A garden of surprises and delights.  Photo by Christina Robertson

Broadening Evanston’s wide spectrum of artistically inspired and unique retailers is Cultivate Urban Rainforest and Gallery at 704 Main St. Entering Cultivate is like being drawn into a cool, contemporary, carefully curated secret garden.

Deep greens and browns, fascinating flora, furnishings and textural art create an oasis, beckoning one further inside. Vignettes of one-of-a-kind and vintage furniture, rugs, prints, and wall hangings showcase the myriad green plants that crown or trail from contemporary and organically shaped containers. The shelves are lined with books on plants, design and ephemera. Whimsical lighting hangs from the ceiling along with exotic living “ornaments.”  Not-so-garden-variety musical selections, evidence of a cultivated ear, play in the background. Even the back stoop is a magical and eclectic bower.

The store is an outgrowth of the meandering interests and enduring passion of owner Louise Rosenberg. Originally from Skokie, Ms. Rosenberg worked many years in the music industry, on the administrative end at Cabaret Metro and as a buyer for Record City. Shifting her focus, she spent 11 years as a massage therapist with the Heartwood Center in Evanston. Though fond of the City and people she met, she says she felt a little isolated and craved the kind of dynamic interaction she had enjoyed in retail.

Since childhood she had been fascinated by plants. Focusing on that and other aesthetic interests, she decided to take the plunge into retail ownership, but with an open door to the community. Beyond her understanding of plants, she brought her knowledge of retail and contemporary culture to the drawing board for this venture. She looked for a space in Evanston that was right for the environment she envisioned. When Dave’s Down to Earth Rock Shop moved across the street and his space became available, she took it as a sign. “I knew this was where I was supposed to be,” she says. Her landlord, she says, has referred to the store as “Dave’s with living things.”

Ms. Rosenberg experiences Evanston as “an educated, environmentally thoughtful place” – a City, it may be safe to say, whose favorite color is green. The Arbor Day Foundation has designated Evanston a “Tree City USA” for more than 30 consecutive years. She sees it as a City dedicated to sustainability, ever more concerned with restoration and preservation of its green spaces. Thoughtful plantings are replacing neglected lawns and parkways. More and more edible gardens are producing food for public and personal consumption, and school gardens are providing a valuable, hands-on educational experience for Evanston students. Evanston also boasts inspired small businesses; a large, active art community, and highly creative floral boutiques.

To be clear, Cultivate is not a flower shop, despite its botanical trappings.  Ms. Rosenberg has created a leafy venue that invites community participation, combining her personal interests in furnishings, textiles and art with her passion for sharing and educating people about an infinite variety of plants and how to display and care for them. This last point is of particular note. A cat owner, she was concerned about the potential toxicity of houseplants, a common danger to pets. She researched this and made certain the greenery in her store is non-toxic. Any potentially toxic plant is contained in a terrarium or birdcage. 

Sitting upon the centerpiece of the store — a long and rather astonishing 1960s naturally curved, live-edge bench in the style of George Nakashima, a piece made almost entirely from a single branch of a “Dragon Eye” longan fruit tree — she observes, “I see this store as a kind of living room where people can perform and connect.” Continually developing and reshaping its components, Cultivate welcomes new ideas. The store has already hosted poetry readings, movie nights (free every other Wednesday) and art openings featuring local and neighborhood food vendors. Ms. Rosenberg is pleased to collaborate with neighbors La Principal and Wine Goddess at her events, and looks forward to connections with other purveyors. She encourages visitors to sit in her furnished spaces — even the bench is not off limits — and to use her store as a place to meet, write, meditate, contemplate, take lunchtime respite. She welcomes book and knitting groups and looks forward to the possibility of bringing in live music.

In addition to generating evening audiences, she and “co-curator” Charlie Darbo are trying to grow a following for Cultivate’s art exhibits, which rotate every other month. “This isn’t just coffeehouse art,” she insists. Current exhibitor Barbara Schneider has pieces displayed nationally. “Evanston and its surrounding areas are a very rich well for the arts,” says Ms. Rosenberg. Cultivate offers its own artistry in the form of classes that are free and open to the public, such as Houseplant 101, Fairy Garden, and Aquatic Gardening (with and without wine). She hopes one day to turn the basement into a workable classroom…maybe with a terrarium wall, and an aquarium wall…she daydreams.

Cultivate Rainforest and Gallery has received a warm welcome from the neighborhood, Ms. Rosenberg says. People have stopped in just to thank her for being there. She says she is thrilled to connect with interesting people and to cultivate new friendships.