Maria's Urban Garden: Inspiration for Bringing Natural Beauty into the City

Maria's Urban Garden: Inspiration for Bringing Natural Beauty into the City

People who live in Chicago know that summer is not something to be wasted. Days spent at the lakefront, weekly neighborhood festivals, al fresca dining—these are our rewards for long months of sub-zero temperatures, icy winds, and snow that can keep coming until May. For me, gardening is a true summer pleasure that lets me enjoy the outdoors and relax in spaces of natural beauty.

Gardening in the city certainly presents its challenges, since most of us don’t have yards. People find creative ways to bring nature into their homes, no matter how small, from window garden boxes to indoor terrariums to shared plots in neighborhood urban gardens. I’m lucky enough to have a small balcony that I’ve filled with planters, so that by midsummer it starts to resemble a jungle, overflowing with greenery and spots of color. I like to think of this as my “secret garden.” (By the way, if you haven’t seen that movie, check it out—it is so charming and sweet.)

Every year I do something a little different with my garden. This year, after the harsh winter and my glorious trip to India, I decided to make color and fragrance the unifying theme. Once I had settled on that, it was time for one of the best parts of the process—exploring my favorite city greenhouses to find my plants.

My first stop: GETHSEMANE GARDENS, which houses the best roses in the city. I chose Oklahoma roses, whose large, velvety red blooms have an exotic, spicy fragrance, and Kashmere roses, which are also red but with a fluorescent quality (plus, how could I pass up something that brought me back to India?). Continuing the Indian inspiration, I chose two varieties of marigold, whose colors range from a spiced orange to yellow. The shapes are so complex and inspiring. Finally, I had to have Jasmine of India, the most divine fragrance—at night, when I keep the door open to the balcony, the aroma washes into my living room. It is heavenly.

*Tip: At Gethsemane, talk to Victoria. She is fantastic and knows her roses!

Next up, CITY ESCAPE, which has the best exotic trees. My garden is a small space, so it’s important to make use of it in efficient yet pleasing ways. I always have a few trees that have a small footprint but draw the eye up over the flowers. I love anything “weeping,” so I went with a weeping larch. This adds movement, dimension, and texture to the garden—a perfect complement to the bold flower colors.

My garden does not stop outside. After the passing of my mother earlier this year, I wanted to get a plant to keep in her memory. For indoor plants, my go-to is SPROUT HOME, which always has unique and beautiful containers. I found a plant that I have always been obsessed with, a staghorn fern that hangs off the wall and reminds me of her whenever I see it (and, good news, I have kept it alive for five months so far!).

Sprout also has the most beautiful terrariums, which are a wonderful garden solution for those who don’t have outdoor space. Make sure you talk to Steven—he is a true architect in this unconventional medium and masterful at designing these.

Many of us love the beauty of gardens, but I think there is also a deeper connection at work. There is always the sense of impermanence, that every day—every minute—things can and will change. A stalk will poke through the dirt, a bud will bloom, a leaf will fall, a petal will wilt. Impermanence is a central tenet of Buddhism, that our lives are ever-shifting, that decay is just a much a part of life as growth. Gardens can be a daily reminder to appreciate the seconds of life, because the next one won't be the same.

My garden is a respite, both in the act of gardening itself and then in the enjoyment of the results, when I'm surrounded by vibrant blooms and intoxicating fragrances. This sensory experience is an essential part of summer for me, relaxing among the reds and oranges and greens, breathing in the scents of jasmine, lavender, rosemary, basil, and sage—all in this little oasis surrounded by the booming city. It is one of the things I am most grateful for in my life.

Summer is fleeting—now is the time to enjoy it!



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