The other night, I met a good friend at the Garfield Park Conservatory. What is usually a mid-winter daytime pilgrimage turned into a late night walk through the deep forest, just a few miles away from our homes. The Conservatory is open every day of the year until 5pm, but on Wednesdays, they turn on the lights and let wanderers stroll until 8.
A part of me worried that the rooms of the conservatory, glorious to behold in the daytime, would look stark and unwelcoming at night, with bright fluorescents beating down from overhead. But it was quite the opposite. Bold spotlights gelled in brilliant colors lit up the undersides of ferns, bounced off the bark of tropical trees, dribbled down rocky waterfalls and into rippling, bottomless pools. The sounds of rushing water mixed with the echoes of children laughing in the Sugar from the Sun room. Our footsteps fell on damp stone and shuffled beside leaves rustling in the fan-fed breeze.
There, that night, the air somehow felt more humid. Our ears perked at the chorus of crickets, our noses caught wind of the peat and loam stuffed in crevices at our toes. Some walkways sat in total darkness, and our brains rushed to fill the gaps. In the Desert room, tall columns of cactus masqueraded as men standing perfectly still. Neon colors got caught on succulent leaves and sharp spines, throwing strange shadows on the walls and windows surrounding us. All our senses sharpened to make up for what we couldn’t see in the dark.
I love the sun, and crave the light. Here, on the winter solstice, the precipice of the coldest season, I feel myself falling deeper into the darkness. On the other side of today, the days begin the get longer, minute by minute, but what might I learn by sitting in these shadows, unbothered, unmoved?
As I wandered through the Conservatory that night, I walked past a young woman sitting on a wooden bench in a barely lit room. Her face was calm, her eyes closed, breathing even. I can’t know what she was thinking about, if she was meditating or considering some hidden train of thought, but the sight of her reminded me of what’s special about this season. Now is the time to sit in the shadows, to explore the darkness, wade in it, and get lost in what could be. These dark days hold lessons for us all. And what more perfect place than this to open our eyes wide and wait for them to adjust.
The former British poet laureate, Alfred Austin once said: “Show me your garden and I shall tell you who you are.” I agree that the state of one’s curated surroundings says volumes about that person: about what they value and what they don’t; about who they think they are or want to be. My indoor garden is a pretty clear reflection of who I am and what’s important to me. I used to think about opening up a store one day, a place that would be an extension of my home, the public face of my private identity. The dream of a store still flickers sometimes in my mind, often when I’m lingering in someone else’s.
I’m interested in the purpose of a store. I know they’re meant to provide customers with access to goods. But, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, shops are also places that feed the spirit. Have you ever gone into a store and never wanted to leave? Wished you could just live there forever? Remember the statistic that said some Anthropologie shoppers spend up to four hours there? A shopkeeper’s job includes sales, for sure, but also requires creating a space where people will feel comfortable, welcome, at ease. A place where they may be able to be shown, as Alfred Austin put it, who they are.
I recently found myself thinking back on the plant stores I wandered in and out of during my week in New York. On paper they’re pretty similar, but the experiences of pulling open heavy doors and coming inside, wandering aisles, investigating objects and considering purchases — all the tiny actions that amount to “shopping” — those experiences were all so different. These shop visits were an exercise in observation, in being aware of how a space can make me feel, and what it can teach me about myself as well as the person who stocked the shelves and opened the doors.
When you first walk into Sprout, there’s a bright orange wall against which a number of strange and beautifully shaped plants are displayed. I was drawn to it like a moth to the flame. There are colors everywhere you look in this shop, but its white-washed brick walls serve as a perfect backdrop and breathing space. There’s a Sprout location in Chicago, which is dark and sumptuous, but the Brooklyn Sprout is fresh, elegant, and radiant — like a young professional woman in a smart, white wool jumpsuit. The ceiling angles high overhead and is punctuated by cloudy old skylights. The walls are lined with bookcases full of neatly organized textiles, crystals, and gift items. My best friend and I smelled every single candle on display. I got lost in the tangle of plants crowding each wall and overflowing from each table.
Ideal for: fancy people, fine gift givers, event planners, tablescapers
A few years ago when I first heard about Green Fingers Market, I spent the better part of an afternoon doing a deep dive of the shop owner’s entire online portfolio. It was the first time I’d heard of “plant stylist” as a job and I became obsessed. Satoshi Kawamoto has a shop in Japan and this store here in Manhattan, which is nestled into a long, narrow storefront on a small city street. Looking into the store from the front door is like peeking into a lush jungle from the windshield of an off-road trekking vehicle. There’s a feeling that you’ll uncover something here that no one has ever seen before, some perfect display or never before seen species. The place is dripping with plantlife and antique bits and bobs: the result is layered and effortlessly stylish. Keep walking all the way to the back of the store for an embarrassment of vintage menswear and leather bags. If Sprout embodies a savvy young woman, Green Fingers is the perfect mirror of its owner: cool, classy, and masculine.
Ideal for: men who love plants, vintage denim collectors
I had never been to Boerum Hill before this excursion, and the neighborhood fully charmed me. It’s quintessential Brooklyn: tree-lined cobblestone streets, brownstones with front porch gardens, tiny cafes and independent shops nestled within residential blocks. And from strolling around the neighborhood, GRDN is as quaint and wonderful as you would expect. The shop itself is one small room lined with useful gardening tools, gifts, and large bags of potting medium — a great blend of functional and decorative objects. In the middle of the room sits a large table filled with vases of spectacular fresh flowers. But go out through the back door and you’ll enter a secret garden, the nursery area of the shop. It’s almost like time traveling to a backyard garden in London, complete with the antique pots, classic perennials, and gravel crunching under foot. You may find yourself wanting to wrap the whole store up and ship it back to wherever you live. I know I did.
Ideal for: daydreamers, fresh bouquet seekers, classy neighbors who just need a big bag of dirt
When it’s 90+ degrees out and humid, inside a hand-built greenhouse is maybe not the place you want to be. But it’s where we found ourselves the day I learned about Crest Hardware. This place is, as you may have ascertained, an actual hardware store, with rows of hammers and lightbulbs and heavy duty gloves and ceiling fans and all the other things you would expect to find at your local True Value. But if you follow the signs for the garden center, out back you’ll find a glorious green space packed with both flora and fauna. There’s a bird cage tucked in among the philodendrons, rows of succulents, stacks of terra cotta, and a large wooden pen in the open air garden space. This is where Franklin lives, the resident garden keeper, a potbelly pig. Crest is not fancy. It’s not overthought. You won’t feel like you’ll break anything if you turn around too quickly. And that’s where its magic comes from. It’s a space for regular people who want to bring more beauty into their lives. A noble pursuit, and an attainable one, even in the middle of New York City.
We’ve been taking an annual trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden for a few years now. The Garden’s hundreds of acres unfurl into an infinite number layered views, gushing with color and texture. I’ve spent many, many hours exploring the individual themed gardens, walking as many of the crushed gravel paths as I could, maximizing my time in this planted oasis. But every year, I find more. More hidden corners of the grounds, more plant combinations, more sights for these sore city eyes.
We always take our trip out to the Gardens on Labor Day. The bonus day, third day in a three day weekend nestled well inside the warm weather season. This year, it felt like half the city of Chicago had the same idea. The gardens were full. Multi-generational families lingered on bridges, beers clinked in the grill patio, and rows of strollers lined up outside the butterfly tent.
There were thousands of people exploring the gardens, bickering, laughing, sharing seating space on wide, flat rocks. We listened in on friends catching up, a wife telling her husband her cheeseburger-and-red-wine order, mothers and sons giggling about recently made memories. I heard different languages, many of which I couldn’t identify. I saw white linen robes and jewel-toned saris billowing with the wind, and baseball caps shielding eyes from the late day sun.
We all wandered from garden to garden. Inspired by the same call to leave our homes and enjoy a day off together, outside. We all sighed in relief under the shade of a tall tree. We all inhaled deep when we passed the scent throw of a flowering plant.
I enjoy spending time in beautiful gardens because I love the plants. The way they look and smell and feel. Their patterns, the way they splay their leaves, the way they catch sun and shade throughout the day. But my favorite part about the CBG might be watching how other people interact with the garden. You don’t have to know everything about horticulture or garden design or biodiversity to be able to enjoy the space. You just have to use your senses.
From afternoon until evening, I watched the Garden come in and out of focus. It shone as scads of eyes grazed over its hills and ponds, picking out particular plants as singular objects of attention. And then it faded into the background, sparkling like lens blur, behind the faces and stories of all its visitors.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is almost 400 acres of beautifully planted gardens located in Highland Park, a north shore suburb of Chicago. I get there using the Metra Union Pacific North line, which costs about $6 roundtrip. Get off at Braeside and walk 20 minutes to the Visitors Center where you can get your bearings and plan your route. My favorite stops include the Japanese Garden, the Council Ring on Evening Island, the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, and the Prairie. I’ve only ever been to the CBG in the summer, but it’s open year-round and I imagine it is stunning during any season. Parking costs $25-30, but entrance on foot or by bike is free.
I’m trying to take my outdoor garden space more seriously this year. I always take time spent outdoors seriously. When there are only about 170 days in the growing season, you make the most of it. Even when you’re not actively growing anything.
But this year I want to be an outdoor gardener. I want to walk out on our back porch and be surrounded by green, by sprouts that root deeply and grow to spill over the sides of our rickety deck railing. I want it to be lush. I want herbs and perennials and native grasses. So I’m amassing prairie seeds from local seed savers, and hoarding large volume outdoor pots, and learning the ins and outs of artificial cold stratification. The farmer’s almanac says I still have some time before last frost, so I’m trying to soak up all the information I can before heading outdoors.
Of course, I’m not starting from scratch. I’ve grown plants indoors for years, decades now. I’ve had some trial and error. I’ve killed some plants and helped others thrive. I have experience. But something about this transition feels daunting. I feel a bit like I’m staring into the deep green unknown where a million septuagenarians are holding tight their best kept secrets for getting a second flush of tall thimbleweed blooms. I’ve only successfully overwintered plants once. I know nothing about making compost. Suddenly, it feels like I’ve got a lot to learn.
The nicest thing anyone’s ever said about my indoor plant collection was that it was a garden. I’d never heard anyone describe my overachiever’s hobby in quite those words. It was said by a friend of ours to his two year old son. He encouraged his boy to look at all the plants. That weren’t they nice? That they were a garden, just like ones they’ve seen outside. I saw recognition flutter over the boy’s eyes and if someone had been looking at me, they probably would have seen the same flutter in mine.
It was the first time I’d considered my collection of houseplants as anything more than a haphazard assortment, slowly and accidentally pieced together over thirteen years of living in a manic urban tundra. I’ve since looked around at the crowd of aging terra cotta pots and the greenery they hold and I realize I have indeed built a garden. The varied sizes and textures of the foliage, the drifts of color and contrasting variegation in the leaves, the transitions of growth and the seasonal interest — it’s all happening indoors too.
What makes us add the qualifier in front when we call ourselves “indoor gardeners”? Yes, it’s helpful to add some detail as to location and general point of view. I know a container garden has different needs from one that’s sown directly into the ground. But I hope our insistence on specifying where the gardening is happening isn’t indicating that what we’re doing is somehow less involved, less skilled. The care and monitoring and pruning that my inside plants require is real. Just as real as any deadheading or hardening off or N-P-Ks needed by the ones outside.
So, come last frost, I’ll be heading outdoors. I’ll be trying out some new species, expanding my glossary of terms, firming up my maintenance schedule, and building on my existing store of knowledge. I’m anticipating some growth. And some heartbreak. I’m ready for the challenge. And if all else fails, I know I can always come back inside, where I first set roots long ago.
Like many living things, and some people too, plants are experts in communication and forgiveness. They’ll give off signs of distress when something’s not quite right. If you can figure out what’s going on (and be patient), they’ll perk back up and shoot out new roots. They’re supremely adaptable. So despite my deep devotion, most of my plants have experienced some level of trauma. It’s rarely been dire, though in those moments I’ve tried to pay attention and adopt some of the quiet lessons they teach. Perseverance, subtlety, flexibility. Remembering that it won’t always be perfect. That growth happens in both directions.
Four years ago, I brought home a small African Milk Tree (Euphorbia trigona). It looked something like a greenish purple candelabra, with a few branches jutting out from the main trunk. Short prickly spines and clusters of teardrop-shaped leaves ran down along its ridged arms. It was sculptural and healthy and looked unlike any plant I’d previously cared for.
I stuck it in a place of prominence, on the western facing windowsill, the sunniest spot in the house. It seemed to settle in well, so I didn’t pay it much attention, watering it maybe once a month. Less in the winter, really whenever I remembered. I’ve learned that plants do best when you bring home the ones that will fit into your lifestyle. If you won’t remember to check your hygrometer daily, your fern collection is probably not going to work out. Likewise, if you love watering plants daily and have tons of time on your hands, you may mean well, but you could end up drowning your cactus.
The euphorbia and I were a solid match. It quietly reminded me of the huge desert plants I grew up around in L.A. and I welcomed the nostalgia, especially during the darker months when snow abounds and truly sunny days are scarce. I found a small kind of joy in noticing the plant’s seasonal growth spurts, changes in color, loss of leaves, and dormancy. I measured the progress of the passing months in number of new branches and handfuls of crisped up leaflets that I diligently threw out. I was proud.
This past December, we took inventory and gave all the plants a good examination while insulating the windows. Carefully taking the euphorbia down from the windowsill, I realized how big it had gotten over the years. Its tallest arm easily reached my chin. The plant that started at 12″ tall was now almost as big as me.
When it came time to put it back in the window, I set it somewhat back from the frame. It stood for a few days, leaning precariously, its top-heavy limbs bowed by gravity’s pull. I hoped that the sun and its promise of chlorophyll would persuade it to straighten out, but as you may be able to guess, it didn’t quite work out that way. One recent evening I heard the unmistakeable sound of collapse. I watched, almost in slow motion, as the plant fell over the side of the table, onto the floor, and into a giant pile of dry soil and tangled limbs. Arms broke off. Its spines pierced its skin and released tiny beads of stale smelling white liquid.
Had this been my first plant, I probably would have cried. But I knew the deal. Some growth had been lost, but we would both recover. The drama was temporary and life would go on. The plant is now being held upright with the help of twine and the weight of a neighboring bookcase. It’s not the most visually pleasing solution, but it works. Since the fall, many leaves have crisped and died. The colors of the plant have darkened from emerald green to a deep eggplant. The cycles of growth and dieback are progressing as they usually would. The giant tumble was just a moment.
Living with plants has taught me a lot about myself. About what to get upset about, and what to let go. About how much effort to put into something, and what I should or can expect in return. About the joy of caring for something other than myself, and the joy of feeling cared for. About being observant and training myself not to take things for granted. I’m learning that I’m more capable of forgiveness than I used to be: toward others and toward myself. I have the plant to thank for that, the plant and its unrelenting forgiveness.
There’s a reason why the Garfield Park Conservatory shows up on so many Chicago travel guides (including mine!). Actually, there are about a million reasons why, but all those reasons are really wrapped up in one moment. Distilled down, the concentrated essence of what this place is and does for us is simple.
Go there in the winter. On a horrendously frigid day, preferably in the middle of hard, gray February, open the door to the Palm House and remember what it feels like like to breathe. Recall that the color green comes in infinite shades and shapes. Slowly peel off your layers of down and wool and let the humidity in the air (remember what that is?) smooth the creases another endless winter has embedded in your face.
If you’re lucky, find an open bench to sit on and watch the people, children, couples hand-in-hand, wander down the pathways. Dazzled smiles on parade, each in awe that something so beautiful can really exist, here, now. If you planned ahead, eat your packed lunch of cheese sandwiches and clementines and forget, just for a moment, about the sharp wind waiting for you on the other side of the glass walls. Promise yourself, and anyone within earshot, that you’ll return once a month until the trees bud again. Once a week! Everyday if you know what’s good for you.
This place is magic any time of year. In the summer, you can wander through acres of outdoor urban plantings, vertical gardens, and working farms. In spring and fall, you can search for narcissus bulbs sprouting from the hard earth, or leaves changing color in the mighty Hawthorn grove. Visiting the Conservatory in winter, however, teeters on brushing up against the divine. That first step into the first climate controlled room restores your faith in life, in the belief that at some point in the future, we’ll have warmth and growth again. That one day, clouds won’t shield the sun for weeks on end, fingertips won’t always be numb and blue, sidewalks won’t always be one boot wide, chiseled down to tiny canyons of icy snow and salt.
Chicago can be a rough place for a plant lover. The growing season is lush and welcoming and almost makes you forget what the other side of the coin looks like. Once the air goes cold for good, indoor refuge is the name of the game. The Garfield Park Conservatory will grant you sanctuary. Pack that picnic, wear some layers, bring a book, and enjoy.
Another sunny and surprisingly pleasant fall day meant more ambling through Lincoln Park. The last time I was in the area, I had come specifically to do some serious leaf-peeping. This time, the Conservatory beckoned.
Lincoln Park Conservatory is the little brother of the much larger Garfield Park Conservatory, just a few miles west. Usually a cold weather refuge, wandering around this plant-filled sauna is a therapeutic experience. The Conservatory’s footprint is compact; it’s a squat little jewel that glitters from across the lawns and empty fall flowerbeds of the Park. From the outside, the milky glass and heavy steel skeleton obscure any view of its dense collection. On the inside, the glass walls disappear and you’re suddenly somewhere else.
In the Palm House, you’ll think you’re in a place that’s wild and vast. Mature palms and tropical greenery fill the space, cutting through air that’s thick with humidity. The stone pathways wind through and around an archetypal jungle. It’s easy to lose yourself in the infinite leaf shapes, the crowning fronds and reaching branches, the vines, crooked and curving. Sound lands heavily in the moist mud, and sunlight expands and focuses through the settling dew.
The Fern Room evokes prehistory, when we were still fish and scaled giants claimed the earth as their own. Ancient cycads rise from heaps of Polystichum. Clubmoss and giant Staghorns hover overhead. Furry rhizomes creep outward and over mossy rock, silently drinking up the steamy air.
Something about this place is familiar, accessible. Save for the loose crowd of strangers and staff, it’s a little too easy to imagine myself living here. I romanticize constantly being surrounded by all this green, waking up to the sound of water trickling over broad leaves, the smell of damp earth in every room. Isn’t this everyone’s idea of the perfect apartment?
I listen as nearby tourists point out the familiar — the same peace lilies and Sansevieria from their indoor gardens — as well as the rare and strange. This place reminds us of somewhere we already know, and of somewhere new, somewhere we hope to see. And among the footsteps, hushed conversation, peals of laughter, and silence, the plants just keep growing.
Lincoln Park Conservatory is located at 2391 N Stockton Drive in Lincoln Park, just south of Fullerton Ave. It is open daily from 9am to 5pm and is free to the public.