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Trends in Landscape Design

Nathaniel Hawthorne, reflecting on his Concord garden in 1846, wrote, “I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day. It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world, to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a row of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green.”
That many present-day gardeners share Hawthorne’s nurturing passion for plants is not surprising; the last several decades have seen an explosion of enthusiasm for landscape design and gardening of all sorts. And what are the trends in design now, in 2012?
According to Jill Selinger, of the Regenstein School at the Chicago Botanic Garden, current practices mainly reflect a general shift toward the utilitarian, away from the purely ornamental.
Selinger has been with the Botanic Garden for twelve years, and she notes that many more people have been signing up for gardening classes recently, hoping to make their plantings useful. The kitchen garden of yore is back in vogue, with people wanting to grow heirloom tomatoes, squashes, beans, and other vegetables. A particularly popular course at the Regenstein School is “The Weekend Gardener,” which focuses on how to grow blackberries and fruit trees in one’s own yard. Another heavily-enrolled offering is Regenstein’s urban composting class.
Julie McCaffrey spokesperson at the Botanic Garden points out that two newer designs now proliferating both lend momentum to the utilitarian movement: raised bed gardening and vertical gardening. Regenstein now offers a class called “Raised Bed Gardening,” which instructs people in how to build such a garden and in how to grow vegetables for maximum yield. Elevated beds enable gardeners to supply better soil and better drainage for their plants; furthermore, tending them is easier on people’s backs and knees. Regenstein also hosts a hands-on class for whole families interested in tending raised beds, meeting with the parents and children four times a year, once in each season. This past year 24 families participated.
Vertical gardening enables people to grow more in small spaces by planting up. Patrick Blanc, a French landscape architect who has worked in Chicago, is a cutting-edge advocate of this sort of design. Vertical planting is a way to create more gardens in urban areas, and increasingly, “planted walls” help control temperature within buildings and manage rain run-off, making them ecologically desirable. Sometimes the walls become “green roofs,” which are planted chiefly to save on heating and cooling costs. Chicago and Toronto stand out for their bold experiments in this sphere.
Another gardening trend involves raising animals, such as bees or chickens, as part of one’s landscape design. Regenstein will be offering a new course in April on raising backyard chickens, taught by Jennifer Murtoff, owner of a Chicago business called Home to Roost: Urban Chicken Consulting.
Jane Mueller and Mark Marcus, owners of the Chicago business Private Gardens, Public Places, observe that increasingly people want low-maintenance landscaping. They are also seeing an increase in front gardens, usually following the removal of a lawn, and in container gardening. In addition, clients want hearty plants, such as Proven Winners (PW), bred to grow almost anywhere and with minimal attention. Jill Selinger, too, has noticed a demand for tougher plants, especially drought-resistant hybrids. A further development is that more home gardeners are collecting water in rain barrels and focusing on native plants that flourish on their own. Roy Diblik, of Northwind Perennial Farm in Springfield, Wisconsin, offers a Regenstein course on making home gardens ecological, self-sustaining, and nurturing.
The Mueller-Marcus duo stresses that for people thinking of investing in landscaping, this spring and summer is an optimal time to do so. Because the economy has been bad for the last several years, most local nurseries have not been able to sell trees and larger shrubs at their usual rate, and their stock has grown huge. Consequently, “You can now get wonderful buys –unbelievably well-grown plants for very good prices.”
So plunge in and reap the rewards. As Henry David Thoreau
observed about his bean fields in Walden, “I came to love my rows. . . . They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.”

Published: February 12, 2012
Issue: February 2012 Issue