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Outside Artist

Modern gardening guru Tara Heibel offers tips on exterior space planning

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Tara Heibel
Heibel in the Chicago store with a few elements of surprise, including a chair made with pieces of recycled oil drums ($250) and, hanging on the wall behind her, a soft-sided Wally planter ($49-$188)

For ideas on how to create a modern and inviting outdoor space, we turned to Tara Heibel, owner of the hip urban gardening stores Sprout Home (in Chicago and in Brooklyn) and an all-around groovy gal. (Her Ukrainian Village house will be featured in a forthcoming book from the creators of the Design*Sponge blog, due to land this fall from Artisan Books.)

How do you begin to plan an outdoor area? First, assess the architecture of the space. Are you starting from scratch or is there an existing framework into which you must fit your design? Second, decide how you would like to use the space. Playing? Entertaining? Relaxing? Third, consider how much time you will be able to devote to the space. Plants are like people; they need varying degrees of maintenance. Finally, determine your budget.

Do modern buildings have any special issues when it comes to garden aesthetics? People come to me and say their house feels cold—often because the exterior walls are a grayish brick or stone. In that case, I recommend using teak or cedar containers and some colored pots to warm things up.

Are you a fan of colorful containers? My taste is minimalist. When it comes to color, I tend to use only one, in different tones, so it doesn’t feel like a circus. When people have a bunch of different colored pots, I suggest putting them against a backdrop of natural-colored fiber-cement containers filled with leafy plants.

What do we need to know about containers? When people buy containers to plant big trees and the trees don’t survive the first winter, they are very disappointed. The problem is they are not over-wintering, or insulating, their containers properly. You have to fool your trees and shrubs into thinking that they are in the ground.

What containers do you recommend for large plantings that stay outside year-round? The ones that best tolerate our climate are made of steel, aluminum, fiber-cement, and heavy-duty poly-molded plastic. Terra cotta and other ceramic pots can crack in cold temperatures. Use those for annuals, then empty and store them or turn them upside down at the end of each season. The beauty of non-built-in containers is that if you know you will be moving soon, you can move them with you.

Any tips for stretching a budget? You can cut down your seasonal expenses by planting shrubs, trees, and perennials rather than annuals. Even if a tree costs $100, it’s a good deal—it should last forever, while if you are buying annuals you can easily spend more than that each season. If you do want annuals, remember that the more mature the plant, the more you pay for it. Starting from seed is the low-cost route.

What are some plants that make a statement and don’t require constant upkeep? There are so many low-maintenance plants out there—some of my favorites are sedum and carex grass. One thing to remember: When you are told that a plant is drought-tolerant, that usually means it will be that way after getting established. You need to nurture the plants until then, which can take a full season.


Photograph: Bob Coscarelli


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