The glorious roses, vivid clematis, delicate coral bells, and graceful trees that will delight an anticipated 500 to 600 guests at the 28th annual Evanston Garden Walk on June 25 often require months – or even years – of cultivation.
While gardeners work the ground with hoes and shovels, a 13-member Garden Walk Committee of the Evanston Environmental Association excels at cultivation of a different kind. Were it not for their efforts, remarkable gardens might remain undiscovered, the EEA would be without its major fundraiser, and local gardeners would miss out on the beauty and inspiration the community of gardeners has to offer.
It takes more than a green thumb to showcase these gardens. “We ask committee members to have their eyes open all year round,” says committee veteran Lee Randhava, who for years has handled event publicity.
The countdown to next year’s walk begins the moment this year’s is over. Committee members need to see how potential entries look in the season they will be featured, Ms. Randhava says.
Morgan Simmons, who has opened his own garden more than once, has lost count of how many years he has been in charge of the Garden Selection subcommittee. “Morgan constantly walks and looks,” Ms. Randhava says. Based on his observations and tips from fellow committee members, Mr. Simmons makes notes and visits and revisits – often, he says, “watching a garden develop.”
He is not shy about stepping up to a door, leaving a message, or when necessary, tracking down an owner. With his courtly manner and faint Southern accent, “Morgan charms them,” Ms. Randhava says.
Gentle persuasion but no arm-twisting is involved. Mr. Simmons and Ms. Randhava say a few people have reservations – theft, inconvenience to neighbors, and garden preparation among them. Yet each year the committee is able to line up worthy gardens that contrast in size, style, and geographic location.
Al Belmonte’s yard is stunning enough to stop an alley walker in her tracks. She calls out her compliments but is probably clueless to the fact that the garden has been a work in progress for more than three decades.
Mr. Belmonte says the 1895 house, a vacant and boarded-up “fixer-upper” when they bought it 35 years ago, was all he and his wife could afford and just what they were looking for. They tackled a total rehab of the dilapidated home, adding a front porch with a corner gazebo.
In the back yard, he says, they had to contend with “70 years’ worth of trash” before installing play equipment as kids came along. When the children outgrew the playground, Mr. Belmonte planted vegetables there; when they left home, he began creating the garden he had imagined years before.
One of his earliest efforts – 27 years ago – was to plant the river birch that now towers over the front porch. Dappled sunlight filters through its leaves and dances on the lawn. “I’m not a big fan of lawn,” Mr. Belmonte says. He uses it sparingly, for variety, as he has on the south side of the front yard. The north side is all garden, a partly shaded spot studded with ivy and blue and purple perennials and trees: a billowing stand of Prairie Smoke baptisia, a drift of Korean lilacs, a Purple Smoke Bush, and by the front steps, a maroon-leafed Forest Pansy redbud tree.
“Rescue” plays a central role in Mr. Belmonte’s garden ethos. Next to the sidewalk, a “rescue tree” of unknown variety is showing promise after Mr. Belmonte transplanted it from his plant “infirmary” by the back fence. He often buys end-of-season bargains and nurtures them to show their true colors.
In addition to resuscitating ailing plants, Mr. Belmonte grants a second life to rocks reclaimed from his company’s construction sites. Discarded foundations form the limestone walls that meander through the garden; a fire pit made of re-used rock anchors a patio set beneath the two giant pine trees his children planted as seedlings.
Over the years Mr. Belmonte has implemented the plan drawn up by local garden designer Laura Maurer, installing the curving brick walk, freestanding patio, and “woods” created by a nonlinear grouping of Sargent crabapple trees trimmed to afford both privacy and a view of the back yard from the family room. In this very personal garden, a sign that spells “amore” hangs on the fence as a nod to Mr. Belmonte’s Italian heritage.
Mr. Belmonte consults frequently with Tom Klitzkie of Nature’s Perspective and depends on the arborists of SavATree to trim and feed his trees, including a rare and struggling deciduous American Red Cedar he prizes for its “spectacular bark color in winter.”
Establishing a garden in the compacted dirt of his poorly drained back yard required a lot of digging, first to loosen the soil and then to enrich it with topsoil and compost. He swears by the leaf compost from Chalet Nursery, not only for the grade-level beds but also for his raised vegetable beds. To make sure no toxins from the ground leach into these beds, he dug a 3-foot trench, filled it with good soil and leaf compost, and then added more of the mixture to the beds built on top.
This gardening season, like all recent ones, began for Mr. Belmonte with 5 cubic yards of Chalet leaf compost dumped on his driveway. He says applying 4 or 5 inches of compost, along with worm castings and a periodic sprinkling of the liquid elixir called compost tea, “controls weeds and provides nutrients.”
Mr. Belmonte is unlikely to experience pre-event panic. With most of his gardening tasks completed weeks or years in advance, he has only to do a final weeding and plant pots with colorful annuals before welcoming guests on June 25. More information is available at evanstonenvironment.org/gardenwalk.