Author Archives: VZ staff

Shapes in the landscape.

Have you ever seen a tree or shrub planted too close to a house or structure that it has to be pruned back so hard it loses its natural form? I have many times. All trees come in different shapes and sizes. It’s important to do your research before planting them so your tree can grow into a perfect specimen for that space. Here’s are a list of a few tree habits along with some examples that fit that form.

Pyramidal (Photo: Picea Abies, Norway Spruce). These trees are known for their dense, large habit that do a terrific job creating privacy, blocking undesirable views, or used as windbreaks. They need room to grow though so don’t plant them in a tight location. Reaching near 40’ to 60 ‘in height and 25 to 30’ in width they are definitely in the large tree category! Known for being fast growers when young, their stiff pendulous branches turn into graceful mature branches later in life. Other pyramidal shaped trees include: Betula populifolia ‘Whitespire’ (Whitespire Birch), Pyrus calleryana Chanticleer (Chanticleer Pear), Tilia cordata Greenspire (Greenspire Littleleaf Linden).

Vase (Photo: Cercis candansis, Eastern Redbud). This naturalistic small tree can stand alone or be planted in a grouping along a woodlands edge. The vase shaped, airy form makes it perfect near a patio or walkway too because the branches grow upward not outward. It’s multi stemmed trunk makes every tree unique. One of my favorite characteristics is it’s broad heart shaped leaves! Redbuds are one of our top choices for ornamental trees in a residential setting. Other vase shaped trees include: Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ (Bloodgood Japanese Maple), Amelanchier canadensis (Shadblow Serviceberry), Malus Red Jewel (Red Jewel Crapapple).

Weeping (Photo: Acer palamatum, Cutleaf Japanese Maple). This tree makes a dramatic statement in a garden and creates a perfect focal point. The purple tinted leaves of the Japanese Maple jump out from all the other green foliage that surrounds it. Plant it near a retaining wall and let the weeping branches cascade over the stone wall to soften the edges. A great companion plant to its airy, soft leaves would be a large leafed Hosta, like ‘Guacamole’ or ‘Big Daddy’. Other weeping shaped trees include: Fagus sylvatica ‘Purple Fountain’ (Purple Fountain Beech), Cercidiphyllum japonicum ‘Pendula’ (Weeping Katsura Tree), Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’ (Weeping White Pine).

Columnar (Photo: Acer rubrum ‘Armstrong’). Most ideal tree for a narrow space! Highly used along fences and property lines because of its ability to create a barrier while not leaving a large footprint. Most columnar trees branches don’t grow all the way down to the ground so it allows room for understory planting. Other columnar shaped trees include: Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’ (European Hornbeam), Fagus sylvatica ‘Fastigiata’ (Columnar European Beech), Quercus robur ‘Fastigiata’ (Columnar English Oak).

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Bring flowers inside with a cutting garden.

I love a good vegetable garden.  You get the benefit of home grown herbs and veggies and the satisfaction of doing it  yourself.  But I also love flowers!  That is why I also plant a small cutting garden so that I may enjoy flowers inside my home as well as outside!

You’ll get the most flowers from annuals, here are a few of my favorites!

Dahlia (vase life 5-7 days)-these come in an array of colors and sizes.  Some blooms are so big they call them dinner plate dahlias!

Zinnia (vase life 7-10 days)-you’ll want the medium to tall ones to use for cut flowers.  The more you cut them the more flowers will bloom!

Celosia (vase life 10-14 days)-these are either a plume type (feathery spike) or crested (rounded mass).  They come in bright colors and also make great dried flowers.

Cosmos (vase life 4-6 days)-these are like sweet overgrown daisies to me.  They come a spectrum of pinks and white.  They are delicate but pretty flowers.

Larkspur (vase life 5-7 days)-this is the annual version of your perennial delphinium.  Impressive spikes of blues, pinks and white!

Snapdragon (vase life 7-10 days)-another impressive spike in an array of colors.

Sweet peas (vase life 4-5 days)-this is a vine so you’ll need a trellis.  But the fragrance is why I love these.  They smell like heaven!

As you fill your vase with fresh cut flowers be sure to check out the landscape as well.  There are  a number of perennials and shrubs that will help beef up that arrangement.  Look for hydrangeas in bloom, grasses for a wispy elegance, foliage from trees and shrubs and the list goes on!

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Drainage Problems as Garden Opportunities.

As a lifetime baseball player, I recall wet cleats from early spring practices. If you are a pet owner, maybe this translates into muddy paws needing to be wiped off every time you let your four legged friend in through the back door.  I remember growing up, having a March 4th birthday, that even if it was nice enough to do something outside (which was always my first choice), it was typically too soggy to do anything fun.

Now, as I spend more time working on cleaning up and bringing my own landscape back to life after a long winter, as our Van Zelst crews are doing on many variable properties each spring, we also battle soggy conditions and muddy boots.  This is a great time to focus in on the problem areas of your property and look to make adjustments, increasing positive drainage, which will contribute to overall plant health, less pest and disease management and more functional use of these problem areas.

One way to address such problem areas is to help the water to move through the area more rapidly and give it an intended place to go.  These places become areas where plants loving moisture or “wet feet” will not just survive, but thrive.  This application has a few different names in the landscape design realm; French Drain, Dry Stream Bed, Bio-swale, Rain Garden, but they all serve the same purpose, to move sitting, stagnant water through a saturated area to a more desirable location where the water absorption can be spread out over a wider area and made available for intended plants in your landscape.



Another way to address these soggy areas is to re-route downspouts into underground PVC pipes to move water away from the foundation of your home, or from one wet area of your property to another.  Again, spreading out the saturation area and water distribution on your property to distribute the availability of available water to more plants.

During this muddy boots season, as you are walking around your own property and notice these problem areas, take note and call us for a free consultation on the best way to address your grading and drainage problems.  We are sure to come up with a creative and cost effective solution that will contribute to the functionality and value of your property.

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Watch for Boxwood Blight this Spring!

Having a nursery of our own at Van Zelst, Inc. we strive to stay on top of new plant diseases and insect pests. The topic that many growers in our area have been discussing is boxwood blight. With the number of boxwood that we grow, pass through our nursery, and our crews install every year, we are watching the spread of this disease and routinely inspecting our own stock.

Boxwood blight is a fungal disease that affects many members of the Buxaceae family including Buxus (boxwood), Pachysandra (Japanese spurge), and Sarcococca (sweet box). This disease was first found in the United Kingdom in the mid-1990s and made its way to the U.S. in 2011. The University of Illinois Plant Clinic first confirmed this disease in 2016 in Lake and Cook counties.

Boxwood blight is characterized by leaf spots, stem cankers, and defoliation. There are other diseases that show these symptoms, but total defoliation of the plant is unique to boxwood blight. When the leaf spots are first developing they are circular light or dark brown spots with a yellow ring around the outside. These spots will expand and take over the entire leaf. The stem cankers have a linear shape and are dark brown to black. Defoliation starts at the base of the plant and works its way to the top.

By now you must be wondering, what options do you have if your boxwoods are suffering from this disease? Often infected plants are removed and disposed of in local landfills. In some cases, all boxwood on a property must be removed. Treatments are becoming available.

If you are a home owner in Lake or Cook counties or the surrounding areas with preexisting boxwood, you may not have too much to worry about. The 2016 cases were from new plants brought into the landscape purchased from garden centers and landscapers. When purchasing boxwoods, you need to assure that you’re not introducing diseased plants to landscape. If you suspect that you have boxwood blight, please contact the Illinois Department of Agriculture or you can send a sample to a University of Illinois Extension office for a small fee (information can be found here: Additional Boxwood Blight Information).

When using Van Zelst for your next landscape renovation you can sleep soundly at night knowing that our nursery only sends out the highest quality plants. Growing 90% of our stock, we put a lot of time into making sure that we are growing strong, healthy plants. Having our maintenance crews on your property weekly will help with early detection of this disease, so that you have the most options available for treatment.

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It all starts with an idea…

We all love making plans. Whether it’s dinner plans, vacation plans, or garden parties, having a plan is a great way to start things off on the right track. A cohesive design that ties the whole garden together makes all the difference. Before sitting down with a professional architect though, start pulling ideas and inspirational photos from Houzz, Pinterest,  or even magazines to find out what your likes and dislikes are. Do you prefer a more natural setting? A flagstone patio with thyme growing in between the cracks? Or does a formal landscape go with your personality more with boxwood hedges, classic bluestone patios, and a simple monochromatic color palette?

If you are not starting from scratch and already have an existing landscape, is there anything you would like to improve? Do you need a bigger entertaining space to host that graduation party? An outdoor kitchen? A hidden reading nook? A unique water feature for your furry ‘kids’ for those hot summer days? There are many different directions you can go, but that is where we can help. It’s our job to put all your ideas together onto paper and present to you a comprehensive plan.

Your homework: Throw some boots on and take a walk around your yard to spark some ideas.

Whether it’s a big or small, your idea is worth talking about it. Here are a few topics that might pertain to your yard.

A section of lawn that is being shaded out. It may be time to convert that area to a new planting bed or make an existing bed larger. Widening a narrow bed to 6’ or more can add a lot of depth and interest. Adding several plant varieties with different heights, textures, and blooming times can really jazz up a garden.

Adding a focal point or garden element. Create an intimate space that draws your eye out into the garden from your living room or kitchen window. Make you and your guest want to wander outside to experience your garden.

Too much mulch? Reducing the open mulched areas in your garden and adding low spreading perennials, annuals, or groundcover will help with weed control and add color and texture.

Privacy? Need more privacy from your neighbors. Yes, the simple way is a board on board fence or an arborvitae hedge, but adding a mixed of evergreens, ornamental trees, and larger shrubs will be much more attractive than a straight line of plantings.

So, get outside and start thinking! Warmer weather is just around the corner!

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Spring to do list…

Now that the days are getting longer, that only means one thing…spring is around the corner!  So let’s take a minute and plan out our spring to do list.

First things first you’ll want to do a thorough clean up of the planting beds and lawn.  This means removing leaf debris, cutting back perennials and removing dead plants.  After the beds are clean this is also a great time to edge the planting beds from the lawn.

Now you can focus on the living plant material.  You’ll want to prune shrubs and ornamentals of any crossing, broken, dead or diseased branches.  Just this small step leads to a healthier more robust plant.  It’s also a great time to divide some perennials.  You’ll know it’s time to divide when a clump has overgrown its space, has diminished flowering, or the clump starts to die out in the middle.  Spring flowering perennials are best divided after they flower, but most other later flowering perennials will be just fine divided in the spring.

As you are surveying your landscape be sure to pull any weeds you see, it’s amazing how fast they pop up so best to keep on top of them.  A final finishing touch to the garden is to add a layer of mulch to the beds.  This will help prevent new weeds from growing and protect your newly divided perennials as they begin to grow.

Next up is the lawn.  Spring is a great time to fix it up.  As it begins to dry up it’s a great time to dethatch the grass, this is the method of using a rake or a dethatching machine to gently remove the layer of dead grass (thatch) that has built up in the lawn.  You’ll want to do this before the lawn really takes off.   Be sure to patch up any areas of bare/dead spots with some grass seed.  The final step is to fertilize your lawn and while you’re at it you can hit those planting beds as well.

The last and final touch to the landscape is to add some fun colorful early annuals (to learn more about early annuals check out this blog).  Just a sprinkling of pansies or some forced bulbs in planters can really brighten the landscape!

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What Does it Cost to Create a Beautiful, Sustainable Landscape?

There are many metaphors we have thrown out over the years to prospective clients, friends, and even family when answering questions relating to the costs associated with landscaping.

Most questions start with, “What would it cost for me to…”

Plant a privacy hedge?
Install a brick paver patio?
Establish a perennial garden?
Construct a retaining wall?

You get the idea.  This could be as open ended of a question as, “How much is my next vacation going to cost?”  Of course there are some obvious cost drivers for landscape installations such as; length, height and overall area, but there are other considerations when estimating project costs.  Variations in material selection, access to the site, and scope of the project can also have a profound effect on the overall projected costs.

We always try to encourage our prospects to not just look at the cost of a particular component of a project, but the entire project itself when considering a budget.  It is very much like researching what the engine of a car costs and going into a dealership with that number in mind when negotiating the price of an entire vehicle.  Similarly, if you were to price out Tenderloin Fillets at a butcher, you would not expect to see a similar price for the same item on the menu of a 5 star restaurant.

When considering a patio for example, it is more advantageous to compare the project to the remodeling of a kitchen or bathroom, rather than just the cost of the stone or brick for the patio, or a simple square foot price.  In the case or a kitchen remodel, you don’t just get the price of the flooring as an accurate metric of cost; but look at all of the components to build a realistic budget for the project.

A typical patio construction project may include; modifications to grading and drainage to accommodate new patio area, new stoop construction, retaining or seat walls, planting bed preparation, planting, lighting and site restoration.



Our design team would be happy to work through a conceptual plan and estimating exercise for your next landscape project.  The goal being that you end up, not just with a patio space or hedge row, but with a beautiful outdoor room, in your target budget, adding value to your home, that matures into your own private oasis for years to come. Contact us now to get started.

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Let’s talk about 3D models

At Van Zelst we believe that one of the most valuable tools to show a client is a 3D rendering of their potential project. A rendered plan is wonderful in many ways, but to an untrained eye – it can be a bit confusing. These 3D models gives the architect/designer the capacity to model a variety of different plans.  Having a 3D model that demonstrates how spaces relate to one another makes a world of difference.

These models allow us to easily tweak aspects of the landscape plan before we even step on site.  We can:

  • show different kinds of hardscapes; brick vs. bluestone.
  • show changes in elevations or slopes.
  • manipulate the time of day to see how it might look to the client: morning, noon and night.
  • show mature plantings in the sketch up model.

Here are just few examples to inspire you landscape dreams.  Call us when you are ready for yours!

Here we can easily show what a bluestone patio might look like and the location of a built in grill.

In this model we can see how the mature landscape incorporates with the hardscape addition.

This model shows a vertical element (pergola) that can be lost on a flat plan.

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Winter landscape dull no more!

Brighten your winter landscape by decorating your annual pots and beds with evergreens.  Or lighting your trees to make a festive glow. There are so many options available that can really make your landscape pop!

We like to use:

  • many assorted evergreens, to give each of our designs depth.
  • branches such as magnolia, winterberry and birch poles to give height and dimension.
  • accents to make each design your own: pine cones, ribbon, ornaments!

We design around your style and tastes.  Contact us for more information.

This area of the home is where most of the activity occurs, so it was the perfect area to decorate.

Birch poles give these planters much needed height in this open area.

Accents selected by the homeowner are added to the front entry pots.

A metal sphere adds a twist to this entrance planter!

Don’t forget to light up your landscape!

photo by Linda Oyama Bryan

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Changing with the season, hardscapes.

all photos by: Linda Oyama Bryan

In  a climate where so much of our landscape goes dormant for several months each year, we like to place special emphasis on elements that continue to give pleasure when nothing is in bloom.  While through the first three seasons there is a strong emphasis on the living plant materials; emerging in spring, blooming in summer, the subtle fade to fall and it’s amazing colors.  The winter months leave us with only the plants remaining structure or architecture.  And this is why we love to paint the landscapes with stone.

Stonework imparts stability, structure, variety and color to a finished landscape year round.  In the summer months, stone pathways guide visitors through the garden to clusters of lush blooms.  In the spring and fall, stone waterfalls and rock gardens complement emerging greens and changing fall colors.  And in winter, steps and walls add texture and interest to the snowy landscape.

Linda Oyama Bryan Linda Oyama Bryan Linda Oyama Bryan

As you consider your dream landscape, think about how stone can help bring it to life. The materials available and how they are used make the options virtually endless.  Carefully cut bluestone has a warm, polished sophistication.  Rough, irregular Lannonstone form weathered, ancient looking steps and walls.  Flagstone can seem to have emerged from the grass naturally, suggesting an English cottage or French countryside feel.

Linda Oyama Bryan

We are only limited by our imagination. Something as simple as a stone bench, while clearly offering a value in summer months, takes on a new life as a sculpture when covered in snow.

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