When the wind is howling and snow is stacked up high, Chicago’s motto, Urbs in Horto (City in a Garden) seems like a joke. But in the spring, it becomes a reality. Starting in mid-May, perennials are in bloom, and everyone with a patch of dirt is busy planting something. Often the most striking displays are in public spaces: planters on the sidewalks, medians in the road, and lately, plants growing on the sides of buildings.
I’m sure there are battalions of city workers who tend to these plantings. Putting in bulbs, switching out plants with the season, and watering regularly. But since all those activities happen during the work day, I rarely see them, so the results feels magical. The garden fairy has romped through town waving a wand to produce these fabulous colors. This is also the season for photographers to capture the beautiful city. Wedding portraits on Michigan Avenue among the tulips; diners at a sidewalk cafe surrounded by flower boxes; shaded neighborhood paths with small, manicured lawns, columbine and bleeding hearts.
Living up to the motto, Chicago is also filled with parks and forest preserves. A welcome break from the asphalt and high-rises, though I rarely make the trek to those farther away. The city also makes a concerted effort to add green roofs to buildings. A condo that recently went up near our train stop covers most of the second floor roof-deck with plants – laid out like carpet squares – to absorb rainwater, and keep the roof cool. Many office towers have sections of green roof, with restaurants growing greens and herbs there to harvest for their patrons.
With rooftop plantings now more common, the new twist seems to be growing plants in unlikely places. Our new Whole Foods has covered three sides of their exterior with plantings. It’s an environmental play, but I’m sure the people living right across the street are relieved that they don’t have to stare at a blank brick wall. When the planters were first installed in March, the display looked sad. Barren sprigs stuck out of some of the boxes, and others appeared completely empty. After what seemed like six weeks of rain, things started to happen. Green sprouts emerged on different parts of the wall, leaves unfolded, and then small flowers. It became evident that a variety of plants were there, as they grew at different rates and sizes. Turning the corner one day, I was met with a purple wall. I think it’s the same plant (salvia?) that appears in many public plantings but projecting from the side of the building, it’s easier to see, and delightful.
I hope the wall has a built-in sprinkler system to keep the plantings fresh. I look forward to seasonal changes, up until the moment when winter returns. Meanwhile, we’re loving the glorious garden wall.