Brick pavers, like these Unilock stones at Benson Stone Co., in Rockford, can transform an ordinary driveway into something extraordinary. Notice how much the plantings contribute to this curb appeal, as well. (Unilock and Benson Stone Co. photo)

For Outdoor Projects, Family-Owned Businesses Have the Expertise

Too often, weekly warriors forget to do their homework. Our region’s locally owned garden centers, stone specialists and roofing contractors are ready to guide you through the job.

Brick pavers, like these Unilock stones at Benson Stone Co., in Rockford, can transform an ordinary driveway into something extraordinary. Notice how much the plantings contribute to this curb appeal, as well. (Unilock and Benson Stone Co. photo)
Brick pavers, like these Unilock stones at Benson Stone Co., in Rockford, can transform an ordinary driveway into something extraordinary. Notice how much the plantings contribute to this curb appeal, as well. (Unilock and Benson Stone Co. photo)

Even the mildest winter puts a halt to most outdoor projects.For some people, this causes an internal urgency in springtime to build, create, grow or make home improvements.
But before you go running to a big-box retailer to satisfy the urge to get started on a home exterior project, why not have a chat with professionals at a locally owned store; they actually know how to help you before you get in over your head. When it comes to landscaping, hardscaping and roofing needs, these family-owned businesses deliver a powerful combination of quality service and professional experience.

For the Green Thumb

Spring has finally sprung. Leaves are unfurling and gardeners are itching to start digging in the dirt. And, phones are ringing off the hook at Gensler Gardens’ two locations in Davis Junction and Loves Park, Ill.
It’s that desire to trade in mittens for gardening gloves that has business booming, says co-owner Scott Gensler, but most plants shouldn’t be put in the ground until May. For those who can’t wait, container and miniature gardens are a good option. Both are more popular than ever before, so Gensler keeps a large selection of annuals and perennials in stock.
Because they can easily be covered or moved inside to protect them from frost, potted plants give gardeners an opportunity to plant early. They seldom need weeding and they don’t strain your knees and back. Containers also offer a convenient growing space for people who have limited yard space or live in urban areas. Hanging baskets provide bursts of color that work well just about anywhere, says Gensler.
A different approach to container gardening is to create a miniaturized “fairy garden.”
“Fairy plants and fairy gardens are definitely the biggest fad we’ve seen,” Gensler says.
The whimsical designs are especially interesting for children and are a great way to interest them in gardening.
“The fad is to make the gardens look professional, mimicking a complete landscape,” says Gensler. “The kids like them, and that’s a win for the industry. They’re our future customers.”
Gensler has all of the fittings to finish off the micro-villages. There’s a large assortment of accessories, including stone cottages, cobblestone walking paths and bridges, furniture, tiny garden gnomes and, of course, plenty of fairies to reside inside this fairyland.
“Some of the plants we have that work well for them are dwarf coleus, colissima raspberry, hobbit jade plant, ogon sedum, baby tears and bridal veil,” says Gensler. “Some are going to mimic a tree or shrub, like basil Aristotle and little box honeysuckle.”
Gensler mans the greenhouse and orders its stock, which includes nearly 4,000 petunias. With every plant, Gensler carefully studies what works best in this region and tries to match it with consumer demands. Gensler Gardens grows nearly all of its own plant material.
Gensler tweaks his selection of plants each year to meet buyers’ needs. This year, for example, begonias will be in higher demand than impatiens, due to a mildew that some impatiens have succumbed to recently in the Midwest. New Guinea impatiens are not affected by it and begonias are a good stand-in for the shady areas usually planted with impatiens.
When Gensler Gardens first opened nearly four decades ago, Scott’s parents, Bill and E.J., started the business at their new family farm.
“We started growing vegetables back in 1981,” Gensler recalls. “We grew for Logli Supermarket then, and they asked my parents to grow flowers for them, too.”
Bill got his foot in the door by approaching the grocer to sell his vegetables.
“That’s how grocery stores used to get vegetables,” Gensler says. “They would rely on local farmers to sell them stuff. When they began asking for flowers, the first couple of years were tough for my parents. Growing flowers on a professional level is a lot harder than it looks.”
Perseverance paid off. Bill learned about growing, E.J. learned about marketing, and five years later the pair opened a retail shop.
“It’s their hobby, their fun,” Gensler says about his parents, who remain active in the business. His sisters, Lisa Key and Kristin, and his brother-in-law, Brian Key, are very involved as well.
“Between my two sisters and brother-in-law, we share a lot of hats, as well as our roles of owners,” Gensler says. “Our goal is to create a knowledgeable place where people can buy and learn about plants.”
The Gensler family takes pride is assisting customers with colorful ideas and provides advice on what plants will work best for a particular location in your garden.You won’t find that kind of reliable advice at a big-box store.

Help With Hardscaping

Customer service and education are vital components for the team at Benson Stone Co., 1100 11th St., Rockford. President Andy Benson, whose grandfather and great-grandfather founded the company in 1930, brings 30 years of personal experience to his customers.
Since he joined the business in the 1980s, Benson has seen a growing interest in outdoor living spaces. From modest steppingstone paths to extravagant outdoor kitchen spaces, Benson makes every effort to keep up with trends.
Benson Stone Co. offers an array of building materials, contractor connections and stone varieties that bring backyard dreams to life.
Benson Stone Co. doesn’t just sell supplies to do-it-yourselfers. The company also is a primary supplier to tradespeople, and one of the largest hardscape suppliers in the area.
When it comes to small projects and add-ons to gardens, Benson suggests working smarter rather than harder. Layering weed fabric under landscaping pebbles or stone chips keeps garden beds virtually maintenance-free.
“You don’t have to replace it, either,” Benson says. “We provide a lot of flagstone and paving brick for walkways or patios, and along with that, larger materials for big projects like retaining walls.”
Stone materials can also enhance an otherwise unremarkable outdoor patio space.
“We do outdoor kitchens as well as built-in grill islands, with whatever add-ons you might want,” Benson says. “These extended outdoor living spaces have really grown in popularity and so have outdoor fireplaces. We can build it up with landscape block, brick or stone. Sometimes we have a metal-framed unit with stucco and stone. And we have granite countertops, for outside kitchens, that are durable enough to hold up in the weather.”
Stone remains a favorite among homeowners, but man-made composite materials are increasingly prevalent.
“Price-wise, they’re pretty similar,” says Benson. “There are a lot of concrete products that look like natural stone and cobblestone. The most affordable, though, are brick pavers and they’re entry-level enough for do-it-yourselfers.
“What’s nice, too, is that the pavers are flexible,” he adds. “So, if something happens, a paver can easily be replaced, whereas if concrete cracks, you’re stuck.”
One of the true values of working with a locally owned business like Benson Stone Co. is that do-it-yourselfers have a ready partner. With a variety of materials and a trusted list of contractors, the Benson Stone Co. team can help customers to complete projects big or small.
“You need to know how to do it right if you’re going to take on these types of projects yourself,” says Benson. “Employees at a big-box store do not know how to install correctly. Their training is minimal, so in turn, what they tell you may not be correct. Our staff is well informed. We have a couple of people in the landscape department who have been doing this for around 30 years, another for about 20. These are people who have been through training many times with the manufacturers. It’s literally what they do all day long, and have for decades.”

Roofing: Not Exactly DIY Work

While some home improvements are strictly aesthetic, other projects address important repairs. Either way, know your limits before embarking – especially before attempting to fix your roof.
“There are a lot of safety concerns to installing those products yourself,” says Lora Matthews, owner and president of Lask Roofing & Siding, 1101 22nd St., Rockford. “It’s a common-sense thing when ladders are involved; there are so many things that can happen.”
Her nephew, Toby Lask, company vice president, agrees that do-it-yourselfers should be careful not to bite off more than they can chew. He finds that many homeowners lack the know-how to complete a project such as roofing. When things fall by the wayside, he says, “that’s when some end up calling us, anyhow, to redo everything.”
In some cases, homeowners turn to a door-to-door salesman for help or another convenient source that’s not necessarily reputable.
Lask has been family-owned and -operated for 38 years. The firm accepts big and small jobs alike and is always willing to offer a complementary estimate.
Although its specialty is roofing and siding, Lask Roofing also installs a significant selection of windows, doors, gutters and specialty products such as Gutter Helmet.
The latter product is installed onto a home’s gutters to keep debris out and rain flowing properly. It can protect soffit and fascia and help to prevent overflow into gardens. It’s by far a customer favorite.
“It sells itself, really,” says Corey Dyer, head of sales and marketing for Lask Roofing. “It’s the only product of its kind, and that’s why we’ve been so successful with it. We install the product and service it. The added benefit is safety, because you aren’t up there cleaning the gutters yourself.”
The product’s guarantee is honored by the franchise for the life of the home. “Even if the home is sold, as long as the new owner contacts us, we keep it under warranty for them,” Dyer says.
Lask Roofing serves a wide geographic area, from Harvard, Ill., and southern Wisconsin to Freeport, Galena, Ill., and Dixon, Ill. With nearly 30 employees during its busy season, the business has become larger than anyone could have imagined a few decades ago when it was founded.
“We started in 1978. My brother, Paul Lask, started the company,” says Matthews. “My brother Tom joined him a year later. Both have since passed away. I joined in 1984.”
Tom’s sons Toby and Adam, and Lora’s daughter, Chelsey Eklund, also have big roles in the day-to-day operations.
“They were teenagers who got their worker’s permits to come to work here, and as soon as they could, they were working,” says Matthews. “Even the family members who don’t work here, work here.”

When Renting Lawn Equipment Makes Sense

When tackling those exterior home projects, you’re not always sure what kind of tool you need or whether you’ll use it enough to make it worth buying. Renting a tool for a specific job can be a good alternative.
Whether you’re a do-it-yourselfer or a licensed professional, chances are Lincoln Rent-All & Sales Inc. has the tools you need to get the job done. Its locations are at 6635 E. Riverside Blvd. and 3110 Auburn St., in Rockford.
In business since 1956, the company prides itself on being one of the most complete rental businesses in the Rockford area, with an emphasis on quality equipment, customer service and trained staff members who can show you how to use equipment before taking it out of the store.
“New homeowners don’t always know what they need,” says Tim Kinney, manager. “Others want to try out equipment before they buy it. Some people won’t live in one place for long and don’t want to go to the expense of buying it. And, some jobs are done so infrequently, it’s not worth purchasing a piece of equipment.”
The company services everything it sells, including Toro and Stihl lawn equipment.
Rental equipment available at both locations includes lawn and garden tools, fans, generators, augers, miter saws, skid loaders and much more. Accessories available for sale include blades, gloves, safety glasses, sandpaper, shovels and rakes, and parts for Toro, Stihl, Snapper, Honda, Kohler, Kawasaki, and Briggs and Stratton machines.