Fellows Focus:
Benjamin F. Lenhardt, Jr.

Chairman emeritus Benjamin F. Lenhardt, Jr. has continually inspired us since he joined our group of garden enthusiasts in 1997. He's welcomed members and Fellows to his home, helped us form vital partnerships, and advocated for our preservation work for more than twenty years. On October 22 he'll be speaking about his new book, Gardens of the North Shore of Chicagoin a webinar as part of our Fall 2020 Literary Series. We hope you enjoy hearing from him in this interview and join us in October as he discusses his book.

As the chairman emeritus of the Garden Conservancy’s board and a supporter since 1997, you have seen our work evolve through the years. What has your experience been like working so intimately with a likeminded community of garden enthusiasts?

Since joining the Garden Conservancy more than twenty years ago, I have had the pleasure of developing strong friendships with members through our Open Days program, traveling with our Fellows to see outstanding gardens in the U.S. and abroad, and, importantly, working with friends on board committees. During this time, I have watched and participated in the growth of the organization to a truly national nonprofit emphasizing many different educational programs, the very successful Open Days program, and the preservation of gardens all over the country. As a board member, and subsequently chairman, I had the opportunity to work closely with our talented staff and three presidents, including James, who very capably leads the organization today. The Garden Conservancy’s mission is more vital today in the Convid-19 pandemic than ever before, as gardening and gardens provide a place for contemplation and solace in these difficult times and inspiration for the future.

Lenhardt garden, Charleston, SC

You’ve been an Open Days regional ambassador for many years and have been instrumental in our partnership with the Spoleto Festival USA and the Charleston Horticultural Society to present the “Behind the Garden Gates” annual garden tour. Tell us about your own garden in Charleston, SC; any favorite spaces or species?

Our garden in Charleston, which I designed, was inspired by Loutrel Briggs, the leading landscape architect in Charleston in the mid-twentieth century. I have incorporated varying hardscape materials, elevations, and plants in different garden rooms, with boxwoods in different shapes providing a common thread.

The formal parterre garden room consists of six quadrants, each edged with Kingsville boxwood, the smallest leaf boxwood in the Lowcountry, surrounding intertwining knots of variegated Asiatic jasmine with Sicilian oregano globes in the center. Acting as a counter-balance to this formality is an all-white, small cottage-style garden space with the kitchen house walls covered with 'Iceberg' climbing roses, an espaliered 'Little Gem' magnolia, and prostrate lantana.                   
The Charleston room, as I call it, represents a more typical garden found locally. A St. Augustine grass carpet is surrounded by a shrub border, including camellias, azaleas, 'Lady Banks’ roses, and crape myrtle standards, all in shades of blue, lavender, and pink, with touches of white. One of my favorite plants can be found here: Farfugium japonicum, or leopard plant. I love both the giant solid and smaller variegated cultivars and the fact that they grow well in shaded areas.       

Lenhardt garden, Winnetka, IL; photo by Marion Brenner

You’ve also opened your garden in Winnetka, IL, to the public during Open Days and for our Society of Fellows garden-study tour in 2016. How do you find gardening in the North Shore climate?

As I say in the Introduction to my book, gardening on the North Shore of Chicago is challenging. The growing season—May through September—is short, the soil is predominately clay, and the weather is extremely variable. Summers are warm, humid, and wet with the average high temperature in the mid-80s, while winters are frigid and windy with the average low temperature in the mid-20s. Unfortunately, the low and high temperature can vary significantly from the averages. In 2019, the low temperature was 29 degrees below zero and the high was 98, which can be very stressful and sometimes devastating to plants.

In spite of these challenges, gardening on the North Shore flourishes, as demonstrated by the many different styles of gardens. Some are classic, some are more country or cottage style, while others are contemporary, and a few capitalize on the beauty of the Midwest former prairies. To me, gardening is both a physical and emotional experience that you can enjoy regardless of where you are located. You can be busy planting, digging, and weeding, while at the same time you are able to experience beauty, the sounds of wind rustling through the trees, birds singing, and the majesty of changing skies. Gardening is magic for me.

The North Shore will receive more acclaim with the release of your upcoming book, Gardens of the North Shore of Chicago (Monacelli Press, October 20, 2020). Tell us about your inspiration for writing this book; how did you choose the remarkable gardens that grace its pages?

As Russell Page, the legendary landscape designer, observed, “There are few gardens that can be left alone. A few years of neglect and only the skeleton of a garden can be traced.” In many cases—perhaps most—documenting them is the best way significant gardens can be preserved for future generations. Documenting outstanding American gardens is one of the priorities of the Garden Conservancy. Over the last three years, I have worked to record the essence of some exceptional gardens on the North Shore. I also wanted to show the creativity, diversity, and beauty of gardens in the Chicago area, a region not well published for its gardening talents.

Selecting the gardens to include in the book was not an easy task, as there are many unique and beautiful gardens on the North Shore. The common theme running through the gardens in the book is the keen interest the owners have in their paradises. Some owners are “dirt gardeners,” while others are less so, but all share a passion and love for their gardens.

As your own inspiring gardens make evident, your passion for horticulture is palpable. When did your interest in gardening begin?

When I was a young boy around ten years old, my grandfather asked me if I would like to mow their lawn. My grandmother had a garden in the backyard, which I admired, but I was never asked to help in her garden. I only mowed around the edges. Sometime that summer, at our house across town, I dug up a small plot of Charlotte red dirt, planted zinnia and marigold seeds, which I do not remember how I obtained, and they sprouted. I have been hooked on gardening ever since!

As our world has very rapidly changed over the past few months, many are emphasizing the power of gardens for their psychological and health benefits. How have you been looking to nature for solace during this time?

Over the past ten years I have given a presentation entitled “Why Are Gardens Important?” to Garden Conservancy members and other garden organizations across the country. The benefits of gardening certainly include physical and mental health. For example, did you know that for an hour of moderate gardening including planting and weeding, calories burned by a person weighing 190 pounds total 370 calories? But equally important, and perhaps even more so today in this pandemic environment, gardening and visiting gardens provides people a sense of peace, calm, and time for contemplation and solace.

In my presentation, I show a photo of a gentleman, age 105, in Kabul, Afghanistan, who is tending to his zinnias and other flowers on ruined palace grounds. This public garden serves as his refuge in a troubled spot without access to private gardens or other open spaces. Gardens are important to all people the world over!