Whenever he needs it, this is Bruce Broerman's mental therapy: half a dozen raised plant beds out in the backyard of his Oak Park home, each of them sprouting tidy rows of green beans, tomatoes, radishes, rhubarb, mescaline, lettuce, basil, squash and cucumbers. Flanked by a trio of grape vinesâ€"two seedless and one concordâ€"columnar apple trees stand 4 feet tall at the foot of Broerman's row of vegetables. Elsewhere, an unsmiling plastic owl guards the whole crop while a compost pile ferments at the back.
"I grew up on a small family farm out in Iowa," Broerman said. "Kind of a multipurpose thing. We had a little bit of everything but not very much of anything. One thing we did have was a really big garden and yard."
And that's what Broerman is trying to replicate, albeit on a somewhat more modest and urban scale just south of the Eisenhower Expressway.
"My flowers and vegetables keep me sane," said Broerman, whose extra-wide lot is half-sown in blooming perennials and ornamental treesâ€"lilies, hardy geraniums, redbuds, crabapplesâ€"with a few potted annuals thrown in for accent.
"When I moved in 20 years ago, this backyard was a wasteland," Broerman said. "Grasses and shrubs had taken over. So I've been putzing around in here since."
This Saturday, Broerman and nine other local greenthumbs will invite the neighborhood in for a gander at their private paradises. Kicking off at 9:30 a.m. June 25, the 12th annual Oak Park and River Forest Garden Walk will once again offer ticket holders a peek into the local botanics and the chance to poach a few ideas.
According to Ellen Panozzo, who headed up this year's walk for the Garden Club of Oak Park and River Forest, the aim this time around was to show visitors not just sprawling and splendid gardens, but smaller, more intimate plots as well.
"There's a great variety out there," said Panozzo, adding that the garden walk committee pared down a list of more than 50 nominations to come up with this year's roster of gardens. "Some of the gardens on the tour are just tiny. And we've got a mixture of sunny and shady. We wanted people visiting to be able to get ideas for both exposures."
Expect to see plenty of ponds this weekendâ€"Koi ponds, lily ponds, waterfalls, even a bogâ€"and more than a few vegetable plots, Panozzo said.
"And people are really getting into container gardens right now for some reason," she said. "They've not only got containers out in their yards, but they're also bringing all their colors onto their decks. People spend a lot of time on their decks and porches, and they don't just want to look at patio furniture. Plus, there are so many wonderful plants for containers now that you don't just have to get a geranium."
Stuffed and shady
Barb Laucius is one of those whose backyard garden undulates almost into her house.
"I guess this is kind of a stuffed yard trying to be a cottage garden," Laucius said, standing at the entrance to her backyard on South Ridgeland Avenue. "But I like plenty of plants. I keep stuffing more in here."
Anchored by a small, landscaped pond and shaded by a handsome mulberry tree, Laucius' yard is a profusion; it positively shudders with color and fecundity. A climbing hydrangea and morning glory and clematis vines puckering out pink and red and blue flowers scale the edges of Laucius' garden, along with a variegated redtwig dogwood and a jungle of Japanese kerria. A 3-foot-square flower bag hanging on the back gate sprouts a wall of red impatiens, and surrounding Laucius' pond are hostas, lungwort, corydalis, creeping juniper and pink-flowered lamium.
"This all used to be grass," Laucius said. "But we always had to put in sod, and it just never did well. Fifteen years ago, we pulled it out, and of course just started planting and planting."
Gradually, the maturing mulberry beside the garage shaded her once-sunny yard and the dwarf-sized apple her family planted off the deck turned out to be a giant.
"Somehow we planted it in the wrong season or something," Laucius said. "It just keeps growing and growing. But there's a lot of wonderful plants that love shade."
Lockspur and Shasta daisies grow almost wild among Laucius' herbs and vegetables and astilbes shoot up satisfied red plumes every year. Among her latest shade-loving discoveries is black mondo grass, a perennial that "looks like little tarantulas," she said.
"I do a lot of just sitting and looking out here," Laucius said. "It's so wonderful just to be out here. We've been in this house 22 years now, and when we first bought, it was Thanksgiving and I didn't think much about the yard. But that spring I saw a columbine come up and I thought it was just the most beautiful flower. I was hooked after that."
A yard of many colors
According to Panozzo, many of the gardeners participating in this year's walk are local stalwarts who've put two decades or more into their yards. River Forest resident Nancy Cappelli raised six children in her century-old Forest Avenue home. She's lived there 45 years.
"This used to be a play yard," she said. "There used to be sand and play bark all in here. It turned out to be wonderful for growing plants."
All that's left now is the wooden
treehouse Cappelli's father built, draped with flower boxes and overgrown with ferns and daylilies. These days, the yard, a massive open expanse wrapping from one end of the house to the other, is ringed with peonies and lilacs. Exotic treesâ€"weeping cherries, a yellow magnolia, a 20-foot larch, a gnarled-up contorted hazelnut and an acaciaâ€"thrive on the sunlight Cappelli's yard affords them.
Meanwhile, the edges of her coy pond teem with phlox, Japanese irises in purple and white, rhododendrons, roses, lily of the Nile, a banana palm and a stand of cattailsâ€"which Cappelli insists have migrated from one side of the pond to the other. Water lilies and lotus plants share the water with a handful of fish, while off to the side, Cappelli has been experimenting with bog horticulture: potted pitcher plants and water hyacinths.
"It's new this year," she said. "We'll see how it goes."
In the narrow passage between the south wall of her house and a high wooden fence 6 feet away, Cappelli has conjured up what she calls her "secret garden." A wisteria-canopied arbor opens into an explosion of lilacs, tulips, lantern roses, purple alliums, deeply pink Asiatic lilies and perennial delphinium, "which happens to be my absolute favorite," Cappelli said. Like the rest of her yard, Cappelli's secret garden seems both wild and carefully structured.
"I just buy what I like and plant it," she said. "I've always loved gardening. My dad and I used to do it together when we lived in Oak Park. My mother still loves gardening, and she's almost 99 years old."
If Cappelli's yard seems slightly unleashed and overflowing, Sue Allen's manages to maintain its restraint. Everythingâ€"well, almostâ€"is politely in its place, and the sense of order is inviting. Plus, the garden is here to stay; Allen eschews most annuals.
"This is a perennial garden with year-round interest," Allen said. "We have a lot of color in our pots. In the yard, what we're going for is texture."
And so in the front yard, the reliable woodruff sets off leggy astilbes, a lilac and a cut-leap Japanese maple. Deep pink coral-bells react with hardy geraniums and a giant columbine plant.
Organized to compliment the low-slung linear architecture of Allen's 1956 home, the yard is split into three discrete areas. Out front, circular plant beds and terra cotta containers soften the house's angles and lines; in back, roses, oak leaf hydrangeas, azaleas, forsythias, a maple and a white pine round out the landscape.
Delicate vinca minor flowers fold into the grid laid out by backyard pavers. It's a yard Allen believes Frank Lloyd Wright would approve of. And it's meticulousâ€"ask Allen for the name of one plant or another, and she'll invite you inside for a glass of ice water while she digs out a set of landscape blueprints.
"The architecture is really inseparable from the garden," she said, pointing to a stalky birch growing up through a latticed roof-edge on the house's easternmost wall. "We enjoy the yard year-round. We've got gardens on all sides, and big bay windows. In winter, the mature crabapples make such a gorgeous silhouette."