Randy Bell talks about the cottage-style garden he and his wife, Deb Fenwick, have created over the past decade in Oak Park. Their garden is one of seven on this year’s walk. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

The 28th Annual Oak Park and River Forest Garden Walk returns this summer on June 26 and features seven private gardens in both communities along with one community garden. The walk is the joint effort of the Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory (FOPCON) and the Garden Club of Oak Park and River Forest. 

As in past years, the Garden Club proceeds will benefit scholarships and community projects, and the FOPCON proceeds will directly support projects that benefit the Oak Park Conservatory.

Garden Club Co-President Gina Sennello says that most of the gardens selected to be on this year’s walk were identified by word of mouth. Garden Club and FOPCON members used to drive the streets of Oak Park and River Forest looking for suitable gardens, but now, Sennello notes that many are found through Garden Walk docents who talk to attendees about local gardens.

This gardens in year’s walk are located primarily in northeast Oak Park and the north end of River Forest. Sennello praises the variety of gardens.

“We have one with a large pond; one that’s very Zen with a lot of stone, conifers and metals; and another that’s an entertaining backyard with an outdoor kitchen,” Sennello said.

Her co-chair for the walk, FOPCON Co-president Sue Boyer, added, “I’m amazed at some of the things we’ve seen. There’s such a variety — from almost the non-garden to the most amazing French bathtub in a garden.”

Boyer also commented on the community garden at the Oak Park Temple. 

“No one would ever think that would be there on Harlem Avenue,” she said.

Among the seven private gardens on the walk, Janice and Rich Roberts will share their River Forest garden, which began in 2017 when the couple hired landscapers to help reimagine their front yard. With the help of Valley Landscaping, they added a long, curved bed and filled it with lilacs, roses, a river birch tree and hydrangeas. 

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Over time, with the help of guidance from programming from the Oak Park Conservatory and West Cook Wild Ones, Janice Roberts expanded the garden on her own, adding a hosta garden and raised beds for growing vegetables. She is also inspired by the work of David Tallamy, who encourages the planting of pollinators.

“If everyone just created their own little national park in their backyard, it would be very helpful,” Roberts said.

Painter and sculptor Melinda Whitmore will share her Oak Park garden, which she considers another artistic medium. In 2016 when she and David Jamieson put an addition on their house, it inspired a re-thinking of their yard. Whitmore drew up plans, laid out a patio and tried to bring in colors and textures. 

Other than laying the patio, she says it was work she all did herself.

“Professional gardens are amazing but can be intimidating,” Whitmore said.

During the pandemic, Whitmore completed a master gardener program online to build a base of knowledge. She also credits the downtime of the pandemic with getting her out into the garden more.

“I had the extra time with no commute, and I needed to stay sane,” Whitmore said. “It keeps my head clear to see what’s living, what’s dying, what can I fix. It’s ever-evolving.”

Also in Oak Park, Deb Fenwick and Randy Bell began working on their garden when they bought their house in 2011. Like Whitmore, they used the pandemic years to spend more time in their garden, and both say the sustaining nature of the garden was a helpful respite from recent health issues and the stress of the pandemic.

“The garden was our dining space, our social space,” Fenwick said.

 “It was a safe place for us to go do something,” Bell added. “It was like a safe haven.”

Their cottage-style garden is divided into multiple zones and incudes a shade garden, a water feature and dogwoods. A native plant garden is a work in progress along the driveway. A favorite plant is the wisteria vine growing on the garden gate. Bell says it reminds them of time spent in France.

“It’s all of the romance of Paris, right here in Oak Park,” Fenwick added.

In addition to the Garden Walk being a joint venture between FOPCON and the Garden Club, Boyer said, it’s also a great tie to the community. Attendance in 2021 was robust, with more than 800 people attending, something Boyer is hoping to repeat this year.

If you go

The Oak Park and River Forest Garden Walk takes place on Sunday, June 26 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Advance tickets are $18 and can be purchased online at www.gcoprf.org

Tickets can be purchased by mail via check mailed to GCORPF, at P.O. Box 5633, River Forest, 60305. Tickets can also be purchased the day of the event for $23. Children 12 and under are free. Tickets are not refundable.

Tickets and garden guides for ticket holders must be picked up the day of the walk between 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. at either the Oak Park Conservatory, 615 Garfield St., Oak Park (credit card ticket purchases only) or Cheney Mansion, 220 N. Euclid Ave., Oak Park (credit card or check purchases.) 

Drive-up accommodations will be available at both sites for garden guide pickups.

(Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

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