We easily take for granted the remarkable variety of impressive gardens here in Rockford. Take a brief tour of seven excellent, national-attention-grabbing places that you can explore today.
It’s long been noted that gardeners are generous people. They like to share plants, advice and stories about resilient plants that rebounded against all odds. Most of all, they take pleasure in seeing others enjoy the beautiful (and tasty) results of their labor. Gardeners are far more likely to help one another succeed than to assume a competitive attitude.
So it’s not too surprising that the keepers of seven great Rockford gardens have formed the Great Gardens Rockford consortium (greatgardensrockford.org) to cross-promote their gardens, big and small. Each has something unique to offer, and each is likely to welcome more visitors through cooperation.
“You know how Chicago offers a city pass that people can use to go to all sorts of major museums?” asks Kelly Moore, manager of Nicholas Conservatory/City of Gardens at Rockford Park District. “Well, we’re offering something similar from the gardening community of Rockford, because our great gardens really are a star attraction here. We think that if people from other towns, who love high-quality gardens, understand just how much we have to offer here, some will make overnight visits to Rockford and try to visit all of them.”
Shockingly, many people who live here haven’t yet visited many of our wonderful gardens.
Here’s an overview of what you’ve been missing – or what you can look forward to re-visiting – this season. Most of the gardens have planned too many special events to list here, so be sure to check websites for admission costs and special dates.
Anderson Japanese Gardens
318 Spring Creek Road, Rockford
andersongardens.org, (815) 229-9390
Open May 1-Oct. 31
Mon.-Fri. 9-6, Sat. 9-4, Sun. 10-4
It’s really true: Rockford’s Anderson Japanese Gardens consistently rates among the very best Japanese gardens in the nation. “And yet, many people in our own backyard have yet to discover it,” says Kathy Boyd, tour, volunteer and membership manager for the gardens.
After people do discover it, words like “serenity” and “healing” most often come to their lips as they describe it to friends.
“People often tell us they find tranquility and a sense of reconnection, regeneration, in this garden,” says Tim Gruner, garden curator for the past 24 years. “That’s what we want. For us, it’s a matter of how this garden affects your heart.”
Visitors discover winding streams, a koi pond, waterfalls, beautiful boulders, conifers and structures built to exacting, authentic standards of 16th century Japanese architecture. This is no wild place where random wildflowers grow. It’s carefully designed and groomed, using a wide variety of plants, shrubs and trees, most of them common to our region.
“It’s the way they’re placed and trained, the way the garden takes its cues from the patterns and rhythms of nature, that define its style as Japanese,” explains Gruner.
The purpose of this 12-acre paradise is not to teach, but to saturate the human soul with tranquility and invite reflection. It was developed by John and Linda Anderson on their private property, in the 1980s, and today is a nonprofit entity enjoyed by people from around the world.
Check the andersongardens.org to learn about special events, including weekly live concerts on Tuesday evenings, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Heritage Gardens at Midway Village Museum
6799 Guilford Road, Rockford
midwayvillage.com, (815) 397-9112
Gardens open seasonally
When you stroll these gardens, you’ll see more than pretty scenes: you’ll also glimpse Rockford, circa 1890 to 1910. You’ll find it in Blue Pimpernel blossoms, purple heirloom tomatoes or Love Lies Bleeding that drips over picket fences. You’ll find it in the Four Square Garden with raised beds. (And we thought raised beds were a modern invention.)
Just as the history of fashion reflects bigger social trends, so does the history of gardening.
“I use these gardens to discuss not only what was being planted at the time, but why,” explains Tari Rowland, the museum’s garden historian. “We look at the larger context of what people were thinking about, in Rockford, and across the country.”
For example, the Grandmother’s Garden is filled with peonies and hollyhocks – simple plants once grown in the “good old days” of Colonial America, before rapid changes overwhelmed many late-19th century Americans. Changes like industrialization; growth of cities and loss of rural lifestyle; conflicts with a very large wave of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe; the replacement of artisans by machine.
The exotic, tropical plants that symbolized the Golden Age of Exploration to Victorians were rejected by their grandchildren.
“By the late 1800s, there was also a sense that this beautiful natural environment experienced by the earliest settlers had already been greatly diminished,” says Rowland. Conservation movements gained steam and people weighed the price of “progress.”
Rowland uses the Blue Garden to talk about the changing role of women in the early 20th century. Landscape design was one of the first female forays into life beyond domesticity, at least for wealthy women. An example was Gertrude Jekyll, an influential British artist, writer and landscape designer who studied color in the garden.
Rowland enjoys sharing snippets of everyday culture that help us to understand the personalities of our ancestors. “For example, when a Victorian lady needed to use the outhouse, she would ask her hostess, ‘Where are your hollyhocks?’ because people typically grew tall plants like that around the outhouse to make it less obvious. I just love that story, because it provides insight into just how prim and proper Victorian-era ladies were.”
Other gardens at the museum include the Immigrant Vegetable Garden, this year with a Scottish theme; the Heritage Park of sub-tropical and bedding plants adored by Victorians; an heirloom tomato test plot of 16 varieties; and the School Garden, inspired by O.J. Kern, the Winnebago County school superintendent from 1902 to 1913, who established the 4-H Club here to interest boys in farming practices, so they wouldn’t flee family farms in favor of factory jobs.
“One of the things people worried about is that there wouldn’t be enough people left on the farms to grow food for the country,” Rowland explains. The museum is also working to grow a natural prairie.
Learn about Victorian Hands-On History Day on July 27, and other special events, at midwayvillage.com.
La Paloma Gardens
3622 Brookview Road, Rockford
lapalomagardens.com, (815) 399-0324
Open May to October, by appointment only
Of the seven Great Gardens, only 5-acre La Paloma Gardens is privately owned, and by an accomplished watercolor artist. Karen Harding’s talent is evident around every bend, where lovely vignettes, whimsical structures, enormous hanging baskets and plenty of resting spots invite visitors to soak up the beauty. “La Paloma is a Spanish term for ‘dove,’ and a symbol of peace and tranquility,” Harding explains. She established the garden with her late husband, Ben, in 1984, in their large backyard in the middle of residential Rockford.
“It just grew, even though my husband teased I didn’t know what end of a shovel to hold.”
In fact, Harding inherited a green thumb from both sets of grandparents and learned plant propagation from her paternal grandfather. She began pushing the limits, experimenting, training plants to do the unexpected, such as twining around forms she hand crafted, to form living sculptures.
By 1994, the garden expanded onto a neighboring lot and hosted weddings and other special events.
Today, Harding is especially proud of the wide, paved, gently curving pathways that make her garden fully accessible to people with special needs, including the wheelchair-bound. Sometimes, blind students visit her garden. “There’s more to enjoy in a garden than just what you see,” she says.
But what you see at La Paloma Gardens is breathtaking. Paths are flanked by herbaceous borders, open vistas, mass plantings, gentle waterfalls and a lagoon that’s home to swans gliding alongside sweet flag iris and water lilies.
Harding has worked out special box lunch arrangements with nearby restaurants, for visitors who’d like to order ahead and picnic at her gardens.
“The gardens are 30 years old now, and have really adapted to the topography,” she says. “I love watching people strolling along, making new discoveries at every turn.”
Go to lapalomagardens.com to learn about special events, including “Art in the Garden,” this year on Aug. 2, an annual outdoor dinner dance gala that benefits Rockford Art Museum.
Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens
1354 N. Second St., Rockford
rockfordparkdistrict.org, (815) 987-8858
Conservatory closed Mondays & major holidays
This stretch along the Rock River truly brings old and new Rockford together.
Magnificent Sinnissippi Rose Garden, with its formal Victorian design, white pergolas and one of the few working floral clocks in the nation, is the first park established by Rockford Park District, in 1909; today it owns 125 parks. These gardens feature more than 2,000 rose plants in more than 60 varieties, along with shady perennial gardens. Perhaps more than any other landmark, this place represents “home” to generations of Rockford folk who’ve stopped to smell the roses here.
The Sinnissippi duck pond is now Eclipse Lagoon, part of the Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens built in celebration of the park’s 100th anniversary. The gleaming 22,000-square-foot glass structure makes it possible to breathe in tropical air year-round, and to observe jungle plants like palm, cocoa, mango, papaya and banana trees. You can even watch a jackfruit swell week by week to more than 80 lbs.
“We asked a child if he knew where chocolate comes from, and he replied ‘Hershey’s,’” recalls Kelly Moore, manager of Nicholas Conservatory/City of Gardens. “It was great to be able to show him a cocoa plant. This place offers so many ways to connect with people on an educational level, but it’s also still just a great place to make family memories.”
Parents bring their children to the conservatory to see changing exhibits with subjects like orchids or butterflies; follow a trail of whimsical sculptures; or stroll the landscaped lagoon to see its new fountains and plantings. The conservatory entrance is a work of art in itself, with a colorful mural depicting highlights of regional history, and a floor embedded with blue glass and stone that mimics a trail of water leading to the lagoon.
The conservatory is outfitted with the latest in “green” technology, as befits a community crossing into a new century, once again with environmental responsibility on its mind.
Visit rockfordparkdistrict.org to learn about events like free Tunes on the Terrace, every Wednesday from June 4-Aug. 27.
Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden
2715 N. Main St., Rockford
klehm.org, (815) 965-8146
There are many things to love about this 155-acre green oasis, but most notable is its fantastic collection of trees, some rare, some that rarely survive in our climate, and some very old, like the 300-year-old bur oaks that put down roots here well before European settlers did.
By definition, an arboretum is a living museum of trees – a place to learn about and protect a diversity of trees – and ours is one of the best. That’s not just happy talk, but the opinion of professional arborists who inventoried the site in 1991 and concluded this assortment of plant life is unlike any other in the nation.
“There’s no doubt that our largest asset is our tree collection,” says Dan Riggs, executive director. “We have more than 500 varieties of woody plants, with 300 species and another 200 cultivars.” Woody plants include trees, shrubs and vines.
Klehm is an excellent place to learn about trees, because a site plan maps out the locations of various species, using numbered trail posts and other landmarks. You can also arrange for a tour. But the arboretum is also a good place just to soak up the sound of birdsong and stretch your legs on a 1.8-mile paved path with lovely views at every turn.
“There really is something changing here all the time, coming in and out of bloom, turning colors,” says Riggs. “It’s a different place with every visit.”
Along with woody plants, Klehm is home to 75 types of hostas, 90 kinds of daylilies, 72 varieties of peonies and more than 80 species of rhododendron and azalea.
A footbridge over the koi pond leads to the Nancy Olson Children’s Garden, with its hedge maze and whimsical features like bovine friend “Cow-Li-Flower.” Demonstration gardens are designed to inspire those who hanker to grow certain kinds of gardens, like butterfly, herb, quilt or daylily.
In June, lavender wisteria drips from a trellised gazebo that’s protected by a wall of conifers, in the Fountain Garden. Dinosaur mascot Flora-Fauna anchors the Prehistoric Garden, with plants like gingko and anceint ferns.
How did such a special place come to be?
In 1910, when Rockford was among the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., William Lincoln Taylor established a nursery here. He experimented with many kinds of plantings from around the world, often with great success. In 1968, the Klehm family purchased and maintained the property; in an act of great public service, they donated it to the Winnebago County Forest Preserve, with the stipulation it be maintained as an arboretum. We are the benefactors.
Womanspace Gardens & Labyrinth
3333 Maria Linden Dr., Rockford
womanspace-rockford.org, (815) 877-0118
Open year-round, dawn to dusk
Womanspace volunteers have lovingly tended these gardens for decades, and you can feel it. A sense of friendship mingles with the scent of sun-warmed pine needles. These gardens are open to anyone, at no charge, year-round, from dawn to dusk.
“What we have going for us is a lot of volunteers who love gardening together,” says Anne Godin, who’s coordinated the gardens for 14 years, the past six with friend Sherri Crawford. Each is a retired school teacher who enjoys shaping tranquil spaces that offer rest to visitors. Most of the plants here have been dug and lugged to the site from volunteers’ yards.
The most distinctive feature on the seven-acre campus is the 76-foot diameter Womanspace Labyrinth, comprised of limestone quarried near Rockford. It’s modeled after an 11-circuit labyrinth in medieval Chartres Cathedral in France. “People come here to walk the labyrinth – it’s the only one in our region – and maybe they pray or meditate, as they walk, or contemplate joy, work through problems – they center themselves,” says Godin.
Like everything else in these gardens, Womanspace volunteers designed and built the labyrinth with their own hands. After all, self-reliance is a core value here, but so is cooperative partnership.
Ribbon-clad hoops hang along one pathway beneath the pines, pointing visitors to the labyrinth or the sunny prairie-in-progress. “A prairie is a massive undertaking,” says Godin, as she points to a section of Little Bluestem prairie grass waving in the wind. “We’re learning a lot from Wild Ones and the Natural Land Institute.”
As the women pass by this plant or that one, they see not only the plants, but the people and stories behind them. They find joy in the blooming patches of iris, white candytuft, Virginia bluebell, mayapple, wild geranium, lamium, vinca vine, Jack-in-the-pulpit, bergena … and an unusual lavender-blooming shooting star.
“One of our volunteers gave us that shooting star from his grandmother’s collection,” Godin recalls. “Isn’t that something?”
Other gardens at Womanspace include the Lilly Fernandez Memorial Meditation Garden; the Peace Garden; the Celebration Garden; and the Restful Garden.
Womanspace was founded in 1975 by Dorothy Bock and Elaine Hirschenberger, members of the School Sisters of St. Francis. It offers programs to women, men and children, to enhance body, mind and spirit, with a focus on creative arts, holistic health, interfaith exploration, and environmental stewardship.
Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum & Gardens
411 Kent St., Rockford
tinkercottage.org, (815) 964-2424
Gardens open all year; Cottage tours Tues.-Sun.
at 1 and 3 p.m.
“What makes this garden unique is that it reflects the tastes of one particular Rockford family during a very interesting era,” says Alix Fox, education coordinator at Tinker Swiss Cottage.
Robert Tinker was a Rockford mayor (1857), businessman, world traveler and co-founder of Rockford Park District. He built his Swiss-style “cottage” atop the limestone bluffs overlooking Kent Creek in 1867, on the cusp of Rockford’s heyday as a thriving industrial city. Across the creek lived his employer and future wife, Mary Manny, the widow of reaper businessman John Henry Manny. She shared Tinker’s passion for flower and vegetable gardening, as did many well-heeled Victorians. The Tinkers’ gardening habits are especially well documented by journals, postcards and photos.
“Mary loved roses,” says Fox. The circular Victorian rose garden in front of the cottage was restored in 1998, to the way it looked between 1890 and 1910. More than 25 heirloom rose varieties thrive here, including luscious climbers on trellises. “Visitors are sometimes surprised to learn how wonderful roses smelled, before they were highly hybridized,” says Fox. Mary’s favorite was the Moss Rose, which dates back to the 1600s.
A few years after Mary died in 1901, Robert married her much-younger niece, Jessie, so they could share the cottage scandal-free. Jessie Tinker’s favorite flower was the iris and she won many awards developing new cultivars. Today, thanks to restoration efforts, the same varieties she grew bloom throughout the property once again.
Robert Tinker was proud of his “railroad garden,” a scenic expanse enjoyed by passengers of the Illinois Central Railroad line, behind his cottage, with views of flower beds, Kent Creek, Tinker Lagoon and the suspension bridge that once linked Mary’s home to his. A newly built suspension bridge invites visitors to cross Kent Creek to the Tinker Illinois Prairie Meadow that’s in development. In time, it will provide a glimpse of what Illinois prairie looked like, in 1834, when Rockford was founded.
“Volunteer gardeners keep us going, and we’re very appreciative,” says Fox. Go to tinkercottage.org to learn about special events such as Hukilau, on Aug. 7, a night of tropical Hawaiian food and entertainment, in conjunction with Tinker’s new exhibit: Feel the Life of Hawaii.