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Perfect Pansies

I have a deep love of pansies.  I adore that they come in every color of the rainbow, which is unusual for an annual flower.  It is wonderful that they can be pure, or blotched or multicolored all on the same plant.  Have you ever looked at pansies when it is about to storm?  Try it, they absolutely glow.

Pansy Delta Premium Pure Lemon

What really sets them apart though is how charming cheerful they are.

Pansy Matrix Clear Mix

What can be seen as a drawback?  They are a cool season plant and in the Midwest we only get to enjoy them in spring and fall.  Oh I’ve done the experiments…transplanting them to the coolest shadiest parts of my yard to no avail.  They just peter out.  I actually like that they only shine twice a year.  It makes them all the more special.

It is thought that pansies are a close cousins to the viola, which has roots in Greece in the 4th century B.C.  However, they believe the first pansies were first found in France, because the word pansy is traced back to the French word pensee, meaning thought or remembrance.

Pansy Delta Lavender Blue

In the early 1800’s an inquisitive Lord Gambier and his gardener William Thompson began experimenting with crossing different varieties of pansies.  It is William Thompson who is accredited with removing long lines and created large blocks of color on the lower petals, created what is now known as “the face.”

Today popularity booms and most innovations are being made in Germany, Japan and the United States.

Pansy Matrix Midnight Glow

What is interesting is the amount of passion to innovate in this area.  It isn’t to create a drought free plant, or even one that is resistant to diseases or animals (which they are NOT).  The innovation, is to take something that was beautiful to begin with and make it even more so.

I for one am glad they are.

Donna Vignocchi Zych

President

Old Concepts, New Technology, Sustainable Results

Growing plants on rooftops is not a new concept. Centuries ago northern Scandinavians harvested sod from their surrounding landscape and placed it upon structures to create effective insulating and water resistant roof systems.  The Vikings who explored the upper Atlantic built grass-covered homes where they settled and in Iceland sod roofs and walls have been used for hundreds of years.

Although the living roof or green roof has been in use for a long time, modern green roof technology has helped to elevate this building method from a crudely effective construction element to an aesthetically pleasing, ecologically responsible building solution for age-old building problems and current environmental concerns.

green roof or living roof is a roof of a building or other structure that is partially or completely covered with vegetation and a growing medium, planted over a waterproofing membrane. It may also include additional layers such as a root barrier and drainage and irrigation systems.

Green roofs can be very basic, known as extensive green roofs that incorporate drought-tolerant, self-seeding native ground covers such as sedums, grasses, mosses and prairie flowers that require little or no irrigation, fertilization or maintenance. These green roofs are lightweight, inexpensive, and can be retrofitted onto existing buildings, often without significant alterations or additional structural support.

Intensive green roofs are more elaborate roof gardens designed for human interaction. They generally have a relatively flat roof surface or mild slope and allow for a larger selection of plants, including shrubs and trees and require specific engineering to be able to conform to the weight load requirements.

Today, the green roof is gaining in popularity as an environmentally conscious architectural expression that is a viable element of any sustainable landscape management plan; and here is why:

  • Storm-water runoff will be greatly decreased with the utilization of a living roof. The growing medium and the vegetation of a green roof retain large amounts of storm water and release it back into the environment. A typical green roof can absorb 30% of the rainwater that falls on it, reducing the amount of water that goes through our waste water systems.
  • It is a common misassumption that a green roof system will have a deleterious effect on the integrity of the roof system. Quite the opposite.  A well designed, correctly installed green roof will protect the waterproof membrane that lies beneath it and, in turn, will extend the overall life of a roof.  Recent studies indicate an increase in life span of almost double.
  • Green roofs absorb carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming; and the slow transpiration of water back into the air creates a cooling effect that helps reduce the heat retention and emanation in and around your building.
  • In addition to the energy saving features described above, the actual mass and density of a living roof will provide excellent sound insulation for a building as well.
  • And let’s not forget the aesthetic benefits of the rooftop garden. The roof garden intermingles the pre-construction environment with the built environment creating a sustainable cooperation between development and nature.  People love to interact in the relative secluded natural setting created by the intensive garden on a rooftop space.  Additionally, they benefit emotionally and psychologically from the ability to even look upon the greenery of an intensive or an extensive roof top garden.

Green roof technology was re-invented in Germany in the mid-20th century and quickly spread throughout Europe mainly due to its restorative environmental impact.

Today, Chicago has been a leader in green roof installations with up to 7 million square feet on approximately 500 rooftops; the most of any city in the United States.  The benefits of the green roof have not been ignored by suburban businesses and multi-family residential buildings either.

Green roofs add beauty, sustainability and longevity to buildings

Corporations, commercial building owners, and homeowners associations are looking for solutions to increase employee well-being, decrease their carbon footprints, increase their LEEDS scores, and differentiate their properties from their competition.  The rooftop garden has proven to be just such a solution.

Reach out to ILT Vignocchi today to inquire about the potential for your headquarters, office building, clubhouse, or other structure to benefit from a green roof installation.

Landscape Bracketology

It is time for the March Madness to begin and whether you are an avid college basketball fan or you don’t know a Blue Devil from a Boilermaker, chances are you are going to be filling out a bracket and making your picks for the winners.  But what kind of strategy are you using?  Do you study the records, pore over the difficulty of the team’s schedule, analyze the star player stats, listen to the hours of prognostication on the TV and internet?  Or do you pick by your favorite uniform color or the most endearing team nicknames.  No one can tell you that your strategy won’t be effective and even having no strategy (random selection) is actually a strategy in and of itself and can sometimes produce winning results.
However, more often than not putting some thought into your choices and actually reasoning through your decisions will produce the greatest chance of being alive in your pool when the Final Four teams face off.  The same holds true for the selection process for your landscaping and snow removal vendors.  Selecting the right firm for your building or your community is a big decision that will have a direct impact on the value and marketability of your property to residents, potential buyers, customers, employees, visitors, etc. To ensure that your landscape maintenance/snow removal team has the right level of expertise, resources, and experience for your property, make sure you conduct a thorough review process. The more quality information you can consider, the more informed your choices will be when making these extremely important decisions.
Know who you are hiring and how long have they been in business?  Don’t just look for longevity.  Many mediocre companies have survived a long time by churning and burning through customers.  Look for the ones that have long standing relationships with similar customers to tell you who is providing the best level of comprehensive, responsive service over the long run.
Know their professional affiliations and certifications.  Members of established and respected trade organizations are more likely to promote honest and ethical business practices.  They are also more inclined to be current in their licensing and certifications, and more aware of industry standards and technological advances to be able to handle all of your ancillary needs safely, legally, and cost effectively.
Bigger is not always better.  National and even large regional companies can talk about their size and status, but how much “hands on” interaction are you going to have with one of them?  How many layers of phone calls will it take to reach your contact, and how long will it take to get a call back?  How important will your single contract be in the scheme of a multi-million, or now with recent mergers, billion-dollar company?  A local company will more likely provide the personal contact most clients are looking for so ask for their references and find out if they answer their phones.  Will they available to you when you need them?  Is there a decision maker accessible to you when you have issues?  Will they value your business or are you just another number on a spreadsheet?
And of course, cheaper is not always better either: Landscape maintenance and snow removal contracts are by and large service based and the chief part of that service is labor.  A contractor’s hourly labor rates are a factor of how much they are they paying their people; and the overall cost of the service contract is based on much time those people will be spending on your property.  Consequently, lower priced contracts usually mean lower priced labor (less experienced/less talented) spending less time servicing your property at each visit.
Be sure you have shared expectations.  Some contractors will do whatever is in the best interest of your property while others will look to charge you for every “extra” item they can.  Many contractors offer low prices up front then make back their money by flooding you with bills for extra work that they say was not included in the contract.  Contracts are more than words on a piece of paper.  They are an extension of a relationship that must be built on trust.  If you do not trust that your contractor is treating you fairly and giving you the best value for your money, why would you be doing business with them?

AIA 2016 annual trends report

Published annually by The American Institute of Architects, the AIA home design trends survey gives insight into how the market is performing, but what customers are interested in.

This 2016 report sheds some light on the landscape industry as well.

We learn that the trend for larger homes is still on the uptick.  The trend challenges landscape architects to combat municipality’s permeable surface limitations with permeable paving or vertical gardening when creating outdoor spaces.  

Another popular trend fueled by an increase in median age is being mindful of accessibility issues.  This effects outdoor spaces as well and must be thought of ahead when creating walkways, gates, and outdoor entertainment spaces.

One of the most interesting and most pressing trends is not the increase in those interested in high end landscapes, but those that also seek ones that require low irrigation.  It is something that we hear frequently from our customers.  “I want something low maintenance.”  It is heartening to see that a sense of responsibility to environmental preservation is continuing to creep into design fields.

As design professionals it is important that we don’t design inside a box.  We try to keep abreast of all sorts of industry trends so we can deliver the most thought out products for our customers.

Chicago may break 134 year old record!

In Case You Were Wondering…if this current snow drought that we are in sets a record for longest period between snow events of 1” or more, read on.

Chicago’s official snowfall records began with the winter of 1884-85. Over these 134 years, Chicago’s longest spell without a snowfall of at least 1 inch occurred twice: 64 days from Dec. 3-Feb. 4, 1905-06, and Dec. 23-Feb. 24, 1953-54.  On Dec. 17, Chicago recorded 1.7 inches of snow, the city’s most recent snowfall of at least 1 inch. As of Feb. 16, that would be 61 days ago.  Our streak must persist for at least one more week to have a chance at setting the record.

Lest you think that my interest in snow seems self-serving (after all I am one of the managers of the best snow removal company in Illinois), there are important benefits from regular winter snowfall that we all share.

The most obvious is the moisture.  The following equation varies based on the density of the snow which is determined by the temperature, but generally, every ten inches of snowfall melts into the equivalent of one inch of rain.  Chicago has received, on average, about 36” of snow annually over the last three decades, which translates into 3.6 inches of equivalent rainfall or about 10% of our annual rainfall total.  Granted, much of our snow melts and runs off in the spring, but the snow cover prevents evaporation during the winter, conserving soil moisture.  Plus not all the snow melt runs off, further adding to soil moisture for the upcoming growing season.

Another major benefit of a good snow cover is that snow functions as an excellent insulator of the soil. Without snow, very cold temperatures can freeze the soil deeper and deeper. This could lead to damage to the root systems of trees and shrubs.  The insulation effect of snow also helps protect perennials, bulbs, ground covers, and other shallow rooted plantings from alternating freezing and thawing cycles. Without snow, milder temperatures and the sun could warm the soil surface, leading to damage from soil heaving, which can break roots and dry out plant parts.

And, lastly, snow is aesthetically pleasing.  A snow-less winter in Chicagoland is drab, dreary, and gray.  Snow brightens everything, bringing out the colors and textures of evergreens, ornamental grasses, and tree and shrub bark.  Snow cover just makes a Chicago winter more complete.

Natural Environments and Mental Health

Spiritual and emotional health are a huge part of succeeding in business and in life in general.  Much has been written about the potential benefits of incorporating specifically designated meditative environments, or mental health rooms, into the landscaping surrounding commercial office buildings or in the common areas throughout multi-family communities.  There is growing evidence to suggest that exposure to and use of these natural environments can be associated with mental health benefits that include lower levels of tension, increased potential for attention restoration, and reduced anxiety.  Additional evidence suggests that interacting with nature can improve cognition for children with attention deficits and helps individuals coping with depression.

Meditation in the workplace can help lower a company’s health-care costs by reducing chronic stress, a major risk factor for illness.  A company can improve employee morale, mental focus and sense of well-being. This can reduce the number of sick days and workplace injuries while increasing productivity.  Offering a natural space for employees to meditate, relax, reflect, unwind, ponder new ideas, or even just think, helps companies empower employees to manage their own stress and well-being.  By providing a space for these practices, the company sends a message that the well-being of its workforce is a priority, which enhances its image; aiding in the recruitment and retention of high quality talent.

By offering natural outdoor meditative rooms, a residential multi-family community can improve their marketing appeal and increase their property values, separating their association from their competition.  These separated spaces are designed to encourage restorative reflection in which a person or family can escape from the stressful demands of daily life.  Potential owners and tenants will see a benefit from having access to calm and peaceful spaces in which they can get away from the pressure of the office or home environment; to recharge and refocus.

Today’s modern work force and residential communities include people with a wide diversity of beliefs, cultures, and traditions so it is important to consider whether your outdoor “mental health” space should be tied to a specific religion or culture.  Meditation spaces can be constructed to replicate a specific cultural model or they can incorporate and combine various aspects of any number of ancient or modern cultural derivations.  While they can reflect many different themes, they usually include the use of plant selections and hard elements of varying colors, textures, and aromas.  Zen gardens use rock formations, statuary, koi ponds, and sand/gravel arrangements, or sometimes with no growing plants or water features at all.  Planted labyrinths or mazes are meditative tools serving as a metaphor for the inner maze that leads to the authentic self.  The ancient Asian philosophical practices of Feng Shui are often incorporated into the arrangement of plants, rocks, water features, benches, etc. to promote the harmony between individuals and the surrounding environment.

Whatever thematic elements you decide upon, the space needs to create a sense of separation from the rest of the landscape.  The meditative room doesn’t have to provide actual privacy so much as to feel secluded; distinctly apart to provide that feeling of “getting away”.  A different surface can accomplish that, or some form of a structural enclosure.  Running water can separate a space and its sound is a soothing way to cover up traffic or background noise.  Understated plantings around surface changes can be designed and positioned in a way to lead the visitor to a sense of arrival that psychologically isolates without necessarily creating a distinct physical separation.  A well thought out combination of these elements can often provide the most effective and enduring results.

If you like the idea of incorporating outdoor meditative spaces into the landscaping around your building or in your community, or if you simply want to start with re-creating a calming view from a conference room or lunchroom window, give ILT a call today.  You can start with a simple conversation to discuss the concept and its possibilities.  One of our experienced landscape architects will work with you through every phase of your project, from its conception to the design and construction of your meditation space, to the sound maintenance practices and periodic updating that will keep your space current, relevant, and attractive to your employees, tenants, residents, and visitors.

Call or email ILT today and let’s get you thinking about thinking!

Long Grove Bluestone Patio and Fire Pit

One of the advantages of doing great work for nice people is that they share the excitement of their new landscapes, with their families and friends…and with us through photos and videos.

These are not professionally staged photos by acclaimed photographers.  These are real photos that depict daily life, taken after they finished their cup of tea while enjoying a seat by a fire on an Autumn evening.

I love it when our customers send me these moments, because there is great satisfaction in helping them have a more enjoyable and hopefully more serene, relaxing interaction with the outdoors.

Here are two photos of a bluestone patio and custom fit pit sent to us from a customer in Long Grove, Illinois.  The landscape architects on the project were our very own Harry Vignocchi and Ken Horinko.

A great thank you to our customer for sharing them.

-Donna Vignocchi Zych

Full range ashler pattern bluestone

Granite Boulder Fire Pit embedded in bluestone patio

The Virtues of Compost

After reading a wonderful article in Lawn & Landscape Magazine about the value of soil amendments, I decided to spread the word.

We as landscape professionals tend to do and not teach.  Although constantly educating ourselves through articles, books and seminars, we don’t pass that information along to our customers as much as we should.

Many years ago we began using leaf compost for the following:

  • To amend beds where perennials, groundcovers or annuals were to be planted
  • Topdressing lawns before core aerating and/or overseeding
  • Topdressing of perennial and/or groundcover beds

These practices made notable differences in our customer’s landscapes overall heath.  For those customers with struggling lawns or lawns with a considerable amount of shade, we have found that performing core aeration, overseeding and topdressing with compost annually makes a huge difference in a lawn’s appearance.  Introducing that organic matter greatly improves turf root health.

At Virginia Tech University they are doing some very interesting testing comparing plots of turf.  One is treated only with synthetic fertilizers and lime, and the other is also amended with compost.  In the short term, the plot treated with simply synthetics thrived.  Over time however, it began to decline and the one treated with compost greatly surpassed it in quality and health.

In terms of perennials, annuals and groundcovers, they are tender in nature and our frigid Chicago winters and clay soils take a toll.  Utilizing compost as an amendment and topdressing those beds annually helps break up soils, introduces more nutrients, and gives those plants a happier medium to grow in.

Leaf Compost

Leaf compost

In case you were wondering…

First we clarified some of the terms of a typical snow removal contract.  Last week we offered some insight into the preparation process we go through at ILT internally when the weather forecast calls for a winter event.  But in case you were wondering about the operational process that takes place on the ground during a snow event, read on…

PART 3 of 3:  The operational process from flakes to finished.

Simply stated, it is our goal to remove snow and ice from parking lots, driveways, sidewalks, etc. as rapidly and efficiently as possible while ensuring the safety and mobility of the employees, tenants, and residents of our customers.  As I stated last time, and it bears repeating, it all starts with our people; dedicated, capable, accountable people who care about the work they do and take ownership over the properties for which they are responsible.

To achieve this goal, our people need the right equipment, selected for a specific purpose, and maintained to provide reliable and uninterrupted service.  ILT owns and operates a large inventory of equipment used in our snow removal operation, which is allocated to specific job sites well before the first flakes fly and much of which is stored on those sites to facilitate the operation.

Now to the operation.  Our men have been discussing the forecast, confirming manpower and equipment status, and checking site conditions as a storm approaches.  As the accumulation reaches the plowing trigger point, the crews head to their sites.  Every crew member has been assigned a specific job but because every storm behaves differently, they must be ready to shift gears and adapt to a change in the game plan at any time during the operation.  The superintendent surveys the property in general as the equipment operators jump in their machines (plow trucks, skid steers, snow blowers).  The hand shovel crews get a head start in front of the machines.  That head start is an important factor in the operation to avoid causing any damage as they work ahead of the machine operators to clear the areas in front of garage doors, windows, building entrances, and other tight places that can be risky for a skid steer or plow blade to approach closely.   Emergency exits, fire lanes, accessible parking spaces, etc. are attended to first to ensure safe and passable access for those areas.  The crews proceed from there around the site according to the predetermined plan, alternating the starting points and progression patterns from storm to storm so that no one area is serviced first for every event.

Working in conjunction with Village snow plow operators presents its own set of challenges.  It is usually the job of Village plows to clear the streets in an office park or residential community, which can work to our benefit or detriment depending on the timing of their operation.  It is important for our crews to try and learn the patterns of the Village plows to minimize the frequency of return visits to clean up areas that we have already cleared that have since been closed off by the street plows.

All of our men carry cell phones to communicate their progress to their supervisors, relay issues that arise, and to provide frequent status updates to the Snow Commander and Sales Manager throughout the course of the operation.  Our customer service team stays available 24/7 to field phone calls, text messages, and emails from our customers who may have special needs or specific requests.  Those are relayed immediately to the site superintendent for resolution.

When the site superintendent feels like his crew is reaching a completion point, he will make one more pass around the entire property, checking to ensure that everything is clean and passable and that all of the details have been addressed.  Once the superintendent confirms that the snow has stopped and been cleared to the point where ice melt can be applied effectively, he will instruct his crews to begin that operation.  Generally, rock salt is applied to asphalt roads and a chloride based product is applied to concrete walks, drives, stoops, etc.  Material in parking lots is applied from tailgate or truck bed spreaders while pedestrian areas are treated by hand to minimize spill over onto grass or planting beds.

The snow has stopped, the storm is over, the pavement is clear and wet, and it is time for ILT’s crews to head out.  Reserve crews are kept available to handle return visits and/or drifting and icing issues as they may arise during the course of the following day.    Another successful effort by the ILT SNOW TEAM!

Favorite Plant Series: Taxodium distichum

One of my favorite trees is Taxodium distichum, or Baldcypress (also Bald Cypress). Once you recognize it, it’s always a delight to see. Baldcypress has the rare distinction of being a stand-out tree in virtually any type of setting or application. Alone or in groups, in formal or naturalistic settings, urban or wild, Baldcypress often becomes the focal point of a well-thought-out planting design. Part of that distinction arises from the fact that it has yet to have been overplanted – at least in Chicagoland-area landscapes – and is often greeted with delightful curiosity by the uninitiated.

While such a versatile tree, there are limitations to Baldcypress’s use given its eventual size and habit. Growing 50’-70’ by 20’-30’ wide, Baldcypress takes on a mostly pyramidal shape. While tall, it may not perform as a traditional shade/canopy tree for many years, if at all. Although the northernmost portion of Baldcypress’s native range is technically southern Illinois, the tree does quite well in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. Baldcypress does well in wet, dry, and well-drained soil conditions and is relatively salt-tolerant.

Leaves in springtime are a bright yellow-green and eventually turn a medium sage green come summer. The leaves turn orange-brown in autumn and hold for a while before dropping as winter approaches. Interestingly, Baldcypress (along with its cousin Dawn Redwood, also hardy in this area) is one of only a few varieties of cone-bearing trees that lose its leaves in the winter. Seeing the small ½” – 1” cones Baldcypress produces adds to the surprising nature of the tree. The reddish-brown bark with a fibrous nature can be striking in winter.

Famed modernist landscape architects such as Dan Kiley and Peter Walker used Baldcypress in formal, urban settings (see Fountain Place in Dallas and water features outside UBS Tower in Chicago – see picture). Locally, the Heritage Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden features a pruned baldcypress hedge, now several decades old. Such formal cues can be also adapted to residential settings, as well as using Baldcypress as a standalone specimen tree or loose grouping. With such versatility, Baldcypress might be the “problem solving” tree for your landscape.

Taxodium form

baldcypress_chicago

Bald cypress in the landscape

Up close of the leaf

Written by Ken Horinko, ASLA
Landscape Architect