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When musician and gardener Ellen Bunch moved into her Irving Park house in 2010, the small backyard featured the typical urban flora: grass and weeds, mostly, along with a few beat-up rose bushes. Five years later, the yard is thick with organic flowers, herbs, and vegetables—plus it’s a haven for bees, monarch butterflies, and the occasional squirrel feasting on the mulberry tree.

Bunch became a certified master gardener at the University of Illinois Extension before working at Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York. Now in Chicago, she teaches piano lessons year round and works in the summer as a garden planner where client visits include consulting, planting, weeding, staking, and management. “I have a few gardens that I take care of throughout the whole season,” she says. “Other people want to restructure their garden so it’s several sessions of moving things around and making things more natural or appealing.”

In her own backyard, Bunch has the freedom to improvise, expanding her garden each year as she tries new things. Her yard teems with tomatoes, dahlias, parsley, cilantro, chamomile, chard, sage, milkweed, mallow, borage, and echinacea (to name a few). She started most of the plants by seed to create a completely organic garden: “I didn’t know what was in the ground and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t putting in more contaminated plants—you never know if you get plants from Home Depot what they’ve been treated with.” 

For those of us who lack a green thumb, Bunch says the secrets to a thriving garden are placement and watering. “If you have a [yard] that’s shaded by all tall buildings, you need to think about it kind of like a woodland—it would be considered undergrowth because you have these huge structures that are blocking out the sun. Think of it that way, and then go and see what kind of plants you might be able to work with.”

Bunch also writes a blog dedicated to all things botanic called More Organics. “I love to talk about plants. Anyone who has a question, find me!” she says. “I’ll give you an answer.”