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Flossmoor neighbors garden in concert

Sue McCarthy her front yard garden Flossmoor Illinois Monday July 25 2011. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Medi

Sue McCarthy in her front yard garden in Flossmoor, Illinois, Monday, July, 25, 2011. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Garden
Walking

This summer, the SouthtownStar is touring local gardens and introducing you to the green thumbs behind them.

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Updated: November 2, 2011 2:51AM



Just when you think the gardens can’t get any lovelier, they get bigger.

On a quiet street in Flossmoor, next-door neighbors Gina Reis and Sue McCarthy have converted typical suburban property into a floral canvas that spans the width of both of their back yards.

Reis and McCarthy are all about sharing. They swap cuttings and advice. They share an appreciation for wildlife.

And they love to share what they’ve learned with others.

“We’re both educators at heart,” said McCarthy, a master gardener who holds a degree in engineering. She is a substitute teacher in the biology department at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in Flossmoor.

Reis, also a master gardener and seasonal propagator at Possibility Place Nursery in Monee, says a nicely manicured lawn is just not her style. “I like things very natural and free form,” she said.

Both Reis and McCarthy subscribe to a sustainable, naturalist way of life, in which soapy water replaces pesticides and native plants are watered from rain barrels, eliminating the need for sprinklers.

Their yards reflect their mission — to work with nature, instead of against it like so many of us do. No long, sweeping lawns. No sculpted evergreens. And very few annuals.

“I even put perennials in my pots,” Reis said. “We try to be as pure as possible.”

When McCarthy discovered water seeping into her basement, she re-engineered her front garden area to slope away from the house. Problem solved.

When Reis discovered a plant-eating Japanese beetle on her roses, she immediately plucked it into a container of soapy water. Pesticides, she said, kill the good bugs along with the bad ones.

Though their front yards are easy to spot, what with the rain gardens and sweeping beds of perennials, the real magic happens out back.

“We’re like a mullet, business in the front and party in the back,” Reis said.

Indeed.

Walk around either house and you’ll find a lush wonderland that instantly transports you to some kind of hobbit world, in which cone flowers, hostas and day lilies conspire to take your breath away. There are winding walkways leading through different environments and buffeted sections that beckon you to stop and ponder. All of the plants are native to Illinois.

Were it not for the vine-covered arbors indicating a threshhold between properties, it would be hard to know where one garden ends and the other begins.

Their gardens, it seems, are much like their friendship: a lesson in synchronicity.

“I love old junk,” Reis confesses, explaining the screen doors, rusty bicycle and floor lamp she picked from the trash. All are now integral art elements among the monkwood, spice bushes, elderberry and bee balm that stretch to her property line.

“She knows how to put it together,” McCarthy says.

There’s a walking path area, a vegetable garden and a sitting area surrounding a fire pit.

A metal sign with the words wabi sabi — “beauty in imperfection” — pretty much sums thing up, Reis said.

Both gardeners have legacy items in their yards.

On the side of a pond in McCarthy’s yard rests a stone that had been part of the foundation of her grandfather’s farmhouse.

“My grandparents were inspirational in getting me into gardening,” she said.

Reis has peonies from her parents’ garden in Indiana. They’re easily 100 years old.

She also has an impression of her dad’s feet resting beneath them.

“It’s like he’s standing here, tending to them,” she said.

Though they’re both master gardeners, Reis and McCarthy say much of their expertise comes through trial and error.

“That’s our life,” Reis said. “Even nature has to correct itself sometimes.”

McCarthy said if you pay attention, the plants will show you what they want.

Their ultimate goals are to have a low-maintenance, easily accessible yard.

Native plants don’t need as much water as non-native ones. Permeable pavers help to keep the ground moist. Less watering means less hauling sprinkling cans or hoses around.

To make her garden more “age-friendly,” Reis recently put a paver path through parts of it.

“We’re studying ways to help gardeners in the latter years,” she said. “It’s all about accessibility.”



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