My Garden: Growing Locally and Sustainably in Chicago
A reader replaces a lawn with an edible front yard and plants her backyard with fragrant herbs that she and her husband use to make their own tea.
Cathleen and Eric Jensen live on Chicago's Northwest side, in Logan Square. The Jensens have worked to create a useful and pretty garden, cultivating their small backyard (20' x 35') and their front yard (15' x 25') with native and local plants, and growing herbs, instead of grass, on the front lawn.
The couple—Cathleen is an occupational therapist and Eric is a securities investor—designed and implemented their garden themselves. With thoughtful planning, they spend relatively little time maintaining it: "We put in 5 to 15 hours a week. Aside from the initial planting, we pretty much just putter a little each night in the summer. We have soaker hoses that we use when we need to, but for the last couple summers, the garden required very little watering. As you can see, we just have a tiny amount of grass, so it only takes about 10 minutes with a push mower to cut it once a week."
How would you describe the style of your garden?
Cathleen Jensen: I like the look of old-fashioned cottage gardens and English gardens. We really like the idea of using edible and medicinal plants, so we have them mixed in with lots of native and traditional plants. We've opted for a lot of fragrant plants over flowering plants. We use our herbs that we grow when cooking and for teas.
Our favorite teas from the garden are lemon balm, basil, and mint. We also have chamomile, lavender, several different thymes, oregano, rosemary, and sage. We bring rose petals in for baths and to surround candles to add a natural fragrance.
What are some unique aspects to your garden?
We use two rain barrels to collect rain water and have a third waiting to be installed this spring. We compost using a backyard composter; we received the composter and the rain barrels through a City of Chicago-sponsored program. We don't use any pesticides, but we do use the compost we make and some that we buy. We use an organic fertilizer for the roses and the acid-loving plants.
We carried rocks back from our meditation center out of the city and some from my hometown of Saint Paul, Minnesota, to add texture to the garden and to use as stepping stones. I also used a large geode that was given to me as a gift many years ago, so all of the stones are special to us.
Any particular challenges with this space? How did you address them?
We have an air conditioner that looked huge in our small space so our first aim was to camouflage this using a chartreuse barberry. The view from the pergola was a solid brick wall in front of our garage, so we planted a row of boxwood to bring in some green. We've used a lot of climbing vines and bittersweet on the fences to make the small space feel more green. And we have a small fountain by the pergola to mask the noise of the elevated train that's close to the house.
There are shrub roses planted in front of the garage. They are pretty hardly. We don't treat them with anything but an organic fertilizer called Rose-tone. The white flowering vine is a 'Sweet Autumn' clematis and unlike the other types of clematis, it blooms from late summer into the fall. Those are the only two plants that end up covering the whole fence by the end of the summer.
How long have you had this garden? How long did it take to get it to its current state?
When we moved into our house eleven years ago, the front and back yards were mostly grass but the pergola and paved walkway were already there.
The backyard has been in the works for about ten years. We just took up our front grass and planted the edible garden out front last spring.
Left: A Japanese tree peony blooms in the backyard.
Can you tell us why you chose these plants for your garden?
We used river birch trees because they grow fast and they look beautiful in all seasons. Initially, our yard was canopied by a neighbor's maple tree, but when it was cut down, we had to quickly create shade. At first, we planted rhododendron, boxwood, and Japanese holly, because I love plants that remind me of the Pacific Northwest. Those plants are all struggling.
Since then, I learned a good lesson about the benefits of native plants and now, we try to use plants that can hold their own in our climate. We have found that we have to water very little and can utilize the water from the rain barrel almost exclusively. We have lots of herbs because we use them in our kitchen, but also because I love their creeping, mounding habits.
What was most important to you when you started planning your garden? Did you have a sort of philosophy or mission statement in mind when planning it?
We really wanted to create an oasis. It's a luxury to have a yard in the city so we wanted to make the most of it. My dad, a retired firefighter, is a great gardener, who always had the best roses and the most beautiful lawn. I think I and all of my siblings have inherited his "gardening gene,"' but I didn't have an opportunity to make use of it until I moved from an apartment to this house.
Left: Echinacea in full bloom.
How did you decide on a color palette for your garden?
In the front, I chose gray-blue foliage and purples and blues for the flowering plants. I used blue junipers in the front thinking that might deter dogs from using the garden for their business, but it's not working!
How do you think this garden reflects you and your family?
I think our garden is a very unexpected, peaceful oasis. Our friends always say they love the "vibe" of our house and comment that it's like going to a spa. I feel like the garden has that same feeling.
The masterpiece is finished! Now how are you going to change it next year?
We are very excited to see how the front yard fills in this spring. With the exception of the sage, everything should come back. I brought a large parsley plant and a rosemary plant into the house for the winter and they will be transplanted back to their places in the spring. I put in many daffodil bulbs, too, so it will be fun to see what they look like interspersed with the the spring herbs and the limestone.
Do you have any other information you would like to share?
Front yard gardening has been great for meeting neighbors and for sharing plants and ideas. We hope it becomes a trend in our neighborhood! Some people have commented on how much work it must be, but aside from the first year of putting it in, we think it will be far less work since there is very little need for watering and no need for mowing.
Left: Eric Jensen, in the white shirt, stands with a friend in the Jensen garden.