Posted by & filed under Uncategorized .


We’re off to Wisconsin this week to attend some exciting new design classes. See you soon with lots of new information and ideas.

In the meantime, I’ve included a past article on the benefits of nature-rich playgrounds and quick ideas for  adding natural elements to existing play spaces.


Play is an essential part of a well balanced life whether we are talking about children or adults.  As children, play helps guide us into our lives as adults and as adults, play allows us to step back from those lives and de-stress. Spending time in nature is another essential aspect of a healthy life. Combining nature and play creates a winning combination.



Typical playground equipment limits imaginative play.


Many if not most, US school, park and home play areas today feature a flat area of either grass or asphalt on which to play games and a set of standardized playground equipment for swinging,climbing, sliding and hanging,The equipment often features bright, primary colors or is manufactured to resemble log structures. A public or school playground layout usually is open and often surrounded by benches so that adults can sit while they watch the children playing. Play areas at home are also commonly open spaces and placed so that the children can be seen through windows and from decks and porches. 


Nature play encourages interaction with adults too.

Nature play encourages interaction with adults too.


Knowing what we now know about the benefits of nature, does this type of play space really reap all of the benefits it could? Although this layout certainly gives opportunities for active play and direct supervision, does it maximize time spent outdoors?  Are there modifications to this common layout that we should be requesting? The reality is that by changing  just a few of the design elements of play areas, enormous gains could be made in the beneficial aspects of play. Not only that, but adding natural materials can help make the space more inviting to people of all ages, encouraging more interaction and adult play.


When designing play areas for children, whether for a public area like a school or park playground or in a client’s backyard, naturalistic landscape designers seek to create safe and appropriate spaces that mimic the natural environment. They understand that the elements of nature welcome children to imagine, to create and to conquer at their own mental and physical  pace, unlike the more static and defined manufactured play equipment. Natural play spaces also encourage collaborative play since there are no pre-determined rules to their play and thus help to develop the essential life skills of cooperation and communication.


Collaborative play is a benefit of nature play spaces.

Collaborative play is a benefit of nature play spaces.


One of the first things a professional landscape designer considers as he or she begins the process of creating a natural play space is the existing topography.  Unlike the flat, open areas of typical playgrounds, a naturalistic site will incorporate existing hills or boulders into the design, giving children mountains to scale and hills to roll down. Rather than eliminating trees because they would be “in the way,” trees and shrubs are intentionally and deliberately selected and placed, perhaps to give shade or maybe to create a vast forest to explore. Plants that attract birds and butterflies give children the chance to closely observe wildlife and imagine what it would be like to soar through the sky.



Rocks and dirt become a place to run heavy equipment.

Rocks and dirt become a place to run heavy equipment.


Nature play spaces that include water and sand give children opportunities to stimulate their senses as well as to experiment with engineering concepts such as digging streams and then damming them to create lakes on which to sail pirate ships.  Logs can become balance beams or bridges under which hungry crocodiles are swimming. Piles of dirt and rocks can be the beginning of road construction or a pit where dinosaur bones are discovered.  “Cookies” made from slices of tree trunks can be used for paths or stacked to make high rise homes for insects. Raised beds or container gardens let children become farmers and help them understand how food comes to their tables.


Adding flowering plants gives opportunities to closely observe nature.

Adding flowering plants gives opportunities to closely observe nature.


Whether the play space is large as in a public park, a school area or just a corner of the backyard, access to a thoughtfully designed nature based play opens a new and exciting world for children that moves beyond the sedentary lure of cell phones and computer screens to an active, energetic lifestyle that will serve them well all their lives.



Posted by & filed under Butterfly Gardens, Gardens, Native Plants, Naturalizing, Ozark blue star, PerenniaLs, Rain Garden Plants, Uncategorized .


The Shining Blue Star is indeed a shining star of the garden, featuring clusters of blue flowers in the spring, glossy green leaves throughout the summer and brilliant gold foliage in the fall. Also called Ozark blue star, this native perennial prefers a full sun location but will also bloom well in partial shade. A shaded plant may need to be staked and should be cut back after blooming. It isn’t fussy about soil types, growing will in any small type from rich, moist soil to clay. At maturity, blue stars may reach 4 feet. Hummingbirds and butterflies flock to this easy to care for beauty.




Posted by & filed under Design, Groundcovers, Landscaping, Lawns, Native Groundcover, Native groundcovers, Native Plants, No-mow yards, Uncategorized .

Life without turfgrass can be both beautiful and surprisingly easy to maintain …. Just ask the designers and crews at Embassy Landscape Group who have created landscapes that are attractive, painless to care for and environmentally friendly. Utilizing a wide range of native and introduced plants, ground covers, shrubs and trees, Embassy’s design staff are able to create no-mow front yards that not only suit your style, but also work well with the existing environmental conditions.
















Dan Nelson, Senior Designer at Embassy, firmly believes that unity is an essential element of an appealing and harmonious landscape design. Although separate areas of the space may have specific functions or even evoke different emotions, they all need to work together to create a pleasing, coherent design.



In a traditional lawn, turfgrass often provides unity as it forms a continuous carpet connecting the space. A no-mow yard, one without turfgrass, must rely on other means to link the areas together. Features such as pathways, walls or meandering creek beds can be used to unite the yard, as can the deliberate use of plant materials.




Using ground cover, especially those that are native, is an effective way to create unity in a landscape design while contributing to the health of the environment. To help you begin your search for groundcovers (especially if you are thinking about a no-mow yard design), we have included a listing of some the top choices for the Midwest.




Natives are preceded by an asterisk.




  • *Aromatic aster – (Aster oblongifolius)  vigorous growth; 18 – 24 inches; vigorous growth habit; silvery blue blooms in fall; rich in nectar



  • *Purple poppy mallow – (Callirhoe involucrata)  under 12 inches in height but up to 4 foot spread; thrives in hot, dry rocky areas; vigorous growth; purple flowers in midsummer




  • *Creeping junipers –  (Juniperous horizontalis ‘Blue Chip’) 12 inches tall with possible 5 foot spread; heat and drought resistance; females produce berries, males produce cones




  • *Prairie dropseed – (Sporobolus heterolepis) 18 to 24 inch clumps with late summer blooms on foliage up to 30 – 40 inches; effective in mass plantings



  • *Canada anemone –  (Anemone canadensis) 12 to 18 inches tall;  thrives in dappled sun with most, rich soils; white blooms in late spring; good filler plant




  • Moss stonecrop – (Sedum acre) 3 to 4 inches; tolerates both dry conditions and medium moisture in well-drained soils; yellow blooms throughout the summer



Sun to Partial Shade



  • *Wild strawberry – (Fragaria virginiana) 4 to 7 inches tall; spreads by runners in rich, moist soil; growth stronger in spring and fall; small red fruit has intense flavor

  • *Squaw weed  – (Packera aurea) 6 to 12 inches tall; average moisture spreads rapidly; yellow blooms in spring; foliage may remain evergreen during milder winters



  • Bloody cranesbill -(Geranium sanguineum) 9 to 18 inches tall; prefers average moist soil, but tolerates drought; pinkish-red blooms in May and June with red foliage in the fall; easily cut to maintain shape



  • *Stonecrop/Three-leaved stonecrop – (Sedum ternatum) 3 to 6 inches; tough plants that spread easily; prefers a moist, well-drained soil but will tolerate drought; varieties bloom spring through summer




  • *Little bluestem – ( Schizachyrium scoparium) 2 to 4 feet tall; grows well in a variety of sunlight, soil types and moisture levels; purplish blooms in late summer with silver-tinged seed heads and orange fall foliage







  • *Wild ginger – (Asarum canadense) 6 to 12 inches; spreads slowly in moist to wet but well-drained soil; diminutive purple blooms in spring; fragrant foliage



  • *Wild geranium –  (Geranium maculatum) 18 to 24 inches; grows best in moist soil but will tolerate poor soil; may go dormant during drought; violet-pink blooms in spring




  • Hosta – (Family: Asparagaceae) variable heights and colors; bloom colors and times varies by species; rich, moist soil; soils should never dry out completely



  • Ferns – (Family: Pteridaceae) variable heights and colors; preferred soil conditions depend on variety  (Some varieties native)



  • *Crested Iris – (Iris cristata) 6 to 9 inches (dwarf 3 – 6); very rapid growth rate by rhizomes; forms dense colonies in moist, well-drained soils but also does well in rocky soils; blue blooms in April



  • *Foam flower – (Tiarella cordifolia) 9 to 12 inches; grows easily by runners in rich, moist, well-drained soil; does not tolerate wet feet in winter; white or pink blooms in late spring; foliage remains semi-evergreen during winter


Posted by & filed under Bees, Deer Resistant Plants, Fall Blooming Plants, Fall Glade Onion, Gardens, Native Plants, Naturalizing, PerenniaLs, Sustainable Landscaping, Uncategorized .


Also called the prairie onion, this late blooming native prefers full sun with some lightly dappled shade in extreme heat. It does well in sandy or rocky soils and will thrive in shallow soil. The green, grass-like leaves, which often disappear before the 12 – 18 inch flower stalks, give off a strong scent of onion when crushed. Fall glade onion easily self-seeds, so to contain it, deadhead the pinkish-purple flowers and remove the heads from the garden. This allium is deer resistant and bees love it. It is beautiful naturalized, used in borders or in a cottage garden.

Posted by & filed under Landscaping, Lawns, Liriope, Sedges, Sustainability, Sustainable Landscaping, Turfgrass Alternatives, Uncategorized .

As excited as I have been about the renovation of our front yard, I have to admit that I’m still a little leery of a yard without at least a few patches of green grass. When I shared my reservations with my husband, he assured me that eliminating turfgrass doesn’t mean eliminating the lawn; it just means changing my perceptions of what a lawn should be — what it should look like. In a sense, it is updating my personal definition of the word “lawn” to include a variety of types of plants beyond Kentucky bluegrass or zoysia.





(Interesting aside is that forms of the word lawn can be traced back to Middle English; meaning  land or heath, not grass. That definition came much later. The former English teacher in me saw that as permission to let go of my doubts, enthusiastically embrace the changes and decide on my plant material.)



Whether you decide to totally eradicate your turfgrass at once, or gradually reduce the area allocated to turf, it is important to select plant material that will be best suited to the use, or abuse, it will receive. Even though most grass alternatives would not withstand daily marching band practice, many will do well under light foot travel.



The environmental conditions also play an essential role in the success or failure of a lawn replacement. Unlike most turfgrass, many of the grass alternatives grow more successfully in shade rather than in sun and will tolerate drought conditions.



With so many factors to consider and options available, it is sometimes difficult to know what is the best choice. Local experts, like those at Embassy Landscape Group here in Kansas City, can help you choose varieties that are the most appropriate for your lifestyle and will meet your expectations. 



Although certainly not a complete list, the following eight grass alternatives are all excellent choices for those who want plants that somewhat mimic the appearance of turfgrass without as much routine maintenance. Planting these types of grass alternatives may help you become comfortable with a new look for your front lawn — one that is both beautiful to look at and beneficial for the environment.



Sedges – grass-like plants that have triangular shaped stems (Sedges have edges)


Carex albicans – (white-tinged sedge) tufts of narrow, bright green leaves growing to 12 inches; part shade to full shade; prefers medium moisture



Carex eburnea – (brittle leaf or ivory sedge) soft leaves grow in short clumps; part to full shade; will tolerate dry, sandy soils but prefers medium moisture




Carex haydenii – (Hayden’s sedge) narrow leaves in loose clumps; grows 12 to 18 inches tall; part shade to full, heavy shade and moist to wet conditions


Carex pensylavanica – (Pennsylvania sedge) short green leaves spread by rhizomes; tolerates drought; helps feed soil



Carex flacca – (Blue Zinger sedge) narrow, coarse, arching leaves; bluish-green on the top and blue-grey underneath; prefers part shade to full shade and moist soils, even standing water, but will tolerate some drought when established; tolerates only light foot traffic




Liriope – hardy, easy to grow grass-like plants

Liriope spicata  – (creeping liriope) dark green ¼ in leaves grow to 15 inches; full sun to part shade in well-drained soil; benefits from an early spring mowing to remove old foliage; attractive flowers and berries



Liriope muscari – (lilyturf) glossy green leaves with lavender blooms in late summer and berries in winter; full sun to part shade; average moisture; spreads slowly; tolerates only light foot traffic



Clover – three leaved herbaceous perennial plants in the legume family

Trifolium repens – (white clover) deep green leaves with white blooms in late spring; full sun to part shade; average soil and moisture; acts as a nitrogen fixing plant; attracts bees




Join us next week as we complete our Rethinking Lawns series. We’ll take a look at a variety of  great alternatives to turfgrass.


Posted by & filed under Indian Pink, Native Plants, PerenniaLs, Rain Garden Plants, Rain Gardens, Rainscaping, Uncategorized .


Glossy green leaves and brilliant scarlet blooms with bright yellow interiors and star shaped petals on the top grace this spring blooming native perennial. Indian Pinks prefer shade and grow in clumps in moist, well-drained soil, although they will tolerate moderate drought. These easy to grow plants tend to reach 12 to 18 inches in height and rarely spread more than a foot in width. They are excellent for rain gardens and hummingbirds love them!




Posted by & filed under design process, Garden Design, Gardens, Landscaping, Lawns, Outdoor Living, Sustainable Landscaping, Uncategorized .

After almost two years of fighting a lost cause, we are truly ready to take the plunge. Once the heat of the summer dissipates, we are going to kill off the sorry patch of existing “lawn” we have and start over with an entirely new look.



So far, I’ve had an interesting reaction to our plan from the neighbors; they seem to imagine our new look to be an overgrown, untended weedy mess just like the yard down the street. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Giving up the unbroken expanse of traditional Kentucky bluegrass lawn (in our case weeds rather than grass) doesn’t automatically mean that the public face will become an eyesore; it will simply have a change of appearance, one more suited to our lifestyle.



As we have debated going ahead with this project, I have spent lots of time looking at and  thinking about lawns. One of the things that I have recently come to realize about them, especially those in the front of suburban homes, is that they are rarely used for anything but display. If anyone is using the lawn area, it is usually for some form of maintenance — mowing or trimming or applying a chemical to kill something (insect or weed). Most Americans rarely “hang out” in their front yards; the majority seem to “play” on the driveway or in the privacy of their backyards, leaving a large area virtually abandoned.



Before beginning any project, but especially one of this type, Dan Nelson, senior designer at Embassy Landscape Group, advises taking time for a thorough initial assessment. He feels that considering these four elements helps his clients think through what they really want and gives him clear direction to design the perfect front landscape.


  • How will the space be used?

  • Will it be a gathering space or a place for privacy?
  • Will it be a space to observe wildlife?
  • Will it be garden space for flowering plants?  For edibles?
  • Will it simply be a transition space to move from one spot to another?
  • What should the finished space look like?

  • What style appeals to you? Is it formal or casual? Traditional or contemporary?
  • What works with the architecture of your home?
  • Are the conditions of the space suitable for the design?

  • Is it sunny?
  • Is it shady most of the day?
  • What are the soil and drainage like?
  • What is the natural topography?
  • What man-made elements already exist?
  • Do you want to change any of the man-made elements?
  • How much maintenance do you want to do?

  • Are you comfortable doing your own upkeep?
  • Do you wish to keep maintenance to an absolute minimum?
  • Would you be willing to spend several hours a week caring for the landscape?


Although all of the questions are important, in this situation How will the space be used?  and What do you want the space to look like?  are the most important ones.


Eliminating or significantly reducing the amount of front yard turfgrass can open up a previously ignored area to new uses and outdoor valuable living space. Adding hardscape, especially with permeable materials, is an option to consider for environmentally sound and sustainable front yard projects.



Expanding an existing entryway with a deck or patio can provide a welcome space to visit with guests or gather spontaneously with neighbors. Adding seating and a table gives a spot to linger in comfort.



Incorporating a gazebo or pergola with a bench, a hammock or set of Adirondack chairs in a shady corner can create a perfect spot to sit quietly alone or together to relax, to read or to just  “watch the world go by.”






Including a water feature in the design adds an element of soothing peacefulness that encourages people to stop and rest for a moment in the midst of their busy days. Birds, butterflies and other types of wildlife also welcome a place to stop, drink and play.



Dry stream beds cutting through what was previously expanse of lawn offer a dual function — one practical and one picturesque. During periods of heavy or extended rains, they capture and slow down potentially harmful water runoff allowing the water to slowly and safely seep back into the ground. During dry periods, they add a glimpse of the nature to the landscape, suggesting that a stream will soon appear.



Mulched areas can be substituted for turf, especially in shady areas under trees where grass struggles to grow or in sunny spaces that require frequent waterings. A  3 or 4 inch layer of mulch (what kind of mulch) helps hold moisture in the ground, reduces the need for watering and gives a forgiving surface on which children can safely play.



Creating some meandering pathways gives an opportunity to encounter the unexpected in an otherwise typical suburban landscape and makes a trip, even to the mailbox, much more enjoyable.



In addition to hardscaping materials, broadening the palette of plant materials and updating the design can also transform a typical suburban view into a slice of natural beauty.



Integrating beds of profusely blooming annuals and perennials is an obvious and easily accomplished addition to the front yard landscape. Beds can line walkways, giving a sense of anticipation as walkers make their way to their destinations. They can be placed to define boundaries, creating a sense of protected enclosure. Beds can be designed to act as a focal point, to emphasize a unique feature or to even draw the eye away from an offending view.



In winter, the architectural lines of summer’s plants add an artistic dimension to the landscape that a traditional lawn cannot. Seed pods that remain in winter become food for birds and other creatures, while the leaves and stems become shelter. The landscape continues to be a living one rather than a dormant, empty field.




Butterfly, hummingbird and other specialized gardens can be installed to provide habitat for area creatures. Imagine the neighborhood children’s delight in watching Monarchs change from caterpillars to butterflies and then flock to feed.  



Skillfully designed and installed berms can add interest to an otherwise bland topography and can create a sense of privacy for those living next to a busy street.



Introducing appropriate native plants as well as ornamentals in beds not only reduces maintenance, but also benefits the environment in multiple ways. If you missed them, our January 24th and 26th blogs on using native in sustainable landscaping provide much more detail.



Groves of trees and stands of evergreens are also multi-purposed enhancements. Placed properly, both deciduous trees and evergreens reduce energy costs, improve air quality and expand habitat areas for wildlife.  


For those who are avid vegetable or herb gardeners, the front garden can be returned to its historically accurate purpose of growing crops for food and medicinal purposes. Most  American front yards have enough space for pockets of single crops while some can support gardens large enough and varied enough to feed the family. Unfortunately, many areas still have covenants restricting the height of vegetation, so be sure and check the rules before planting.



As numerous as the alternatives are to expanses of relatively barren turfgrass, many of us (myself included) still have a desire to see healthy and thriving patches of green in our front yards. On one hand, they reassure us that we are fulfilling our obligations to our communities and that we are a credit to the neighborhood. On the other hand, those same lush green lawns remind us that traditional turfgrasses can be detrimental to our environment. What a conundrum!



Luckily, there are solutions. Join us next week as we explore “green” alternatives to traditional turfgrasses. Hope to see you then.



Posted by & filed under Native Plants, Small Skullcap, Sustainability, Sustainable Landscaping, Uncategorized .



At home in shallow dry, rocky soil, sandy soil or clay soil, this tiny plant (3 – 9″) deserves big recognition for its ability to thrive in adverse conditions that would stress other species. It prefers full sun but also grows and blooms well in partial shade. Small skullcap sports blue blossoms from late spring into early summer with only a few tiny blooms showing at any one time. Bees are attracted to the flowers, but because of the bitter taste to the leaves, animals such as deer and rabbits tend to avoid them.



Posted by & filed under History of Lawns, Turf, Turf Management, Water Management .

My water bill came yesterday. I know that compared to some peoples’, mine isn’t enormous, but it still is taking a bite out of my summer budget. I’d much rather spend that money on some new patio furniture or specimen plants I’ve had my eyes on all season, but paying the bill has priority. I’m wondering if it’s time to rip out my lawn and explore other options. When I bring up the suggestion to my friends however, they all look at me like I am absolutely crazy. They can’t seem to visualize a house without a lawn in front.




As improbable as it seems today, lush green front lawns have not always been the standard here in the United States,especially for those who were not among the ultra wealthy. Instead, there has been a subtle (and sometimes a not so subtle) movement to establish lawns as a cultural norm and a measure of the fulfillment of the American dream.



Expanses of treeless fields were first found around castles in England and France as early as the 1600s.These clearings were critical for protection, as they allowed soldiers to easily scan the countryside for approaching invaders. Eventually, these treeless glades were purposely cultivated, probably using easily maintained thyme and chamomile.




In less than a hundred years, green “grass” lawns were an element of the landscape designs of the wealthy in Europe, many of whom used grazing animals to keep their lawns at a reasonable height. In a show of their wealth, the very rich not only used animals, but also hired laborers to hand cut their lawns and to remove any animal droppings. Thus, the element of status was born.



Imitating the European trend, wealthy American landowners, led by Thomas Jefferson at his Monticello estate, began replacing their functional front yard vegetable and herb gardens for grass lawns. Although admired, the trend remained a  hallmark of the wealthy.



The late 1800s (the height of the Industrial Revolution) saw another jump in the popularity of grass lawns for several reasons. The first lawn mower was invented in England and later marketed in the United States. With the elimination of expensive hand labor for maintenance, lawns gradually became more attainable for the growing middle class.



During this same time, Frederick Law Olmstead, who is often referred to as the father of American landscape design, began designing American suburbs. His plans, which included a green lawn for each individual home, provided those escaping from the highly industrialized and dirty cities a perception of being immersed in nature. Owning a home in the suburbs with a lush front lawn quickly became a coveted goal.




The Industrial Revolution also brought more leisure time hours to the general public. To fill those hours, games such as golf and bowls (lawn bowling) became popular. People soon realized however, that a dense lawn improved the quality of play. The U.S. Golf Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture teemed together to search for better turf grass options.



The lure of the suburbs continued to grow and along with it, the expectation of a home with an existing, healthy lawn. Abraham Levitt, the creator of wildly successful American suburbs and an avid gardener, wrote that ”No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns.” (Steinberg, New York Times Op-ed article: How Green Was My Suburb)




His belief in the importance of well-cared for lawns to a satisfying lifestyle was so strong that he wrote and distributed articles outlining step by step instructions for growing and maintaining lawns to his home buyers. He also imposed fines on homeowners who did not mow their lawns weekly during the spring and summer months. Educated by his materials and encouraged by his enthusiasm, homeowners in his suburbs wholeheartedly embraced his philosophy.



The American Garden Club was also actively promoting the importance of beautiful, well-kept lawns. They instilled the idea of  lawn maintenance as a “civic duty” through local and national publicity campaigns and contests and even provided a definition of a “good lawn.” According to the American Garden Club, good lawns were “a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged.”



By the 1950s and 60s, well-manicured lawns had become the norm and the quest for the perfect, lush and weed-free lawn began in earnest. Seed companies continued to develop seed combinations more appropriate for homeowners while an entirely new industry of chemical based lawn care sprang into life. The 70s and 80s saw the popularity of sod farms rise, giving home owners the option of “instant lawns” grown from regionally appropriate grasses.





Until recently, the ideology of the front lawn had not been questioned; lawns remained a status symbol as well as a measure of both community and personal pride. As concerns about our  environment mount and uses of our limited resources are questioned, the role that these large swathes of turfgrass plays in the life of the community as well as in our own lives needs to be re-assessed.


*Consider the following:

*statistics from the Chicago Sun Times and the New York Times


In the next few blogs, the staff at Embassy invites you to consider some interesting alternatives to the traditional front lawn.  Hope to see you then.


Posted by & filed under Clay Soil, Copper iris, Gardens, Native Plants, Naturalizing, Nectar Plants, PerenniaLs, Rain Garden Plants, Rain Gardens, Rainscaping, Sustainable Landscaping .


A perfect plant for use in a rain garden or as a water plant , the copper iris takes its name from its unique reddish-copper color blooms which appear in May and June.Small plants, they typically reach about 2 feet in height. They love full sun, but will tolerate part shade if planted in consistently moist locations and will thrive in wet, clay soil. Copper iris attract hummingbirds and are pollinators for butterflies. They are also deer resistant. Because their habitats are disappearing, these native perennials are becoming much less common in nature. An easy plant to grow, copper iris aren’t usually bothered by insects or diseases.