Chicago Botanic Garden: All the pathways are yours

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It isn't easy to find all of the serene nooks and calming crannies at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Some of the paths at the park seem perfectly content to go only one way. At least a couple of the themed gardens are best reached by walking through another garden.

But I had made my way up a one-way path to a hilltop garden, the highest natural point on Evening Island and as quiet a spot as you might find in the north suburban nature preserve. The Chicago Botanic Garden has been growing in popularity and, on this mild, sunny August Friday, was teeming with visitors in some of its more central spots.

"I wish that all these people would go away," one visitor had said earlier, perhaps not recognizing that she was, in fact, one of the people crowding things up.

I was about to sit on one of the hilltop garden's big rock chunks and reflect on my day at the 385-acre garden, situated 24 miles north of downtown Chicago, in Glencoe, amid some of the Chicago region's priciest properties.

The day had included bicycling and craft beer (so, by definition, a good day); what has to be earth's most surreal model railroad; and so much meticulously landscaped acreage that it is both inspiring and daunting to the average backyard spade wielder.

I needed to rest my legs and lower back for a spell — you can literally walk all day here — and think about the place and my own gardening sins, which mostly involve omission and its eager sidekick, weeds.

But in one of those coincidences that would seem contrived if you saw it in a movie, in between the time my knees bent to sit and my backside hit the rock, a clatter of deeply resonant bells seemed to peal out from the very trees all around me. Ink on paper cannot do the noise justice. "Clang?" "CLANG?" "CLANG-CLANG-CLANG!" Like that, but more loud, more capital.

Though partly hidden by leaves and branches, the island's carillon tower is right next door to the hilltop, and the time, wouldn't you know, was exactly 4 o'clock. The carillon wanted to let everyone in the garden know this chronological fact, but it seemed to want to let me in particular know. (A carillon, for the unfamiliar, is essentially a tower full of bells selected for qualities, including volume.)

I jumped a little. I laughed a little, because the timing really was absurd. And, of course, as I gathered my breath afterward, the only phone call I received all day came in.

But interrupted peacefulness is atypical at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Usually, you'll have to pinch yourself once or twice in the course of a visit to keep from blissing out entirely. This is one pretty, pretty place, boasting what my notes from the day refer to as an "in-your-face serenity."

My scribbles also included the phrase "preternaturally pretty," and I think it's a fair one. Beyond mere nature, this is botany as an upper-class matron, done up with all of the perfection, all of the styling and makeup and grooming that time, money and taste can create. Here, even the parking lots are lovely.

To be sure, at the Chicago Botanic Garden you can just walk in the woods on paths in the northeast section of the property. That's nice, cooling and calming, a welcome respite from the urban or suburban environments most of us inhabit. But the showplaces are the almost three-fourths of the grounds that are cultivated, and each garden you visit is more impressive, or differently impressive, than the next. Each becomes, temporarily, your favorite.

The Model Railroad Garden runs 16 working vintage model trains through a tableau of extreme plant-tending surrounding occasionally kitschy replicas of American landmarks (especially Frank Lloyd Wright homes). It is bizarre and effective, surprisingly extensive and well worth the separate admission charge ($6 for adults).

The Rose Garden surrounds an expansive lawn with scores of varieties of the superstar flower. That's right next to the English Walled Garden, which contains examples of several styles of walled horticulture from the old country.

A Heritage Garden pays homage to Renaissance-era gardens in Italy; it's a little close to the main visitor center to be fully, or at least relaxedly, appreciated.

There's a Waterfall Garden featuring what you'd expect, plus ducks that visitors have trained, unintentionally, to hang around begging for food. The Enabling Garden shows garden designs that can work for people with disabilities, while, just behind it, the Sensory Garden displays plants that speak especially loudly to the senses.

None of these gardens — there are 26 — is a postage stamp, by the way. They've all got breadth and ambition and moments of absolute charm.

But my first favorite was the Landscape Garden, intended to show us what can be achieved at home (with, the signage doesn't bother to add, the services of a top-tier landscape architect and a team of weed-pulling minions who stop by three or four times a week). It is a pipe-dream kind of place for a person of my budget priorities, but what a beautiful pipe and what a beautiful dream.

But then my favorite became Evening Island, less cultivated looking despite being a showcase for "the New American Garden Style of landscape design." It's 5 acres, and it's south of the main area, so there is room to roam and think (and to have carillon bells thunder in your ear).

That, of course, was soon supplanted by the Japanese Garden, two islands to the east (and a third, inaccessible one) that at once feel the most formal and the most artistic on the property. There are peaceful, quiet corners to sit and talk intimately, as well as pebble-covered gardens that are only for looking. The sign there explained that the Japanese gardening style presents an "abstract and idealized" version of nature, but, of course, that's true of the Chicago Botanic Garden as a whole as well.

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