Judy Klem stands outside of her home on Friday, July 9, 2021, on Lombard Avenue in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

The West Cook chapter of Wild Ones, is holding its annual garden walk on Saturday, July 24 from 1 to 5 p.m. The walk, which celebrates, birds, bees and butterflies, will include eight gardens in Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park and Berwyn. 

During the walk, host gardeners will be on hand to give guided overviews of their gardens and answer questions about native gardening, sustainable landscaping, edible gardening, DIY versus professional designers and urban homesteading.

This year, West Cook Wild Ones is celebrating the year of the butterfly, and the walk aims to give participants practical information they can use in their own yards to attract and nurture butterflies, create year-round beauty, grow their own food and fight climate change.

One of the gardeners, Candace Blank, says her garden is living proof that anyone can grow a native garden. When she moved into her home in Berwyn in 1990, she says that all she did was mow her lawn. Around 2006, she said, “I finally decided to do something. I always liked plants, so I hired a landscaper who recommended an English garden and a butterfly garden because they looked pretty. I didn’t know anything then about natives.”

She joined the national chapter of Wild Ones, a nonprofit formed “to promote environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities,” and learned about the importance of planting native pollinators one garden at a time. 

Shortly thereafter, the West Cook chapter of Wild Ones opened. 

“I learned more from their programs, added more natives to my garden and became a convert,” Blank said.

Since then, she’s served on the board of West Cook Wild Ones and has transformed her yard. What started out as a plan to make her yard pretty turned into something with more meaning. Climate change and the collapse of habitats for insects and birds mean her garden has more purpose while looking good, too.

As she looks out into her yard to see a nesting Cooper’s Hawk with a baby, she says seeing the birds and insects enjoy her garden makes her happy and fulfills West Cook Wild Ones’ mission of healing the earth one yard at a time.

In Forest Park, Gretchen Jankowski has a garden that was inspired by her aunt and uncle’s field of wildflowers in rural Illinois. She grew up loving visits to their farm. When her parents purchased a home on a lot and a half that received full sun, she knew that she wanted to create her own wildflower prairie in a more urban setting.

An art teacher a Governors State University, Jankowski says that gardening and art have a lot of similarities. 

“I like organized chaos, and I like native plants because they do their own thing but also benefit from a bit of structure,” she said.

She’s populated her garden with seeds and plants from her aunt and uncle’s property, with plants from her grandmother’s home and with shared plants from those in the gardening community. 

After a few years of nurturing the landscape, she is learning that like art, nothing ever works out exactly as planned with a garden, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While the end result might not be the same was the vision in your head, it might end up being even better.

Oak Park gardener Judy Klem helped organize this year’s walk for West Cook Wild Ones, and while she has been a native gardener for years working with the Oak Park Temple on their gardens, this is the first time she’s opening up her personal garden.

Klem got her start with native gardening when she was raising four children and looking for a way to avoid chemicals in her landscaping. Visits to Lurie Gardens, with its masses of native plants and pollinators, inspired her. 

“It was close enough to Oak Park to visit,” Klem said. “I pulled up their plant list, got a book and then I was this crazy lady asking for native plants at the garden store.”

At that point, it was challenging to find native plants at big-box retailers, but she got involved with West Cook Wild Ones and learned from other members and began attending seed swaps and plants sales.

She started small, and eventually converted her yard and the entire parkway along Division Street. What started with one plant has evolved into an escape for the entire neighborhood. 

“Once you step out on the parkway, you can just get lost,” she said, adding that neighborhood children can walk through and look for caterpillars or enjoy the section devoted to berries.

At the end of the day, Klem says that native gardening is something that’s attainable for other home gardeners and has brought her joy. 

“It’s been really rewarding,” Klem said. “When you make a commitment to plant with a purpose, you start to look at gardening through a whole different lens. It’s not just about how it looks but about what it does. This is not your mother’s garden.”

Before you go

The garden walk cost $10 for West Cook Wild Ones members and $15 for non-members. Children can attend for free. Tickets can be purchased at westcook.wildones.org/birds-bees-butterflies-a-native-garden-tour.

Tour participants will receive a map of the gardens two days before the event. To encourage social distancing, each garden will have a separate entrance and exit. 

As garden locations are spread among four communities, participants are encouraged to bike or drive between gardens.

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