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Illinois yard sprouts masses of bluebells

Illinois yard sprouts masses of bluebells

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Jim and Dianne Andrews were just beginning their married life, living in a rental house in Alpha, Illinois, but looking for a place to call their own in the country.

A friend told them about a place near Sherrard coming up for auction — a dilapidated farmhouse with no plumbing or running water, set on a acreage strewn with junked cars and other rubbish.

The young Alwood Elementary School teachers checked it out and made a winning bid.

"I said, 'If we buy this property, we will never run out of things to do,'" Jim said one recent day — some 45 years later — standing on a large deck behind the totally renovated house. "We say that all the time, because it's true."

The couple took possession of the property that included 10 acres and several falling-down buildings in the spring of 1975, exactly 45 years ago this May.

That May also was when they were happily surprised by a bonus feature of the property: in spring it sprouts thousands of native bluebells, so-called ephemeral plants that push up, bloom brightly, then die back to the ground by Memorial Day.

"They were all over the place," Jim says with a sweep of his arm. "That was a complete surprise. But apparently this neglected yard was the perfect place for them."

And it has been a perfect place for Jim and Dianne.

"It's our hobby," Jim said of the place. "We always had summers off, so we'd work on it. "When we were young and had energy but no money, we'd work on it ourselves. Now we hire more done." 

The two have known each other since they were in 7th grade, growing up in Rock Island. They began dating while attending Western Illinois University, Macomb, and both taught at the Alwood. She was a first grade teacher for 32 years, while he was a 5th grade teacher for 20 years, finishing up as a technology coordinator and principal.

The first thing you notice turning into their lane this time of year are, of course, the bluebells, growing en masse in every direction.

Elsewhere in the yard

But there's more.

Their house is a two-story, colonial-style building, sided in redwood painted the color of weathered barn board. In the back there is a large wood deck Jim built himself, a brick patio and a greenhouse he made with windows from Habitat ReStore, Davenport. 

And spreading out in every direction is the land itself — bluebells and perennials ready to take over when the bluebells fade. Towering overstory trees, brushy shrubs and decaying tree trunks. Whimsical sculptures made of rusted metal and pieces of old farm equipment. A wood arbor, a wood trellis, brightly colored blown glass balls and several modern buildings.

Keep walking and you'll also come upon "the ruins," the Andrews' name for what people tell them was a hog house, but that's puzzling because it looks almost too dressy for livestock. The roof collapsed long ago but portions of the tile block walls remain, some decorated with a flower-like pattern, and covered on the inside with a kind of stucco, like plaster. The front had a door flanked by windows.

Off to the side is a large rectangle of land protected by high fencing where the couple will plant their vegetable garden. The current fence made of 64, five-foot metal mesh panels is the third or fourth they've had, and this one finally keeps the deer and rabbits from eating their produce before they do.

But the raccoons? "The raccoons think of it as playground equipment," Jim said.

New this year inside the protected area are six raised beds into which they expect to plant salad vegetables, white and red potatoes, green beans and flowers such as zinnias and marigolds.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, squash and pumpkins will go directly into the ground.

Farther on are two more structures, one a potting shed they built on a concrete slab that was already there and the other a wood shed (for wood for their two stoves) that stands on the site of a former chicken coop. The floor is made from the bricks of their home's original chimney.

The pond

Even farther back is a small Morton barn that is the same size and shape as the farmstead's original barn and it's on the same spot. It's used for equipment storage.

The far back of the property drops down to a gulley where — surprise! — the couple had a nearly one-acre pond built in 2001. A pair of Canada geese is brooding eggs on the island. 

As the seasons change, so does the look of the property.

"What the yard does in blue in spring, it does in orange in autumn," Dianne said of the showy maple trees.

When the couple isn't working on their yard, they might be volunteering at the Quad-City Botanical Center, Rock Island.

They've worked in the gardens, built things for the Children’s Garden,  helped at booths for the flowers shows and Bald Eagle Days and spent a lot of time leading classes for kids during field trip season.

The also decorate the lobby trees at Christmas and are among the hundreds who have help hang lights for Winter Nights Winter Lights.

"When they need help, they know they can call us and we will try to be there," Jim Andrews said.

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