Cantigny Park to unveil stunning new gardens with reopening celebration

Cantigny Park is the kind of place that's been around so long that any change is certain to draw attention.

So when the park at 1S151 Winfield Road in Wheaton offered an early reveal of its new display gardens to members before Saturday's official reopening, roughly 500 signed up.

Mary Brown was one of the Cantigny regulars who could hardly recognize the oasis she's frequented since she was an 8-year-old girl.

"It's very different, but yes, I love it," the 68-year-old from Clarendon Hills said as she took her first lap around the pond garden. "It's more groomed than it was before."

But what really caught her eye?

"I'm really, really glad that they kept the gazebo, because I loved that," she said.

That first impression tells you something about the challenge facing architects and horticulturists behind the garden renovations - a centerpiece of "Project New Leaf," the ongoing $25 million transformation of the 500-acre campus that began in 2016 and will be completed in phases over five years. They say they had to strike a balance between honoring Franz Lipp's original design and building a more sustainable, accessible landscape.

Here's a look at how it came together.

  Visitors will be able to get a close look at Cantigny Park's redesigned gardens beginning Saturday. Daniel White/

For the bees

Cantigny is introducing new themes - one based on the color white - to the garden beds northeast of the Visitors Center. In the pollinator beds, honeybees and hummingbirds already are regulars amid the zinnia, phlox and eastern beebalm.

  Bees and butterflies already are an integral part of the pollinator gardens at Cantigny. Daniel White/

"One of the stories we want to continue telling is how great parks and great gardens and healthy golf course ecosystems can be part of the solution to sustaining pollinator health," said Scott Witte, Cantigny's horticulture director.

He would know. Witte also is a beekeeper.

"Studies show the greater diversity of pollen and nectar in plant varieties that honeybees get, the healthier their immune systems are," he said.

The rose gardens

These beds provide a beautiful, fragrant backdrop to a new venue for wedding ceremonies. Hedges of Japanese yew creates a private, room-like effect around the lawn and a gazebo.

"As you're in the rose garden, you really feel that isolation because it closes off just enough except for the pathways," Witte said. "And then once you enter the white garden on the other side, you feel, 'Wow, I've just been transported to a totally different flavor of garden.'"

  A new rose garden, with mosaic walkways, provides a fragrant backdrop to a new wedding venue. Daniel White/

Cantigny's old rose garden will remain near a prairie until work begins on Project New Leaf's second phase next year.

The lower garden

The "Four Season" statues that used to face the Robert R. McCormick House now look toward the lower garden, featuring the geometric patterns favored by Lipp, Cantigny's original landscape architect. The sculptures were brought to the park from the Chicago residence of McCormick, Cantigny's benefactor.

  Craig Kruckenberg, horticulture manager at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, matches engraved plaques to their proper plant species in the new displays gardens. Daniel White/

"This year's theme is based on concentric circles, so we've got a rhythm and a flow of different colors and height and texture of plant material that are going to create the beauty in this lower garden," said Craig Kruckenberg, horticulture manager.

As for height, red banana trees and oleander shrubs with pink blooms add a tropical flair to the lower garden.

Room to grow

Horticulturists plan to grow the Japanese yews to a height of about 8 feet. Add in the boxwood borders, and Cantigny has planted about 2 miles' worth of hedging, Witte said.

Through a pruning process called pollarding, linden trees will be shaped into distinctive cubes after their root systems become more established.

  Carex Ice Dance plants thrive in the shadow of a roughly 300-year-old bur oak tree. Daniel White/

Climbing plants also will cover steel trellises at the entrance to the display gardens and in a circular layout around one of two giant bur oak trees inside.

"These plants are just coming into their own," Witte said. "I think it's going to be a sight to behold once the roses launch into the trellis work and the grapevines launch into the circle trellis. The clematis are just going to be stunning throughout the season."

The pond garden

With the exception of the gazebo, this tranquil spot is completely re-imagined. The old pond garden was about half the size and surrounded by trees reflected in the water.

Today, there's no longer a rigid retaining wall around the pond. During the preview event, visitors flocked to a cool feature in the design by Sasaki Associates: Small flights of stone stairs descend to the water's edge.

  Cantigny Park's display gardens have been redesigned as part of the $25 million Project New Leaf renovations. Daniel White/

This section is devoid of much of the previous color, but there's not as much of a human hand working here. Cantigny's horticulturists planted thousands of aquatic plants and wetland plugs around the pond to filter the water, including rushes, reeds, sedges, swamp irises and pickerel weed.

"This is how ponds should look in a natural setting, so we've kind of re-created that natural setting with all these aquatic plants," Witte said. "And over time they will mature and create such a soft natural feel."

The aquatic plants also will play a long-term role in keeping algae at bay. On Monday, Witte's team harvested algae - that involves getting "creative" with a giant turbine blower, suction pump and rakes - from the pond and applied a "very minimal" amount of algicide.

"Anytime you build a new pond, you disturb and free up some of the phosphates that are in the soil, and all those free phosphates cause algal blooms. And we had a filamentous-style algae that really loved the conditions," he said.

The park will stock the pond with fish, most likely blue gill, large mouth bass and channel catfish.

Cantigny to get $25M face-lift

How ‘Project New Leaf’ is unfolding at Cantigny Park in Wheaton

What’s next at Cantigny Park? Massive redesign of gardens, campus

Images: Cantigny’s new display gardens

If you go

What: Cantigny Park reopens its display gardens

Where: 1S151 Winfield Road, Wheaton

When: 10 a.m. Saturday

Parking: Free until noon Saturday

Details: Brief remarks and a ribbon cutting will be followed by self-guided tours with park’s horticulture staff members and volunteers available to answer questions.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.