No 2020 tour, but Garden Walk's mission endures

For nearly three decades, fundraiser has funded scholarships

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

This Sunday should have been the 27th annual Garden Walk, hosted by the Garden Club of Oak Park and River Forest in conjunction with the Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory (FOPCON.) 

Typically, the two nature-based organizations plan all year to open eight to 10 local gardens for an outdoor tour that encourages participants to get outside and get inspired. 

Like so many other activities, the walk had to be cancelled due to COVID-19, but keeping in history with the walk's educational bent, the mission will continue.

The Garden Club's historian and president, Mary Ellen Warner, notes that the Garden Club and FOPCON began co-sponsoring the Garden Walk in 1993. Then-President Patricia Leavy initiated the project as a fundraiser to enable the club to start yearly scholarships for college students majoring in horticulture, conservation, environmental studies, forestry, landscape architecture or botany.

"I think the Garden Walk has been an enduring summer tradition in the Oak Park and River Forest area because it supports two fine horticultural organizations in the area," Warner said. "The Garden Walk chairs, committee and volunteers have strived each year to show off our local gardens with a variety of sizes and styles. Thankfully, homeowners have been willing to share their gardens and the stories of their development. People love to get ideas from local gardeners that they can institute themselves."

Sue Milojevic, past president of the Garden Club, joined the club in 2005 and says that the Garden Club has consistently poured its proceeds from the walk into providing scholarships to graduates of Oak Park and River Forest High School. 

"We provide two scholarships of $3,000," Milojevic said. "This year's scholarships, for the class of 2020, are funded by the walk proceeds from 2019. Because we won't have any proceeds for the cancelled walk, our plan is to fund the scholarships for the class of 2021 from our reserves."

The winners of the scholarships for 2020 were Elise Beile and Geneva Domanty.

"We've been doing it for more than 25 years," Milojevic said. "It's become a tradition in the area. Members scout out houses all summer in preparation for the following year." 

Happily, she says that many of the homeowners whose homes were scheduled to be featured this year have agreed to have their gardens featured in the summer of 2021. 

One homeowner who is eager to share her outdoor space next summer is Dr. Wanda Foster. A professor at River Forest's Concordia University, she says that the inspiration for elevating her backyard space in River Forest came from years of attending the Garden Walk herself.

"We bought the house about ten years ago, and it was so nice that the previous owner had beautiful plants," Foster said. "Unfortunately, we lost some of the trees with the emerald ash borer and similar issues. We had to move the shady plants, which provided space for more sun-loving plants."

While she tried to reshape the garden for a few years on her own, she eventually sought help for the heavy lifting and turned to Forest Park-based McAdam Landscape Professionals. 

"It was more than I could do," she said. "I sat down with their garden designer and described my vision, and they came up with a plan and did all of the hard work."

Foster says that one of the keys to her garden, which is on a corner lot, was opening things up. She got rid of a tall fence, which she says allowed her to get to know her neighbors more. Some of her neighbors were similarly inspired and began to upgrade their gardens as well.

For Foster, the happiness she finds in her own garden is more than doubled when she sees her neighbors enjoying their outdoor space as well. 

"When one person starts to tinker around in the garden, it affects the whole neighborhood," Foster said. "It's a great way to bring joy to people. It's kind of like teaching. You see a lightbulb go off, and you're so glad they get it."

Sue Boyer, co-chair of the 2020 walk along with Gina Sennello, is hopeful that the Garden Walk will return in full force in the summer of 2021. 

"We're going to make it work one way or another," Boyer said. "It might be a lot of work to set up, but it's a really fun thing to do every year."

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