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The Morton Arboretum: World Class

Joseph Fearn


Chicago, IL is fabulous city. Because my home in Springfield, MO is relatively close (8 hours drive, which in the Midwest US may as well be next door) and because I have a sister who lives there, I make the trip 2-3 times a year. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the city is the architecture, including that of the landscape. One of my favorite classic landscape architects, Frederick Law Olmsted, practiced there, and work of one of my favorite current garden designers, Piet Oudolf can be seen there (Lurie Garden).

Chicago is truly a world class city. Studying its gardens and landscaping can allow anyone to see great garden attractions and some emerging directions of gardening influencers. During my most recent visit I spent time in the Morton Arboretum and self-guided touring of Oak Park /River Forest. In this blog and my next, I’d like to share some of what I took away from my visits.

The Morton Arboretum
The Morton Arboretum is a world-renowned public garden and tree research center in Lisle, IL, near Chicago. It was founded in 1922 by Joy Morton (of Morton Salt fame). The mission of the Morton Arboretum is to collect and study trees, shrubs and plants from around the world and display them for people to enjoy. Its goal is to encourage the planting and conservation of trees and plants for a greener, healthier, and more beautiful world. The arboretum covers 1,700 acres and has thousands of different species of plants. The Morton welcomes over 1 million visitors each year.

Natural Plant Growth Is Upfront
The bed you see below is at the very front entrance. What I loved about this was the lack of ornate arrangement and extensive floral color. I suggest this is a purposeful effort to demonstrate that the garden has more to offer than just annuals and showy flowers. The bed is well designed and focuses on plant texture/shape to create interest. The maintenance regime for this area also says something; plants are not sheared or manipulated into unnatural shapes. Natural growth is obvious and intentional, which results in the bed having a soft yet stylish feel, as opposed to the harsh and unnatural look of many sheared plants. Deeper in the garden, there are many examples of flowers and topiary, but their placement denotes horticultural significance, not the necessity for these approaches everywhere.


This natural planting welcomes visitors to the Morton Arboretum.

Go Big or Go Home
The next aspect that impacted me was the scale of the garden. I’m not just talking about the 1700 acres. Not only are vistas and sightlines large scale, but many of the hardscape components are also. Scale in the garden shows an understanding of space and relationships through mass and void.

Scale in the garden shows an understanding of space and relationships through mass and void.

The particular view shown below is of massive columns, a big lawn, and large paver walk. All of the components blend to create a sense of grandeur. This sense of grandeur is everywhere at the Morton. Scale is also present in the quality of materials used throughout the arboretum. My takeaway regarding scale was that the designers and builders had no hesitation in their work. The assuredness of the design success demonstrated by the scale (magnitude) of the entire garden was awe-inspiring.


The scale of the Morton Arboretum demonstrates how size/space can beautify the landscape.

Museums, even living museums, can sometimes feel stuffy or boring. Displays are old and running down, exhibits are static, and the artifacts are meant to be quietly observed without interaction. This is not the case at the Morton Arboretum. In the parking lot visitors are immediately met by sustainable design in the form of pervious pavement, curb cuts and swales to catch rainwater. While rain gardens are not particularly remarkable, the fact they are featured so so prominently is (rain gardens like this are still not commonplace despite widespread awareness of them).


Innovation at the Morton Arboretum keeps the experience new and highlights what is coming in the landscaping world.

Further into the park, an new and extensive display on urban forestry features a deadfall that is meant to show how roots really grow around a tree (90% of tree roots exist in the to 12” of soil). Also there are many interactive gardens coupled with the inherent growth of all the plants creates a new experience every time one visits.


A deadfall demonstration of root mass.

Perfectly Imperfect or Imperfectly Perfect
The aspect I liked best about the Morton Arboretum was the subtle messiness of the place(perhaps even unnoticed except by professional Groundskeepers). Don’t get me wrong. This garden is meticulously maintained. However, it is impossible to keep everything trim and tidy all the time. Because of the diversity and extensiveness of the garden and plantings, there is an occasional weed, a few plantings creep into others, and some pruning is a touch unkempt. This simply adds to the magic of the place.

Because of the diversity and extensiveness of the garden and plantings, there is an occasional weed, a few plantings creep into others, and some pruning is a touch unkempt. This simply adds to the magic of the place...

I have worked at Class-A office building complexes where nothing is out of place (this is not an exaggeration!). I figure this perfection is supposed to reflect the perfection of the commercial enterprise residing in it. The result is that the landscape is cold and only passed through, not mingled with. The perfectly imperfect Morton brings expectation down to a human level where the imperfect feels right at home.


A perfectly imperfect landscape bed where ground covers mingle into others.

My visit to the Morton Arboretum was fantastic. I saw plants that were stunning in their beauty, and planting arrangements that were the same. I saw execution of work that demonstrated expertise and also incredible devotion to the design and construction of the installations. I saw and met staff that beautifully blend authoritative knowledge with patient appreciation of gardeners who are not as advanced. Perhaps most importantly, I witnessed so many kids and young people being immersed in an experience that hopefully ignites a passion for nature and conservation to last a lifetime. If all our landscapes, whether course or campus, aspired to achieve the objectives the Morton does so well, we would all be so lucky.

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