For the past 15 years, visitors roaming the Chicago Botanic Garden’s English-style gardens–where they encountered billowy perennials, perfectly composed shrubs, and an enticing fountain–would finally arrive at an overlook on a lagoon. But instead of glorious scenery on the other side they saw a few big evergreens, a lawn, and what appeared to be a forest ranger’s lookout station. The view was a lot like what many Brits think is typical of this country’s landscapes: bland masses just sort of taking up space, not very interesting but very big.

Now, after an ambitious $14 million makeover, that landscape represents an America many Americans can be proud of. Big, bold, loud, and happy, wide swaths of color spread across the bottom, then up the sides of the bowl of land beyond the lagoon, even spilling into the water. From a dramatic blue-and-red stone plaza laid into the hillside run paths of red granite. The ranger post–actually a bell tower–remains, offering a figurative wake-up call.

Almost as different from the English garden as a garden can be, the new landscaping on what’s called Evening Island is part of a massive reworking of a 14-acre parcel of land and water at the center of the Botanic Garden. The most extensive new project since the place opened three decades ago, it includes enormous plantings of water lilies and other aquatic vegetation in the main lagoon, newly landscaped areas around it, and two stylish bridges connecting once remote Evening Island to the main walking paths. These upgrades are the equivalent of a major new wing in a museum, and the grand opening is next weekend, September 19 through 22.

“It’s the largest single step we have taken since starting the garden from scratch on swampland,” says Janet Meakin Poor, a longtime trustee and former head of the Botanic Garden’s board of directors. “It’s been a horrendous, tremendous undertaking for the staff, but I think it brings us to where we have wanted to be.”

Poor, a landscape designer who’s been involved with the Botanic Garden for 28 years, has pushed it to become a full-fledged research and teaching institution. “It has to be more than just a park to walk through,” she says. This latest addition to the grounds, collectively dubbed the Gardens of the Great Basin, is a real step forward–a gorgeous showcase for horticultural and environmental research.

That’s especially true of the new water gardens in the seven-acre central lagoon: some 50,000 aquatic plants have been installed around the edges and on about an acre of the surface. By next summer, they’ll be abundant–delicate water lilies drifting atop the water and sweet flag irises, grassy-leafed sedges, and fire-engine-red cardinal flowers covering the marshy transition from open water to solid land. Now there are walkways nearly down to the lagoon and places among the plants for ducks, frogs, and other wildlife; in springtime some 300 crab apple trees will produce pink and white blossoms.

Having a big, eye-popping water garden is an obvious choice: water takes up 75 of the Botanic Garden’s 385 acres, because decades ago the Cook County Forest Preserve District and the Chicago Horticultural Society decided to develop the institution along a stretch of the swampy Skokie River. “It’s a gift to have all this water,” says Kris Jarantoski, director of the Botanic Garden since 1994 (recently made executive vice president) and a 25-year employee. “I know of no other botanic garden with so much water.”

Poor says that becoming a national star in water gardening is an idea that’s been around since the beginning. “The older botanic gardens–the granddaddies like Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum–inherited great estates, or something similar, with old woodland tree cover,” she says. “We weren’t so lucky. We’re built on a swamp. We’ve had to start our own tree cover, and we’ve had to get creative, and there has always been the dream of using our water areas to do something great.” Until now, the Botanic Garden’s water showcase consumed a far smaller area in an out-of-the-way spot: on the northwest side of the main display gardens, boardwalks still take visitors onto a small lagoon, among lotuses and water lilies.

In order to make the Great Basin improvements, 20 million gallons of water had to be drained from the central lagoon so its soil bottom could be completely reworked to support different kinds of aquatic plants. The lagoon used to be a uniform nine feet deep, like most bodies of water in the Botanic Garden. Now the bottom is varied, with shelves just six to eight inches deep extending as far as 50 feet from shore and areas where the water is 18 feet deep.

The old basin was unnatural, a vast bathtub surrounded by a carpet of lawn. The new look is not only more intricate and colorful but miles ahead of the old ecologically. The varying depths mimic the Chicago area’s natural layout–our lazy prairie streams were broad and shallow, often with wide muddy borders under just a few inches of water. It was in the 19th and 20th centuries that we engineered clean, hard-edged banks. Poor and Jarantoski explain that trim, lawned pond edges erode easily, are costly to mow, and allow fertilizers to slip into the water and pollute it. Yet they’re the model for retention ponds at countless suburban developments and office parks. “We want to show the ways to do it better,” Jarantoski says.

The marshy edges of the Great Basin are covered with soil-conserving plants like sedges, and the shallow shelves reduce wave action against the shoreline. Even the planting methods were ecologically sound: much of the vegetation around the water’s edge was sprouted in sheets of coconut fiber and the sheets laid atop prepared soil, so the shoreline was held in place from the start. Design Conservation Forum–an ecologically aware landscape firm in the western suburbs–used other similarly innovative techniques in the Great Basin, which they expect to make known to developers and landscape architects.

Bob Kirschner, the Botanic Garden’s curator of aquatics, considers the water gardens the latest in plant science. “It’s a good example for the public to see how ornamental horticulture and environmental stewardship can coexist. I mean, we have created a place of great beauty, but the number one goal was to restore environmental integrity and ecological diversity.”

Oehme and van Sweden–the Washington, D.C., firm that designed the landscape on Evening Island–has gained national recognition for its trademark style (known as the New American Garden), which is heavy on big masses of hardy, low-fuss perennials. The look is never delicate or precious, always muscular, incorporating a lot of the big, fountain-shaped ornamental grasses rarely seen in gardens a decade ago. Color is used in broad strokes instead of dots and dashes–these gardens are “American” in the sense that they’re microcosms of our immense landscape.

“What they call the New American Garden has influenced a lot of landscape architects and garden designers around the country,” says David Stickel, the senior horticulturist managing Evening Island. “It’s gone beyond trendiness to become a style–it’s something that really symbolizes the midwest and the prairie.” In a press release, James van Sweden describes the method he and partner Wolfgang Oehme employ as “a melting pot of international plants and ideas. When approached on a grand scale, the result is gardens that are natural, free-spirited and of the wild. Their point of reference is the American meadow–a place of freedom and ease, where wildlife, plant life and human life can co-exist in harmony.”

Stickel says the naturalism of Oehme and van Sweden’s look suits the Botanic Garden’s layout well: “North of here, on the main island, are very detail-oriented and high-maintenance gardens, and south is our prairie, which is very natural. In between, this free-flowing Oehme and van Sweden stuff is the perfect transition.”

In mid-August, the sides of Evening Island were painted with big mauve clouds of joe-pye weed, purple threads of verbena bonariensis, and outsize red disks of Lord Baltimore hibiscus. Dense stands of feather reed grass, whose erect blooms look like soldiers’ spears, dipped and straightened in the breeze, and sunny yellow flowers were about to appear over the leathery purple leaves of Ligularia Desdemona. In spring the hillside planted with Brunnera will be sky blue, and in fall the island’s billowy waves of Amsonia will go yellow.

These plants are already visible elsewhere at the Botanic Garden, but not in the same profusion as on Evening Island. Standing on the plaza of Wisconsin red sandstone inlaid with bluestone, Jarantoski opens both arms and gestures at the spiny blue Russian sage, purple blazing star, pink hibiscus, wavy miscanthus grass, and whitish American mountain mint. “We’ve never used perennials the way we do out here, in big sweeps,” he says. “But this is the place for it–big sky, big water, big views.”

Evening Island has gone by other names–Flower Island, Carillon Island, Evergreen Island–but has never been used much except by carillon players and garden employees. Stickel confides that “the horticulture staff had always sort of thought of this as our own private island, because 98 percent of visitors didn’t venture out to it.” Then, in the late 1990s, Pleasant Rowland–founder of the American Girl doll empire–gave the Botanic Garden money to upgrade the site. (The Botanic Garden does not divulge the amounts major donors give.)

By then Oehme and van Sweden had cemented their place on the national design scene. Though the firm was one of several considered for the Evening Island commission, Jarantoski says, “I always hoped they’d be the ones who got it.” Other celebrity landscape firms have also worked at the Botanic Garden. The new education building on Lake Cook Road sits amid a landscape by Dan Kiley, the widely acknowledged dean of American landscape; and Spider Island, a small but dramatic, almost sculptural retreat on the western edge of the grounds, is the work of Boston’s Michael Van Valkenburgh. The very popular English Walled Garden was created 15 years ago by noted British designer John Brookes.

Commissioning celebrated designers, Jarantoski says, is a crucial part of the Botanic Garden’s mission. “We are showcasing the best plants for the Chicago area, but we also need to showcase great design. People come to learn from that. These designers are creating spaces that transport you to another experience. That’s what you expect in any museum.”

Oehme and van Sweden’s style takes the institution in a new direction. “In the other gardens, we have a lot of cultivated spaces where you have one of this, one of that. But it wouldn’t look right out here if you had little fitz-fitzes everywhere,” Jarantoski says. Consider the Farwell Demonstration Gardens, a series of small plots in assorted styles lined up along a single path–the horticultural equivalent of sample rooms at a furniture store. These are useful, but if you approach the lovely serpentine bridge that leads to Evening Island, the expansive view offers a completely different experience.

“Many people come to the Botanic Garden for serenity and inspiration, not necessarily for plant information,” Poor says. “They’re going to like Evening Island best of all our gardens.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.