Author Archives: VZ staff

Attracting Birds to your garden!

I enjoy sitting on my patio watching a listening to the multitude of birds and butterflies that visit my garden.  The best way to do this is with a variety of plants.  Here are just a few that will attract birds and butterflies to your home!

Trees provide shelter as well as food sources for the birds.

Quercus, the Oak trees, provide nice cavity nest sites for many birds.  When the acorns develop they also provide a food source for several species of birds, like the  Downy woodpecker.

The fruit of the dogwood species, Cornus, is loved by Titmice, Cardinals and Blue birds to name a few.  It also is a quick growing shrub that would easily provide screening for you and shelter for birds.

Serviceberry or Amelanchiers are one of the first tree species to bloom in the spring.; providing a nectar source for the early butterflies.  But that’s not all, in mid June the trees are filled with luscious fruit favored by many birds.  You’ll see Robins and Cedar waxwings gobbling them up!

Amelanchier berries

Flowering perennials are your source for nectar lovers like Hummingbirds and butterflies.

Echinacea, Coneflower, provides nectar for butterflies and is a great seed source in fall/winter for Goldfinches and other songbirds.

Echinacea and Butterflyl

Asclepias isn’t called Butterfly weed for nothing!  Butterflies, particulary the Monarch love Asclepias.  It is a host plant for the Monarch’s caterpillars.  Birds will also use the soft downy feathers as nesting material.

Monarda, Bee balm attracts Hummingbirds and butterflies.  This plant is super easy to grow!

Monarda, bee balm.

Solidago or Golden rod is a fall bloomer.  There are a multitude of butterfly species that are attracted to Golden rod!  The seeds are also a favorite of Goldfinches and native sparrow species.

A water feature will also ensure that the birds and butterflies will hang around your property.  Birds need fresh water and a place to bathe!

Fountain, water source for birds and butterflies.

Now these are just few samples of plants to help you attract birds and butterflies to your garden.  Want to create that perfect butterfly garden or add more plants for birds then contact us and we’ll get you on your way to a beautiful animal sanctuary.

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How to keep the deer away!

We all want to bring nature to our yard, but sometimes nature can be aggressive; as in deer eating your plants! Deer can be a real nuisance at times. There are several options to deter them from eating your ever loved outdoor sanctuary.

First thoughts are a fence will deter them. The problem is that deer can easily jump a six foot high fence (the average height of an installed fence), when startled they can jump even an eight foot fence or higher. So a fence might help but is not fool proof, it’s also another added expense.

There are chemical deterrents that work really well. The pitfalls of these is that they are generally strong smelling (as that is what is repelling the deer) and you too will be able to smell the deterrent. There are some natural smell deterrents that do work, but won’t be a long term fix. We like to use Milorganite (fertilizer) for a spring and summer control, it is the treated byproduct of the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, waste treatment plant. Another organic product we like to use is Deer Scram. I’ve also been told by some nurserymen to hang Irish spring soap on trees in the fall.

But the best option is to close the deer salad bar, in other words change up your plants in your garden. There are a number of plants that deer love to eat, omit those plants and you won’t have the problem. Here is a list of plants that are not on the deer menu!

Deer Resistant Plants:
Alchemilla/Lady’s Mantle
Allium/Ornamental Onion
Amsonia/Blue Stars
Brunnera/False Forget Me Not
Cimicifuga/Bugbane, Snakeroot
Dicentra/Bleeding Heart
Heuchera/Coral Bells
Leucanthemum/Shasta Daisy
Liatris/Blazing Star
Monarda/Bee Balm
Perovskia/Russian Sage
Rudbeckia/Black Eyed Susan

to name a few…check out our Gallery of Deer Resistant Plants we grow!

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You’ve heard of a 4 season garden, but what about a Moon garden?

What is a moon garden?  We often focus on what we see during the daylight hours, but as I often say there aren’t enough hours in the day.  After a long day of hard work and getting the kids to bed there is little time left to catch the sunlit garden.  So why not create a “Moon” garden.  This is a garden filled with white blooming plants, variegated plants, fragrant plants and night blooming plants.  These types of plants will glow in the moonlight! Even if you don’t want an “all white” garden, why not incorporate a few of these plants to get some late night pop on a moonlit night.

White blooming plants:
Anemone sylvestris (early spring)
Anemone Wild Swan (summer)
Anemone Honorine Jobert (fall)
Dicentra Alba (spring)
Echinacea Pow Wow White (summer to fall)
Leucanthemum Becky (summer to fall)
Liatris Alba (summer)
Phlox David (summer)

Variegated Plants:
Cornus kousa Wolf Eyes
Cornus sericea variegated
Weigela My Monet

Yellow and Silver Leaved Plants:
Hakonechloa All Gold
Heuchera Citronelle
Weigela Briant Rubidor
Stachys bizantina
Artemisia spp.

Fragrant Plants:
Syringa spp.
Viburnum juddi/carlesii (fragrant Viburnums)
Wisteria floribunda

Night Blooming Plants:
Nicotiana slvestris (annual in zone 5)
Oenothera spp.
Trumpet Flower (annual in zone 5)

So get your garden planted, pull up a chair and enjoy your garden morning, noon and night.

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Water Please!

Adding water to a landscape has many benefits to the homeowner. Many studies have found that the sound of water is a natural stress reliever.

Huffington Post states: “Being around water gives our brains and our senses a rest from over stimulation.”

Here’s an example of a formal water feature. It is set within a boxwood hedge and annuals to create a dramatic garden feature. To all the nearby dog walkers and slow driving vehicles – this home definitely has curb appeal now! The custom steel box is rust proof, weather proof and maintenance free; so the homeowner will be able to get enjoyment for years to come!

Another benefit to running water is that it muffles unwanted sounds and creates a sense of relaxation. Being close to a busy road, or if the neighbor’s dog barks at everything and anything that ventures in their yard, this might be a good solution for you.

Pond less water features are still very popular.  It has a simple re-circulation system that is low maintenance and is a great option for small children or pets because it gets them outside to play!

Speaking of enjoying the outdoors and playing… this interactive water feature at the Chicago Botanical Garden is beautifully installed and it makes me feel like a kid again walking and splashing around the continuous stream.

There are endless ways to enjoy water in your garden. Enjoy looking at some of our other installations!

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How to create your own butterfly garden!

Butterflies, pollinators and nectar feeders will love a garden of mixed masses of flowers.  Here are a few popular choices to attract butterflies to your garden.


Allium (early bloomer) Is a spring bloomer, so a great source for the first of the butterflies returning to the areas.


Asclepias spp. (summer bloomer) Known as Butterfly weed, this one is a favorite of all butterflies.


Buddleia (summer bloomer) With a name like Butterfly bush you are sure to find all kinds flocking to this one!


Echinacea (summer bloomer) The coneflowers daisy like flower attracts all sorts of pollinators.


Monarda (summer bloomer) Known as Beebalm, it also attracts all kinds of nectar loving insects and birds.


Rudbeckia (summer bloomer) Black eyed susan is another great source for butterflies and pollinators.


Helenium (late bloomer) Sneeze weed is a late bloomer and extends the season for the butterflies.


Eupatorium (late bloomer) Joe Pye Weed is a late bloomer giving an extended season for the butterflies.

As your garden grows keep an eye out for some of these common Midwestern butterflies!

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) can be found in most sunny places including moist fields, prairies or marshes. Red Admiral caterpillars eat plants of the Nettle family.

Red Admiral

Red Admiral

Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) closely resembles Monarch Butterfly but acts much differently; they are territorial and will chase off other butterflies and fly by flapping rather than gliding like the Monarchs. Viceroys are usually found in wetlands and prairies with willows. Viceroy caterpillars feed on Willows, Aspens and Cottonwoods.


Monarch (Danaus plexippus) caterpillars eat a strictly Milkweed diet which makes them poisonous to predators (birds know to stay away from Monarchs!).  The Monarchs are the most common butterflies you will see as they flutter through your garden.


Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)  caterpillars eat Thistle, Mallow, Hollyhock and related plants. An interesting bit of trivia, they are found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia.

Painted Lady

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) likes sunny places with weeds and flowers, and can be found in gardens, vacant lots, old fields, pastures and marshes. Black Swallowtail Caterpillars eat Parsnips, Wild Carrots, Celery, Parsley and Dill.

Black Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail  (Papilio glaucus) are most commonly found in woodlands, fields, rivers, creeks, roadsides, and gardens. Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars eat Prunus, Sweet Bay Magnolia, Tilia, Liriodendron to name a few.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

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More worm talk!

We have mentioned Vermicompost many times before because we stand behind this process and how it can change your lawn and garden’s health. We believe in it so much that we have become an authorized dealer.  You are welcome to pick some up at our office or we can ship it to you, check out Terra One Organics for more information.

But if you really want to try something new, you can start up your very own worm factory! Your ‘pet’ worms are very low maintenance and your garden will thank you by producing beautiful, lush vegetables, plants, and flowers all summer long. Check out the steps below and get started! You will be extremely happy with the results.

Worm Factory – First, purchase one pound of Red Wigglers from a reputable source and a worm factory. Worm Factory 360 is a great brand. There are many how-to videos on YouTube that helped me in the beginning.  Select a location in your home for your new worm home (you can’t leave them outside if you live in a climate that will get below freezing).  Our worm house is located in our basement.

Red Wigglers (pets!)

Worm Factory 360

Food – Next, you need to create a moist, comfortable environment where they can eat and produce. Shredded newspaper will provide air, water, and food for the worms. Avoid using colored print, which may be toxic to the worms.  Mix in shredded kitchen waste (vegetables) for a food source for them.  By adding coffee grounds with the food scraps will help eliminate odor.

Vegetable scraps and coffee grounds

All the scraps blended together for the perfect environment.

Moisture – Make sure when you add the shredded newspaper to spray it down with water to keep their home moist. A moisture tester is helpful to know exactly it’s it too wet or dry.

Newspaper and water

Extra Nutrients –  Worms are very low maintenance. They can go up to 3 weeks without food. I usually feed them once a week. I also like to  sprinkle a spoonful of ground up eggshells with their food. This serves a dual purpose.  Crushed shells from eggs can help neutralize the pH level of the bedding and it is said that calcium plays an important roll in worm reproduction.  Sometimes they eat better than me!

Incorporating ground egg shells

Harvest Time – The factory works as a set of trays (layers),  when the top feeding trays fill up add a layer to the factory. Continue the process as listed above and your worms will migrate to this new layer (tray) this will take a few weeks so be patient. Harvest your compost from the bottom tray and add to your garden! Most importantly, learn about the soil microbiome: healthy soil = healthy plants = healthy people.  Have fun and enjoy!

Final product, rich dark vermicompost!

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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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