Cantigny Park visitors will soon experience a garden within the gardens that is entirely new: a Rock Garden unlike any other in the Midwest.

Located just east of the Visitors Center and south of the new Fountain Garden, the Rock Garden is a botanical showplace. Huge limestone blocks and slabs—hand-selected from a Wisconsin quarry and expertly positioned by Damgaard Landscape—form raised beds and steps that invite close views of the diverse plantings. Some of the more diminutive plants grow from soil-filled crevices (see photo).

The Rock Garden’s western exposure is a gravel garden, featuring many species native to the prairies of Illinois along with a selection of hardy and drought-tolerant cultivated varieties. Cantigny Horticulture’s experience with gravel gardening began in earnest last year with a renovation of several parking islands in the lot west of the First Division Museum.

In total, the Rock Garden contains about 250 plant varieties, from sun-soaking cacti such as Eastern Prickly Pear and hot-pink Dianthus to shade-loving ferns and dwarf hostas. Several bonsai trees are joined by Japanese maples, Smokebush and Dwarf White Pine to give structure to the planting.

Samantha Peckham, Cantigny senior horticulturist, was highly involved in the Rock Garden’s planning and creation, and now maintenance. She and colleagues from Cantigny Horticulture worked with Sasaki Associates on developing the garden’s plant list and the team gathered ideas and inspiration from visits to the rock gardens of Allen Centennial Garden and Olbrich Botanical Gardens, both in Madison, Wis.

Plant material, Peckham said, was sourced from local nurseries in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan along with several specialty nurseries in California and British Columbia.

Cantigny’s previous Rock Garden (see photo) dated from the 1970s. Compared with the new Rock Garden, it offered limited plant diversity and was visually less captivating. But not all was lost. Boulders and specimen evergreens were salvaged for the new garden. Plus, the Juniper and Blue Spruce trees from the old Dryland Garden stayed in place and are essential elements in the new Rock Garden.

Sasaki, the landscape design firm behind Project New Leaf, planned the Rock Garden to be an immersive experience. This is achieved with pathways that connect different sections of the garden, leading visitors through the space instead of around the edges. An adjacent lawn area is expected to be a popular site for wedding ceremonies, with the Rock Garden itself offering excellent photo opportunities for gatherings of all kinds.

Cantigny Horticulture handled Rock Garden plant installation, assisted by hort volunteers in the gravel garden. The new plantings are receiving generous waterings this summer, Peckham said, but once established the Rock Garden should be low maintenance.

Meanwhile, Peckham is nurturing some of the plants extra carefully, including the Daphne. Several specimens are visible in the Rock Garden if you look carefully, each surrounded by a tiny mesh cage to protect them from hungry critters.

The Cantigny Rock Garden opens to the public later this summer. Watch for news on

Finishing touches are now being applied within and around the Rock Garden, shown here on July 16. Photo by Lee Hogan.

Plantings in the Rock Garden crevices include Eastern Prickly Pear, a hardy cactus species native to the Midwest.

A couple American goldfinches visit the newly planted gravel garden, a landscape featuring native Illinois prairie species. Among them: Blazing Star, Flowering Spurge and assorted coneflowers.

Garden highlights include dashes of bright color, like these Dianthus popping up from a crevice.

The original Rock Garden, shown here, was attractive but offered limited plant diversity and color.



Posted by Jeff Reiter

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