Category Archives: yard preparations

Tree from hell?

Well, that’s what I like to call them. But their common name is Tree of heaven, while your horticulturist or arborist may refer to their proper botanical name: Ailanthus altissima.

Why don’t I like this species? Because they are the quintessential weed tree. They produce seeds in large numbers that readily germinate. Those that survive and grow on are usually in undisturbed places, right along building foundations, path edges, fence lines, etc.


You blink once and the tender seedling has grown into a small plant. You turn your head away for too long, and the small plants explodes into a small tree. They do this so fast that people often give up removing them because they now seem to big to rip out.


And it’s not just the Tree of heaven. Other common weed tree species that exhibit this tendency are Mulberry trees, Elm trees, and some maples.

We had one massive Tree of heaven and a Mulberry tree at the northwest corner of our house with roots all the way into our basement. Both trees made me real nervous and I had them taken down.

All I had left now was one larger Tree of heaven in the southeast corner of our vacant lot that I wanted to see go too.

Please don’t conclude that I just don’t like trees. I do like them, but they need to be in the right place and a suitable species. Cathy and I were eager to have an apple tree in that back corner, so calling in the chain saw wasn’t a hard decision.

To make sure the Tree of heaven doesn’t grow back from the stump we spent a few extra dollars and had it ground out. I remember digging up stumps like this in the old days. But I have to admit, I like standing near the stump grinder and watching the wood chips fly much better!

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Soothing an itch

Not all decisions are rational.

I finished the hardscape components of our parkway rain gardens just before winter came knocking on our door. The softscape installation, i.e. planting the rain garden, had to wait till the start of the next growing season. That would have been the rational approach.


But my green thumbs were itching so badly that I had to scratch away at rational – at least a little bit. So I went ahead and planted two Baptisia australis for an early summer show and two Amsonia hubrichtii for texture fall interest. Despite the late fall planting, both species came out the gates in a strong fashion in earlier spring.


The one rational panting I indulged in late last fall where my friends the geophytes. Cathy scored a bag of daffodils and alliums, which needed to hit the ground in autumn.

Let’s see how long this will sooth the itching…

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Finishing weaving and a closing thought

In our trilogy of parkway rain gardens, I had one more cell to go, which is also the largest cell. Snow was looming on the horizon and I was hoping to finish the weaving of the fence panels before I would freeze my fingers off.

Well, I got done just in time, but I had to wait all winter before I could fully vegetate the rain garden cell. This was a test of my patience.


Building the parkway knee fence and rain garden cells took me down memory lane – to our sustainable pilot project, One Drop at a Time, in Elmhurst, Ill. The rain gardens, green roof, rain barrels, and porous pavement at this project caught quite a little bit of attention.


The running joke was that whenever I stepped into the front yard of the Elmhurst project I got no work done because of the questions from, and conversations with, passers-by. Thirty minutes of uninterrupted work was unheard of.

Fast forward to our Chicago project: As I mentioned in the last blog post, I began to enjoy plenty of interaction with passers-by while working on the parkway fence. By my observation, the volume of conversations, the level of curiosity, and number of compliments seemed no different than what I had experienced in Elmhurst.

Yet these two communities, North Lawndale and Elmhurst, have completely different demographics and appear to be at opposite ends in the income spectrum.

To demonstrate the point, I picked data from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) Community Data Snapshots and summarized them in the table below.

For complete data set on North Lawndale, see:

For complete data set on Elmhurst, see:

This brings me full circle and back to the quote by the late Charles Leeks, former director of the North Lawndale NHS office.

“People who live in poor communities […] are entitled to good design. I’d love to see good buildings, an aesthetically engaging place. … [A] smart, clever, interesting place to live—and one that looks good.”


In this highly segregated environment, whether it is racial or income related, it is easy to overlook that some things are universal. We all share a thirst for an expression of care in our landscape combined with physical expressions that instill beauty, and a landscape that stimulates.

Just because North Lawndale doesn’t have the resources for attractive landscapes doesn’t mean that they would not be appreciated.

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Talking while weaving

Even though the weather was turning cooler, I just got warmed up weaving the fence panels on our first rain garden cell in the parkway. Now that I had figured out the details and nuances, I was on a roll – or should I say loom?

And with each panel completed, our parkway landscape started to look better, even though I had nothing planted yet.


We are always interested in community outreach, sharing with others what we are doing and why. We use this blog as a community outreach tool. We had several open houses where we invited the community to see our progress for themselves and ask us questions. I still accommodate groups that are interested in touring our project.

Despite all these efforts, we’ve had a hard time reaching the community closest to us, our neighbors in North Lawndale. Interest in and awareness of what we are doing to the house, and why, has grown over the years. But in the busy lives of our neighbors, and everyone’s daily struggle, the deep energy retrofit subject was not a priority. Plus, some of its aspects are rather abstract and eventually hidden behind drywall. There are few visuals that get people excited about, with the exception of our heating bill.

But once I started to work on the parkway rain gardens, interaction skyrocketed. I was doing stuff that was hard to overlook and that nobody expected to see in the neighborhood. Passers-by wanted to know what I was up to.


Interactions ranged from compliments on our work, to questions about what we were doing. Compliments and questions came from grown ups passing by and the kids leaving school down the street from us. A number of times, parents picking up their kids from school took them over to the parkway when I was working and asked me to explain to them what I was doing.

And of course, I mentioned the four brothers who helped me excavate the rain garden. We had some really good conversations, and they riddled me with questions until there was nothing left of me.

This was the fun part of putting the fence together, and I really enjoyed it!

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Not quite a basket case

I need willow branches – a whole lot of willow branches that I can weave into my prepared parkway fence panels.

As it so happens, we live right next to Douglas Park, one of Chicago’s great city parks. And through some mysteriously lucky circumstances, a landscape crew started to clear the invasive brush in the natural areas of the park last fall. That included large stands of willow.

I walked over to the crew supervisor and asked if he would mind if I pulled some willow branches out of the brush piles they cut. He didn’t mind at all, and so began another seemingly endless salvaging project of mine.

To make the weaving work, I had to get branches that were as long as or longer than the panel section. That would allow me to weave it from that start to the end of each panel.

I have shorter panels of four and a half feet (perpendicular to the road) and longer panels of up to seven feet (parallel to the road). The shorter panels require shorter willow branches, which are also generally thinner and thus easier to bend. I subsequently spaced the rebar in the short panels six inches on center. That was almost too tight as I sometimes had difficulties pulling the willow through.

The rebar in the longer panels was spaced 12 inches on center to accommodate the longer and thus thicker willow branches. That spacing made bending and the weaving process pretty smooth.

To get each panel filled evenly, I had to alternate a thick willow end with a thin willow end. And I had to make sure that each woven branch was firmly pushed down.

Once a panel was filled, I cut of the willow ends, pushed them in and locked them in place with a three quarter by three quarter blocking. That gave each panel a nice finish.

If you have read some of my previous posts, you know that I was concerned about the rebar being snatched by scavengers. Well, let me tell you, the friction of the woven willow panel makes it virtually impossible to pull out that rebar. The only way to remove it would be to remove the willow first. I don’t think anyone is going to bother with that.

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