Oak Lawn Park District's Horticulturalist, Dolly Foster, is leaving her role after 15 years to pursue her graduate degree in Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois. (Photo by Kelly White)

Oak Lawn Park District's Horticulturalist, Dolly Foster, is leaving her role after 15 years to pursue her graduate degree in Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois. (Photo by Kelly White)

Dolly Foster says goodbye after 15 years as park horticulturalist 

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By Kelly White 

Oak Lawn Park District said goodbye to a beloved employee last month who helped to beautify the city for more than a decade.

Master Gardener Dolly Foster who worked as the park district’s horticulturalist for 15 years, left her role in January to pursue her graduate degree in Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois.

Dolly is hardworking and always ready to take on a new challenge,” Tom Hartwig, Executive Director of the Oak Lawn Park District, said. “Her thorough knowledge and passion for pollinator gardens, monarch waystations, and natural plantings is obvious in all she does. Her willingness to help and adjust during Covid-19 is a testament to her character. We thank Dolly for sharing all of her knowledge with those around her and working to make the park district a more beautiful place.”

A horticulturalist is an expert in garden cultivation and management that is responsible for increasing yield, improving vigor, size, and taste of plants. Horticulturists must have extensive knowledge about trees, flowers, vegetables, nuts, bushes, and fruits and also coordinate research programs for selective crops.

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Tom Hartwig, executive Director of the Oak Lawn Park District, wished Oak Lawn Park District’s Horticulturalist, Dolly Foster good luck as she left her role to pursue her graduate degree in Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois.

“I leave the park district after having enjoyed my time in a job that afforded me the flexibility to do so many aspects of horticulture,” Foster, of Hammond, Ind., said. “There are not many horticulturalist jobs out there like this one. I called it the unicorn of jobs in the horticulturalist world and I was lucky to get it. I learned a lot in my position and will always reflect on my time there fondly. I will miss the people I have met but hope to run into them again in the future.”

Foster, who earned her undergraduate degree from Indiana University, has been a Purdue Master Gardener for 22 years, an Indiana Accredited Horticulturist for 20 years and a Certified Arborist for 14 years.

Her position began with the Oak Lawn Park District in the fall of 2006, and since then, Foster took pride in caring for the landscapes around Oak Lawn’s parks and facilities.

“I am the first person to have the position of horticulturist as it is described now at the park district,” Foster said.

Foster was responsible for the planning procurement and propagation, ran gardening programs for the park district. In 2014, she was approached by School District 123 and the Village of Oak Lawn to see if she would be willing to participate in a community garden. Foster quickly agreed and the garden was built between Harker Park, 104th and Minnick Avenue and the Oak Lawn Village Senior Center, 5220 W. 105th St.

“That project is what I am most proud of because it has helped so many people and it was one of the projects on my ‘to do’ list when I was hired,” Foster said.

She not only co-founded the community garden, but also co-managed it with Larry Fetchko, Community Liaison Officer, Director of Family + Community Resource Network for Oak Lawn-Hometown School District 123.

Dolly will truly be missed, both as a collaborator and as a friend,” Fetchko said. “Dolly was instrumental in the initial design and the driving force behind the initiation and ongoing care of this great project.”

The community garden has been recognized by the University of Illinois Extension as the model community garden in the state for 2017.  In 2018, Fetchko and Foster accepted the award in Springfield for placing first in the Governor’s Hometown Award for the outstanding community project in the state.

“The garden has not only provided 10,000 pounds of fresh produce to our local food pantries, it is one of the strategic pillars of our Family + Community Resource Network, assisting many district and community families,” Fetchko said. “In her absence, we are committed and confident in maintaining the high standards of the community garden. She will be missed. We wish her well in all her future endeavors.”

Foster, who worked on the city’s Environmental Committee for many years and encouraged recycling in all of Oak Lawn’s buildings and was the key to establishing the pollinator garden on the south side of the middle school as well as assisting with the tree nursery at the same facility, has participated in many School District 123 events, including: the Back-to-School Extravaganza, State of the District Dinner, Earth/Arbor Day and many others.

Foster’s accomplishments did not stop there, as she also ran Oak Lawn’s Adopt-a-Flowerbed program that grew from 22 gardens for adoption in the parks to more than 45 over the years.

“With the help of my department, we were able to improve many of those gardens,” Foster said. “They are all pollinator gardens and I registered four as Monarch Waystations with Monarch Watch. There are about 30 to 40 volunteers every year in that program. It will continue in 2022.”

Another volunteer program Foster ran was the Greenhouse Volunteers. There, volunteers grew about a third of the plants that were used for Adopt-a-Flowerbed and the vegetable plants for the community garden’s pantry garden. These Master Gardeners worked nine months of the year to propagate plants for park programs and with the support of the University of Illinois in a cooperative agreement, with results improving every year.

“One of my favorite parts of my job was working in the greenhouse in the winter,” Foster said. “My volunteers will agree with me, walking into an 80-degree garden space on a 10-degree (outside) day was so uplifting. That project helped the volunteers get through the winter and we all knew how lucky we were to have that space. Working with my volunteers over the years has been the most rewarding part of my job. Many of them have become close friends.”

A favorite of Foster’s was the park district’s annual Monarch Butterfly Festival and the Monarch committee that she has been a part of for the past six years.

As an avid environmentalist, Foster saw this as an opportunity to help the endangered Monarch. In her own home in Indiana and in the homes of community volunteers, hundreds of monarch butterflies have been raised each year from caterpillars to butterflies. The butterflies are then released during the festival so they can make their migration journey down to Mexico for the cold winter months.

“I really loved being asked to be a part of the Monarch Fest,” Foster said. “I worked on that event with many amazing people who cared so much about sharing their love of monarchs with the community.”

Additionally, Foster held multiple classes each year at the park district, sharing her passion and knowledge of milkweed, native plantings, pollinator gardens, and many garden-related topics.

Dolly worked to inspire the next generation of gardeners, whether it was a youth participant planting a vegetable garden as part of day camp or an adult who adopted a flower bed for the first time,” Ryan Gory, Superintendent of Parks and Planning with the Oak Lawn Park District, said. “Dolly shared the knowledge and tools to find success and carry on with future projects. She worked to make a difference in Oak Lawn and has left a lasting impact.”

Foster said she will miss a lot as she leaves her role, including the Monarch Festival, the Illinois Parks and Recreation Association, and collaborating with the School District 123, but there is one thing she will miss the most.

“I will miss working with my volunteers the most,” Foster said. “Without them I never could have accomplished as much as I did. I appreciated every minute of work they did for the district.”

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