Signs of spring are peeking out in Chicago. There’s more daylight—thankfully. Daffodils are blooming in front yards. Magnolia trees are showing their pink and white flowers. Forsythia plants are glowing bright yellow.
It might have you itching to go freshen up your own outdoor space. Whether you’re in a bungalow with a backyard or courtyard apartment that has a little deck, there’s a way to get beautiful greenery.
“Don’t be afraid to just try. People always talk about a green thumb, but all that matters is a brown thumb. As long as your digging in the dirt, you’ll succeed,” says Connie Rivera of City Escape Garden Center and Design Studio in East Garfield Park.
We’ve rounded up Chicago gardening experts to give you tips for curating a native, diverse landscape that can withstand a Midwestern climate. You’ll find out how to DIY a yard that looks professionally designed, how to execute a garden that blooms all season, and what plants to select now.
Prep and clear out your space
Spring is the perfect time for planning. March and April are perfect for figuring out layouts and style before planting in May. It’s important not to plant anything too early since the season in Chicago can be a bit unpredictable with warm sun one day and light snow the next.
“It doesn’t have to be any great creative design. When I want to visualize something in a landscape, I actually take soccer balls or empty plastic containers and I physically place them in the garden to help see where I would want to put things,” says Jackie Riffice, who’s been a master gardener for more than 30 years in Illinois and has designed landscapes for the Chicago Bungalow Association.
Really focus on what kind of soil you have and the type of light the space gets. Is it wet or dry? Lots of morning sun or is it shady all day? At the very least, it’s a great time to start clearing out the area where you’ll be working. It’s doesn’t all need to get done in one weekend either, work on a little piece at a time and tidy up what you can, says Riffice.
“Those who are gardening now can pull away old debris, take off the dried hydrangea tops, give the soil a fresh turn, and add compost,” says Rivera.
Shop for locally grown plants
While going to a big box store will offer a lot of options, there’s a downside to that convenience, says Amanda Thomson, who has written several gardening guidebooks, teaches classes, and consults on landscaping design. It’s best to buy plants without pesticides and those that are locally grown—so that almost entirely excludes giant, commercial garden centers.
Plus, there’s a bigger chance you’ll get stuff you don’t actually need. Or try to purchase everything in one trip. Typically, garden centers and plant shops sell things that are near peak bloom, so if you get everything in one swoop then your garden will look really colorful in spring but maybe a bit boring the rest of the year.
“There are a few things I try to teach people—one is to shop a couple times a year and buy the plants you like,” says Thomson.
Pick hearty plants that can withstand the city’s climate
For a low maintenance gardener, select perennials over annuals, says Riffice. Those are the ones that come back every year and will require a bit less work. Indigenous and native plants are also great choices because they’ve withstood the test of time.
“They were here before you, they can stand a hot summer and wet winter. They have Midwestern sensibilities. They aren’t the most colorful but they bring back the birds and butterflies,” says Riffice.
She recommends ornamental allium plants which are part of the onion family (it makes sense that those would do well in Chicago—our city was named after wild onions and leeks that thrived in the marshy land). The flowering alliums come back year after year and do really well in full sun, Riffice says.
Group your garden in odd numbers
We all know those brick two-flats and greystones that have picturesque front yards. While they might hire professional landscaping services or a designer—here’s how you can DIY your outdoor space to look its best.
Make sure you get plants with different heights and ideally you’ll have at least three layers, says Rivera. It’s important also to check the plants’ full height at maturity—it might be small in the store and then grow to be five feet later on.
Position plants in groups of three or five throughout the space. “The uneven number is visually pleasing and catches the eye. It keeps the aesthetic interesting,” says Rivera.
Lots of people only think about color, but don’t forget texture. Rivera is all about textured plants such as ferns, blue leaf hostas, and all types of lettuce. It’s wonderful to have a fabulous mix of color, size, feel, she says.
Make your small space a lush escape
There are lots of renters and homeowners that only have a small shared backyard or back porch for their outdoor space. Don’t fret—there’s still a lot you can do.
Container gardens are the best choice for small spaces. There are lots of plants that grow really well in containers such as tomatoes, mini variations of peppers, sugar snap peas, and all kinds of herbs, says Thomson. Many shops have dedicated sections for patio plants and seeds, too.
“I have tomatoes in little hanging baskets. They’re such fun tiny little plants that look pretty. You won’t get the biggest tomatoes but you can get a lot of them,” says Thomson.
The best part about a container garden is that you can get pretty creative. Almost anything will work as a planter says Riffice.
“Your container garden can be anything from a clay pots of various sizes to an empty shoe or boot. It’s only limited by your imagination,” says Riffice.
If you’re looking for something a bit more decorative in a container garden she recommends layering here as well. “Thrill, fill, and spill,” advises Riffice which means starting will a tall, exciting plant in the center along with filler plants that add dimension and then finally something that will spill over the edge of the container.