GardenSmart :: EPISODES :: 2005 show14
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Show #14

Chicago is Charlie's kind of town. There are magnificent flower beds all around the city. This week we're behind the scenes in Chicago to see how gardening is transforming the Windy City into a more beautiful place to live and work. We view median planting beds along Michigan Avenue, container gardens in front of business as well as one of hundreds of neighborhood community gardens. Chicago has become a city of flowers. Today we learn about the planting and maintenance of these flower beds as well as how residents are using community gardens to revitalize their neighborhoods.

Eliza Fournier is the Coordinator for School and Community Gardening for the Chicago Botanic Garden. In the 4 years she has worked with the Botanic Garden she's assisted in the creation and enhancement of over 200 school and community gardens across the Chicagoland area. Eliza believes she has the perfect job. She meets many different people, in different neighborhoods and creates beautiful gardens, often where there were once vacant lots strewn with trash. From the Mayor on down the people of Chicago support the greening effort.

We first look in the middle of Michigan Avenue, the heart of the business district. Douglass Hoerr is a landscape architect and since 1993 Doug and his firm have been designing the median beds throughout the Michigan Avenue area. Doug tells us the story of how he somewhat accidentally started in Chicago. He had just returned from England working with people like Beth Chatto, John Brooks and Allen Bloom where he had had an English sort of experience-gardening and growing things and advancing the love of plants. He was asked by Crate and Barrel to look at their new store opening on Michigan Avenue. The original plan had been to put in some basic plants like Chrysanthemums but Doug thought it would be great to do a real perennial garden on Michigan Avenue, to change them out 3 or 4 times a year and to celebrate Chicago's seasons. Mayor Dailey saw the finished product at Crate and Barrel and asked Doug to get involved on a bigger scale. So, it started in one little area and has expanded since then. The first year they planted about 7,000 square feet and Doug had a staff of one. He experimented with different plants, not knowing what would grow because conditions can change within a half block. Some planters get sun a half a day, some get hardly any sun. Today they have about 30,000 square feet in the middle of the Avenue. In other cities you might see beds of Petunias and a Locust Tree but here there is a mixing of Annuals, Perennials and Shrubs. Doug calls it a mixed border look which he feels people respond to, something they might aspire to have at home. Similarly to when you choose a pot at home and it's the wrong scale; the giant pots along Michigan Avenue are on a scale with the City. Since they're in the city they need to be large and they are elevated so you can see them out of the windshield. Doug feels that this reinforces the power of public horticulture. You can put a ton of money into paving and curbs and gutters and all those things must happen but dollar for dollar when you put it into greening you get the most wonderful feedback for the least amount of money. It changes the perception of an area, the area looks like it has pride, looks like it is on its' way up. It demonstrates - this city can get it right. These plantings are so dramatic that when driving by in a car or when sitting in a car they're noticeable. Doug believes we're a windshield society. We choose our shopping malls and restaurants visually. When they look run down or beat up you think -do I really want to go there? No, you really don't. You make a snap judgment. What these plantings have done is created a very beautiful face lift for Chicago. Even more than that it has instilled community pride, people feel proud to say where they're from. Shoppers will visit in the Spring, then come back in the Fall. It's not static, architecture is static, plants grow and change. Doug wants these plants to be exuberant, he wants them to be irreverent of the architecture, he wants them to stand up in terms of structure and scale to the great buildings in Chicago. It is mixing landscape with architecture in its truest form.

Since they plant these out several times a year Doug makes the change at night when there's not a lot of traffic. The reason they do it at night is because during the first couple of years when they were changing the plants people would stop their cars in the middle of the street and ask gardening questions. What are you planting, can I have one of those, is this tax money, etc.? It is not, on this part of Michigan Avenue it is all privately funded. The police said the work was causing problems, they wanted it done at night. So now Doug and his staff of 30 do it at night. They place each plant first at the contractors, then come and plant them along Michigan Avenue. They start at 7 PM and work each night until done. It now takes almost 2 weeks in the spring. At first people asked why there weren't more Geraniums, Marigolds and other common plants. Doug feels everyone looks at gardens differently. He likes plants growing through plants and he likes things spilling over the side. He likes architecture in his plantings, he feels it necessary to have architecture in this city. For example look at the spires and mass. If there were just delicate flowers, pretty pinks and blues against all the concrete and gray and asphalt the plants wouldn't stand out. Thus the color selection must be brighter and the color contrast greater than might be used at home, and it must be big, otherwise it would be eaten up by the overall ambience of the city.

Charlie and Doug next take a close up look at one of the median planters, carefully dodging the taxis as they cross the street. When Doug is designing one of these planters he has some basic design elements in mind. They have a mixed border, in other words there is height in the foreground and things spilling over the side. Although it is now early in the season as they grow they will drape almost to the ground. To accomplish this he utilizes cascading Coleus, Blacky and Chartreuse Sweet Potato. Don't get spooked by the scale, even at home. Put the centerpieces in, the big structures then do some edging treatment. You'll get plants ducking through and onto the edge and plants growing through other plants. Doug calls this casserole plantings because there are so many things in these containers. Casseroles taste good because there is so much in them, likewise these plantings succeed because of the variety of plantings. Light conditions change, climate changes, something is always happening. Some plants will thrive, others may not, some will take over an area. Also people want these to look good the day they're planted, we don't have patience as a society, we want instant nice. Some plants will get eaten, some have early color, some will get swallowed by other plants. Ultimately they all fight it out and you end up with interesting combinations. These are great lessons to remember at home, when putting together a container there are several different approaches. You can put them in all at once and then move them around or pull some out when too big or like Doug let a few take over, let Mother Nature create the artistic pallet. Sometimes that's the best surprise. Doug is very conscious about form and structure. He likes some height and boldness and leaf texture. When he worked with Beth Chato in England she taught him early on that you don't need color if you have form and texture. A plant will hold its' own even if in black and white if it has interesting form and/or texture. Thus, Doug pays attention to leaf texture and contrast. As examples Doug cites plants that are sprawlers or vertical and spiky or plants with volume. He thinks about plants in black and white trying to design with just that in mind. Would he have leaf contrast, good form, juxtapositioning, would he have those plants displayed if nothing bloomed. These thoughts are helpful because sometimes plants don't bloom, for example if it is cool or if they don't get off to a good start. Look at an Osteospermum next to a Cordyline, place a Plectranthus leaf next to those. You see the different texture. For many people this is as close to a botanical garden as they'll get. He wants to expose those people to different plants. They might then put something on their roof top garden or their balcony. These plantings can foster the idea that more urban gardening, more green means better air quality, heat island lowering, things like that. That is one reason Doug scrambles to change the plant mix each year. Doug also likes the plants in the containers to be irregular, for there to be voids and shadows. In this container there are deep blue Petunias that aren't readily visible. But they add depth and shadow, the container doesn't look like one big mass. There are areas of recess light as you would see in nature. This type of planting with a lot of plants also helps keep weeds under control, in more formal gardens you notice weeds more.

Charlie thanks Doug for showing us these beautiful downtown gardens. Between the colors and textures and the health of the plants it has been an inspiration.

Nancy Clifton with the Chicago Botanic Garden shows us this week how to make hypertufa spheres. They are rock like spheres and are a very hot gardening trend right now. A hypertufa mix is an equal mix of Sphagnum Moss, concrete and sand. Mix them with water until you get a consistency of cottage cheese. For this project she uses a fish bowl, a hammer, dust mask and wears protective eyeware. Make the hypertufa mix, fill the fishbowl, then wrap it with several shopping bags. Once slightly hard, after about 24 hours, break the fishbowl, peel off the glass then with a wire brush scrape the sphere to give it a rock like consistency. Then let it cure for several more days, it will have hardened and look beautiful in your garden. Even in Chicago it can stay outside all winter. If you like the sphere you might also want to try a hypertufa trough.

We've seen the beautiful gardens in downtown Chicago, but there are beautiful gardens throughout the city. Today we visit the North Lawndale area and visit with Velma Johnson the President of the North Lawndale Greening Committee. Velma tells us about this garden. It was started 3 years ago with small grants. This area was filled with abandoned buildings and on this spot a building had been torn down. The idea was to take this land and make a garden and activities area, an area where community members could gather and enjoy themselves and beautify the area. Before the garden was started not a lot of good was happening in this location, it was filled with abandoned cars, trash and illegal activities. The idea was to bring something positive into the community. Once the garden was started the attitude changed, people started joining in and helping out. There are about 10 community gardens in the North Lawndale area. They started clearing vacant lots and putting in gardens with the intent of beautifying the area. Block clubs started picking up. Some of the gardens have been in existence for over 20 years. Although most of the volunteers are elderly residents, children do help during the summer months. The gardens entice both young and old to come together and work together. Velma would like to see more younger people becoming involved but believes that may happen because the neighborhood is attracting younger families that are buying homes. Different groups also offer assistance. The Open Lands Project is helpful as is the Chicago Botanic Garden group and the Department of Environment provides plants throughout the year to keep the gardens going. These are truly community gardens.

This garden is the African Heritage Garden, since this is a predominately black community. It affords an opportunity to educate younger people about their African heritage. The idea was to bring in plants native to Africa. We first view some grasses, in fact the area looks like a savanna, you can almost see a lion. It has been difficult gardening in these conditions. When the buildings were torn down they were just pushed over, nothing was dug up. Thus you can't go down, you need to bring everything up. Most gardens have mounds, raised beds or planter boxes. That is a great tip when gardening in an urban environment, often you won't know what's underneath. It could be paint, old buildings, lots of things, so bring in soil, raise things up, create berms. If growing things like a Black Locust tree it will do much better in a berm than trying to grow it among old concrete. Velma has also included a pergola in this garden. In Africa this would be a shade house, because it is so hot in Africa it provides a place to walk, to stop and rest. Velma has Trumpet Vines growing around the pergola that will eventually grow on and up either side and offer shade. As well they have Honeysuckle vines and Clematis and eventually they hope to add climbing Roses. They also hope to add a concrete pad and add a round house, which will be a great place to hold workshops. This too is a traditional African structure. Vegetables have also been planted. They've planted tomatoes, cabbage, beets, okra, greens, peppers, beans and onions but their most prized crop is peanuts. They have never grown peanuts before and are watching the progress. They give much of the produce to the community but some is sold to the local market. This activity provides a learning experience for the youth of the area. The kids see how things are grown, they then harvest it and take the goods to market. This helps develop business skills, marketing, math, etc. The money made selling the produce then is used in the community.

Vandalism isn't a problem in the garden, everyone is very protective of it. Community members see the garden as a beautifying force in the community, they see it as a positive not a negative. Today there are a lot of people working in the garden. As well as neighbors there is a religious group from St. Paul Minnesota which comes every year to volunteer in the gardens.

The last garden we view today is in the shape of Africa. In this garden are plants native to Africa. Its shape is outlined with Marigolds which will be in full bloom within a few weeks. It is beautiful today and will be even prettier when in full bloom.

Thank you Velma for showing us this beautiful garden. It should be an inspiration to many in our audience all around the country. It certainly has been to many in the North Lawndale community. Velma says she loves it.

Links:

Chicago Botanic Garden

Douglas Hoerr, landscape architect

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