Garden tour highlights plants that attract pollinators

See how local residents draw birds, bees and butterflies to their yards

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

Who doesn't smile when they see a monarch butterfly flitting through their yard? But what about the red admiral butterfly or eastern black swallowtail in the school yard? Or the 5-inch-wide pipevine swallowtail at the neighbors? 

What about seeing not just big fat bumblebees or hard-working honeybees at the edge of the woods, but one of the other 10 native to Illinois? Or walking the neighborhood and seeing a goldfinch perched on some thistle?

These birds, bees and butterflies are all attracted to native plants, species often absent in urban landscapes. But many residents are making efforts to change that. 

Eight local gardens and the homeowners, which range from professional to self-taught gardeners, are putting nature back into landscapes and opening their garden gates on Aug. 10 for Birds, Bees and Butterflies: A Native Garden Tour. It's the fourth time the event is being held, and it is put on by West Cook Wild Ones, Interfaith Green Network and PlanItGreen.

According to Pamela Todd, director of West Cook Wild Ones, the garden tour shows "how to be effective at restoring biodiversity and be stewards of the environment." 

She also said gardens with native plants help pollinators throughout their entire life cycles and migratory birds, which need places to refuel as they travel. 

Todd, who is a founder of the West Cook chapter of Wild Ones, said going on the garden tour can increase motivation and enthusiasm for incorporating natives into everyone's landscape.

"You can learn to do this in a beautiful way," she said. "You want to be kind to your neighbors. They won't be convinced if it's a mess." 

Todd's own Oak Park garden neatly incorporates 80 percent native plantings and includes a bioswale to absorb excess water during heavy rains. 

Highlights of the eight gardens on the walk include an Oak Park home with a pond, one created and cared for by students at River Forest's Lincoln Elementary School and a south Oak Park home that is an example of "rewildling" an urban landscape that has been nurtured over time.

The north Oak Park garden of Charlie Ruedebusch and Linda Flack balances natives and traditional, cultivated plants. While they have recognizable natives, such as black-eyed Susan, cone flowers and Jack-in-the-pulpit, Flack has incorporated a rare plant among the mix -- Green Dragon.

"They were new to me the first time I saw one," Flack said. "They are considered somewhat rare. So I wanted to help bring them back. Now we have three."

The plant with an all-green bloom has an unusually long protrusion – the dragons "tongue." It first caught Flack's eye when she saw it at a forest preserve where Ruedebusch, a member of the Cook County Volunteer Stewardship Network since 1992, volunteers. Ruedebusch is also former head steward at Cheney Mansion, Oak Park, and is a professional gardener.

In central Oak Park, Peggy Coon has a side yard bursting with a variety of native plants. Inspired by a Wild Things Chicago Conference she attended in 2014, she has planted nothing by native species since.

"After joining West Cook Wild Ones chapter and attending a conference … I realized the importance of native plants to the insect life, the bird life and really the whole ecological web in which we exist," said Coon, a trained master gardener through the University of Illinois Extension. 

"That does not mean I have removed the non-natives that I have, but that all new plantings are Illinois natives," she said. "I am hoping visitors to my garden will see that there are a huge number of native plants in Illinois that are beautiful and interesting and rewarding for wildlife."

Todd said as visitors talk to gardeners, they will find it is easy to transition their own spaces. 

"These gardens make a difference in sustainability that really matters," Todd said. "They each solve climate change in their own tiny way – there's no toxic chemicals, it preserves water in the water table, it helps the food supply through pollinators, it doesn't waste energy through leaf blowers and mowers, and it is solving biodiversity."  

See eight gardens in Oak Park and River Forest on Birds, Bees & Butterflies: A Native Garden Tour, Saturday, Aug. 10, 1 to 4 p.m. Advance tickets through Thursday, Aug. 8 are $10 ($7 members; free for those 18 and younger). Visit westcook.wildones.org. Day-of tickets: $15 ($12 members). Pick up at Trailside Museum, 738 Thatcher Ave., River Forest.

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