The Garden Club of Evanston Emphasizes Conservation, Education, and Beautification

Image by The Garden Club of Evanston

Image by The Garden Club of Evanston

The first president of the Garden Club of Evanston (GCE), Anna Rew Grace, said a garden is a place set apart for quiet and rest--a place in which to find one’s own soul.

“Needless to say, gardens aren’t necessarily that anymore,”” Conservation Chair Bernice Valantinas said. “They have an element of that, but I think about what we do in our gardens, and a lot of it now has to do with response to global warming, protection and preservation of native plants and species.”

GCE is a member of the Garden Club of America and a founder of the Garden Club of Illinois. The local organization is dedicated to increasing the knowledge and love of gardening, garden history and design, and the arts of flower arranging and photography. Members of the club make it their mission to protect, improve and restore the quality of the environment through conservation activities.

GCE established three gardens in the Evanston area. The first of these, located on Northwestern’s Evanston campus, is the Shakespeare Garden, planted in 1917 to celebrate the alliance between England and America during World War I and to commemorate the 300th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. The final two gardens, the Wildflower Trail Garden and the Evanston Butterfly Garden, located at Grosse Pointe Lighthouse park, were planted in 1937 and 1995 respectively.

From its foundation in 1915, the GCE focused on conservation--more specifically, the protection of birds and native flowers--an idea Valantinas said was not on the forefront of many gardeners’ minds at that time. Preservation continued to play a crucial role in the club’s operations, more notably with the construction of the Evanston Butterfly Garden, which started as a club conservation project.

“We were already worried about butterflies and the disappearance of pollinators,” Valantinas said. “that was kind of ahead of the curve in a way, and now we’re unfortunately trying to save them.”

Butterfly Garden is overseen and maintained by club volunteers to this day. It also hosts the Evanston Ecology Center’s ‘Land Stewardship’ summer camp, where children can learn about the habitats and life cycles of butterflies.

According to GCE Civic Project Chair Anne Berkeley, in addition to the creation and supervision of public spaces such as the Evanston Butterfly Garden, the GCE backs efforts to protect the environment by establishing partnerships with and providing financial support to groups in the community who share similar goals--including the Canal Shores golf course in Evanston.

In 2017, Canal Shores developed and implemented a comprehensive habitat restoration and land use plan as a guide for the thoughtful and responsible stewardship of the 80-acre course. This plan included an ecological inventory and history, invasive species management, and passive park and wildlife habitat enhancement opportunities.

One of the major management practices articulated in the plan included woody removal--a procedure in which non-native and invasive plants and trees (like buckthorn) would be cut and herbicide applied to their stumps. Canal Shores also outlined a method called broadcast mowing (normally done after native seeding) in their plan, where all vegetation would be cut to a height not less than 12 inches in order to allow more light to reach the seedlings.

In addition, the plan highlighted different areas of the course that presented opportunities for restoration, which ranged from the planting of prairie grass to the installation of bat boxes in the more open areas of the property. These areas were labeled either Class I, Class II or Class III according to its priority level for restoration (Class III sites having highest priority). Some of these areas included the park’s wetlands, prairies, and the woodland edge that runs parallel to the canal.

“They’re one of the leaders in the United States in this respect, because often golf clubs use valuable water resources and are not always mindful of pesticide use.” she said.

Berkeley said the GCE contributed $6000 in support of this Ecological Master Plan, and that since then it has maintained a relationship with Canal Shores.

“We’re looking to maybe do a bird-viewing platform or a pocket-park somewhere,” she said.

Another branch of GCE’s environmental advocacy, according to Valantinas, is focused on educating members of partnering organizations in the Evanston community.

GCE’s advocacy is informed by the Garden Club of America’s environmental position papers, training and speakers from the U.S. and the wider world, and access to legislators’ private meetings. Annually, GCE sends two club members to the American Garden Club’s National Affairs and Legislation Conference (NAL) in Washington, D.C. held annually in February.

Attendance at a NAL meeting that led the club to host an event with Evanston’s Rotary Club called The C-Change Conversations Primer, on April 19, 2018. This primer provided answers to the five questions most Americans have about climate change. Attendees included Evanston residents and community and national environmental groups. Valantinas said the event taught attendees how to engage in civil, fact-based conversations about climate change.

Kathleen Biggins and Carrie Dyckman, co-founders of C-Change Conversations, both spoke at the function. City of Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty and Sustainability Coordinator Kumar Jensen provided updates on Evanston’s Climate Action Plan and civic engagement.

Valantinas and Berkeley agree that promoting sustainability and preservation continues to be a growing awareness within the club.

“It’s a balance. Sometimes the sustainable way is not the easy way,” Berkeley said. “We talk about at Shakespeare [Garden] how we have invasive weeds, [and] some people are like ‘Let’s just bring the Round Up and be rid of them’ and then we talk about how we’re very close to the lakefront, and that we want to do something that’s non-toxic.”  

Ultimately, however, Valantinas said the beauty of gardens still remains at the soul of the GCE.

“Beauty is important, and that’s why the gardens are still set aside for beauty, for repose, for a place to see nature--and the gardens that we already have are incredible,” Valantinas said.