Home & Garden

Springtime Tips for Outdoor Bliss

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Warmer weather calls for an outdoor project. Improve the appearance of your yard with the help of local experts, who share tips below.

Achieving a beautiful outdoor space like this one is easier than ever now, thanks to improvements in materials, both man-made and natural.

Achieving a beautiful outdoor space like this one is easier than ever now, thanks to improvements in materials, both man-made and natural. (Proven Winners photo)

Our long winter nap is over. It’s time to shore up the curb appeal and enjoy outdoor spaces that suit our individual personalities. But first, there’s some work to be done. Here are tips from local experts for getting maximum enjoyment from our yards, with minimal maintenance.

See What’s New

We seldom consider how evolving science impacts our backyards, but it does. Innovative materials are making it easier to enjoy outdoor living spaces with less hassle.

For example, vinyl-clad aluminum pergolas are tough and lightweight, yet maintenance-free, unlike wooden ones.

“These are strong enough to withstand hurricane winds and can be mounted on the frame of an existing deck or installed in a patio area,” says Mike Sanders, owner of Crimson Valley Landscaping, Rockford.

“Pergolas are in big demand. People have found that having one on the south-facing side of a house reduces indoor heat in the summer. And you can customize them to reduce sunlight by 25 to 75 percent.”

Plants trained to grow over a pergola provide shade in summer but die back to allow indoor sunlight in the winter.

Improved materials and ideas for decks, hardscapes, pathways, outdoor furniture, awnings, lighting, pools, water features, living plant walls, mulches and pest control are evolving, too.

“It’s all about making outdoor living spaces more enjoyable without adding a lot of work,” Sanders says. “You don’t have to do a huge project to have a nice outdoor space. A lot of people just want a meditation garden, a place conducive to healing.”

Thanks to science, even today’s plants require less maintenance than in the past.

“Growers have hybridized plants to change all sorts of characteristics, making them shorter or taller, more compact and less floppy, more shade- or drought-tolerant, more mildew or insect resistant,” says Sanders. “Understanding what kinds of plants thrive best in various locations is part of what we offer.”

Gather Your Tools

Dad always said to use the right tool for the job, and he was right. Starting the season with clean, sharp, well-maintained tools at your fingertips will reduce your stress and yield better results. And no tool gets a bigger workout than your lawnmower.

“A sharp blade will give your lawn that beautiful manicured look and keep the blades of grass from weakening and being susceptible to disease,” says Tim Kinney, manager of Lincoln Rent-All and Sales at 6635 E. Riverside Blvd. and 3110 Auburn St., Rockford.

A spring tune-up can increase mower fuel efficiency by about one-third, extend the life of the engine, reduce repair costs and decrease emissions by half, adds Kinney.

Be aware that gasoline out of the pump lasts about 30 days before it starts to break down and collect moisture. Too much moisture in fuel will prevent an engine from starting.

Other mower maintenance includes changing the oil once a year or every 25 hours of use and changing the spark plug.

If you don’t want to do your own mower maintnance, Lincoln Rent-All services the brands it sells – Toro, Lawn Boy and Snapper – for $70, including pick-up and drop-off, with an average turn-around of seven to 10 days.

When it comes to tools you only need occasionally, renting that powerwasher, rototiller, aerator, edger, leaf blower, weed whacker or chain saw might make more sense than buying.

“It can be nice to pick it up, use it and not have to worry about servicing it or storing it,” says Kinney.

If you choose to do your own mowing, there are many options when choosing a mower, from simple push mowers to self-propelling ones and state-of-the-art riding mowers.

Cherry Valley Landscape Center, 7711 Newburg Road, recently began selling the Hustler Raptor Flip-up zero-turn riding lawn mower. At the push of a button, the front deck can be raised and lowered for easy cleaning and blade changing.

“This technology is revolutionary, when it comes to what’s new in mowing equipment,” says Rob Johnson, sales manager. “It’s especially nice for maintaining the mower and requires less storage space.”

When purchasing a mower, the size of the lawn determines the size of the lawn mower needed; quality of cut, comfort, durability and price also matter.

Handle Uninvited Visitors

If you’re interested in keeping mosquitos off your guest list for this year’s backyard events, consider having your yard treated for mosquitoes.

Mosquito treatments last three to four weeks and can eliminate up to 90 percent of mosquitos, according to Pearson Pest Control, Rockford.

How does it work? Trained technicians examine your yard and identify shady areas with dense foliage – an ideal home for mosquitos. They then spray an EPA-approved solution in those areas and along the perimeter of your yard. Wait 30 minutes for the solution to dry and enjoy the next three to four weeks.

“If your family spends a lot of time outdoors, we recommend signing up for a package-treatment, which includes five sprays every three to four weeks,” says Brian Spicer, licensed pest control technician at Pearson. “Or, if you have a special event coming up, like a graduation or a birthday party, you can schedule a special treatment prior to your party to help alleviate mosquitos at your event.”

Also, disease-borne ticks are on the rise in our region. Make it a habit to examine yourself, your children and pets after a day spent outdoors.

Plan Your Space

Whether you want a big flagstone patio with a firepit and outdoor kitchen, or you just want to replace that sunken piece of concrete outside the sliding glass doors, you’ll have to go through a few steps of planning.

“Most people have an idea of what they want,” says Kevin Obee, general manager at Benson Stone Company, 1100 11th St. “Whether it’s a large or small project, they want that outdoor space to function more like another room in the house.”

A well-planned patio can add value to your home and make it a more comfortable place in which to entertain.

“The only limits are in your own mind,” says Obee.

Planning an outdoor space is not much different from revamping any other room in a home, he says. A focal point should be chosen – perhaps a table and chairs, fireplace, fire pit, fountain, waterfall or something else. You also must decide on the size of the space, the desired style, and the type of materials to use.

Benson Stone works with designers and landscape architects to help homeowners achieve the look, lines and colors they want to incorporate into an outdoor room.

Bring It All to Life

Of course, the whole point of being outdoors is to enjoy living, changing plants and trees, as well as fresh air and wildlife. Strive to cultivate interesting and compatible shapes, colors and textures that offer interest in every season. You don’t sit outside in January, but you do look out the window and can enjoy the shape of a striking tree trunk. You can enjoy watching papery hydrangea heads in your garden sway in the breeze and catch snowflakes.

Conifers can add year-round shape, texture and greenery to your landscape, notes Jon Carlson, owner of J. Carlson Growers, 8938 Newburg Road, Rockford. Carlson has been cultivating trees, shrubs, vines, perennial plants and groundcovers for local homes and businesses for 35 years. He specializes in ornamental trees and conifers. Conifers are cone-bearing trees and shrubs like pine, juniper, cypress, yew and spruce. Many are evergreens.

“They add so much to the landscape,” says Carlson. “Some are like tall pillars, others are spherical or pyramid-shaped or weeping. Some are easily pruned and shaped and others you may want to grow big and rangy, to fill in and soften a large empty space. A white pine does that nicely.”

Among Carlson’s favorites are Serbian spruce, Canadian Hemlock, White Fir and Columnar White Pine.

Shrubs also add “good bones” to a landscape, plus blossoms, berries and shelter for birds. A few of Carlson’s favorites are boxwood, holly, rhododendron (azalea), witch hazel, viburnum and many kinds of hydrangea.

Remember that a pleasing big picture is made up of smaller parts, with contrast in shapes, textures and colors.

“And remember that trees and shrubs will grow!” says Carlson. “The single biggest mistake people make is failing to plan for the size of the plant at maturity.”

Add Some Color

You have little space or interest in gardening but you long for some color. Why not fill up a window box, hanging basket, pot or anything else that holds dirt (and has drainage holes), with colorful plants?

Container gardening is manageable and rewarding, says Scott Gensler of Gensler Gardens, located at 102 Orth Road in Loves Park, Ill., and at 8631 11th St., Davis Junction, Ill.

Choose palettes of very bright colors, soft pastels, monochromatic or contrasting hues.

“There are no firm rules,” says Gensler. “But the most pleasing result usually comes from thinking through the structure a bit and mixing up textures.”

One foolproof container “recipe” is the thriller-spiller-filler concept. Choose a bold, tall statement plant as a focal point (the thriller); a plant or two with a trailing habit to spill over the side of the container; and some filler plants that complement the others. Not all plants need flowers to be interesting. Coleus, sweet potato vine, sedum, papyrus, caladium, ornamental cabbage and grasses are among non-flowering plants with high appeal.

“It’s important not to crowd too many plants in a container,” says Gensler “In a 10-inch pot, three premium plants is plenty. A 14-inch pot could take maybe five to six.”

Before you buy plants, think hard about where you’ll place them. Sun-hungry plants won’t thrive in shade and shade plants may wilt in full sun. Also consider your sightlines.

“For example, if your location is very high, you’d be better off buying a basket with plants that trail over the edge,” says Gensler.

Make sure your container provides adequate drainage.

“Probably the No. 1 mistake people make is inadequately watering hanging baskets and containers, which dry out faster than plants in the ground,” says Gensler. “I tell people to water until you see it coming out the bottom of the container.”

Paper pulp-based hanging baskets are better for plants (and the earth) than plastic.

“When the dirt dries out in a plastic pot, it shrinks away from the edges,” explains Gensler. “When you water, the water goes into those edges and runs out of the pot. But pulp expands and contracts with the moisture level. Plant roots cling to the sides of the basket and the water soaks into the dirt more evenly.”

Fertilize plants regularly and enjoy the way they lift both your curb appeal and your spirits.

Share Your Space

Our landscapes were here before us and will be here after we’re gone. Many creatures depend upon them for survival.
One of the joys of outdoor living is watching the butterflies, birds and other animals that come around to feed on berries and blooms.

“There’s growing interest in plants that attract wildlife and support pollinators like bees, hummingbirds and butterflies,” says Chris Williams, co-owner at K & W Greenery, 1328 US-14, Janesville, “For the most part, even the new hybridized plants have what wildlife needs to eat, the exception being sterile plants that are bred not to produce pollen.”

By breeding plants to be sterile, the plant’s energy goes into continual flower production rather than seeds. This can be a boon for people but a bust for wildlife.

Butterflies are attracted to nectar in brightly colored native perennials like coneflowers, bee balm, asters, verbena and sage, or self-seeding annuals like zinnias.

Williams likes the new form of gomphrena (also galled globe amaranth) introduced this year to general consumers by Proven Winners. Named Truffula Pink, this annual grows 22 to 28 inches tall in full sun, is drought tolerant, blooms all season long, attracts pollinators and needs no deadheading.

“I grew it last summer and it did really well,” says Williams. “Because it’s tall, it makes a good ‘thriller’ element in a container, but it also does well in the ground and is very low-maintenance.”

June is “Perennial Plant Month” at K & W, where free lectures on various gardening topics are offered to the public. Find a schedule at KWGreenery.com.

Whether your springtime plans call for an elaborate outdoor project or just some power-washing and a few potted flowers, there are plenty of local experts to help you along the way.

It’s a magical time to let your imagination run free and to picture the possibilities. Enjoy!

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