ECO-EXPERT: Spring's a Fine Time For Fall Yard Work

Landscaping is for the birds, says green guru Neil Chambers

Think winter's looking especially bleak this year? Maybe you can blame those long hours you spent cleaning up your yard last fall.  

Put down those clippers and unhand that rake, urges "green guru" Neil Chambers.  Take his class on "Creating a Vision for Your Outdoor Space" at the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School (Feb. 28 and Mar. 7), and you can look forward to a lazier autumn and a more colorful winter this time next year.

A LEED-AP BD+C-certified architect, landscape designer, eco-blogger (, and author ("Urban Green: Architecture for the Future"), Neil co-founded Chambers Design, the award-winning landscape firm in South Orange, some five years ago.  His seasoned advice to local homeowners:  "plant for all four seasons, and a garden can be colorful year 'round."  Even in the dead of winter.

 "Don't cut your plants back until spring," he counsels "There's something majestic about, say, a cone flower stalk crowned with snow." So when is the right time for that "fall" garden clean-up?  The March equinox (coming up March 21) is perfect, Neil says: "That way the plant roots will hold the soil against the run-off of melting snow, and the seeds will feed the birds all winter."

For Neil, landscaping is as much about ecology as esthetics.  Now impressively credentialed (being a LEED-AP BD+C means he's certified by the US Green Building Council in Green Building Design + Construction), Neil was studying architecture at Clemson University in his native South Carolina when his interest "gravitated to landscape design." Buttressed by further studies at the venerable Maryland Institute College of Art, he's now a member of the Society of Professional Landscape Designers and a frequent lecturer at top universities and design schools, including NYU, Columbia, Pratt, and Parsons.  He's also handled eco-projects all across the US and in China, building bioswells (rain gardens) and applying his belief that we can "use nature both as an amenity and a healer." (One project that got away: Green Ground Zero, his grand plan to green-build lower Manhattan after 9/11.)

 Closer to home, literally, Neil plans to help his Adult School students re-visualize their own yards, complete with any new amenities (pool? deck? lighting?). Equally important, he'll show how to choose between the quality and not-so materials they'll need to "put some meat" on their visions.

"There's so much available for interiors today, but exterior design is still in the l980s," Neil laments. Choose wisely -- he will offer local sources -- and "you can achieve high-quality design within reach of your budget," he promises.

However, it's not always a walk in the garden. Neil warns against three common landscaping mistakes:

  1. Devising a plan that's too complicated.  And focusing only on one specific area. Before you start, have a master plan with all the elements you want to include.

  2. Don't let your budget define your vision.  For example, it's smart to plant plugs, small plants that are less expensive to buy in volume now and will eventually grow to fill in your plan.

  3. Don't plant bushes and shrubs right up against the house.  Azaleas, for example: "Gorgeous for a couple of weeks, then they disappear.  The thing is to intersperse other plants so you have color from April to October."

Bottom line, according to the expert:  "Your house's exterior is the last thing you see when you leave in the morning, and the first thing you see when you come back.

"How it looks makes a big impact on the very way you feel about your home."



News Record column for February 14, 2019

Rose Bennett Gilbert