Eight gardens will be featured at the Keep Evanston Beautiful Garden Walk on July 11. Photo courtesy of Keep Evanston Beautiful

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The stars of this year’s Keep Evanston Beautiful Garden Walk are gardens that work. The eight real-life examples of “pretty is as pretty does” that will open their gates on July 11 owe some of their good looks to diligent problem-solving.

One thrives on improved drainage; another accommodates kids and pets within a historically authentic landscape; another makes room for both gardening and outdoor living in a small yard.

These gardens promise to inspire as well as delight.

Bil Wilkshire says his garden “has been progressing over 35 to 40 years.” When he moved into the house, he says, “There was nothing there” in the way of plant material. But the sloped backyard did have an undesirable water feature he called “Lake Thayer” after a rain.

Mr. Wilkshire waded right in. Wearing brand-new wellies and brandishing two sump pumps, he redirected the water to the unpaved alley. But to find a more permanent solution, he had to root out the enemy: clay.

Like much of northwest Evanston, his yard had just 6 inches of topsoil above a layer of clay so solid, he says, he imagines he could have sold it to a sculptor.

He dug down 2 feet, removed the clay and replaced it with sand and gravel. “I was in my 30s,” he says, laughing about the Herculean effort. The result, he says, is that even when water collects after a big storm, it disappears faster.

He sowed what he calls “a garden full of flowers and whimsy” in the improved ground.

Marigolds, his favorite flower, light up the front yard, while the back divides into several “rooms.” One plays on the notion of the kitchen garden. Instead of herbs and greens for cooking, Mr. Wilkshire planted his version with a 1920s stove, a table and chairs – and the kitchen sink that stood there till it cracked.

The “rooms” in the garden at Washington School bloom with garden possibilities. Butterfly, edible, rain, native plant and sensory gardens “all flow,” says the garden’s volunteer coordinator, Kristin Alexander.

The garden is on solid financial ground, funded from various sources. The problem, says Ms. Alexander, has been finding ways to fit garden activities into the busy District 65 curriculum. Some ideas germinated last August, when teachers toured the garden and feasted on zucchini bread, pesto and mint tea made by volunteers from garden produce.

This summer nearly 25 school families and neighbors are tending the garden. In the process, Ms. Alexander says, she and her daughter have discovered two new favorite foods – gooseberries and currants.

The challenge for Robert and Marguerite Davis was to satisfy their desires to garden and entertain in a “relatively small and narrow” yard, says Ms. Davis. An addition had expanded their home to the maximum allowable footprint, so any hardscape the couple installed had to be dry-set (permeable).

“We didn’t want any grass,” says Ms. Davis. That opened up space for both a patio and what she calls “an informal English garden.” There she grows the hybrid tea roses she favors because of their fragrance.

Smell was for a fleeting time an issue in Vito and Mary Brughliera’s garden. Right outside their back door were the remains of a 3-foot-deep pool the previous homeowners had filled with rubble. The Brughlieras referred to it as a “mosquito farm.” In 1970, when they wanted a patio, they decided to build it on top of the former pool.

They discovered a man who had warehoused millions of bricks from Chicago’s demolished stockyards. The bricks were a bargain, Mr. Brughliera remembers – 5,500 for $150, delivered and dumped in their front yard. His wife and children hauled the bricks from front yard to back in a wheelbarrow, and he set them in sand to make the patio.

Then it rained. For one awful evening, the animal stench of the stockyards rose from the patio. Then it was gone, leaving Ms. Brughliera, she says, to “battle elms.” She gardened in their shade until Dutch elm disease claimed all 11 of them.

“Once I had sun, I got carried away,” she says; she dug “gardens everywhere, not knowing when to stop.” She says her preferred gardening methodology, “benign neglect,” works for some of her favorite flowers, such as bleeding hearts. But with so many beds, it takes her landscaper son-in-law to “keep [the yard] neat,” says Ms. Brughliera.

Space was not an issue on their large lot, says Sarah Harding. The problem was integrating the needs of three children and two dogs into the grounds of a significant house.

Her family wanted “a lot of grass,” she says, for croquet, Frisbee and baseball. But she says it took a skillful landscape architect to camouflage a tree house and make a concrete pad for basketball look “innocuous” amid a comprehensive design that plays up their Prairie-style home.

The fact that the home is on the national historic preservation list and is considered one of Evanston’s “treasured houses” necessitated gardens that would highlight certain architectural details. The use of indigenous materials like grasses and viburnums succeeds in “making [the house] feel it is coming out of the prairie,” says Ms. Harding.

Homeowners and gardeners will be on hand next Sunday to share tips about these and other problems, including “the French doors to nowhere.” Garden Walk ticket information is available from KEB at 847-448-8256 ext. 105 or online at www.evanstonkeb.org.