Urban Gardeners Have Their Day in the Sun (and Shade)

By Patty Wetli | Monday, August 2, 2010

The annual Lincoln Square Garden Walk showcases urban gardening at its finest. Photo by Patty Wetli.

Urban gardening poses a number of challenges: postage stamp-sized lots, too much shade, and poor soil, but the Sixth Annual Lincoln Square Garden Walk, held Saturday, July 31, demonstrated the creative ways area residents turn those challenges into an advantage.

This year’s walk, sponsored by the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce and Ald. Eugene Schulter (47th) to benefit the Lincoln Square Foundation, featured close to 30 gardens. Many of the gardeners, like John Boesche, who was new to the garden walk this year, have opted to eliminate grass and along with it any notion of the traditional yard.

When he and his wife purchased their house on Giddings Street 16 years ago, the tiny “backyard” was a poured concrete slab. They’ve gradually converted it into a green space filled with perennials and groundcover that surround a small patio area and arbor seating.

“It’s very low-maintenance,” Boesche says. “If the space were any bigger, we’d spend all our time working in it instead of enjoying it.”

Sven Ek, who was generously serving champagne to visitors, is a similar proponent of the lawn-free garden. Occupying a relatively spacious corner lot on Wilson Avenue, he and his partner have adopted a “more is more” approach to plantings. The front of their Victorian-style house looks out onto a riot of perennials shaded by a massive birch tree.

“We let it go crazy,” Ek says. Nearly invisible stepping stones lead to a small koi pond, where Ek often retreats to relax. More unusual touches include Loch Ness Monster statuary (the individual pieces lend the illusion of Nessie swimming through the greenery). The smaller backyard was converted from grass to a pea gravel garden using a rather curious method: The grass was covered with newspaper, which stunted its growth, and the gravel was laid on top of the paper.

When Mary Doane and her husband moved into his parents’ house on Wilson in 2000, the garden consisted of a couple of rose bushes and a tree. After keenly observing other people’s landscaping (and attending other garden walks), noting which flowers and plants she liked, Doane settled on the concept of an English cutting garden with constant blooms from spring to fall and evergreens in the winter.

“I wanted a four-season garden,” she says. Her dense and layered approach includes cone flowers, hydrangea, phlox, rose of Sharon, and tiger lilies, to name just a few. With this year’s near-tropical heat, maintenance has been an issue.

“I’m constantly having to cut things back to keep them from becoming overgrown,” she says. One tiger lily reached an astounding height of six feet. “It’s like the garden’s on steroids,” she says. Now something of a pro, Doane’s advice to newbies, echoed by many of her fellow garden walk participants, is to maintain a willingness to experiment.

“It’s all trial and error,” she says. “If something doesn’t work, pull it out.”

Where Doane’s garden boasts a variety of colors—pinks, purples, oranges, yellows—Debi Johnson’s features nearly every conceivable shade of green. With her yard on Windsor completely shaded, she doesn’t have much choice. And yet while she admits to the occasional bout of “sun envy,” what she’s done with this perceived disadvantage is nothing short of remarkable.

Stepping into her deep backyard, the temperature immediately cools several degrees as you enter a true urban oasis. A walkway circles through the lush plantings that include more than 40 varieties of hostas. Everywhere there’s something for the eye to land on. Johnson’s whimsical touches include more than 100 birdhouses and a variety of blue baubles (a favorite color) that lend to the garden’s peaceful, magical vibe.

By contrast, Alicia Baylina’s garden not only has sun, but grass. Her house on Montrose sits on the rare double lot. She’s able to maintain a good-sized lawn for her three dogs and still have plenty of room left over for flower beds, a patio, fountains, and dozens of containers (as many as 75-80, she estimates). Small wonder then that Baylina and her partner, Gail Estka, have been past winners of the mayor’s landscape contest.

Like many of her fellow gardeners, Baylina had no prior training or experience, just the sense that in purchasing her home she had an obligation to the yard and to the neighborhood to make it something special. While the perennials stay the same, each year she and Estka (who has now opened her own landscaping business) settle on a new color scheme for the various containers of annuals.

“We easily run to garden centers 20-40 times,” she says. With this summer’s heat, the pair often had to water the containers three times a day, but like most gardeners, Baylina finds this relaxing. “When I wake up in the morning, I look forward to getting my Starbucks and coming out here with my hose for an hour.”

The sheer variety of gardens on display throughout the Lincoln Square Garden Walk suggests the wide array of possibilities for urban gardening. From manicured to wild, from lawn to gravel, from containers to yard, gardens clearly come in all shapes and sizes.

While the garden walk was the weekend?s main attraction, a number of environmental groups also participated in a Green Fair, held the same day in Giddings Plaza. These included:

  • PC Rebuilders & Recyclers. This local company refurbishes computers and places them with schools, nonprofit organizations, and need-based homes.
  • Transit Riders Alliance. Advocates for improved and expanded mass transit throughout Illinois.
  • Riverbank Neighbors. A volunteer organization that serves as steward of the riverbank along the Chicago River from Montrose to Berteau.
  • Green Dream Group. Specializes in home-energy audits and green building certification.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Share this now!

Spread the word