Ragdale Gardens Flourish Thanks To Retirees’ Green Thumbs
Del and Sherry Grapes Trade Retirement for Garden Management at Ragdale.
Del Grapes admits he wasn't exactly sure where retirement would lead him and his wife, Sherry. However, he's pretty sure the couple would never have envisioned managing the gardens at the nation's fourth largest artists' community.
But that's exactly the task the longtime Lake Bluff residents have undertaken at the Ragdale Foundation, a residential artists' community that provides a retreat environment and work space to creators in the visual, written and performing arts.
Grapes said he and his wife were introduced to Ragdale by Carol Newman, a life trustee on the Ragdale Foundation Board of Directors.
Beginnings Start as 'Ragweeder'
Sherry Grapes, who has a background in architecture, was captivated by the Ragdale property's historic arts and crafts-style structures. She began volunteering as a "ragweeder."
"Sherry was spending more and more time at Ragdale, so eventually, I figured I would tag along," Del said.
Now, six years later, Sherry and Del – veteran gardeners at home – manage the gardens on the five-acre Ragdale property, including organic herb, vegetable and flower gardens. This enormous mission involves coordinating a never-ending weed removal effort; planting hundreds of annuals throughout the Ragdale property; as well as planning and diagramming garden contents.
Del added that he and Sherry don't work alone. The couple coordinates Ragdale Foundation volunteers – fellow ragweeders – such as youth helpers from the Vernon Hills YMCA and the Lake Forest College football team. "The weeding alone could keep one person occupied full-time," Del explained
The Fruits of Their Labor
The couple's extensive efforts on the grounds have borne great fruit – or, more accurately, vegetables. Since the Grapes have been tilling the soil, the organic vegetable garden has produced bumper crops of tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, fingerling potatoes, Swiss chard, pole beans, zucchini, onions, cucumbers, cabbage, peas, radishes and more.
Del said last year he and Sherry harvested some 40 pounds of Jerusalem artichokes. Sadly, this year the local deer found the tasty plants early in the season and devastated the crop.
The harvested vegetables are used to supplement the Ragdale kitchen, whose private chef prepares dinner for the resident artists every evening.
Even the 100-year-old grapevines in the garden – which at one time were withered and dying – are now flourishing under the couple's care, as is the once-overgrown wisteria, which Del said now produce beautiful blooms.
Del noted it's a challenge to maintain the Howard Shaw balance between manicured and natural gardens. "These weren't intended to be proper, formal gardens," he explained. "This was a summer home with kids running wild and artists seeking inspiration. My wife calls the garden style 'shabby chic,' keeping in mind the history of Ragdale."
Gain Up-Close View
Clearly, the work is a labor of love; and Del said he and Sherry love the perks. "We get to talk with all of the artists and then see them at events," he mused. "We love it because we are very interested in art and literature; so working here brings us up-close."
He added, "It's also a great place to relax and get away from things. When I'm in the garden, I can let my mind go."
The Grapes – who have been known to log 60 hours a week working at Ragdale – share equally in the tasks at hand. "We even occasionally have lunch together," Del quipped.
Sherry also serves as a docent, leading public tours through the Ragdale grounds. The couple winters at Ragdale, too – cataloguing books in the Ragdale library until the ground thaws for tilling.