It would be one of the most daunting challenges of her career: Design a memorial garden dedicated to missing Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang. But Phyllis Williams knew what she had to do.
She had to draw on her arsenal of Parkland College Horticulture training. After all, she was "one of Kaizad's kids."
A Champaign County Master Gardener since 2009, Williams first hesitated after receiving her organization's request this summer. It could be "risky" to create a memorial fitting enough to honor the Chinese graduate student, feared dead after being kidnapped from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus over a year ago. Zhang's story was international news, and the tribute garden would be the first of its kind for a student at the campus.
But then Williams realized that HRT 256, the Landscape Planting Design class she had taken with Horticulture program director Kaizad Irani last spring, held more relevance than ever before. In fact, his class had prepared her for just this moment.
For that semester, Irani, a world traveler, had chosen Chinese gardens as the class focus.
"I thought, 'Well, this is why I took the class—this is it—and so, step up a be a little bit brave," said the longtime Urbana resident and UIUC retiree from Paris, Illinois. "I felt like I had the tools to say, 'Yeah, I'm gonna work on that project.' My toolbox had been packed."
A collaboration of the CCMG, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association and other student groups at Illinois, the 600-square-foot memorial garden will sit at the corner of North Goodwin Avenue and South Clark Street in Urbana, near Campbell Hall. It will lie just behind the spot where Zhang was last seen, as captured on campus video June 9, 2017.
Construction on the garden began Sept. 7 with the pouring of a concrete platform that will hold its granite bench; the platform will also contain the handprints of the student volunteers who are helping with the garden build.
"It's quite emotional, and yet the students really seem to like that element," Williams said.
Two other poignant elements in the design, ideas contributed by fellow Master Gardener Christine Nordholm, are the garden's color palette of white and green and its winding walkway of "disappearing steps." White is a mourning color in Chinese culture, while green symbolizes purity. The walkway into the garden will include large grey pavers that start out covering the path but then become scarce as they lead visitors toward the bench and platform.
"So basically, by the time you get just over halfway on the path, you'll run out of all but just a couple, and then you'll get to the pad," Wiliams explained. Incidentally, Nordholm, a former art student at Parkland, has also taken Irani's landscape design classes.
Irani said he was impressed with Williams' design, which includes plantings favored in Chinese gardens: a weeping cherry tree and a white azalea; various types of junipers, hydrangeas and hostas; boxwoods; and more. The plants were selected for beauty, zone heartiness and disease resistance.
"You have a little bit of color and year-round interest; I thought, 'I couldn't have done any better at all,'" said the professor, who began Parkland's Horticulture program 17 years ago and is set to retire this spring. "This is your goal: you want students to supersede your teaching and take it to a whole other level, and she has."
For Williams, it was Irani's training that brought her Master Gardener skills to the level she needed to compete for landscape design proposals like Zhang's garden.
"I've learned a lot from the Master Gardeners—botany, plant care, integrated pest management, things like that," she said. "By the same token, I felt like, 'but there's a design element I need to bring to bear.' I really wanted to help plan for success rather than just be surprised if I got it! So, I took Kaizad's classes. Parkland is so accessible."
Now, with the garden's hoses laid and the platform foundation ready, the planting will soon begin. Once the garden is completed, UIUC students and CCMG volunteers will need to maintain it, which could present a challenge, Williams said.
"You don't get a lot of sunshine; it's a bit of a tough site," she explained. "But we couldn't pick the ideal site; we're working with the site that fate gave us."
Yet she hopes the garden will be a point of pride and an important community expression.
"We're plugging safety to everybody's child who comes here," she said. "It makes a difference."
A memorial garden dedication is being planned for October.