Bling Up Your Backyard

From manicured lawns to durable furniture and grilling galore, it’s easy to build a beautiful and functional backyard that’s the envy of the neighborhood. Here are a few good starting points.

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and there is no better place to enjoy these simple pleasures than your own backyard.

The allure of outdoor living just keeps on growing, and homeowners are turning more of their attention to their backyards as they seek to create a personal outdoor sanctuary. Whether you’re planning to spend quality time grilling with loved ones or just looking for a space to read in a hammock with a morning coffee, a beautiful backyard is a piece of heaven that is yours for the making.

Grass and Trees are Sure to Please

Every great painting needs a canvas, and for your backyard that canvas is a carefully designed landscape. Shrubs, trees and flowering plants add depth and texture, but the first thing that makes an outdoor space beautiful is a manicured lawn.

Jeff Maney is the owner and president of Maney’s Lawnscapes, at 2402 Benderwirt Ave. in Rockford. The landscaping design and build company has been providing quality lawn maintenance, landscaping, hardscaping and tree service for 37 years throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. Maney points out that homeowners who want a healthy lawn will need to pay close attention to the weather and to treat their lawn accordingly.

“We’re going through a really dry period right now,” he says. “Rockford is a unique area because sometimes you get a lot of snow, and sometimes you get more freezing rain. If you don’t have a lot of snow, then you go into a dry spring and then a dry summer. That can be a challenge.”

When a dry spell happens, it’s a good idea to focus on watering deeply, as opposed to frequently, to really give those root systems a quality drink. Early morning waterings are ideal, so moisture doesn’t evaporate in the hot afternoon air. Remember to set sprinklers to water the lawn, not the driveway.

Lush lawns can also benefit from the addition of tree cover, which not only adds aesthetic beauty but a host of practical benefits as well. Trees provide cooling shade to your space, giving you somewhere cool to retreat after warming in the sun. A line of trees can block sightlines from nosy neighbors, and their root systems can reduce water runoff and prevent soil erosion. Trees also provide homes for colorful birds and cheeky squirrels, bringing life, music and beauty to your backyard.

When considering which trees to plant, Maney recommends thinking about the weather they’ll endure.

“One of the things about living in Rockford is that we have tornadoes,” says Maney. “Right now, we’re doing a lot of work in residential areas, trying to find trees to replace the ones that were damaged from the last tornado.”

A smart replacement is a species with a better chance of withstanding high winds and storm conditions, Maney says. While no tree is entirely tornado-proof, an oak tree or maple will offer more resilience to high winds than something with a less-substantial root system, like a spruce.

While a robust root system might help keep trees in place during high winds, it might also have an effect on lawns, poking out in spots and creating uneven terrain. The highly sought-after shade of a tree also affects flowers and other plants that might need lots of sunlight to thrive. Maney recommends looking at these areas as features rather than flaws and landscape accordingly.

“If you have a shady spot, you might consider a landscape bed, to make it easier on your turf,” he says. “You can add some mushroom compost and build up some soil over the root systems, then add some shady perennials or some ground cover like Hosta plants, or maybe some ferns.”

Homeowners who lean into the shady or root-covered parts of their yard might just find themselves creating a space that is the envy of their more sun-soaked neighbors.

“A ground-covered area can make a nice sitting area,” says Maney. “Or you could add some birdfeeders or a birdbath to enhance your landscape.”

Make Your Patio a Destination

During her 25 years at Village Green in Rockford, CEO and creative director Jessica Salisbury has seen a lot of trends come and go. The one trend she believes will never go away is the priority customers place on quality.

“Our focus here is premium products,” she says.

Village Green, located at 2640 N. Main St. and 6101 E. Riverside Blvd., is a one-stop shop for backyard beauty. The stores produce a massive selection of their own plant material, maintaining one of the largest garden centers in the region. The company also sells a wide variety of indoor and outdoor furniture, boasting an 80,000-square-foot showroom that Salisbury says is one of the largest in the country.

When it comes to creating an outdoor paradise, Salisbury believes it’s important to ask lots of questions and to dream big.

“Listen to the experts,” she says. “Our team has a lot of knowledge about our products and they’re happy to share it.”

The greenhouse staff can direct customers to hanging baskets and potted plants that will add bursts of color to any porch or patio. They can also help a gardener to navigate a huge selection of edible plants including fruits, veggies and herbs. To keep those plants thriving, Village Green has everything from fertilizers and preventatives to pest control and weed killers. Accessories like outdoor pottery, statuary and fountains are also on hand.

When it comes to furnishing backyards and patios, Salisbury cautions that you get what you pay for.

“In the world of outdoor furniture, there are a lot of choices out there,” she says. “If you purchase furniture at a big chain store, you might save money in the short term, but you’re going to pay more in the long run.”

To keep price points low, big-box stores offer furniture made with lower-quality components. So, while the patio set might look great in the store, the wind, sun and rain are going to take their toll and turn an attractive patio set into a tired accent in just a few seasons.

“Furniture at a big chain store is only designed to last a couple of years,” Salisbury says. “Their cushions, for example, are made of cut foam, which acts like a sponge. Those collect rainwater and develop mildew.”

Salisbury estimates that putting together a complete patio will probably cost between $2,000 and $5,000, but what you get for your investment is quality products that stand the test of time.

“You want solution-dyed acrylic fabrics that can stand the sun,” she says. “Otherwise, if you put cheap polyester fabric out there, it’s going to fade. You want frameworks that aren’t going to rust out on you and cushions with special foam inserts that will drain when it rains.”

Salisbury also points out that, with so many products on the market, anything you dream up is probably already available. The experts can help you to find what you seek.

“There are endless options that exist,” Salisbury says. “We have something for everyone.”

Get Grilling

Many homeowners want their yards to be more than an outdoor living room. They want outdoor kitchens as well.

Village Green’s outdoor cooking area is filled with enough grills, accessories, spices and rubs to make any barbecue chef drool.

“We expanded our outdoor cooking section this winter,” says Salisbury. “We’ve got pizza ovens, pellet grills, griddles, sauces and spices. It’s heaven for anyone who wants to cook outside.”

Outdoor grilling has been gaining in popularity since it started catching on in the 1940s. Now, this summer pastime is part of a major cottage industry, with millions of grillers spending billions of dollars on state-of-the-art equipment.

Brad Vander Heyden is one of those passionate grillers. Not only does he love to cook on grills, but he also loves to sell them. The owner of Advanced Chimney Systems, 3486 Lonergan Dr. in Rockford, sells a variety of grills, along with fireplaces, stoves and fire features.

“We sell a wide range of grills, all with different fuel systems,” he says.

Those fuel systems vary from gas grills to charcoal and wood pellet grills. Each one offers a different advantage.

Charcoal grills, for example, offer a delicious and distinct charcoal flavor that, for many, is the taste of summer. Ask any grill enthusiast about the benefits of charcoal and you might want to clear your schedule for a few hours as they tell you about the authentic smoky flavor, the advantages of chimneys over lighter fluid, and a myriad of other minutia.

“I love to cook with charcoal,” says Vander Heyden. “They’re great for all types of weather and they’re accessible when it comes to getting the parts you need.”

A more modern alternative is the pellet grill, which is designed for a more hands-off approach. Pellet grills offer easy regulation and solid temperature control, so they’re ideal for slow cooking and smoking.

“When I can find the time, I enjoy slow cooking,” says Vander Heyden. “And I mean slow. It can take at least 3 hours to cook something like pork shoulder or baby back ribs, but you end up with delicious, cooked gems with smoky flavor.”

Vander Heyden, like most grillers, loves to reminisce about the delicious meals he’s prepared using charcoal or pellet grills, but he points out that gas grills offer more convenience and flexibility.

“Gas grills are great, if you want to save time,” he says. “And they give you much better temperature control.”

The top-of-the-line Napoleon gas grills sold at Advance Chimney Systems come with multiple cooking surfaces and addable features like side burners and rotisserie kits. There are standard propane models, but for added convenience, these models can be connected to a home’s natural gas line.

“When you’re using propane tanks, they can run out at inopportune times,” says Vander Heyden. “If you connect your grill to a gas line, you never have to change a tank again.”

Customers interested in running a gas line to their grill don’t have to worry about doing it themselves. Vander Heyden and his team are happy to lend their expertise.

“We deliver, assemble and install,” he says. Running a gas line to your grill is a service that we offer.”
When it comes to putting together a dedicated grill space, Vander Heyden recommends taking measurements and thinking about how often, and how much, cooking is going to be done.

“Grills aren’t one size fits all,” he says. “You should identify who you’re going to be cooking for and how many there are. You should also have a good idea of how much space you have available.”
Vander Heyden is seeing a lot of customers who are interested in creating a second kitchen in their backyards, where they can create entire meals for friends and family.

“We sell grills that people build right into their space,” he says. “People sometimes put a bar in or a shelter over top, for a bit of shade.

Whether he’s selling a standalone grill or components for an outdoor kitchen, Vander Heyden doesn’t see the enthusiasm for outdoor cooking ending soon, for himself or his customers.

“Grilling is a lifestyle,” he laughs. “People take pride in what they make and the time they share enjoying it with their loved ones.”