some species with very light damage only need a light touch, and will recover on their own with minimal impact.  And again, in “people-terms”, think of this as a band-aid and Neosporin on a scratch.

To read more about winter burn, take a look at this great post from the Chicago Botanic Garden’s blog.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Live Marketing

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who works for a landscape company without a maintenance division.  They'd tried it in the past, he told me, and found it was "too much work."  

Over the past several years their company has atrophied, continually losing construction clients as full service maintenance contractors took over their projects.  Since his company doesn't offer maintenance services, he continually finds the construction work they leave behind ages poorly.  With no one to maintain their work at a skilled level, their clients' homes look bad and their work is poorly represented.  But in an attempt to build their client base, they've devoted a large line item to slick marketing and promotional materials to make themselves look great in print.  His complaint:  their marketing pieces look better than their job sites. 

The end result of a landscaper's work is not a piece of paper, but a living, breathing place. We don't build a structure that is changeless over time, like the work of an architect or a home builder.  Our living spaces are dynamic; they age, mature, grow, live, and sometimes, die. Taking care of those places is a vital part of their continued success, well beyond their warranty period.  Maintaining a garden ensures the design intent is carried out over time, like an investment advisor coaching a professional from her early years into retirement.  

But it has the added benefit of earning a relationship with clients themselves. 

For years, University horticulture programs have seen declining enrollment as fewer and fewer young people find careers in the green industry attractive, or are drawn to the "sexier" roles of design or construction.  Societally, we elevate the designer, tolerate the builder, and denigrate the maintainer, but we conveniently forget the design left on paper is merely a guide to the place where we will eat, drink, and be merry.  It does not exist until it is built, and it will not last if it is uncared for.  

It's one of the reasons we place a high value on training and growing personal skill sets. One of our top foremen, Francisco, learned side by side with our company's owner for the first few seasons of his employment.  From his previous manufacturing background, he learned the horticultural best practices of pruning times and techniques, fertilization, and volumes more, and continues to steward and care for our clients with skill and precision.  Without a Francisco, it doesn't matter how nice the design or the construction is--a property needs to be cared for in order to age gracefully and have any longevity. 

Landscape maintenance is "service," and is a far better form of marketing a business than traditional advertising.  It is stewardship of a client's resources, it meets their needs seasonally, and maximizes a property's value by making it work for its owner's needs as they both mature.  More than an email blast or glossy brochure, live marketing benefits a landscape business by meeting a need and being capably available.  

A consultant from Houzz forwarded me a pair of articles this week on the power of compelling photography in generating design sales, which brought me back full circle to my friend's comment about his marketing materials looking better than their clients' properties.  Images used to convey an idea are great, but they'll quickly be found lacking if not backed up by the ability to construct or care for the real thing. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Landscape vs. Winter: Round 2014

We had “Prune the Limelight Hydrangeas back” on our home’s landscape maintenance schedule for this past Saturday, but as I looked out from our kitchen window to the planting beds, I could barely see them.  They were still half-covered with snow.  Ah, the best laid plans.  

That’s why our landscape schedules, both at home and at work, have to be flexible.  I will be very ready when we can finally get outside and get our spring clean up completed—we can't even empty our crushed winter containers because the pots are still frozen!

As I fix my coffee each morning, the grey snow blanket retreats to reveal a little more winter damage.  I can already see where snow and ice broke branches and split a few of my Arborvitae, and the hole that rabbits chewed on the bottom branches when there was no other food in sight.  Nothing is safe when winters run long, and unfortunately they can't read the plant books claiming they don't eat those varieties.  

Our house has four varieties of Boxwood we’ve collected through the years.  They usually bounce back after the snow cover melts, but this year doesn't look too promising.  Too much snow for too long, extreme cold, and stressed branches mean we may not see much 'bounce back' in our Boxwood. 

We also planted a several perennials and flats of groundcover around our new garage in the late fall last year.  During the past several months of severe weather, frost pushed many of these root plugs straight out of the ground.  We may be able to replant them; but we’ll have to replace them if the cold killed them off.  So it looks like nature has undone a lot of our fall work as it laughs at us, dangling spring over our heads like a schoolyard bully.

The south side of many yards are clear of snow, but the north
sides still have lingering unmelted pockets.
The melting snow brings mixed feelings.  I’m glad to see our yard again, but know there is a lot of winter damage I can’t see yet.  When leaves emerge and perennials push from the ground, we’ll know the real impact of this past hard winter.  Sometime we can't see that a plant is dead or damaged until the living plants around it sprout leaves, leaving it looking bare by comparison.  

On the bright side, the deep snow cover may have insulated some plants, and it really does seem to be going away as warm temperatures return.  In spite of March’s unpredictable patterns, it’s only a matter of time before warm temperatures return, spring bulbs emerge, leaves open, lawns “green up”…

…and we can get back to pruning those Limelight Hydrangeas.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Surviving the Winter Landscape

“Dad, dad!  We drove past the mountains today!  And a snow cave!”
 My son raced into the house past his sister, dropping his ski jacket on the floor and pulling out his cracked iPod to show me a photo.  There on the tiny screen was proof the winter hadn’t stifled his young imagination or dampened his spirits.  It has, after all, been a long winter.

From his eye level view in the back seat of my wife’s Toyota, he’d snapped some pictures of the snow piles I drove past each day, wondering when this winter would end.  The piles I had shoveled to the end of the driveway, which the city plow trucks had made tall this year.  But from his vantage point, he’d seen in them something I’d missed in the busyness of my “grown-up” world—the simple beauty of a winter landscape.  He’d seen into them the honest beauty that can be overlooked in a hurry to get indoors, where wind chills don’t threaten.  He and his sister saw how beautiful winter can be, and reminded me to do the same.

Looking ahead in the forecast, I know this winter will end, but it might take a little longer than most of us would like.  So as the next weeks draw on toward an eventual melt, here are a few ideas for enjoying—not just ‘surviving’—the winter landscape:

Winter Views
I’m a landscaper, married to a landscaper, who works with landscapers.  (Notice a trend?)  We use plants every day to frame views; the way an artist uses paint.  We place plants as compositions viewed from multiple vantage points, but the most common is from inside the home.  “Inside” is our default vantage point, because it’s the view our clients see every day.  Waking up, eating breakfast, waiting for the rain to stop, enjoying a cocktail, working from home—most “viewing” happens from the inside looking out.   Using a palette of plants to frame a view is our version of a computer screen’s background—always there behind the action, but not overshadowing the action itself.

Plants with Winter Interest
A great planting border contains both evergreens (stay green all year) and deciduous plants (leaves drop off in winter).  Evergreens “disappear” during summer amidst a sea of “other green things,” but shine in winter as they continue to provide screening and privacy for winter views.    Deciduous plants fall into two levels of winter-appropriateness: “none” and “amazing.”  Plants with no winter interest may look great when growing, but in winter have a weedy appearance, are drab in color, or don’t have a branching structure with a strong geometric form.

“Amazing” winter plants are their counterparts.  With brilliant colors, strong branching patterns, and compelling textures, they defy the drab brown landscape of late winter. Hawthorns and Flowering Crabapples hold dried fruit late into the year, attracting winter songbirds to land on ice-covered stems.  Ornamental grasses and Baptisia provide textural contrasts, with seed heads shaken by cold winds striking patterned contrasts on the snow.  Winterberry, Red- and Yellow-twig dogwood, and Witchhazels add vibrant colors bright enough to be noticed at a distance.

Thinking ahead
Where I grew up, you can tell a winter storm is coming when the locals clear out the bread and milk aisles of the grocery store.  Straightening up or “battening down the hatches” is simple, yet often overlooked when temperatures drop and the first snowfall shows up like an obnoxious relative you love anyway.  (“I’m excited you’re here because I haven’t seen you in ages…wait, HOW long are you staying?)

Putting away the furniture, adding a winter table cover, stacking away toys, wrapping up hoses and hammocks, even moving a portable grill closer to the back door—this “tidying up” allows the snow to fall and show off the forms of the garden.  Hedges and planting beds, lawns and terraces—the structure of a garden is more beautiful when snow falls upon it and the summer distractions have been put away.  Straightening up visually simplifies a winter garden, allowing snowdrifts and icicles to steal the show.

If all else fails…
…get out of town for the weekend.  On a recent trip to the Mitchell Park Conservatory, my

family and I spent a few hours strolling the warm greenhouses, looking at plants and listening to birds singing in the trees above.  The Chicago Botanic Garden greenhouses have served the same purpose in the past, or the Garfield Park Conservatory, or the St. Louis Climatron greenhouse.  It’s amazing what an hour inside a sunny indoor garden will do to break up a long winter’s day.