An Interview with Karen Folk, RORG’s Lead Master Naturalist

By Sandra Bjerga, RORG Student Team

A big part of why our garden looks as beautiful as it does can be attributed to Dr. Karen Folk, who has been involved with the Red Oak Rain Garden for just over 4 years now. I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen about her experience with, and life outside, the project.

Dr. Karen Folk, Extension Master Naturalist, has had a bold and vivacious career with more than a few outstanding accomplishments under her belt. She assumed numerous research roles, developed a Master’s thesis in family economics, worked as a state Extension specialist, and continued her work at the University of Illinois as an ACES faculty member. She earned her doctorate under Dr. Nickols, whose daughter is our current Extension Director (small world). During that time, she established assistant professor positions, wrote journal articles, established conference proceedings, and authored Extension publications. Karen also opened a small business in 1999, Folk Financial Planning, which was a fee-only financial planning firm. 

Dr. Karen Folk has always been interested in learning about the natural history, plants, and animals of the areas around her. She lived in Santiago, Chile for a year and learned about its natural areas while traveling from the far north Atacama desert to the far south, an area with active volcanoes. Some of her interests include hiking, backpacking in the mountains, geology, reading, and gardening. 

Involvement at the Red Oak Rain Garden and as a Master Naturalist 
Karen retired in September 2016 and since then has given back to the Red Oak Rain Garden immensely. She became an Extension Master Naturalist volunteer, where her work includes conserving preserves and removing invasive species. Her passion for nature and natural history can be attributed to her previous experience camping, living by a forest preserve, and being a Girl Scout leader for 8 years. 

During her Master Naturalist Training, Karen was encouraged to adopt a project. She first met our RORG director, Eliana Brown, a Master Naturalist Trainer who had been teaching a class on Urban Water Systems. Karen was interested in the garden and reached out to Eliana asking if there was anything that could be done to help. Eliana, drawn by her enthusiasm and interest, agreed. It was perfect timing that brought Karen to the RORG as it had been suffering without maintenance for years and needed change. She was motivated to help renovate the garden. Karen now works close at hand with Eliana to upkeep the Red Oak Rain Garden. 

Karen and Eliana at RORG during the 2019 renovation. Photo by Kate Gardiner.

Karen had a unique experience in discovering RORG thanks to her loving golden retriever, Roxy. Karen lives 2 blocks from the University and for 10 years, from 1998 to 2018, she walked past the RORG with Roxy hundreds of times. Karen had witnessed the garden’s ups and downs and eventual deterioration from its creation in 2006. She observed original plantings die, unpruned bushes grow unchecked, and a colony of pokeweed invading the red-twig dogwood thicket. 

Since then, Roxy has passed but the memories and coincidences she brought into Karens’ life were never forgotten. More recently, Karen welcomed a new rescue dog into her life, Petunia, who loves to take walks with Karen and her husband. Karen checks on the condition of the RORG almost daily with Petunia. 

Karen’s Golden Retriever, Roxy
Weeds and unpruned shrubs at RORG in early 2018

Karen’s Long-Term Hopes for the Garden
Karen hopes that we can maintain RORG as a place of beauty that will inspire students, faculty, and neighborhood residents to increase native plantings. She hopes that it will serve as a teaching laboratory for many different disciplines on campus while functioning as an effective rain catchment basin for both preventing flooding and nurturing the massive sycamore and red oak trees that anchor it. 

Volunteer Experience
Karen strives to grow her knowledge from volunteers while sharing her own as she enjoys the variety that a group brings. One of the perks of living close to RORG is that she can help educate curious neighbors passing by as she and the other volunteers work in the garden. They often leave amazed and delighted at the garden’s transformation. 

Karen working with Audrey Ishii at RORG. Photo by Layne Knoche.

Karen has also enjoyed meeting new Master Naturalist volunteers when they planted upwards of 8,500+ plants during the 2019 renovation. It took many extra volunteers to work on this large project, but was more than fulfilling to meet new people who shared the same passions. 

On a special note, Karen adds that the RORG’s landscape designer, Layne Knoche, has a very entertaining Guardians of the Galaxy music playlist. As someone who has been to the volunteer workdays, I can confirm this is true. 

Other Gardening Experiences
Karen enjoys gardening on her own apart from giving back to RORG. Her mother and grandmother were both big gardeners and passed down their love for it. Karen has her fair share of landscaping, flowers, two prairie areas in her backyard, and an ephemeral wildflower area in the shade under a dogwood tree. She continues to add native plant areas with plants from the Grand Prairie Friends annual native plant sale, and bushes from the annual Master Naturalists native shrubs and tree sales.

A Big Thank You
Our team has been ecstatic to work with Dr. Karen Folk and all she has to offer to RORG. It’s without being said that we couldn’t have done it without her. We look forward to our future accomplishments with her in the renovation of the garden. Who knows, if you stop by the Red Oak Rain Garden, you may just be able to catch Karen and Petunia! 💚

Karen and her dog, Petunia, on a weekend walk to RORG. Photo by Eliana Brown.


Sandra Bjerga is a member of the Red Oak Rain Garden Student Team. She graduated from UIUC this spring with a degree in Communication and dual minors in Public Relations & Psychology.

Cover photo by Kate Gardiner.

2 thoughts on “An Interview with Karen Folk, RORG’s Lead Master Naturalist

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: