Dig in at top local gardens

Oak Park River Forest Garden Walk is June 25

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Climate change worries aside, summer in the Midwest is fleeting. That does not translate into lack of time and effort expended on our outdoor spaces. To the contrary, many local homeowners take extra effort to turn their outdoor spaces into an oasis to be enjoyed as soon as the last frost is gone. 

For avid gardeners in Oak Park and River Forest, the Oak Park River Forest Garden Club offers even more incentive to roll up your sleeves and dig in the dirt. The Garden Club's annual Garden Walk is the opportunity to allow friends, neighbors and garden aficionados to wander through your garden for inspiration and enjoyment of the great outdoors. 

This year, fresh off its centennial celebration in March, the Garden Club is holding its 24th Annual Garden Walk on Sunday, June 25, showcasing nine private gardens and one community garden in Oak Park and River Forest.

Community gardening

This year, three of the gardens are within two blocks of each other on Le Moyne Parkway in Oak Park. A community garden in the 100 block exemplifies the spirit of the street. 

Faced with an overgrown, unloved parkway space, resident Jennifer Davis reached out to the village to inquire about options for gardening on the parkway. The Forestry Division did not have a plan for the median and encouraged residents to clean up and plant at will. 

With free mulch and tree pruning provided by the village, residents pitched in with sweat equity, time and plants to turn an eyesore into an oasis. 

Gardening efforts were led by Davis, Paul and Angela Kotkovich, while Phyllis Bowen and Mimi Panico painted flower pots. Flowers now bloom in the space spring through autumn, and bird baths and benches provide a quite spot for everyone to enjoy.

Also in the 100 block of Le Moyne, Phyllis Bowen and her husband, Sam, thought outside of the box when it came to their garden. Their small backyard was shadowed by two garages on either side. When their garage needed to be replaced, Phyllis suggested that they build a garage with a garden on top. 

Working with Hutter Architects and Premier Construction, the couple soon realized it was quite a feat of engineering to create a garage roof that could handle the weight of the soil and provide proper drainage.

Phyllis reports they now enjoy glorious berries, flowers and vegetable produce, as well as a downstairs patio. Four years ago, she and her young neighbor, Henry Davis, created a garden space in their gangway, which they call the Friendly Garden Railway. Complete with running trains, it begs visitors to stop and play a while.

In the 200 block of Le Moyne, Kathy Houser says that working in her urban garden is a spiritual exercise and that she enjoys her garden in all kinds of conditions, whether she is deadheading flowers in the moonlight or transplanting specimens in the rain. 

As a graphic artist, she likes to work within structured parameters, so she included boxwoods and evergreens as foundational anchors in the garden. She fills in the spaces with a variety of blooming plants that create a habitat for furry and feathered creatures.

Maple Avenue gardens

In the 400 block of Maple Avenue in Oak Park, two distinct gardens are showcased on this year's walk. 

Monika and Blaine Robinson faced a gardening challenge when they moved into their home almost 25 years ago. A narrow cement walkway led the way to a large black walnut tree, surrounded by a yard of dirt. They replaced the cement with a winding path and researched plants that would be tolerate the toxicity of the walnut tree while also enduring the intense shade. 

Today, their garden boasts climbing hydrangea on the side yard, and Japanese maple and redbud trees at the entrance. The garden has evolved along with their lives in the house, and as their children become young adults, the Robinsons continue to add new plantings and landscaping to their garden.

Just down the street, Amy and Ken Hogrefe purchased a home with little in the way of a garden other than concrete and boxwoods. With the help of Amy's father, over the past 20 years, they've added a variety of peonies to the garden. 

With herbaceous, tree and fern leaf peonies, they have found the secret to success is benign neglect. The couple's garden is full of memories in the form of plants. A hosta was inherited from a friend in Michigan who lost her battle with cancer. A hydrangea was planted by Ken and Amy's father while they listened to a Northwestern game the first fall the Hogrefes lived in Oak Park. The couple also says they are indebted to friend and garden designer Darcie Marvin who helps them keep the small garden in shape.

Variety is the spice of life

Other gardens on this year's walk include Mark Finger's urban garden in the 100 block of Harrison Street in Oak Park, which he has been greening for 30 years. Kaaren and Gary Frantzen are sharing the garden of their brick four square in River Forest, rumored to have been the rectory for Rosary College, and Martha and Jerric Ramos of River Forest share the garden of their arts-and-crafts bungalow. 

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