Driving down many streets in Oak Park, the view is strictly suburban with neat green parcels of lawn leading to sidewalks, and grassy parkways dotted with trees. Some of the trees are bigger than others, and every now and then, a homeowner has planted a few flowers. But, for the most part, one block is interchangeable with another.
There’s nothing wrong with green grass and trees, but when a homeowner breaks the mold and does something different with the same canvas, it’s enough to make passerby stop for a second look. Any bike ride or summer stroll will likely yield an interesting vista, but some locals have transformed their front yard landscapes into something magical this summer.
On the 800 block of South Wenonah Avenue, Jim Quirk, wife Norma and son Sam created a stunning wall of sunflowers. According to Jim, the plan to grow so many of the long-stemmed plants began to germinate last summer.
“I had three stalks of sunflowers, and I saved the heads and harvested the seeds. I’m the wacky neighbor on the block,” explains Quirk. “I tend to do things in excess; I like to stand out.”
Quirk guesses that he planted two to three dozen stalks this summer and the result is a large wall of sunflowers on the parkway fronting his house. “When I’m standing up in the house, there are a couple of stalks that are taller than me, so I guess the tallest are probably about 12-feet tall.”
Reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
“My son and my wife and I watch a lot of people stop and check it out as they walk or bike by,” he says. “The kids especially love it. The only downside is that we can’t really use the walkway right in the middle.”
One neighbor, Tim Kelly, a native Oak Parker who lives across the street, likes the profusion of flowers so much that he says he’s threatened to try to compete with the Quirks next year.
“We saw Mr. Quirk tilling the parkway and wondered what he was doing, and then in a few weeks, we saw an explosion of flowers,” remembers Kelly. “It’s not unlike the Prairie element some people put in their front yards. I was not prepared for 10-foot blooms. It’s really a spectacle.”
Kelly’s 15-year-old son James approves as well. “I think it’s really amazing. It’s a really cool thing to see from your window, and when you walk through it, it’s like walking through a jungle.”
While parkway planting can be impressive, many worry about the village’s response. Village Forester Jim Semelka says the village code is pretty broad in terms of vegetation.
“We’re pretty lenient as long as gardens follow a few guidelines,” he says. “Plants can’t obstruct vehicular or pedestrian traffic; they should be less than 30 inches tall around intersections and alley openings, and you’ve got to stay away from stop signs and fire hydrants, and there can be no permanent structures on the parkway.”
Semelka notes that vegetation mid-block tends to be less of an issue, and emphasizes that the village forbids permanent structures in the parkway in the interest of keeping trees as healthy as possible while also protecting children.
Parkway plantings and structures are addressed mainly on a complaint basis, unless a village employee happens to note a violation while driving through Oak Park, says Semelka.
“I don’t personally cite violations, but someone within the village can. We try to pursue a resolution without being too Draconian. If you can, the best thing to do is to send a notification via e-mail to Public Works letting them know what you’re going to put in and where.”
Local gardener Cary McLean ran into trouble with the village last year when she first planted a garden in the parkway next to her Scoville Avenue house. Her husband John built wooden planters, but the village did not approve of the use of permanent structures to border the vegetable patches. Once the McLeans confirmed that the village ordinance doesn’t really discriminate about what kind of material is planted in the parkway, they removed the boxes and kept planting.
Twenty year residents of Oak Park, the McLeans had simply been mowing the parkway grass for years when inspiration struck.
“About three years ago, we lost a lot of large trees on the parkway,” says Cary. “I’d been trying to grow vegetables in my yard, but it was too shady, so I tested the soil and began a community garden. Now, my neighbor Darla Patterson and I grow tomatoes, onions, leeks, long beans, eggplants, and artichokes. We get so much basil that my husband takes it to his restaurant downtown.”
“We have some sunflowers for cross-pollination and we see so many wonderful things out there. We’ve seen little finches. We’re now in the midst of harvest season, so we thought that if we have a lot of extra produce, we’ll find a good local charity, such as Sarah’s Inn, to donate to.”
The response of neighbors and pedestrians has been positive, and McLean thinks that a big part of the reaction is due to the joy that people take in seeing things grow. She notes that there is magic in the common vegetables.
“The okra flower is the most beautiful flower. It only blooms for one day, and it looks like an orchid. So many beautiful things come of this garden.”