Chicago's often raucous, rollicking personality seems, at first glance, to deny the possibility of serenity, anywhere, anytime.
Yet for such a complex city, especially one with a nod-to-nature motto of Urbs in Horto (Latin for City in a Garden), that's easily disputed.
Oases of beauty thrive at the edges of the city and deep in its high-rise canyons, where Chicago's gardeners have painted their worlds in neon yellow and orange zinnias, velvety red geraniums and deep pink azaleas.
Others pluck their inspiration from Mother Nature's palette of greens.
Which is what Vivianne and Joel Pokorny did when they imagined a soothing, peaceful courtyard, inspired by the gardens of Japan.
"A Japanese garden doesn't necessarily have to be so colorful," Vivianne explains. "I didn't want a hot garden — like a lot of red and pink and orange. I wanted a cool garden to stay serene."
So the couple planted soft blue-green fescue grasses, purple-kissed Japanese painted ferns, a miniature Japanese pine (Pinus parviflora "Ara Kawa"), hostas — dark green, soft green, splashed with white — and several Japanese maples (Acer palmatum).
"You can get just about anything you want in a Japanese maple," she says. "You can get different colors. Different forms. Some grow upright. Some grow bent over. They're beautiful."
"And there are thousands," adds Joel, pointing out a nearby tobiosho (A. palmatum "Tobiosho").
"There are three or four different leaf types. This has finely articulated leaves," says Vivianne, holding the leaf of a weeping maple in her palm. "It comes out red, then turns a bit greener as the summer goes along, and it goes back to this reddish color in the fall."
That the predominant color in the Pokorny garden is green was part of Vivianne's overall plan for the space.
Indeed, their garden is a peaceful haven tucked among the Near North Side's busy streets, and one of 23 gardens open for visits during the 52nd Annual Dearborn Garden Walk in July, sponsored by the North Dearborn Association.
Peach-toned brick walls embrace the courtyard, shutting out the noisy clutter. Their home, a three-story Victorian with a broad expanse of windows overlooking the garden, sits at one end. A glass-fronted kitchen facing the garden anchors the first floor of a two-story structure that includes space for visiting relatives and a garage.
The courtyard's garden is edged with pachysandra and a few evergreens, then embellished with Annabelle smooth hydrangea, purple coneflower, tuberous begonia, plus coral bells (heuchera) in soft purples and whites. "Dragon's Blood" and "Rosy Glow" sedum nudge a tiny flagstone path.
Japanese lanterns, a few architectural artifacts left by a previous owner, a jizo statue ("It stands at crossroads to protect travelers," she says, and "protects babies and young children who are lost") and a softly bubbling stone fountain peek from among the plantings. Leaves on the courtyard's trees, a pair each of ginkgos and Ohio buckeyes, rustle the quiet.
The garden's serenity and clean lines weren't always so — and there's a stubborn ivy to prove it.
"When we moved in, it was a jungle," recalls Vivianne. "Construction people drove their trucks pretty much through it all."
That was almost 10 years ago, when the Pokornys teamed with Brad Lynch of Brininstool, Kerwin & Lynch architects to rehab the property. He added the windows to the Victorian, allowing family and guests to gaze at the garden and its Japanese maples while dining. When Vivianne told Lynch she wanted the courtyard to have "a city look," a concrete walkway and a pair of simple yet hefty (about 800 pounds each) concrete benches were added.
Fascinated with gardens they had visited during multiple trips to Japan, particularly Kyoto's Imperial Villas, Shugaku-in and Katsura, the now-retired university professors worked steadily to create their version, based on Vivianne's design, incorporating a few principles of Japanese gardening. They share the gardening duties, from morning waterings to tackling the annual dandelion invasion.
Because Japanese gardens "use a lot of water elements with steppingstones," Vivianne created a curved path with flagstone near the center. "I wanted this to look a little bit like water, like a peaceful pond."
Color is not banned, of course. "The Japanese painted ferns come out kind of grayish, and if they're kept shaded, they stay that sort of grayish with the purple stems," she adds. Purple and white clematis blossom on the courtyard's walls early in the season; Japanese maples change from green to red in the fall.
The garden is more than a peacemaker. Basil, rosemary, marjoram, thyme, oregano, sage, three lavenders and shiso, a fragrant Japanese herb, thrive.
And that ivy? It survived the construction mess, but did it jibe with a Japanese-inspired design?
"I said I don't like this ivy, and Joel agreed," Vivianne says. "So I started pulling it off. And I got to what I could do until I needed a ladder. I took a look at it and decided it was looking kind of interesting."
Its bare stem/trunk twists and turns its way up to a lush plume of leaves at the top of the garden wall.
"I pull all the growth off every year so that it exposes the stem," she says, "and it really kind of works."
Japanese maples: A few tips
Choosing a Japanese maple for your yard can be a challenge. A good place to begin is a chart in the fourth edition of "Japanese Maples: The Complete Guide to Selection and Cultivation" (Timber Press, $49.95), by Peter Gregory and J.D. Vertrees. It offers growing details arranged by cultivar names.
Here are three tips from the book …
"Since they rarely attain great heights, they are not classed as shade trees."
"The ideal soil … is a slightly acid, sandy loam with a low to medium amount of organic matter."
"Many of the cultivars are ideal subjects for pots because of their tolerance, adaptability (and) shallow fibrous root system (among other things)."
… and one from Vivianne Pokorny:
"Especially in the fall, you have to keep them watered to get them to change colors. If they're just a bit dry and frost comes, they'll never turn color."
— J.H.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times