A Shakespearean muse oversees the garden of Susan Bloss, featured on this year’s Garden Walk. Photo courtesy of Keep Evanston Beautiful, Inc.

Garden-lovers can peek into some of the City’s loveliest outdoor spaces when Keep Evanston Beautiful presents its 20th annual Evanston Garden Walk on July 12.

Guests can feast their eyes all afternoon, then carry home ideas and advice.

Seven private and three public (Northwestern University) gardens will be open for this year’s walk. Among them are dazzling yards designed and maintained by professionals – and other charmers cultivated by the homeowners. The fruits of ingenuity and passion, these gardens have stories to tell.

Their Grey Street house, says Kimberly Romic, sits on “one of the narrowest lots in Evanston. We call it a ‘city lot.’” To compensate for their small yard, the three Romic children have a park less than a block away.

Eleven years ago the backyard consisted of nothing more than railroad ties and bad grass, says Ms. Romic. Renovated, it features drifts of flowers, bushes and grasses, a generous patio with a fire pit and a table for eight, several trees, a waterfall and a putting green – “a tough one,” she says.

The whole thing, she says, is “my brother’s vision.” He designed it three years ago, at the age of 26 – before surgery to correct abnormal blood vessels in his brain caused a stroke.

Still undergoing five hours of physical therapy a day to restore the use of his left hand, he has begun to create landscape designs on the computer and is launching a landscaping business in the Quad Cities. But at least for now, he has to leave the physical labor to others.

“[The yard has] become sentimental to me,” says Ms. Romic. “He can’t build another one like this.”

She cedes care of the water feature to her husband, calling it “a challenge.” The reward is that even in winter, warmed by a heater, the falling water provides interest.

Ms. Romic spends at least every other weekend working in the yard and especially enjoys the peace of being outside.
“I love flowers,” she says. “I love seeing the final product.”

Even this small garden requires frequent rethinking and replanting. Goatsbeard now grows where grasses failed; the too-hard mulch between the stepping stones gave way to softer turf grass. The result “is not kid-friendly,” says Ms. Romic, “but it was such a small space anyway. The yard is for entertaining. We have a lot of adult parties here.”

Susan Bloss’s Simpson Street garden is not a play yard, either. The house they bought 40 years ago once boasted grass worn thin by their children’s baseball games. But with their family grown, the Blosses began a transformation that yielded a quiet, shady retreat.

They found inspiration in the gardens of Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, where they often vacation. Souvenirs of their travels dot the garden beds – a small stone gargoyle signed by its Stratford sculptor here, a concrete cabbage from Wisconsin there.

Their garden began with a professionally installed hardscape. Though she liked its curving shape, Ms. Bloss says she knew almost from the beginning that she “could do better than the plants [the landscapers] had suggested” for the space.

She pulled out her books, and a garden was born. Shaded by a canopy of huge trees, the yard has just one small sunny spot where her favorite bee balm and phlox thrive. She also loves hydrangeas, and Lace Cap, Annabelle, Endless Summer and Limelight are among those in bud or bloom. She has dozens of hostas in as many colorations – and calls them all by name.

Though she knows even plants labeled “shade-tolerant” do better in sun, she refuses to succumb to the mundane. “I don’t want whatever is common,” says Ms. Bloss, who frequents far-flung nurseries in search of unusual plants. Working in the garden is especially therapeutic for her arthritis, says the retired opera singer.

While perennials are the garden’s mainstays, Ms. Bloss says annuals like begonias and coleus are “lifesavers for color.” This year they figure in a color scheme of hot pink, white, burgundy and chartreuse.

Color is also an important element in Cheryl Ferguson’s expansive Hartzell Street garden. “I use color for movement,” she says. She creates shape and flow within her beds with flowers and foliage: what she calls a “lace collar” of European ginger around one tree and a mosaic of black stones, alyssum and blue sedum beneath another; a cascade of hakone grass by the pond; a serpentine of flowers that directs the eye through another bed.

Ms. Ferguson, who drew the blueprints for restoring her home to its Victorian origins, also designs gardens for other people. She loves the “punch” of deep color she can get from an annual like browallia. But this ambitious gardener does not stop with flowers. She grows bushes (Korean spice viburnum, scarlet chokeberry, sweetspire, popcorn viburnum, Canadian lilac and sand cherry) and vines (porcelain vine, clematis, a thornless rose) with three-season interest.

Then she multiplies the effect with mirrors – one hung on a fence, the other installed like a window in a new garage. They reflect the lovely statues directly in front of them and offer shifting glimpses of the garden for strollers on the paths.

Both Ms. Bloss and Ms. Ferguson rely on organic products. Jerry Baker is Ms. Bloss’s guru; Ms. Ferguson buries kitchen scraps, tracks down sheep manure and swears by a liquid organic fertilizer she compares to a plant steroid.

Learn their secrets on Sunday, July 12, noon to 5 p.m. Advance tickets are $10 for KEB members and $15 for non-members and are available at www.evanstonkeb.org. or at the Ecology Center, Bloom 3, Natural Things Flowers or Saville Flowers in Evanston.