A garden that's good for 'the inside of your head'

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

As Sandy Lentz settles into being a newly elected member of the Park District of Oak Park board, back on her 800 block of north Humphrey, this spring, summer and fall her garden will be calling her home.

It seems that for about 27 years now, Lentz has optimized every square foot of viable growing space in her and her husband David's standard 25-foot x 150-foot northeast Oak Park lot.

And now, in spring, it's time to get back into that soil.

From the street to the alley, Lentz's yard is a sustainable, colorful and textured palette of perennials, annuals, vegetables, fruits, trees, shrubs and eco-friendly and drought-resistant native plants.

Specifically, running along the chain link fence, from the back porch, to the alley, are the right plants in the right space, which is the mantra for strong growth.

The shade-loving Heucheras, and Hellebore kick off her vegetative chorus line. In the middle where full sun filters in, she has planted a couple of peony trees that produce a glorious profusion of about 30 to 35 white blooms that are as big as her hand.

Beyond that is a Little Joe Pye, which is a "nativare," she says, so it doesn't get as big as the ones indigenous to the prairie.

Interspersed in that strip of growing space, she says she tucks in annual flowers for more color.

"In my garden I don't have anything that blooms for two weeks, and then is a green lump the rest of the year," says the former president of the Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory (FOPCON). "I don't have enough space to do that, so the plants I have, must earn their keep. There is always something new and interesting to learn about, and look at in my garden. There is always a list, and if one of my plants dies, I don't mourn it because there are usually about 6 plants in line waiting for the spot."

Making every square foot count

To add more interest, Lentz companions plants, putting accent veggies and herbs alongside her tried and true perennials, which she does stand back and enjoy.

"My garden is not the same two years running," she says. "That is what makes gardening fun, trying out new practices, new plants, new varieties of vegetables."

To better utilize her small space, this year she is adding two raised beds she plans to build herself from planks of cedar to grow the veggies she and her spouse enjoy.

"Gardening is so good for the inside of my head," says Lentz. "I really like to sit in the vegetable garden and feel the sun on my back, and my hands in the earth...to pick something, and bring it in warm from the sun, and feed it to my family, now that feels really good."

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