Benjamin Calvert III with gardening gloves.

By Andrew Van Gorp on 1 June, 2015

We’re joined today by Villa Park activist Benjamin F. Calvert III, who grew up in Naperville near the Greene Valley Overlook. Benjamin, now a resident of Villa Park, has been a long time member in many regional community organizations including the Men’s Garden Club of Villa Park, the Naperville Community Gardeners, the Morton Arboretum, and the Elmhurst Artists’ Guild. Benjamin, welcome.

Hi Andrew, good to see you again.  Another growing season has passed since we first met at your talk for Earth Day 2014 at the Villa Park Library. Seems like yesterday on some accounts.

Benjamin, you’re quite the busy man, earning recognition as a successful naturalist and promulgator of Sustainable Community Development by many community organizations. Can you tell us a little bit about why you participate in some of these groups?

Well, my father was a founding member of the organization that is now the Naperville Community Gardeners. I found it appropriate to become an active member in the group to keep his name on the membership list. My grandmother, my mother, and I have all been members of the Morton Arboretum, too.  My grandmother sold her prints in the Ginko Shop. Since I became a member of the Naperville Community Gardeners, I felt obliged to join the Men’s Garden Club of Villa Park. I have been a resident for over a decade. They welcomed me into the club, and the next year put my yard on their annual garden walk!  It was a great experience in being able to show what a working person can accomplish within a suburban setting.  Of course friends and family have aided in getting my backyard to how it looks today.

Now, for the readers who aren’t aware, Benjamin’s been fighting a citation from Villa Park, (ironically known as “The Garden Village”) for transitioning his yard from lawn into a native garden. Benjamin, can you give us a brief overview or timeline of your efforts to improve the property you own in Villa Park?

Brief? So much to say.  I have been gardening in my yard for fifteen years. The back yard was fence-to-fence lawn when I moved in, and it now has flowers blooming throughout the growing season. I decided to transition my front lawn to a native garden. I thought it important to act now for many reasons.

Reading my Village’s code before beginning, I was concerned about how the Village would react to my native plantings. Specifically, the code singles out Milkweed as a nuisance plant. This sends the homeowner a very conflicted message, since the state of Illinois is actively encouraging Villagers to plant more milkweed to provide food for the threatened Monarch Butterfly, our state insect.

It was important to me that I not use chemicals to kill the lawn and to instead use local resources to accomplish the transition. I used cardboard for the base layer and I contacted a local tree trimming service to deliver a load of wood chips to my home. I started this step in July 2014, and I was excited to show everyone pictures of the first leg of my transformation. My excitement took a step backwards when I received a citation from the Village a month later. I assumed something like this might happen long in the future after “uncommon” plants started growing in my yard, but not so near the beginning of the project.

The citation had two parts: that covering the entire lawn with mulch was prohibited and that mulch was going to cause erosion. Reading the part on erosion, I thought there must be a mistake. It caused me a lot of stress. The remedy demanded by the Village was to remove the mulch, reseed or install sod- at my own expense.  My deadline to comply before fees was September 21st, 2014. 

I wrote a one page letter to the Village the very next day.  My goal was to educate them about what I was doing with my property, show the error of their statement on the citation, and get the violation repealed.  The village code does limit the scope of mulch applications, but excludes single family dwellings such as mine. Little did I know, this would begin a long back and forth between the Village and myself to amend the code. I’ve attended 18+ hours of board meetings, not including the time I’ve dedicated to preparation and research.

To be frank, I was given the run-around. The Village staff contended I had misinterpreted the code. However, I had a lawyer review the code, and they confirmed that the Village Inspector had made a mistake. I had been patient up until that point. In the late fall of 2015, I began to assist the Village in amending the code involving native plantings.

Wow. Do you find it troubling that Villa Park seems to show so little knowledge about sustainable landscaping? Do they understand what will be accomplished on your land once the project is completed?

First, I would like to say, Villa Park has bike trails, close proximity to many amenities, and is a quiet neighborhood. I love living here. My grandparents lived here before me. However, it’s embarrassing that the Village has little knowledge of such an important issue. Everyone who listens to my story is amazed and says that more education is needed. There are many reasons I am transitioning my yard into a native planting.

  1. The natives I will have in my garden will be accustomed to our local environment- needing less chemicals. 
  2. Their tolerance of our weather, means I will have to use less water this summer.
  3. Native plants provide food for pollinators.
  4. Converting my lawn will benefit my neighbors by reducing noise and air pollution from mowers.
  5. My native plants will have deeper roots- helping to reduce stress on Villa Park’s sewer systems during storm events by allowing water to permeate deep into the soil.
  6. Hopefully, with proper planning, my yard will have something beautiful blooming most of the growing season.

To answer your question, I am troubled by Villa Park’s mistreatment of its Villagers. Villa Park should be leading the way in encouraging its Villagers to plant native plants to alleviate the ever-present environmental crises that face us.

Villa Park should be following the county’s lead. Currently, the DuPage County Stormwater Management office is offering to plant natives on residential parkways in Villa Park- at no cost- to alleviate flooding. In my eyes, the world is marching onward and Villa Park didn’t get the memo.

Is it true that the Village proposed a mandatory registration for any family who would like a native garden in their yard, a registry that would be made public online- similar to the Sex Offender Registry?

This is one of the hurdles that the Village staff proposed. However, the Village Board very quickly walked back that suggestion in an effort to protect Villager privacy.

Do you feel that these Village ordinances need to be reformed for the sake of homeowners who wish to make environmentally-friendly decisions with their property based upon their moral or religious convictions?

Yes there definitely needs to be reform, and I have had a couple interchanges with the Village about that.  As I researched, I found that each municipality has various restrictions on gardening freedoms. The Villa Park code implies that you’re allowed to plant anything, until you get to the nuisance clause which states, “all noxious weeds, and any other weeds, grass or plants, other than ornamental shrubbery, growing to a height exceeding six inches, which are found growing on any lot or tract of land in the village are hereby declared a nuisance.” Is that nebulous, or what!? We need clearer laws in order to protect Villagers from unwarranted citations.

Has Villa Park withdrawn the citation? Are you planning to organize around this issue? What are the next steps for this project?

To my knowledge, the citation has not as of now been withdrawn by the Village. I hope someone picks up where I’ve left of with the Village on changing the code. As for me, I’ve decided to leave the Village boardroom to tend to my garden. I would like to see Villa Park adopt a code like Warrenville’s code. Warenville very recently refined their nuisance clause to distinctly clarify between weeds and native plants (as put forward by Gerould Wilhelm & Floyd Swink’s Plants of the Chicago Region, a book widely recognized and respected as an authority on native plant taxa throughout the Midwest). Furthermore, I would like to see the Village take a more active role in educating and promoting native planting within Villa Park. The parkway project with the county is a great first step. I’d like to see that expanded upon.

What would your advice be to other home owners that may not share your bravery in making the decision to transition to Sustainable Landscaping despite perceived or substantiated suppression from their local government?

I would say, start now.  It does not have to be a transformation of your lawn.  Plant a native plant within your garden. Then add more. You will appreciate each one, and hopefully local pollinators, birds, and your neighbors will appreciate your efforts, too.

Also, go to your Village Board meetings.  Even if the subject isn’t about sustainability, you will gain a comfort for the atmosphere. Then when you do have something to voice, you will not be jumping into the arena blind.  Educate yourself. You will find that the knowledge you gain will be the foundation upon which you can grow- right alongside your garden!

It’s a strange world when planting a flower is an act of civil disobedience. Benjamin, thank you so much for being here today, and we will post all your updates on our facebook page.

Thanks Andrew.  I will send you pictures as the project progresses.

Sustain DuPage can’t operate without your support. Find out here all the ways you can involve yourself!

 

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