I am a July 2014 graduate of the National School of Landscape Architecture of Versailles in France, where I studied landscape architecture for seven years. I like this field because each project is different, and we can work on different kinds of spaces and scales; park and garden projects, or public space (square, street, district) studies for cities or larger territories. For my diploma, I worked on a landscape project for salt marshes in a huge area in the south of France.
I chose to do an internship here in the United States to learn more about plants and the American garden culture. This internship was initiated by the French Heritage Society, which has organized student exchanges between France and the United States for the past 30 years. I am here through a partnership with the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Ragdale Foundation, an artists’ community in Lake Forest.
I spent four weeks at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden working under that garden’s horticulturist, Lisa Hilgenberg. The team was great, and it was a really interesting experience to discover new vegetable species or new ways of maintenance. I have done similar internships before, like in the kitchen garden of the King in Versailles, or at Potager du Roi, but those were not educational vegetable gardens like the one here in Glencoe. The Chicago Botanic Garden is wonderful, and I appreciate particularly the quality and variety of its vegetal compositions. Generally, I’m very impressed by the work of American gardeners and landscape architects. They are perfectionists.
When I was not at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I worked at the Ragdale House to help with the volunteer gardeners. It’s a historic garden designed by the famous architect Howard Van Doren Shaw at the end of the nineteenth century. Uses of the garden have changed since then, and there are different kinds of challenges for the maintenance today. I was asked to design a project for the garden as part of my internship. During this process, the prairie was a source of inspiration for me, as it is a typical landscape of Illinois. My main goal was to find a new link between the house, the garden, and the prairie, and I chose prairie native plants for a lower maintenance in the flower beds.
My stay at Lake Forest and Glencoe was an enriching exchange with the gardeners and the artists, and I hope that it will be the beginning of a new relationship in the coming years.
Step past the sleepy stone lion, breathe in the cowslip primrose, and listen to the water trickle into an eighteenth-century lead cistern—the feeling is as timeless as the tiny thyme plants growing between the hand-pressed bricks. So how do we preserve that timeless feeling while making sure the English Walled Garden withstands the rigors of time?
Dedicated in 1991 by Princess Margaret, the younger sister of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, the English Walled Garden features six garden rooms, surrounded by boundaries made of stone, brick, hedges, and trees. (At the dedication, Princess Margaret, by the way, wore a heavy, royal blue coat, buttoned to the collar; in a one-minute speech, she thanked the Garden for ensuring the authenticity of the English Walled Garden, according to a Chicago Tribune story. But we digress.)
Like all gardens, this one is subject to constant change. Some plants overgrow their space and need pruning. Trees cast shadows over sun-loving perennials. And some plants succumb to disease or insects. Through generous funding from the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society, the English Walled Garden is updated periodically. Renovations are made in consultation with the garden’s designer, renowned landscape architect John Brookes, Member of the British Empire (MBE).
Brookes most recently toured the garden in 2012 with Chicago Botanic Garden staff members, including Tim Johnson, director of horticulture, and Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist. This year, as part of a new restoration project, the staff is rethinking the plantings. Some plants will be replaced with varieties that have more desirable qualities, such as disease resistance, increased vigor, a longer bloom period, or lower maintenance. “We’re going back to the original design plan and where it called for blue iris, we’ll work to find varieties that are new to the Garden’s collection and that fit the parameters of the original design,” Sherwood said.
“We’re also simplifying the diversity of the plantings at John’s suggestion,” Johnson added. “It’s a complicated, multilayered process that will be done in phases.” One high-priority project will be to overhaul the perennial borders so visitors can continue to experience the garden throughout the year.
In designing the garden, Brookes said his intent was to present a typical period English country garden that would evoke as many of the senses as possible. The garden “should be visual, of course, with color, but also scent and texture in the planting, and a feeling of it all not being too immaculate,” Brookes said. “Plantings should be full and almost overflowing their borders. It should be a joyous and restful place above all else.”
This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the summer 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden. At that time, the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society was in its third year of “Growing the Future,” a $1 million pledge to the Chicago Botanic Garden. Proceeds from that year supported renovation of the English Walled Garden and replacement of trees damaged by the emerald ash borer.
A well-designed outdoor space can do wonders for seniors and those with Alzheimer’s disease. But how do these gardens differ from other outdoor spaces and why are they so important?
Housing for the elderly has been provided in many western cities since the Middle Ages. Facilities such as independent living centers, skilled nursing homes, dementia or memory care units, and hospice facilities have traditionally included some form of outdoor space.
The majority of the elderly (over 65) reside in their own home or with relatives. Whether in a facility or at a personal home, particular symptoms of decreased quality of life begin to show during these stages. These symptoms are often displayed in the form of boredom, helplessness, and loneliness. Fortunately, many, if not all of these symptoms can be improved with gardening and exposure to outdoor spaces.
The keys (and often the greatest challenges) to successful aging are to remain physically active and socially engaged, and to retain a sense of self. There are many measureable health outcomes for seniors and the outdoors. Even a short visit in a garden can lower blood pressure, improve vitamin D absorption, improve stability, and help with better sleep patterns.
Boredom can be remedied with sensory stimulation and interaction with nature. Nature can aid the feeling of helplessness with providing a space for temporary escape (actual or visual), and the feeling of loneliness can be decreased in a garden that provides multiple places for socialization.
The benefits are endless. So how do we make sure these wonderful gardens are implemented properly so that they will be used by seniors?
For today, we’ll concentrate on four factors of design: The entrance and exit to the outdoor space, plant material, pathways and ease of accessibility (circuit and materials), and seating.
The entrance/exit to an outdoor space—the threshold—is perhaps the most important factor to consider when designing an outdoor space for the elderly, and this largely comes down to one single detail: the door. Doorways are high on the list of residential complaints. Often they’re hard to open, or locked. They don’t have windows and therefore inhibit visitors from viewing the garden (…what’s the weather like?). Perhaps the door has a lip that makes it difficult for seniors in wheelchairs to cross the threshold on their own.
Another factor involving the threshold is the comfort (or perceived comfort) when entering or exiting the garden. Creating a transition or “comfort zone” between the indoor and outdoor space is key. Aging eyes have difficulty adjusting from indoor light to outdoor sunlight. Providing shade at the entrance/exit in the form of an awning or patio will increase the transitional comfort.
This brings us to the next factor: plant material. I didn’t mention a pergola with draping vines as a possibility for the transition space. That’s because it’s a detail that is strongly discouraged in outdoor design for seniors. A pergola or draped plant material creates patterned shadows on the ground. This is referred to as “visual cliffing” in design. Seniors react to changes in paving color, or deep shadows on a path as if they were a change in depth. This may lead to stumbles, fear, and discomfort. Simply avoiding structures such as arbors or trellises will alleviate this issue.
Plant selection for the garden is fairly straightforward. Use a variety of trees, shrubs, flowers, and vines and place them where they can be touched and smelled. Aging eyes can see highly saturated colors—such as oranges, reds, and yellows—more easily than blues, purples, and greens. Also, certain plant material such as herbs and traditional shrubs (hydrangeas, roses, etc.) help to stimulate memory as they often bring deep-rooted and cherished memories to mind for those with Alzheimer’s disease.
Color choices are not just important when it comes to plant material, they’re also important for paving, our third factor. Since aging eyes have trouble with glare, use non-glare paving surfaces such as tinted concrete. Other satisfactory surfaces include rubberized asphalt and stabilized decomposed granite.
The pathway circuit is also pivotal. Creating interesting places to walk with shorter and longer loops, destinations points (such as a water fountain or gazebo), and changing vistas will encourage engagement and exercise. With these pathways, be sure to pay attention to safety. Pathways with edges or railings will ensure safety for wheelchair users or individuals with impaired sight.
It should be noted, however, that in a facility for those with Alzheimer’s disease, a destination point or wandering path should be adjusted so that its pathway circuit never takes an individual to a point where the entrance/exit is no longer visible. This may lead to the feeling of being “stuck” or agitated if confusion sets in. Not knowing which route to take or how to get back can be very stressful for someone with Alzheimer’s. Instead, create a series of large and small destinations and landmarks that will help users orient themselves in a space (flagpole, gazebo, group of chairs, etc.).
Lastly, think about seating. It is important to design different areas for seating to create options. Some may like an area to sit alone. Living with other people in a facility is a new experience for many residents and it can be stressful. A garden can provide a place for quiet contemplation. On the other side of the spectrum, there should also be places to sit with others. These spaces create socialization, either with visitors or among the residents.
Consider also the kind of seating to be provided. Wood, fabric, or hard plastic materials are preferred, as they are more comfortable than steel, aluminum, or concrete surfaces. When possible, provide seating with cushions to increase comfort. Using moveable seating is also very popular. Use of the overall space skyrockets when people of any age are able to move or manipulate their seat for optimal comfort and satisfaction. This enables garden users to feel in control, which may be lacking inside the building.
These factors as well as countless others help to create spaces that are inviting and engaging to the elderly. There are additional factors to consider in an outdoor space that relate to programmatic intentions on top of the physical design but we’ll visit those topics another day.
Outdoor spaces in facilities for the elderly and aging are immensely important. The next time you visit one, take a moment for a quick assessment. With these basic tips, everyone can be an expert and wonderful advocate for successful outdoor spaces and gardens for the elderly.
Watch as the trains twist and turn through the Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America exhibition to the beat of an old rock n’ roll hit. Chief Engineer Dave Rodelius and his team of volunteers set up the trains each morning. Rodelius designed a train car and rig so that we could film from the train’s eye view. Thanks to him and his crew, we get to experience the sights of the garden as if we were passengers on the model trains! Visit the Model Railroad Garden before it closes for the season on Oct. 30. For more information on the railroad, visit http://www.chicagobotanic.org/railroad.