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Springtime in the Gardens

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If you’ve never strolled through these three magnificent gardens maybe this is the year to stop and smell the roses … and hundreds of other flowers. Discover the horticulture at three of our favorite local attractions.

The daylily garden at Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden, in Rockford. (Klehm Arboretum photo)

If you’ve never strolled these three remarkable gardens, perhaps this is the year to visit Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden and Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford, Ill., and Rotary Gardens in Janesville, Wis.

Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden: Serene & Green with a Flowery Future

Strolling 155-acre Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden with John Moors, director of collections, is a bit like having Mark Zuckerberg teach you how to use Facebook. He knows the background of each tree, shrub and flower, and blade of grass.

“That’s ‘no-mow fescue,’ a combination of fescues that grows just 12 inches high,” he says, pointing to silky grass below recent plantings of Limber, Korean and Swiss Stone pines. “Even if you don’t mow it, it only gets this high, unlike traditional Kentucky Bluegrass, which gets two-and-a-half feet tall.”

He turns his attention to the pines. “The limber pine is a wonderful alternative to more brittle pines that are easily broken in windy weather,” he says.

Home gardeners eagerly absorb such nuggets of knowledge during visits to Klehm, and serious arborists visit from afar, not only to explore the wide variety of trees, but also to view mature specimens.

“David Michener, associate curator at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, Mich., recently stopped in,” Moors says, heading toward a grove of giant firs. “That was an honor. His arboretum is impressive, but his trees are just 10 to 20 years old. Many of ours have been here since the 1920s.” Moors cranes his neck to see the top of a towering Nikko fir, a native of Japan. “This tree is rare, unlike that one,” he says, pointing. “Norway spruces are common, because they seed so freely.” He moves to a blue Alpine fir, stroking the soft new growth on its branch tips. “It looks like a blue spruce, but it’s not. Feel the needles. They’re soft, not sharp, even in late summer.”

Each of these giant conifers would fit nicely into a Jurassic Park film, but not into most homeowners’ landscapes, a lesson unto itself.

“You must consider the space a tree or plant will require, or it won’t be happy and you won’t be happy,” says Moors. “You’ll be fighting it all your life. There’s an old saying, ‘If you haven’t planted too big a tree in too small a spot, you haven’t planted enough trees.’ We’ve all made that mistake.”

Moving to a grove of Fabaceae, or pod-bearing trees, Moors points to a honey locust, its lacy foliage shimmering in sunlight. “Forty or 50 years ago, locusts were covered with thorns,” he says. “The thorns have been bred out of them.”

Nearby grows a white-flowering redbud. “I don’t know why you’d want a white redbud, the pink blooms are so beautiful — but we think it should be represented,” says Moors. He looks up at the rounded, purple-red leaves of a forest pansy redbud, the foliage nearly translucent, backlit by dappled sunshine. “Now this is special,” he smiles. “But it’s crowded by that crabapple, which will have to come down. I’ve become more and more ruthless about removing some trees for the good of others, but there are some I just can’t bring myself to eliminate.”

He looks around at the trees and shrugs. “How lucky can I be, to work here every day?” His words are reinforced by birdsong and honeysuckle perfume.

Moors has nurtured Klehm’s plant life for 11 years; previously, he spent a decade at Rockford Park Disctrict’s Sinnissippi Gardens, working closely with the Rockford Mens’ Garden Club to restore the historic floral clock and rose garden. To him, all plants are wonderful, from tiny flower to towering tree.

“It took a lot to bring the arboretum back to this level,” Moors explains. “When it was generously donated to the public by the Klehm family in 1985, many of the trees were stressed or threatened by encroaching invasive species. It’s very rewarding to see how well they’re thriving again.”

The arboretum is inarguably robust, with 500 species and cultivars of woody plants, thanks in part to the William Lincoln Taylor family, which collected plants from around the world and founded Rockford Nursery on this site in 1910.

The botanic portion of Klehm, however, is less well developed. “Sometimes people come here and ask, ‘Where are the botanic gardens?’ says Moors. “So we plan to expand the botanic gardens, to install some new ones, and rejuvenate others.”

To that end, Klehm has hired landscape architect Jim Wojtowicz to develop public-pleasing gardens. With a background in retail, and an eye for the extraordinary, Wojtowicz is eager to make an impact.
“We want to see more floral bang out here, and, over time, develop a series of ‘garden rooms,’” Wojtowicz says. “The public will notice some immediate small changes starting this year, with spruced-up planters and hanging demonstration gardens.”

A grant is funding some updates that will be evident when Klehm’s 19th Annual Garden Fair opens June 1. Eight new interpretive signs, better plant labeling throughout the grounds, and new banners and kiosks for the main building are in the works, says Wojtowicz.

“In the near future I hope to bring in some unusual combinations of plant materials, mixing ornamentals and vegetables, for example, and incorporating weeping evergreens into gardens.”

Fans of Klehm already appreciate the ever-changing beauty of the serene property, just as it is. Klehm’s Rhododendron and Azalea Dell allows visitors to peruse 60 species of cultivars chosen for their range of colors and staggered bloom times. In the Peony Garden, 70 luscious varieties are displayed.

The lush Hosta Garden is not only beautiful, but also a godsend for those who wish to distinguish one species from another. Fifty kinds flourish below Klehm’s shade trees.

Demonstration Gardens at Klehm are dedicated to herbs, daylilies and butterfly-attracting plants; more are in development, such an English Cottage garden. The Nancy Olson Children’s Garden, reached via an iris-fringed bridge and koi fish pond, will soon expand.

The Prehistoric Garden showcases some of the oldest plant varieties on earth, including ferns, grasses and the gingko tree, a species dating back 270 million years.

Even those who lack curiosity about plant life enjoy the verdant landscapes and serene atmosphere of Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden, says Moors.

“It’s an extremely quiet and safe place for people to just enjoy nature,” he says. “We don’t even allow boom boxes or skateboards. A lot of people forget we’re here, because they don’t routinely pass by this end of the city. But once they discover how special it is, they keep coming back.”

The main gate area celebrates spring without an annual plant in sight. Note how the geometrically shaped Japanese lantern echoes the geometric gate structure. (Anderson Japanese Gardens photo)

Anderson Japanese Gardens: Observing the Rhythms and Patterns of Nature

A powerful sense of serenity awaits those who stroll the walkways of Anderson Japanese Gardens (AJG). Tim Gruner felt it on his first visit to the gardens, back in 1985, during a horticulture field trip with classmates from Kishwaukee College.

“I remember feeling the kind of clarity and tranquility that I felt when I was in deep nature,” he recalls. “I wondered how a man-made space could elicit that feeling in me. And so I began studying the things that make a Japanese garden work.”

After a one-year internship at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Gruner was hired in 1989 by AJG founder John Anderson as the garden’s first horticulturist, later becoming its curator. He’s worked closely with AJG designer Hoichi Kurisu, widely considered one of the best Japanese garden designers in the world. Now, Gruner shares with other gardeners the insights he’s collected about replicating the rhythms and patterns of nature. It turns out the garden’s natural feel is no accident, but the result of a peaceful relationship between nature and humanity.

Gruner urges gardeners to begin their learning journey by closely examining natural spaces that have touched them in some profound way.

“I’ve never forgotten the feeling I got as a kid observing the pebbles at the bottom of Willow Creek in Rock Cut State Park,” says Gruner. “How does a creek flow? Not straight, but in a serpentine pattern. Some of its curves are wider than others, and the pebbles settle in certain patterns according to how the water has pushed them. The stream curves for a reason – something has become an obstacle for the water. What is it? It’s about seeing what’s really going on, the cause and effect, in nature.”

Visitors to AJG may notice that some trees grow at an angle, rather than straight up. They were intentionally planted on a slant to imitate the way trees bend toward light along ridges and waterways. Trees also may grow in groups that form one canopy.

“A group of three trees often behaves like one tree,” says Gruner. “Our trees are often connected visually because they lean with a strong branch in the same direction – this is a very common theme in our garden. Leaning plants imply motion. Orchestrated as a group, they can create a sense of harmony.”

One of Gruner’s favorite natural spaces is Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin. “I ask myself, ‘Why am I drawn to it?’ When I study its elements, I notice the mixture of deciduous trees and conifers, the presence of the massive, hard rocks and the way their lines are softened by plant foliage. The compositions are asymmetrically balanced. These are concepts we can imitate.

“In Japanese gardens, straight lines are generally found only in the architectural elements, the man-made structures. Then there’s a transition to the organic shapes in the garden. That way, the architecture and garden become one space. Hoichi Kurisu is great at creating these transition spaces.”

For example, the AJG guest house is flanked by parallel planes of stone that echo its shape. But as the pathway leads away from it, geometric stones begin mixing with more randomly shaped stones. “In this way, the symmetrical, man-made building is very much connected with the asymmetrical, natural landscape,” Gruner explains. “It’s the idea that human beings and nature are two parts of one thing.”

Nature is echoed in various structures throughout the garden built with natural materials: clean-grained, unpainted wood; stucco that mimics ochre-colored clay used in Japan to build walls; stone foundations; bamboo and reed matting on ceilings; natural fiber tatami floors. In these subtle ways, natural and human-derived elements are wed to one another.

Although Kurisu sketches conceptual designs of a given garden project, his work comes together during a freestyle layout process. “He has the freedom to be inspired and to be an artist here,” says Gruner. “He places a stone and pays attention to its relationship to other elements. Then that stone informs the placement of the next one.”

The Japanese garden also acknowledges the endless flow of time. For this reason, perennial plants are chosen over annuals.

“The garden is engaged in the present but looks forward,” explains Gruner. “There’s nothing static. A geranium is a beautiful plant, but it looks just the same during summer as it does in fall.

“Japanese gardens acknowledge the ephemeral nature of things. A blossom is beautiful while it is here, but it will be gone in a few weeks. Even hostas are always engaged in an endless flow of time. This is a very Japanese way of looking at life. Explained another way, chefs in our country acknowledge four seasons of cuisine. In Japan, there are 32.”

Japanese garden designers also pay attention to what Gruner calls “positive distractions” – the way sunlight ripples on water, the way a shadow falls, the way a breeze causes leaves to waver on a tree.
When air can move through elements of a garden, there’s greater depth. This means carefully pruning unnecessary bulk from many plants – an act of man that results in amplified natural beauty.

“Over time, I’ve learned that nature itself is the best teacher,” says Gruner. “Putting those lessons into practice requires patience, but it can be done – as Hoichi Kurisu has proven so beautifully here.”

A colorful display at Rotary Gardens in Janesville. (Rotary Gardens photo)

Rotary Botanical Gardens: Endless Potential for Beauty & Learning

No garden can be all things to all people, but this one sure comes close. It caters to all tastes, ages and abilities, and pays homage to several international cultures. “Our tagline is that we’re a community garden good enough to show the world, and we are,” says Mark Dwyer, director of horticulture. “But our specific mission is to provide horticultural education.”

That a garden can be both educational and so stunningly beautiful is a marvel. It’s the kind of place that awakens imagination and inspires the creative mind to soar.

Visitors who stroll these 20 acres experience a world of garden styles, from English cottage, French formal rose and Japanese to Scottish and Italian. There’s an ornamental/edible garden with demonstration displays; a “smelly” garden within the children’s garden; shade, herb, woodland and prairie gardens. The fern & moss garden – something seldom found in the U.S. – is nationally acclaimed, and showcases some 250 varieties of ferns.

Among many other things to its credit, Rotary Botanical Gardens is a national display garden for the American Hosta Society and American Hemerocallis (daylily) Society. Many plant producers stage display gardens here, like Ball Seed Introductions, PanAmerican Seed Co. and Takii Inc., as well as industry associations like All-American Selections and its European counterpart, Fleuroselect. In all, this botanical showcase offers 18 distinct areas, including garden “rooms” in chosen color palettes. In these gardens grow some 6,800 perennials, 100,000 annuals, 380,000 blooming bulbs, and 3,100 trees, shrubs and vines.

In short, this is one serious garden. And yet Dwyer manages the 20-acre gardens themselves – everything outdoors at Rotary Botanical Gardens – with just eight part-time seasonal ground employees. How is that even possible?

It seems that Rotary Gardens has a way of cultivating not only plants, but people. About 400 community volunteers commit some 17,000 hours each year to helping the gardens flourish, making it a place truly “owned” by the people of Janesville, in sweat equity.

The gardens were founded 23 years ago by Dr. Robert Yahr, along with support from the two Rotary Clubs in Janesville. Local people donated labor, materials and money to establish the nonprofit gardens, then set on 15 acres in a moraine once used as a sand pit, and surrounded on three sides by a spring-fed pond. Now 20 acres large, the City of Janesville owns the property, but the nonprofit gardens that occupy it are funded privately and have no formal connection to Rotary Club International.

On any given spring day, visitors find volunteers pulling weeds, digging holes, planting seeds, identifying plants, or helping out in other ways – washing windows in the Parker Education Center or running Cottage Gardens Gift Shop, which stocks unusually interesting items, many locally crafted.

One can only imagine the communication involved in bringing the carefully planned display gardens to life, many of which are completely changed out from one year to the next, to feature a new theme, color scheme or trial group of plants.

“The thing about Rotary Botanical Gardens is that the potential for continued improvement will never end,” says Dwyer. “We’re huge on display gardens, which go hand in hand with our mission of providing horticultural education.”

Maintaining – much less expanding – an ambitious garden like this one, on a tight budget, is both exhausting and exhilarating. “Our reward is seeing people leave the garden with a new or renewed love for plants and the environment,” Dwyer says. “I never look at my watch, I never dread coming to work, and I get to be involved with a lot of good people who share my passion for growing things,” he says.

Because plant purveyors are always coming out with something new, Dwyer spends many an evening with his nose buried in horticulture magazines and catalogs. Garden leaders also strive to take the public’s pulse. For example, renewed interest in healthful eating, soaring grocery prices and an economic slump have motivated many folks to set up their own edible gardens. Rotary’s displays of compact, hanging and ornamental-mixed vegetable gardens are not only highly instructive, but timely.

Related to this, Dwyer has observed keen interest in teaching children where food comes from, which relates to the Wellness Garden theme that’s been hugely successful the past few years. “After all, taste, nutrition and wellness go hand in hand,” he says.

Garden leaders also are aware that the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired is located in Janesville, and take care to make sure the garden appeals to all the senses.

“We’re doing a lot with sensory engagement in the garden, planting extremely fragrant flowers, 180 varieties of flavorful herbs, plants with tactile interest,” says Dwyer. “Visitors may not be able to see, but they can sniff the scents, feel the textures.”

People who require mobile assistance find that about 90 percent of the gardens pathways are accessible. “We’ve recently been talking about how to do more with vertical walls and raised beds, to give people with special needs closer access,” says Dwyer. “We think the garden plays a wonderful role in wellness and healing, and we want it to be enjoyed by all people.”

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