This Is What Happened . . . When I Worked With Topiarius

Topiarius may not have the reach and influence of Martha Stewart or Chip and Joanna Gaines (yet!) but what we do have . . . is one AMAZING referral network of AMAZING clients and partners.

And this network has got some AMAZING things to say.

So . . . let me introduce you to Shellane.

Craig and I started working with Shellane and her family in 2012. We have landscaped the parkway, front yard, back yard and rooftop of her former home and have completed her garage rooftop and back yard of her new home. (Front yard is getting worked on as we speak!).

Let’s get started:

Topiarius: What was happening with your home landscape/outdoor spaces when you first decided to hire Topiarius?

Shellane: Every time I have decided to hire Topiarius, it has been because I am obsessed about our outdoor spaces. I grew up on a farm. My dad had flower beds everywhere, and in addition to the crops he grew, his flowers were his passion. They were so beautiful, and I knew having flowers in my life, even in the city, was going to be absolute.

So, in 2012, we bought a new house and the backyard was functional, but it wasn’t pleasantly functional. It was not useful in a way that would make it so that I could be outside as much as I wanted to. I knew I needed to hire someone to help me with that and I received a referral for Topiarius from a friend.

In our development plan, we started with the front yard first because it was terribly pedestrian and the part of the house that everyone sees, that was my first priority. We developed the rooftop next and finally, we developed and refreshed the backyard.

And then? We promptly moved to a new house around the corner and started all over again. (Bigger house because more and bigger kids!) That’s the fun part, right? In developing the property at the first house, I learned some things about what was valuable to me, and that knowledge actually helped me select a different type of property the second time. For example, I thought I would love a deck on the very top of my house! I ended up not really loving a deck on the top of my house. So. Many. Stairs. And its really hot up there!

Topiarius: What was your experience of working with Topiarius like? What would you rate as 5-star?

Shellane: Let’s start with the last question.

I like a small family-owned business. That’s definitely a me thing.

The other 5-star quality for Topiarius is they always fix their mistakes. I love that. And there’s no question about it. If I have something that is going wrong, I reach out and you guys are out there within a week fixing it. I like to think I’m a reasonable customer and not particularly needy, but if equipment isn’t working, that can be frustrating for me.   I reach out and Topiarius Is there to help fix whatever is going wrong. A more concise way of saying it is that you stand behind your work.

The other part of the question? I feel the relationship between Topriarius and me is such that you’re part of my family. (I know this sounds hokey.) You’re part of the group of people that help me do everything I want to do and have a beautiful house.

Every single time I walk out into the backyard or up onto the roof of my garage deck, I’m happy. Being outside just makes me happy. You guys are worth every penny, but it’s an investment. And because it can be such a big financial investment, I have worked with Topiarius over a period of years at each house to develop in phases of our property.

In addition to being influenced by my dad growing flowers everywhere, I was also influenced by the fact that my parents had parties all the time.  They loved to entertain.  Therefore I love to entertain.  And I am continuing to do that at my home with my family – we’re having parties six and seven times a year. As I mentioned previously, when we developed the outdoor space at our first house, I learned some things, my priorities changed.  I wanted my entertaining space done!

At our first house, we started with the front yard because it was what everyone could see from the street and that was important to me then.  When we bought the house, the front yard was grass and boxwood – not beautiful, but good enough.  This time around in my development plan, it was more important for me to be able to entertain outdoors in a living space for my family, especially for my older kids who are more independent. They want to be able to watch TV outside and sit outside to listen to music and all that kind of stuff.   So we focused on that aspect of the house first and the front yard came last.  (I’m on the schedule for the end of June and I can’t wait!)

Topiarius: What was the impact of working with Topiarius on you and/or your family?

Shellane: We are outside all the time. I mean, we would be anyway, but now we’re outside and comfortable and happy. This past summer, the kids were outside more than they had been previously. We installed an outdoor TV on our garage rooftop deck – it got installed kind of late in the season last year (due to it being backordered and us being in North Carolina for six weeks) but the impact of the installation was big. We started using it immediately. The kids would have friends over and they would watch Disney movies.

We also have a dining table up on the rooftop deck that I had actually planned for it to be in our lower backyard, so it would be closer to the kitchen and back door of the house. I showed Craig J-S how I was going to lay it out and he’s like, “Nope, that’s not going to work. You don’t have enough room. It needs to go up top.” I was not happy about that, but I trust Craig.  When we installed the planters and the plantings were completed, I realized there was no way that the dining table would have fit. Craig knew better than I did.   He was totally right.  (Is he reading this?)

This past fall, as the weather turned colder, my husband, my mom, and I would often play cards on Sunday nights up on that deck at that table. All warm and snug under our infrared heaters.   My friends and family love the space. Because it has been thoughtfully planned, the space draws people into it, like a magnet.

Topiarius: Let’s say I’m a super skeptical person and I am not quite convinced that Topiarius’ services are worth it . . . what tangible results did you experience as a result of working with Topiarius that would convince another person to choose us?

Shellane: Before I hired Topiarius, my backyard was just cement pavers and dark gray siding. Literally just walls, cement, and an empty sad space. Sure,  I could have just put some furniture out there and been done with it, but the space was hot and sterile and not a place that you want to go sit and read a book. But, by developing the backyard and garage rooftop deck, we have greatly increased the living space in our house. And the cost associated with that has been worth it to my family.

Now, I have a soft, cozy couch with a TV I can turn on if I want to, under warm heaters if it is too cold, and a louvered pergola to close and ceiling fan if it is too hot. I have a wall of hydrangeas that provide  privacy where I see flowers and butterflies. It’s inviting and cozy and meditative. It just makes me happy. But that is me, I’m happy outside.

But a side note, I’m not as happy as Craig J-S is outside in the winter. I hate to be cold.  But, as soon as possible this spring, when it finally starts to warm up, I will take our blue tarps off the furniture and open up the space from its hibernation so we can start feeling and smelling the outdoors.

 – Thank you, Shellane! You’re the best!

Refer/Earn is Our Referral Program That Pays You Back!


For every person you refer you you could earn endless credits! It’s like FREE money!

4 Ways Nature & Built Environments Work Together

We believe that great design incorporates the following 4 design concepts (to varying degrees) in order to maximize the relationship between built environments and nature.


Structures in the built environment can be designed to frame a view of nature (or skylines). Like the below photo, the entrance and hallway frames the view of the backyard.

Frame View_1
DWELL Magazine. POSTED BY: Kelsey Mulvey

Borrowing views is a concept that dates back to the 18th century in England. “The furniture and landscape designer William Kent is said to be the first to recognize that land outside a garden’s designed space could appear to be part of it. He understood that someone else’s fields or farmlands could be ‘borrowed’ visually to make one’s own lands seem larger.”  

Both images below borrow nature to make their gardens feel larger, whether the lake or the field.

Borrowed View_1
DWELL Magazine. POSTED BY: Frits de Vries Architects + Associates Ltd. PHOTOGRAPHER: Ema Peter
Photo: Patterson Webster. Garden: Glen Villa Gardens


Blurring the lines between natural and built creates a seamless transition that is more comfortable and inviting. Nature should creep in and built spaces should creep out. Feeling like you’re indoors as well as outdoors is the place of connection.

Photo: Cesar Rubio. Project by: Longwell MacDonald
DWELL Magazine. Photo by: Ema Peter


This concept is all about the outdoor room, which is a specific area with a specific function, such as seating area around a fire feature or even a vegetable garden.  Each area/room is positioned in nature, not to look like it magically appeared, but to have a sense of privacy and mystique. 

Photo by: Joe Fletcher. Architects: Feldman Architecture
Photo by: Saxon Holt / PhotoBotanic.com


Getting from point A to point B should not look like a sterile hallway in a hospital. With every turn and glance the experience should be enjoyable while creating anticipation of where you’re going. This is especially true if you’re walking from building to the next or from one point of your garden to another.

POSTED BY: Joanna Shaw. PHOTOGRAPHER: Jeff Roberts
Wallace Landscape Associates

If you’re interested in seeing the integrate of built and native environments for your own home, contact us today

2021 Holiday Gift Guide

  1. Petite Flamenco Outdoor Umbrella from Santa Barbara Designs
  2. Mamagreeen’s Bondi Tall Adirondack and Footrest (kids’ version available)
  3. Ambient Tall Lantern from Gloster
  4. Gloster’s Lima Corner End and Ottoman
  5. Janus et Cie Montpelier Lanterns (26″ – 39″ tall)
  6. Wooden Hammock by Adam Cornish
  7. Outdoor Incense by The Floral Society
  8. Houe Click Rocking Chair  (kids’ version available)
  9. Forest Folly Double Old Fashioned Glasses (set of 6) from Bernadette Schaeffler
  10. The Root Tree Stand by Garden Glory
  11. Shokunin Kamado Grill from Kalamazoo Gourmet
  12. Caneline On The Move Side Tables

Curating your outdoor experience is key to living beautifully outdoors. When you’re ready to #LBO at your home, contact us!

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! 

Living Beautifully Outdoors with Zannah Bradley Gill

Such a great day today!

When I was thinking about who to ask next for our Living Beautifully Outdoor series, this woman was obvs at the top of the list. I mean . . . this is what she does for a living! If anyone is going to get it, Zannah will.

I want to introduce you to a partner of ours that helps us and many of our clients (you!) with outdoor furniture selections. Zannah, President of Bradley Terrace Outdoor Furnishings, represents over a dozen furniture and umbrella lines (many of which have showrooms at the Merchandise Mart). 

What does “rep” mean?

Well, Tracey from WI (Smartless reference), she is a real-life human search engine with access to everything you’d want to know about outdoor furniture – colors, finishes, fabrics, sizing, and pricing! She guides you through all kinds of options until you find THE perfect solution.

So keep reading to know how Zannah #LBO both in her personal and professional life. 


Sara J-S

P.S. Head over to her website, you may see a Topiarius project or two. 

Living Beautifully Outdoors: Zannah Bradley Gill

President of Bradley Terrace

What does living beautifully outdoors mean to you?

Living Beautifully Outdoors to me means having multiple spaces – with different views and functions to enjoy the seasons with family and friends.  As an outdoor furnishings specialist, that also means having a comfortable and stylish place to sit… definitely an occupational hazard in my line of work.   I’m not big on maintenance either, so for my family, that means durable, easy care furniture that can stay outdoors year-round and is comfy both with and without cushions. 

Our dining terrace is just outside our kitchen and so convenient for grilling, a meal, or a cup of coffee.  The deer in our area are ravenous – I grow potted herbs, flowers, and tomatoes on this raised deck to protect them. It’s not a huge space, so this year we tried window boxes over the railings instead of pots on the floor – a great space saver plus we get to enjoy the plants closer up!  They’re easier to reach for tending, harvesting, and enjoying the fragrances. 

Our hot tub deck has a great view and is perfect for unwinding and relaxation.  Our observation deck is down the hill from the house and under the canopy of the woods.  It’s great for smoking meat or building a fire and is a cozy retreat for lounging and getting away from it all.

I think we all crave outdoor spaces to enjoy nature and replenish our energy for the challenges ahead of us.  My passion is working with people to furnish their exterior spaces to fit their sense of aesthetics plus their lifestyle.  I love to help clients source furnishings and shade to suit their environment and maximize their outdoor living. 

Here’s to enjoyment of the great 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.

What Does Living Beautifully Outdoors Mean to You?

Craig Nelson (a.k.a. Lil' Craig), Director of Operations at Topiarius, shares what it means to #LBO:

To experience beauty in anything, there has to be a something not so beautiful to compare it to. For me, in order to experience the beauty outdoors, I welcome the not so beautiful, though it’s not always by choice. I’m going to use the phrase “welcome discomfort” as a means of making my point. (By the way, I kind of stole/modified the phrase from a YouTube channel whose motto it is to seek discomfort.) I like to welcome discomfort, because that makes even the small things outdoors beautiful. I’ll give some examples below.

Plant care and landscape – Though I am no designer, I still have fun constantly transplanting or planting rescued plants around my house. It can be messy work, but it’s so rewarding to work with living things and experience their recovery, growth, and beauty.

Making any ol’ thing – I can’t help but want to make something myself that I’ve seen or thought up. Under the July sun this summer I built a pretty large bench with cushions, a big poured concrete coffee table with a wood fire pit in the middle, a little countertop/sink, and a stand-up bar area. I suffered sweat, sunburn, bruises, and experienced my first sciatica pains, but now I have a beautiful and comfortable place to sit and enjoy my yard with my family! What I didn’t anticipate, was how easy of a place it is to fall asleep at night. No joke, whether by choice or drifting off after a few drinks, I’ve slept outside on that bench about 50 percent of time since I built it.

Running around in the woods – I do a lot of running and have done so on and off since high school. It wasn’t until the last few years that I realized I don’t have to stick to a sidewalk or bike path. I first discovered the horse paths by me, then unmaintained single track trails, and even deer trails. Hell, if a trail disappears, well I just fight through whatever wilderness is in front of me and find the next one. For a real fun factor, I do it in the dark with a flashlight. I feel like a little kid again, even though I can’t brush off the injuries and elements like I could as a kid. There are all kinds of ways to experience discomfort while running outside year-round, but the payoffs are worth it! The wildlife, insects, flowers, trees, rivers, and how the seasons affect them all are just a few to list.

My point is this, to me, living beautifully outdoors to me means I like to welcome getting soaked in the rain to appreciate an umbrella. I welcome a rock as a seat to appreciate a cushioned bench. I welcome a sunburn to appreciate the shade from a tree. I welcome dirty hands to appreciate a sink. I welcome the cold to appreciate a fire. I welcome discomfort to know comfort.

P.S. Try going outside naked!

P.S.S. For more on our #LBO discussions, click here, here or here

What Does Living Beautifully Outdoors Mean to You?

TOPIARIUS asks, What does living beautifully outdoors mean to you?

Chris Walsh, Topiarius Exec. VP of Sales and Design, weighs in this week.

2019 Walsh Family Reunion.
Living beautifully outdoors means having a comfortable (and shady) place to visit with friends and family!
When my entire family came to our home in New Buffalo, MI  the summer of 2019 (above) it was so lovely to be able to fit everyone in the backyard! No, I don’t have a table that seats 26 people, but I have garden rooms where smaller groups can visit and play card games, eat, cook a burger, lounge by the spa, relax in a hammock or sit by the solo stove. (Not an ad for Solo Stove, but it could be I LOVE mine.)
Having covered seating  for sunny days to share a meal on the patio is a must! Why sit inside when there is a lovely late summer breeze moving through the garden? And when there isn’t a breeze we just turn on our outdoor fan. 
I grew up spending most of my youth outside in the garden, or messing around with the plantings around my parents home in Oakton, Virginia. And that is really what I do now, I spend my available time weeding and maintaining our gardens – it is relaxing for me. Being able to dig out weeds, prune branches and transplant perennials and grasses to change the mood of one of our garden rooms is magic to me. I love walking through our garden cutting branches for a big vase on the mantle or small vases on bedside stands for weekend guests.
That’s what living beautifully outdoors means to me. I have a space to stretch after a long run and a place where family and friends can feel comfortable outside and enjoy our natural surroundings for a reconnecting visit. We have a place to share a meal, or S’mores, decompress in the spa or just sit and daydream.  I can wander around prune away branches and have a fresh cut floral arrangement for the dining table or to give a bouquet to a neighbor!  
This is why I want to create special places for our clients. I want them to also have places to reconnect with family and friends, to decompress, and enjoy what nature has provided. 
Preparing floral arrangements from the garden.
Enjoying the shade with friends.

Curious how others have answered the question? Click here.

What Does Living Beautifully Outdoors Mean to You?

TOPIARIUS asks, What does living beautifully outdoors mean to you?

If you haven’t caught on yet, all of us at Topiarius are obsessed with living beautifully outdoors. [HASHTAG!]

Because of my curious nature, I have begun asking our staff, our clients, and our partners in industry what it means to them to live beautifully outdoors. And, I’m getting such gorgeous insights!

This week my partner in crime is sharing his thoughts. (i.e., my business partner and husband Craig 😆.)

Here’s Craig:

Living Beautifully Outdoors to me is all about destination. This definitely means travel to amazing places – both urban (Hello! Have you ever been to Rome?) and nature (Oregon coast pic may have been staged???). Travel feeds the imagination and is key for the inspiration that continues to drive our business. But since we don’t all get to travel as much as we want, Living Beautifully Outdoors has to happen at home as well. 

We have been in our home for 14 years (longest I have lived in one spot!) and we are SO close to the outdoor spaces that we long for (can you say cobbler’s children have no shoes?). When we were designing our home’s addition a major component of our brief to the architects was that we needed multiple outdoor destinations. As we have worked on the landscape design this year, again, we are focusing on creating multiple destinations. 

So let’s do a quick count . . .

  1. Front Terrace: Westward facing and large enough to have comfortable seating to accommodate six. Sara spends afternoons lounging in the sun, listening to neighbor’s conversations as they walk by (neighbors – careful what you say, she is out there a lot on weekends).
  2. Back Terrace: East facing and perfect for me in the afternoon. Two comfortable chairs where I sit and count planes flying into O’Hare.
  3. Back Deck: A lovely raised deck looking into our backyard. It is covered by the cantilevered second floor. I sit here even in the rain and watch the birds fly in and out of our Hornbeam hedge. Oh, and did I mention the outdoor shower!
  4. Fire Pit: I am not a pyromaniac! 
  5. Dining Patio: Still under construction. We will have a cedar pergola and a fabulous outdoor chandelier (need to find that still).
  6. Lawn: Small and very biodiverse, as I am not a huge proponent of wasting time and resources on it. Large enough for a game of Bags and for our friends’ small children to run through a sprinkler.
  7. Vegetable Garden: Raised beds filled with our garden favorites and perennials that pollinators love.
  8. Outdoor Kitchen: Yes, I have a gas grill, a Traeger, and a ceramic grill. Don’t you?
  9. Main Entrance: Setting the tone for our guests, open and welcoming with plenty of space to greet people as they arrive and for the long goodbyes when they leave.

How do I Live Beautifully Outdoors? Let me count the ways.

Curious how others have answered the question? Click here.

Or Here!