After a one-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory (FOPCON) and the Garden Club of Oak Park and River Forest are bringing back the annual Garden Walk. On Sunday, June 27 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. visitors can tour nine private gardens in Oak Park and River Forest and the community garden of the Oak Park Art League.
Sue Boyer, co-chair of this year’s walk and FOPCON’s president, says that based on this year’s plant sales, she expects a bumper crop of garden walk attendees.
“Gardening has taken on a new life with the pandemic,” Boyer said. “We’ve even seen a more intense interest this year over last year when everyone was going crazy to try to get new plants when they were stuck at home.”
Every year, Garden Walk organizers choose a variety of gardens — large, small, sunny and shady — to provide plenty of inspiration to attendees. While each of this year’s gardens has a unique approach to landscape, all of the homeowners say that their gardens provide a sense of place that has been particularly soothing in a year touched by a global pandemic.
Carol Kasper, with her husband Gary Wilham, has been working on her Oak Park yard since the couple moved to the village in 1989 with their toddler son. Both Kasper and Wilham grew up in families that prized gardening and farming. The couple was no fan of simple grass lawns and wanted to do something different in their yard, which Kasper describes as “a typical Chicago bowling alley backyard.”
When their son was 5, he planted maple seeds in the yard, three of which have thrived the past 29 years. When he was 11, he and his father worked together to break up the straight concrete walkway in the yard and replaced it with a curved brick walk. They used stones and plants to create a backyard that features very little grass but plenty of greenery.
Over time, neighboring yards lost large trees, and Kasper and Wilham found their garden transitioning from a shade garden to a sunnier one.
“Gardens are living growing things,” Kasper said. “They change all of the time. It was kind of sad to lose those trees, but it was an opportunity for change. Gardens are always a work in progress. You’re never finished.”
Over the years, Kasper says that not only has the garden brought her family joy, but it also is doing its part to combat environmental issues.
“From the point of view of the ecosystem, gardens, trees and plants are a hedge against air pollution,” she said. “Gardens bring in pollinators like bees, too. You can do a lot with what you plant to try to replant the ecosystem.”
Another longtime Oak Park gardener, Sandy Noel, says that when she and her husband purchased their home in 1976, there was grass everywhere. Like Kasper, she eschewed chemicals, so she jokes that for many years, “I grew children and weeds.”
Once she turned her sights on turning the grass into a garden, she says she started in the front and moved towards the back. Over the years, the garden has evolved many times, but a recent re-working with the help of garden designer Bill Sieck has created a design that she says will stick.
Sieck says that when he first saw the 40-by-40-foot backyard, he was immediately reminded of an ancient garden in Pisa, Italy that he learned about during his studies.
“I just mimicked that design,” Sieck said. “That garden was all about the structure.”
Noel says Sieck added plants in her favorite color palette of blues and purples and suggested adding some espaliered pear trees that are now a favorite focal point.
“It’s such a wonderful event because people can see large estates, but you can also see what’s done in small yards,” Noel said of the Garden Walk. “There’s a lot of inspiration out there.”
Noel is also in charge of the raffle for this year’s walk and says that ticket purchases will benefit the Garden Club’s scholarship fund. Raffle tickets can be purchased at the gardens during the walk for $5 for one or $20 for five.
Prizes include a $100 gift certificate to Luurs Garden Center in Hillside, gift cards for local restaurants Café De Lucca and Cucina Paradiso, and a tour for four of the Lurie Garden by a Lurie staff member.
Boyer said it is never too late to start planning for next year, so she asks longtime gardeners and those who have been inspired during the pandemic to reach out to FOPCON and the Garden Club if they think their gardens would make a good stop for Garden Walk 2022. As it is, she says that the 2021 walk will have something for all types of outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy.
If you go
Tickets purchased in advance cost $15, and those purchased the day of the event cost $20. Children under the age of 12 are free. Advanced tickets are available for purchase via PayPal or credit card at gcoprf.org and must be purchased by 5 p.m. on Saturday, June 26.
Tickets or receipts can be exchanged for garden guides and maps from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 27 at the Oak Park Conservatory, 615 Garfield St. in Oak Park or the Cheney Mansion, 220 N. Euclid Ave. in Oak Park. Drive up accommodations for pickup will be available at both locations.