Backyard canvas: Adam Schwerner's urban garden

On a quiet street of century-old cottages in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood sits a house that stands out. It could be the trio of blue wooden ladders rising from the miniature woodland. Or perhaps it's the row of old doors painted in eye-popping hues that line the narrow gangway. There's the terra cotta bowl filled with red glass shards that sprouts "antennae" made from discarded drip irrigation hoses. And there's the rustic wood-hewn arbor over the gate that's flanked by an iron fence topped with yellow-tipped bedsprings. The entire composition tends to stop people in their tracks.

When it comes to landscaping, "People think there are rules, and you have to follow them," says the homeowner, Adam Schwerner, director of the Chicago Park District's Department of Natural Resources and liaison to Museums in the Parks. "I reject the rules, and that's where it becomes interesting. It's about the experience, about the act of change, not a perfect instant garden."

Schwerner; his wife, Stephanie, a therapist; and son, Jamin, 13, have enjoyed their ever-changing and somewhat quirky garden for the past eight years. He is the artistic brain behind the blue, orange and yellow trees -- spectacular art installations -- along Lake Shore Drive and in Lincoln Park, as well as other cutting-edge designs in city parks. He's also the driving force that oversees the district's 8,100-plus acres.

Like Chicago's public gardens, his home garden is a blend of horticulture and art. Two dozen spent fluorescent light bulbs pop out of the ground like high-tech fungi. Yellow metal chains dangle from overhead branches. A mattress spring, rescued from the garbage and filled with the family's empty green water bottles, hangs from a fence.

"I like things that have had a life -- revivifying them, giving them a new life," he said.

A bucket of floats, once used for commercial fishing nets, overflows from a pot. And a treasured group of bowling balls came from a woman down the street. "I've always wanted bowling balls." (He bowled twice a week in high school.) His finds often happen when walking Asher, the family's Australian labradoodle. He rescued a box of 30 convex mirrors from the garbage and in the winter places them on the patio, where they reflect light, a boon on overcast days. "It's just twinkly instead of dark and oppressive," he says.

He painted the metal bands from a rotted wine barrel and created a backyard sculpture. "I had them for years and finally found a purpose for them."

Don't expect any made-for-the-garden tchotchkes like colored glass globes or plastic elves, however. "Bad taste is bad taste. There are ugly objects, and it's hard to make something attractive out of an ugly object."

Not every visitor appreciated the garden when it was open for display one summer. "Some people get it. People who don't get it, don't stay. It's uncomfortable for them," Schwerner said. "This is an art installation; it's my living work of art and it changes every year."

The son of artists -- his mother was a playwright and actress, and his dad was a poet and musician ? Schwerner says his maverick outlook started with his upbringing. "My parents gave themselves permission to do what they wanted to do. You're only bound by what you think."

By age 12, Schwerner knew he wanted to get into public horticulture. "I always got a kick out of the interface between plants and people. When I was a preteen, my parents took me to a friend's house. All of the native plants had died, and she had spray-painted them. She turned what was debris into something exciting and expressive."

It's a legacy Schwerner has been passing on ever since.  "Creating something out of nothing has always been a keystone for me," he says. "You can touch someone's heart."

Click here to see photos of Schwerner's urban garden

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