Black Voices

How a Chicago Police Officer Transformed His Backyard Into an Award-Winning Oasis

How a Chicago Police Officer Transformed His Backyard Into an Award-Winning Oasis

It’s never too late to start a hobby.

In Garfield Park, Chicago police Officer Deronis Cooper uses his love of gardening as an outlet for his mental health.

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“Back then, I couldn’t even imagine this,” Cooper said. “None of this was here. … I started with four planters, and I was just trying to keep those alive, and upon keeping those alive, it just grew, and I would find more places to put plants.”

What started with four planters has grown into more than 50 plant species in Cooper’s backyard.

“When I was a kid, I used to help my grandmother,” Cooper explained. “Her garden was a vegetable garden. Back then, it was more like a chore than a love.”

But over the years, Cooper’s love for plants has grown. Literally. He calls it his grandma’s garden in honor of her memory.

Cooper said getting his hands in the dirt helps him cope with the challenges of being a police officer.

“You can come home and shed your uniform. You can shed the duty belt, but you can’t shed your brain,” Cooper said. “I can’t put my brain on a shelf and come back and pick it up. So, all the experiences we have endured day in, and day out, stay with us.”

Cooper has been on the force for 23 years and shared some haunting stories.

“Five, six years ago, my teammates and I were sitting for lunch one night in Hyde Park and the call comes over the radio that a child was shot,” Cooper shared. “We go to the scene and unfortunately an 11-year-old boy was playing with a gun he and his cousin found and was shot. When we are dealing with that, another call comes in with a person shot.”

Gardening has become an outlet to decompress. The lifelong Garfield Park resident shares that he lives blocks from a police station, and turning it off can be difficult. Recently, he shared he was watering his planets when his mail lady was being attacked. That’s when he quickly apprehended the man.

From 10-foot elephant ears to sweet potato vines, Cooper’s vibrant oasis even got the attention of two furry felines: Cheeto, who showed up a year ago, and Smokey, who arrived in April.

“I talk to them, I look at them,” Cooper said. “It’s just kind of fun watching them do them.”

But what’s in the garden now will all be gone come winter.

“Everything is gone.” Cooper said. “The planters have nothing in them, and we start over.”

“Every year my aunt and I start our plant pilgrimage right before Mother’s Day,” Cooper continued. “That’s how it gets started.”

His garden skills also got him recognized as the best residential garden for the Chicago Excellence in Gardening Awards.

For those who want to start planting, Cooper’s No. 1 tip is to read the labels on the plant. Follow him on Instagram at @grandmas_gardener.

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