Historic Edwardsville home is surrounded by nature a block from Main Street

News-DemocratJune 29, 2014 

One of the cool features of Benna and Gary Denue's yard in Edwardsville is a frame garden shed with screened windows, nestled among trees, flowers and other plants.

Benna had it built after her Labrador retriever, Rosie, died in 1998. It gave purpose to the concrete slab originally poured for a dog pen.

"That's where I store all my containers and ornaments in the winter," said Benna, 66, office manager at St. Boniface Catholic Church and retired master gardener coordinator for the local University of Illinois Extension unit. "And I have a bench in there where I can pot things up in the spring."

On a recent evening, jazz played on a radio in the shed, loud enough for the Denues to hear from their screened-in porch.

That's where they sit and relax, surrounded by nature, despite the fact their home is only a block from Main Street businesses, a grade school, church and bus station.

"I know I'm downtown," Benna said. "I can hear the sounds of the city, but there's a peacefulness to it."

The Denues' yard at 215 Commercial is one of 11 properties that received Green Thumb Awards from Edwardsville's Beautification and Tree Commission this month.

The program honors residents who go that extra mile to beautify public or private spaces with flowers and other plants, regardless of cost, size or location.

Nominations come from the gardeners themselves, as well as neighbors, friends, family members or passersby who appreciate their hard work and creativity.

"Benna and Gary have done a beautiful job of preserving the past through plants that were original to the property," said committee chair Zy Kinney, 56.

Gardening is a shared hobby for the Denues, whose blended family includes five grown children and three grandchildren.

The couple met at Market Basket in 1997. Benna was working in the greenhouse, and Gary was looking for ferns.

"The next thing I knew, he was asking me out for a date," Benna said. "We went to Missouri Botanical Garden, and it poured down rain."

Benna already owned the 1923 brick Georgian Revival home on Commercial. She had bought it from Julia Wahl, widow of the late Dr. Eugene Wahl.

A 1946 article in the Edwardsville Intelligencer focused on the Wahls' light pink roses.

"One of the most beautiful arrangements of (Paul's) Scarlet roses ever seen in Edwardsville is at its peak today ... partly due to the weather conditions of the past several weeks, which were ideal for rose production," the article stated.

The rose bushes still grace the yard along a white picket fence. They bloom only once a year, almost always on Memorial Day weekend.

The Denues have lost a few trees over the years, but still get shade from a pin oak, American elm, sweet gum, dogwood, shingle oak, American holly and several evergreens and red buds.

"We planted a paperbark maple on the side," Gary said. "The bark peels, and it looks like a dark birch tree."

Gary, 70, formerly served as Lovejoy Library director and associate dean of information services at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Retirement allows him to spend time gardening, one of his late mother's favorite pastimes.

"(Benna) does most of the planting and moving things around," he said. "I do most of the hard stuff. I'm the landscape laborer."

Gary built two giant flower beds with field stones in front of the house and filled them with boxwoods, star magnolias, oak leaf hydrangeas, day lilies, coreopsis and geraniums.

He also installed an arbor, now covered with climbing hydrangeas, leading to the patio and garden shed.

The Denues' back yard has a woodsy feel, thanks to towering trees and a hedge row of "naturalized" landscaping that includes mock orange, honeysuckle, viburnum, hydrangea and rose of Sharon.

"(Mock orange is) an old-style shrub, and it's got a blossom that smells like an orange," Gary said.

Benna served on Edwardsville's Beautification and Tree Commission for 12 years, so she couldn't win a Green Thumb Award. Now the committee is able to reward her gardening efforts.

Other winners in the residential category this year are Christina Kaman and Stan Zubal, 148 Barnett Drive; Pat Rzewnicki, 452 Buena Vista; Will and Liz Krause, 1203 Emerson Ave.; Leslie Wagner, 322 East Union St.; Mary and Steve Shaffer, 551 Olive St.; and Laura and Scott Reed, 952 Hale Ave.

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