Birds in the Garden · Butterflies & Bees in the Garden · Garden Musings · Herbs · Perennials

Keeler Gardens – Connecting Neighbors with Nature

Some folks talk about making a difference and others, like Gina Iliopoulos and Edward Caplan, take action to make their neighborhood a better place. And as a result, Chicago residents in the Old Irving Park community have an opportunity to connect with nature and learn about pollinators and the plants that support them at Keeler Gardens.

The mission of Keeler Gardens is to show people how they can improve their overall health and well-being by including the natural world into their space and lifestyle. Gina and Ed provide educational programs, in accordance with Illinois’ educational state standards, to school groups in their small urban yard and the 1,000 square foot garden planted in the median strip.

Gina and Ed work tirelessly to spread the word of Keeler Gardens throughout the neighborhood. The Educational Liaison for their Alderman has helped by contacting area schools alerting teachers of the opportunity to bring their classes. Wellness and community groups of all kinds have also been invited.

How did this couple, passionate about the environment, create Keeler Gardens?

In March of 2018 they were awarded a $10,000 grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to plant a pollinator habitat. The median strip in front of their home proved the perfect spot, and the garden was designed around a list of high value pollinator plants supplied by the USDA National Resources Conservation Service. Plants were selected based on their ability to thrive in a partly shaded site and their height (or lack thereof) since community ordinances were a consideration.

Several companies stepped up and donated all or part of their products or services to help. 

Krugel Cobbles, Inc. of Lake Bluff delivered 9 pallets of stones, slate and old Chicago bricks. The bricks were used as permeable edging along the street; the stones and slate as edging and signage. Gina and Ed used what they needed for the garden and shared the excess with neighbors and friends.

Paula Clayton of In a Jungle painted some of the stones with decorative and educational messages.

Many of the plants were purchased from Midwest Groundcovers who also donated some more.

Lurvey Garden Center & Landscape Supply in Des Plaines has been a generous supporter of Keeler Gardens, donating bulbs, plants, pots and more. Hundreds of bulbs – daffodils, tulips, grape hyacinths and crocus – sleep beneath the soil in the median strip, waiting patiently for next spring.

Top soil and composted leaf mulch was donated by The Mulch Center in Deerfield.

Gina and Ed have moved quickly to bring the garden to fruition. In March, soil prep began. The grass was smothered with cardboard, and top soil was delivered.

The majority of plants arrived the first week in June. With the help of 5 volunteers, half of the perennials were planted the same day. Gina and Ed remember it well. “It was that first really hot summer day. Remember it? It was 98 degrees.” Interns began working at Keeler Gardens in mid-June and, with help and instruction from Gina and Ed, finished planting the perennials.

Agastache 'Blue Fortune'

The garden is very young, but birds, butterflies and bees were already taking advantage of its offerings. Anise hyssop (Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’) was this bee’s favorite.

Here were some of the other plants included in the pollinator habit.

Mimulus, Monkeyflower

Monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens) is a native Illinois wildflower. Bumblebees are one of the few insects strong enough to force their way into its tightly-closed blooms. Caterpillars feed on its foliage.

Four urban apple trees – very narrow in form – were located on the property. There were also grapes, blueberries and raspberries.

Dozens of herbs were included in the garden – several varieties of basil, lavender, fennel, rosemary, mint and more. Caterpillars of swallowtails had already eaten much of the dill.

Asclepias incarnata

Monarchs have been seen laying eggs on the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

A beekeeper tends the hives on the roof of their shed.

Their small backyard was filled from front to back and side to side with plantings. It has been certified through the Conservation@Home program and is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat® and a certified Monarch Waystation. Wow!

The neighborhood cat was enjoying their garden, too.

What are their plans for the future of Keeler Gardens?

Gina and Ed believe Keeler Gardens can be a source of education and inspiration for many years to come. As the native shrubs and perennials grow larger, others with less wildlife value will be removed. When the newly-planted perennials need dividing in a few years, extra plants will be given away to neighbors and other community groups.

If you would like to learn more about Keeler Gardens, visit their website or stop by and talk with Gina and Ed during their Pollinator Celebration this Saturday, August 4 from 3 to 7 p.m. Keeler Gardens is located at 3631 N. Keeler Avenue in Chicago.

The world is a better place because of people, like Gina and Ed, who take action to connect people with nature. Let’s all ask ourselves what we could do in our own neighborhoods to get more people in the garden.

Garden with me!

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