Cantigny’s beloved Idea Garden, “the gardener’s garden,” is on target to reopen late next spring, and park visitors will notice some big changes. Among them: a waterfall, running stream, boulders and footbridge. The new water elements occupy the eastern half of the one-acre garden, which opened in 1990.

Through the years, the Idea Garden has been a place for home gardeners to gather ideas that can be applied in their own landscapes. It’s fun, quirky and always inspirational.

But the Idea Garden, like other Cantigny gardens addressed during Project New Leaf, was showing its age. An update was overdue, even though plans for the garden were not formally baked into the project’s Phase II construction.

“The Idea Garden needed to match the quality of other Project New Leaf elements,” said Scott Witte, director of horticulture. “We were not going to turn our backs on one of the most popular areas of the park.”

Plans started coming into focus about a year ago following a discussion with Aquascape Construction of St. Charles. The contractor proposed a “native riverscape” theme that resonated with the Cantigny Horticulture team, including Witte, Todd Henderson, Craig Kruckenberg and Liz Omura. The group wanted to create something new and interesting while adding educational value, safety and accessibility. Ease of maintenance was another goal.

The job of refining Aquascape’s proposal and seeing how it might fit the Idea Garden went to Kruckenberg, horticulture design manager, who sketched out a plan. His original diagram (pictured on the right) became the basis for the construction work that began in August.

Wood fencing along the south, east and north borders of the Idea Garden was removed, allowing the space to blend naturally with the adjacent Prairie View landscape. The garden seems larger now and more open. Berms featuring newly installed native trees and shrubs define the garden’s perimeter and will add fall color. Plantings include sumac, chokeberry, hazelnut, holly, dogwood, black gum and viburnum.

A lone 15-foot bur oak rises near the waterfall, an Idea Garden carryover that Omura, Idea Garden curator, remembers as a tiny volunteer seedling, perhaps delivered by a squirrel. She hopes it survives amid its new surroundings.

Boulders line the water’s edge and strategically placed flat stones will invite sure-footed guests to cross the simulated river. All were “upcycled” from the former Dry Garden behind the Visitors Center. Smaller rocks—often irresistible for children—were removed for safety.

Kids will still have plenty to enjoy. While not intended as a “children’s garden,” the step stones and bridge should be natural attractions, along with goldfish, frogs and possibly other creatures below.

The Idea Garden footbridge, by the way, is another example of resourceful upcycling. Decking on the bridge consists of reclaimed planks from bridges at Cantigny Golf.

The stream itself is powered by three pumps and the recirculated water—about 25,000 gallons—is well filtered. Keeping the water clean and moving is a priority.

Fallen logs line parts of the stream bed as well, and native aquatic plants are scheduled for installation next year. The plantings will cleanse the water and provide cover for the fish. Kruckenberg believes the miniature ecosystem could offer “living classroom” opportunities for school field trips.  

The western side of the Idea Garden remains intact. Themed beds bursting with colorful annuals will return, as will assorted vegetable plantings. Omura is brewing up a “Witch’s Garden” for one of the beds, comprised of medicinal plants and other surprises.

Throughout the garden, upgraded path surfacing will improve drainage and better accommodate wheelchairs and strollers.

Also new for 2021, visitors entering the Idea Garden from the McCormick Allée will pass through a “moon gate.” The circular, steel-tube structure is sure to capture the attention of new and returning guests, inviting them into the ever-changing garden that lives up to its name.

This concept drawing, created by Cantigny Horticulture’s Craig Kruckenberg last March, became the basis for the Idea Garden renovation now wrapping up. The garden will open to the public in spring 2021.

This aerial image taken October 24 shows the entire Idea Garden, with the new “native riverscape” feature in the foreground. Landscaping and pathwork are still in progress. Photo by Lee Hogan.

In their element: Liz Omura and Craig Kruckenberg from Cantigny Horticulture take a break during the Idea Garden renovation.

The crew from Aquascape creates the future riverscape, pouring stones over installed “AquaBlox” water storage modules of recycled plastic.

The installed riverscape uses three pumps to power the waterfall and keep 25,000 gallons of water in perpetual motion. This view is looking north toward Prairie View and McCormick House.

The Idea Garden is always a fascinating stop for children–a living classroom for all ages. In 2021, kids will have even more to explore. Photo by Tom Brandseth.


Posted by Jeff Reiter

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