Orland couple snag top spot in village garden contest on first try
BY MIKE NOLAN email@example.com October 26, 2012 4:10PM
Bill Massey and Jan Johnson stand near their garden award sign at their home at 9905 W. 144th Place in Orland Park, IL on Monday September 24, 2012. He and Jan Johnson entered Orland Park's annual garden contest for the first time this year and won. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 29, 2012 6:01AM
When Jan Johnson walks out to the back yard of her Orland Park home, she feels as though she’s been transported to a special place.
“It feels like you are on vacation,” she said.
Apart from being filled with flowers and plants, there’s a manmade babbling brook running past a deck that resembles an oceanside pier, and an enclosed gazebo that her fiance, Bill Massey, built, largely using only hand-drawn sketches.
The look and overall feel impressed the judges in the village’s annual garden competition, who awarded Johnson and Massey first prize.
Massey, a retired sprinkler fitter, quickly built a wood frame to display the award, fashioned like a leaf, in his front yard.
Not a bad showing for a couple who never before had entered the contest, and considering Massey wasn’t all that keen on taking part.
Of the dozen gardens surveyed by three judges, “it was the most outstanding, and they (Massey and Johnson) had done all the work themselves,” Judie Jacobs, one of the judges and herself a master gardener, said.
“We found it to be a very charming, delightful and comfortable place to be,” she said.
But those glowing adjectives come at a price.
The nation’s worst drought made keeping everything green and vibrant a challenge, Johnson said, and keeping it all weed-free is a full-time job.
“Everything stayed beautiful” despite the hot, dry weather, she said.
When Massey and Johnson moved into the home eight years ago, the yard was pretty much barren, save for a “huge, dead oak tree in the back yard,” Massey said.
Johnson said she had “little pots of stuff” at their old house, and started out modestly at their new home, planting four rose bushes around the base of the front porch. Those bushes now nearly surround two full sides of the porch, and they’ve been joined by other plants.
The back yard slopes away sharply from the back of the house, helping give the stream a cascading feel.
A recirculating pump keeps water flowing out of an oversize urn, but the creek gets turned off after Thanksgiving.
The most dominant feature is a 12-sided gazebo that Massey built two years ago. He didn’t have any formal plans or even a picture of a similar gazebo to work from, but sat down at the kitchen table to sketch out the general look and dimensions.
While he never had formal training as a carpenter — he did study architecture for two years — the structure looks like the work of a professional, or several professionals. Massey, however, completed it on his own.
A large, and heavy, cupola to crown the gazebo was built in the garage, and hauling it out to the job site was a chore in itself. Massey built a ramp to get it onto the roof.
When Johnson left for Florida for a monthlong visit with her mother, he just had the floor completed, but was able to present her with the finished product when she returned.
“The look on her face when she saw it, that was what made (all the work) worthwhile,” he said.
Massey said that from working alongside people in other building trades, he was able to pick up enough skills to do the work on his own.
The gazebo project was sparked by his anxiousness to keep busy after retirement.
“I worked for 40 years,” he said. “I wasn’t ready for retirement. I woke up and had to do something.”
Massey said he’s proud of how the yard looks but fought against taking part in the contest. He said it would have hurt if others judging it considered it merely an also-ran.
“I didn’t care if I didn’t win, but I didn’t want to lose,” he said.