“The Japanese have taken their love of growing things and their realization of man’s union with nature and refined them in the beauty of their gardens. The purpose of a Japanese garden is to present natural forms and to create a tranquil beauty that leads the visitor from everyday life to a calm, serene, reflective communion with nature.”
Sansho-en at Chicago Botanic Garden is a 17.3 acre promenade style garden or kaiyu-shiki, a garden style developed during the 17th century. Sansho-en means “The Garden of the Three Islands” – Keiunto, Seifuto and Horajima – visible in a diagram of the garden. The experience in a stroll garden is to see the garden while walking. Different views appear on the journey along a winding path.
“A walk through Sansho-en reveals a collection of smaller gardens and classic elements from several historical Japanese garden styles,” said one garden brochure. “In Sansho-en you can experience contemplative dry gardens, an intimate moss garden, cool woodland gardens and a distant paradise garden, all in one visit.”
Dr. Koichi Kawana (1930-1990) designed more than a dozen major Japanese gardens in the United States, including Seiwa-en at the Missouri Botanical Garden and Shofu-en at the Denver Botanic Gardens. In addition, he was a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he lectured on Japanese art, landscape design and architecture. Dedicated in 1982, Sansho-en celebrated its 30th birthday the day we visited in June.
Sansho-en also is called the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. An endowment was created for the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden through a gift from the Malott Family Foundation in 2006, when the garden was re-dedicated. Income from the endowment will provide funds to maintain the Japanese Garden and provide programs that teach visitors about Japanese culture and history.
Mary Plunkett is manager of Interpretive Programs at Chicago Botanic Garden and oversees seven gardens. There are nearly 200 interpretive volunteer positions throughout Chicago Botanic, 20 in the Japanese garden.
Plunkett came to Chicago Botanic Garden 11 years ago with a background in volunteer management. “Nobody comes here to give poor information. Everyone comes with a good heart and desire to be helpful to our curious visitors, so my job is to encourage and inform them,” Plunkett said. “A volunteer generally is here two times a month. If you want a good volunteer program you have to have staff to support them. We are so lucky to have that support.”
“Our volunteers are here Wednesday through Sunday through the first weekend in October. We track nearly 35,000 visitor encounters during a season,” Plunkett said.
Volunteers have an extensive document of information, history, tool identification and frequently asked questions for training and reference. A board to which various tools are attached aids in explaining their uses.
“Volunteers can be a driving force in the garden,” said senior horticulturist Benjamin Carroll. “They have such enthusiasm. It’s really important for us to recognize their work and express gratitude regularly.”
Edie Rowell is in her fifth season as a garden volunteer. She spends one day a week in the Malott Japanese Garden and one day “digging in the fruit and vegetable garden.”
“Visitors do not go inside the Shoin House. We speak to them from the engawa, explain the construction, tools, type of garden and so forth,” Rowell said. “This is not a tea house. Tea houses are usually smaller – four and a half to six tatami size. This is a 23 tatami house. Shoin rooms started out as the study of Buddhist monks. The style morphed into the Camp David of its day – a man cave for a very high ranking man, a retreat house for a daimyo where one’s equilibrium could be restored.”
The senior horticulturist at Chicago Botanic Garden, Benjamin Carroll obtained his B.S. in horticulture, Writtle College in Essex, England. Carroll was employed for two years at Cambridge University Botanic Garden before joining the Chicago Botanic Garden staff. He is a director-at-large for the North American Japanese Garden Association (NAJGA).
Chicago Botanic Garden’s facilities are truly delightful. The Visitor Center adjacent to the parking area offers an extensive and well stocked gift shop on the right, an abundant café on the left, an information desk and “Ask A Master Gardener” service. Educational classes, children’s programs, seasonal displays, and membership benefits are a few of the many offerings.
Chicago Botanic Garden offers 25 gardens on 385 acres. Roughly 60 acres are covered by water. There is no admission charge for Chicago Botanic Garden. There is a fee for parking. To plan your visit, check out the web site for hours, directions, parking fee, transportation, what’s in bloom, etc.
To see a 7 ½ minute video in Malott Garden uploaded by Benjamin Carroll to You Tube in 2009, visit:
For other planting tips from Benjamin Carroll, check out the following short stories:
Benjamin Carroll planting bulbs
WGN-TV interview on houseplants during the winter
Hope for healing the planet
Photos not otherwise credited are by K.T. Cannon-Eger. Click on any photo to see a full size image.