Turn into Susan Beard's drive, and you'll notice right away: Spring-flowering bulbs are strewn like a pastel carpet beneath spreading trees and a sea of white narcissus rises to meet the road in front of the house. The native tree species, drifts of grape hyacinths, camassia, leucojum, corydalis, trillium, bloodroot, trout lilies and celandine poppies rub elbows with more than 300 varieties of hostas -- any of these could be signs of the obvious: an extraordinary gardener lives here.
It wasn't all roses in the beginning. In four decades of cultivation, Beard's west suburban garden has been through its share of changes. Fencing was installed to keep marauding deer at bay. The English ivy she planted in the woods got out of control. And an in-ground pool was a glaring blue eyesore. "I didn't want it to be a focal point, so I painted it black," Beard said. "Now it doesn't draw your eye like a sore thumb."
Beard is the kind of gardener who doesn't back down, and she's undaunted by a climate that's a far cry from California, where she grew up. Her grandfather, a physician, had a lemon tree ranch in Santa Barbara. "It was just so much fun exploring as a child," she said. Her late father, a three-star general in the U.S. Air Force who had a passion for roses and other flowers, was a big influence. While visiting many years ago, he decided to tackle part of the property away from the house. "He always had to have a project," Beard said, "so he rented a chain saw and worked for three hours clearing the edge of the woods. I wasn't planning to have a garden there." But now the area is filled with summer- and fall-blooming perennials, including scores of day lilies.
A visit to her father in California resulted in a treasure trove of lycoris, also called surprise lilies. "He had tons of them and was digging them up, so I loaded up my suitcase." Come late summer, these "pass-along plants" add a splash of color throughout the garden, along with anemones, asters and fall-blooming clematis.
The garden is still evolving as plants come and go. A storm last year toppled century-old oak trees, leaving the variegated dogwoods and shade-loving ground covers below struggling in the full sun. She replaced a row of overgrown yews with boxwood, which she says are more easily controlled with pruning. Flagstones have taken over the mulched paths. And because "there wasn't anything exciting here by the back of the house," she said, a small fish-filled pond was added, which can be enjoyed from indoors.
While her father grew more than 100 roses that required spraying and fussing, Beard says, "I don't do that because it kills beneficial insects. I'm not into the patented tea roses. I grow roses that do well without that stuff." Mystic Fairy, Knock Out and Cherry Pie are some of the newer shrub roses she's planted recently.
Compost, chicken manure and worm castings are added to planting beds and containers each spring. She occasionally uses slow-release fertilizer sprinkled around her plants, lets fallen leaves remain on the ground in the woods, and composts her grass clippings.
Beard, an experienced designer who once offered garden design services and gave talks at The Morton Arboretum, planned her own garden to afford views with focal points from every room in the house. A gated arbor with an 8-foot opening was installed in the side yard to create an inviting entryway. She added a 19-foot-long bridge several years ago to make the garden's flow more interesting. A low semicircle of stone surrounds the seating area. "I tell people when you have rolling land, cut into it to make a wall, make it dramatic."
For the beginning gardener, Beard suggests joining one of the many plant societies. "Gardening books are great, but plant society people are so knowledgeable." She joined the rose society in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she has a second garden. "I wanted to find out which roses to grow there, since some that do well here don't grow there."
When hundreds of visitors strolled through the property during a Garden Conservancy Open Days event, Kay Mangan of Olympia Fields, Ill., asked, "Do you ever sit down?"
Beard responded with a laugh, saying, "No, because I see everything that needs to be done. I have more than enough to take care of, and I'm using more shrubs." And then there are all those shrub roses she has her eye on for this year.
Click here to see photos of Susan Beard's gardenCopyright © 2015, CT Now