You can get to the water garden in all sorts of ways.
You might meander through the ginkgo allee, where the crunch of pea gravel under your soles plays against the rising crescendo of hard-splashing water. Or you could cut through the rose garden, where bumblebees put in a hard day's buzz. Perhaps you would parade through the open-air canopy of seven hand-forged steel arcs, then sweep by the meadow, a drift of prairie grasses and perennials that would make an impressionist painter drool. Maybe you'd take a quick turn down toward the council ring, where giant-size armchairs invite you to never leave.
There, amid a vast canvas of bluestone and boxwood by the hundreds (457 "Green Velvet" boxwood, to be precise), is water in nearly every imaginable playfulness: water spilling, water rushing, water so still it barely shimmers, water playing peekaboo as it glides from reflecting pool to reflecting pool and, most curious of all, water that seems to hold afloat whole crab apple islands.
However you get to this watery oasis, your brain tells your body you've just hit a soul-soothing someplace. It's as if someone triggered the bliss button deep inside your head.
And that's just what the homeowner, a Lake Forest hog trader, ordered back in autumn 2004: "I want you to wow me," he challenged landscape architects Brian Culliton and Tony Quinn, of the eponymous Culliton Quinn Landscape Architecture Workshop, based in Chicago's Humboldt Park.
It took three tries on the water garden, but they wowed, all right. "I stand here, and it blows my mind," says the owner, who adds that "one lap" of the garden is all it takes to melt away the worries of the day.
The nearly 3-acre garden, on a winding lane that hugs a members-only North Shore country club, was first and foremost laid out in rooms. But a driving element in the design, says Culliton, was "how you get from one room to the next."
Strolling beneath the 11-foot-tall arches that will eventually be entwined with climbing white roses, the 39-year-old Culliton expands the thought: "Like in a house, you can have a great corridor or you can go from room to room. The key is not to create dead ends. You want to be able to roam. In this garden you can roam. You never have to go back to where you just came from."
In this garden, too, you ascend and descend. You are drawn down into a cove, "an escape," Culliton calls it, where you are nestled. Not far away, you slowly climb bluestone slabs embedded in a gentle slope of the south lawn; with every rise or fall, the vista shifts. It's no accident, this study in elevation change. Changes in grade, Culliton says, introduce "the third dimension. It's that element of surprise. Just by grade-changing I can manipulate the feel."
And so it was with the water garden, where it's all about the journey of the water that spills, at the start, from a cantilevered stone tongue jutting from a 3-foot-high bluestone wall, then lazily zigs and zags through a 100-foot-long labyrinth of pools and peekaboos, finally cascading into a lower-level basin where, at last, it gushes up triumphantly.
If the gushing column in the water garden is the final exclamation, it is water that punctuates the garden throughout, from a trio of spigots gurgling into an aged lead trough beside the pool house, to another 10 fountains spouting across the black-walled swimming pool. The secret here? The house is but a stone's throw from traffic-laden Skokie Highway, and this shooshing water serves to drown out the day-and-night drone of all those cars and trucks and motorcycles.
"Water is our connecting element here, from beginning to end," says Culliton, who points to Japanese and English inspirations in the water garden. Matter of fact, it never ends. Thanks to tucked-away engineering wonders (and heaters that keep it around 50 degrees), the water flows all winter. Even on the coldest February day.
All this was carved from a lot that, seven years ago, was a tangled mass of buckthorn, with plenty of swamp and a dilapidated greenhouse to boot. "All I ever asked for was to be able to stand in the kitchen and see out the back, and I got this. I am so blessed," says the hog trader's wife. "I never leave. I never leave my house."
You needn't wonder what it is that keeps her so very grounded.
Or would that be, afloat?