Since its beginnings in 1997, the Idea Garden has been maintained by the Champaign County Master Gardeners and ever-improved throughout the years. This beautiful, yet educational, community garden has grown to occupy over 15,000 square feet of the University of Illinois Arboretum, near the corner of Lincoln and Florida Avenue in Urbana.
Every year, Master Gardeners spend numerous hours (over 5,000 hours in 2017) volunteering their time to keep the Idea Garden vibrant and beautiful for the many visitors we host each year. It serves as inspiration for gardening efforts of all visitors with outstanding examples of many kinds of gardening including ornamental and tropical plantings as well as a large vegetable gardening section, a rose garden and a small fruits garden.
The Idea Garden, along with the entire University of Illinois Arboretum, has always been open to the public. Visitors frequent the garden year round with an annual estimated visitor count over 6,000 people. The guest book contains entries from around the US and the globe since the University of Illinois campus draws in such a wide breadth of visitors.
As a community garden that is open to public, we are used to an occasional piece of the garden walking off. It is quite common for most of our vegetable crop (grown for donation to local food pantries) to disappear. We assume that the person that took the produce needed it and will use it, so we have usually shrugged it off. However, in the last year or so, I have been really alarmed at the amount of material that has been stolen. We have regularly reported these incidences to campus police, who graciously have increased their patrols in the area, but it is difficulty to keep an eye on the garden at all times.
This recent string of thefts began last summer when an entire row of newly planted yew shrubs disappeared over night. Since these small shrubs were recently planted, it was easy for someone to dig them up and haul them off. Additional plant material was stolen throughout last summer. Some of these plants were definitely taken for their rare or unique character, targeted by a person knew the value of the plant material.
This summer, the theft has continued to increase to a point that some of the hardscaping in the garden is beginning to disappear.
“In the last year it has really picked up,” said Katie Kelsey, Chairperson for the Children’s Section of the Idea Garden. “There has been a large wave in a matter of a few months this summer, every other week something was gone.”
The Children’s Garden has been hit particularly hard this summer with everything from small fairy garden trinkets to a large, 2-person bench disappearing. It was especially upsetting for all of us when the iconic rabbits that adjourned the entrance to the Children’s Garden disappeared a few weeks ago.
“Kids really enjoyed the rabbits,” said Don White, University of Illinois Professor Emeritus and Master Gardener. “I saw kids petting them and playing with them. They would even pretend like the rabbits were playing tic-tac-tow with them sometimes.”
“Stinky” and “Inky”, as the rabbits were affectionately named, have welcomed visitors of all ages to the Children’s Garden for 13 years.
Although the Children’s Garden has experienced the greatest theft, it has occurred throughout the Idea Garden. The list is getting long enough that it has been difficult to compile for campus police. One of the largest and most shocking items to be stolen was the outhouse. Its disappearance was noticed one morning when an entire school bus of children were coming to visit the Idea Garden. Thankfully, the nice folks at Midwest Pottyhouse were able to rush out replacement and save the day.
Taken by itself, any one instance of theft at the Idea Garden may not seem like that big of a deal, but in combination these missing items really start to diminish this space that Master Gardeners have worked so hard to maintain for the past 21 years.
If you have any information about theft at the Idea Garden, please contact the University Police Department at 217-333-1216.