Garden reflects the life and passion of its owner
Updated: July 29, 2012 6:48AM
When it was time to downsize and move to a smaller abode eight years ago, Carolyn Stillman spent more time thinking about the new property’s outside space rather than the actual house, its walls and rooms.
“The reason I chose this house was not the house. It was the land,” she said.
Stillman is a passionate gardener who insists she is merely someone who likes to get her hands dirty. She is not trained, but when she found a smallish brick ranch house in Clarendon Hills on a lot nearly 100-by-200 feet, she saw a blank canvas dotted with a few good trees.
That canvas is not blank any more. It has form and texture and features lots of contrasting hues, varying shades of green and pleasing splashes of color. When she first moved in, Stillman said the front yard was “just a piece of grass,” though it had a large evergreen which breathed its last and finally had to be removed. Drive by her place on Sheridan Road today and that front lawn is one of the most vibrant and interesting in the village.
In the spring, you can see some of the 600 pink tulips Stillman planted. In the front, those tulips give way to peonies then roses followed by phlox and daisies. But that’s only a small part of the show. Carefully planted weeping cherries trees, one pink and one white, provide more texture and different colors as do an enormous variety of hostas, some so overlarge they almost qualify as bushes.
When Stillman moved from her spacious home on South Park Avenue in Hinsdale, she took a little bit of it with her in the form of some of the front yard plantings as well as the low stone wall, which fronts her home. She and husband, Bud, had lived at that address for more 50 years bringing up their children and creating a wonderful garden with lots of roses. Roses haven’t done as well on Sheridan Road, though she does have some. “If it doesn’t grow, you take it out.”
Gardens are not static places like living rooms. In a living room, we don’t rearrange the furniture on a weekly, monthly or even annual basis, but everything in a garden changes from hour to hour, day to day and of course month to month and year to year. That is what is so frustrating to a truly untrained and only occasionally interested gardener like your faithful columnist here.
Spending time with an experienced, trained or not, gardener like Stillman, you also understand that gardeners are also experimenters. They do not always succeed with what they plant. I thought that only amateurs like me had planting “failures,” but Stillman is happy to point out the areas which haven’t worked the way she wanted them to. Successful gardeners, it seems, work with what they have and start to understand how the land they have works for them.
“You just go with it,” she said with a shrug.
She wanted a border of rose bushes between her and a neighbor but the rose bushes had other ideas. She found something else, and all along she has worked with gardening and landscaping companies and even hired consultants, though she has toiled side-by-side with them, so she is quick not to take all the credit for her beautiful outdoors.
She’s put in all sorts of junipers, and of course — just like children in fact — they have not grown to the same height creating a ragged rather than the perfect border she may have envisioned but the effect is just as attractive (again, like children?).
And, just as some of us have pieces in our living rooms that have been passed down from generation to generation, Stillman has some plants and other objects that qualify as family heirlooms. Stillman has cuttings from both her late mother and her grandmother, both of whom were also passionate green thumbs. She has a bird bath her father cut out of stone and a corner stone dated 1757 from a building in Germany with historical ties to her family. Each birdhouse and statuary has a story, too.
The back yard isn’t totally covered. There is green space for a badminton net or croquet. In a corner is another carefully planned patch.
“This is my perennial garden,” she said. “If you do a perennial garden right, you put in so much stuff you never have to weed.”
Everywhere you look is a feast for the eyes, which is what Stillman wanted.
“I try to have something major at each season,” she said.
Her garden is interesting in the winter, too, thanks to some grasses and the shapes of the bare trees as well as the holly.
“Green fingers are the extension of a verdant heart,” said Russell Page, a British landscape designer.
Stillman obviously has such a luxurious heart.