I like to think of my garden as a cemetery for lucky instruments," said Oak Parker Marianne Nathan, first place winner in the small gardens category of the Chicago Tribune Glorious Gardens Contest 2005. The newspaper announced Chicago-area winners for five categories in September.
Nathan's inventive idea may have pushed her well ahead of the competition. Lovingly placed throughout her 1,400 square-foot garden of prairie perennials and annuals are over 50 discarded instruments: upended clarinets bloom among lilies, a mottled sousaphone sleeps beneath an apple tree, and yellow chrysanthemums sprout from bongo drums.
The organic curves of the instruments echo the shapes of flowers and plants, creating a pastoral symphony.
Even though she has lived in her North Oak Park home for 25 years, Nathan didn't start gardening until 1995. Her two sons, Joshua and Jeremy, had left the nest when she initiated her creative masterpiece.
However, all gardening had to take place after business hours. Nathan is a psychoanalyst working full time in Chicago. "Starting every April, this garden becomes my life, and it has given me enormous pleasure," she said.
Originally, Nathan envisioned an English perennial garden with a prairie path. So neighbor John Thorpe, a Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie School restoration architect, acted as consultant by curving a garden hose along the ground to help plan the path.
After installing the gravel trail, Nathan then proceeded to plant the classics: roses, clematis, lilies (Asiatic, Tiger, Orienpet and more), coleus, cleomes and apple trees.
In 2002, Nathan removed a hot tub from the foot of her deck to add a pond with 40 small fish. Three years later she has 10 large fish, each with a name. During the winter they hibernate at the bottom of the pond.
"We float a heater and cover the whole thing with a net to keep the leaves out," she explained. "It's a big thrill in the spring when we come out here and peak under the net, and they are swimming around in there."
Nathan refers to this body of water as Pond Lomond in honor of her dogs, a black Scottie named Shamus and a Westie named Nessie, both from Scotland. A stream leading to the pond crosses the path where a small bridge, called the Brigadoon, arches above. On one side a small sign reads, "High Road." On the other is, naturally, the "Low Road."
Nessie and Shamus are busy garden inhabitants, chasing rabbits, jumping in Pond Lomond and resting on a bench or the Brigadoon. Encircling the pond are coral-bells, ferns, a dwarf papyrus, water lilies in various colors and impatiens.
Old horns inspire a theme
Ironically, Nathan's partner, Jim Hugunin, a professor at the School of the Art Institute, almost squelched Nathan's musical gardening brainstorm.
It all happened three years ago when neighbor Thorpe was cleaning out his garage across the alley. Therein lay a collection of old, dented French horns, trombones, a tuba and a sousaphoneâ€"10 instruments in all. He generously offered them to Nathan and Hugunin.
Nathan recounted the story: "I said, 'John, why don't you put them in your garden? They're kind of cool.' And he said, 'Nah.' So I said, 'How about if we put them in my garden?' And both John and Jim said, 'No!' Because I'm famous for having too much stuff. I was voted down. So I forgot the whole thing.
"Jim and I went shopping. We were gone for hours, we came home, and John was still puttering around . . . . So again he said, 'You want my horns?' And I said to him, 'I still think these would look really good in my garden.' And Jim said, 'Well, maybe.' So we walked the horns across the alley and started putting them in the garden, and I said, 'I love it.' And John said, 'Not bad.'
"Then suddenly Jim said, 'It reminds me of Chihuly. The shapes are complementary!'"
That same year the couple had viewed glass artist Dale Chihuly's exhibit at Garfield Park Conservatory. Seeing his glass sculptures amid green plants may have subconsciously influenced Nathan.
Antique stores and eBay have provided additional instruments for her garden. "I look for descriptions on eBay that say, 'vintage,' 'dented,' 'for parts,'" she admitted, with a laugh.
A primary focal point is the western wall of Nathan's garden, where a climbing hydrangea vine almost encircles a poem painted on the wall:
O give me a place in the Garden of Song,
I would linger and labor there all summer long.
There are corners to care for, stray beds to make bloom,
I ask not for wages, I only seek room
In the Garden of Song.
In the shade and partial shade below the poem are goosenecked loosestrife, two varieties of ligularia, Queen of the Prairie, coreopsis, spiderwort, coral-bells and wormwood, along with others.
Scattered gnomes holding musical instruments add whimsy to the entire, elegant oasis.
At the east end of Nathan's garden is the Latin section, where one can almost hear the maracas hanging near the garage window. A clay collection of rotund mariachi players sits on the windowsill between potted cacti. Hot chili pepper lights surround the window near hanging baskets of begonias. Beneath this playful display is a thick bed of birthwort. Two varieties of clematis (jackmani and sweet autumn), ligularia, yellow-green coleus and red impatiens are nearby, as well.
"I wanted an English perennial garden. But you never know how it's going to actually end up. It's just like life," concluded Nathan. "I come and sit on the steps here at night and feed the fish and listen to the music of the water. It is just a great place to end a summer day."
Judge and landscape architect Vallari Talapatra of Eco Scapes in Wheaton lauded Nathan's garden as "romantic and ethereal." Other contest judges were William Aldrich, publisher of Chicagoland Gardening magazine; Doris Taylor, plant information specialist at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle; Joan Barczak, co-owner of Blumen Gardens in Sycamore; Mike Novak, host of WGN Radio's (720 AM) Let's Talk Gardening show; Lee Randhava, a writer for the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe; and Home & Garden gardening reporter Beth Botts.
Nathan received a Glorious Gardens trophy, coffee mug and $100 gift certificate to the garden center of her choice.