Cantigny Park showcases and teaches which plants grow well in the Midwest

Photos Courtesy of Cantigny Park.
Gold Pond Garden features major waterinterest with a mansion in the background.

In a location that was once a quiet, rural setting on the outskirts of Chicago known as “Red Oak Farm,” Cantigny Park allows guests to view formal gardens and natural areas featuring innovative uses of plants. Now very much a part of Chicagoland, Cantigny Park focuses on both display and education, continuing a tradition that began in the 1930s during a time when agriculture was the primary interest of Illinois and of the nation. Experimental farms operated during the ’30s trying out new plants, along with growing and harvesting techniques, and a number of these innovative concepts were disseminated through various channels, including a column in the Chicago Tribune, which is credited with being a major influence in shaping the future of Midwestern agriculture. These experimental endeavors and the education provided through the columns served as forerunners to today’s emphasis on horticultural innovation and education at Cantigny Park.

The 500-acre Cantigny Park, located in Wheaton, Ill., was home to Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, who operated one of several successful, experimental farms in the Midwest. McCormick established a charitable trust that created Cantigny Park so that visitors could walk through history in the First Division Museum, which is dedicated to McCormick’s service with the U.S. Army First Division in World War I. Visitors can also view elaborate garden displays and play golf on a 36-hole course offering all the amenities of a private club.

Scott Witte, left, and Bob Waterman discuss Parade Field’s progress.

While keeping the tradition of McCormick’s farm, highlighted by formal European-style gardens and traditional Illinois prairie, is important at Cantigny, innovation is a key element in developing and maintaining these features. A hiking trail, playground and tree identification program continue the tradition of education that began with McCormick’s experimental farm.

Gardens evolve

Following McCormick’s death in 1955, Cantigny’s board of directors changed the focus to horticulture. A renowned landscape designer, Franz Lipp, designed the gardens, and the rich tradition of offering innovative ideas to professional landscapers and the general public continues today.  

More than 29 acres featuring 22 gardens have been established at Cantigny and feature trees, shrubs, grasses and ornamental plants, with many plants grown in Cantigny’s own greenhouses.

Bob Waterman, gardens and grounds director, said, “Designing is done a year ahead, and Jane Rogers, our horticulturist, gives us a list with the number of species and varieties.” Discussions are held to determine whether to buy seeds to grow plants in the greenhouse, use cuttings or plugs, and the decisions are based on such points as availability of some plants that may be licensed and on budgets. Exhibits change throughout the seasons ranging from the 350,000 summer annuals to 3,000 poinsettia plants during the Christmas season.

Formal Gardens

The Formal Gardens include the Upper and Lower Burr Oak Gardens, which feature extensive flowers along the walkways.

Cantigny greenhouses produce most of the plants used at Cantigny Park and CantignyGolf Course.

The Formal Gardens feature plants that grow well in the Midwest, and trees include wide-ranging species, such as European beech trees, Douglas fir, Colorado blue spruce and many native, Midwestern trees. Extensive flowering plants, as well as numerous annuals and perennials, highlight the formal gardens.

More than 1,200 roses, representing 55 varieties and 16 different classifications, are grown in the Rose Garden. The complete series of the “Knock-Out” shrub roses can be found, along with a large number of grandifloras, floribundas, hybrid teas, minis and shrub roses. The Chicago Peace Rose, a sport mutation of the famous Peace Rose, was discovered in the Rose Garden in 1967.

The 1-acre Idea Garden features more than 300 varieties of vegetables, herbs, flowers and shrubs with a focus on helpful techniques. It includes not only the vegetable and herb gardens, but also a children’s garden and sensory garden.

The Prairie Savannah Garden was established in 2007; more than 100 pounds of native Chicagoland genome seeds were drill-seeded. Its open prairie with a tree-lined backdrop contrasts sharply with the Formal Gardens’ European-style hedge. Reflection Point, with its Spirit of Commitment Sculpture centerpiece, is the newest addition to Cantigny, and includes 2 acres of serene prairie that draws visitors of all ages, with a primary purpose of showing children a vision of the prairie before urban sprawl changed the makeup of the land. The Rose Garden and the Idea Garden offer landscapers and home gardeners a look at both new and historical plants used in traditional and innovative settings.

Production greenhouse

While some varieties are available only as cuttings, many are grown in Cantigny’s own 18,000-square-foot greenhouse, which was established in 1988. Hand-watering is done throughout the greenhouse. Seven full-time and three part-time employees, along with a number of volunteers, propagate about .25 million plants annually for use at Cantigny Gardens and Cantigny Golf Course.  

About 1,000 varieties of annuals and perennials are produced. The greenhouse is open to the public only for special occasions, including a May Open House that is free to the public. A Parade of Poinsettias is held each November, and occasional classes are scheduled. A number of unusual plants are available through Cantigny Gift Shop.

The Rock Garden is a popular spot with visitors.

Effluent water use

The gardens, associated turfgrass and other and plantings are irrigated with water from a major aquifer that flows across the Cantigny property, and Cantigny has its own pump house. A significant innovative approach to irrigation was initiated with the opening of Cantigny Golf, which was one of the first in the area to use effluent water as an irrigation source, and this use of effluent water for irrigation at both Cantigny Golf and the Parade Field represented another step in the innovative process that is so much a part of Cantigny operations.    

The Parade Field, a large field used for various events, features an inground Hunter system with both Hunter and Toro heads. Waterman said, “We treat it much like a home lawn.” The field is mowed at 2 inches twice weekly with a three-gang, pull-behind, rotary mower, and a granular preemergent weed killer is applied in the spring.  

Scott Witte, Cantigny Golf superintendent, said, “We have used effluent water since our first day. It was cutting edge in the 1980s in this area, and Wheaton water plant is just across the street from us, so it made sense. It was cheaper and easier.” Effluent water is purchased from the city of Wheaton following its treatment for discharge into a stream. No significant problems have occurred with the use of effluent water.

Youth Links, an instructional course for youth ages 8 to 15, is a major feature at Cantigny Golf. Witte said, “It’s a prairie-style course with all golf course elements including sand bunkers and one water hole. Youths learn the rules of golf. They can see how the ball breaks, and they learn golf course manners. We set it up as a fenced area. We’re in a high-population area, and we are starting a new generation into golf.”  

In addition to its focus on youth golf, Cantigny Golf offers golfers high-end play at the course.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for almost 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.