City Soirée

Project Brief

Knowing their 2,043 square foot terrace rooftop in Chicago could be an amazing outdoor space, our clients had begun investing in upgrades before hiring us. But they quickly realized that their original vision wasn’t satisfactory. Upon engagement with us, we excitedly conceptualized how their wide open, unprotected space could fulfill their dreams to live beautifully outdoors.

For this couple, the ease of entertaining was key with space for dinner parties as their highest priority. This meant a dedicated space for their large dining table and multiple spaces for people to gather in – all enhanced by ambient lighting. Our clients were also concerned about privacy from a neighboring building that looked directly onto their space which was addressed through plants as screening and the pergola. The noise of the mechanicals needed to be damped. This gave us an opportunity to define separate areas so that we could play with different materials and level changes through decking. Along with privacy, the sun exposure made the space very hot on summer afternoons and they wanted to find a way to create shade that would withstand the punishing winds off the lake. While the custom panels are fixed in place, their design allows for dappled sun and wind movement. With the addition of heaters anchored on the pergola and a fire feature, the couple has a space for extended seasonal use. And, of course, they wanted plantings that would soften the space and invite you outside. By using/transplanting some of the trees and shrubs they had, and adding other shrubs, perennials, green roof trays, and containers for annual displays an urban garden oasis was created.

Their outdoor terrace went from a Hodge podge commercial looking space to a sophisticated, welcoming, relaxing space that make entertaining a piece of cake!

All You Need To Know About Parkway Fencing

I’m binge watching the second season of CHEER on Netflix, so I’ve written a pump-you-up call and response.

Why do we fence?

We fence to protect!

What are we protecting?

Our investment!

This even made me laugh out loud because it’s sooo bad . . . I do not have a career in writing cheers! (I can lit-tra-ly hear Craig’s eyes hit the ceiling cuz he wishes he could have deleted this!)

My point is that using your parkway as an extension of your landscaping is a GREAT idea, but it also means that you’re going to need to protect your investment from car doors, people, dogs, and weather. And the best way to do this is utilize the fence (or a version of one). Hip-hip-hooray!

So, here’s all you need to know about fencing on a parkway.


Fencing around a parkway is typically 24 inches. Any shorter, it could be a trip hazard and any taller it starts to look out of place and disproportionate (a.k.a., weird).


The longest lasting and strongest is wrought iron. (Stainless steel works too.)

There are two options for finishing wrought iron. But I’m going to pause here for a quick PSA. It is a GUARANTEE that ALL METAL WILL RUST when it is outdoors. There’s nothing you can do to stop it; you can help mitigate it with your finish choice, but it won’t be stopped. Plug your ears and run if you’re ever promised differently.

Back to the finishing options. 

1. Use a high-quality metal primer and paint. 

2. Opt for a powder-coated finish. This will deter rusting longer than primer and paint, but the fence will have to be prefabricated and bolted together on-site. 


Should priming and painting be the choice, the fence will require regular upkeep with continued priming and painting over its lifetime to keep it looking sharp. 

If powder-coating is the choice, then the whole fence will need to be disassembled and brought to a shop for a new coating. (Yes, this is a bigger deal than just painting.)

Set Backs.

Chicago city code requires there be 24 inches from the street side of the curb to the fence in the parkway with 18 inches from the inside of the curb to the fence. The setback allows vehicles space to open their doors.

There are no codes for how to landscape the 18 inches, but we highly suggest having paving installed. So, when folks are exiting their vehicle, they can step on something solid versus sinking into mud. A nice neighborly choice too!


The design style is all about context and preference. Click here to see our portfolio of options and ideas. 

I mean I could repeat the cheer to wrap this up, but I should most definitely leave that to the pros. Just like you can leave your parkway fencing and design to the pros. If you’d love to get started on a plan for yours, contact us today! Fencing is a fantastic option for protecting your landscaping investment in your parkway.

Go Fencing! Go!

 – Sara J-S

P.S. You, your neighbors, and the city-at-large benefit greatly from well-designed and cared for parkways. But please remember that the city owns the parkways, which means they do have the authority to access the property and utilities there without consent and are not liable for reimbursing you on any landscaping they disrupt. 

What You Need To Know About Trees in Parkways

With my head on my desk, I said to the guy on the phone, “You’ve got to be kidding me. If this was such a thing, why wasn’t I told about it at ANY POINT in the process of buying my home or my commercial property?”

In order for Topiarius to secure our business license at our building, we needed to apply and pay for a $10 life of ownership driveway permit so that anyone visiting 5030 W. Lake could turn off the road, legally drive over the city sidewalk, and into our loading dock. The city owns the sidewalk so if you have to drive over it you need to have permission. (Fingers-crossed – we’ve not been found out about our own garage access!)

Hold off on Googling this (cuz it’s freaking cuckoo) and stick with me for a moment because not everything the city does is illogical, especially when it comes to trees in your parkway.

As you know the city owns your parkway (the local term for the area between the sidewalk and street. If you missed last week’s blog post, here it is.) The city also owns all the trees in parkways (no matter who plants them). Seriously.

But this definitely comes with some perks.

The Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation, Bureau of Forestry are responsible for maintaining more than 500,000 parkway trees. This means that if your tree(s) need pruning, removal, or debris clean up, you can submit a request and, while it may take time, you will get these services completed for free. (OK yes, we pay taxes et all, but you get my point.)

The other thing to know is that these departments also plant trees for free. There is a master list that’s downloadable on their website and you can POTENTIALLY pick the tree you’d like for either their spring or fall planting schedule. Most likely you will only get to choose between 4-5 options based on what other trees are planted in your neighborhood. The city’s goal is to diversify the plantings. (This is a good thing).

If you’re not interested in waiting for the city, here’s what you MUST know.

Technically you’re supposed to get a permit to do any work in/on parkways, but functionally the city is fine with homeowners making improvements.

However, existing trees cannot be removed! THIS IS HUGE! The fine is $1,000 per caliper inch. This means if you remove a 20” diameter tree you will be fined $20,000!

BUT you can plant a tree. You just have to hire a company that is licensed by the city of Chicago to plant parkway trees, and again you will be limited to 4-5 options. These companies can also care for and prune your parkway trees.

The upside to using a licensed company means they’re educated, qualified, know how to get permits, and they especially have the insurance coverage needed for you and your home, as well as themselves. 

At Topiarius we don’t want you to be frustrated with your head on your desk because you didn’t know all the codes so your projects are delayed or derailed. We’ve got the knowledge that will guide you to the outcome that you’re looking for.

If you’re interested in working with such a knowledgeable company to create your outdoor sanctuary and oasis, then contact us today. No time like the present.

Knowledge is power! 

Sara J-S

P.S. If you want to know more about city codes, check out our post: Top 4 City Landscape Codes. 

It’s Crazy That There Are So Many Names

Here in Chicago We Call it the Parkway

Welcome to 2022!

I’m heading into this year with one thing on my mind.

You may think the obvious answer would be to find continued success, advancement, and world peace.

But nope.

Let’s Jeopardy style this topic . . .

What is . . . ?

  • A public property that needs to be maintained by the property owner.
  • A space that provides distance between the sidewalk and road.
  • A space that is used for bus shelters and utilities.

Can you guess what it is?

Thanks to Wikipedia, and depending on where you live, the answer is . . .

  • Berm
  • Besidewalk
  • Boulevard strip
  • Curb lawn
  • Curb strip
  • Devil strip
  • Extension lawn
  • Grass bay
  • Grassplot
  • Hellstrip (love this one!)
  • Island strip
  • Median
  • Mow strip
  • Nature strip
  • Neutral ground
  • Park strip
  • Parkrow
  • Parkway
  • Planting strip
  • Sidewalk law
  • Sidewalk plot
  • Sidewalk strip
  • Swale
  • Tree belt

It’s crazy how many names there are for this, but here in Chicago we call it THE PARKWAY. 

The parkway (no matter the name) can be a significant conundrum when it is part of your property – at least in Chicago. I mean, it’s not your property but you’re required to maintain it. So, what’s allowed? Should it have its own design or look like your neighbors? Is it worth it to add a fence? How much should you invest in it? Can there be irrigation and electricity? What happens if the city needs to access utilities that are buried there? You want to plant a new tree or take one down? Well . . . step on the breaks because the city has rules around this. How do you design a parkway that mitigates dog walker ignorance when they will inevitably let their dog pee on your investment?

More questions than you realized, right?

Over the next few weeks, I will provide clarity by taking you one step at a time through the world of parkways.

Cheers to 2022!
Sara J-S

P.S. So excited to share with you that Topiarius now has a “Resources” section on our website. You now have complete access to our blog, our seasonal guides, and our case studies. Check it out!

It’s All About Your View

Everyone deserves a good view – no matter where you live! 

Good views do something to us. They evoke wonder and relaxation that creates headspace to contemplate, dream, ideate. They actually help facilitate clarity so we can see (and believe) possibilities in and for ourselves.

In urban locations where nature may appear to be scarce, there’s always a way to make it present at one’s home. For proof take a look at these solid examples. Possibilities abound!

View from kitchen table. Artificial green wall with summe annuals planted in containers.
View from den. Artificial green wall.
View from den. Custom pieces of art flanked by summer annuals and containers.
View from office. Nome and planting in window well.
View from workout room. Artificial plants with up-lighting in window well.
View from bedroom. Window well redesigned with bluestone steps, garden, and water feature.
View from home office. Balcony with additional screening and summer annuals in window boxes.
View from outdoor rooftop with summer annuals and containers.
View from den. Ipe screen wall with CNC backlit panel and summer annuals in a container.

Top 5 Favorite Local Gardens

Here are our top 5 favorite local gardens that are must visits. From Rockford, IL to Niles, MI. Friends, get outdoors and take in the beauty!

Photo: CBG

Chicago Botanic Garden

Glencoe, IL

Hours: 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. The Garden is open every day of the year; hours change seasonally.

Entrance: Garden members do not need to preregister—they are invited to visit at any time. Nonmembers must preregister for a timed entry. Per CDC guidelines: Wear a mask indoors if you’re not vaccinated for COVID-19.

About: “Every year, more than one million people visit the Garden’s 27 gardens and four natural areas, uniquely situated on 385 acres on and around nine islands, with six miles of lake shoreline. The Garden also has a renowned Bonsai Collection.”

Photo: Morton Arboretum

Morton Arboretum

Lisle, IL

Hours: The Arboretum grounds are open 365 days a year from 7 a.m. to sunset. Buildings are open daily, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day; closed at 3:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Entrance: Timed-entry tickets are required for all guests.

About: “The Morton Arboretum, a 1,700-acre living museum, champions trees throughout the world through science and conservation, education and outreach, and plant collections. Conveniently located approximately 25 miles from Chicago, the Arboretum features an award-winning Children’s Garden, Maze Garden, and 16 miles of hiking trails. Whether you seek a quiet stroll or an active family adventure, the Arboretum offers a variety of exhibitionsactivitiesevents, and classes for all ages to enjoy.”

New Exhibit: “The Morton Arboretum’s outdoor art exhibition, Human+Nature (pronounced: Human Nature), inspires awe and wonder as it  connects people and trees. Internationally renowned artist Daniel Popper created five 15- to 26-foot-tall sculptures exclusively for the Arboretum featured in various locations across its 1,700 acres, leading guests to areas they may not have explored before. It is his largest exhibition to date anywhere in the world.”

Photo: AJG

Anderson Japanese Gardens

Rockford, IL

Hours: The gardens are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. – last entry time is 4 p.m. 

Entrance: Timed-entry tickets are required for all guests. Garden members are no longer required to make a reservation.

About: “The Anderson Japanese Gardens is a beautiful, outdoor setting that inspires the mind and energizes the soul. [A] twelve-acre landscape of streams, waterfalls, winding pathways and koi-filled ponds has been rated one of North America’s highest quality Japanese gardens for more than a decade.” Designed by Hoichi Kurisu. 

Photo: Friendship Botanic Gardens

Friendship Botanic Gardens

Michigan City, IN

Hours: May 1 through October 31, Tuesday – Sunday  9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Central Time) CLOSED to the public on Mondays. In November, Saturday & Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (Central Time) – (Weather permitting: 45 degrees or above and NO precipitation). Members have 365 day access.

Entrance: Pre-registration not required.

About: “Friendship Botanic Gardens (a volunteer-based, not-for-profit organization) is a community treasure and an oasis of formal gardens and wooded nature trails tucked in an old-growth forest surrounding Trail Creek in Michigan City, Indiana.”

Their history is worth the quick read!

Photo: Fernwood Botanical Garden

Fernwood Botanical Garden

Niles, MI

Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 12-5pm

Entrance: While no longer a requirement, visitors can pre-register prior to their visit.

About: “Fernwood comprises 105 acres and protects at least 10 ecosystems and is a birder’s paradise. Visitors may enjoy natural areas with miles of walking and hiking trails, a reconstructed prairie, an arboretum, and cultivated public gardens that include an herb garden, Japanese garden, perennial border, rain garden, railway garden, nature adventure garden, hardy fern collection, and other special collections and gardens.”

Permits. Worth Asking For.

Imagine this Friend,

You are so close to your finalized landscape design and your contract is almost signed. You’re ready to get it going. You want to see progress made in your back yard or on your rooftop. I mean get the dumpster dropped off and let’s see some debris!

I totally get this.

But . . . pump, pump the breaks. (Not the jam! LOL) Why? Because it’s time for permits! YAAAAY!!

We are asked this all the time. “Do I need to have a permit?”

The short answer is yes for major renovations.

At least in Chicago, it is NOT easier to ask forgiveness after the fact when you are caught without a permit. And yes, homeowners, you can get caught.

Let’s say your neighbor doesn’t like what they see happening, what’s the first thing they’re going to do? They’re going to look for posted permits or contact the city to find out if you have one (or report you). (True – not all neighbors are this way, but there seems to be that person in every neighborhood, right?)

Permit acquisition may be frustrating because it costs money and additional time. But since it is an important step, just consider it all part of the process. Anticipate that this will be part of the whole kit and caboodle. If you know what the rules are (and permits are dem rules) it’s much easier to play the game.

In our world of landscape design and construction, permits in Chicago are generally needed for planting parkway trees, building any kind of structure on a rooftop (e.g., pergola, screen walls), irrigation, concrete work, driveways, city sidewalks, or electrical upgrades.

In special landmark districts the permitting process can take longer because there may be other components that need to be considered such as setbacks or site lines.

Here’s the deal: When working with us, we partner with an architectural firm that handles the permitting process which is typically done quickly and in conjunction with the start of your job. Our goal is to make this process as painless as possible for you (and your neighbors).

We want to get you living beautifully outdoors ASAP!

Pump up the jam . . . 

Sara J-S

P.S. Over June, I’ve laid out some major solutions to various questions we get all the time. Check out our blog for the full run-down. Irrigation. BudgetCodesRats.

P.S.S. For a comprehensive explanation about permits please refer to Chicago’s city code.


I want to talk with you today about one of the sexiest topics I know about. (Irony is dripping off me like a waterfall.)


In 2020, Chicago held the title of the rattiest city in the US for the 6th straight year. (I mean if that’s not the ultimate title, add to it that in 2021 Chicago made it to the number one spot for bed bugs too!)

So, friends, suffice it to say rats are here and in your yards and in our yard. Just ask Craig about the nest in his sweet potato bed a few years ago.

Okay then . . . what can we do about them because we want you to live beautifully outdoors?

The name of the game is to make your yard inhospitable. If anyone promises an 100% guarantee that they can keep rats out of your yard, they’re lying, particularly if you live near restaurants. But don’t be dismayed, there a few things that can be done to help.

  1. Make sure you have a clean and tidy yard. Not only because this looks better, but because you will have a better chance of seeing any holes underground or in raised planters. These guys like to burrow. And holes can be filled!
  2. Keep your trash can lids closed, especially if your bags are filled with food. Rats are master dumpster divers.
  3. Dog poop. Seems the jury is still out on this urban myth. According to Steve Dale, pet expert, he says that “Steve Sullivan, senior curator of Urban Ecology at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum… [has] never seen a peer reviewed study to confirm that rats relish dog feces.” But either way, just pick up your dog’s poop. Right?
  4. Rats have a hard time finding consistent water sources. So if you have a water feature like a pond at grade or lower (i.e., same height or lower than your soil line), you will attract rats especially if it is not properly maintained. Instead make sure the basin of water has an edge and sits above grade. Or even better use a water feature that has a covered basin that can be installed below or above grade. Consistent cleaning and monitoring are key!
  5. Install an underground barrier deterrent. And this is where we come in.

Underground barriers work like this:

  • Along a fence or a foundation, we will excavate down 18″ – 24″, install galvanized ¼” wire mesh (hardware cloth), back fill the trench with lava rock, and cover with soil.

Like I said there are no guaranteed solutions, these steps can definitely make living beautifully outdoors in Chicago a fact and reality.

Sara “there’s always a solution” J-S

P.S. I’ve provided you with free plans to see exactly what a below-grade rat barrier is and what it looks like. (I know . . . I told you . . . real sexy.)

P.S.S. To our friends who don’t live in Chicago, please don’t be grossed out and not come visit. While we may have these two titles, we’re actually quite clean and beautiful. Pinky swear.

Top 4 City Landscape Codes

If you’re planning on building out a rooftop or updating your landscaping in the city of Chicago, then these are the top 4 codes you should know.

But to put this into perspective, I suggest we think about codes as something to embrace rather than be amazingly annoyed by them.

This is not an out-of-the-box thinking kind of conversation. This is about codes. We all live with codes. We all agree in the US to drive in the right lane, stop at red lights, walk through an intersection at appropriate signals (most of the time), park in designated spots, etc. You get the point, right?

We use codes because we need to have ways to operate with each other; we need best practices to keep ourselves and others safe.

Just like homebuilders have codes to follow, so do we in landscape design/construction. And these codes are set by the city / municipality in which you dwell.

For Chicago city dwellers (i.e., residential properties), there are 4 key codes that are worth knowing about when you’re planning for landscape construction.

Since 2016 . . .

ONE: Rooftop Structures

On a private residential roof deck any structure above the parapet wall that is within 3’ feet of a property line or 6’ off a neighboring building has to be noncombustible. If this applies to you, then your pergola needs to be made of a metal and any screening needs to be made of metal, glass, or cement board.

TWO: Backflow Preventer

Irrigation systems require a backflow preventer installed by a licensed plumber and they need to be inspected yearly. The inspection is typically done by your irrigation company which has proper certification.

THREE: Fence Height

Anything less than 5 feet tall does not require a permit when built with typical materials (e.g., wood, vinyl, steel). But fencing can be up to 6 feet for solid panels and up to 8 feet for open slats. These heights may require a permit and a variance request. The takeaway is to follow neighborhood fencing heights, always talk to your neighbors, and hire professionals who know the codes!

FOUR: Parkway Trees

All trees in parkways are city property (no matter who plants them). Technically you’re supposed to get a permit to do any work in/on parkways, but functionally the city is fine with homeowners making improvements. However, existing trees cannot be removed! THIS IS HUGE! The fine is $1,000 per caliper inch. This means if you remove a 20” diameter tree you will be fined $20,000!

In order to plant a tree in a parkway, you must hire a company that is licensed by the city of Chicago to plant parkway trees, and you are going to be limited to 4 – 5 options. The city determines which options you have by what other trees are planted in your neighborhood. The city’s goal is to diversify plantings.

Major take away: When you’re contracting with a company (like Topiarius) to work on / at your home make sure you find and use a reputable firm that has up to date knowledge of codes. And don’t ever be discouraged by these codes . . . design solutions abound so that you can live beautifully outdoors.

P.S. This list is simply an overview of codes we encounter on a regular basis. It is not intended to replace city code documentation.

P.S.S. To see a pergola system that fits within city code, click here.

Spring Is Coming

Here’s why you should love nature and experience it regularly.

Nature, specifically spring, teaches us how to move forward.

This past year has been FULL of anticipation about moving forward.

Wikipedia has the best definition: “Anticipation is an emotion involving pleasure or anxiety in considering or awaiting an expected event.”  (I mean seriously, this could not sum up the last year for me more articulately!)

Because we’re still in vaccination land limbo – some vaccinated and some not – Craig and my solution this past weekend was to meet up with some friends at Chicago Botanic Garden for a walk.

We completely forgot you had to make reservations, so we were the cars pulled off to the side of the road trying to navigate the CBG website on our phones.

I chuckled because it seemed like a lot of effort to make an appointment for a walk through a garden that is totally spring brown with nothing blooming. (P.S. I get the reason for the appointments. I just like being snarky . . . a spiritual gift of mine.)

My only goal was to catch up with my friend Jill as we walked, but something else also happened.

I was reminded of the pace with which spring enters center stage.

As expected, there wasn’t much in bloom. But when we passed the Witch Hazel I maybe hollered with glee. Loudly. (This is what it’s like to be in a garden with the J-S’s.)

And then probably a ½ hour later we saw the brilliant blues, purples, and whites of Snowdrops, Scilia, miniature Iris, and Crocus peeking through the brown ground. Yup, I hollered again.

Is it because Witch Hazel is so magnificent that it deserves such a response? Are these miniature flowers so gorgeous that I should feel such pleasure?

No. Not really. Even though I love their beauty and uniqueness, I recognized something bigger taking shape.

In “normal times” seasonal change is a pleasurable anticipation. Winter has been cold, wet, muddy, snowy, and while that may be novel in the beginning, we’ve begun to anticipate the coming change. We look forward with pleasure to all the spring blooms and green growth. It’s just the cycle we’ve grown accustomed to.

But in Covid world, there’s an added anxiety to this anticipation. The how and when of what life will be like when the pandemic is “over” is still TBD. I’m a glass half full gal, despite my snark, so I’m very very hopeful.

But check this out. As my awareness was heightened at the garden this weekend, I’m really respecting how spring shows itself slowly and doesn’t hurry. It takes its time. It literally starts small and then grows larger. It’s as if it can’t come all at once otherwise it’d be too much to handle.

Despite the winter, spring is reliable. It’s still going to show up. Yes, the change of season will happen.

And isn’t this like how our world is unfolding now? If we embrace taking the new normal slowly, we’ll actually be able to handle it and thrive at full capacity again.

This is why you should love nature. This is why I love nature. She’s got more wisdom in her little pinky than I know what to do with.

Nature . . . she’s just essential for you and me.