Home green home: Doug Chien and his wife Michele Gurgas have created a native plant garden that includes a man-made waterfall using recycled rainwater at their Oak Park home.J. GEIL/Photo Editor

From the front porch steps of 1047 Highland Ave. in southeast Oak Park, one can see, hear and smell a drought-tolerant, self-fertilizing, native wildflower garden.

Around the corner on the parkway is a rain garden, which occupies about an eighth of the green space. The swale — another name for it — is helping to manage and mitigate the property’s potential flooding issues by soaking up and using the excess storm water flowing to it instead of the sewer.

Likewise, in the backyard more storm water runoff is being diverted to a waterfall pond and a rain barrel, adding tranquility and efficiency to the space. Nearby, a composter is turning yard waste into organic fertilizer, which is used for modest veggie and herb patches.

The home and the eco-friendly property is owned and maintained by Douglas Chien and his wife Michele Gurgas. Chien, a landscape designer by trade, says he has always been into native plants and ecological restoration. In addition to everything else he has done to his property, he recently built his wife and daughter, Kanohi, a small coop that houses chickens named Hiru and Mary. The birds eat the family’s organic table scraps, produce nitrogen-rich fertilizer via their droppings, and are consistently laying two eggs per day.

This Saturday (Sept. 24), anyone interested in learning more about this property, or a few of the other 14 sustainable sites in Oak Park and River Forest, should join the Green Connections Bike Tour 2011. It is a free and educational opportunity for locals to learn about what other public spaces and private homes are doing to green-up, says Sally Stovall, one of the coordinators of Green Community Connections, its sponsor.

“This is a self-designed tour that runs between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. where people can choose which four of the 15 homes or community sites they want to visit within the designated time slots,” she says.

Everything from geothermal cooling and heating systems, solar panels and energy efficient construction components, to the demos of outdoor classrooms settings, and a community garden where kids and adults are learning how to grow food, will be on display and showcased throughout the tour. Participants will also have the opportunity to experience numerous composting and urban chicken operations in action.

At each of the 45-minute stops, Stovall adds, most of the visit will be spent in conversation with the hosts, learning about their homegrown expertise and experiences.

Pre-registration is required, and it closes on Friday (Sept. 23). Participation will be on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“People can do this tour by bike, roller blades or scooter, by foot, rent a low-speed electronic vehicle through Green Line Wheels, or check out our website for other options if these don’t work, however they can do it getting around without using fossil fuels,” says Ana Garcia-Doyle, a member of the event’s planning committee. “That would be ideal.

“We consider our event to be in support of the cornerstone philosophies and initiatives of Plan It Green, as it is an informal implementation of some of its strategies.”

Chien, who sits on the Park District of Oak Park’s Greening Advisory Commission, adds that if folks are interested, he might discuss how and why every spring they do a controlled burn of their native gardens — with the proper village permits, of course.

“It’s become a bit of a party. Every year folks come out with their coffee and doughnuts and we hang around and watch it,” says Gurgas, who is also the chair of the village’s Energy and Environment Commission. “So, we have a good time with that, and it has brought the local neighborhood together a little bit.”

What is blooming in their woodland, Savannah and prairie ecosystems now, says Chien, is attracting lots of butterflies, bees, fireflies and other beneficial insects, and providing a natural habitat for indigenous birds.

On display last week in the garden were tall, yellow prairie docks, a woodland sunflower, plenty of golden rod and prairie dropseed, a plant that some neighbors say make the front yard smell like fresh, buttered popcorn.

On the horizon for Chien and Gurgas is the addition of a green roof. Also this spring Gurgas says she will try square-foot power gardening to beef up their veggie and herb garden’s output, all in an effort to further maximize their small, urban space.

Chien asserts that everything they have done here over the last several years has provided lots of educational moments for their 4-year-old daughter, which was the point, after all.

“I love plants, especially all the natives,” he says. “I love the beauty, the craziness, the diversity, and frankly, if half of the people around here went native in their gardens, we would see more birds, butterflies, and our gardens would provide a more educational aspect for our children.

“You don’t get that from a Kentucky bluegrass lawn, although it is nice to have a bit of it to lie on or play ball in. I just don’t want to mow it,” Chien adds before pointing out that his Savannah blazingstar, a rare wild flower, is blooming.

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....

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