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!

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: 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.