Meet the ‘Unknown Gardener’ quietly keeping one corner of Chicago in bloom for decades

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CHICAGO — Tucked next to the railroad tracks in Roscoe Village, there’s something magical and mysterious in full bloom.

The “Unknown Garden” has been there for so long most neighbors don’t know the roots of the story, much less the man who cultivates it.

“I’ve noticed the garden. I have no idea what it is,” resident Kevin Roche said. “I’ve never seen anyone over there.”

At a time when most people are obsessed with washing their hands, the “Unknown Gardener” doesn’t mind getting his dirty. If you wake up with the sun, you just might see his shadow.  

Keith Krisciunas calls the garden oasis, “a canvass to kind of let nature work it’s miracle.”

“It makes me feel good, I can sit in my side yard, have a libation and look out and it kind of gives you the feeling of a little elbow room, even though your smack dab in the middle of the city,” he said.

Keith Krisciunas

In 1988, Krisciunas was a new resident on what was then a rough stretch of Ravenswood Avenue. A neighbor applied for a $5,000 grant to beautify the blight, and when she asked what he thought of the idea, he asked who agreed to help.

“I said, ‘I’m not talking about weekend one two or three, I’m talking about weekend 100, 200, 300,’” Krisciunas said.

Now 1,600 weekends and more than three decades of gardening later, he’s the only one left.

“It kind of fell to me and I don’t want to let it go,” Krisciunas said.

“He’s very discreet in what he does, but you see him out there all the time, he doesn’t ask for anything he almost declines help, he’s interesting,” neighbor Brad Bohmer said.

The gravelly-voiced retired financial planner now spends 25 hours a week and about $500 a year tending to the unknown garden that stretches for four city blocks.

Keith Krisciunas mows along the “unknown garden” in Roscoe Village

“When you retire, it’s like, uh, the AARP mandates you grow a grey goatee and start gardening,” Krisciunas said. “I mow those four city blocks, and try to keep a nice edge on it and keep the weeds out of it and get good flowers and trees going and pull out the bad ones.”

He does it in all seasons, a part-time job that rewarded his patience and persistence with a nickname a neighbor shared with him one day: “The Unknown Gardener.”

It stuck, taking hold like seed in soil. The anonymity also afforded him a certain artistic license. As he cleared trash, he collected glass to make faces for the fences. Although he’s not sure if it’s “art.”

“I don’t know, if finding junk and repurposing it is art, then I’m an artiste,” he said.

But nowadays he finds himself planting something more valuable. When death dominates the headlines, the unknown gardener nurtures life.

“It gives people some hope that maybe we’re going to turn the corner on this,” Krisciunas said. “People need to get out and get refreshed by nature, so this sort of does that same thing, so it’s kind of renewal of the spirit.”

After all, when you plant a garden, you plant a belief in tomorrow. Which is always unknown.

“We appreciate it deeply. It’s really really nice. It’s something that all the neighbors can enjoy,” neighbor Diane Reed said. “We don’t have a garden, but this way we can walk through one through the seasons and see it grow.

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