The Native Garden Walk, with its focus on helping gardeners discover the benefits of growing native plants in their yards, returns to Oak Park and River Forest on Saturday, July 23.
Sponsored by West Cook Wild Ones, the Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory and Interfaith Green Network, the walk aims to inspire experienced and new gardeners while teaching them about the usefulness of plants that have lived in the area of thousands of years.
The walk will feature 10 gardens, and Adrian Ayres Fisher, co-chair of this year’s walk, says each garden showcases design that is inspirational and obtainable.
“We have landscaper-designed gardens and homeowner-installed gardens,” Fisher said. “Native gardening is not confined to people who can afford professionals.”
Four of this year’s gardens include native plant rain gardens.
“Native plants and rain gardens are made for each other, with the deep root systems of native plants,” Fisher said. “It’s really quite spectacular the effect they can have.”
Other gardens include creative ways to incorporate native plants with edible gardens and urban homesteading.
River Forest gardener David Hoyt says he started puttering in his garden in 2018 and, bit by bit, has converted large portions of his front and back yards to native plantings.
“I grew up in Illinois in a town surrounded by agriculture and farm fields, and I never knew what the native flora were,” Hoyt said. “It’s only when we moved to the suburbs and got a house with a yard that I got into this.”
Motivated by trying to recapture his historical memory of rural Illinois landscape and a sense of what he calls “dire environmental emergency,” he turned much of his sunny yard into a prairie.
With over half of his lot now devoted to native plants, Hoyt hopes that all homeowners will address the ecological crisis, no matter how small their lot may be.
“We can demonstrate that there are alternatives to traditional landscape practices,” he said.
Lauren and Andrew MacGregor were pulled into native gardening by water issues in their Oak Park yard, which big storms often flooded.
They turned to Red Stems Native Landscapes, which installed a rain garden that made a world of difference.
“During the last 100-year storm, our rain garden filled to the top,” Andrew said. “Then we noticed a lot of growth afterwards. We’ve seen lots of butterflies and birds.”
According to Lauren MacGregor, the rain garden has also had a beneficial effect on basement flooding.
“Now, we have no water issues in our basement,” she said. “We didn’t realize how efficient it would be.”
After tackling their backyard, they turned to native plants to enhance their front yard in a joint effort with neighbor Annaig Le Sourd, who says that when she moved into her home in 2019, the MacGregors’ gardening efforts were already well underway.
“We had water issues in the spring, and we needed to simplify,” Le Sourd said. “We saw what Lauren and Andrew were doing with their rain garden and called Red Stem.”
Le Sourd had rain gardens installed in her backyard and natives in the front space that is contiguous with the MacGregor’s yard.
“It’s so easy to maintain and the colors are so pretty,” she said.
Oak Parker Rachel Aubyrn was also motivated to go native by storm water issues in her Oak Park yard. When her family purchased their house in 2018, the entire backyard was paved. At the time, the village offered a RainReady grant, which she and her husband applied for. RainReady made recommendations for the use of native plants and permeable ground cover to help manage flooding issues.
The Aubyrns used their grant to rip out the concrete covering their yard, and on their own, sifted through mounds of river rock and dug trenches.
“This was in 2020, so we had a lot of time on our hands,” Aubryn said.
The Aubyrns also frequented the West Cook Wild Ones plant sale to stock up on native plants. They have created a rain garden and are at work on the sun garden in their side yard.
Cindy Klein-Banai has lived in her Oak Park home for 24 years and says she had plenty of time to think about what she wanted her yard to look like. As the assistant vice chancellor and director of sustainability at University of Illinois-Chicago, she knew an investment in native plants would pay off. Water issues also had her thinking about the garden as a storm management tool.
“We were also entering the pandemic, so it had us rethinking everything,” Klein-Banai said.
She turned to Twig Landscape Design, which helped her come up with a plan that incorporated native plants and created a rain garden. Klein-Banai just planted 43 plants from the West Cook Wild Ones native plant sale this spring, and says the new landscaping enhances the hens she’s raised for 10 years and the raised beds where she grows vegetables and herbs.
“I couldn’t really sit in the backyard before,” she said. “Now, I can sit at ground level and really feel like I’m bathing in nature.”
Gardener Laurie Casey says her native garden is more structured than some, with a focus on native trees and shrubs.
“I have a husband who eats a fruit and then wants to try to grow it,” Casey said. “We have 12 different types of fruiting trees and shrubs.”
Like Klein-Banai, she raises hens in her garden, and finds her native plants attract birds, bees and butterflies to her yard.
Fisher stresses that anyone with an interest in gardening can adapt their yard with native plants.
“Every single one is very special,” Fisher said. “Each gardener has adapted their garden to their space and their needs.”
For Fisher, the gardeners are great examples of village-wide effort taking place to combat climate change one yard at a time in Oak Park.
She notes that West Cook Wild Ones played a role in shaping the village’s Climate Plan, with an emphasis on native gardening.
Before you go
The Native Garden Walk takes place on Saturday, July 23 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets for the garden walk are $10 for West Cook Wild One members and $15 for non-members. Children attend for free. Tickets can be purchased at westcook.wildones.org.
Two days before the event, ticket holders will receive a tour map for the walk. Volunteer docents are needed for the walk and will receive free admission to the walk. More information is available on the website.