Good landscape design is much more than plants and hardscape. The most successful projects are those that help the client realize his or her dreams. And, initially, some clients can’t even articulate what it is they want.

Jennifer Hoxsie, who with her husband, David, owns Lake Bluff, Illinois-based Greenhaven Landscapes Inc., says her first task with the owners of the local home for which the company was honored with a Gold Award from the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association was to simply help them figure out how they wanted to use their space.

“The owners really love their home, and they had invested a lot of money renovating the interior and making it their own,” Jennifer Hoxsie says. “But, when it came to the outside, they really struggled. They knew something wasn’t right, but they couldn’t fully articulate what they wanted.”

Photo: Greenhaven Landscapes Inc, Hannah Goering

Photo: Greenhaven Landscapes Inc, Hannah Goering

As with approximately 95 percent of the Hoxsies’ clients, this job came as a referral, in this case from a neighbor down the street. From there, it became an educational process, and Jennifer Hoxsie says the clients joined her visiting another Greenhaven project before being willing to take the plunge.

“Walking through another full-scale design-install project raised their comfort level,” she says. “Then it was a matter of listening to them and taking their wish list and site conditions and making it work.”

Even then, things went slowly. Hoxsie explains that the design and implementation took place over a three-year period starting in 2011, and unlike most projects, work began on the borders of the .73-acre lot.

Photo: Greenhaven Landscapes Inc, Hannah Goering

Photo: Greenhaven Landscapes Inc, Hannah Goering

“We really started by doing proper maintenance on the plant material within the borders,” she explains. “A lot of things had been sheared, so it was a matter of corrective pruning. That’s where a lot of education went into the process because they’d never invested that much money in maintenance and plant material.”

Once the clients could start seeing a difference in the way the existing plants looked, Hoxsie says she was able to go through and begin adding plants to the borders where things were open or, in some cases, plants didn’t make sense and were removed and replaced.

“Once they saw the transition of the border spaces, that again built their comfort level with us and got them excited about doing the rest,” she says.

Photo: Greenhaven Landscapes Inc, Hannah Goering

Photo: Greenhaven Landscapes Inc, Hannah Goering

The next step took place in the front yard, where again most of the work focused on the plant palette. In this case, that meant removing what Hoxsie describes as huge swaths of overgrown juniper, as well as the plantings around the front foundation that gave the property a closed-in feel.

“We planted large spruce and annuals to enhance the drive entry,” she says. “A serviceberry was planted on center of the dining room window as a focal point and to buffer the view of the drive. Along the foundation and walkway, Tardiva hydrangea, Barberry, Pachysandra, annual pockets and planters provide color and year-round interest.”

At that point (late 2012 into early 2013) the clients were ready to take on the major construction part of the job, which involved replacing an old deck and a poorly done flagstone patio, as well as addressing drainage issues in the backyard.

Photo: Greenhaven Landscapes Inc, Hannah Goering

Photo: Greenhaven Landscapes Inc, Hannah Goering

“The footprint of the deck didn’t really work for them, and the steps were a trip hazard,” says Hoxsie. “The home is about four feet above grade, and there was an old deck off the family room on the left with steps that brought people down pretty sharply to grade. And, on the right of the family room was a patio with steps that were too tall. There was no link between the patio space and the deck, so it didn’t work together.”

Perhaps surprisingly, drainage turned out to be the biggest challenge of the job, Hoxsie says. “We had to regrade the entire backyard because there wasn’t any pitch to it. Of course, you have to keep your water on your property, so the center line of the backyard is now the high point, and then it pitches to the two sides.”

To handle the runoff and keep the water within the clients’ lot, Hoxsie installed the first rain gardens of her career, a feature she says makes her smile.

Photo: Greenhaven Landscapes Inc, Hannah Goering

Photo: Greenhaven Landscapes Inc, Hannah Goering

“We’ve tried to make them look like part of the cultivated landscape,” she says. “It fits within the context of everything else. They blend in well with the cultivated landscape around the perimeter of the house, and then use the borders to transition back into the conservancy plantings around the edge of the subdivision’s lake at the rear of the clients’ property, which are all native with some prairie plants.”

The built part of the backyard project takes advantage of the grade change. Off the clients’ home office is an intimate deck. By working with the village government Hoxsie was able to eliminate the need for railings by replacing them with a planter box.

Along with the rain gardens, Hoxsie says the use of the planter boxes really makes her smile when thinking of this project.

“By looking out the windows, you see the planter box and then the lake,” she says. “You don’t see the lower level of the deck, just color and landscape, and it’s very comfortable for one person to sit out there.”

However, those planter boxes also proved to be educational in terms of working with the local government. She says in any type of project of this nature, it’s critical to be respectful of the government officials who may also have a hand in the job.

Photo: Greenhaven Landscapes Inc, Hannah Goering

Photo: Greenhaven Landscapes Inc, Hannah Goering

“It’s important to politely request alternative solutions while understanding their concerns,” Hoxsie says. “Thankfully the village was very good at working with us to allow the planters instead of the railings, but it’s a matter of advocating for the client. Just come in with a good attitude and create an ally in them.

“I try to use the same approach for all my projects,” she adds.

Past the deck and planter box, steps transition to a lower, larger seating area with a built-in bench for storage. And, along the family room, there’s a crossover – a narrow deck that connects those areas with a flagstone patio with built-in grill and seating wall.

“People can circulate and get down to the main backyard from either side, too,” says Hoxsie. “As empty nesters, it’s comfortable for just the two of them, but because of the interconnection and the flow, they’ve also hosted parties for up to 100 guest. The crowds spill onto the lawn, but it’s not congested in any one spot.”

The property is fully irrigated and Hoxsie says the lighting increases the usability of the space but also its beauty. Built areas are liberally provided with electrical outlets, and while the sconces for the lower seating area are on a switch, the lighting along the railings and steps, as well as the general landscape lighting, is automatic.

Photo: Greenhaven Landscapes Inc, Hannah Goering

Photo: Greenhaven Landscapes Inc, Hannah Goering

Hoxsie adds that Greenhaven is a design-build firm that specializes in managing all aspects of the project with one-point accountability. Greenhaven’s crews complete the drainage, grading and planting. For other aspects of the project, the Hoxsies partner with subcontractors with the best skill set for each trade. In this case, Hoxsie made daily site visits to oversee a builder who did the deck, a mason for the seat wall and patio, and irrigation and lighting contractors.

The company continues to handle maintenance for the site.

“We only do design-build work for clients who are willing to hire us for maintenance,” Hoxsie says. “Otherwise, all this energy goes into making something beautiful, but if somebody doesn’t take care of it, even six weeks later it can look horrible.”

Not surprisingly, Hoxsie is very proud of her award-winner, but for perhaps an unexpected reason. She says this project is one of her favorites because it most reflects her own personal tastes in landscaping and how she likes to live.

“It’s not in-your-face,” she says. “It’s very comfortable, it’s very livable, and it’s well-done without being showy. It really blends with the neighborhood and with the house. If I was to live in any of the spaces I’ve created, this would be it.”