I wandered out to Cantigny in Wheaton the other evening to the annual meeting of the Midwest Ecological landscaping Association. This is a trade group of Chicago-area tree care companies, landscape architects and designers, nurseries, lawn care firms, growers and other horticultural businesses, as well as some nonprofits, with a special interest in sustainability. (Full disclosure: I'm a member and occasional consultant.)
The happiest talk at the meeting was about MELA's demonstration project at O'Keeffe School on the South Side, where member firms, led by Lynn Bement, who operates as the Organic garden Coach; Pam Wirtz of Grace Landscaping; Grace Koehler of Pizzo & Associates; and MELA executive director Carol Becker, have helped 8th graders rework and reclaim a weed-choked and moribund school garden as a vegetable garden, community space and memorial to a friend who was tragically murdered. Troy Law was just 10, a 5th grader at O'Keeffe, when he was murdered in 2006. Here's a Tribune story about him, the kids and the garden.
MELA had been looking for a place where its members could put into practice the principles of the Sustainable Sites Initiative. One of those principles is reusing as much as possible of the existing plant material, so the kids and grownups salvaged perennials and shrubs. They also built benches out of recycled lumber that once was a deck, project to which certain 8th graders ("The Drill Team") took enthusiastically.
"Our children are changing. Their attitudes are changing" as a result of working on the garden all spring and summer," said teacher Emily Kenny, the science chair at O'Keeffe. "They have taken ownership of this garden." School gardens often have that effect on kids.
But enough warm and fuzzy stuff. Here's the practical information promised by the headline of this blog post (lacking an editor, I can revel in the freedom to bury the lead waaaaay down). If you're looking for a lawn-care firm, a landscaper or a landscape architect or designer, one great way to start is by looking at the membership directory at its Web site.
That doesn't mean you will find someone who never uses pesticides or always plants native plants. There is endless debate about what "sustainability" in the green industry means, and even those who want to do the right thing often struggle to figure out what that is.
MELA has no requirements or certifications for membership, other than a willingness to try and move the "green" industry in a more sustainable direction. So you can't assume that a MELA member firm practices entirely organic lawn care, or whatever your own criterion is.
But you can bet that if a company joined MELA, they've at least given the topic of sustainability some thought. They should welcome questions about what, specifically, they would do to care for your property sustainably. And hearing questions from potential customers will probably help them think about what they do.
I've suggested MELA for years to readers who asked me how they can find a garden designer or lawn care firm; trade associations are always a good place to start. But the organization is only now trying to actually promote its membership to the public. You can find the member directory at the web site, melaweb.org; click on the "Community" tab, not the far more likely "Membership" tab. (Yes, there are aspects of the user experience that need some work.)
MELA was co-founded (as he is always happy to note) by my friend, radio host Mike "No Shrinking Violet" Nowak. Its executive director, Carol Becker, will be on the Mike Nowak Show on WCPT (820 AM) this Sunday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. to promote MELA's membership, so listen in if you want to learn more about the organization or about hiring a professional. (Late note: I now hear that teacher Emily Kenny of O'Keeffe also will be on the show.)
Got a garden question? I recommend you call or e-mail the Plant Clinic of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the Master Gardeners of the University of Illinois Extension or the Plant Information Service of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe .
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