Residents seek pardon for garden on Cal-Sag Trail

CalSagGarden421

                                                                               Photo by Marv Van Wyck

A passerby snaps a photo of an unauthorized garden on the Cal-Sag Trail in Palos Heights between Oak Park and Ridgeland avenues.

An unauthorized garden along the Cal-Sag Trail in Palos Heights has some local nature-lovers calling for hands-off as management at Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens makes plans to remove it.

The patch of land, measuring approximately 12-feet by 15-feet, can be found on the trail between Oak Park and Ridgeland avenues. The cultivated plot features a variety of plants and provides a point of interest to many users of the trail.

The problem? It’s not supposed to be there. In addition, the garden has at least one nasty species of flower, called Datura.

A sign posted at the garden has piqued concern among more than a few local residents. The sign reads:

“This area is managed by Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens and is part of a native restoration plan. Due to this and liability concerns, we cannot allow gardening to continue at this site. Please remove your plants and other materials no later than Friday, Aug. 11.”

The notice carries a date of July 28, 2017 and replaces a previously dated sign which was reportedly removed and discarded nearby.

Leading the inquiry about the fate of the garden is Marv Van Wyck of Palos Heights, who has photographed it on a number of occasions.

Van Wyck has created what he calls a “little, personal coffee table-type book of photos” he took during the first year of the Cal-Sag Trail. The western portion of the trail, which includes Palos Heights, opened in June, 2015. The total length of the trail is 26 miles.

“The garden was there then, and I included a few photos in my little book,” said Van Wyck.

Adding intrigue to the situation is that the identity of the gardener is apparently not readily known. An inquiry on The Regional’s Facebook page seeking the name of the mystery horticulturalist received no reply, despite many comments about the topic in general.

“Like many of the users of the trail, I have watched that garden grow for three years now. So, it was with extreme disappointment that I read that notice telling this mystery gardener to get out.  

“I am assuming this is probably a retired man, almost certainly a Palos Heights resident who has been quietly maintaining this neat little garden along the trail,” Van Wyck wrote in an email to The Regional News and Gareth Blakesley, general manager of Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens.

Shortly before last week’s Palos Heights City Council meeting, in which he made a presentation regarding the sharp decline in the populations of Monarch butterflies and other pollinating insects, Blakesley phoned The Regional to describe Lake Katherine’s position on the matter.

“You can’t have people plant things on property you manage for a number of reasons. One, it would open up the gateway for lots of other people to do this,” he said.

“Another thing is from a liability standpoint. We have all our volunteers sign waivers saying they are abiding by rules and regulations. If someone is acting in a way that’s not in accordance with that, then it can be an issue for us as well.”

Blakesley also explained that the plants in the garden aren’t the type desired for that location.

“They have no ecological benefit,” he said. “Native species is what has ecological benefit. (It) is not really what we have planned for that area. We have an overall plan. We want to do some restoration work. We’re going for more native, more wild, some oaks, that sort of thing,” he said, pointing out that Lake Katherine’s jurisdiction on the Cal-Sag Trail runs east all the way to Ridgeland Avenue. Overall, Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens cover 85 acres.

But late Tuesday, Blakesley called The Regional News again to provide additional information, this time with more urgency.

“One of the plants is Datura and it’s poisonous,” he said. “My wife is a biologist and looked it up. It’s on the National Institute of Health list. It can irritate people’s skin and if ingested can potentially cause hallucinations and organ failure.”

Blakesley said that particular plant will be dug up and disposed of immediately, although the rest of the garden won’t be removed, at least not just yet.

“Once you know a risk, you have to take care of it,” he said

Comments posted The Regional’s Facebook expressed support for Lake Katherine’s position as well as the point of view of concerned citizens who want to see the garden stay.

“I think it’s quite nice to see as I walk along the path. What’s the problem?” said Donna Prorock White. “It’s not buckthorn or poison ivy.”

“The white flower, Datura, can be quite aggressive. It’s quite lovely but all of a sudden, it’s everywhere,” countered Jennifer Crump.

“And poisonous,” wrote Merrilee Zielinski.

Jason Rosen weighed in with his thoughts.

“If you let one person tend their own garden, then what is to stop the next person, so on and so forth,” he said, his opinion echoed by Jeff Carpenter.

“Fortunately it is ‘pretty’ and not tacky,” Carpenter wrote. “I won’t go deep into description because everyone has different sensibilities on what’s lovely. However, there’s a domain issue. If Lake Katherine has been given the domain to dress/keep/develop, etc. then this garden, as lovely as it is, out of bounds. The ugly term is ‘squatter’. How quick would we be to defend it if not so lovely in some eyes?”

“It may be pretty and seem harmless, but may not provide the same value as restored ecosystem for habitat,” said Mark Decker, supporting Lake Katherine’s position. “We are not the only species that uses open space. We should trust the plans developed by the professionals that manage the land and allow them to proceed with restoration according to optimal timing for seeding or plug planting, however they plan to restore it.”

Van Wyck would like to see, at the very least, a temporary stay of execution of the garden until the first frost.

“For starters, I would hope you could change the date for getting (it) out of there until after the end of the blooming season,” he asked Blakesley. “Right now, there are four different plants that are beginning to bloom, and the ‘elephant ears’ are growing quite large.  Please let us enjoy this for at least the rest of the blooming season.”

Van Wyck said he hopes the garden could be ‘grandfathered’ into the plan Blakesley spoke of for the area. Or, consider asking the gardener to become a volunteer, as suggested by William Rice via The Regional’s Facebook page.

“Either the person now tending it can continue as a volunteer or if that isn’t possible then maybe some other volunteer at Lake Katherine can tend to it,” Rice wrote. “This way the garden can continue and Lake Katherine’s concerns can be addressed,” he said, also putting forth the idea of relocating the garden, a thought shared by Gayle Llene.

In his call Tuesday, Blakesley stated Tuesday that Lake Katherine’s position had not changed.

‘We never stated when we would remove it, just when we would like it removed by,” he said. “Rather than just (immediately) taking it down, we decided to give a two-week notice so they could take it down themselves.”

Although an 11th-hour reprieve now doesn’t seem likely, Van Wyck is hoping for a pardon for the garden.

“If the Chicago Cubs can give  Steve Bartman a World Series ring, we at Palos Heights should be able to rise to the occasion of thanking this person for three years, and I hope more, of providing pleasure to the users of the Cal Sag Trail,” he said.

The discovery of Datura means that at least that section of the garden will have to be taken away immediately, as explained by Blakesley. However, he said the other plants that make up the garden will be removed and temporarily stored at the nature center, where the unidentified horticulturist can retrieve the material if he or she wishes.

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