It All Started in Pinsk: The origins of a magical Chicago garden

The story of Diana Leifer's breathtaking garden in Chicago's Bowmanville neighborhood began a continent away.

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Diana Leifer's dog in her award-winning garden.

Diana Leifer's garden is no secret, at least to her fellow community members in Bowmanville -- a small neighborhood on Chicago's North Side between Ravenswood and Western avenues, and Foster and Bryn Mawr.

But Leifer's garden, which has taken first prize over the years during the annual Bowmanville Garden Walk, does call to mind The Secret Garden , the charming Frances Hodgson Burnett novel adapted for stage and screen.

Hidden behind Leifer's late-19th-to-early-20th-century two-story clapboard home lies an enchanted world, an efflorescence of perennials that run their course for at least half the year: tulips, crocuses, daffodils, and hellebores in early spring; irises, hydrangeas and azaleas during the height of the season; peonies, lilies of the valley, Virginia bluebells, and pansies in late spring; clematis and honeysuckle in early summer; alliums, miscanthus, phlox, hosta, and larkspur during mid-summer; Annabelle hydrangeas and Chinese astilbe late in the season; and asters in the early fall.

Visitors to Leifer's garden marvel at the bursts of color-particularly the oranges, purples, and chartreuses that Leifer favors-that pop up on her little plot of heaven.

"I always like to say that the garden was the first room I remodeled," said Leifer, a retired Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges teacher, who bought her home with her late husband, William "Les" Brown- founder of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless-in 1993.

At that time, Leifer noted, the garden consisted of "one peony, a flowering plum shrub, a row of yews, and grass."

Following the advice of a friend, an editor at a garden magazine who proclaimed that gardens with "straight lines were boring," Leifer took a garden hose and created a configuration that she found pleasing-all loops, curves, and semicircles, nary a straight line.

Leifer no longer inventories the flora in her garden, but "at one point, I had 75 perennials, a progression of blooms from spring to late fall."

A passion for the urban outdoors inspires her avocation, but she credits her success to a much more pragmatic and, well, pungent source: dried-up horse manure.

"If you have horse poop, it's the best," Leifer said. "You will have wonderful results, an explosion of flowers. But the manure must be composted. Otherwise, it's going to be full of weed seeds, and you'll have weeds all over your garden."

For centuries, the most magical of gardens have often been ascribed to the English and the Japanese, famous for their green thumbs and eye for landscape architecture. But Leifer attributes her horticultural stirrings to her Jewish grandmother from the Belarusian city of Pinsk, Clara Siperstein Gelbard, "who had an old-fashioned garden of hollyhocks, pink dahlias, and roses," at her two-flat in the Lakewood-Balmoral section of Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood, she said.

Her grandmother and grandfather, who had moved to the North Side from the then heavily Jewish West Side of the city, lived on one story of the building. Leifer, her brother, and her parents, Abba and Eleanor Gelbard Leifer, who made their livings as music educators and synagogue accompanists, lived on the other. Leifer would watch her grandmother lovingly tend her garden. As soon as she went away to college in Wisconsin, she asked her landlord, Jean Holtz, whose family ran a farm, for a small patch of dirt on which to plant a nascent garden. So commenced her lifelong passion for all variety of flora.

Leifer no longer competes in the Bowmanville Garden Walk, though she would clearly take home first prize year after year. "I feel that everyone [who enters the contest] should feel the joy" of earning a blue ribbon, she said.

But she does open her garden during the event so that her friends and neighbors can feast Their eyes on her botanical cornucopia. It also allows her to indulge in another passion, cooking, as she whips up a multi-course gourmet-style meal for the garden walk's judges.

"Gardening is a celebration of the beauty of nature in its grand diversity," Leifer enthused. "It is a lens on the seasons, a wonderful way to live along with the progression of the year … and it sure beats concrete!"

Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.

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