Douglas Hoerr’s nightmare is that one weekend you’ll decide to make over your patch of backyard, buy a bunch of plants, and squeeze them in however you can–and later realize that they’re dying, running wild, or just in the way. Then you’ll decide that gardening just isn’t your thing. You wouldn’t redo your kitchen that way, says Hoerr, the principal of Douglas Hoerr Landscape Architecture, and he hopes that after you see Garden in a City–an eight-day show that’s all about designing and planning before you buy–you wouldn’t think of gardening that way either.

The show, of which Hoerr is the design chairman, is slickly presented. But it’s in a real gardening season, not midwinter, when the plants on display have to be forced. It’s in a realistic place, Butler Field (at Columbus and Monroe, behind the Art Institute, in the megatents that would have housed Art Chicago), where exhibitors can dig their plants, shrubs, and trees right into the ground rather than put them in pots on a concrete floor. Most important–the reason it’s being billed as the first show of its kind–the 40-some exhibits are designed for real urban spaces, particularly those in Chicago: narrow parkways, tiny yards, gangways, decks, balconies. There are seven exhibits on garage roofs alone.

“There are lots of places you can go to see examples of how kitchens or living rooms can be set up in limited space,” says Hoerr. “There’ve been few that show how a small garden area can be designed.” How can you screen your yard without also blocking the sun? Put a native prairie out front without offending the neighbors? Build that new garage strong enough to support a rooftop garden? Find plants that can survive even if neglected in a pot on a 20th-floor balcony?

The answers will come from, among many others, Hoerr, Midwest Groundcovers, the Natural Garden, and Ball Horticultural Company, an international ornamental-plant breeder based in suburban West Chicago ( that plans to bring more than 500 species. “We’ve developed varieties of what we call goof-proof plants,” says Ball’s marketing director Jeff Gibson. And they’re not just conventional plants used in conventional combinations: red geranium, dracaena spike, vinca vine. He’s plugging alternatives like the company’s new “Wave” petunia and “Kong” coleus.

Even though spring is peak landscaping season, twice as many professionals as originally expected are setting up exhibits at the show, whose principal sponsor is Target in partnership with the Park District. “We’re trying to give back to the city,” says Hoerr, “and to a mayor who made what we do for a living a valued part of the landscape instead of the first thing to get value-engineered out.”

Garden in a City is intended to complement large-scale civic-greening projects, championing the idea that it takes everyone tending his or her own small green space to green the whole city. Grace Rappe, who works with Hoerr, is particularly pleased that so much emphasis has been put on sustainability and environmental issues–unlike at the Philadelphia garden show she recently visited. Exhibits will show how to save water, use fewer or no chemicals, and deal with contaminated soil. Hitchcock Design Group’s streetscape, for example, will feature water-efficient trees, native vegetation, and permeable pavement in the parking lane that allows rainwater to soak into the ground rather than pour into storm drains. “People think ‘sustainable’ is going to be gray,” says Rappe. “It’s not, but it’s only going to be popular if it’s made appealing. It’s about living smaller and not having a lot of excess.”

Garden in a City

When: Sat 5/13-Sun 5/21, 10 AM-8 PM or 6 PM Sun

Where: Butler Field. Columbus and Monroe

Price: $10 except Mon ($5) and Sat-Sun ($12), $7 for teens and seniors, kids under 12 free

Info: 312-742-4817 or

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