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September/October 2002

How long do you expect your garden to last?
(I know, I know...some of us will be happy if it survives until next week.) But there are folks on this planet who take a Very Long View indeed.

"We are planting for the next 200 years," said a sign at Stourhead, an English landscape park garden that was designed in the 18th century. An unusually severe windstorm had felled many original trees, and they were in the midst of replanting at the time I visited.

It’s a sentiment I found echoed in a passage from The English Gardening School, a book by Rosemary Alexander & Anthony du Gard Pasley (1987, Weidenfeld & Nicholson). Think about long-term trees, wrote the authors. "They should be grouped carefully... so whatever development occurs in the next two hundred years or so they are likely to be retained as being essential to the quality of the landscape." (As if buying a tree wasn’t already hard enough.)

Earlier this summer I traveled in France and Holland, visiting gardens such as the 17th century Versailles and a Dutch garden it inspired called Het Loo. Since both were dwellings for kings, they didn’t exactly relate to my own living situation on the south side of Chicago, but Giverny, Monet’s garden west of Paris, is a cottage garden an American could understand (and emulate). Another high point was Bagatelle, a Parisian garden where roses scramble up 15-foot tall tuteurs and drape over expansive arbors, framed by boxwood hedges and punctuated by impeccably coiffed conical yews.

In a garden, there’s no beauty without age. For proof, no need to cross an ocean. Just visit the Chicago Botanic Garden, which is looking more beautiful by the minute. And this month, when it opens its Gardens of the Great Basin, the Botanic Garden will be making a little history of its own. Comprised of three new gardens on a 12-acre site, the Great Basin project was designed by the internationally renowned landscape architectural firm Oehme, Van Sweden & Associates. It is the most extensive garden development project in the Botanic Garden’s history.

The project’s central feature is Evening Island, a five-acre hillside garden featuring meadow and woodland plantings. On the opposite shore, the Lakeside Gardens will showcase flowering trees, shrubs and perennials, including a large collection of flowering crabapples. In between is the Great Basin, the project’s lake, which was drained, re-sculpted and then re-planted to create a naturalistic shoreline environment.

Although most of us hardly realize it, the CBG is basically a giant water garden, built on a series of islands that are surrounded by 60 acres of lakes. As such, it is perfectly positioned to become a model for municipalities, corporate campuses and homeowners seeking to maintain wetlands and ponds.

The Gardens of the Great Basin are scheduled to open September 20, and I, for one, fervently hope they last 200 years.