Landscaping Ideas: Take a Chicago Garden Tour

Find design ideas and inspiration in this personal garden.

Garden Swirl: A double lawn labyrinth serves as the centerpiece of our garden. For those times when the garden is having a "bad hair day" try diverting the eye in creative ways!

Garden Swirl: A double lawn labyrinth serves as the centerpiece of our garden. For those times when the garden is having a "bad hair day" try diverting the eye in creative ways!

Garden Swirl: A double lawn labyrinth serves as the centerpiece of our garden. For those times when the garden is having a "bad hair day" try diverting the eye in creative ways!

Garden Swirl: A double lawn labyrinth serves as the centerpiece of our garden. For those times when the garden is having a "bad hair day" try diverting the eye in creative ways!

One look at our one-acre garden in suburban Chicago, and you’d swear it’s always been there. Fact is it’s been 15 years in the making. From the boxwood and gravel courtyard, to the double lawn labyrinth, to the sunken fountain garden, to the exuberant perennial borders to this year’s newly planted hornbeam hedge, you would never know that a self-taught gardener could pull it all off. Despite the challenges of harsh Midwest weather, clay-packed soil, annual bug invasions and hungry critters, this garden is a lesson in optimism, patience and perseverance.

Drama Queen

I love the sculptural quality and how the clipped grass plays off the fluffy foreground plantings of my succulent container and 'Summer Beauty' alliums. I suggest creating tension between soft and rigid textures in your garden for a more interesting outcome. Try mixing manicured sections of clipped boxwood and lawn against more robust plant varieties.

The Yin and Yang of Gardening

It's all about finding balance. Here the scale and freshness of a giant hosta leaf finds harmony beside an equally energetic stand of daylilies. Sometimes this magic takes time to achieve...I must have moved that hosta several times before I found the right home for it to really sing. My advice: pay attention to the growing conditions and growth habit descriptions on the plant tags. Place plants where you think they look best, but always be ready to switch things around if they don't perform well. Gardens are always a work in progress.

A Full Season of Joy

Here's a favorite garden perch right beside our barbeque. While flipping brats and burgers, we can enjoy a river of perennials as they wax and wane throughout the season. 'Caradonna' salvia and 'Golden Queen' trollius recently took their final bows to make room for 'Little Spire' Russian sage and other late summer show-offs. Don't relegate flowers to flower beds: place beautiful arrangements near areas where your family spends a lot of time like the BBQ or swimming pool or bocce court.

Containers That Go the Distance

Call me lazy, but with an acre of gardens to tend, I've resorted to no-fuss succulents for most of my containers. Many of them over-winter nicely so that I don't need to replace them every season. I particularly enjoy Sempervivum 'Red Heart' and 'Chocolate Ball' stonecrop sedum. Here's to being cost-effective in the garden!

Sorbet Anyone?

You'll find several scoops of 'Cherry Cheeks' daylilies sprinkled throughout the borders in my garden. The refreshing color looks wonderful on a hot summer day.

Whimsical Garden Moments

Snapping up some old mannequins at a store closing sale made for a rewarding winter project, not to mention hours of fun imagining where they'd eventually land in my garden. After some experimenting, I found that layers of wood glue, preserved sheet moss and clear fishing line did the trick. Once in the garden, I gave each silhouette their own personality by embellishing them with live grass heads, "bathing suits" made of succulents and martini glasses filled with fresh cut flowers.

Giant Aliens in the Garden?

Kids have a funny way of turning words around... Mine once thought giant aliens would grow if they helped me plant Allium giganteum bulbs in the fall. They weren't completely mistaken. Even these spent flower heads look a bit out of this world! Consider plants and flowers for the garden that look good even when they are out of bloom.

Bold and Beautiful

A stand of 'Firetail' persicaria holds a special place in my heart and my garden. The delightful red spikes remind me of where my journey began as a self-taught gardener, and the summer I discovered a kindred spirit in Dutch garden master, Piet Oudolf. His love of bold sweeps of native plants spoke to my experimental gardening style.

Creamy and Dreamy

My personal preference is to avoid stark white in the garden. I favor a creamier antique white found in some of the new varieties of coneflowers and late blooming hydrangeas. This summer, I added a few dashes of soft vanilla 'Milkshake' echinacea to echo the warmth of an established stand of 'White Moth' hydrangea paniculata. Tip: create garden interest by sticking with a color scheme but changing up the plant variety.

A Simple Garden Shed

A fresh coat of floor paint and some bright fabric turn our tired old garden house into a charming place to stash tools, seeds and garden knick-knacks. Make your garden work space a place where you want to spend time.

Face It

Summer is fleeting and this garden goddess seems to be weeping at the thought. She holds watch for deer and other critters who try to sneak under a flowering arch of honeysuckle vines. Add architectural elements to your garden which can add interest even in the winter months.

Where the Wild Things Are

Organized chaos in the garden grabs hold of your imagination and won't let go. Here Joe Pye weed goes wild watching over the rest of the rambunctious mob of Midwest natives including multiple varieties of echinacea, eryngium and penstemon.

A Swirl of Succulents

Here's a fanciful take on an English garden trick that I once noted and came home to try in my own backyard. By lifting a few patio pavers, I found that the sandy foundation was a welcome environment for these easy-to-grow succulents. Look for ways in your yard to soften hard surfaces.

Head over Heels About Gardens

Here I repurposed some old mannequin legs by affixing them with sheet moss and planting them in high style among a throng of coreopsis 'Mercury Rising', red headed dahlias, giant ivy, trailing red petunias and sweet potato vine. Why it all works: while the whimsical red soles are a nod to uber chic Christian Louboutin, they are an unexpected twist as a focal point especially in a residential setting. The exuberant mix of plants echo both the color red and the lighthearted theme.

A New Pleached Hedge

After falling in love with the hornbeam hedge designed by Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C., I knew just the spot for such a feature in my garden. This spring we added a dozen Carpinus caroliniana which march in uniform fashion around our back driveway. It will be fun to watch them grow into an aerial hedge.

Nothing Vanilla to See Here

Our summer border is a riot of color. Here echinacea, hosta, heuchera, helianthus and asclepia get their groove back after a long Chicago winter.

You Can't Lose with Chartreuse

This color plays a big role in my garden. Sprinkle bold dashes around your garden with either 'Sum and Substance' hosta, creeping Jenny lysimachia, or Hakone grass. Repeating color makes for a cohesive garden palette.

Take a Load Off

A shady corner of the driveway courtyard provides a perfect spot to sit and contemplate life. The charming garden shed dates to 1936 when our home was originally built. I've recently found that 'Incrediball' hydrangea stand their ground better than the original 'Annabelle' variety.

Bringing the Garden Inside

An Amdega conservatory doubles as a place to coax new seedlings and a sunny family gathering spot. Just outside is a small kitchen garden where we can grab a quick handful of fresh herbs and veggies while cooking. If you can, keep your edible garden, especially herbs, close to where you cook.

A Garden of Swirls and Circles

A cozy sunken garden "room" greets my guests like a warm hug before they experience the big garden. The circular fountain was added four years ago and provides a magical splashing sound for a full sensory experience. Water features are a great way to add another sensory element to the garden.

Garden Swirl

A double lawn labyrinth serves as the centerpiece of our garden. It's achieved by cutting the grass once a week in a spiral pattern at two different lawn mower settings. I often let the longer grass go for a few weeks to get a really dramatic effect. It looks especially cool in winter when covered with a fresh dusting of snow. As for those times during the summer when the garden isn't having a "good hair day," the lawn really takes center stage. My advice is to look for ways to make your garden unique and remember that your lawn is an important part of your garden too.

A Room with a View

From an upstairs perch we're treated to a great view of the garden below. Through my gardening journey I've learned the importance of planning a garden from the inside out. Think about how your garden looks not just from outside, but from inside your home.

Color for all Seasons

Some folks throw in the towel on summer gardening way too early in the season. To fight the dreaded waning of color, I look for late summer bloomers like this 'Jeanne d' Arc' althea or rose of Sharon to perk things up.

Green on Green

The entry to our garden is intentionally monochromatic, until visitors reach the back garden with its exuberant color and bold geometric flourishes. Add elements of surprise to the garden. The old wrought iron gate was found at a local salvage shop and is flanked by my favorite 'Emerald Green' arborvitae.

Terra-Cotta Garden Accents

Our home's terra-cotta brick accents were my cue to run with both terra-cotta color and texture as a theme around the garden. Over the years I've collected several Italian olive jars and fill them with Mediterranean inspired succulent plantings.

My advice to others wanting to create an inviting backdrop for family and friends to enjoy: visit other gardens for inspiration. Enlist the advice of experts for the bigger jobs like adding trees and pathways. Read everything you can about your growing zone. Get to know the experts at your local garden centers. Above all, be fearless. While you’re bound to make a few mistakes, like I have along the way, you’ll also be rewarded by both the experience of being close to nature and the outcome of creating a place of beauty.

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