One secret makes Susan Brunstrum's garden look more mature than its tender age: She moved 35 bushes and 750 perennials from her old house when she downsized to a 1920s cottage in the heritage area of Libertyville.
This from a woman who "wanted a new, fresh look" so badly her daughter's bedroom set was the only furniture that made the move.
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"Plants are living things, and I don't think we think about the money we put into our gardens over the years. I put quite a bit of myself into the gardens, and this was a way of taking it with me."
Describing herself as "very particular," the designer and owner of sweetpeasdesign in Libertyville sees so many products and finished projects that she knows what she likes.
And she likes peonies, hostas, serviceberries, magnolias, hydrangeas, pachysandra, lungwort, iris, black-eyed Susan, coneflowers, perennial geraniums. daisies, grasses, forget-me-nots, ajuga and coleus. The list goes on and on.
However, this gardener is not a plant collector. She likes old-fashioned "regular" versions of her favorites, but once she finds something she likes, she tends to buy more. Thus the five or six types of thyme in the yard and a calendar note to walk by next spring when the peonies are blooming.
"My goal is to not see ground -- I like a very full lush look, almost like an English cottage garden, not formal, a natural look," said Brunstrum.
"I don't like rows of anything. I like clumps and clusters. If I plant one of anything, I want it up the path, here and here, balance but not symmetry."
And you might guess, creating and maintaining this look requires discipline.
When the family who bought her previous house two years ago showed a lack of enthusiasm for gardening, that made it easier for Brunstrum to decide to take the bushes and plants she had nurtured and had planted "exactly where I wanted them at the old house."
Of course the busy business owner does not do all of this herself, especially since this smaller house has a larger lot than she gardened before. She turns to Suzanne Deichl of Suzennials in Libertyville and Raul Valdivia of Valdivia Landscaping in Round Lake.
"The three of us work as a team and collaborate," said Brunstrum. "It's a team decision to lay out the gardens and select the bed size for the perennials and what bushes go where."
Brunstrum thought the front of the bungalow seemed narrow and unimportant on the lot. She widened it by adding shutters to the windows and creating curved beds in front.
A fan of soft lines, she replaced the straight concrete sidewalk to the street with a graceful flagstone path.
But the brilliant change that "not many people know you can do" was covering the concrete front steps with flagstone.
And then she did something that made her landscape team shake their heads. She had two round urns -- about 30 inches tall and the same diameter -- that a client had rejected.
"'But Susan ... your client didn't like them because they were too big for the house, and her house was four times the size of yours with a big, curved driveway,'" Brunstrum reports her team saying.
Brunstrum prevailed and thinks the urns -- which seem like concrete but can be left outside in the winter -- "anchor the house and make a statement."
Here are Brunstrum's secrets: "Really good mushroom compost," a few Osmocote pellets in the hole when something is planted and -- especially important this year -- a watering system.
And here's a bit of good luck that befell Brunstrum's backyard, which was just planted last October.
Neighbors wanted to build a garage in a place that would impact a few other yards, including Brunstrum's. The neighbors were required to regrade the affected yards. Brunstrum lost 12 apple trees that were planted in rows, not her style. To replace them, she insisted on 12 trees of her choice. These include ginkgo, chestnut, two birches, redbuds and Fort McNair horse chestnut.
Although designers are known for their desire to have everything turn out the way they plan it, this one likes the surprises that nature brings to her garden each year.
"Every year your garden is different because the growing season is different. Something that looks wonderful this year next year won't look so great."