ELMHURST – In the midst of the sensory adventure Bruce and Katie Paul have created in their Elmhurst backyard with colorful flowers and the smell of fresh herbs stand a trio of gnomes.
Gifts from his children and wife, each emulates one of Bruce Paul's roles: the singer, the builder and the gardener.
But despite the masterpiece in their backyard, Bruce wasn't born with a green thumb.
"You have to be a little bit tough to be one of his plants," said his wife, Katie.
Twenty-four years ago, just before the youngest of their three children was born, Bruce Paul planted the seeds of a hobby that grew into a community service.
"When you have a seed packet and there are 50 seeds, and you want five plants, what are you going to do? That's the birth of the idea," he said.
Throwing out extra seeds was never even an option. So he planted entire packets of seeds on carts in the middle of his living room to have the sprouting plants enjoy the most natural light. After many learning experiences, and some wilting plants, he still had more seedlings than his family could ever enjoy.
"First I just started giving them to friends," Bruce said.
Now, with his own greenhouse, years of experience and hours of research, Bruce discovered a new opportunity: supplying Elmhurst community gardens with free plants. The produce and herbs are then harvested for hungry families in the area.
"You got to do your part," he said. "This is just something that seems natural to do."
When the semi-retired chief financial officer and investor describes physical, dirt-covered labor as coming naturally to him, the statement sounds counter-intuitive. Then he explains his past work with private equity and turnaround firms and a connection forms.
"They used me as a point man to go fix things, and there was a lot to fix," he said.
His ability to always seek a solution, a bright side or a way to spread wealth appears to be at the root of both his desk and dirt work.
"Generally, you can turn one or two problems into one opportunity," he said, pointing to old railings, ladders and bricks he's used to create appealing and practical garden structures.
Both Katie and Bruce Paul enjoy the imperfections of their chemical-free produce because they insist homegrown, pock-marked tomatoes taste better than picture-perfect grocery store ones.
"I think about how we in general are pretty finicky for stuff that's new and beautiful, yet a lot of the wholesome values of life are a lot simpler," he said.
This year, with anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 plants, Bruce distributed all he could to as many charitable gardens, friends and neighbors he could find. He still had more than 1,000 left.
So in his typical, opportunity-seeking spirit, he set up a stand across from Art in the Park at Wilder Park this year. He offered plants and asked only for donations for the St. Peter's United Church of Christ adult mission trip.
"If you offer something to somebody, it tends to cause them to go a step further," Bruce said.
He also asks people to return pots after they plant the seedlings. He reuses them as much as possible, but also, it creates a relationship because he often gets to see people again.
Bruce said the dynamic changes when he shares plants or swaps gardenting tips with people he knows from work or church.
"It's an earthy relationship," he said. "It just opens up a new dimension in your friendships."