Independence the beautiful!
That's what energetic Charlotte Olejuko hopes to make her adopted city as horticulturist of the Independence Parks/Recreation/Tourism Department.
“It may sound hokey,” Charlotte says, but her philosophy as a horticulturist is threefold: “Bloom where you are planted, shine not whine, get out and do something.” And she has done all of these, with her beautification work that is evident throughout the Queen City of the Trails.
Charlotte is quick to tell you horticulture is her passion. And if you know her, it shouldn't surprise you if she acknowledges having dirt under her fingernails. “And it will never come out,” she says with a snicker, recalling she started as a seasonal worker with Parks and Recreation about 16 years ago setting out plantings in the median of Bess Truman Parkway.
Charlotte will never forget her first day on the job, when her passion for getting her hands dirty drew the attention and compliments of some happy, thankful motorists. Some even got out of their cars, hugged her and complimented her for making the parkway more beautiful, informing her that her efforts were long overdue and it was good to see someone doing an outstanding job.
This hard-working Sedalia native, with a degree in horticulture, wasn't about to let a summer drought kill the junipers along the parkway that first year. Not on her watch. To keep that from happening, she found herself continually watering the trees. Starting at one end of Bess Truman Parkway, Charlotte says it took her almost a week to water all the trees. Then the tedious process was repeated the following week.
“Then my work expanded to the roundabout in front of Heritage House,” Charlotte says, where she planted 4,000 to 5,000 tulip bulbs. “At that time, the shape of the flower bed design was a four-pointed star. Then each year I have expanded it to 16 points.”
Keeping the city beautiful is a full-time commitment for Charlotte, who is not afraid of work.
“I put on my work clothes (jeans and park shirt) and I am out getting dirty, muddy and wet every day,” she says. “If we are not weeding, we are mowing, watering, fertilizing and doing whatever needs to be done" at the numerous parks and historical sites – such as the Vaile Mansion – where the entire grounds of the 1881 landmark was designated as a Level 1 arboretum last November, thanks to the efforts of Charlotte, who wrote the application for accreditation.
The arboretum, which Charlotte describes as an “outdoor woody plant museum … devoted to trees and shrubs,” is “kind of a big deal for the Vaile and is a whole new level of exposure for tourism,” she says, adding: “A lot of towns have historic mansions but no place has an arboretum/mansion accept us and Newport, Rhode Island.
Charlotte's inspiration to seek arboretum status was the state-champion smoke tree growing on the Vaile lawn and the impetus to promote that, she recalls, in addition to the “nice plantings on the grounds.”
“The Level 1 criteria is that you have to have 25 different species of woody plants, trees or shrubs. We have 35, so we had more than enough to qualify,” she says, noting a ribbon-cutting for the arboretum is set for 1 p.m. on April 30. Following the ceremony, noted tree expert Michael Dougherty will conduct a tree tour at the Vaile.
As city horticulturist, Charlotte is helping to wage war on trash with an organized trash pickup the first week of June. Calling trash a “major problem,” she says, “I can plant all the plants in the world, but if they are not maintained, they look worse than not having them there. So getting awareness and help, I depend on a lot of volunteers.”
Like the Boy Scouts, who will be doing a good deed soon by helping Charlotte with a lilac tree project along the cast-iron fence in front of the Vaile on Liberty Street. There she laid out “a kind of serpentine that winds in and out along a fence where there is an old lilac tree. So I am going to do a lilac collection along the fence and the Boy Scouts will be helping us plant those trees.”
Why is a clean Independence so important to Charlotte?
“I always felt a city reflects its residents, and when it is trashy and unattractive, it reflects on the people who live here,” she says. “I try to do my part in changing that perspective so that we are an attractive place to visit, live and attract industry, visitors and tourists.”
One thing Charlotte is trying to get going is an 'Adopt A Spot' program in which the community comes together to adopt an untidy “spot” and then takes the responsibility for cleaning it up on a regular basis.
“I am hoping that with 'Adopt A Spot,' we can get community involvement. Even small groups and families to realize they can start somewhere. Just a little median in the street would be a big help. But we can start small and maybe consolidate into something bigger.”
Speaking of “bigger,” that will happen this spring when Charlotte and her crews turn the grassy area behind the Jim Bridger statue on the west side of the National Frontier Trails Museum into a “plant teaching tool.” The outdoor classroom will extend west around the building.
“The area has been tilled and we have the sketch laid out,” Charlotte says. “I am going to do a landscape in there with all the native grasses, plants and flowers that were seen when the wagons went west across the prairie. It's going to be landscaped. But it is going to be done with all native plants that will be labeled.
As for her legacy, “I don't have one,” Charlotte exclaims. “I just want a tree planted (at the Vaile) in my honor.”
-- Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.