GARFIELD PARK — Deronis Cooper has been many things in life: a television news producer, a snowplow business owner, a 20-year Chicago police veteran and a suffering Bears fan. Adding gardener to the mix was one he did not see coming.
Now, 10-foot banana plants and a host of flowers are some of the things found at his Garfield Park home, which includes what he calls Grandma’s Garden. From teaching him how to tie a tie to showing him effective gardening techniques, Cooper’s grandmother’s influence has fueled him.
Cooper, 47, first gained exposure to plants by working his grandmother’s vegetable garden. It initially did not translate to an extensive knowledge or even a curiosity until a conversation with a paramedic named Nikki in 2012.
Nikki helped him with the first four plants at the garden that year. Cooper started by saying he couldn’t name a single plant and was worried they would die under his care. In 2014, Cooper gradually began planting more on his own. Nearly 10 years later, he’s an award-winning gardener with a yard that’s become a West Side destination.
“I always really enjoyed color, so I wanted my first planters to be a statement,” Cooper said. “I was just proud of having these small strips on my lawn.”
His grandmother, Olive Vinson, is someone he remembers always taking him under her wing. He doesn’t plan to grow vegetables like she did, but he does feel a rush of excitement being in his own garden, just like he did being in his grandmother’s.
Though he denies being regarded as an expert despite nearly a decade of tending to the garden, it has become a sight that has drawn praise from his family, friends, work colleagues, onlookers and even two Chicago mayors in both Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Brandon Johnson.
He’s been recognized from his Instagram postings as far away as Hampshire, IL, a town of roughly 7,000 people, while shopping at a garden shop there. Tejal Chande, pharmacy employee at RML Hospital in Garfield Park, said the garden is a gift in the community since she saw it last year while driving to work.
Chicago Police “District 11 was declared by Paul Vallas during the mayoral campaign as the most dangerous neighborhood in the world,” Chande said. “But residents live and contribute to the community, and their love, care, and selfless dedication reminds us that despite Garfield Park’s challenges, friendly people do live, work and thrive here.”
The garden even got named as the best residential garden for the Chicago Excellence in Gardening Awards, an award received Sunday.
His grandfather, who also owned a snowplowing business, encouraged him to start a private one as well for himself to bring in extra cash to keep up with the garden, which he manages with his cousin, Tony.
Cooper was at first taken aback by residents’ reaction to the garden when he noticed people taking selfies with the plants while standing near his home. But he gradually accepted and embraced seeing the garden receive so much love from the community.
“It’s incredibly inspiring to have people who I don’t even know walk by and fall in love with it,” he said. “I’ve had people compare this to the [Garfield Park] Conservatory. I would go there as a kid and never knew I’d create something like this this.”
Cooper’s path to becoming a police officer started with being in love with finding action. A self-admitted news junkie, he graduated from Ripon College in Wisconsin in 1997 to join Channel 2, working alongside reporters in Chicago that would become major media figures, including Lester Holt.
His work as a police officer has led to him being the center of intense situations over the years, including helping with the capture of a man who was later convicted of murdering Chicago police commander Paul Bauer in 2011.
Cooper said the space helps him mentally due to the stressful nature of his job. Other officers and first responders find calm through visiting as well, he said.
“When I got COVID in 2021, I got told ‘you have a beautiful garden, just stay home,'” Cooper said. “When our job weighs on us and gets stressful, you need some kind of getaway.”
Each spring, Cooper finds plants from 60 garden centers across the Midwest to plant in the garden, with expectations of them coming into bloom during the summer. He focuses on plants that mature quickly due to Chicago’s extremely cold weather, which can set in before the garden’s plants have fully grown.
Cooper enjoys the instant gratification of establishing a garden in a short time, and even allows other gardeners to collect the fully-grown plants in the winter to preserve them, provided they are willing to dig them up themselves.
“I love the burst of color, everything spilling and overflowing,” he said. “We have roughly only 5 months of decent weather to deal with a garden so it has to go up quickly.”
He has another kindred spirit in gardening in the Garfield Park neighborhood with Elaine Bell-Quinn’s Kitteh Soup Kitchen, a thriving community garden and cat sanctuary in West Garfield Park. Cooper has two cats, Smoky and Cheeto, who are mainstays of his garden.
Bell-Quinn bought back her childhood home at 2738 W. Monroe Ave. and a vacant lot next door and actively beautifies the area and provides produce in a food desert.
“The rain was needed after the drought period and things like lightning storms can help since the nitrogen in the air helps it grow,” he said. “The elements can really help a garden like this.”
A kid at heart, Cooper likens buying plants to buying a new toy and driving his snowplow in the winter months as like driving a toy truck, viewing both activities as ways he honors his grandparents.
“When it came to her talking about growing up on farms [in Arkansas], it lets us go back in time, and we sometimes mimic what they’d say to us,” he said. “Since both of them are deceased, you can only hope they’re upstairs just happy with what they see down here.”
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