Your Words Are Gold

Post-pandemic conversations are occurring at every level of living, particularly around consumerism, which is what led me to comb through some reports yesterday.

I found that “roughly 75 percent of consumers tried a new shopping behavior in the last 18 months, and more than 80 percent of those intend to continue with new behaviors.” (McKinsey). And that 21% of the US population believes that life will not return to normal post-pandemic, and traditional generational buying behaviors can no longer be put into neat little boxes. (WinBigMedia).

My take away? Change, baby, change! 

Obviously, this got me thinking . . . how does Topiarius thrive in this climate of changing behaviors and ideologies? And more importantly, how do you benefit?

And the answer is through our REFER/EARN Program.

In order for a referral to work, two things need to happen. Who you refer needs to trust you, and two, they have to want the same results.

As new referral clients contact us, I know that these two things have occurred which means . . .

  • Despite the massive shift in purchasing habits, the desire and expectation of quality and reliability hasn’t disappeared.
  • That despite the world feeling unsettled, for the next few months or permanently, the need to live outdoors has not changed. If anything, it’s become intensely valuable.
  • Whether or not you know what life was like pre or post internet, you still want to work with a company that knows how to design outdoors spaces for families that are fun, exciting, and innovative. You want to quickly find the right company to work with because you’re ready to have an outdoor space that looks amazing. And you want the best products that ensure a long-lasting, sustainable outdoor environment.

So even in the new consumer environment, when the world may feel a bit backwards, I know that Topiarius’ mission will continue to be accomplished because you continue to refer us. THANK YOU!

AND, I also know that the benefits of the program go directly into your pocket! Matter fact since we launched REFER/EARN in January of 2021, we have allocated $9,000 plus to our clients because they’ve referred someone to Topiarius.

If you want to join this elite group of REFER/EARN clients, then click here for all the details. There’s no where you need to sign up, you simply have to refer . . . and earn!

Sara J-S

CEO / Co-owner

P.S. Please make sure your referral notes your name . . . that’s how you earn the credit.

Topiarius’ mission is to design, create, and maintain luxurious outdoor spaces because you deserve to live beautifully outdoors.

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
Barnett_Front Yard copy
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.

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.

What Should Your Budget Be?

The #1 question we get is what should my budget be?

I’ll tell you this. It’s an easy answer, but it does require explanation.

You can see our answer if you skip this part and scroll to the bottom.


Craig and I had the absolute pleasure to spend time on Memorial Day weekend at a cliend home (new word for client turned into friend) for a summer kick off party. Unsolicited to a large group of party goers, our cliend said, “Having invested in my outdoor space (her back yard and rooftop), Topiarius has completely changed the way my family (of 5) lives together. It’s amazing.”

Here’s another way for me to explain. I’ve heard the following story told with a few variations, but let’s assume that while the specifics may not be 100% that the sentiment is 100% correct.

  • On a lovely afternoon at a café in Paris, a woman notices that Pablo Picasso is at a nearby table.
  • She musters the courage and walks over to him.
  • “Excuse me Sir, would you mind sketching me something on my napkin? I’ll pay you.”
  • “Of course.” says Picasso.
  • He takes her napkin, pulls a pen from his shirt pocket, and draws a few lines.
  • “That will be $20,000 francs.” he says.
  • “What?! You only spent 5 seconds on it?” she says incredulously.
  • Picasso responds, “No Madame, I’ve spent 30 years on this.” 

When you are looking for a luxurious outdoor oasis, a sanctuary at your own home, you will have to understand budgeting and expenses. But, friends, you’ll also have to understand that good design, quality installation, exceptionally kind and honest staff are not just fine-tuned overnight. They take time, energy, and lots of work to manifest and develop.

So, dig into our Budget Calculator and get a sense of what we suggest as starting points. Our goal is that these amounts kick-start conversation getting us on the same page from the very beginning. (I know, right? We are all eager to get your project started as quickly as possible. So let’s not waste time!)

If you’re interested in booking a call with us to talk through finer points, then let’s do it. Contact us today.

P.S. Continue reading our posts. We’ve got some great posts about value, investment, planning, and understanding our industry. Our goal is to always educate and make sure we can answer all your questions. 

I recommend these posts to get started: 

Irrigation. It’s non-negotiable.

Throwing money away. It’s one of my favorite things. EEEEEEK who says this? Exactly. No one.

And this is specifically why I worked yesterday installing irrigation to our plants. I want to make sure that my money has THE best possible return on investment.

And if you get this, then you’ll understand why we won’t do plantings either in containers or in ground if you don’t do irrigation.

Here’s why it’s non-negotiable:

In order for plants to thrive and look the way you want them to, which is magazine gorgeous, they need water regularly – even different amounts at different times of the season.

Plants are a lot like humans. If you stop drinking water you’re thirsty; you can get a headache and start to feel your energy drain. The longer you go, the worse you feel and the more stress you put on your body. While plants are quite tolerant and can bounce back in ways that are unbelievable, the constant stress of an unpredictable watering schedule is going to take its toll.

The fact is that no one likes watering. Sure, you say you do, but it’s honestly time consuming and often done incorrectly. And when approached with impatience it leads to improper amounts of water at irregular times or no water at all.

And let’s talk about the investment you’re making in your annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees, especially if these are planted in containers! Containers inherently have small soil volume i.e., they’re just not planted in the ground. And soil in containers, ESPECIALLY small ones and ones lined with coconut fiber, dry out quickly. If they are not getting water regularly, say up to 2-3 times a day in the heat of summer, they will die. And you’ve just tossed out dollars.

Then what happens when you go on vacation? Having to find someone to watch the dog, the house, get your mail, AND water your plants, sounds fun. Not!

When we’re doing a full design and construction installation, you are already investing 15%-20% of your home’s value on the entire project. i.e., you are choosing to invest in this project, so it doesn’t make sense to cut corners.

Even if you’re not getting a full re-build, irrigation systems and lines can still be added. Most of the time it is always possible.

Our goal is to position you and your plants for success. Our 18 years of experience knows that irrigation is a non-negotiable because it will save you time, energy, worry, money, AND get you the magazine look!

We want you to live beautifully outdoors with plants that live and thrive!

If you’re eager for an irrigation solution, then contact us today! We can get you set  up for success.