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posted: 5/14/2010 12:01 AM

Greenhouse tours showcase what's growin' on at the Park District

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May is the traditional time when shovels meet dirt, as home gardens make the seasonal transition from dormant to dazzling.

Mom picks out the flowers and plants, then settles into a comfortable patio chair to instruct Dad and the kids what should be planted where - and when she needs a refill of iced tea.

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Given the weeding and watering that follow in the ensuing months, Mother's Day essentially lasts until Halloween. Moms certainly know how to make a long-lasting impression.

The horticulture program at the Fox Valley Park District runs on a similar timeline, albeit with a slight difference. Whereas Mom and family may plant several flats of flowers in the back yard, the park district will put in 14,000 annuals and 400 canna lily bulbs in the coming weeks.

"It's not much different from planting a garden at home," said horticulture supervisor Janet Cherbak, "except our planting is done on a huge scale."

But there's still a down-home feel to it all - so much so that the park district is inviting the public to tour its greenhouse from 2 to 5 p.m. today at 259 S. Russell Ave., Aurora.

"Afternoon Tea at the Greenhouse" will feature an English garden theme with tea and scones while providing the public a free, up-close look at how the horticulture program nurtures and prepares thousands of plantings before being transported to new summer homes at parks and facilities throughout the district.

Visitors at today's open house will be treated to a display of annuals comprised of 61 varieties. Many of them are familiar favorites - geraniums, cosmos, coleus, petunias, salvia and zinnias - and all are brilliantly vibrant.

Soon, these oceans of color will grace the entryways at Blackberry Farm, Phillips Park Family Aquatic Center, Splash Country Water Park, Prisco Community Center, Eola Community Center, Vaughan Athletic Center and the district's administration building at 712 S. River Street.

The district's horticulture program is actually a year-round endeavor. Work begins in earnest in early spring, when thousands of "plugs" - tiny flower seedlings - arrive at the greenhouse from nearby nurseries.

The greenhouse is their incubator for several weeks, then it's time to leave the pseudo-womb in mid-May. At this time of year, staff members are busy as bees flying from flower bed to flower bed. They'll plant like crazy until early June, then apply mushroom compost to each and every area to enrich the soil and hold down weed growth.

For the balance of summer and into early fall, they're into the watering and weeding routine, hitting every flower bed twice a week.

"It's a battle," said Cherbak. "We're in survival mode then, just trying to stay ahead of the weeds."

When the first frost hits, it marks the arrival of fall cleaning - and with it, the huge chore of digging out the season's plants and storing reusable bulbs for next year.

In winter, the greenhouse stays nice and warm. Meanwhile, staffers are cooling off from another busy season. The tradition of planting is cyclical in nature, and always growing.

Jeff Long is the public relations manager for the Fox Valley Park District. For information on the open house, call (630) 897-4261.

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