A portion of the garden beds on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Cheney Mansion Gardens in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

The Oak Park Conservatory is a beloved local institution, so beloved, in fact, that it is one of the three most popular historic sites in Oak Park, welcoming over 50,000 visitors in a typical year. The past year was anything but typical. Nevertheless, the Oak Park Conservatory is welcoming summer (and visitors) with open arms and a variety of programs for all ages.

Patti Staley, director of horticulture for the Oak Park Conservatory, says the building is again open for visitors, no reservations required. She also points out that the conservatory’s reach extends far beyond the greenhouse at 615 Garfield St. Programs spread throughout Park District of Oak Park system and involve numerous volunteers.

Master Gardener Program partnership

The Oak Park Conservatory has a long-standing partnership with the University of Illinois’ Master Gardener Program that Staley says began long before her decade-long tenure in Oak Park. She points out that master gardeners go through a tremendous amount of training, making them helpful in a variety of settings.

A master gardener designation is applied after participants complete an 11-week course of classes and an internship of 60 volunteer hours. Classes are taught by University of Illinois specialists and University Extension educators and include classes on botany, soils, vegetables, fruits, flowers, trees and shrubs, grasses, landscaping, insects, and diseases. Once certified, master gardeners agree to complete 10 hours of education and 30 hours of volunteer service each year.

Dragon carrots are seen sprouting up on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Cheney Mansion Gardens in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

“Some of what they do includes providing hands-on plant care, working in our parks with specialty plants and perennials, educational programs, and planning special events for kids and adults,” Staley said of the volunteers who choose to work with the conservatory. “They are always able to put a different spin on nature education.”

One newer program aided by master gardener volunteers is the help desk at the Oak Park Conservatory. Begun in 2018, the program offers a chance for local gardeners and plant lovers to get answers to pressing questions

“Prior to COVID, the help desk was open every Tuesday for gardeners with any questions,” Staley said. “There were a lot of questions about plant identification. Volunteers would also help home gardeners repot their houseplants.”

While the help desk went virtual during the pandemic, Staley says she is anxious to bring that in-person service back.

“People want to come back in person and connect with another person,” Staley said. “Everyone is over Zoom.”

Cheney Mansion gardens

Volunteers from the master gardener program, alongside other gardener volunteers, also help keep the gardens at the Cheney Mansion, 220 N. Euclid Ave., in bloom. Staley says that the vegetable garden is completely volunteer-run.

“The whole show is theirs from planting, to weeding to harvesting,” she said.

All produce grown at the Cheney Mansion is donated to the local food pantry Beyond Hunger.

Volunteer Mary O’Kiersey, of Oak Park, looks at the dragon carrots on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Cheney Mansion Gardens in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Oak Park Conservatory volunteers are also responsible for the care and upkeep of the Cheney Mansion’s substantial grounds. Staley says that while volunteers partner with the Park District of Oak Park in many local parks, Cheney Mansion’s gardens really help show off the skills of the volunteers.

“We are able to take it to that next level with their help,” Staley said.

Other programming

This summer, a number of other programs will help locals up their home-gardener game and develop future gardeners. The Year of the Butterfly continues with educational programming geared towards families.

On Saturday, July 10 from 10 a.m. to noon, learn about bees, flies and wasps and on Saturday, Aug.14 from 10 a.m. to noon you learn about bats and other pollinators. While registration is required, the programs are free to attendees.

“It’s great way to make a weekend activity,” Staley said. “Go shop the farmers market and then come over with your kids for our programs.”

A July 30 succulent and cactus sale will be followed in the evening by a virtual opportunity to learn how to nurture succulents and help them thrive. Participants will also learn when and how to repot succulents and cacti and how to determine signs of stress in the plants.

The Uncorked series takes place on Fridays June 25, July 23, Aug. 27 and Sept. 24. Adults 21 and over can enjoy an evening of music and drinks outdoors at the Oak Park Conservatory. Tickets cost $15 and include two drink tickets.

The conservatory is open again this summer for children’s birthday parties beginning in July.

“These parties were a hot ticket before COVID, and we’re really excited to bring them back,” Staley said. “The parties center on nature, with some input from our popular parrots, and the kids do fun nature activities like building terrariums.”

Staley emphasizes that the Oak Park Conservatory is a great place to nurture a love of nature in children and encourages locals to stop by for a visit.

“Our Discover Garden has a water feature,” she said. “It’s a fun, low-key place to visit this summer.”

More information and registration for events can be found here.

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