Go Green Wilmette’s 9th Annual Sustainable Yard Tour – In Person

Martha's magical garden
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Go Green Wilmette’s 9th Annual Sustainable Yard Tour took place on Sunday, July 18th from 12:00 to 4:00 pm. Saima Abassi started the Sustainable Garden Tour for Go Green Wilmette in 2013. Her garden was a wonderful contribution to this year’s tour.

It was an exquisite summer day and gardeners and would be gardeners biked, walked and drove to the five gardens on the tour looking for inspiration and direction. A would-be gardener,  I have joined this tour each year since it began except for last year when the tour was offered on video.  Given how restricted everything was, the video was uplifting.

It was wonderful to come back and see the gardens and gardeners in person.  The gardens are not only beautiful, but inspirational as they incorporate bird habitats, butterfly gardens, rain gardens, native plants, vegetable gardens, composting methods, storm water runoff solutions and more. 


The “Go Green Wilmette” website states, “The goal of this free event is to raise awareness about the value and importance of sustainable gardening and motivate people to make environmentally responsible choices in their own yards. Conservation starts at home. (Read Doug Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope for additional motivation.)”

Martha Hellaner

I began my tour at Martha Hellander’s wonderful, ”personal” garden. Beautiful and whimsical, it incorporates native plants, an edible garden and more.  Everywhere I looked there was something special to engage the senses. One visitor said it was worth coming to the tour if only to see the shed that houses the tools that keeps this garden in such good shape.

Martha’s tool shed

Martha Hollander authored The Wild Gardener –“The Life and Selected Writings of Eloise Butler” (North Star Press, 1992).

I visited Saima Abbasi’s garden next, but I am going to tell about her garden at the end.

Dave Hanna and Amy Hanna Downey

My third stop was Dave Hanna and Amy Hanna Downey’s that is “small enough to fit in the sunny front yard but big enough to feed the neighborhood”.  This garden that was started for the grandkids about 10 years ago has developed a specific routine.

Once the ground is thawed in the spring, usually during the first week of April, this routine is followed. They add 10 bags of composted manure, 2 bags of organic fertilizer and 4 bags of mushroom compost spread evenly and hand tilled with a spade.  Seeds and seedlings are used according to a plan.  Herbs are in containers.  Efforts are made to keep everything organic. To protect against rabbits and chipmunks, fencing and dried blood are used. They also use a hoop system and drip irrigation.

Amanda Nugent

Next stop was at Amanda Nugent’s yard.  This garden almost sings, it is so full of life and energy.

Monarchs flit and float. Birds sing.  A contained area houses herbs including parsley where monarch eggs have been seen from time to time.  Much of Amanda’s garden focus is to provide food for the Monarchs and other pollinators. Amanda is working toward a garden that is 70% native plants. There are bird, bee and bat houses scattered throughout the garden.  Plants are drought and heat tolerant in an effort to conserve water.

This last year Amanda turn ¼ if her front lawn into a native garden with 100% native plants that are chosen to be drought tolerant and low maintenance.

Amanda Nugent’s herbs

Julie Wolf’s garden was the final stop for me.  Walking through the garden one sees native plantings mixing with ornamentals. Most of the front lawn has been replaced with ground cover in an effort to reduce maintenance and the need for water. Julie has noticed that the more native plants, the more pollinators appear.

Julie Wolf

The only truly sunny spot on the property is along the driveway and that is where the vegetable and herb garden are located.  Julie starts these plants from seed in her kitchen in March so they can be planted in May with extra mulch.  This helps with the weeding once the weather turns hot and it also helps with reducing the need for water.

Julie Wolf’s Garden

Saima Abbasi’s garden is a little bit of magic.  The visitor is greeted by a beautiful trumpet vine-covered trellis.  For four years, Saima has been creating a sustainable garden from the garden she found which was comprised of many non-native plants. The four main areas she has worked on are: the front yard, along the driveway, the back yard and the vegetable garden. She has added sustainable plants and decreased the amount of lawn and developed a space for butterflies and birds and people who love them.

Saima Abassi

Saima Abassi generously agreed to answer some questions about the Sustainable Yard Tour.

Splash: With the lock down in place last summer, Go Green Wilmette offered the Sustainable Yard Tour on the Go Green Wilmette You Tube channel.  You are planning to release this year’s tour on the channel in August. Can you speak to the pluses and minuses of each approach?

Saima Abassi: Last year was our 8 th year organizing the Sustainable Yard Tour. In those eight years of organizing, we had never thought of filming the gardens and offering videos of each garden to the public. Due to the pandemic we could not open the garden tour to the public.

Instead, we decided to film our gardens so that the many people that were not able to attend the tour could watch the garden tour on GGW’s You Tube Channel. We had a wonderful intern who filmed each garden for us. It was a great experience for the yard hosts. They were all open to filming their gardens and excited about it. Through these videos we have been able to reach more people. It was such a success to film the gardens that we have decided that even now that we have gone back to public tours, we still want to film the gardens as this increases our reach. It is delightful to see that each you-tube video of the gardens last year has gotten close to 300 views and combined views of 5 videos has been close to 3000 views.

What were some of the stumbling blocks you encountered as you organized this year’s tour with some effects of the pandemic still in place?

This year we were not sure if we could offer the tour to the public. There were a lot of unknowns. But as more and more people got vaccinated and Illinois allowed people to have gatherings, we decided that we could open the event to the public. I would say that the biggest stumbling block was the uncertainty. We really made the call in June to open the tour to the public. Because we made the decision so late in the year, we really could not publicize the event the way we have in the past. I was overwhelmed to see that even without much publicity we got a great turnout. This just goes to show that our tour is extremely popular with the community. This also goes on to show that pandemic has made people interested in gardening.

Editor’s note: Three hundred and fifty enthusiastic people attended.

What are the most challenging aspects of organizing the tour?

As you know, the emphasis of this garden tour is sustainability and a focus on native plants. The most challenging aspects are always to find the best yards for the event. I’m always working throughout the year finding gardens that have the most sustainable features. But equally important and one of the biggest considerations is to find hosts who are passionate about their gardens and about gardening. I put a lot of effort in this aspect of the tour. I want yard hosts that are engaging, knowledgeable and are going to inspire our attendees. Yard hosts make a huge difference. I want people to leave the gardens inspired and take ideas to their own yards. This is truly one of the most critical works we can do for the planet. 1/3 of our urban landscape is comprised of private yards. That is a lot of land. If people use that land with sustainability in mind, we can have a huge impact on our environment. Doug Tallamy says that we are nature’s best hope.

Saima Abassi’s magic

What do you find most rewarding about the tour?

The most rewarding part of the tour is to see community building, many meaningful conversations taking place and attendees coming up to you and saying how much they have learned from all the garden hosts about the value of sustainable gardening. We get many repeat attendees each year. Many have told us that they would not miss this event and look forward to it each year. That is rewarding to see as this shows how much they like the event. Also, I’m thrilled to share with you that many people have taken this idea to their own towns and are organizing similar garden tours. I know that Winnetka started it three years ago. We have created a how to do manual for anyone who would like to start it in their own town. This is a model that other towns can follow. I always follow up with the yard hosts and they always say how much they enjoyed sharing their joy of gardening with the others in the community. It’s a win-win.

Do you have a way of measuring the benefit of the tour to the attendees?

Many of the attendees end up taking ideas from our tour and applying them to their own gardens. There are attendees that have been on our yard tour and they have told me that it was this garden tour that inspired them to start their journey of sustainable gardening. They come back each year to get more ideas and to get inspired. I have people who are avid gardeners and they have mentioned that this garden tour inspired them to add sustainable features like composting or adding a rain garden. I would like to add a survey and ask some of our attendees to share how this garden tour has impacted their gardening journey. There have been people who have mentioned that they have reduced their lawn after attending our tour.

Thanks to Saima for the tour and for answering our questions.

A monarch at Martha’s garden

To learn more about the Sustainable Yard Tour and other Go Green Wilmette events go to: Go Green Wilmette

Photos: B. Keer

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