BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Barbara Whitney Carr, former President and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden, writes in the forward to Gardens of the North Shore of Chicago by Benjamin Lenhardt, a fantasy of a publication now at the top of our list for holiday gift giving:
Ben once told me that ‘great gardens have souls.’ Gardens of the North Shore of Chicago is a collection of exceptional gardens that Ben has ensured are gardens with souls—all reflecting the visions of the people who dreamed of them and the people who made them.
Filled with lush shots taken by Scott Shigley, who has photographed and published the works of major landscape architects, the book explores 25 private gardens along the North Shore. Lenhardt, a master gardener and preservationist, joked that he carried the ladder for Shigley to climb on for many of the shots. Choice of photos to take was pure collaboration.
Wandering through the large photographs taken through all gardening seasons is a fine pandemic escape. Like souls, the gardens are ethereal, packed with secret haunts and passionate places that tell what the owner is all about. Groves and meadows, garden rooms divided by yews, terraces for contemplation while dining, deep ravines, and Midwest prairies fill pages you can’t wait to turn to see whose garden is next. Some gardeners prefer a formal French style, others the vibrancy and looseness of an English garden. Lenhardt divides the gardens into classic, contemporary, naturalistic, and country.
“Beauty without boundaries is a look of Shirley Ryan’s garden. As a child she visited the Holland, Michigan, tulip festival with her father and sisters. She has always loved tulips,” Lenhardt says.
An example of a country garden is Mettawa Manor, which Donna La Pietra and Bill Kurtis restored and created beginning in 1990. Bill, being a Midwesterner, has always loved prairies, the author shares.
“I plead guilty to extending the North Shore boundaries a bit to include Joe Gromacki’s Kelton House Farm in southern Wisconsin. At this rural farmstead, Joe has created 18th-century falling terraces with rare colonial flowers and vegetables,” he explains.
One of the North Shore’s most beloved gardens is Crab Free Farm in Lake Bluff, a tribute to its preservationist owners Neville and John Bryan. Today it is the last working farm in Illinois on Lake Michigan with a breathtaking panorama of gardens, forest, fields, and follies. David Adler designed the first folly, Jefferson House, which sits at the end of a cathedral-like allee in the forest.
Lenhardt, a master gardener and preservationist in both Winnetka and Charleston, South Carolina, explains why he wrote the book: “There have been books about Lake Forest estates, which give a smattering of hints at gardens but at least in the last 100 years, there has been nothing about the gardens themselves. East Coast, the South, California—for those places there are millions of garden books.”
“Unlike paintings which you can hang in a museum, there are very few gardens that are preserved for any length of time,” he continues, “We need this documentation.”
The towns along the North Shore were incorporated between 1857 and 1896. At the turn of the 20th century, architects like Howard Van Doren Shaw, David Adler, and Harrie Lindeberg collaborated with noted landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmsted, Jens Jensen, and Ellen Biddle Shipman to complete these estates. Few of these survive, Lenhardt says.
Today’s celebrated national and local landscape designers, including the late Rosemary Very, Peter Wirtz, Hoerr Schaudt, Craig Bergmann, and Scott Byron are represented in the book.
“In the 1990s, the late Mary Ann and Barry McLean wanted to assemble pieces from an extensive Asian collection in their garden. Craig Bergmann assisted in creating ‘floating islands’ in the naturalized setting. ‘Mary Ann’s Garden’ is a memorial to her and also to her love of color. When autumn approaches, the garden transitions into its fall dress with tall grasses and trees with bronze, yellow, orange, and red leaves,” reveals the author.
Lenhardt served for seven years as Chairman of the Garden Conservancy, an American non-profit dedicated to preserving, sharing, and celebrating the country’s diverse gardening traditions. Proceeds from the sale of the book go to the Garden Conservancy.
“Gardening on the North Shore is challenging,” he explains. “The growth season is short: May through September. The soil is predominately clay, and the weather is extremely varied. The North Shore’s dominant topographical features are Lake Michigan and a series of ancient ravines, created nearly 12,000 years ago when the last glaciers of the Ice Age melted.”
Lenhardt advises you to work with nature’s cycle on your garden, and it is never too early to start planning: “In December, the Burpee Seed Catalog arrives, and I find that come January, people are itching to get started. The most anticipated times for North Shore gardens are late summer and early fall. For the last 10 years, our springs have been cold and wet. Gardens really get going full blast in July. I think my favorite time is the fall, when ‘show time’ is over. I love that flopsy-mopsy look when your garden is relaxed.”
Cindy and Ben Lenhardt moved to a Nantucket-style house at the top of a Winnetka ravine in 1980, where he says he soon learned that gardening was all about trial and error: “I have probably killed more plants than have survived when I have tried to push the envelope with plants that don’t belong in the many shady parts of my garden.”
In addition to gardening advice and the name of his favorite garden in the book (he demurs), people are asking about his next beautiful offering. Lenhardt says, “Cindy and I love travel, and I don’t think there’s a place we go when we don’t try to see some private gardens. I think there’s a new book coming out about royal gardens around the world, and we have loved those that we have seen. But in terms of a new book, Cindy has put her foot down.”
Gardens of the North Shore of Chicago is available at major booksellers and local independent retailers such as Volumes, in-store or for purchase here.