Return of the natives—and a Prairie School landmark—in Chicago



Just as the low-maintenance personal garden is mostly myth, the low-maintenance public landscape is even less possible. Such was the case with Alfred Caldwell’s Lily Pool (built 1936-38) in Lincoln Park. As recently as 1998, the pool, its surrounding stonework, and its plantings was “a dead world,” according to the designer when he visited it just before his death. The formerly pristine masterpiece was choked with weed trees, the stonework was damaged, and the lagoon was filled with trash.


Too bad Caldwell never lived to see the restoration that I was lucky enough to view during our garden blogger meet-up in Chicago last weekend. The lily pool is gorgeous once more, thanks to a public/private partnership that raised funds and galvanized volunteers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many aquilegia canadensis, geranium maculatum, thalictrium dasycarpum (not sure of exact plant here), and wild phlox all together in one place before. There were also many native trees and shrubs. The stonework has been restored and the water was clear; it would be wonderful to have such a retreat in the middle of any city.


It’s interesting how this landscape—which is meant to appear natural, even wild—requires almost as much regular maintenance as any of the more contrived institutional gardens, such as the Chicago Botanic Garden or any of the conservatories in the city. Certainly the Lurie Gardens, another favorite of the group, must also require a massive amount of tending. And after listening to and reading many accounts about how native meadows must be developed and tweaked into shape, I can’t imagine making the attempt.


So all the more kudos to Chicago for being able to keep these natural places looking as they should.

Check here for a selection of pictures from the Chicago trip.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Well said Elizabeth…I was looking at the photos of the Lurie this morning and appreciating the vision and work it takes to look that natural. I missed the Lily Garden but hope to visit it on my next visit to Chicago…the stacked stone looks wonderful. gail

  2. Natural landscapes don’t need care; however, there are few natural landscapes left…human influence and changes distorts the natural process.

    In addition, we often want to produce THAT natural landscape at THIS place…something that may NOT be what the local environment “wants”.

    Also… we tend to build paths; and want to “freeze” a view; natural views change; plants that grew HERE now grow THERE…

    If you are trying to present a static scene to the public… it’s not really a “natural landscape”!

    Introduced plants have GREATLY added to the problem; most destructive weeds are alien.

    None the less… my backyard woodland requires relatively little maintenance; a yearly removal of new trees, removal of some Virgina Creeper, clearing of paths.

    Mowing what remains of my lawn takes more time…

  3. You are exaggerating about the transformation of the Lily Pool. I photographed it extensively in the 80s. I hardly recognize it from your photos. I wished I hadn’t been too tired to find my way over there on Saturday.

  4. Oh, good, MMD, I wondered! Because I was told that Caldwell actually cried when he saw what had happened to it, and when I saw it it looked beautiful.

  5. Donna, I agree. The other secret is: grow shrubs and small trees. Then learn to prune and start doing it yearly before the garden becomes a jungle.

  6. That Lily Pool is beautiful, what a nice comment on the transformation. I think my favorite photos from all of you bloggers that visited Chicago were those of that fabulous Salvia river.

  7. Gee, I’m sorry I missed the Lily Pool. A few of us tried to find it but we obviously went in the wrong direction! Yes, kudos really should go to the city of Chicago for recognizing the importance of their green spaces and spending money on them. It’s a great city and those green spaces contribute to that greatness in a big way. Guess I’ll just have to get back there for another visit and to see the Lily Pool!

  8. The biggest problem with weeding is that you have to be knowledgeable to do it. This is not a task easily “contracted out.” I can hire someone to mow my lawn, but I can’t always find someone to weed properly.

  9. I missed the Caldwell Lily Pond too. There wasn’t enough time. Damn gorillas.

    Living very intimately with a natural landscape that wants to be in control, I can assure you there is nothing low maintenance about it. Even with a great acceptance of the natural, the heart of the gardener who wants to create an effect is often as powerful a force as that of nature with other design ideas.

  10. I wish I had seen that … Jean, Leslie and I thought we were headed in the right direction but finally had to concede we didn’t know where the heck it was! Next time!

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