Top 5 Favorite Local Gardens

Here are our top 5 favorite local gardens that are must visits. From Rockford, IL to Niles, MI. Friends, get outdoors and take in the beauty!

Photo: CBG

Chicago Botanic Garden

Glencoe, IL

Hours: 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. The Garden is open every day of the year; hours change seasonally.

Entrance: Garden members do not need to preregister—they are invited to visit at any time. Nonmembers must preregister for a timed entry. Per CDC guidelines: Wear a mask indoors if you’re not vaccinated for COVID-19.

About: “Every year, more than one million people visit the Garden’s 27 gardens and four natural areas, uniquely situated on 385 acres on and around nine islands, with six miles of lake shoreline. The Garden also has a renowned Bonsai Collection.”

Photo: Morton Arboretum

Morton Arboretum

Lisle, IL

Hours: The Arboretum grounds are open 365 days a year from 7 a.m. to sunset. Buildings are open daily, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day; closed at 3:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Entrance: Timed-entry tickets are required for all guests.

About: “The Morton Arboretum, a 1,700-acre living museum, champions trees throughout the world through science and conservation, education and outreach, and plant collections. Conveniently located approximately 25 miles from Chicago, the Arboretum features an award-winning Children’s Garden, Maze Garden, and 16 miles of hiking trails. Whether you seek a quiet stroll or an active family adventure, the Arboretum offers a variety of exhibitionsactivitiesevents, and classes for all ages to enjoy.”

New Exhibit: “The Morton Arboretum’s outdoor art exhibition, Human+Nature (pronounced: Human Nature), inspires awe and wonder as it  connects people and trees. Internationally renowned artist Daniel Popper created five 15- to 26-foot-tall sculptures exclusively for the Arboretum featured in various locations across its 1,700 acres, leading guests to areas they may not have explored before. It is his largest exhibition to date anywhere in the world.”

Photo: AJG

Anderson Japanese Gardens

Rockford, IL

Hours: The gardens are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. – last entry time is 4 p.m. 

Entrance: Timed-entry tickets are required for all guests. Garden members are no longer required to make a reservation.

About: “The Anderson Japanese Gardens is a beautiful, outdoor setting that inspires the mind and energizes the soul. [A] twelve-acre landscape of streams, waterfalls, winding pathways and koi-filled ponds has been rated one of North America’s highest quality Japanese gardens for more than a decade.” Designed by Hoichi Kurisu. 

Photo: Friendship Botanic Gardens

Friendship Botanic Gardens

Michigan City, IN

Hours: May 1 through October 31, Tuesday – Sunday  9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Central Time) CLOSED to the public on Mondays. In November, Saturday & Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (Central Time) – (Weather permitting: 45 degrees or above and NO precipitation). Members have 365 day access.

Entrance: Pre-registration not required.

About: “Friendship Botanic Gardens (a volunteer-based, not-for-profit organization) is a community treasure and an oasis of formal gardens and wooded nature trails tucked in an old-growth forest surrounding Trail Creek in Michigan City, Indiana.”

Their history is worth the quick read!

Photo: Fernwood Botanical Garden

Fernwood Botanical Garden

Niles, MI

Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 12-5pm

Entrance: While no longer a requirement, visitors can pre-register prior to their visit.

About: “Fernwood comprises 105 acres and protects at least 10 ecosystems and is a birder’s paradise. Visitors may enjoy natural areas with miles of walking and hiking trails, a reconstructed prairie, an arboretum, and cultivated public gardens that include an herb garden, Japanese garden, perennial border, rain garden, railway garden, nature adventure garden, hardy fern collection, and other special collections and gardens.”

Self-Care: Through Travel

Villa d'Este

It’s time for me to share my secret to self-care.

It’s too good to keep to myself. 

I’ve modified the recipe due to . . . . the Covid. But even with some adjustments, it’s got strength and longevity baked in to it. 

Recipe includes:

  • 1-part travel (substitute this email)
  • 2-parts being in an outdoor garden (using my own garden)
  • a strong dash of learning something new 

Here we go . . . 

Join me on this visit to Villa d’Este (The House of Este) in Tivoli – just outside Rome.

It’s about 55 degrees, not too cold nor warm. The sun is high and slightly hidden by clouds. It’s January, so there are no lines and only a handful of other tourists.

Having shown our ticket to enter, we walk through the stark villa, see a few pieces of Renaissance art, and then step out onto the terrace that overlooks a garden like no other.

Villa d'Este

You see, way back in 1555 Cardinal Ippolito d ’Este, grandson of Pope Alexander VI, commissioned Pirro Ligorio to transform the grounds of a Franciscan monastery into a garden of magnificent proportions. (The pope was played by Jeremy Irons in The Borgia series.)

The cardinal received the governorship and this land as a consolation prize for not becoming pope. In my opinion, I  mean . . . it’s not a bad trade-off.

Construction began in 1560 and was finished in 1575.

That’s 5 years of planning the design and 15 years of construction.

(Isn’t it funny how upset we get when our construction projects take a few months?! Granted they’re not this gorgeous, but you get my point.)

Villa d'Este Map

This garden is quintessential high Renaissance design. And if we remember our history well enough, (let me reduce this down) it’s a bit of science and a bit of art all representing a new modern age. 

Renaissance gardens were designed most commonly around a central axis (a throughway) and would have one or multiple perpendicular axes along it. Villa d’Este has one central axis and two cross-axes.

It was also built on a hillside.

Question: How does water get naturally from the top of a hill to the bottom?

Answer: Gravity.

All, yes all, of these amazing water fountains and features are powered by gravity. I mean . . . Romans! Moving water geniuses.

Villa d'Este
Villa d'Este

And here’s what’s really fascinating to me. Like many historic gardens, symbolism and storytelling were essential particularly if you were someone that was wealthy, well-known, and a connoisseur of the arts.
(While I’d love to take credit for my discerning analysis of this garden, I’m going lean on David R. Coffin author of The Villa d’Este at Tivoli beginning here.)
As a guest  to this garden in the 1600’s your carriage would have brought you to the entrance at the lowest point. (Visitors now enter at the top.) The first axis you’d cross is the lower one. The breath-taking fountain of Neptune fed the consecutive fish ponds and irrigated all the vegetation. Mother nature was providing life-giving sustenance. 

Villa d'Este

As you ascended through the garden, you walked the second axis (the upper one) and saw Pegasus striking his foot sending out a water spring. This sacred water is sent to the Muses flowing to Rometta (a.k.a. little Rome where Remus and Romulus were) representing human’s greatest achievements in art.

Noticing the three channels of water along the upper axis, you’d discern that they represented the 3 local rivers that eventually joined the Tiber in Rome. This connection to Rome linked the cardinal to his greatest achievements
Finally, you would have noticed the statue of Hercules situated between Venus and Diana (below pic) – vice and virtue. He’d be here for no other reason than the fact that the garden descended from him. (Duh!) 

Villa d'Este

By the time you’d entered the villa, it would have been clear that the whole garden was designed to glorify the cardinal’s virtue and his ability to transform nature into art. POWER!

I mean . . .  don’t you just love the grandiosity, ideology, and ethos of Romans! 

Villa d'Este

Okay, I’ll admit visiting Villa d ‘Este in person is way more exhilarating.

But . . . working on self-care is still important in 2021.

While you may not be traveling the way you’re used to for a few more months, you can still utilize my recipe right in your own back yard. 

Having your very own space designed to your own intentions, like Cardinal Ippolito did, is possible! 

Now is the time to get your project started. (Pinky swear it won’t take 5 years to design and 15 years to complete! Although if you’ve gotta have gravity-powered water features it may take some time.)

Contact us today to schedule your complimentary meeting.

A Taste of Travel At Home

If you were a fly on our wall at our house you’d see that our Netflix and Hulu ques are filled with food shows like Action Bronson’s F*ck, That’s Delicious and Padma Lakshimi’s Taste the Nation. These shows were proceeded by anything Anthony Bourdain (RIP) created, as well as one of our favorite Minnesotans, Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods. It’s the combination of travel and food (and, okay, the social commentary) that are two of our favorite things.

Almost 2 years ago, Craig and I joined our friends at their family resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Our friend Erik, who shares our passion for travel and food, is always looking for the next adventure. He suggested we spend the afternoon at Flora Farms and take a field to table cooking class. Tapping both our loves, it was an automatic yes.

Just northeast of Cabo “Flora Farms is a 25 acre organic working farm in the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico. Home to Flora’s Field Kitchen, The Farm Bar, Flora Farms Grocery and Flora Farms Celebrations. The farm is also home to the Shoppes at Flora Farms, the Culinary Cottages & The Haylofts, . . . , as well as The Farm Spa, an intimate spa and wellness experience achieved through nature-based spa services, in a supremely peaceful setting.” (Erik conveniently left out that there was a spa, but that’s for another discussion.)

For all us Chicagoans, it’s a fun fact that Flora Farm’s Chef Guillermo Tellez has a strong connection to Chicago. He graduated from Kendall College, as well as, worked with Charlie Trotter. (For the full history, see the website.)


After our chef for the class welcomed us, we got right to work learning proper chopping techniques and explanations about the correct tools to use. Who knew cutting onions could be that simple or that the stem of cilantro is as good as the leaves?!? And, now I know what a molcajete is! (It’s the stone mortar and pestle.)

It didn’t take long before we had prepared two new guacamole recipes (rosemary and charred habanero), a pico de gallo recipe, and were feasting on an excessive amount of fresh tortilla chips accompanied by their Farmarita cocktail.

Next came the tour of the farm. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s a commonly know fact among our friends that we are like kids in a candy shop when we’re on a farm or in a garden. We identify every plant out loud as we walk around. (I also have a bad habit of pulling weeds wherever we go too.)

There were limes, cacti, turnips, amaranth, mangoes, hibiscus. Warm climates are amazing!

If you didn’t know this, now you do: we have a “weed” that grows in Chicago that is actually something the farm grows on purpose. It’s called PURSLANE. It tastes great – try it!
Image: Wide Open Eats – https://www.wideopeneats.com/health-benefits-of-purslane/

Utilizing a lot of their property for their food production, some areas look like a traditional vegetable garden while others look like show gardens that grow produce. Some of their harvest is for sale (below image) while much is used in the kitchen.

No instruction worth it’s salt in Mexico would be complete without learning how to make our own corn tortillas. Deceivingly simple. With practice I see how it becomes second nature to grind, need, press, and cook.

Once the tortillas were completed, and honestly our bellies quite full, our meal was served. We had some of the most delicious Baja Fish tacos and Taco Slaw followed by Key Lime pie. Yummmmm.

I fell in love with two recipes we made, so I’m sharing them with you. It’s all about having the taste of travel at home, especially as you are able to relax in your very own garden. 

If you try either of the recipes, let us know how you liked them.


– Sara + Craig J-S

For Flora Farms’ Rosemary Guacamole and the Farmita cocktail, click here.

Topiarius Travels To . . . The Park of the Monsters

Topiarius Travels Bomarzo

About 42 miles north/northwest of our apartment in Rome was our destination for the day. Being avid garden visitors, we had heard and seen spectacular images of Bomarzo The Park of the Monsters (aka The Sacred Wood). But, we were not prepared to feel the spell that engulfed us as we stepped through the entrance gate.

We left Rome about 7 a.m. and arrived at Bomarzo about 8:30 a.m. The temperature in Rome was in the high 50’s in January, but the mountains proved to be much cooler.

Side Note: There’s nothing better than being in a world renown garden, but being in one with a map is fantastic! So while my husband and friends wanted a free-form adventure, I made sure we followed the numbers. All quite comical considering that the four of us were 1/3 of the people in the park at the time.

One of the first sculptures (#2) we came across was Proteus-Glauco, which is described as a sea monster. Humor and love had its place in Prince Orsini’s heart when his garden/park was completed in 1552. He “desired this project “only to relieve his soul.””[1] While the Prince didn’t design it himself, he chose the best architect to do so. Pirro Ligorio was an architect that worked on the construction of the Vatican.

The current garden is due to the Bettini Family who “discovered [it after Orsini abandoned it due to no heirs], restored and saved it from destruction. . .”[Page 3.]

[1] Bomarzo The Park of the Monsters A guide to The Park of the Monsters by the Giardino de Bomarzo, page 5.

While the terrain was easy to walk, the park is nestled into a hillside and amongst ancient trees. So, for the most part each sculpture is situated independently of the others. The Struggle of Giants (#4) is aptly named. The size is unexpected. (See Craig in the bottom right.) Here good and evil are battling it out – between Hercules and Cacus.

At first glance understanding why a woman is standing on a turtle may seem odd (#5). Yet, Ligorio had a story to tell. He wanted to represent a scene from Virgil’s abyss from where there is no return. The woman represents victory and how “Roman legions often won [battles] thanks to the protection of their shield like the turtles under their shell.”[Page 15.]

As we kept walking down the mossy, tree-lined paths, with at friendly cat circling between us, we kept all yelling out to each other, “You’ve got to come see this!” And that didn’t stop when we came upon The Leaning House (#13). (See Dave in the bottom right tilting it further.) The interior is accessible around the other side, so getting inside for pictures was simple.

Orsini “wanted to offer a strong emotion to his friends who entered the house for a nap, but had to leave immediately for the dizziness they felt.”[Page 22.] Not sure if we felt the dizziness, but we did find the wittiness.

When you can walk into a man’s head in a petrified scream of terror representing the underworld, why not? The Ogre (#19) is one of the most used images to represent Bomarzo and it was captivating to see. I can tell you what’s on the inside, but it may be more fun for you to find out on your own visit.

Maybe Disney knew about this Sleeping Beauty (#25), but definitely didn’t take any other ques. Halfway between sleep and death, the nymph’s history is both Greek and Latin. The proportion of her nails on her hands and feet compared to her body size command one’s attention.

An ancient Italian garden without a temple is like a Roman table without red wine. At the end of the tour there is The Temple (#34). (Angela is standing in the front.) It was built about 20 years after the garden in memory of Orsini’s second wife.

As the morning mist faded away, 2 hours of walking and wondering through the garden, trying to identify all the plants and trees we could, seeing all 35 sculptures, taking silly photos of ourselves throughout, we all found ourselves amazed by the spirit and joy that Bomarzo bestowed upon us.

It was unexpected and delightful . . . even a half century later.

Garden tour and photos provided by Sara J-S.