Front Yard: Scale + Proportion

Scale and proportion are all about finding balance between 2 extremes. This tenet is in found most religions, health experts promote it, and . . . landscape designers promote it.

If you plant an infant tree too close to your house, at full maturity (say 25′) it will look re-donk-ulus and could damage your home. If you have too little groundcover, it will take years before it gets to the desired lush look. If you have too much mulch around the flare of a tree (a.k.a. volcano mulching), the tree will eventually die. 

It’s all about the balance needed in order to thrive at max capacity and max beauty, especially when it comes to landscaping the front yard of your urban home.

So, what if I told you that math held the solution to securing this balance of scale and correction proportions? And the solution significantly impacts your visual pleasure? Intrigued?

The golden ratio (or golden number or golden mean) is the equation that does just this. The easiest way for me to explain it is as a 60/40 ratio that applies to two elements within a space or area.

Let’s look at the front of this home. The whole front façade from the ground to the sky equals 100% of our context. Ideally you want to have 60% of the house showing and 40% scaled with a full-grown landscape of trees and other plants. With these proportions the house and the landscape work seamlessly and beautifully together. (Yaaasss!)

Being kind of obsessed with small front urban yards, I just love knowing that such balance is achievable. Don’t get us wrong, we at Topiarius love a great big estate with threes that grow 75’, but when our team works in the city, such expectations can often be thwarted due to space restrictions. But more often than not, there are planting solutions that make this possible. 

Listen . . . don’t get hung up on this rule of thumb if you don’t have these proportions. You don’t need one more person to should you. This is simply a guide that can help you find a balance and it’s a good place to start when considering design. We’re happy to help; just contact us when you’re ready

Check out the rest of my series on landscaping in small urban front yards. GangwaysShade.

Front Yard: Getting to the Gangway

I’m channeling some Will Shortz today. I’ve got a riddle for you.

What needs to get you from point A to point B, needs to be interesting to look at, and ideally doesn’t look like your neighbor’s?

Clue: It connects the front entrance of your yard to your side gangway.

Answer: It’s the pathway through your front yard!

Who said there are no puzzlers around landscaping! Not I! 

At some point in my life I heard the sage advice that the best way to know where to put a sidewalk or path was to wait until you saw where people walked, and then start the design.

Well, when you have a small front yard – say a Chicago postage-sized stamp – and the yard entrance is kitty-corner from the gangway, I’ll admit it’s pretty obvious where you need to walk. BUT, what’s so not obvious are all the potential solutions.

Check out these examples:

Friedewald Front Yard copy
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Lauer Front Yard copy
Josephson Front Yard copy
Paterson Front Yard copy

Amazing, right? Not one is like the other. And, they all accomplish the same thing.

Each yard speaks to the wishes and likes of each of our clients, whether there are straight or curvy lines, blue chip or bluestone, or plant heavy or plant light. 

When we work with you, we want to lock in both form and function. We aim for functional beauty! So if you’re interested in some of this functional beauty, reach out. We’d love to get the conversation started.

Want more info on how to solve design for shady front yards, click here.

Front Yard: Lot’s O’ Shade

I love a good problem. Weird, right? Well . . . it’s not the problem I love, it’s that I get to find / create a solution.

In my mind there’s always a solution. You may not like the answer or the option(s), but there’s always a solution.

So, when it comes to small yards that are bathed in shade (“problem”), you’ve come to the right place (solution).

First Step: Acknowledge what you can’t control.

You can’t control

  1. Trees not planted in your front yard because they’re either in your neighbor’s yard or in the parkway. (Click here for more information (tip 4) about what you need to know about Chicago parkway trees.)
  2. The position of your house. If your front yard faces north(ish) or if you have tall buildings around you, then it is what it is.

Second Step: Let go of what you can’t have.

We’re not the kind of firm that makes shyte up to make a sale. Matter fact we may air too much on the side of forthrightness and frankness. Our goal it is to create a front garden that you love, so why on earth would we try to sabotage that and tell you something will work when we know that it won’t?

Two big items you won’t get:

  1. Grass (lawn and plants). Ditch the idea of grass . . . it’s an exercise in futility. There may be shade varieties of grass but grasses need sun. Plus, a small front yard with turf grass means it has to be mown – headache! If you are committed to turf – you could explore artificial turf. Lots of varieties – not the kind that was in your grandparents’ 3-season porch.
  2. Lots and lots of blooming flowers throughout spring, summer, and fall.  Most blooming plants need at least part sun to really be their best. Next Level Pro Tip: spring flowering plants can work if a majority of your shade trees are deciduous i.e., they drop their leaves in the fall. Because these trees won’t yet have all their leaves in the spring, sunlight will get to your garden so flowering plants can grow. (Share this with your neighbors and you will look like a genius. You’re welcome.)

Third Step: Embrace what you can have.

Cue Rolling Stones . . . “You can’t always get what you want . . . But if you try sometimes, well, you might find you get what you need . . .

While you may feel slighted by what you can’t control or can’t have, trust me, there are so many more things you can have and love.

Get in the mindset of textures, shapes, and sizes. You’ve got a huge winning palette with these 4 options:

  1. Plant choice. (Reminder: I’m focusing on small front yards so mature plant size matters.)

Here are some options:

      • Trees: Hornbeam, Kousa Dogwood, some Japanese Maples, Sweetgum
      • Shrubs: Oakleaf Hydrangea, Yew, Boxwood, Hemlock, some Junipers
      • Perennials (the kind of plant the grows again each year): Fern, Hosta, Hellebore, Hakonechloa, Dicentra (Bleeding Heart), Lady’s Mantle
      • Groundcovers: Wild Ginger, Lamium, Pachysandra, Epimedium
  1. Landscape bed shapes. We use rectangles, squares, circles, curves in all different ways and patterns. Check out our social media posts over the past week . . . pics of small front yards with shapes galore!
  2. Hardscape materials. Pavers (all different sizes and colors), gravels or chips, metal edging. (Again, pics on social.)
  3. Whether you have one main container or many throughout your front yard, containers can be planted with loads color. The reason for this is that annuals are planted for a finite amount of time. Because they’re temporary, you won’t see the plants suffer from lack of sun.

So, here you have it. Four solid solutions for the shady small front yard! May you feel empowered and hopeful that you too can have one amazing front yard.

Small Space Dining

Ordinary Moments Into Extraordinary Ones

When you sit down at a table with 1 person or multiple, you have taken a vital step towards a gathering that Priya Parker says can “turn ordinary moments into extraordinary moments.” [Her book called The Art of Gathering is a must read for anyone that simply has a friend to anyone that facilitates meetings.]

Ordinary moments into extraordinary ones.

Ordinary moments into extraordinary ones.

Ordinary moments into extraordinary ones.

The past few months, our house has been filled with visitors – more specifically friends and family that we haven’t see for months and years. While the reason they each came to or through Chicago may be different, with each visitor we have spent time around a table.

Whether Craig smokes his meat (yup, he says this) or we Grubhub our way through local restaurants, we have had time to catch-up, introduce ourselves, discuss, ponder, pontificate, belly laugh, and belly laugh some more.

And, you’ve guessed correctly (!), we spent much of these meals outdoors.

Ordinary moments into extraordinary ones.

So, Craig was forwarded an article from The New York Times by one of our amazing clients (thanks S.W.!). He then forwarded it to me. It is called “Today’s Must-Have Amenity? A Little Green Space.”

Unknowingly we both responded that we are geniuses so ahead of this trend.

Arrogant? No! Just feeling a bit proud that we beat the “big guys and gals” out of the Big Apple in their multi-unit home development game. We’ve known a little green space is important for years!

I did have one issue though. It’s around the word “amenity.” (Finally, my undergrad English Lit. degree is proving useful!!!!)

Google’s definition of amenity is a desirable or useful feature or facility of a building or place. 

I get that a little green space could be viewed as something that’s a nice perk or an added bonus, like an extra closet. 

But I’ve gotta say, friends, I want “a little green” space to be a necessity! I don’t want it to be trend like the cinnamon challenge (dumb!). I want a little green space to be elevated to the unstated status of obviously we’ve got to have a kitchen and a bathroom. I want a little green space to be something EVERYONE has because being in nature is fundamental to how well we live our lives.

Ordinary moments into extraordinary ones.

I used to think Craig and I started Topiarius to just not work for anyone else. But honestly, our ideas and ideals have grown up.

What we have the privilege of doing at Topiarius is actually pretty freakin’ phenomenal. We get to design, create, and maintain luxurious outdoor sanctuaries for all of our clients.

We get to provide you with a table (the foundation), whether it’s a dining table or coffee table, to sit with new friends or old, with people you see all the time or haven’t for 25 years, so that you too can experience ordinary moments turned into extraordinary ones.

Ordinary moments into extraordinary ones.

Yes. Definitely amazing.

Cheers, my friends! 

Kids’ Play

Craig and I talk fondly about our childhoods. Our best stories and memories revolve around playing outdoors.

I grew up in a sunny suburb of western MA. My backyard was not large at all, but it had a swing set that allowed me to fulfill our my “gymnastic” dreams, 2 trees large enough to hide behind, and a rock big enough to sit on (lots of goofy photos on this one!). I could get to the other blocks in the neighborhood with lightning speed because I could cut through all our neighbors’ yards. Our detached single car garage was my stage for talent shows and round-the-world basketball tourneys. Small space, but mighty!

(Craig grew up in central MN at a camp. He was a country kid with plenty of wide-open space. He could do anything and absolutely go anywhere in the woods, fields, or lake. SOOOO boring . . . JK.)

Both our parents were of a generation that didn’t want us sitting around in the house. “Go outside. Go do something.” was a common refrain no matter the time of year.

I know parenting styles are different these days, but what’s the same is the fact that kids – maybe your kids? no judgement; just asking – need to get out of the house, put down the technology, and foster their imaginations in a judgement free zone i.e., not on social media. [I love the tech Shabbat my friend Melissa and her 5-year-old daughter do each week!!]

So how do you do this if you live in the city or have limited space? It’s easier than you may think. Not a lot of space is needed and not a lot of stuff (any cheering yet?). 

Whether you have a rooftop, an open space under the stairs, or a full side yard there are lots of ways to have playhouses, add shade, swings, jumping stumps, or chalkboards. 

And best part of all?! An outdoor kid’s space like any of these below will get your kids to turn off their tech and go outside and play.

I never want to leave you without ideas! 

All of these projects range in complexity and scope, but each one is for sure unique.

While they are initially designed for younger kids, they all have, with a few adjustments, the potential to evolve into teenager / adult spaces. Investment dollars well spent.

So, if you’re in the need . . . or your kids are in the need of an outdoor play space that will get them to put down their tech and spark their imagination and play, then you know exactly who to call


Grill Cabinets & Shelves

The Top Tip For Your Grill

If you don’t have oodles and oodles of space, but you love grilling and cooking outdoors, here’s my one top tip that both generates ease (working smarter not harder) and has style (reflecting our own personalities):

Have your grill built into a cabinet or shelving.


To eliminate the back-and-forth hassle of carrying everything you need outdoors indoors and indoors outdoors. Lugging stuff is the last thing you want to do when you are getting ready for and finishing a great night of dining. I also know that not everyone’s outdoor space is just a few steps from their kitchen but a flight or two away, so the lugging is actually a real thing, my friends.

The key is to have dedicated outdoor grilling utensils, trays, plates, platters, vases, lights, placemats, cleaning supplies, etc. Yes, the stuff that has food on it will need to be cleaned, probably inside, but it’s still less to lug. Plus storing it outside is just smart! It’s always right at your fingertips (i.e., you know where it is cuz it’s not on some random shelf in the basement)!

And, you’ve got to make it your own! It is truly fun to meet clients and see their homes. Like snowflakes, there are no two that are exactly the same, but what’s similar is that each home has been designed to be one’s oasis and sanctuary. And this should translate to your outdoor space as well.

The following pics are all examples of our projects – all embracing different styles.

Each one is built into a cabinet or shelving. Some are more contemporary and some are more classic. Each works with the space available and integrates into the home’s style.

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As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding! You don’t need to have loads of space in order to have the ease and style of grilling and cooking outdoors because there are so many options and ways that your grill can be built into a cabinet or shelving.

If you’re interested in knowing more about how this works in your space, then contact us. All of us at Topiarius love helping our clients live beautifully outdoors!

Relaxing In A Small Space

You Just Need 2 Things!

I don’t know about you, but complaining drives me bonkers! No, hold up, I need to refresh that . . . what really drives me bonkers is when an individual chooses to be confused because they’re just too [fill in the blank] to think for themselves. 

Who’s still with me? 

There should be no confusion around having an outdoor living space and making it your very own oasis. There are too many positive outcomes to your own health when you spend time outdoors to throw up any road blocks. 

So let me clear up a common road block about small spaces: small spaces are conducive to relaxing. 

You just need 2 things – only 2!

  1. You need a comfortable place to sit and kick back.
  2. You need it to be inviting – a Siren of sorts to woo you outside.

So the first one is obvs. (practicing the art of not being confused). If you are not going to be comfortable while sitting or laying down then there is definitely NO way you’re going to say, “I want to be outdoors in this space.”

The solution: Invest in comfortable, correctly-sized outdoor furniture. (Yo, large overstuffed furniture is not always the jam.)

Number 2. Let’s take a look at these two balconies, which are not large (i.e. imagine what you can do if you have more space . . . but that’s another missive). 

Here’s what’s wooing me out into these spaces, in addition to the uber comfortable lounge chairs:

  1. The are clean and clutter free.
  2. They are showcasing a few planted containers. 
  3. They have some sun protection.
  4. They both have minimal, but helpful lighting.
  5. They both use carpet to create a room feeling.
  6. Artwork (I’m giving props to the lion container as “artwork”) and the option of a faux green wall (upper photo). 

And guess what? I didn’t even mention anything about the view, which means if you don’t have an amazing one (bonus points if you do), you can still have a small amazingly comfortable and desirable outdoor oasis with just these 2 things – comfortable seating and an inviting environment.

If you are all in on this, then one of the best next steps to choose not to be confused is to actively look for guidance . . . that’s where we step in. We will create your dream outdoor oasis – no matters its size – so that you can master the art of living beautifully outdoors. 

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.

The Reality of Our Supply Chain

Amazon has ruined us. With a few clicks we can get anything we want at any time we want it no matter where we are located.

Will I stop using Amazon? Will Topiarius stop using Amazon? That’s a big fat NO. Whether your like or dislike Bezos, Amazon is still genius.

But here’s the thing. Custom luxury goods do not have the option of Amazon accessibility.

In a recent article I just read in House Beautiful called “The Waiting Game,” the author notes that “there isn’t some giant warehouse containing every potential combo waiting to be sold.”

The good news is to have it YOUR way means you get it your way. The bad news is you’ll have to be patient and wait. (And trust me . . . I am waiting for a bed that I ordered in January to be delivered – fingers-crossed – 9 months later.)

The same thing applies to the plant world. And I KNOW this is not known to many of you, particularly because it’s about a trifecta of COVID, the 2008 financial crash, and weather.

According to Lisa Fiore, co-founder and CEO of LandscapeHub, in another recent article called “How Supply Chain Issues Are Impacting Lawn and Landscape Industry” published by National Association of Landscape Professionals, she says,

“When it [the recession] hit in 2008, many nurseries reduced their production.

They either didn’t have the cash or the appetite to risk the investment of putting more plants in the ground 12 years ago.

Because trees and evergreens take 10 to 12 years to produce, the effects from the Great Recession are now being seen with those shortages.

COVID and the increased consumer demand from more people staying home have impacted the availability of faster-produced plant material.

Severe weather events have also impacted the availability of plant material in locations like Texas and Louisiana while increasing demand as people seek to replace the plants they lost in the storms.”

Topiarius’ expertise is knowing which plants will work well in your yard – neah, which ones will thrive – whether in-ground or on a rooftop. We also work diligently to make sure you get THE one plant that’s going to make the design inspired. We want YOU to look at your project and go WOW, just as much as WE want to go WOW.

So . . . here’s what we do. We look at options. We look at alternative designs. And we know that we are going to be working in phases over the next year. Patience and a willingness to be flexible are the rules that guide this “game.”

Our work for you will get completed that’s a 100% guarantee, it’s just going to take, well . . . time.

Dermatologists Cheer! Umbrellas!

Have you ever left your dermatology appointment with a high-five because you’re protecting yourself from the sun ALL the time in ALL the right ways? 

I never have.

Erin (my dermatologist) gives me pamphlets, a huge bag of samples of sunscreen, and a stern warning EVERY time I leave her office. Protect yourself!

It’s a hard pill to swallow, not because I don’t believe she’s 100% right, but I just love the feeling of sun on my skin. I also know I gots to take care.

So, what the heck does this have to do with Topiarius?! Cha-ching!

If you want to get that high-five like I do, then you want to protect yourself from the sun by choosing one of these wildly creative SHADE options.

Some of these we’ve installed and used in our designs and others we want to. They are all easy to use and so visually cool.

A wall mounted, cantilever umbrella that requires no pole from Umbrosa! No more tripping around the base. Photo: Topiarius
A Mamagreen personal shade that moves where you do! Photo: Mamagreen
Double your fun! Heavy-duty cantilever umbrellas from Umbrosa that can rotate easily to create shade. Photo: Topiarius
These are for when your only decision of the day has to be whether you put the cover on or take the cover off the Sombrero booth. Photo: Mamagreen
It's not just enough to have shade during the day! You should also have evening light with the Extremis Sol Luna! Photo: Shadescapes

If you want to know more about some of these umbrellas, please take a look at this blog post on our website. AND, if you want to talk with us about your new design and installation, now is a perfect time. Can’t wait to hear from you!

From the gal who is learning to love the shade – 

Sara J-S

P.S. Curious about other ways to beat the heat, check out these posts as well: fans and misters and pergolas!