Oak Park Conservatory and the Garden Club present their annual Garden Walk

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

Home gardeners understand that some of the best summer blooms, veggies and herbs begin bursting toward the end of June.

It's Mother Nature's annual extravaganza, and it is well worth the wait.

Around here, one way to experience all that front and backyard beauty is to take a self-guided tour through the eight "demonstration" gardens on parade during Garden Walk 2013.

Co-sponsored by FOPCON (Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory) and the Garden Club of Oak Park-River Forest, the walking (or biking) tour commences from the Oak Park Conservatory, 615 Garfield Ave., between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 30. Tickets cost $15 in advance, $18 at the door, with proceeds benefitting the educational programming of both groups. For more details, visit www.fopcon.org or call 708-725-2400.

"We have a variety of very different gardens, from small [urban] to large formal," says Sue Boyer, chair of Garden Walk 2013. "These gardeners love to talk about their gardens, and the people who come through always have a lot of questions."

What to expect

On the 600 block of Belleforte in Oak Park, for example, is Mike Reust, who is using his front and backyard as a laboratory for his business, Urban Sprout Garden Design. He is always experimenting in his space to determine what will grow best, where, and how.

Reust, a native Californian, became interested in organic gardening as a boy. Nowadays his goal is to have a grassless front yard, and a backyard that is mostly productive garden space.

In the last four years or so, Reust explains, he has been chipping away at the turf, and replacing it with sun and shade-loving vegetation, plus several varieties of fruit and, of course, lots of vegetables and herbs, which he and his family enjoy eating.

"When we moved into our vintage 1924 home in 2004, I knew I wanted the design of the front yard to be a balance of structure [like the curved path that the neighborhood children like to run through] within a more naturalistic setting. It took some negotiating with my wife [Ann Maxwell] to take out the turf grass, but a deal was eventually struck," he says, laughing. "The goal for me was to incorporate edible and ornamental plants in such a way as to create an outdoor space that was productive, yet fun and interesting."

On a recent preview of his growing spaces, Reust explained that he is maximizing the front-yard garden space by planting shade-loving Hellebore and Epimedium under the spread of a Norway maple. Conversely, in the sunnier "desert" section of his front yard, he is cultivating drought-tolerant Echinacea, Sedums, Siberian Iris, Seed Holly and Compass Plant.

Mixtures of perennial bulbs provide ongoing seasonal color, texture and interest, he adds.

Next, he filled up the growing space along the southeast side of his home with columnar apple trees, to learn if the slim 2 x 8-foot, fruit-bearing trees actually produce red and yellow apples. To multi-task his several tucked-in trellises there, he grows companion squash, cucumbers and tomatoes.

In a farm-style plot out back, he is cultivating a small field of rhubarb, broccoli, sweet potatoes, red beets, carrots and so on, he says.

Eight fruit trees are also strategically distributed — apple, peach and pear, plus a strawberry patch.

"I am very interested in the fruit trees to see what fruit can be grown successfully in smaller urban spaces," Reust says. "Part of me wants to show other people that instead of grass sucking up water, you could be growing something that you can actually eat. So I'm hoping people will pick up a few new ideas such as, 'This little space next to my deck? Why, I might plant a tomato there.'"

An eye-catching and space-saving design element is the multiple large, round, metallic fire rings positioned in a small patch against the fence. There he is growing vegetables and herbs.

"These metal rings are open on the bottom; they are actually manufactured as fire rings," Reust explains. "They are made in Wisconsin, in different diameters and heights, and I have lined them with a root barrier, which is the same thing you need for containing bamboo, just in case there is any problem with zinc. But there are no studies out there that I could find, so I'm just doing it so there are no questions."

A short walk away, on the 200 block of South Euclid Avenue in Oak Park, is Judy Shepelak's graceful garden. On the property they purchased in 1998, her transformative garden work began about two years ago when they "removed the yews around the house foundation along with two crabapple trees, several overgrown shrubs, and a crumbling grotto."

With sweat equity and her own garden design, her small garden space was reborn. Now, she writes in a formal description, "it blends formally structured and casual areas: The formal areas — the front entryway and off the side deck — are defined with boxwoods [instead of] simple plantings [that] reflect the austere look of English estates on a very tiny Oak Park scale."

Meanwhile, on the 100 block of LeMoyne Parkway in Oak Park, Paul Kotkovich and Angela John say that about 11 years ago they took their blank soil "canvas" and created a backyard garden they now adore. It features climbing Concord grape vines, climbing roses and clematis, raspberries, vibrant perennials and annuals intermingled with seasonal vegetables combining visual interest with function. Their focal point is a goldfish/koi pond that attracts a variety of dragonflies and boasts hardy water lilies, pale pink lotus, cattails standing tall, and deep violet water iris.

"This is not a garden walk, per se, it is a self-guided tour, but there will be a docent in each garden — or the owner if their schedule permits," Boyer says. "You can just go out and look at things that are there, and maybe just pick out one thing that you want to do. And that is what we want to happen on the Garden Walk."

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