Corn, kale, tomatoes and herbs were just some of the edibles that could be found in the display beds that were installed last summer at Millennium Park. The brainchild of lesbian landscape designer Christy Webber, the display beds combine edibles and flowers together in a unique and innovative way.
Last February, Webber brought together permaculture expert Annamaria Leon and urban-farming activist Angela Taylor to create Millennium Parks' first-ever public permaculture display. ( Permaculture aims to develop sustainable architecture based on natural ecosystems. ) Leon helped Webber with the design of the display beds while Taylor and her husband, Sam, brought students from West Town Academy to the project. The students, with the Taylor's guidance, planted the seeds in Webber's Garfield Park greenhouse ahead of the installation.
"The display beds were designed to show that food is beautiful and something like this should be incorporated in display beds and gardens all around the city," said Webber. "I wanted people to see that you can grow food with your flowers or in your bushes and it can be pretty. If we can do it here in a public setting under so much scrutiny you can do it in your yard."
Although initially Webber didn't know what they would do with the food once it was harvested, they decided that non-profit organizations would receive the food. "Places came out of the wood work requesting what we've grown. Since we are spending taxpayer money why don't we grow food in places like Millennium Park and give it away," said Webber.
"Within about four weeks after finishing the project it just exploded. It was the hottest thing at Millennium Park this past summer," she added. "The European tourists especially love what we did."
Outside of being able to give away what they've grown, Webber said that one of the best things that came out of the project is kids from the West Side did something that the entire world can enjoy. "Think of how special this is. You are a kid on the West Side and you can say to your buddy that you helped grow the plants at the park and your work was featured on the news," said Webber.
This isn't the first time that Webber has plied her skills as a landscape designer. The permaculture display beds are just one in a long line of high-profile projects Webber has done over the years.
Growing up in the small town of Montrose, Michigan, Webber never imagined that she would be doing landscape design for some of the most notable Chicago landmarks. "I'm a country kid at heart who likes being outside, but because I'm gay I knew that living in a small town was out of the question."
An athlete during her high school years, Webber attended the University of Denver on a basketball scholarship and earned a degree in physical education. Her passion for the outdoors led Webber to start mowing lawns around her college campus to help pay for college.
Webber moved to Chicago in 1983 and took on various jobs, including teaching at Regina Dominican High School; however, she realized early on that teaching wasn't the right career path for her.
"I didn't have any real business plan in the beginning. I just knew that I could make money mowing people's grass," said Webber. "It was 1988. Two years later Mayor Daley started this whole program of city beautification and even though I wasn't involved with it at that point I saw how this was changing neighborhoods and transforming the city."
What started out as a lawn-mowing business with one truck and two friends, Webber's Christy Webber Landscapes now employs about 450 people. "I was able to make the transition to what I'm doing now because I hired good people and there wasn't a company like mine in the city at the time," said Webber. Webber also sings the praises of the LGBT community who took a chance on her and helped her grow her business.
Working on the landscaping at Karen Wirtz Fix's house transformed Webber's company into its current incarnation. "I got the job through a landscape architect [who was also gay] and he was the one who told me Karen's dad owned the Blackhawks," said Webber. "Karen and I became friends during that time and I told her that I wanted to do the maintenance for the United Center [the Blackhawks' and Bulls' home base].
"Karen talked to the facilities manager at the United Center and he called me and offered to show me around the property so I could see what needed to be done. The property was a mess. I was given a chance to bid on the project and they liked my offer so I got the job. It was 1997 and the heyday of the Bulls. It was a prestigious account to have and as a result I was able to bid on other big name accounts including city projects."
In talking with Windy City Times, Webber cited the initial installation of the landscape construction at Millennium Park as the most noteworthy project she's done. Over the last five years, Webber's business has grown exponentially. Webber did all the landscape work along Wacker Drive when it was recently redone, and the company maintains the area from Randolph Street to Soldier Field, which includes all of Millennium Park, Grant Park and Soldier Field. Although Webber isn't involved in the installation at Maggie Daley Park, her firm is on the maintenance team to help with the upkeep of the park when it opens.
Due to the success of the Millennium Park permaculture project, Webber is planning on doing more urban agriculture projects. Currently, Webber's firm is working on the multimillion-dollar redesign of Navy Pierone of the largest landscape contract she's ever gotten.
"The project that I recently bid on and is all about Christy Webber Landscapes is the 606 Bloomingdale Trail [an elevated, unused rail line that is being converted into a 2.7-mile, multi-use recreational trail and park]. I live right by the Bloomingdale Trail and I've been involved in various capacities since the project was announced," said Webber. "I'm happy to announce that I was awarded the contract to do the installation work. My company will be the subcontractor for landscaping on the entire 606 project. We are installing all the sod, plants, trees and shrubs along the 606 trail as well as the parks that are along the trail and the access parks which serve as entry points to the 606. Right now, I'm gearing up for one of the biggest landscaping seasons of my career, with the 606 right at the top."
As with every winter since 2006, Webber's company also does snow removal for commercial, municipal, and multi-unit residential clients located throughout the city and adjacent suburbs.
Webber lives in Wicker Park with her girlfriend of 14 years, Jennifer Rule. They have two boys; 6-year-old Oliver and 4-year-old Teddy. "I take the boys to my shop so they can see what I do for a living but as with all kids they could care less," said Webber.
Outside of working and spending time with her family, Webber said she loves to do art projects. "I have all this equipment so I use it to make art out of random things," said Webber. She also sits on the boards of the Federation of Women Contractors and NeighborSpace .
Having a diverse staff and a business model that includes a portfolio of residential, commercial, and municipal projects of all sizes are the things that Webber has attributed to her success as a businesswoman.
No project is too big or small, she stated. "The most exciting thing for me isn't the big projects; it's transforming someone's yard," said Webber. "Seeing the look on their face after a day of pruning, cleaning things up and doing a little planting makes me happy. I do it every weekend now. I just love transforming someone's space and making it beautiful and usable."
As for the Millennium Park project, Webber said she hopes it will inspire people to add food to their planting beds, adding if it can work in a public space like Millennium Park it can be done anywhere. "If a couple hundred people walk away from having seen this at the park and they start to grow a couple of things in their garden then I've done my job," said Webber.
See www.christywebber.com and www.christywebberfarmandgarden.com for more information .