Real Gardens

Return of the natives—and a Prairie School landmark—in Chicago

Pool

Just as the low-maintenance personal garden is mostly myth, the low-maintenance public landscape is even less possible. Such was the case with Alfred Caldwell’s Lily Pool (built 1936-38) in Lincoln Park. As recently as 1998, the pool, its surrounding stonework, and its plantings was “a dead world,” according to the designer when he visited it just before his death. The formerly pristine masterpiece was choked with weed trees, the stonework was damaged, and the lagoon was filled with trash.

Pool2

Too bad Caldwell never lived to see the restoration that I was lucky enough to view during our garden blogger meet-up in Chicago last weekend. The lily pool is gorgeous once more, thanks to a public/private partnership that raised funds and galvanized volunteers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many aquilegia canadensis, geranium maculatum, thalictrium dasycarpum (not sure of exact plant here), and wild phlox all together in one place before. There were also many native trees and shrubs. The stonework has been restored and the water was clear; it would be wonderful to have such a retreat in the middle of any city.

Columbine

It’s interesting how this landscape—which is meant to appear natural, even wild—requires almost as much regular maintenance as any of the more contrived institutional gardens, such as the Chicago Botanic Garden or any of the conservatories in the city. Certainly the Lurie Gardens, another favorite of the group, must also require a massive amount of tending. And after listening to and reading many accounts about how native meadows must be developed and tweaked into shape, I can’t imagine making the attempt.

Lurie

So all the more kudos to Chicago for being able to keep these natural places looking as they should.

Check here for a selection of pictures from the Chicago trip.

Posted by on June 2, 2009 at 4:32 am, in the category Real Gardens.
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17 Responses to “Return of the natives—and a Prairie School landmark—in Chicago”

  1. commonweeder says:

    Elizabeth – great post – and thank you for the great photos of Spring Fling.

  2. Another reason to visit Chicago. Great pix — thanks. And, yes, the myth of the low-maintenance garden only becomes true if you have a fondness for weeds.

  3. Gail says:

    Well said Elizabeth…I was looking at the photos of the Lurie this morning and appreciating the vision and work it takes to look that natural. I missed the Lily Garden but hope to visit it on my next visit to Chicago…the stacked stone looks wonderful. gail

  4. aesthetics requires work. nature cares not for aesthetics.

  5. susan harris says:

    Great collection of photos, E. Thanks!

  6. ChristyACB says:

    Great post! Love to see when things get restored to a more natural balance. Gail is so right about aesthetics requiring work!

  7. Bob Vaiden says:

    Natural landscapes don’t need care; however, there are few natural landscapes left…human influence and changes distorts the natural process.

    In addition, we often want to produce THAT natural landscape at THIS place…something that may NOT be what the local environment “wants”.

    Also… we tend to build paths; and want to “freeze” a view; natural views change; plants that grew HERE now grow THERE…

    If you are trying to present a static scene to the public… it’s not really a “natural landscape”!

    Introduced plants have GREATLY added to the problem; most destructive weeds are alien.

    None the less… my backyard woodland requires relatively little maintenance; a yearly removal of new trees, removal of some Virgina Creeper, clearing of paths.

    Mowing what remains of my lawn takes more time…

  8. You are exaggerating about the transformation of the Lily Pool. I photographed it extensively in the 80s. I hardly recognize it from your photos. I wished I hadn’t been too tired to find my way over there on Saturday.

  9. Ooops! I meant NOT exaggerating. Sorry, my bad.

  10. eliz says:

    Oh, good, MMD, I wondered! Because I was told that Caldwell actually cried when he saw what had happened to it, and when I saw it it looked beautiful.

  11. donna says:

    The secret of the low-maintenance garden is — grow pretty “weeds”!

  12. susan harris says:

    Donna, I agree. The other secret is: grow shrubs and small trees. Then learn to prune and start doing it yearly before the garden becomes a jungle.

  13. Susie says:

    That Lily Pool is beautiful, what a nice comment on the transformation. I think my favorite photos from all of you bloggers that visited Chicago were those of that fabulous Salvia river.

  14. Jean says:

    Gee, I’m sorry I missed the Lily Pool. A few of us tried to find it but we obviously went in the wrong direction! Yes, kudos really should go to the city of Chicago for recognizing the importance of their green spaces and spending money on them. It’s a great city and those green spaces contribute to that greatness in a big way. Guess I’ll just have to get back there for another visit and to see the Lily Pool!

  15. suzq says:

    The biggest problem with weeding is that you have to be knowledgeable to do it. This is not a task easily “contracted out.” I can hire someone to mow my lawn, but I can’t always find someone to weed properly.

  16. I missed the Caldwell Lily Pond too. There wasn’t enough time. Damn gorillas.

    Living very intimately with a natural landscape that wants to be in control, I can assure you there is nothing low maintenance about it. Even with a great acceptance of the natural, the heart of the gardener who wants to create an effect is often as powerful a force as that of nature with other design ideas.

  17. Cindy, MCOK says:

    I wish I had seen that … Jean, Leslie and I thought we were headed in the right direction but finally had to concede we didn’t know where the heck it was! Next time!

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