Distinct, personal, and lively, the eight private gardens on the 27th annual Evanston Garden Walk on June 26 are anything but “garden-variety.”
A sneak peek at three of them is a reminder that while gardeners’ taste and imagination help to shape their gardens, weather and exposure, lot size and orientation, neighboring properties, their own gardening experience, their home’s architecture, and soil composition and condition also hold sway.
With so many variables, it is not surprising no two gardens are alike.
Polly Rattner’s Judson Avenue garden wraps around her yellow Victorian house, which was built in 1890. She and her husband practically gutted the home, then restored it in exquisite detail before moving in in 2011. Construction destroyed what little landscaping existed – “foundation shrubs, bulbs in a row in back. It was a mess,” Ms. Rattner says. With help, they built a garden from scratch. They owe part of its success, she says,
to their well-drained soil.
The Rattners opted for a linear design she says “works better” than the curving beds they first considered. Crisp hardscape and clipped hedges enhance the home’s architecture, beginning with the front yard, where rose bushes and a low boxwood hedge punctuate the walk to the front porch.
Ms. Rattner, no fan of turf, says she “wanted to get rid of as much lawn as possible.” That meant focusing on “trees, shrubs, and perennials,” she says, a task that left her “agonizing” over choices made difficult by her lack of gardening experience.
Her sister, an avid gardener in upstate New York, led Ms. Rattner to some less familiar plants. A dense, glossy-leafed Persian perrotia (Persian ironwood) tree works as a privacy screen along the south border, and a paperbark maple placed outside a window beguiles with its textured bark and fall color. “I love it,” she says.
Ms. Rattner indulged her own fondness for fragrance, choosing honeysuckle, lilac and dwarf calamenthe, as well as the sweet-smelling fringe tree by the front porch. Turtlehead, bleeding hearts and hellebores thrive in the dappled shade beneath an old elm, while in a somewhat sunnier area, a cluster of ligularia, Ms. Rattner’s favorite plant, displays burgundy-tinged leaves the size of a Frisbee.
The English aura of the front garden carries through to the back. Boxwood shrubs anchor the flowerbeds, providing the year-round interest Ms. Rattner says she missed in her former garden on Payne Street.
The backdrop for the garden is a new Rockwell Associates-designed garage that blends so well with the old architecture it received a design award from the Evanston Preservation Committee.
A certain magic about the front yards of several houses on Chancellor Street can be traced to neighbor Katy Sheppard, a designer who planned more than one of these gardens, with their uncommon curb appeal.
Ms. Sheppard started working for a landscape architect at the age of 26. “They put me on a crew,” she says – the sole female among men. Later she moved to a construction crew, where she learned to build decks. Her design work, buoyed by studies at the Chicago Botanic Garden, appears on her website, www.calafia-design.com, named by this California native after the goddess of the island of California.
Perhaps her strenuous start accounts in part for Ms. Sheppard’s garden philosophy, which she describes as “pragmatic. I always ask clients what kind of gardener they really are.” She tells them, “I’d rather be in the garden with a glass of wine than a rake,” then goes on to explain, “There are many roads to the same destination. A yard can be easy-care and still have something besides boxwood and sod.”
The carefree but lesser-known plants she favors sometimes get a trial run in her yard before she recommends them to clients. Her front yard is devoid of grass, planted instead with shade-lovers including a stand of tall, feathery syneilesis aconitifolia, shredded umbrella plant. Things seem to flourish on the Sheppard property, partly thanks to well-drained soil she suspects may be the legacy of a past conscientious gardener. Next to the house is a burgeoning oakleaf hydrangea, and there are two improbably large Whitespire birches where the driveway once ran beside the house. She is hoping injections will save the ash tree outside their kitchen window.
The Sheppards moved into their house in 1999. Ten years later, they created a charming garden vista by shortening the driveway beside the house, building a wall, and installing the iron gate that affords a long view of the side yard.
Ms. Sheppard’s big project this year was to reconfigure her back yard and re-plant the front four feet of its borders. The central bed, now oval-shaped, backs up to a photogenic flat-roofed brick garage of uncertain origin. It is plumbed for water, so it was likely a workshop of some kind. Ms. Sheppard painted its window frames her favorite purple-blue, added a red door, and counts herself lucky to own it.
Surveying the yard, she admits she has a lot of work to do this season. After that, she says, uttering a sentence rarely spoken by a gardener: “I think I’m done.”
The next garden is anything but finished. A guest might be tempted to linger in front of Marco Zerega’s and Eric Janssen’s Sheridan Road home, admiring the layered textures of the shade garden beneath the massive birch tree and the luxuriant blooms of a large kousa dogwood.
But those who know what awaits them will be impatient to round the corner of the house and catch their first glimpse of the park-sized garden set against Evanston’s most magnificent natural feature, Lake Michigan.
When Mr. Janssen first called Mr. Zerega to join him at an estate sale on the property, Mr. Zerega thought he was looking at antiques. Mr. Janssen was interested instead in buying the house, which in the end had to be totally rebuilt.
On that initial visit, Mr. Zerega could hear the lake, but the vegetation was so overgrown he did not know the property had a lake view. The lot owes its glorious depth, he says, to the fact that a street that would have cut through the property in the 1920s was never built.
His goal was to create intimate spaces within the sweep of lawn. Even with an eye on the pavilion and slice of blue water in the distance, the visitor cannot help but pause to take in a succession of wonders: the seven-foot deep koi pond, the ceremonial bench discovered in Bali, the serene antique Buddha, the six-foot high bank of pink rhododendron. The garden is a catalogue of Mr. Zerega’s favorite plants, boasting Japanese maples and kousa dogwoods of incredible variety.
Mr. Zerega is a veteran gardener whose creative, smaller Madison Street garden appeared on a former garden walk. But the lakeside setting presents never-ending challenges he did not encounter in his more temperate inland garden.
The sandy soil causes such rapid drainage Mr. Zerega says, “I can’t water enough.” The damp lake air, though, inclines pachysandra and other plants to mildew. And the garden is “socked by lake winds,” he says, which necessitate protecting the rhododendrons with burlap wrap and oil spray over the winter. “One bad year,” he says, “we lost 90% of the hydrangeas. I am constantly replacing.”
The biggest undertaking of all was the reparation of the waterfront. It took years to obtain permission from the many agencies involved, then six more months to truck in the rocks and sand to do the work. “Two years ago we had a 75-foot beach,” Mr. Zerega says.
Then the lake rose 4 1/2 feet. All that remains is “a [horseshoe-shaped] bay,” he says. Behind it is a mere sliver of sand – a signature left by the forces that are the true masters of a garden.