This garden in Portage Park was among 65 gardens honored with a Chicago Excellence in Gardening Award in 2023. Credit: Provided/Chicago Excellence in Gardening Awards

CHICAGO — More than 100 gardeners throughout the city were honored this weekend by Chicago’s Excellence in Gardening Awards for their efforts to improve the environment. 

A volunteer committee of master gardeners chose 65 gardens to celebrate with awards after closely examining about 130 contest entries, said Mike Nowak, who founded the contest. 

Winners received all-weather signs to place in their exceptional gardens during an awards ceremony Sept. 24 at Wild Blossom Meadery & Winery, 9030 S. Hermitage Ave. Attendees bonded over their gardens and swapped horticultural books at the event, Nowak said. 

“It’s so inspiring to see 200 people show up and talk about what they’re doing in their yards to beautify and improve Chicago,” Nowak said. “It’s one day you get to geek out with people from all over the city about gardens.” 

The judges wanted to highlight setups with sustainable gardening practices, like using native plants, conserving water and providing habitat for local creatures, so these aspects were weighted heavily in the judging process, Nowak said. Gardens were also evaluated based on their beauty, creativity and community engagement. 

“In an era of climate change, it’s important that every square inch of the planet is treated respectfully,” Nowak said. 

Dennis Best’s garden in Belmont Gardens is filled with native plants, which pollinators love. Credit: Provided/Chicago Excellence in Gardening Awards

For example, Dennis Best’s winning garden in front of his home in Belmont Gardens is filled with native plants. 

“It’s not only gorgeous, but you know that butterflies and bees are having a feast when they stop by his neighborhood,” Nowak said. 

One of the winners, Cherie Renee Bates, said she’s grown to love helping out pollinators and other local animals by maintaining her garden in Albany Park. 

“Giving back to the planet is what we need to be doing more,” Bates said. “A few years ago if I saw a bee I wouldn’t welcome them toward me. But now, I see a bee and I’m like, ‘Come on in, take a look and please enjoy.’” 

Cherie Renee Bates poses with her winning garden, located on her balcony in Albany Park. Credit: Provided/Chicago Excellence in Gardening Awards

For the past two years, Bates’ garden has taken over her balcony, she said. 

She grows “basically everything [she] can think of,” including strawberries, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, sunflowers, marigolds, mint, eggplants, cucumbers, blueberries and much more. 

“It’s very relaxing and rewarding to see something that started as a little seed grow into something that you can use for medicine or to eat or just to beautify your home, all from you nurturing it,” Bates said. 

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After entering the contest, master gardeners visited Bates’ garden to talk with her about her setup and give advice. 

“It was exciting to enter and have the judges come through and talk about gardening with me,” Bates said. “When they came by, I learned a few things from them and it was a blessing. Gardening is an ongoing learning process, no matter how long you’ve been doing it.” 

Nowak said the contest is designed to be an educational experience and a “celebration of gardeners more than anything.” 

Since the Chicago Excellence in Gardening Awards began in 2017, more than 235 gardens have been honored. 

The planters on the Chicago Farm Lab garden were built by high schoolers at Charles A. Prosser Career Academy, 2148 N. Long Ave. Credit: Provided/Chicago Excellence in Gardening Awards

Chicago Farm Lab’s two-acre farm was honored with an excellence award this year because of the way gardeners engage with the community. More than 50 families work in the garden and share their produce with the entire neighborhood. The planters were built by high schoolers at Charles A. Prosser Career Academy, 2148 N. Long Ave., who also volunteer in the garden. 

“It’s an amazing operation,” Nowak said. “What better way for young people to learn what you can grow and how you can use food to help out your neighborhood and fellow human beings?” 

Deronis Cooper’s winning garden is in Garfield Park and is dedicated to the memory of his grandmother. Native plants line the fence, spilling out onto the sidewalk. 

At “Grandma’s Garden,” native plants peek out over the fence and can be seen from the sidewalk. Credit: Provided/Chicago Excellence in Gardening Awards

While Nowak was judging Cooper’s garden, a car stopped in front of the house and a few people asked Cooper if they could come see his plants. 

“I joked to him, ‘You staged that, didn’t you?’” Nowak said. “He said, ‘No, no I didn’t, this always happens,’ so you can tell what he’s doing for the neighborhood.” 

“Gardens don’t only help in terms of sustainability, they make the city a better place to live.” 

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