It’s been a while since a flower-planting controversy has surfaced in Riverside, but Desplaines Avenue homeowner Ed Buck finds himself in the middle of one.
Buck planted hibiscus flowers on the public parkway in front of his house at 325 Desplaines Ave. seven years ago and wasn’t aware of any problems, until he recently received a letter from Public Works Director Edward Bailey, stating that residents had complained about the plants and they would have to be removed.
On Aug. 13, Buck addressed the village’s Landscape Advisory Commission to present his case for keeping the flowers. He’s no casual gardener; Buck’s lush backyard has been recognized by the Audubon Society and designated a National Wildlife Refuge.
Buck has lived in Riverside for 30 years. He said he was a former city boy, who grew up in a concrete jungle and was drawn to the village for its natural beauty. Buck did his part by building koi ponds in his backyard and surrounding them with foliage and carefully selected trees.
However, it’s his front yard that is seen by the public, and some have objected to what they see.
“It’s no accident I live here,” Buck told members of the commission on Aug. 13. “I’m an avid lover of trees.”
When the village held a cooperative sale of trees, Buck purchased a blue birch. Buck was pleased with his improvements to the property, but he described the parkway as barren. When asked by a committee member why he didn’t plant the flowers in his front yard on private property, he said that shade trees would prevent their growth.
He also defended his use of brightly colored hibiscus plants, saying “they’re robust, native and beautiful.”
Buck said he enjoys the happiness the flowers bring to his neighbors and people passing by. He said strangers ring his doorbell to ask what the flowers are. Buck said he believes that creating beauty is a good thing and the flowers can be used as a teaching tool for the next generation.
He would have found a kindred spirit in former village trustee Jerry Buttimer. In 1998, Buttimer experimented by having the Public Works Department plant red, white and blue petunias in planting beds along the downtown sidewalks. He hoped the flowers would enhance the struggling business district.
“People were joyous about it,” Buttimer was quoted at the time in a Chicago Tribune story about what became known as The Petunia Wars. “It put smiles on so many faces.”
Buttimer’s colleagues on the village board in 1998 were not smiling. They voted to have the flowers dug up. The Landscape Advisory Commission then issued an approved list of a dozen perennials and annuals that could be planted.
In 2006, the commission published a guide titled “Landscaping in a Landmark Village.” It states that, “Any planting in these parkways must be done or approved by the village.”
It further warned against “plantings having vivid colors or of an exotic nature.” The guide promotes the planting of native plants.
Hibiscus flowers are certainly colorful but Buck doesn’t see them as harmful to the village’s landscaping design.
“I don’t know what the danger is,” he said. “They’re herbaceous plants.”
Buck cited a portion of the village ordinance that allows grass and herbaceous flowers to be planted on the parkway.
He also pointed out that other homeowners have planted daylilies and hostas on parkways. He believes the flowers are faithful to Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision for the village.
“Olmsted was a progressive,” Buck said. “When he had the money, he planted flowers. I think this is a way to honor the past.”
Bailey told the Landmark that he’d gotten five complaints concerning the plantings on the parkway in front of 325 Desplaines Ave. and that the village’s ordinances regarding such plantings are clear.
“I try to be as consistent as I can,” Bailey said. “The plants will be allowed to stay until they stop blooming. If the village decides to allow the plants, it will be OK with me.”
Bailey told Buck that he would need an encroachment waiver and a landscape improvement permit. He noted that the vast majority of requests for planting on the parkway are for trees.
“I don’t get many applications for the landscaping of a parkway,” Bailey said.
The Landscape Advisory Commission did not recommend a course of action on Aug. 13, seeking more time to look into it. In the meantime, Bailey suggested that Buck write to Village President Ben Sells and Village Manager Jessica Frances about the issue.
Asked about her views on the subject, Landscape Advisory Commission Chairwoman Cathy Maloney stated in an email that “my personal opinions are irrelevant here.”
“We are charged with advising the village board with the best ways to preserve and interpret Olmsted’s design principles in the living landscape,” Maloney wrote. “Much of our National Historic Landmark designation is dependent on that.”
When asked how the village will handle issues like this in the future, she replied, “Without a change in the ordinance, it would be unreasonable to speculate.”
Buck hopes Riverside will approach his plantings with an open mind.
“I don’t want to live in a place that’s stuck,” Buck said, adding that he intends to meet with the Sells and Frances and that he plans to return to the Landscape Advisory Commission when they render their decision.