The four-season Dwarf Conifer Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden was designed to delight the eye with fantastic shapes of globes, buns, columns, and pyramids in unexpected colors like blue, gold, emerald, and chartreuse.

Since opening in 1988, the Dwarf Conifer Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden has been regarded as one of the foremost collections of small cone-bearing shrubs and trees in North America serving as an invaluable resource for botanists and home gardeners alike. Unfortunately, its only entrance, a steep, narrow path disappearing uphill behind a dense allée of clipped linden trees seemed discreet to the point of invisibility. As a result, visitors often passed this entrance missing the opportunity to explore the hidden garden.

In 2007, Hoerr Schaudt was engaged to help revitalize and reinvigorate the garden from both functional and horticultural perspectives; the garden needed to be made more accessible and sustainable. Thanks in part to his apprenticeship with Adrian Bloom – both a dwarf conifer breeder and a designer – Doug Hoerr understood the horticultural needs of these plants, as well as their aesthetic and environmental potential. The design process began with a plant-by-plant assessment that revealed the inevitable impact of aging, as well as the losses resulting from an unequal competition for space and sunlight. The original design, Doug surmised, no longer felt cohesive. In consultation with Chicago Botanic Garden staff, Hoerr Schaudt’s design team worked to address these disparities, building up a living structure of columns and pyramids, globes, and cones that included more than 753 examples of 231 conifer species.

Because of their distinctive silhouettes and textures, the conifers perform as navigational guides to anyone exploring the garden. Our team used a full palette of greens, blues, golds, and yellows to mark alluring destinations; and through thoughtful editing, we relaxed the landscape’s seclusion by opening vistas into the nearby Japanese Garden and beyond. To expand accessibility, the design eased the climb with a gentle hillside ramp, widened old turf paths, and paving.