Room to Grow

A Chicago garden evolves with the children it was designed for.

January 9, 2013

Whenever Sheridan Prior took her young children to a playground, they pretty much ignored the play sets there. Instead, they would go behind the plantings and dig a hole, or gravitate to a puddle they could float leaves on, or find secret spaces. It was what she had done as a child.

So when it came time to fit a play area for her two daughters in the 45-by-120-foot side yard of her Lincoln Park home, Prior and her husband, Michael, wanted something out of the ordinary.


“She told me a story of kids running through a garden, but not necessarily sticking to a path, so that they can climb among the bushes,” says Tony Butterworth of Christy Webber Landscapes, who did the design. Prior told Butterworth she didn’t care much about a lawn but wanted water for the children to play in, a place for contemplation, secret spaces, color and seasonal interest, and a kitchen garden. Some of the wants were for the adults. A big order for a small site.

“She wanted a very diverse and fully planted garden and didn’t want to wait 7 to 10 years for it to grow in. She wanted it to be cool while the children were still young kids,” he says.

Young Adventures

At that time, the children were 8 and 11. The younger, Isobel, is now 12 and still finds wonder in the simple things in the garden. One of her favorite places to play is a space between the gardening shed and the inside corner of the fence. It’s a tricky area to get into, and it has space for only a couple of children.

“I moved chairs back there and a broken pot,” says Isobel. “We sit and build a fire in the pot so it won’t spread, and roast marshmallows. I can sit out of the wind with a friend for hours talking.”

The small pond is another favorite place where Isobel says she can sit, watch, and play with the animals. “I have stare-downs with the frogs,” she says. This summer, she discovered a long-lost crawfish. “We hadn’t seen it for 2 years, and suddenly it just reappeared.”


Prior says Isobel is a picky eater and would never eat vegetables until they started growing them in the raised beds. “I love the strawberries,” says Isobel, “and am excited about the blueberries, but the peas have been the highlight. There was one week when there were so many I would just sit and eat them.”

While studying Native Americans in school, Isobel and her neighbor, Simran Jain, who is 2 years younger, decided to build a tepee under the trees. “We wanted to make it only of natural stuff,” says Isobel, “so we searched the alley for dead trees and branches, dragged them all back, and put it together with garden twine. We’re looking forward to how it will look in winter with the snow.”

In fact, the change of seasons is part of the appeal of the garden, and the girls don’t abandon it when the temperature dips down, says Prior. “There are snowball fights because there are places to hide, and Isobel and her friends build snow forts. They will play in the garden all day, and I just crack the door to hand out mugs of hot chocolate.”

Transitioning to Teens

Madeleine, 15, enjoys sitting in the garden, reading and relaxing. She gathers her friends together to sit on the newly installed deck that she and Isobel helped design. It has plenty of room for her friends to hang out with her, and Prior likes that it has become a comfortable place for the teens to congregate.

The pond is also a favorite of Madeleine’s. “I like the sound of the water; it gives you the sense that you are not really in the city.” She soon noticed that the pond made a nice backdrop for taking photos, and began organizing fashion shoots there with her friends.

Isobel has started to experiment with photography, as well. “She really ran with it,” says Prior. “She has documented the garden from the first of the year. She was out in the early spring taking pictures of the first crocus and the first sprouts of grass.” Her photography interest has now morphed into making a short movie based on Alice in Wonderland. A circle for seating made of architectural salvage chunks in one corner of the yard serves as the rabbit hole that Alice jumps down to get to Wonderland in the story.


Moving into Design

As they grow up, the girls are starting to look at the garden more visually, says Prior. While both girls help to shop for annuals every year and determine what the color scheme will be, Madeleine is particularly artistically minded and is forever coming up with ideas to improve different areas. She will say, “This area just doesn’t look pretty if you stand here; we need something tall and green.” The family often visits public gardens, where the girls find new ideas for the garden. The sisters are now petitioning, Prior says, to rebuild the pond. “They have a ton of ideas as to how it should be, what it could be, how the waterfall should be, and they have sketched up multiple designs.”

In Butterworth’s original design, Prior had asked him for places for the girls to run through the garden. He provided a deliberate route to and over the pond with stepping stones, but also other ways for the children to run through a grove of airy birch trees and under the deck. The seating circle made of stone pieces of architectural salvage was designed as a space for gathering and contemplation, but the daughters use it for other activities, as well, such as jumping and hopping from chunk to chunk. Butterworth also included a more formal seating area with comfortable outdoor couches in the middle of the yard between the kitchen garden and play areas as a transition between the two spaces and also as a place for the adults to sit. It is now one of Madeleine’s favorite places.

“At this point, the garden is for everybody,” says Butterworth. And indeed it is. That is another part of the success, says Prior. “Tony really understood what I was imagining for the garden, that the kids would be in it a lot, but it would be a garden that everyone would use.”

Learn More: Design Elements for a “Growing Up” Garden

Photos by Bob Stefko