Among the nine gardens on the 29th Annual Evanston Garden Walk, on June 24, are three adjoining properties where, with shared enthusiasm and expertise, gardeners have created a whole landscape that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Distinct and notable in their own right, the gardens of Jeff and Susie Rashid, John and Maria Ast and Jan and Linda Perney gain impact when viewed together. In a close-knit neighborhood with a 25-year tradition of Friday night gatherings for drinks and conversation, these three couples have found further commonality in gardening.
When Mr. Ast (pronounced Ahst) and his wife bought their house in 1968, the front yard was “wet and shady. Nothing would grow,” he says, adding, “Anything east or west of Ridge Avenue was ‘primordial swamp.’
“Like Noah,” he says, “I survived the flood.” At first, unable to grow grass, he says he planted ground cover – mostly pachysandra – to “personalize and beautify” his property, gradually adding a few shade-tolerant perennials. Later, he visually extended his pocketsize front yard by “annexing” the parkway to plant ground cover. He refers to his landscaping as “a homemade project” and appreciates Mr. Rashid’s description of his signature style as “stream of consciousness.”
“I do this for my own enjoyment,” Mr. Ast says.
The Rashids to his south and the Perneys to the north followed Mr. Ast’s lead on their parkways. The Perneys had to re-do their front yard after grubs attacked their lawn and raccoons and skunks showed up to eat the grubs. They contracted with Nature’s Perspective to plant pink, purple and yellow perennials (coreopsis, coneflowers and amsonia among them) on their sunny parkway, while the Rashids had the landscaper plant ground cover in their shade. Though they differ in design and plant material, the three front yards now have the appearance of a coherent whole.
In back, the homeowners chose nearly identical low wooden fences that serve less to divide their gardens than they do to maximize borrowed views and create a rhythm with the widely spaced posts.
Affectionately known as “Neighbor John,” Mr. Ast says he is proud that “all the work [in the garden] is mine.” Perhaps most characteristic of his playful esthetic is the “mountain” he built. He dug a moat at its base but let creeping jenny fill it in after he realized it would attract nuisance wildlife.
His long-term goal is to create a bird sanctuary, pollinator haven and butterfly garden. He so mourned the loss of a 10-year-old butterfly bush that he established a memorial – with flag – where it grew by the back fence.
He and Mr. Rashid achieved unexpected success last year when the milkweed seeds they planted in pots sprouted and attracted caterpillars they nurtured into monarch butterflies.
Both Mr. Ast and the Perneys originally contended with backyard flooding and ancient elm trees. Perhaps thanks to Deep Tunnel, the water problem has all but dried up. The Perneys’ elm split 25 years ago and, wired together, still towers over their yard and deck. But the City determined the Asts’ tree was diseased; when they cut it down, Mr. Ast counted more than 100 growth rings on the stump.
With his beloved elm gone and flooding diminished, Mr. Ast expanded his vegetable garden, building raised beds to take advantage of the increased sun. The vertical stakes for his edibles create an interesting pattern when seen from the Rashids’ yard. And four burgeoning clematis vines on his garage provide a colorful backdrop for his and his neighbors’ more monochromatic garden beds.
Families are well represented in these gardens. Low-growing blue columbine from Mr. Ast’s mother’s garden self-seeds in his, cropping up here and there as lacy ruffles. In the middle of his yard, Mr. Ast’s granddaughter is planning a Zen garden. The Perneys are cultivating a raspberry bush from their grandson. And in the Rashids’ flower border is an iris that traveled from Mr. Rashid’s parents’ house to St. Louis with a friend who then brought its descendent to Mr. Rashid.
When the Perneys moved in in 1979 the branches of their enormous elm dipped low enough for their 5- and 6-year-old sons to grab and hang onto. Surprisingly, the enormous tree, its branches now out of reach, does not stunt their garden plants.
It was not until they were asked to host a son’s wedding rehearsal dinner in 1993 that the Perneys really turned their attention to gardening. They had a larger deck built and asked Nature’s Perspective to draw a plan. “It started out as a planned garden,” Mr. Perney says, “but it has turned into something more random.”
The garden feels like a forest glade. A path winds past several impressive iris, a favorite Japanese maple and lilacs whose perfume wafts across the Asts’ deck. Climbing hydrangeas cover the garage wall and wild ginger, mayapples and ferns carpet the ground. In the back corner is a majestic river birch, its leaves glittering in the sunlight.
The Rashids’ home had been empty for seven years when they bought it in 1999. After they gutted and rebuilt it, the only design element still intact was an arch. They used the arch motif on the front door and on the fence Mr. Rashid and a friend built along the alley.
Their expansive back deck gives the Rashids ample space for entertaining. Last year, the couple asked Nature’s Perspective to build a flagstone terrace onto the front of the house. Large enough for several chairs, the addition reminds the Rashids of the front porches of their Peoria childhood, where he says adults “hung out and socialized” while the children played.
Architecture and plant materials define various outdoor spaces in their back yard. On the deck are a large table and chairs and a hot tub. The patio below has more seating and a fire pit.
Around the perimeter of the yard are vigorous plant specimens, including a huge oakleaf hydrangea, a pair of ninebark bushes boasting brilliant fall color and a fern leaf peony. In a back corner are two kousa dogwoods passed along by a neighbor who was redoing her yard. “We swap and divide plants with neighbors,” Mr. Rashid says.
On second look, a funky menagerie appears amidst the flora. Rabbits inherited from Mr. Rashid’s mother pause mid-hop. Named sculptures are all around: Charlie the spider straddles a round bed by the garage; Nessie the sea serpent emerges beneath a ninebark bush; and Harry the Sasquatch, a humorous 50th birthday gift to Mr. Rashid from his wife, steps from behind a maple tree. There is even a tiny doorway for real animals at the base of the deck.
Through the years, certain back rooms of all three houses were bumped out or enclosed. Each time, the gardeners insisted that the renovation maintain or enhance their views of their prized gardens. “[Gardening] is about tranquility and peace,” Mr. Ast says. “We are all looking for the same thing.”
All proceeds from the walk benefit the Evanston Ecology Center and the educational programs of the Evanston Environmental Association. More information and online tickets are available at evanston-environment.org/gardenwalk.