Visiting a good friend’s garden for the first time is simultaneously exciting and stressful. The excitement is self-explanatory; for me as a gardener, walking through and sharing the stories of a friend’s garden is an unparalleled experience of joy.
But why stressful? Well, what if you don’t like the garden? How do you hide the expression on your face if you’re underwhelmed with the garden’s design or visual impact? It’s not a problem when visiting the gardens of strangers. The stress enters the equation when the gardener is a friend. You want to love the garden.
Yesterday, I drove north to visit Shawna Coronado. Shawna and I first met in person at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show in March 2011, and have grown to be wonderful friends despite living three hours apart. I’d hoped to visit her garden last summer, but our schedules never meshed, and before we knew it, the growing season was over.
Shawna is well-known for her front-yard vegetable garden, installed in 2009 after she removed her front lawn to grow food in the only sunny area of her suburban lot. I’d seen plenty of photos and videos of her garden and was impressed with how she interspersed food crops with ornamental plants. I had no justifiable reason to think I wouldn’t like her garden in person, but my excitement was tempered with a nervous stress as I made the final turns through her neighborhood and rounded the cul-de-sac where she lives with her husband and daughter.
You see, I’m a ornamental gardener. I like gorgeous plants, and I’ve never found vegetables to have desirable aesthetics. I was afraid that in person, I’d turn my nose up to the beets and Brussels sprouts growing among the Hosta and Heuchera.
My worry was completely unfounded. The second I stepped out of my car, I was taken with the casual beauty of Shawna’s garden. The name of her garden blog — The Casual Gardener — perfectly describes her gardening style. The garden is crisp and clean, but its flow is immediately relaxing. Before I even walked up to the front door, I felt welcome and calm. The garden is so well-designed, I didn’t even notice the recently-planted rows of vegetables beyond the ornamental plants. It’s the perfect example for people like me that you can grow food as a central part of an ornamental garden design.
Shawna’s love for Hosta is on full display in the front yard garden. Later in the day, she shared a story of how she recently came home with a new Hosta and her daughter said, “You have like 250 Hosta already! Why do you need another one?” As someone who has never said no to a new daylily, I laughed in a mutual understanding shared only by plant collectors.
Central to the front yard design (and its philosophy of sustainability) is a stone-faced fountain that sits atop of an underground rainwater collection cistern. Shawna uses the water collected in the cistern to keep the vegetables hydrated throughout the summer. The water feature looks completely ornamental — an excellent example of pretty and practical.
One of my favorite plant combinations in Shawna’s garden was this grouping of Heuchera surrounding a variegated Hakonechloa. I imagine the Heuchera blooms mimicking the color of her neighbor’s car is more serendipity than strategy, but I appreciated the color repetition nonetheless.
Soon after I rang the doorbell, Shawna led me out to the garden she’s planted in the city right of way behind her back fence. This garden has recently been a controversial matter between Shawna and her city, but as we walked along its length I could see the pride in Shawna’s face as she talked about the positive impact it has had on her community. At one point, a resident walked down the sidewalk, stopping to say, “I just love walking down this section.”
In that moment, seeing the look in Shawna’s face, I understood the why behind her garden. Many of us garden because it’s what we enjoy. For Shawna, gardening is a larger calling. It’s not just for her. It’s for her community.
I should never have doubted that I would love Shawna’s garden. It is a reflection of who she is — someone who believes that we can make a difference in the world, one garden at a time.
I hope to return to Shawna’s garden later this summer after the vegetables are full-grown and do a more complete photo shoot of her gardens. Yesterday’s visit was brief and didn’t allow photographic justice to be served.