A Walk through the Crescent

PHOTO: Dahlias

What pulls gardeners out of their feather beds and into their flower beds bright and early? These pajama-clad trekkers are seeking the bliss that only comes with the sighting of a new bud or fresh flower. When heat-loving dahlias finally push through cold heavy soil, or clematis vines unveil new blue blossoms, there is joy in the garden. When fuzzy poppy pods surrender to a caress, and juicy grape tomatoes virtually fly into the mouth, horticultural nirvana is near.

Annuals Change Each Season

Visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden experience their own botanical anticipation at every turn, and in every garden. A grand place to discover the beauty of annuals is the Crescent. The gorgeous, cool-season tulip display of spring is breathtaking. In summer, a kaleidoscope of heat-loving annuals grow, bloom, and mix and mingle with neighboring plants until the end of the season. Blankets of chrysanthemums announce autumn's arrival. For three seasons, annual plants in the Crescent are massed together in a tapestry of texture, form, and show-stopping color. This garden space was created as an extension, or echo, of the circular Heritage Garden, which sits to the south. Both share a similar design scheme of crescent-shaped beds filled with seasonal plants gardeners are encouraged to use in their home gardens.

Trees and Shrubs Provide Structure

PHOTO: boxwood and willowIn the Crescent, eight curving garden beds gradually terrace down to the water's edge, increasing in size as they descend to the lake and the cooling spray from the Smith Fountain. It's impossible to ignore unusual, bright-blooming plants. But be sure to give notice to the surrounding trees and shrubs that define this captivating garden space and give it a sense of permanence and form. Note the signature weeping willows, the green pillows of cloud-pruned boxwoods, and the fastigiate beech trees that form vertical columns, marking an enclosure. Evergreen yew hedges line the western border, and with the Glencoe boxwood shrubs, provide greenery in all four seasons.

Brick walkways lace through the beds, encouraging visitors to step close to the plants, both for photo and learning opportunities. For these annuals offer gardeners a chance to break ground in their own gardens by using new cultivars in novel combinations.

PHOTO: the Crescent abloomSummer Annuals

The first two beds set the color scheme with creamy yellows and whites. Because the shapes and textures of the flowers are all different, this seemingly simple color choice escapes boredom. Vista White annual sage blooms in plumes; Butterfly White pentas are tightly clustered; White Lightning dahlias are quilled cactus varieties; and Vanilla African marigolds resemble sculpted orbs. A plant with no flowers, but which boasts high-impact foliage, can contribute much to a design, possibly stealing the show. Look at the effect achieved by “borrowing” specimen succulents (with green and yellow leaves) from the Tropical Greenhouse!

Add On More

In beds three and four, the add-on plants now include dramatic Cynthia Louise dahlias and Camelot Cream foxgloves. These tall plants balance, but never overshadow, the low growers, like the ground-hugging Lucky White lantanas. As planting beds drop in height or are further off in the distance, it's time to introduce statuesque, taller plants or those with intense, flash-and-dash colors. Note the uncommon Java White copperleaf, a plant whose splotched green, red, mustard, bronze, and gold foliage has some gardeners wondering if these leaves are “normal.” Yes, they are!

The tropical influences continue in the lower beds with Gold Shower plant, an unusual desert native with red and green leaves plus yellow and red, starlike flowers. Mayan Gold yellow bells is an annual in Chicago, but can grow as large as a shrub in warmer climes. The intense green leaves are a lovely foil for the yellow bells. Joining these heat lovers are more spiky succulents from the Tropical Greenhouse. Most houseplants enjoy being taken outside for a few months of natural light, air, moisture, and humidity — whether kept in their original pots or sunk into a garden bed.

Turn up the Heat!

The playful mix of unusual tropicals with more common annuals works nicely here. Baby Duck Yellow petunias blend with Lemon Kiss dahlias and Soiree Yellow sea lavender — all readily available in nurseries or from seed. Now bring in Gold Edge sky flower, Dakota Gold bitter sneezeweed, and the irrepressible 3- to 6-foot yellow Hissy Fitz dahlia! Summer in the Crescent is a treat. As the plants fill in, tumble against each other, weave throughout the beds, or send up surprising seedpods, they create a changing kaleidoscope of pattern, color, and amazement — a very special gift both to Garden visitors and gardeners everywhere.