Truly grand in scope: Morton Arboretum is ready to show its $16.6 million 'Grand Garden'
An old hedge garden in the Morton Arboretum had few frills.
The garden made a formal first impression near the main arrival area of the arboretum in Lisle. The symmetry of sheared hedges carried the eye east, toward four distant columns.
"There weren't a lot of gathering spaces," said Susan Jacobson, the arboretum's head of site planning and design. "It was rows and rows of hedges."
The arboretum has established a new garden on roughly the same footprint as the original, preserving the perimeter hedge and the unspoiled views of the four pillars. But the $16.6 million "Grand Garden" is built for a grand occasion: the 100th year of the arboretum.
Opening Sunday, the garden lives up to its name. Laser-cut, steel trellises cast sun-dappled leaf patterns on garden paths. There are eight linear fountains -- not to mention the 12-foot, oval-shaped fountain on a curved limestone wall circling a wedding terrace.
The garden -- really, a series of gardens -- serves as a calming transition from the traffic around the nearby visitor center to the more natural terrain of the arboretum.
"I'd say the heart of the garden is just horticultural richness," said Jacobson, the project leader. "And this is the first garden that we've ever focused so much on water."
This is gardening on a grand scale.
The 'long view'
Over more than a year of construction, the once-staid hedge garden evolved into a new central attraction.
Some of the classic features of the hedge garden -- like the pleasing symmetry -- remain. The arboretum also was able to retain 10 ginkgo trees that are about 25 years old to "emphasize that long view of the garden," Jacobson said.
"We not only have the perimeter hedge, but we have a lot of very mature trees that kind of surround the garden," Jacobson said. "And it really makes it feel like it was dropped into an arboretum."
The Grand Garden stretches two acres east to west, the length of about two football fields. A succession of floral displays adds bursts of color to a landscape that was lacking it. And LED lighting allows the new garden to host both public and private events after sunset.
Blush-toned hydrangeas have already grown to hip height at the east end of the garden, leading to the arboretum's conifer collection, a fragrant backdrop for weddings and evening soirees.
"We were able to transplant some other larger-scale evergreens from the grounds that had lived out their life where they were and were perfect to add to this garden space," Jacobson said.
Visitors can make a grand entrance through a circular plaza in the core of the garden. Wisteria and clematis vines creep up galvanized steel porticos. Raised planters in the four quadrants of the circle hold "really exuberant display beds" of fuchsia zinnia and other annuals, Jacobson said.
A stone floor medallion, eight feet in diameter, commemorates the arboretum's "100 years of planting and protecting trees."
"The arboretum has long had a vision of adding a colorful specialty garden in this space," Vice President Alicia LaVire said. "It's been under consideration for many years, and really the centennial was a significant milestone and impetus for the project."
Gardens within a garden
West of the plaza, the arboretum has created six "garden rooms," or three on either side of a central lawn. The rooms are separated by walls of yew shrubs and trellises.
"It's almost like a doorway that you walk through as you go from room to room," Jacobson said.
This western side is dubbed the "Joy of Plants Garden." But again, there are mini-gardens within a garden. Each room showcases a signature ornamental tree -- a Japanese maple, for instance -- and varied plantings. Visitors can settle into benches and appreciate the subtle differences in color.
"We have a lot of hibiscus, but we've got several different varieties like blue chiffon, pink chiffon, lavender chiffon, white chiffon," Jacobson said.
The arboretum also used an accessible design.
"We've made the pathways a little bit wider than a normal sidewalk in a city so that it's easy for two wheelchairs or two double strollers to pass each other without one having to go off the sidewalk," Jacobson said.
The eastern stretch culminates in an upper-level wedding terrace with a wide expanse of the rest of the garden. Horticulturalists kept to a fairly neutral palette of white, pale pinks and sweet yellows in the "Celebration Garden."
Kousa dogwood trees will develop four-petaled, white flowers in the late spring, in time to greet June brides.
"Eventually, the branches will arch over the walkways in two directions to really frame that view of the wedding ceremony space," Jacobson said.
The arboretum is now booking ceremonies into 2024.
The $16.6 million garden project was funded by donors and an endowment for its ongoing maintenance. The arboretum also received a $500,000 matching state grant.
Volunteer docents will answer questions about the garden during an opening event with live music from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday as part of the arboretum's yearlong centennial celebration.
After the death of arboretum founder Joy Morton in 1934, Jean Morton Cudahy took on projects to memorialize her father. That year, the arboretum planted hedges to develop its first formal garden space.
In a nod to an old crabapple field in the hedge garden, more disease-resistant crabapple trees were planted around the centennial plaza.
It's the kind of sustainable evolution Joy Morton would have embraced. In the documents incorporating his family estate as an arboretum, Morton laid out his hope for a "great outdoor museum arranged for convenient study of every species, variety, and hybrid of the woody plants of the world."