Alternative Yard Tour 2016 Review – The Fourth Year, Six Inspiring Gardens

Four years ago Saima Abbasi, Go Green Wilmette Board member, organized a Go Green Wilmette Alternative Yard Tour.  This event has become so popular that even a thunderstorm didn’t detour hardy gardeners. On July 17th bicyclists gathered in front of the Wilmette Library ready to follow the lead cyclist and tour the gardens when the skies opened and it poured.  Despite the weather at least 150 visitors went on to see the gardens. I was “rescued” in the downpour by two ladies who invited me to join them in their car, Sue Gaines–Gotta, President of the Wilmette Garden Club and club member, Donna Knach.


The rain didn't stop the enthusiastic gardners, biking, no less

I have enjoyed this tour each year because the gardens are beautiful and inspiring -I always learn something new and meet interesting people.  To be part of the tour, gardens need to be free of pesticides, in addition to having features such as composting techniques, edible gardens, native and wildlife habitat and rainwater gardens.


Donna Knach and Susan Gaines-Gatto begin the tour at Marilee Cole's Garden

Marilee Cole was our first host.  I had the chance to talk with Marilee at the Wilmette Farmers Market the previous day and she offered some words of wisdom about gardening.  “Don’t let the leaves leave.  Use them in beds and you will have the best soil”.  She suggested that as one begins a garden it is good to begin with plants you fall in love, plant these in one area and then think about attracting birds and insects as you plan future areas.  She also mentioned that suburbs have more toxins than farms, that we don’t need chemicals and that gardens are saving a little piece of the world.


Fountain at Marilee's Garden


Hostess, Marilee Cole

1) Marilee has been working on her garden for the 21 years she has lived in her historic house. Some special features include a fountain, which was chosen for beauty and it loud splashing noise. Her garden includes many native plants, benches for contemplation, birdhouses and more.


Hostess, Amanda Nugent


Wonderful signage


Black swallowtail caterpillars on the carrots


A home for bees and insects

2) Our second host was Amanda Nugent.  Amanda told me that when she moved here from the East Coast three years ago, she was not familiar with prairie plants.  She has also become captivated by pollinators.  Her mother helps her maintain the garden.  I was awed by this garden- the signage, the energy.  The sections of her garden include a shade garden, vegetable beds, pollinator gardens, a prairie garden, a rain garden.  Visitors to the garden were puzzled by the bird feeder with fishing line hanging from it.  We learned this discourages squirrels.  And the opportunity to see two tiny black swallowtail caterpillars on the carrot tops was exciting.


Julie Wolf - turtlehead bushes behind

3) Julie Wolf was our third host. Julie  shared that she noticed the native plants she planted attracted pollinators “in amazing numbers”.  The garden also has plants that appeal to hummingbirds, including “black and blue” salvia, penstemons, foxgloves and especially lobelias and pink turtlehead bushes. Her vegetable and herb garden is in the only sunny spot she has -- along the driveway.


Mary greets her friend


Rooftop Gardens


Mary's vegetables-ready to eat


4) Mary Lyman was our fourth host.  A gorgeous vegetable garden attracted my attention as we approached the house.  And then there was something very unusual once in her yard.  Mary’s niece, Annie Novak, is the author of a book called, “Rooftop Gardens” and the book and items from Annie’s book tour were on display.  Mary explained that the first raised bed vegetable garden was a Mother’s Day present.  Another special feature is the compost bin that was built for Mary by Annie as a prototype for a class Annie was teaching in the Bronx.  Mary has outdoor planters filled with flowering plants that she can cut and bring inside.


Tim Scherman

5) Our fifth host was Tim Scherman and his house and garden were very unusual. The Queen Anne house dates to 1894 with an expansion in 2008.  Tim Scherman shared: “We planted a single dogwood tree and spread the perennials that had survived construction to surround a vegetable garden space in the center. We only get 4-5 hours of sun/part sun, but it’s a perfect spot for cool-weather vegetables such as lettuce, kale, and arugula. We also use it as a convenient space to start sun-loving vegetables before moving them to sunnier areas once the trees leaf out.


Tomatoes, corn and more on the roof

On the flat roof above the house addition, we grow tomatoes, peppers, and corn in containers connected to a timed watering system. The same system waters the herbs we grow on the south wall of the house in pots, where the summer temperatures often hit 100 or more degrees. Visitors on the tour will also see four varieties of blueberries throughout the garden, some of which produce a ½ pint a day in July and August.”


Using space

It is also noteworthy that drainage issues were dealt with creatively and that there is no grass in the backyard.


Collette Donnelly tells visitors about her garden

6) Entering Collette Donnelly’s garden, our last for the day, we could not believe that at one time it flooded so consistently that there was no garden.  Now there is a gorgeous patio- an outdoor recreation space- a wonderful vegetable garden, play area and more.  This was a good place to learn about managing water problems.


Donnelly's once looked like this

She and her husband used rubberized mulch in the play area which is on top of a rock base, landscape fabric, a pea stone base, more landscape fabric and the mulch.  This holds rainwater below and eliminates the need to replace mulch.


The sun is out and so are the veggies at the Connelly's

They installed a French drain to better manage rainwater that was collecting so they couldn’t get to their garage.  Now they can store thousands of gallons of water.


Donnelly's Patio

They recently installed a gorgeous patio.  To do so they dug down 3 feet, installed permeable sand grout on the patio and brick walkways for drainage to the retention areas below.


The sun shown brightly as we departed for our own gardens, uplifted and inspired.


Go Green Wilmette website


Saima Abassi relaxes at Heidi Troester's after a successful tour

Photos: B. Keer




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