Can I Dig in the Garden?



With the first warmish days finally appearing, I’ve had several customers text or email to ask if they can begin working in the garden. We are all so anxious for spring, and the emergence of snowdrops (pictured) is the first sign that the soil is warming up.

But it is too early right now because the ground is too wet. Working in the garden under current conditions will damage the soil structure that is so important to plants at all times (but especially in spring as they break dormancy). While you are waiting, think about the soil, or take some time to find out more about soil, which is the critical foundation to your entire garden.

We all know that soil differs from one region to another, depending on its content of clay, sand and silt. Because you are a gardener, you are already well acquainted with the clay-like consistence of Chicago area soils! But that’s not all. Soil that is good for gardening also contains organic matter (bacteria, fungi, and millions of small one-celled creatures, insects and earthworms that relate to each other in what we call the soil food web). Healthy soil must have space between particles for these organisms — especially the earthworms — to move around. Space between soil particles also allows for the movement of water and air within the soil. Think of the soil not just as the mass that you can see if you grab a handful, but a collection of organisms and chemicals that move around in a dark universe where the roots of plants extend tiny hairs into open spaces to absorb nutrients and water. It’ the best way to imagine what might happen when you step on a patch of wet soil in the spring. Your shoes get muddy, yes. But more important, the spaces within the soil get squished. This is not good news for the delicate plants that are trying to emerge.

This is my first blog to help you imagine the soil and what is really going on there. It explains why you cannot work in the garden just yet, why your should always spread your weight by walking on a board when you CAN get in the garden, and why we no longer recommend rototiling the soil — all these practices cause soil compaction — the breakdown the soil spaces. Foot traffic is the #1 culprit.

Soil compaction starves your plants of oxygen, water and organic nutrients. Why does this matter? Here are some of the results of soil compaction:

  • A decreases in soil organisms that over time decreases the organic matter in the soil. Your soil gasps for life and eventually becomes dead. Nothing good is going on in there.

  • Earthworms die or leave your yard for better digs. You no longer have the very best of natural soil tillers at work in your garden!

  • Plants gasp for air. Even the newly planted ones that you just got at the local garden center don’t grow, turn yellow, and die.

  • When it rains, the water sits on top of your garden beds. you have puddles. Water meant for the plants to drink cannot get to their roots.

  • Underground, the shrubs you plant this season are resting on hardpan dirt (not soil). Water collects under them and cannot drain away. Their roots are drowning, but you cannot see that. You see them wilt and die and you don’t know why.

When CAN you work in the garden? A simple “ball test” will help you know when it’s safe. Scoop as small amount of soil into your palm and roll it into a ball. If the ball stays together, the soil is still too wet to work. If it falls apart, you’re good to go.

More on soil to come. For now, enjoy the emerging snowdrops, crocus, and — soon to be featured — spring ephemeral wildflowers.

5 Ways to Be a Sustainable Gardener in 2019

It’s time to begin thinking about the 2019 garden. If you are new to sustainable gardening, or if you want to introduce others to how to be more sustainable, here are the places to start:

  1. Mulch grass clippings into your lawn. This is the most basic thing for everyone to do. If your landscape crew rakes and disposes of grass clippings, you are giving away the best source of nitrogen in your yard. Ask your crew foreman to use a mulching mower, and if your company does not have them, ask them to buy one. If they won’t do so, look elsewhere! Over time, using your own grass clippings will help you reduce the cost of lawn fertilization significantly.

  2. Make compost and use it to fertilize your soil. This is another way to save money and it’s not hard with the wide variety of compost bins on the market today. Start small and increase your operation as you learn.

  3. Use native plants. If you are just starting out, commit to trying a few native plants in your garden where you have space. Here are a few that are easy to grow and adaptable; purple coneflower, bee balm, coreopsis, black-eyed Susan, butterfly weed and Summer Beauty allium. These all grow in dry to medium sites and they like half or full day sun.

  4. Conserve water by installing a rain barrel and using its contents first and watering only in the early morning or evening.. You can go even further to conserve water by using drip irrigation on your garden and NOT watering your lawn. We’ll have more to say about the lawn in a future post.

  5. Provide for the birds, butterflies and bees by giving them food and water sources in your yard. If you follow step #3, your plants will be providing food! Then all you need to do is install a bird bath. For butterfly water, invert a wine bottle and bury it most of the way. Then fill the bottom indentation with a small amount of water.

Read The Hole Story

Sage Advice principal Carol Becker has been published this month in Landscape Architecture Magazine. Her story about how the Hornsby Quarry in New South Wales, Australia, moved from an accidental money pit to the best new thing Australia has to offer in the way of parkland is all about politics, geology, preservation and conservation, and the best in landscape architecture idea-making. You can read it here.

Photo courtesy of Hornsby Shire Council


Gardening for Birds and Bees with Sage Advice July 14

You've probably heard about Colony Collapse Disease in beehives, but did you know that we've also lost half of all songbird species in the U. S. in the last 50 years? You can help reverse these trends! Sage Advice will be teaching a class on the morning of July 14th at The Morton Arboretum on Gardening for Birds and Bees. You'll learn why birds and bees are crucual to gardens and to human life, and you'll gain techniques for attracting them to your garden. Come join us on July 14th from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Register here

Do you need a soil test?

We had a great class at the Morton Arboretum last Friday, and while we were planning front gardens for all 20 students, we got into talking about soil testing. Everyone in this class has a new build or a mature landscape that has been long in need of a spruce up! Both of these scenarios require a soil test to know how to care for the soil. After all, in a sustainable garden, it's the soil that nurtures the plants.

Soil tests can be simple or very complex, and what you choose to do should depend on your specific questions. We typically recommend a high level lab test if you have never had one done and you want to know about the overall health of your garden soil. On the other hand, if you are only testing for lead content in an area where you plant to do edible gardening, less expensive tests are available. Finally, if you want to do a simple test on your own, you can buy a do-it-yourself kit at your garden center.

Proceed as follows: Select an area where you want the soil tested. This should be one garden bed or an area not bigger than 150 sq. ft. And remember tat the topsoil is what you are testing -- the darkest and topmost area in the cross-section shown above. Dig down about 4 inches in 3 or 4 spots in the area you want tested, and take a half cup or so of soil from each. Mix well and place a total of about 2 cups of the mix in a PAPER bag. Seal the bag and place in a mailing box. Send this to the lab. If you need to test other areas, send a sample in this fashion for EACH area you want tested.

You can find reputable labs on Google, or by checking with your local garden center or conservation associations. Sage Advice can also recommend soil test agencies.

Congratulations to our client


Congratulations Carol!

Carol Receives the Woman of the Year Award at the CLC Annual meeting December 7th

Sage Advice is proud to be the landscape company of choice for Carol Calabresa, who has just been honored by Conserve Lake County as their Woman of the Year, for her 30-plus years of community service in support of conservation initiatives in Lake County. Carol has served on the Conserve Lake County Board, the Forest Preserve Board, and the Lake County Board, where she is still a Trustee.

Sage Advice has worked for the past several years helping Carol and her husband Bill build a completely new residential landscape with native shrubs and forbs, on their property in Libertyville, Illinois.

Are You Planting Milkweed?


From New Terrain, a newsletter of Ball Publishing: As many as 1.8 billion additional stems of milkweed plants in North America may return imperiled Monarch butterflies to a sustainable population size, according to a recently published U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study. Habitat plants in the Monarch’s Midwestern flyway are most important.

“Milkweeds in corn and soybean fields produce more Monarch eggs than milkweeds located in non-agricultural areas,” Wayne Thogmartin, USGS Research Ecologist, said in a USGS press release.

“Competing demands for space in these agricultural locations limit the highly desirable habitat available to milkweeds and Monarchs.”

More than 860 million milkweeds were lost in the northern United States over the last decade. Scientists with the USGS and collaborators examined the density of Eastern migratory Monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico from 1979-2002 and the amount of milkweed plants available to them in North America. The study found that 3.62 billion milkweeds are needed to reestablish the Monarch population, but only 1.34 billion remain in the U.S.

Act Sustainably in Your Garden!

Winter is a great time to re-assess what you are doing to promote sustainability in the environment. Every gardener can do this, and it doesn't need to be hard. Here are a few things to think about for next year!

Do you have a rain barrel? Do you compost in your yard? Are you returning the nitrogen in grass clippings back into your soil by using a mulching mower? Have you added native plants to your garden, to help attract butterflies and bees? Would a rain garden help the drainage in your yard?

These are a few questions that might help you think about sustainability!

It takes a village to help the Monarchs

Carol Becker and Cindy Grau, from the  Go Green Park Ridge Committee A single seedling with great rooting!

Sage Advice pleased to be able to offer help to an energetic committee in Park Ridge Illinois that is working to increase awareness of sustainability in our home suburb! One of the major projects of the committee this year is their Milkweed Project. The goal is to distribute 500 milkweed plants throughout the community this summer to help support Monarch butterflies. Committee members collected seeds last fall and this spring worked with Pizzo Native Plant Nursery who generously offered to stratify and germinate the seeds at their facility in Leland, Illinois. Plants will be ready in June for distribution throughout the community. Lurvey Landscape Supply in Des Plaines has offered to provide individual pots for seedings, and plants will be ready for distribution throughout the community in June. Committee members recently donated a day to help Pizzo Nursery transplant more than 8000 seedings into plug trays.

Thousands of plugs are replanted each day in spring.

Daylilies always brighten the garden

hannah banana

hannah banana

We had the rare privilege of visiting recently with daylily expert Ann Redmon from Manhattan Kansas. Ms. Redmon has cross-bred many daylilies to create new varieties, and has registered four of them. Pictured here is one of her registered lilies, called "Hannah Banana." Daylilies are great in any garden. But remember, you want cultivated varieties, not the common and very tall orange "ditch lilies" that spread by rhizomes and crowd out cultivated plants. Daylilies are easy to care for and add bright spots of midsummer color in shades of yellow, orange, red, white, pink, even green like this one, and combinations of these colors.

Sage Advice teaches Landscape for Life™ Classes

Carol Becker, owner at Sage Advice, will once again be teaching Landscape for Life™ this spring. This series is designed for homeowners, and will teach you how to attract beneficial insects and birds, eliminate water problems, build healthy soil, cultivate a safe lawn, and reduce maintenance time in your garden.

Lurvey Landscape Supply 2550 Dempster St., Des Plaines, will offer the series in their new garden center starting April 2 and running for four consecutive Saturday mornings from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Ms. Becker will teach all classes. Sign up HERE

The Morton Arboretum will offer the series starting April 19 in four evening classes from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and a final class on Saturday April 30 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Ms. Becker will be teaching the final class in this series. Sign up HERE.

Join us to learn how to create a great looking garden that's healthier for you, your family, your pets, you pocketbook and the environment.

Here's how you can support pollinators


Native plants play a special role for pollinators in providing habitat for their own life cycle. We are all most familiar with the necessity of having milkweed available to support the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly. Monarchs cannot survive without milkweed to support the caterpillar that eventually becomes a Monarch butterfly. Other insects, including the all-important pollinating bees, also require specific native plants for their life cycle. We can help them by including some native plants in our gardens. Here’s a list to get you started: milkweed, including butterfly weed, swamp milkweed, and common milkweed; thistle (as pictured); coneflower, particularly the native purple coneflower; monarda, coreopsis, foxglove penstemon; black-eyed Susan, and several grasses including little bluestem, panicum, prairie dropseed, and June grass.

Roof Gardens for Residential Sites

We're pleased to present new pictures of Sage Advice Test Gardens, where we develop design solutions, test plants, and practice sustainability techniques. garden-24

In these views you can see the roof garden, built 4 seasons ago to test techniques for building a small roofgarden on a shed or playhouse. During the last four seasons we have tested and retested plants the work in this environment, and we've identified those that flouish with little or no care.



Using native plants in landscape design


Try these!

Native plants for color and variety

A customer who has lots of coneflowers and coreopsis in his native plant garden recently asked me for a list of less common wildflowers that would add color to his summer garden, and I worked up this list: Asclepias tuberosa (shown above) -- this is the midsummer blooming orange butterfly weed that goes well with coneflowers and coreopsis

Amsonia -- there are several native versions of this plant, commonly called bluestar. Amsonia illustris or Amsonia tabernaemontana are two that come to mind. Amsonia bloom right alongside and among the coreopsis and spreads nicely among other plants.

Monarda bradburiana (above) is a beautiful and less common native beebalm if you can get it. The color of the leaves is a darker almost smoky green and it forms a nice clump.

Indian physic, Porteranthus stipulatus is a delicate plant with feathery leaves that forms a nice, airy clump among your grasses and has small starry white flowers. It's captivating among other wildflowers.

Also plant some native asters for fall color. Sky blue aster, Symphyotrychium oolentangiense is a nice, delicate blue but can spread quite annoyingly if conditions are right. New England Aster, Symphyotrychium novae-angliae or smooth blue aster Symphyotrychium laeve are also options.

What about water?

Water is scarce and valuable in Australia. This country, the size of the U.S., is divided into only six states and its population is just under 23 million. One of the fastest growing states is New South Wales, where new homes are now required to have tanks for gray water, which is used for many purposes in the home, and not just watering the garden!

This is not news in South Australia, the "driest state in the driest inhabited continent on earth," says the website

South Australia is "also feeling the added pressures of climate change, drought and a growing population." People here routinely haul water to fill tanks for gray water usage -- it's a generations-old practice, nothing new and nothing out of the ordinary. It's what you do when underground aquifers are non-existent and all water needs are met by the rivers, which in turn are dependent on rainfall to maintain a level that can supply the population with H2O!

The droughts on the past two years are the harbingers of this kind of change in the U.S. if we don't become better stewards fast.

Daily life in a dry land

It is clear to me on this first trip to Australia that folks here are used to conservation. Even before we got here we could tell. On the airplane, most paper is placed in recycle bags by passengers. Cans and bottles are recycled separately. Once on the ground we quickly learned that ALL toilets in Australia are dual flush, and at public venues, all paper products AND utensils sold at coffee shops and take out windows are compostable. Cups are always recyclable. EVERYWHERE, even street corners, we see three bins to sort trash, recycling and composting.