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Shorelines on the Prairie
Two recent projects at the Chicago Botanic Garden showcase new approaches to shoreline plantings in American gardens.
By Frank Edgerton Martin

Although Chicago is known for its Prairie School architecture and historic park system, water plays a critical, though much less visible, role throughout the larger region. Before European settlement, the area was dotted with a variety of wetlands—sedge meadows, bogs, and marshes—that were home to a rich variety of plant and wildlife species.

Evening Island is a self-contained world of meadows, densely wooded knolls, and hillsides covered with Whitespire gray birch trees.
Copyright 2002 Lisa Delplace

Taking advantage of the area’s relatively flat contours and high water tables, the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG) is forging a new model of placemaking for American garden design that integrates the horticulturist’s knowledge of plant communities with the landscape architect’s ability to shape topography, mood, and space. As the largest cluster of projects ever undertaken by the CBG, the gardens of the Great Basin, a 7.5 acre lake bounded by significant new collections, increase display areas by 30 percent. The basin is planted with more than 100,000 perennials, 13,000 ornamental grasses, 50,000 aquatic plants, and 2,000 trees. Two years in the planning, these Aquatic Initiative projects are transforming the CBG into the country’s premier urban shoreline garden.

Two recent projects at the CBG showcase new possibilities for ponds and shorelines in American gardens. Evening Island, designed by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates (OvS) of Washington, D.C., and the smaller Spider Island, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates of New York City, are the latest in a continuing series of improvements to the CBG’s nine islands and extensive network of ponds and basins.

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