Garden Walk 2011: Kay and Chris Bird

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending and photographing several gardens on our local garden walk. It is a wonderful opportunity to focus on gardens and visit with the gardeners and hear them talk first hand about their garden experiences.

The first of the gardens I visited is the beautiful handiwork of Kay and Chris Bird, who have been cultivating their garden since building a home on their three-acre property in 1998.

When I first arrived and drove up the Bird’s long sinuous driveway, I caught glimpses of the many garden areas planted throughout the wooded lot. It was mid-morning, but the dense shade from the canopy of pine trees made it feel much earlier. Kay had invited me to come out to photograph the garden, even though she and Chris would likely not be there.

I took my time wandering among the different gardens. I would find out later that this bed beneath the tall pines is one of Kay’s favorites. A pleasant mixture of shade plants and art in keeping with the woodland feel of the garden, this area is the largest of the many beds that comprise the Bird garden.

About halfway through my visit, Kay and Chris arrived home with their Toyota Prius hatchback filled with large bags of potting soil. After quick introductions, Chris fired up a small John Deere tractor/frontloader and headed down to fill this horse trough with the potting soil. I smiled and thought to myself, “It takes a gardener to use a Prius and a frontloader all in the same job.” Overflowing with plants including ornamental sweet potato, petunias, and pentas, the final product of Chris and Kay’s labor greeted visitors as they walked up the driveway on the day of the walk.

The front of the Bird’s Colorado-style home is accented by a terraced garden that includes many varieties of hosta, Japanese maples and blue spruce. The curve of the landscape bed softens the linear architecture of the house, while the terracing creates a visual layering of the garden that brings the front of the house into view.

One of the newer sections of the landscape is the garden surrounding the back patio of the house. After losing a large tree that drastically changed the area, Kay decided to take advantage of the increased sun exposure by making the area into a butterfly garden.

Another recent addition was a pond located immediately outside their screened porch. I was surprised when Kay shared that the pond was a suggested by one of the gardeners who had toured her garden during the planning of this year’s walk. A tribute to the good design and placement, the pond appeared as if it were a long-term fixture in the garden.

I shared with Kay and Chris that I thought their garden was one of the best I’ve seen in all the years I’ve attended the Champaign County garden walk. At the time, I’m not sure I could explain exactly why I felt that way. After reviewing all my photos and seeing what attracted my lens the most, it was the details that made the garden so outstanding.

Because of the dense shade in many areas of the garden, it has to be a challenge to bring bright color into the landscape. But Kay uses containers and art to accent and frame the garden in a way that brings life to the flow of green and brown. I loved the use of rustic troughs and washtubs as containers, a perfect complement to the split-rail fences that line the property.

Much of the art in the garden had a just-right subtlety about it, an almost organic camouflage perfect for the woodland setting.

Other pieces were whimsical and fun, catching you a little off guard and bringing a smile to your face as you walked past.

In other areas, Kay brought in colorful pieces of art instead of containers to break the pattern of green foliage and brown mulch. This mosaic tile orb was one of my favorites in the garden, a refreshingly different take on the gazing ball.

One of the first things Chris Bird asked me after shaking my hand in introduction was, “You don’t think the bears are too much, do you?” He was referring to the large wood sculptures, pieces the Bird’s commissioned T.C. Gill of Monticello, IL to create for their garden. Kay and Chris have certainly heard varying opinions on the aesthetics of these sculptures, but I came down on the side of liking them. Their size and feel worked perfectly in the context of the wooded lot and mountain-style home.

Whereas the Bird’s chainsaw-sculpted bears are nothing if not bold, other visual vignettes in their garden almost sneak past in their subtlety. As I walked through the same spots in the gardens multiple times, I would see another new scene I had missed earlier. Something about this spot attracted me, with the cherub thinking pensively on the stone bench with the sled leaning against the craggy bark of the tree in the background. I could almost hear an invitation to stay. I hope someday to take Kay and Chris up on their offer to come back for a visit, sit down on this stone, and listen to all the stories this garden and its gardeners have to tell.

2 thoughts on “Garden Walk 2011: Kay and Chris Bird

  1. Beautiful! I am sooooo jealous! I have my first tour coming through in a couple of months and now I'm stressing- I can't compete with this!


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