Maybe I’m a control freak. Maybe I’m just not very smart. Quite possibly, I’m just too far down the tracks to back up and switch to another set of rails. Fact is, I’m finding myself more and more infatuated with gardens in the city. I halfheartedly tried to break out from gardener to naturalist, but quickly found that isn’t where my strengths lie.

A plant community on the scale of a mixed forest is stimulation overload for me. Cannot process. Can only just take it in and enjoy. Totally unable to create something like this or bring vision to it.

And a prairie? Just forget about it. A great big, maze of complexity. For me, it is there to experience, but not to understand. Or even try to understand.

Don’t get me wrong. I love nature, and have paid good money to tour it, but sometimes it’s just too big to grasp. It’s not bite sized, and I just can’t wrap my frayed mind around it. So I’ve decided, don’t. Just don’t. When I find myself in real nature, I tend to gaze a lot. My mouth hangs open. And some times I drool! I drool and crave Gerber’s banana baby food. So there I stand, soaking it all in, unable to understand all of everything–all the plants and animals that I see, their associations with each other, the purpose of anything, why the sky is blue, how in the hell some people got famous, and simple instructions my wife is shouting at me.

Miles of plant communities. Zillions of insects and other wildlife. Prairies are better experienced while highly impaired. They’re like symphonies as heard by the worst non-musician. Like a cream puff for the starving. Inscrutable, overwhelming, and glorious. The experience can only be screwed up by thinking too much.

But in the garden, I’m not so mesmerized. I can digest what I see, and I function reasonably well. And with little to no slobbering. I know most of the plants. I can see what the designer intended. It organizes itself in my mind into art. And, in that I can start to think about what it all means. And, I believe, it means we must live in cities but we need nature. In the city, gardens are nature, and nothing has as much value as a scarce commodity. These city gardens are worth every penny we can spend on them.

A rooftop garden creates an interesting contrast between a garden and downtown architecture.

Many small city gardens might be even better than one or two big ones. Each offers respite for people and creatures alike. A chance for sustenance a few feet away from all the motion, noise, bustle, stress, and speed a city can muster.

This artfully gardened alleyway makes a beautiful and enjoyable experience far exceeding the back doors, dumpsters, and cigarette butts one might typically expect.

City people are busy people, and we compromise much for the sake of haste. We all know that eating in your car is not a particularly acceptable alternative to eating at a table with friends and a bottle of wine, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. None of us have enough time. All of us need to eat. Likewise, we might not choose to enjoy plants from a speeding vehicle, but, hey, when the city presents you this gift, why not? It still beats enjoying just another naked concrete bridge. Using annuals for such plantings means the scenery change sfrom year to year.

Lake Shore Drive in 2018.

Lake Shore Drive in 2015.

The need for plants is one thing, but on a purely artistic basis, I just get off on the contrast between city gardens and all the stuff we build. It’s like that splash of lemon you need in your tea, or vinegar with your oil. Mint for your julep. It just grabs your attention and says, “Check this out.” You can almost feel the fun invade your chest. Your muscle fibers relax and your heart slows down. The simple elation of just being able to breath brings a smile and calm.

Kwanzan cherries, electric lines, and a high rise. There is no better combination.

But Silphium and high rises are tough competition.

Lincoln Park Zoo’s prairie and wetland sets the table for this incredible view of Chicago. It’s no longer a city conquering nature. It’s us and nature enjoying a two state solution!

And it makes for a cool composition of ironweed in the shadow of one of the world’s great skylines.

Like the line from Field of Dreams. “If you build it, they will come.” No matter how deep into the machinations of a big city you garden, wildlife will find it.

Monarch in the Lurie Garden, downtown Chicago.

We watched this rabbit eat flower after flower of these impatiens in a pocket park no larger than 1000 square feet on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. We were so charmed, and glad the impatiens weren’t ours.

Let’s work harder to plant more gardens in urban environments. We can build our own gardens, volunteer with nonprofits, or bother politicians until they bump gardens up the list of priorities. We write checks to buy and conserve land around the world, and that’s important, but it’s indicative of our tendency to think that nature is “out there” somewhere. Meanwhile, we live in busy streets of glass, steel, and brick while perfectly good ground goes untended. Gardens and plants, let’s put them right where we live, work, eat, drink, and breath. It’s almost spring. Why not this year?