Morgan Simmons walks along the winding brick path of his garden sharing tales of the plants as if each one is an old friend recently returned from a long trip.
“Almost everything in this garden has a story,” he says. “This one traveled all the way from Pennsylvania. The Camellia over here is from my home state of Alabama and the Japanese Painted Fern was a gift from some friends who used to live on McDaniel.”
Mr. Simmons, who turned 90 this year but could easily pass for 70, has been cultivating this garden ever since he and his family moved into the pre-Civil War-era home on Hartzell Street 52 years ago. But, he says, he has had “dirt on his fingers” since he was a toddler.
Growing up on 22 acres in a small town in Alabama offered vast opportunities to connect with nature. His grandmother farmed crops on the land, and she also had her own vegetable garden. She gave her grandson a plot in the garden when he was just 4 years old.
“Eventually I had a little greenhouse and a fish pond that I had built myself.”
As a lifelong gardener, Mr. Simmons naturally became involved with the gardening community in Evanston. Today, he is the co-chair of the Evanston Garden Walk, which is celebrating its 30th year this month. Mr. Simmons has been involved with the Walk since its early years.
An avid walker and self-proclaimed “snooper,” Mr. Simmons has a unique talent for scouting out private gardens to be featured in the Garden Walk each year.
“Many gardens are quite a surprise,” he says. “A house looks fine from the front, but you walk behind and get a view from the alley and… BINGO!”
Any resident of Evanston can ask to have his or her garden featured in the Walk, but not all of them make the grade. The committee requires the garden have some degree of distinction, whether it be the hard-scape (man made features), the way the garden reflects the home or the plant material.
This year the Garden Walk will feature eight private and public gardens including the Shakespeare Garden, a hidden gem nestled between Northwestern’s Technological Institute and Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary.
The intimate garden (70 feet wide by 120 feet long) was designed by landscape artist Jens Jensen in 1916 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. Designed to reflect a formal English Tudor-style garden, the garden reflects the care taken to use plants that were either included in Shakespeare’s writings, were common during his lifetime or are modern cultivars of these older plants.
Mr. Simmons says they expect between 500 and 600 participants this year. Despite an extra-long winter and a particularly wet spring, he is hopeful the gardens will be in tip-top shape by June 23, the day of the Walk.
“I lost 20 boxwoods due to the extreme weather this year, and there were practically no blooms on the forsythia and rhododendrons,” he says, adding that the show must on.
Mr. Simmons’ garden will be one of the private gardens featured on the walk this year.
Proceeds from the event support the Evanston Ecology Association and help provide scholarships for children to attend the Evanston Ecology Center’s summer camps.
More information and instructions on how to purchase tickets can be found online at evanstonenvironment.org.