Rich People's Small Space Gardens

Rich People's Small Space Gardens
Thumbnail image for Bali Garden Gate.png

This past weekend I attended the Dearborn Garden Walk in the Gold Coast neighborhood with what seemed like a million other people. The week leading up to the garden walk I joked on social networking sites that I was finally going to see rich people’s gardens.  I was excited about the chance to see some gardens of the Gold Coast neighborhood without the fear of being arrested for trespassing. Fortunately, for me I was invited and given a free pass to attend. Unfortunately, it was hot and I was not in much of a picture-taking mood, so I took few photos. Most of the gardens were on the small side and the crowds wanting to experience them quickly made them seem even smaller.  While I don’t have many photos to show for walking around for three hours in what seemed like 100 degree weather, I did walk away with a couple of garden lesson I’d like to share.

Rich people garden just like us! Well, except for that one gardener with the manservant, I am sure most of us do not have one of those. Rich gardeners put their Dutchman’s Breeches on one leg at a time-just like the poors! I would not say I was disappointed in the gardens I saw, but I felt you could transport most of those gardens to any other neighborhood in Chicago and they would not look out of place. In addition, that is a good thing. The desire to grow something or place your mark on a patch of Earth transcends social economic lines. 
Perhaps I have a skewed idea of wealth because of all the reality television that I watch. Can this be? Could Bravo be misleading me about how the other half lives? Maybe a diamond-encrusted planter is not as classy as I think it would be. 
I read somewhere that a garden is an outward manifestation of how you see yourself. I had to unroll my eyes after reading that, but after touring some of the gardens in the Gold Coast, I understand. Many of the gardeners and homeowners definitely branded their gardens with their personalities and interests. There was a small Asian garden–complete with white Japanese Koi in a small pond– that really surprised me. I have walked past it on many occasions and the plain brick wall that surrounds it gives you no indication that it is there.  From eavesdropping on the conversation the owners were having with another attendee, I gathered they visited Asia a lot. They talked of bringing back newspapers and an Asian restaurateur who gives them a discount in exchange for the papers. 
Another walled garden, top picture, had the most beautiful garden gate I have ever seen. The doors and frame was imported from Bali, but the garden did not have an Asian feel. The gardener was proud of that door but I think the wire chair to the right of it was equally charming. As was much of her collection of garden art that leaned towards the whimsical, most likely purchased at the Old Town Art Fair. I have long been fascinated by architectural detail and its use as reclaimed garden art. One gardener’s collection of sculpture and building details would rival the collection at The Art Institute of Chicago. Each of the gardens did seem to be an outward representation of the owner.  Sometimes a cigar plant is not just a cigar plant.
The plant selection, surprisingly, was very common.The same annuals, perennials, vines, trees and shrubs you could purchase in your own neighborhood. I always thought that my income (and that of those around me) dictated the type of plants found in gardens in my area. I am starting to believe that maybe the availability of plants near you is what really matters. The same annuals and perennials, probably purchased at Old Town Gardens on Wells, were repeated throughout gardens. Along with a private jet, a new house and car I have plants on my “if I win the lottery I’m going to buy…” list. Well, not specific plants, more like a specific plant brands and all the latest cultivars and rarest plants I’ve ever read about and lusted after. I heard one gardener mention that she was growing Chocolate Vine and I had to restrain myself from mentioning that it is now on Chicago’s Invasive Plant List. Seeing as how I was a guest in her garden it didn’t seem like the polite thing to do. 
Small garden in Chicago's Gold Coast Neighborhood.png
Some of the plantings seemed understated. The white coach house pictured above had a few simple window boxes and pots with red blooming annuals. In front of it was a sunken garden with tiers of evergreen hedges and next door was a vertical garden, again planted with common annuals, maintained by a man in a wheelchair. Plants don’t make the garden, what does make one garden stand out among the rest of the personality of the gardener.  
From the most extravagant gardens to the collection of herbs in plastic pots, you see from the L, the one thing we all have in common is this desire to grow something. Whether it is to feed our families, beautiful our block, or grow some flowers to add to a vase it isn’t the plants and how much you can spend, but that your garden is tells the world that this is you. The flowers are your laughter, the tendrils, leaves and stems that sway in the wind are you when you dance when you think nobody can see. The pollinators are the friendships you’ve cultivated in your life and the seed are the promises you’ve made. The Dearborn Garden Walk is credited with transforming the Gold Cost neighborhood; in a way I feel that it transformed me.
You can see more images of the Dearborn Garden Walk here and in this book. My Friend attended the garden walk with me and if she ever gets her act together you can see more pictures on her garden blog. I’ll upload a couple more pictures to the Chicago Gardeners flickr group where you’re welcomed to add pictures of what’s growing in your garden. If you’re looking for ideas for a garden in a small space or a shady garden I suggest you add the Dearborn Garden Walk to your list of things to do next year. 


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  • Great post...while I agree our gardens represent our personality I fear what mine says about me. I have allot of variety and an enormous need to weed...hmmm...sounds about right for my personality actually! ...or at least the state of my house.

    By the way Mr. Brown Thumb...if you are good with insects I have a photo on my blog and I'm dying for someone to tell me what it is...any ideas?

  • In reply to PrairieGarden:


    btw, I took a quick look and it seems like you have one of these

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    it is, it is! Thank you so much :-)

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    My post is now live.

    P.S. Yes, I got many photos of the veggie garden, but I didn't get any I'd qualify as good.

    P.P.S. Ha, my elbow sure is cute!

  • In reply to PrairieGarden:

    I can fairly certainly assure you that you friend's act will never truly be together! Or maybe she figures there's no point in showing her photos since they'd only be duplicates of yours! ;-)

    I love your take on the walk; I admit I'm caught out--Chicago turns my head and flirts with me, and I'm so enamored soaking up her sights and sounds that apparently I missed a lot going on around me! And I'm usually fairly observant. (Really. Stop laughing.)

    Can you believe the Ann Arbor library had that book? And you need to teach me about over-exposure one day because your photos rock mine out of the park.

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:


    Yeah...I when I was picking my pictures I wondered if you'd have the same pictures or not. I only had something like 10 photos in my camera, which is really low for me. Did they really? That's cool.

    Did you get a good picture of the veggie farm at the Cardinal's mansion? For some reason I only thought of photographing half of the circle and the brick path.

  • In reply to PrairieGarden:

    P.S. Since my freelance gig is on hold now, I swear (and you know I do!) I'll do my post tomorrow! Pinky swear, even!

  • In reply to PrairieGarden:

    Great post MBT, very insightful. I'm not sure I'd have wanted to brave the heat, and the middle child was in from Florida so we had family stuff going on last weekend, but I'm still sorry I missed it, and missed hanging out with you and Monica.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    I'm sorry you didn't come but glad to hear you had family in. The heat was bad for me 'cause I'm built for cold weather and other didn't seem as affected by it as I was. Maybe next year you'll come into the City and we can do the walk. They have a media preview where you can see the vignettes without the crowds before the walk starts. I plan on taking advantage of that next year.

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