Gardening and landscaping is a daunting task… especially if you don’t even know where to start! Plants are my big hang-up because I don’t know what goes well together, what is low maintenance, or what’s good for a region. I’ve Googled the regional zone numbers, and I don’t really know what they mean or how they apply to plants. In case you’re wondering, Chicago is Zone 5b which means that native plants should be able to withstand temperatures that drop to -10 and -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Plants not native to the region won’t survive outside during winter and should probably be brought indoors.
It should be noted that I killed every plant that I planted outside last year… save ONE.
Then there are perennials and annuals (planting once and done versus planting every year) and big box stores with gardening centers that don’t always sell plants that can survive in the zone they’re sold in… or at all. And don’t even get me started on plant maintenance or pruning. WHY CAN’T I LIVE IN THE DESERT AND JUST KEEP LANDSCAPING ROCKS ALIVE?!
It should be noted that I killed every plant that I planted outside last year… save ONE. But, I did buy them all on clearance, so I looked at it as more of an experiment than anything really. And I’m pretty sure I failed.
So what’s the difference between gardening and landscaping? I tend to use the terms interchangeably because they both equate to yard work (yuck). I typically equate landscaping to the infrastructure of a yard: shaping the land around your home and the placement of plants (or components) within a certain space. Gardening is the maintenance of those components within that infrastructure (plants, planter boxes, mulch, rocks, etc).
Currently, my yard is a trash heap. Also, grass is stupid.
Some of you may be wondering: Why continue to do something if you think you’re bad at it? Because I like the challenge, I like learning new skills, and I own a bungalow in Chicago and it deserves to look nice. Currently, my yard is a trash heap. Also, grass is stupid. But I know I can do better! If only so I don’t have the worst yard on the block (my block is really competitive when it comes to yard maintenance, OK?! They are also super competitive when it comes to shoveling snow). Any new skill is going to have a learning curve, and not every attempt will be successful, but that’s not a reason to give up.
I learned so much and got hyped up to landscape my front and back yard without even a twinge of hesitation!
Enter the Chicago Bungalow Association and their wonderful array of free seminars. A couple weekends ago, I indulged in a gardening seminar and some $5 parking to attend CBA’s guest lecturer Amanda Thomsen’s “How to Create a Terrific Yard (Without a lot of Dough)”. She also happens to have a book out that everyone needs: Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored to You! Please buy here book here. It was worth the trip because I learned so much and got hyped up to landscape my front and back yard without even a twinge of hesitation! I even walked away with a list of native and hardy plants, ways to create privacy in my yard, basic tools that I needed to get started, and the feeling that I had actually learned valuable information. If you ever get a chance to hear Amanda, or attend one of her seminars, I highly recommend it. She makes gardening accessible!
After her seminar, I compiled a list of notes that I typed up into a single document. I also scanned in all of the handouts I received from the CBA (they are free here and here with additional photos and information on their website). And if you ask nicely, I can share this with you. Just DM me through Instagram or contact me here.
You can get an overview of what Amanda covered in her seminar here, but if you ever get the chance to attend one of her sessions drop everything and go without hesitation. Here are a few of my favorite tips:
Pick three functions for your yard:
Do you need grass for the dog?
Do you want to grow vegetables?
Do you need a hang out space?
Or are you going to be doing a lot of BBQing?
Decide what you want to get out of your yard and lay out a plan accordingly. Maybe you don’t want to take care of any grass at all… that’s possible if you choose the right native ground coverings or go the hardscaping route with lots of rocks and gravel.
I’ve heard this trick before, but I didn’t think it was legit until Amanda explained why and how. Forget that weed barrier garden fabric and plastic edging; all you really need is newspaper (or cardboard) and a step edger.
Edge out your space: This could be for a patio area or a garden bed. A step edger allows you to mow right over the edging line, eliminating the need to edge with a weed-whacker as you would have to with plastic edging. Theoretically, this will make the edge of the bed and the lawn the same height–the taller grass will get cut and the mulch will be left alone. I use a manual push mower so this is a great solution for me, but I don’t know how well this would work with an electric or gas powered mower.
Cut the grass or weeds in your edged out space as short as possible and then plant your plants: For pesky weed patches use overlapping pieces of cardboard, but for regular grass or bare top soil use overlapping pieces of newspaper. Place the cardboard or newspaper around the base of your plants and completely cover the areas of grass or weeds that you want to kill. Water everything down and cover the newspaper with mulch. The weeds and grass under the newspaper will die, the newspaper will eventually decompose, and you’ll have a near-instant, weed-free garden or patio area to enjoy! (Just a quick note, the question of using magazines instead of newspaper came up in the seminar, and the answer is ‘no’. They don’t decompose at the same rate that newspapers or cardboard do.)
This trick is good for a number of reasons: It’s inexpensive, it’s a quick solution that doesn’t require special materials, and it’s better for the Earth. If you’ve ever used weed barrier fabric or plastic edging, you know that sometimes the Earth rejects it (a lot of the time) or that weeds tend to form an intricate network underneath it like it’s their life mission to prove their superiority to humans. Using a step edger means that every season you can simply clean up your line with a few cuts, or expand your bed with a minimal amount of time or money invested. Which means more money for plants!
Landscaping can cost as much or as little as you want it to. Check sites like Zero Waste Chicago or search for organizations in your area like Habitat Restore or salvage shops. Craigslist is also a great resource for raw materials like bricks, stone, or rocks for landscaping or building a patio. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination (and budget, obviously)… so get creative!
Ok, you have a plan and layout for your space, now… plants!
Amanda recommends skipping those big box garden centers and heading straight for a local nursery or farmers market instead. The main reason being, “…They won’t sell you jerk plants!” Not to mention, they are gardening experts specifically for your area who can answer any/all of the questions you can throw at them. Local nurseries or garden centers will be able to offer you a variety of plants native to the Chicago region (those are the ones that should survive and also be good for bees and butterflies etc) I’ve also compiled a list of a few plants here but you find more here:
Ninebark: this plant will probably outlive you and comes in a variety of colors.
Prairie Dropseed: drought tolerant… do I need to say anything else?
Limelight Hydrangea (or Little Lime for a smaller variety): the best variety of hydrangea for the region.
Feather Reed Grass (Karl Foerster): another beautiful and drought tolerant grass.
Catmint: Blooms for three seasons.
Perilla (also called shiso): a great ground covering for choking out weeds. It’s also an herb!
Mix in some spring time bulbs and you’ll have a garden that looks great even when it’s still 30 degrees in March (too soon, I know)!
While it’s important to consider size and sunlight when placing plants, it seems like the biggest factor in having a successful garden is actually choosing the right plants from the start. Consider a garden full of perennial grasses or a mixture of in-ground plants with pots to create a variety of heights and colors. If you’re working around an unsightly eye-sore (like garbage bins or your neighbors’ eclectic use of chicken wire), create a focal point that draws the eye away from it: like a statue, birdbath, or a pop of color.
Before you begin, just keep in mind the level of yearly maintenance you’re comfortable with and how much work you want to do to establish your garden/patio area. I haven’t had a chance to even touch my yard yet, but I’m excited to begin soon… even if it is a little late in the season. My plan is get a good foundation laid now so I can plant bulbs in the fall. I plan on implementing the tips above and documenting my process over the next couple of weeks, so make sure to check back in to see the progress!