Branching Out

Nestled within a vast spectacle of trees, shrubs, twisting vines, plants and exhibits spanning 1,700 acres at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., lies one of the nation’s newest, most exciting children’s gardens. The new four-acre garden (one of the largest in the United States) allows children and their parents to scale canopies, follow stepping-stones through a pond or crawl across a net suspended above a prairie.

The Arboretum’s project, titled “Branching Out!” was a high-profile, $10.5 million effort planned and created by a team of landscape architects, engineers, architects, botanists, educators, exhibit developers, horticulturists, and researchers. Consultants in civil engineering, construction, electrical engineering, horticulture, irrigation, masonry, mechanical engineering, and structural engineering also contributed to the final product. In short, it was a big project.

With so many experts from so many different backgrounds, it was clear from the start communication and close collaboration were going to be the keys to realizing the Arboretum’s bold vision. And, of course, somebody had to be in charge. That somebody was EDAW, a world-renowned landscape architect firm with 25 offices and 1,100 employees worldwide. The company’s Fort Collins, Colorado branch then commissioned Hitchock Design Group (HDG) to be their local liaison during the conceptual design phase and asked them to take the lead management role during the design development, construction documentation and construction observations phases of the project.

Breaking With Convention

In the past, an exhibit design firm or educator would have most probably led this type of project. Giving the lead role to landscape architects represents, in my opinion, an exciting change in the perception of landscape architecture. Beyond focusing on basic site elements such as circulation, safety and scale, we were challenged to transform educational messages into dynamic, functioning site features. Exciting stuff.

As EDAW and HDG got to work, a basic shared philosophy emerged – both firms were interested in designing the space to teach and unite the whole family versus one particular age group.

Building upon this idea, and the data provided by the Arboretum staff, (they had interviewed children and other community members and visited other children’s gardens as part of their preliminary research) we decided to incorporate open exploration into the design, to give visitors a sense of involvement in the learning process and, hopefully, a deeper understanding of nature.

The notion of letting children’s curiosity be their best learning tool fit in perfectly with the Arboretum’s educational goals for the garden: to combine different kinds of experiences that encourage physical, cognitive and emotional development in children - and at the same time - manage to keep it fun.

Trees, Trees, Trees

Since our project managers at HDG were going to need to have a very broad and precise understanding of the project in order to execute the design plans, from the educational goals of the Arboretum to the finest details in the sketches, the EDAW team invited HDG to actively participate alongside their consultants in the original discussions with the Arboretum’s education experts.

For us, it was somewhat unusual, yet extremely helpful considering the magnitude and scope of the work, to have the opportunity to observe the decision-making process in the concept phase of a project. During the two-year concept phase, we attended workshops and meetings with consultants and gained a thorough understanding of the Aboretum’s mission to help people grasp the importance of trees in our world and how that message needed to stand out in the Garden. The Arboretum felt other highly regarded children’s gardens they visited had left out this crucial element. We used it as a focal point in our collaborations with them and challenged Arboretum staff to use their imagination with us to bring an artistic appeal to every part of the garden.

The Design Development Phase: A Balanced Approach

The conceptual design phase ended with the creation of a 50-page booklet that defined the rough character and key elements of the garden, including 20 to 30 full-color sketches. This booklet was then further refined during the design development phase and eventually used to create a large, detailed, specifications manual that served as a blueprint of sorts for the construction documentation phase. In the end, we had over 120 drawings (30” wide x 42” high) to refer to as we prepared to turn this bold vision into reality.

Again, communication was the key. To make sure we were meeting all of our collective goals, the team met weekly with Arboretum staff (half-day sessions) to develop the sketches into real proportions. Every aspect of the garden, from design to equipment safety issues to proper placement of storm sewers was reviewed. Particular attention was paid to the selection of materials used in the construction of the gardens. They had to reflect the distinct character of the individual gardens and be placed in proportions that would make children feel at home – and still manage to keep grownups from hitting their heads on things like playground equipment.

It was precise, high wire, balancing act trying to design a circulation that encouraged child exploration and yet allowed for parental supervision.

And, as with most highly visible projects, there are many people to please and many ideas to take into consideration. During this phase, we worked diligently on revisions that struck the right balance between the Arboretum’s educational goals and maintaining the aesthetic appeal of the original design. A big key to this process was carefully documenting every idea graphically and in writing to allow the construction phase to be executed as smoothly as possible.

The Construction Phase

From the earthwork contractor to the irrigation installer to the concrete finisher, we worked to hire only the most talented craftsmen. For instance, our lead carpenter typically just oversees client work, but he took a vested interest in the garden and actually built the log Stem House himself.

To help sort out some of the complexities of construction to donors and the Arboretum Board, we presented detailed progress reports every other month. This also gave board members the opportunity to provide feedback to project managers. As with many projects of this size, the majority of changes came from trying to keep budget costs within the original estimate.

Tom Featherstone, a top construction manager who led the work for the creation of many projects at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, was chosen to spearhead the assignments for twenty-two construction contracts. HDG project managers met weekly with the contractors at the construction site to collaborate on revisions or additions to the plans that could improve the garden. Everyone took a special interest in his or her personal contribution; they realized this was a rare opportunity to contribute to something they will eventually be able to share with their children and grandchildren. The work also seemed to ‘bring out the kid’ in them.

The small scale of the garden was a big adjustment for the contractors. They were careful to check and double-check their work because every aspect of the garden was a little smaller than their typical scope of work.

The Chilton Stone

One of the best additions to the plants and trees in the garden is the unusual stone that was chosen for the dry stack and veneered walls, outcropping stairs and flagstone paving. The Chilton stone, quarried from Wisconsin, with its variety of color and texture, brought an incredible richness to the site. The purple, rust, blue and grey hues complemented the plant material and colored concrete.

A Strategic Approach to Planting Design

Working closely with the Arboretum’s horticulture staff, we designed the planting plan to be engaging and educational, supporting the programming needs of the garden by showcasing over 400 species of trees, shrubs, perennials, groundcovers and aquatic plants. In the lower portion of the garden, nearly every plant had an educational value since they were closely tied to the program themes of the 10 individual rooms of the garden. We also used the plant material to shape spaces and provide natural barriers, an important function in designing places for children. The more open-spaced Adventure Woods was planted with a variety of savannah and prairie seed mixes with the intent of immersing children in a sustainable natural habitat, while reducing long-term maintenance costs.

During the plant installation process, we had to be cautious about following the planting time windows for certain trees, plants and grass that cannot be transplanted too early.

Breaking The Old Rules of Play

We recommended the Arboretum import the playground equipment from Richter-Spielgerate, a German company. HDG worked through challenging language, currency, and time zone barriers throughout the process of configuring, ordering and installing the equipment. Special attention also had to be given to meeting American guidelines on safety. The main pieces from Germany are a series of suspension bridges made of a steel and nylon cord that allows children to climb high into the tree canopy and still be protected by the netting system. This experience gives them a birds-eye view as well as a sense of flying without fear.

A Complete Success

Today, less than a year later, the garden includes more than 2,300 trees and shrubs, nearly 8,500 perennials, more than 6,000 groundcovers, nearly 4,600 spring bulbs, and 700 aquatic plants. The Arboretum reports its attendance has increased 25 percent since the garden opened in September 2005 and membership has increased 33 percent.

Providing a place for both playful and educational opportunities, The Morton Arboretum’s Children’s Garden supports their core mission of education and appreciation of trees. With the knowledge that the respect of our natural environment is fostered in youth, the Children’s Garden will serve as a place to nurture the love of plants for generations to come.

Eric Horning is a Senior Associate at Hitchcock Design Group in Naperville, Ill. He can be reached at

Project Snapshot:

Client: Morton Arboretum

Location: Lisle, Illinois

Size: Four acres (approx.)

Budget: $10,500,000 (construction)

Start Date (in earnest): 2000

Construction Timing: Just over one year

Open Date: Sept. 2005

Scope: 2,300 trees and shrubs, nearly 8,500 perennials, more than 6,000 groundcovers, nearly 4,600 spring bulbs, and 700 aquatic plants