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Making the GRADE

By Stephen Kelly, managing editor

The grading elevation of the back left corner of the property is 111 feet; the pool coping is at 103.5 ft., or 7 ft. 6 in. lower than the back property line. The top of foundation for the house is 104 ft., with the finished floor at 104.96. Toward the front, the elevation drops from 104.96 ft. at the finished floor to 95 ft. at the street, nearly a 10 ft. differential. The property's grading extremes are 16 feet.

How a firm acquires such a big, involved project is always of interest. “We were referred by a friendly competitor,” Tim Thoelecke Jr., APLD, ASLA, president and founder of Garden Concepts, told LCN. “It was beyond her comfort level. There’s a lot of liability on a project this size,” he added.

The home was “deep in zone 5,” I learned, meaning the lowest winter temperatures in the area, a definite consideration for installation materials in this part of the country.

“Their goal [the client] and ultimately our mission, was to create a private place of beauty that would also be conducive to entertaining and express their pride in the home,” explained Mr. Thoelecke. The result was what he called an “understated elegance inherent in the landscape,” and, as you’ll see, that took some doing.

The property was partially wooded and poorly graded. The back yard was nearly 50 percent scrub woods, and sloped not only directly toward the house, but also to the west. Grading solved the standing water problem and created some ‘table land’ that made the yard more usable and attractive.

“Because of the severe slopes, and the terracing required to make it usable, the landscape had to fit the grades,” Mr. Thoelecke noted. “We created very deliberate relationships between the house and landscape by way of axes, carefully placed focal points, and interrelated garden ‘rooms.’”

The pie-shaped property, a narrow frontage with a large back yard, resides on a cul de sac lot. The back yard presented the major obstacle. Here, the neighbor’s property was 6&8 feet above the client’s foundation, plus the clients back yard severely sloped. When it rained, water cascaded down the slope. The soils here are clay, so an avalanche of water would pour into the back yard. From the kitchen, the clients could look out and see standing water, not desirable in any regard, but, as Tim pointed out, this is the land of West Nile virus, spread by the state “bird” (mosquitoes). And then, when it really rained, what Tim called a “gully washer,” mud would join in on the fun.

The bluestone path leads from the driveway to the side of the home and exits to the pool. The red flowering perennial is false goatsbeard. The limestone outcropping retaining wall is at the center. White pine, apple serviceberry and linden trees are also pictured.

The practical solution was to swale the neighbor’s property and drain it off elsewhere, but that was not something the uphill neighbor wanted to do. “Blast you, uphill neighbor.”

Green Concepts had no choice but to swale the clients’ back yard on each side of the house and run catch basins and drainage pipes to divert the water away from the house. Only recently, three years after the work was completed, the neighbor “allowed” the client to pay to swale the neighbor’s property. “Blast you, again, uphill neighbor.”

The city required a fence around the pool, or the property. To fence the varying sloped property was not practical. This attractive black powder coated iron fencing varies from four to five feet high, depending on the grading level.

“Function was a critical design goal,” Mr. Thoelecke told LCN. “What existed prior to our arrival was largely unusable, particularly the back yard. The property was partially wooded and poorly graded. The back yard was nearly 50 percent scrub woods, and sloped not only directly toward the house, but also to the west,” he explained.

About 400 cubic yards of debris was removed from the property. “Great care was taken to preserve the handful of desirable trees, and existing serviceable plants were transplanted where it made sense,” Mr. Thoelecke explained. Most of the existing trees were not considered valuable&boxelder, buckthorn and green ash&and were removed to make way for Norway spruces, strategically placed to create privacy. Other trees in the back yard include oak; linden; purple beech; river beech; service berries; crab apples, and Hawthorns.

The front of the home before and after. The white slabs of rock are Eden outcropping stone quarried in Wisconsin in 2-6 ft. lengths by 8-10 in. thick; 61 tons were placed. The purple/pink shrub to the left is Spirea x bumalda (Froebelli). The ornamental trees to the right are Japanese flowering crabapple, and red jewel crab.

The severe pitch and hole in the back yard required a grading plan from a civil engineer, although the municipality, surprisingly, did not require a grading plan. Mr. Thoelecke explained that each home is assessed on a case-by-case basis. With the Lake Forest residence, the homeowner signed a liability wavers not to hold the city responsible for the grading, relying on Garden Concepts to do a competent job. As it turned out, not having to file a grading plan had it benefits, as there were a number of gradig changes to the plan as the project moved along.

“Regrading not only solved a major water problem, but also created some 'table land’ that made the yard more usable and attractive,” Mr. Thoelecke told LCN. “When you push earth around, you destroy the top soil. You can save some of it and put it back, but there wasn't much top soil to begin with.” He estimates importing 264 cubic yards of topsoil.

Mr. Thoelecke specified that after the grading work, the elevation of the back left corner of the property is 111 feet; the pool coping is at 103.5 ft., or 7 ft. 6 in. lower than the back property line. The top of foundation for the house is 104 ft., with the finished floor at 104.96. Moving to the front, the grade drops from 104.96 ft. at the finished floor to 95 ft. at the street, nearly 10 feet. The extremes of the grade are 16 feet.

The juxtaposition of bluestone, brick and the iron bench is a strong, clean design. The white flowering plants are young Hosta siebodiana (Frances Williams), a common but dramatic hosta whose leaves can grow two feet tall. The area is bordered with a formal boxwood hedge; the ground cover is Waldsteinia ternate (barren strawberry).

The grading made way for a lawn and a pool/spa installation. Garden Concepts designed a 20×40 foot pool, a spa, and a barbecue, built into the masonry of the seat wall that surrounds the spa. Mr. Thoelecke learned about pool design from working with a local pool builder. As the homeowner wanted a automatic cover for the pool, the design was rectangular, however, Mr. Thoelecke nestled the pool into the slope near the property line with the neighbor to help with storm water management and to effectively cut off the neighbor's open view of the pool, a privacy touch appreciated by the client. Bluestone steps lead down to the pool area.

The city required a fence around the pool, or around the property. Because of the varying slope of the property's perimeter, a fence around the property wasn’t as practical as fencing the pool area. The attractive black powder-coated iron fencing is on several grade levels. Garden Concepts designed the height of the fencing in proportion to the grading (four feet minimum, five-feet maximum), an effect that makes the fencing appear the same height.

Mr. Thoelecke added a few fun touches. You can sit in the spa and use a remote to change the colors of the pool's fiber optic lighting.

The driveway goes right by the front door, not an ideal design. There was no room for a circular driveway, often an appealing option, plus there was a steep grade change from house foundation to the street level.

The steps and pool deck are in bluestone with brick accents that exactly match the brick of the house. The trees here are river birches, the two just outside the fence are “bookends” to balance the view from the house. The shrub rose (flower carpet pink) highlight the ends of the pool; other plants include pink geraniums, hypericum, fothergilla, bugleweed, St. John’s wort and cotoneaster.

“The local regulations are very particular about setbacks, even for paving,” Mr. Thoelecke explained. “Driveways must be 15 feet from the property line.”

The driveway stayed where it was, but was redone in brick. The drop toward the street required a grade beam to support the driveway.

“The clients wanted the house to be the dominant point of the property, so all front yard plantings are deliberately low or horizontal in form,” Mr. Thoelecker noted. “Some trees were moved to create more openness,” he added.

The entry steps were redesigned to be “more friendly and better match the house.” The risers were lowered and brick was used that exactly matched the house bricks. “We redid the bluestone paving and added an arched gate to match those in back,” Mr. Thoelecke explained. “The gate design came from the arched windows on the side of the house. You will find this circle, semicircle theme repeated throughout the site.”

The clients wanted a simple, uncluttered, subdued plant palette, what Mr. Thoelecke called “disciplined.”

Three forms of white flowering trees connect different parts of the garden: The smaller trees are Malus sargentii, the taller ones are the Donald Wyman crab; in the distance to the right is the Malus floribunda crab.

“Plants were chosen because of known disease resistance, so chemicals used in maintenance would be kept to a minimum,” he said. “Professional maintenance services average 12 man hours per week in season, plus winter pruning. That may seem like a lot of time, but the property is very large, and the owners prefer a very manicured appearance. There are no unusually invasive plants, no perennials that need staking, nothing that takes an unreasonable amount of effort to maintain disease or pest-free.”

The appetite of deer was even taken into effect: no wildlife smorgasbord this. The clients report that the deer to not find the plantings to their taste.

Garden Concept designed and contracted the entire installation (seven months) and, as Tim Thoelecke said “massaged the design into place.”

When it came to materials, there was no skimping: 61 tons of Eden outcropping stone from Wisconsin (large slabs of white rock 2-6 feet in length by 8-10 inches thick; 5,300 square feet of driveway; 2,600 square feet of bluestone paving; iron fencing (powder coated); nearly 200 low-voltage landscape lighting fixtures (uplighting, downlighting from trees, but little in the way of path lighting, a design that “ends up looking like a runway,” mused Mr. Thoelecke); and more drainage pipe than anyone wants to count. Garden Concepts even coordinated new gutters and an electrical service upgrade for the house.

About Garden Concepts

Garden Concepts, a Chicago-area based landscape design and installation firm established in 1989, specializes in custom residential work. The company is substantial enough to handle large, complicated projects, like the Lake Forest home in this feature and a number of out-of-state projects, but not so big that it neglects the personal attention clients desire. Accessible, accountable and reliable, that’s Carden Concepts.

Garden Concepts realizes that a home owner’s commitment to professional landscaping is an important and expensive proposition. The firm’s mission is to create high quality residential landscapes that are attractive and functional, coupled with a highly competent installation, all the while respecting client wishes and the environment.

The firm is design-build, but “design-driven,” whether it’s swimming pools, outdoor lighting, patios, decks and driveways or planting and irrigation. Some clients seek out only their design expertise, but most clients also choose Garden Concepts for the installation. The firm has a network of competent subcontractors, allowing the flexibility to handle many different landscape elements and also work on projects out of its immediate geographic area.

Garden Concepts tore up the old driveway and replaced it with 5,300 square feet of brick. The drop toward the street required a grade beam to support the driveway. A decorative brick circle is being prepared below.

Timothy Thoelecke Jr., is the firm’s president and founder. He is the past-president and certified member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD), a certified arborist; a full member of the American Society of Landscape Architects; and serves on the board of the Landscape Design Association. He’s a member of the Garden Writers Association (GWA) and has written for Landscape Architect and Specifier News, Pool & Spa News, American Nurseryman and Crain ’s Chicago Business. He lectures at industry conferences, and has addressed the Morton Arboretum and Chicago Botanic Garden.

He was recently hired to provide text for an upcoming landscape book from the “This Old House” television program, and has consulted or provided illustrations or text for five Sunset Books publications, including Garden and Patio Living Spaces (1999), Entryways (1998), Water Gardens (1997), The Complete Deck Book (1996), and Making the Most of Your Own Backyard (1996).

The Garden Concept team includes:

Barb Lothian, the vice president of administration, who has run the office since 1995. She handles the daily business operations, including the bookkeeping, payroll, contracts, invoicing, material takeoffs and permit applications.

Tracey Farrish, director of landscape operations, oversees each project. She handles bidding, scheduling and many on-site decisions. Her strong design background gives her a knack for preventing problems before they develop.

Kristi Robinson, an RLA in Illinois with 15 years of experience, directs the landscape operations. She received her BLA from Michigan State University and minored in business. Tracey also studied at the Gloucester School of Arts and Technology in England.


Allium moly, onion/chive

Herbaceous Perennials
Ajuga reptans, bugleweed
Astilbe arendsii, false goatsbeard
Astilbe japonica, false spirea
Euonymus fortunei, purple leaf winter creeper
Geranium sanguineum, cranesbill
Hemerocallis, daylily
(happy returns, little wine cup
Heuchera micrantha, coral bells
Hosta sieboldiana, funkia
Iris siberica, Siberian iris
Penstemon digitalis, beardtongue
Sedum x, showy stonecrop
Alpine Veronica
Waldsteinia ternate, barren strawberry

Shrubs: Broadleaf Evergreens
Buxus koreana, green mountain boxwood
Euonymus fortunei, big leaf wintercreeper

Shrubs: Conifers
Juniperus chinensis,
Kallay’s compact Pfitzer juniper
Taxus x media, dense yew

Shrubs: Deciduous
Aronia arbutifolia, red chokeberry
Cornus alba, variegated dogwood
Cotoneaster apiculatus, cranberry cotoneaster
Fothergilla gardenii, dward fothergilla
Hydrangea paniculata, tardiva hydrangea
Hypericum kalamianum, St. John’s wort
Rhus aromatica, gro-low fragrant sumac
Rosa, polyantha rose
Rosa var. noatraum, flower carpet rose
Spirea x bumalda, froebelli spirea
Syringa patula, Miss Kim lilac
Viburnum trilobum, American cranberry bush
Viburnum x juddii, Judd viburnum

Trees: Conifers
Picea abies, Norway spruce

Trees: Ornamental
Amelanchier x grandiflora, apple serviceberry
Crataegua crusgalli, thornless cockspur Hawthorn
Malus floribunda, Japanese flowering crabapple
Malus sieboldii zumi, Zumi crab
Malus x Donald Wyman
Malus x red jewel

Tree: Shade
Acer saccharum, green mountain sugar maple
Betula nigra, river birch
Fagus sylvatica, European beech

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November 13, 2019, 7:42 pm PDT

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