Go Green Wilmette Alternative Yard Tour Review – 2015, The Third Year

Each year I look forward to attending the Alternative Yard Tour sponsored by Go Green Wilmette.  It is an event that is unique and is developing a loyal following of gardeners.  This year was the third year the event was held and it featured six yards that demonstrated several aspects of sustainability.  In past years,  the yards I saw inspired me to establish a small edible garden area and to begin to use more and more native plants.

Gathering at the Wilmette Library

The tour is a free event that provides the opportunity for participants to find out what is behind that house you see from the street, and it is always a pleasant surprise.  Participants were invited to ride their bikes, meeting a group either at Plaza del Lago or the Wilmette Public Library.   Groups were formed and riders moved from one yard to the next. Yards were located in all parts of Wilmette.  Groups arrived at staggered times and were greeted by hosts who shared enthusiastic descriptions of the hows and whys of their yard. The perfect day enhanced the experience, which many agreed, is inspirational, educational and therapeutic.


Saima Abbasi, who has organized each of the yard tours explained that, “In 2013, as a newly inducted member of Go Green Wilmette's board, I was thinking about how I could make a worthwhile contribution. I happen to visit fellow Go Green Wilmette Board Member, Margrit Kuehn's garden. After touring her beautiful garden and hearing her talk very passionately about it, I was inspired to start my very own garden.

This encounter got me thinking: Would other members of our community benefit from visiting their neighbors' gardens? Would they be inspired like me to creative with their own gardens?  When I suggested that we organize a garden tour in Wilmette at the board meeting, members were incredibly receptive to this new idea and provided the necessary resources.  One of my favorite aspects of the Alternative Yard Tour is the guided bike tour. It's a fantastic community builder, since people love biking on a Sunday morning with neighbors and friends.

I was inspired by Margrit's garden 2 years ago, and I am continuously amazed by the beautiful gardens that I get to select for the tour. The very best part of organizing the Garden Tour is meeting so many passionate people in the community who also happen to be amazing gardeners. It is particularly fun to see how they've chosen to express their creative side. I can hardly wait to meet next year's gardeners, and can't think of a better way to connect with my community."


Laurie's covered raspberry


Lisa and Jim' grapes

Each of the yards was located in a different section of Wilmette.  The six hosts graciously welcomed the visitors who arrived by bike or car into the spaces that were clearly loved and nurtured.  In each instance there was a moment of surprise and delight since all of the flowers and greenery were beautiful.  Except for one garden, there was an impressive variety of edibles that included; vegetables, herbs and berries, and even mushrooms.  These gardeners found creative solutions to the problems of how to find a spot with enough sun to grow vegetables, how to capture rainwater and how to manage composting, and how to keep squirrels from bird feeders.  And then there was the magic of a garden - the butterflies, birds, sculpture, and design.


The hosts were:

1) Denise and Bill, whose yard features a raised front yard vegetable garden, a side yard berm and a large backyard filled with native plants and a water element. When the family moved to their home along busy 10th Street in the 1980’s, they were concerned about the safety of their young children and pets. To protect them and to increase privacy, they created a 100’ raised berm and planted it with pines, hydrangea, rhododendron, holly, myrtle and more. A few years later, they consulted with Cheri Allen of The Village Gardener who provided an outline of a design that was adopted in its rough form and added to over the years.


Bill's vertical garden captures the sun

First, they created a lovely front yard garden on either side of the front walk. Then they began removing grass from the shady backyard and adding more and more native plants. Bill designed and installed a pond and waterfall that anchors the southeast corner of the backyard. This area provides a refuge for migrating birds, attracting warblers in great numbers. Egrets visit the pond, attracted by the fish. Owls and woodpeckers are regular visitors.

Bill built the shed where there is composting and more


2) Bruce and Laurie, whose garden features the cultivation of berries, vegetables and mushrooms, creative storm water management, healthy composting and inventive space utilization. Laurie is a Master Gardener and Bruce is a Master Naturalist.


Bruce tells about the water


Laurie and Bruce water system

Visitors could observe- homemade 55’ raised bed that optimizes production and makes tending and picking vegetables easy, see how to conserve water with a 1400-gallon rain pillow/pump and how to control and use cost-free rainwater with a “deep tunnel.” Laurie described how she collects leaves and grass to improve the soil and enhance the healthy and nutritious edibles by making compost from free neighborhood resources We saw the simple ways used to support plants with wood and wire trellises, shrub trimmings, horizontal grids, “hog” fencing and “spider webs”, and were impressed with the use of limited seeing mushrooms in shady areas and berries in sunny areas.


Laurie explains the raised beds

Laurie and Bruce - mushrooms

3) Lisa and Jim whose garden has a beautiful parkway garden with native and non-native plants. The front garden has raspberry vines growing in an area enclosed by a hedge. The south side of the house captures the sun and there is a 40’ long raised vegetable bed. Right across from the raised beds is a beautiful grape vine that covers the fence between the homeowners and the neighbor’s with a beautiful walking path.


Liz and Jim's garden in the sun


Lisa and friends

4) Charlotte has created a backyard that resembles a nature preserve. Based on the concepts set forth in “The Midwestern Native Garden-Native Alternatives to Nonnative Flowers and Plants,” which she authored, visitors observed the native habitat for our area’s native butterflies, bees and birds. Instead of the original plantings of Eurasian species such as lawn, hosta, invasive wintercreeper and daylilies, the property features flowers, grasses, sedges, shrubs, trees and other plants that are native to the Midwest. These plants attract butterflies seeking “host plants” upon which to lay eggs and reproduce. To attract Black Swallowtail caterpillars, there are native parsley/carrot species like Golden Alexander, Sweet Cicely and Cow Parsnip.  Monarch butterfly caterpillars, are attracted to Milkweed species (their sole host plants).

Charlotte explains

Charlotte's forest preserve

Because native oaks host about 543 Lepidoptera (butterflies/moths) species, seven oaks were planted on the premises. We also planted the early blooming Red Bud tree, which hosts the Io moth and attracts Henry’s Elfin butterfly. Its purple flowers contrast with the white flowers produced by American Plum and native cherries – prunus species which host about 456 Lepidoptera. Other small trees and shrubs lining the property include Serviceberry, Viburnum, Elderberry and more. Charlotte Adelman is the co-author of “The Midwestern Native Garden and Prairie Directory of North America”.


Charlotte's book

5) Liz is proud of her relaxed yet tidy backyard sanctuary, which welcomes bees, butterflies, dragonflies, birds, rabbits and people. Toward the back, a native garden with a path and small seating area provides a fun place for a toddler to explore nature. Front yard low-maintenance beds nestle with enough grass to fit in with the neighborhood. Plants are mostly drought tolerant, non-invasive, and relatively low maintenance, and a few self-sow.  Examples include sedum, thyme, grasses, peonies, coreopsis, oenothera, meadow rue, Joe Pye weed, day lilies, lamb’s ear, forget-me-nots, daisies, meadow rue, lady’s mantle, columbines, rudbeckia, smokebush, bird’s nest spruce, ninebark and arborvitae.

Liz (hat) tells about her plants


Composting, organic lawn care, and using shredded leaves on the beds reduce the effect on the environment and contribute to the health of the plants.

Liz's leaf eater


6) Martha’s amazing yard features a very personal garden on a quarter-acre suburban lot. It includes vegetables, grains, herbs, a cold frame, several composting areas, a vintage cement sink for rinsing greens and washing pots and a meditation path. See also a rain barrel set up, greenhouse/sunroom, hand-made trellises and arbor, and a tool shed. There are native prairie and woodland wildflowers and grasses and a stand of milkweed for Monarch butterflies.


Martha in her garden


Meditating at Martha's

Raspberries should be ready for picking. Do you know how to dispose of Japanese beetles using a cup of soapy water?


Martha's books

Martha Hellander is the author of The Wild Gardener: the Life and Selected Writings of Eloise Butler (North Star Press, 1992), the biography of a nineteenth-century botanist. She has been gardening and photographing plants and insects in her gardens for over thirty years and enjoys sharing her sanctuary with others.


Photos: B. Keer


Go Green Wilmette website










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