'Doing this for future generations': Geneva club revives commitment to Japanese Tea Garden
The Japanese Tea Garden in the Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva has been a tranquil oasis for 112 years.
Visitors tread a path symbolizing the walk of life, with its joys and sorrows, through the shady spot. Flagstone pavers represent hardships to overcome. Two conjoined ginkgo trees represent love and marriage.
There's a pond, a teahouse and a miniature Mount Fuji, complete with a band of foliage that turns red in the fall, depicting lava flow. It's a popular spot for people to take wedding, engagement, prom and homecoming photos.
But as any experienced gardener knows, it doesn't take much for a garden to lose its good looks.
"We felt that the garden had really languished," said Bobbi Bigham, a member of the Geneva Garden Club. The Kane County Forest Preserve District kept up with mowing and pond maintenance. But the garden needed nitty-gritty, labor-intensive work, such as hand-weeding.
"At one time, it was really elegant," she said.
So this year, the club revved up its long-standing commitment to the garden.
"It needed a new set of multiple eyes (on it)," Bigham said.
Every Friday morning from April through September, members have been out there.
They have hauled out cart after cart after cart of weeds. They cleaned and decorated the teahouse. Members with an eye for design joined in, redesigning some beds, adding a bed, and restoring an original dry bed, adding color and texture to the garden.
"These are plant people who know things, not just weeding," Higham said. The club has been working with the district's botanist on the project.
"It's really very lovely," club member Kelly Miller said, pointing out hydrangeas planted at a spruced-up circle where wedding ceremonies take place.
"We're sitting on a gold mine in Kane County," member Linda Bradley said. The forest preserve district charges $250 per two-hour rental session for those photo shoots and wedding ceremonies.
It's not the first time the club has restored the garden. In 1972, the late Darlene Larson brought the garden to the club's attention.
She had hosted a Japanese exchange student and took the student on a picnic at the forest preserve. She was embarrassed by the condition of the garden, according to the club.
"It was a disaster," Higham said.
The garden was built around 1910 by noted Japanese garden designer Taro Otsuka. It was commissioned by George and Nelle Fabyan for their 300-acre estate, which sprawled across the Fox River.
After the Fabyans died in the 1930s, the forest preserve district bought 235 acres.
Larson founded the Friends of Fabyan in 1979 and was its longtime president. She died in 2018. The Friends of Fabyan raised money and spearheaded restoration projects for the former estate, including turning the Fabyan Villa into a museum.
In June, the club and the Friends of Fabyan dedicated the teahouse to the memory of Larson. It now contains items she collected, including a kimono and tea set. The garden club donated an authentic tea table.
Besides the never-ending battle with weeds -- "there's no such thing as planting a weed-free garden," Higham said -- the club members have added more texture and color to the garden. They put in more benches for people to rest on.
If you want to walk through the garden this year, you don't have much time left. It is open from 1 to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays and Sundays through Sept. 30.
Private tours also can be arranged by contacting the forest preserve district. Otherwise, you can peek in from the outside.
The club is trying to drum up enthusiasm for the ongoing work of keeping the garden in shipshape.
"We are doing this for future generations," Higham said. "We want people to be as proud of this as we are."