Until a few months ago, when most people looked at the piles of discarded equipment and junk lying among the weeds behind the storage garages on the north end of the British Home retirement community in Brookfield, they saw it for what it was: a garbage pit.
But from the moment he started working at the British Home as a painter and maintenance worker, Ed Regester-who had never planted a thing in his life-saw a garden. And after mulling his vision over for the past two years, he’s finally made it a reality.
“I’ve been working seven days a week for the past two-and-a-half months,” he said.
That work started with simply clearing out the 35-by-50-foot area Regester designated for his garden. In addition to weeds that were over three feet high, he said the work also involved digging out old snow plows, garbage and other pieces of abandoned equipment. He then cleared away dead brush, built a retaining wall at the end of the garden facing Salt Creek and leveled the area off with six inches of top soil.
Next came the planting. For that, Regester said, he had to learn the art of gardening from the beginning. He said he’s gotten a lot of help from his nieces, who provided him with a variety of perennials, and his wife, Mary, who helps him with the upkeep of the garden on most weekends.
Although he’s still hesitant to call himself a gardener-he freely admits he doesn’t know the names of most of the flowers he’s planted-the size of his resulting vegetable garden suggests otherwise. Most of his 28 tomato plants have grown taller than four feet high, with some reaching six-and-a-half feet. Such results are much more than Regester ever expected.
“I’ve never taken any interest in gardening in my whole life, so this is just amazing,” Regester said. “I’m really just learning as I go.”
Regester added that he thought the success of the tomatoes was due to the fact that he planted them in virgin sod and was using the mineral-rich water from the creek to water them.
In addition to the tomatoes, the garden also holds three different varieties of peppers, a few cucumber plants and many different perennial flowers. Regester has also decorated it with many different recycled objects he’s collected over the months. Discarded ladders and a wagon hold flowers, birdhouses brought from his home hang from the trees, and benches he’s found in various places-including one from 1934 that he dug up while excavating the garden-line the borders.
Regester said many staff members and residents are excited about the new garden. Just walking down the halls of the residential buildings, he gets complimented on his work or asked for updates, and there are plans to harvest the vegetables at the end of the summer and use them for the residents or sell them to the community. He said he’s happy to have his garden appreciated by so many.
“I did this for the residents,” he said. “A lot came from this area, and most had gardens. I wanted to make this feel more like home for them.”
As for what’s next, Regester already has a long list of plans for next summer. He wants to replace the fence and put up a more permanent retaining wall along the side of the garden facing the creek, and is also toying with the idea of eventually expanding the garden to include a larger picnic area for residents and their families.
In addition, Regester said he hopes to broaden his gardening expertise, creating a second garden next year for pumpkins, watermelons and cantaloupes.
Regester admitted he has no idea how well these new plants will grow in the area, especially given the large population of deer in the neighboring forest preserve, but he’s eager to give it a try.
“Might be a little more difficult,” he said, “but we’ll see what happens.”