It's nearly impossible to decide which view is best at the Chillicothe riverside home and gardens of Michael "Doc" Higgins and Lynette Schurtz. The scorecard includes virtually every turn of the head. During a recent evening, a seaplane did two touch-and-go landings on the river. Several boats trolling for Asian carp sailed by with harpoons at the ready, and a silent contingent of kayaks cut through the water.
It's nearly impossible to decide which view is best at the Chillicothe riverside home and gardens of Michael "Doc" Higgins and Lynette Schurtz. The scorecard includes virtually every turn of the head.
During a recent evening, a seaplane did two touch-and-go landings on the river. Several boats trolling for Asian carp sailed by with harpoons at the ready, and a silent contingent of kayaks cut through the water.
Competition for best view includes layered garden beds filled with perennials and hostas up to 4-feet in diameter, a sunken pond filled with koi and long vistas of verdant turf disappearing into distant woodlands.
For Higgins, a favorite spot used to be sitting and reading on the University of Illinois "Illini" bench that was on the Illinois River, connected to shore by a narrow dock. The bench disappeared once, likely breaking free and floating down river. It turned up at the front door weeks later, returned by an anonymous good Samaritan, perhaps one of the barge hands who wave and toot at Higgins as they sail past.
Schurtz likes the screened gazebo with sweeping views up and down the Illinois River. The view north to the Santa Fe bridge is framed by an old cottonwood tree hanging over the bank. The cottonwood was carefully pruned to provide a tunneled view upriver.
The gazebo has its resident symphony this time of year with a powerful chorus of Purple Martins that sweep over the water eating mosquitoes and insects, returning to Purple Martin houses mounted along shore.
Schurtz also loves the profusion of lilies on the east edge of their home's front porch. She originally bought the varieties at Hornbaker Gardens in Princeton. The flowers range from purple to violet, orange and yellow. They have multiplied now to the point she is able to divide, transplant and give away lilies.
The perennial gardens have been planted only about 10 years but look included in the palette here with junipers, yews, boxwoods, spruce and pines. Shade-loving gardens of hostas, ferns, astilbes, coral bells and coleus are punctuated with pockets of color from impatiens, petunias and geraniums.
Schurtz has a fairy garden with statuary collected from France, Switzerland and across the United States. Some of the fairies are solar and glow as dusk settles on the property.
Even with its rich soil base, the couple supplements the gardens each spring by top dressing with an inch of mushroom compost. They use Preen as a pre-emergence weed killer.
A favorite spot for both Higgins and Schurtz is on the flagstone-patterned patio alongside a 20-by-30-foot sunken pond built by the Work Progress Administration. The couple stock the pond with koi, which spend the winter in horse troughs in the basement.
Working with a consultant, the couple learned to plant water lilies in small baskets filled with stones rather than soil. The lilies are cut back at the end of the season and also spend winter in horse troughs in the basement with the koi.
One year, a tragedy was heralded with the screaming of a mail carrier who yelled "Doc! Doc! There's a heron in the pond eating all your fish!"
Schurtz said, "It was terrible. The heron ate all our favorite koi."
The pond is surrounded by a garden border at ground level and another border at the surface level of the water. The result is a pond embraced by gardens, not plopped in the yard.
Most of the gardens are free form, with no straight lines, and surrounded by turf grass. Higgins rolls and aerates the lawn and uses a service to fertilize the grass. The grass is usually left taller as summer progresses in order to counter dry weather, which isn't a problem this year.
Grape ivy growing over the garage is usually pruned twice a year and fed Miracle Grow.
Schurtz uses an ice chopper to edge the gardens and provide a crisp demarcation between lawn and flower beds.
She often brings her morning coffee with her into the gardens and pulls weeds. A large hackberry tree on the property propagates profusely each year. Schurtz tries to pull the seedlings before they establish strong roots.
For a number of years, the couple has hired a student at Illinois Valley High School in Chillicothe to help with landscape maintenance. When one student graduates and goes off to college, he recommends a replacement.
Work on the gardens starts intensively in early April and then tapers off after July 4.
"We cut back on the work maybe 75 percent," Schurtz said from the gazebo one evening during this more leisurely time.
"We like to hear the calliope on the Spirit of Peoria. . . . Here in the gazebo is the coolest place in the evenings when it gets really hot. I like to hear the sound of water lapping on the barges as they slip past in the (river) channel. It's such a serene sound."
Clare Howard can be reached at (309) 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.