Engel explains ‘call to garden’

Published 2:43 pm Thursday, October 4, 2012

I met Charles Engel through my friend, Terrie Cummins, at a party he hosted at his Three Oaks home. Arriving in the evening, I was immediately struck by the beautiful plants and garden decor that graced the yards. Oriental rugs and antique store furniture decorated his deck turned summer salon. Another area was awash with color from the flowering plants carefully placed under an awning to protect them from the night air. The place had been transformed into a sophisticated social space and I was eager to meet the responsible host. I was greeted warmly before being treated to a lovely grilled dinner of various meats and veggies.

The owner of Quercus, a landscape design business he started after many years of working in the earth is also a Master Gardener who paid his dues at the Chicago Botanic Garden, as well as at our own Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve in Niles. I asked Engel questions about when he first felt “the call” to garden.

“My first experience gardening was on our half acre in Niles, Ill., when I was 3 or 4 years old. My father grew up on a farm in Fond du Lac, Wis., and had a passion for growing things, so we worked together growing vegetables, fruit and flowers in our large garden. We moved into the city when I was 5, but always had raspberries, strawberries, fruit trees and flowers. My mother canned, and made a mean strawberry shortcake, with homemade shortcake, which we had nearly every day while the berries were ripe. This instilled in me a love of both plants and food, which I try to combine into the gardens and containers I create.”

Engel explained that he had gone through many careers: a potter, typographer, printer, bookbinder and high techie writer.

“When that crashed I consulted friends, and they advised, ‘Do what you love,’” Engel said. “I thought, ‘You can’t live doing that!’”

He had worked in the green industry to landscape a project for an organization in Chicago, and at a country house west of Dekalb, Ill., where he “rehabbed a fabulous garden, incorporating flowers, vegetables and fruits.” He called the designer and got a job that eventually led to a position managing a nursery for Craig Bermann Landscape Design Inc.

“Bermann and his partner James Grigsby designed amazing gardens along the north shore of Chicago and beyond,” Engel said. “I spent eight years working with them to provide wonderful plants for clients and for the numerous awards we acquired at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show over those years. From that experience I realized that I could do this, and started my own company, Quercus, (“oak” in Latin) named in honor of my great friend James Grigsby, the oak man.”

Engel now works on private gardens, and a few commercial accounts.

“I have been fortunate to acquire a client following who trust my judgment and allow me to design their gardens, whether it is a brick or stone patio with a fire pit and mixed herbaceous border surrounding it, or a formal garden with an herbal knot, or a naturalistic garden of spring ephemerals and weedy looking wildflowers, or a rain garden to mitigate soil erosion and water runoff,” he said.

Engel believes that “cities are finally becoming aware of the need to address issues like erosion and runoff, creating green roofs and vertical gardens, and it our job as designers and architects to inspire out clients to use these tools to not only beautify their environment, but to protect the greater environment.”

So where does Engel get his passion for a job that comes with hard physical work, the uncertainty of the weather and the difficulty of running a small business in this economy?

“It comes from knowing I created a paradise for the client,” he said. “It is such a joy to reconnect with someone for whom one has done a project and hear the passion they feel for what you have done. Often, the work is instigated by the woman of the house, but is really gratifying when the man of the house congratulates you on the work and really enjoys the outcome.”

I asked Engel what his favorite plants are to work with in a garden.

“There are so many underutilized plants besides the ubiquitous hostas and daylilies,” he said. “Grasses like Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola,’ commonly known as Japanese forest grass, graces the front of a mixed border in a magical way. The lily family of plants can make the garden magical most of the season. From the Asiatics and Orientals to the toadlilies in the fall — which if you are lucky enough to know someone with a great garden — are just now coming into there own, and will bloom until heavy frost puts them to sleep. Another great plant that is little known or used is Lespedesa ‘Gibralter,’ a shrub which, like the Buddleia, is a spring dieback, but which sends out its glorious pea-shaped flowers in September, and blooms till the frost. The list of plants that could be used is long, and unfortunately, not often used. This is what I love about gardening and working with clients who allow me to use a palette to create something beautiful for them.”

When asked about the future work of this garden artist, Engel responded thoughtfully.

“It strikes me as odd that our industry, while being the greenest of industries is slow to promote ideas like vertical wall gardens, and roof gardens, and rain gardens to really promote ecology thus making a positive effect on the environment. Fortunately, there are places that work to educate people on the importance of creating and maintaining a glorious and sustainable environment.”

You can reach Charles Engel at chasengel@att.net.