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Planting by Design

Two neighboring gardeners differ in their attitudes towards design and plants, but find a lot of common ground across the backyard fence.

By Cathy Jean Maloney • Photography By Ron Capek
November/December 2011

Here’s my pet theory. All of us gardeners fall into one of two camps: plant lovers or design doyennes. The former waxes eloquent in Latin nomenclature, often with anthropomorphic plant references while using words such as “cultural requirements” and “fastigated branching.” The design doyennes look for the big picture in the garden and are less concerned with individual plants. They use words like “garden rooms,” “plant vignettes” and “holistic space.”

Can a plant lover and design doyenne co-exist? To test this theory, I visited with Carolyn Ulrich and Kris Barker. Ulrich is Chicagoland Gardening’s editor and a self-confessed plantophile. Barker is an accomplished landscape architect, with garden designs commissioned by prominent clients across the nation. They happen to be next-door neighbors.

This is their story. Call it Plant Geek meets Design Chic.

Ulrich and Barker live side-by-side in matching Victorian homes, sandwiched between tall condominium complexes. Their Hyde Park houses are almost mirror images, built in 1887, with similar brick garages facing the rear alley. Their lot sizes are the same. Their gardens ­— very different.

Ulrich has lived in her house since the 1970s. She raised her children here and, despite being a farm girl from Kansas, claims to have known very little about gardening as a new homeowner. She started with a few pansies and plopped a magnolia tree at the sidewalk entrance.

Today, Ulrich’s garden is a standout on the street. “People walk out of their way to see her garden,” compliments Barker. A white picket fence barely contains the bounty — tumbling mounds of roses, self-seeding larkspur, daylilies, grasses and native plants. The magnolia tree, now gracefully mature, shades the straight sidewalk lined with potted plants of every sort. As a garden writer and editor, Ulrich receives plants from all over to try out. Her garden is the safe haven for refugee plants, the no-kill shelter for stray flora. “I can’t turn down a plant,” she admits.



Barker’s garden exhibits restrained elegance. Her front walk makes a deliberate zig and a zag across a carefully scribed circle of lawn. The geometry of the lawn plane is emphasized by structural elements such as thoughtfully placed white-flowering crabapples and yellow-twig dogwood shrubs. A maple tree is pragmatically sited to block the view of the next-door high rise. A mix of ground covers and massed groupings of perennials soften the borders of the property and surround the lawn. “Our houses are so square,” Barker explains, noting that the zigzag walkway and circular lawn complement the home’s architecture and offer visitors an interesting stroll through the garden.



Is it nature or nurture that propelled these two gardeners on different personal garden pathways? A bit of both, it seems. Barker, a California native, moved to Chicago with her husband in in 2003, the same year she received her master’s in landscape architecture. She had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1996 and worked in the Los Angeles area for seven years before coming here. She credits her love of gardening to her outdoorsy father and her sense of design to her grandmother’s Pasadena home and garden. This era of design gurus Garrett Eckbo and Dan Kiley influenced many Los Angeles gardens, and Barker’s grandmother’s garden, professionally designed, reflected the contemporary style. Barker recalls feeling a “strong sense of how powerful design can be” while in her grandmother’s elegant fountain-splashed patio.

Back in Kansas, Ulrich and her parents took sightseeing drives through the countryside comparing nearby farms. “It’s what you did on Sunday afternoons in Kansas,” she recalls. “You’d drive around and look at the fields.” As a child, she absorbed her father’s comments on acres of neighbors’ crops: whether the rains had been good, if earlier planting had been warranted, whether the wheat was ripe for harvest. She remembers her father gazing at a field and saying simply, “I like to see things grow.” It has become her mantra, too.

Because of their professions, both women visit a lot of gardens. What first strikes them upon entering a new garden? “What I respond to is an organization,” says Barker. “Is there order or chaos?”

Ulrich’s first garden focus is on “Plants, of course!” But, after years of garden walks, tours and visits, it does take something a little unusual to catch her eye. “If it’s just thousands of fibrous begonias…snore,” she says.

On a sizzling hot day last July, we toured Barker and Ulrich’s gardens. It seems a little bit of each other’s philosophy is rubbing off. At Barker’s garden, Ulrich enthused over the sidewalk border of cotoneaster, a reliable but often overused plant. “I’ve learned that there are no boring plants, only boring ways to use them,” Ulrich says. The cotoneaster border holds up well under urban conditions and adds texture throughout the seasons.

Barker reviews Ulrich’s garden and nods approvingly. Even though there’s a lot going on here, Ulrich’s use of evergreens and roses and repetition of chartreuse colors unify the design and bring “order to chaos,” according to Barker. “I found you do need some lawn to give the eye a rest,” agrees Ulrich, the flower lover, who says her borders creep ever inward from the fence as she adds more plants.

Barker envies Ulrich’s fence, noting that it adds structure and charm to the garden. Ulrich, like Barker, is keen to add more evergreens to her garden to provide unity and winter interest.

The whole winter-interest thing was an eye-opener for Barker, the California girl. She recalls picking up a book with the ubiquitous title, “The Four Season Garden,” and thinking, “Really? You have to think about this?” Plants do rest in January and February in California but generally provide evergreen foliage, Barker says.

“Plant design is the hardest thing I do,” she observes. This, even though she “started as a plant geek.” After receiving her fine arts undergraduate degree ­— that design sensibility again — she began studying horticulture with visions of owning a nursery and breeding plants. Her role as a landscape architect often involves structural and engineering issues. Yet, “Finding the right plant is so important in landscape design,” Barker says. “Interior designers can specify exactly the couch they want — size, fabric, prorportions. But landscape designers are always searching; does the right plant exist? For example, you can imagine the perfect sculptural tree in a certain spot, but can you find that tree you are envisioning in a nursery somewhere?” Our Chicagoland winters have definitely made her a better plant designer, she asserts.

On the other hand, Ulrich confesses that hardscaping — patios, paths, structural elements and the like ­— sometimes leaves her cold. When she first started reading about gardens, “I would skip the chapters on hardscaping because they were boring.”

These attitudes also influence how each approaches garden maintenance. Ulrich is a putterer, enjoying evenings watering her plants while she dreams of new flowers. So enjoyable does she make the task look that Barker’s 9-year-old daughter, Ava, often skips over to help Ulrich with her weeding, although, like most kids, she avoids the task at home.
Ulrich will dig up huge plants — a monstrous hosta for example — and move them if they aren’t working out. Barker says, “When I edit, I throw things out.” She prefers to let plants fill in empty spaces so there’s less need to weed.

Deeply shaded backyards pose special maintenance issues for these neighbors. The shade encourages a rampant spread of violets in Ulrich’s yard and interferes with the grass. As could be expected, she plans to plant her way out of the dilemma by switching in more shade-lovers.

“I just keep adding hardscape,” Barker laughs. Indeed, her backyard is a designer’s dream of exquisite entertaining and sitting areas. A stone patio embraced by a low sitting wall greets guests at the base of the back door steps. This connects via a paved walkway to the rear of the yard where Barker has sited another seating area next to the garage. This back patio takes advantage of the setting sun, and also allows family and guests to enjoy the view towards the house.

All gardeners dream, and how would Barker and Ulrich improve their gardens if time and money were no object? “I would love a big arbor across the back,” says Kris. “I want to keep adding and editing.”

“If I had my druthers, I’d have an orchard,” counters Ulrich. “I think we need more locally grown food.” Asked if she would consider a space-saving espalier of apples, Ulrich demurs, noting that her home is too much of a farmhouse and might not be suited for that style.

“Wait, did you say the “s” word?” asks Barker. That’s “s” for style ­— something Ulrich and Barker each has in her own way.