A dry-laid bluestone path leads under a custom iron archway to the front door.
A dry-laid bluestone path leads under a custom iron archway to the front door. See more photos in the gallery below.

Some gardens are neighborhood lodestars. They are the dramatic, dynamic landscapes that passersby linger over and people out for a stroll or a drive might alter their route to enjoy. One such garden, outside a 1920s chateau-style house on a main drag in Lake Forest, has won awards for the homeowner and also for Rocco Fiore & Sons, the Libertyville-based landscaping firm that created it. And it seems to have taken on a life of its own.

“It stops people on the street,” says Drew Johnson, the Fiore landscape architect who worked on the project; he has witnessed visitors pulling into the driveway and asking for permission to snap photos. The homeowner once met a couple at the airport who turned out to live in the area; they asked if hers was the house with the beautiful fall display of purple and white kale.

The garden started coming together a few years ago, when the homeowner, who had hired Johnson for projects at her previous residences, called him in to redo the landscaping at this one. “I like a rhyme and reason for each space,” she says. “Little areas where you can have people gather in small and large groups. Intentionality is key.” She also wanted flowers—lots of them, blooming at all times of the growing season. “Flowers are happy. They make me happy. I have them inside and out,” she says, recalling her grandmother’s beautiful rose garden in Lake Geneva. The other requirement? Nice views from every room in her house.

But first there were practical considerations, such as the 20-foot grade change across the property. To keep water from collecting at the house, which is lower than the rest of the grounds, Johnson used three weapons in his arsenal: catch basins, French drains, and really big rocks.

“I immediately knew I wanted a rock garden,” the homeowner says. “But I never wanted to see ground. I like the overgrown look—English-feeling but with some structure.” Giant granite boulders from Wisconsin (removed by farmers from their fields) filled the bill. “We don’t like bowling-ball-size boulders,” Johnson says. Planted with creeping thyme and sedum, the rocks help shore up the six-foot grade around the pool deck.

Another problem was an unsightly air-conditioning unit plainly visible from the kitchen window. It was made less noticeable with the addition of a kitchen garden, planted with tomatoes and herbs. The homeowner, never a big vegetable gardener, has surprised herself by using it often.

Her fondness for spaces to socialize and her belief that there should be an “aha” moment whenever you round a corner led to the creation of a semihidden area for the fire pit. “You can’t see it unless you walk up to it,” she says. “It looks very clean, but when we have people over, we can get some chairs we store nearby and gather them around.” She arranges these on bluestone pavers set into the grass.

An iron arbor in front of the house has become the focal point for seasonal decorating. Johnson and crew wrapped it with grape­vines to provide a solid base for evergreen boughs and bittersweet in winter; leaves, pumpkins, and gourds in fall; and colorful mandevilla in summer. In front of the arbor, Johnson’s team plants purple and white kale in a diamond pattern every fall; in summer, the space is resplendent with bright purple and pink impatiens.

The result clearly pleases the homeowner. “You get a totally different feel in each section of garden,” she says. She enjoys experimenting, trying white roses one season, a new variety of tulip another. The Fiore crew comes by each spring with a flatbed truck full of annuals and perennials for her to choose from. She’s definitely not a “please just take care of it” client.

“It’s never finished,” she says, not resignedly but with a sense of unending possibilities for next season.


Photography: Linda Oyama Bryan