Garden Walk celebrates the art of urban gardening

Nancy Benjamin says it wasn't long after she started her own garden that the idea became contagious.

"After I finished my backyard, my neighbor next door said 'Hey, I want to plant my backyard.' Then the other neighbor next door said 'I want to plant a tree ring around my tree.'

"It's amazing how gardening can really bring people together in city life."

The 47-year-old Lincoln Square resident says it was her own admiration of beautiful local gardens that inspired her to create the Lincoln Square Garden Walk back in 2004.

When the local chamber of commerce suggested she pair the event with a "green fair," the event blossomed from just an aesthetic experience to a learning opportunity.

Saturday, this year's participants can visit 22 gardens on the walk, talk to the gardeners and visit businesses and vendors at the Green Fair in Giddings Plaza, where they can learn about eco-friendly practices for their own homes.

Benjamin says she loves how the event brings people together.

"I really do see it as a community event. As much as we love people coming in from all over to see the gardens - and, of course, we're very proud of Lincoln Square - I think the event establishes that sense of community, and that spirit of all the gardeners, people who are encouraging 'green' in the neighborhood."

The walk includes a large variety of gardens - a plot with a large waterfall, a shade fantasia garden with over 100 antique birdhouses, and even the Waters Community Garden, the project of a local elementary school.

Anne Ryan is one of the gardeners featured in this year's walk. The 45 year-old has lived at her residence on the 2000 Block of West Giddings for eight years and been a participant in the Garden walk for three. She says she enjoys meeting the people who come to see her garden.

"It's fun. A lot of them are neighbors, sometimes people I've never met before, so it's nice to meet them."

Ryan's house is an old Victorian residence built in 1899. She says she's made her garden to reflect the era of her home. Stone pathways, arbors and fragrant rosebushes all give Ryan's garden a Victorian feel.

"I think that somebody probably gardened this land 100 years ago when it was first built. I wanted to try to create something that would reflect what might have been there originally."

Benjamin says unique gardens like Ryan's make the walk both interesting and inspiring. But she says all the gardens also share one important feature - they're all small plots with big personality.

"They're city-sized, resourceful, doable gardens," Benjamin says, "You can really come here and not only think that the gardens are beautiful but think 'Hey, maybe with some time and effort, I could do that too."

Lynn Hyndman, a 67 year-old retired schoolteacher from Albany Park, has attended the walk all four years and says she loves seeing what people can do with a small space.

"When I go around, I see so many small city gardens. It's amazing what you can do just on a small lot in the city - the imagination that people brought to them and the time they put in was all fun to see."

In addition to the featured gardens, the event features twelve local businesses and organizations in its Green Fair in Giddings Plaza. Benjamin says the event has tried to cover every aspect of Green Living, from backyard composting to green cleaning products and eco-friendly real estate.

One of the businesses featured for the past several years is Helios Green Realty, a real estate group offering sustainable living residences in Chicago. Kirk Fox is Chicago's first certified "ecobroker" and an agent for the business. The agency will be on hand Saturday as a part of the Green Fair to help consumers understand the options for eco-friendly homes.

Fox says all the "green" terminology and jargon can make the market difficult to navigate for consumers.

"There's a lot of information that's out there, and it can be confusing. It's all about being able to educate people so people know what a "green home" really means."

Overall, Benjamin says the event is about more than just being environmentally friendly - it's about being connected to nature and the environment, even while living in the nation's third-largest city.

"I think people are looking for their daily life to be more emotionally satisfying, to put them more in contact with nature and the community. As somebody who can sit in my backyard, surrounded by greenery, and listening to the tinkling of the water next door in my neighbor's garden, let me tell you, it makes a huge difference for me living in the city," Benjamin says.

Admission to the Garden Walk is $5 and includes a map and guide for gardens in the area. Gardeners will be on hand in many of the gardens from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. to answer questions.

Proceeds will benefit the Lincoln Square Foundation, a new non-profit organization that will introduce environmental initiatives in the neighborhood.

The Green Fair also takes place from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in Giddings Plaza at 4731 N. Lincoln Ave. Admission to the fair is free.