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24 November 2020

A Garden Preservationist Explores Chicago’s North Shore

Gardeners have a name for people like Benjamin Lenhardt: a dual-zoner. Flowers envy the life, and so do we. He splits his time between Zone 5B and 8B (Winnetka, Illinois to Charleston, South Carolina). The dual-zoner also happens to be a garden preservationist. The former chairman of the Garden Conservancy and is now an author. Gardens of the North Shore of Chicago whisks readers into the stunning green worlds of 5B, proving that Chicagoans don’t let a little snow disrupt their gardening. We wanted to hear more about what happens on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Siberian Iris and giant Japanese Butterbur thrive in the moist soil of the ravine.

Janet Mavec: What's your favorite season in 5B?

Benjamin Lenhardt: I look forward to summer in Winnetka, although it sometimes doesn’t get going until July 4 because of a rainy and cold spring. But when it does, it bursts forth with color, height, vigor: phlox, cleome, Verbena bonariensis, clematis, and purple loosestrife—and good old-fashioned weeds. Autumn is a runner-up because I lose the urge to keep everything neat and tidy. I can just enjoy. I also can study my garden’s structure and decide what I might want to change for next year.

JM: What are your top three favorite plants there?

BL: Verbena bonariensis is a wonderful see-through plant with great height and lavender florets that return yearly from seed. Gomphrena globosa 'Fireworks' is a relatively new (2009) globe amaranth with hot pink blossoms on almost 3-foot stems that makes it special. It just gets lovelier as the summer goes on. Petasites japonicus (butterbur) is a giant-leafed plant that thrives in the ravine's moist soil and adds architectural interest.

BL: A book has not been published on gardens on the North Shore for over 100 years! Many books have been written about gardens on the East and West Coasts, but Chicago has been overlooked. I wanted to show the gardening talents, creativity, and variety of gardens here. I also wanted to document them in photographs and writing, preserving them for future generations. As you know, that is one of the Garden Conservancy's prime objectives.

JM: It seems so important to choose the right photographer as a garden preservationist. How did you do it, or what do you recommend if people want to document.

BL: For me, I knew that I needed a local photographer since shooting would stretch from May till October. I recommend canvassing well-known landscape architects in your area. I asked two here for suggestions, and interestingly, they both said, ‘Scott Shigley is the man!’ He’s talented, and he’s easy to work with—that’s an important part for a project that stretches over two seasons.

The ravine garden includes butterbur, Joe Pye weed, Siberian and Japanese irises, variegated sweet flag, and ferns.

JM: Congratulations on the new book! How did it come about?

JM: How did you plan your own garden in Winnetka that was featured in the book?

BL: I had no overall plan. Instead, I relied on trial and error, with many errors unfortunately, and visits to other gardens with the Garden Conservancy for inspiration.  Also, all my decisions were guided by the style of the house (Nantucket) and where it is sited (atop one of the southernmost ravines on the North Shore).

JM: You say one of your favorite spaces is the ravine garden. Where did you get inspiration?

BL: From a visit to Frank Cabot’s garden, Les Quatre Vents in Quebec. Frank, the founder of the Garden Conservancy, created a large Japanese garden at the bottom of a deep ravine.  After visiting, I decided I would try to copy his garden but on a smaller scale.  Large-leafed butterbur, rodgersia, Joe Pye weed, and water-loving Siberian and Japanese iris dominate.

Globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa ‘Fireworks’), sedums, Russian sage, catmint, coneflower, phlox, and spider flowers blend together on the hillside.

JM: What's the one tool you can't live without?

BL: Some form of Corona pruners or hedge shears—whether pruning or trimming shrubs, boxwoods or topiaries. The trick is to make sure they are sharpened frequently.

JM: Any other garden tips.

BL: Look at the structure of your garden in late fall when leaves are dropping. This will show the bones of the garden and possibly give ideas for change. Boxwoods should be trimmed with hand shears, not electric ones to prevent burning the leaves. If not, you have to wait six weeks before the brown disappears

Benjamin Lenhardt is deeply engrained in garden and cultural organizations. Besides his tenure at the Garden Conservancy and his continued emeritus status, he serves on the boards for the Chicago Botanic Garden, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. In Charleston, he’s on the boards of Drayton Hall Preservation Trust, Preservation Society of Charleston, and the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Ben wearing Janet Mavec's sunflower Lapel pin.