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Shade plants shelter delightful surprises

Kathy Figel smiles while talking about her garden her home along 109th Street Chicago IL Friday July 15 2011.

Kathy Figel smiles while talking about her garden at her home along 109th Street in Chicago, IL on Friday July 15, 2011. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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The SouthtownStar is visiting local gardens all summer.

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:11AM



Kathy Figel is big on surprises.

Beneath the canopy of trees that cast dancing shadows across her back yard are unexpected spots of loveliness: Giant cup plants holding sips of water for thirsty birds; sections of milkweed that provide a haven for butterflies; a giant elm supporting what is becoming an increasingly popular bat house.

“My garden is predominantly shade plants,” she said. “Whenever I lose a tree, I plant two in its place.”

She embraces the natural cycle of things, whether it’s the lifespan of a perennial bed or the evolution of a family’s needs.

Her Morgan Park property is single-lot wide, but triple the depth of most yards. It is so flush with greenery it creates the illusion of a gateway to a forest.

The previous owner, who was original to the 1912 house, had planted lots of yews and roses. But the elderly man talked with Kathy at length about his vision to transform the property into a series of separate “rooms,” each filled with surprises.

She understood completely. He knew he’d found the perfect buyer.

“We bought the house for the yard,” she said.

That was more than 20 years ago. Since then she has been creating outdoor environments that beckon a visitor to sit and stay awhile. Clematis, wisteria, bee balm and flox intertwine with hostas, lilies and dahlias.

“I’m really visual and really like to be comfortable wherever I am,” she said. “It has to have beauty to be comfortable. I want to see things, to smell things healthy and natural.”

She’s learned not to force things. She doesn’t strive for perfection. She doesn’t even “try too hard,” she admits.

Illinois, she said, is not a very colorful state.

So she goes easy on the annuals. Not only does she save money that way, she keeps with her mission to be as natural as possible.

She doesn’t use chemicals. She doesn’t fight battles she can’t win.

That said, she’s learned to commune with nature, without letting nature have complete control.

“There’s competition in the plant world. If something is too invasive you have to control it,” she said.

“For years, I wouldn’t do that. I became almost like a hoarder. Then I realized you have to let other species thrive. Now I cut things back and just give the extras away.”

Her philosophy of coexisting peacefully with what comes naturally also is evident in the structural changes that have occurred over the years.

She calls it the evolution of a garden.

When her three children were small, the back yard reflected it.

There was space for a swing set and a trampoline.

But now that Lily is 14 and Frannie and Will are 13, those spaces have been transformed into more mature areas. One is a flower bed, the other a seating area, surrounding a fire pit.

So much of nature is about adapting. Lately, she and her husband, Bill, find themselves hanging in the front yard a lot, as they try to keep up with their busy teens.

The same give-and-take approach applies to aging plants. As a line of older trees in her yard dies off, new young oaks are taking root beneath them.

“I try to make it look like my own piece of Michigan,” she said. A small recirculating river trickles along the west side of her property.

“I love the cottage look but I’ll probably never have one, so this is my cottage,” she said.

Kathy, who grew up in South Holland, teaches special education at Veterans Memorial Middle School in Blue Island.

“When I’m stressed or anxious, I come back here and just start going to town,” she said.

Weeding and cutting and rearranging is her therapy, she said.

Her yard is her sanctuary.

Her children seem to feel the same. For Mother’s Day one year, they decorated her shed with stickers and drawings. Now, as the “I love flowers” and “No weeds allowed” writings fade with age, the structure has become even more endearing, a memento of childhood’s swift passing.

Kathy raises caterpillars, is very interested in beekeeping and has been featured on the East Beverly Association Garden Walk.

She also is proud of her resourcefulness. That flagstone was given to her by neighbors who had extra. Those chairs were plucked from someone’s trash. That gazebo was a gift from friends who were trying to get rid of it.

She also lends her services to the Edna White Garden, one of the city’s largest Greenspace gardens on 111th Street, near the police station. She is trying to transition that garden into a pure prairie garden with vegetable beds and bee hives.



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