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Classic Mother-Daughter Garden

A mother-daughter bond grows in a classic Illinois garden

Written by Kari Richardson
  • Peter Krumhardt

    Liz Olsen can’t remember when she started gardening. Neither can her mother, Peggy Olsen, though Peggy tells a story about the time Liz helped out in the garden to earn money for a pony saddle. “It was 25 cents for a bucket of weeds, but we eventually decided to pay 50 cents so we could finish the project,” she laughs.

    Liz grew up among rosebushes and rhododendrons, first gardening with her mother in the mild climate of San Rafael, California, where the family planted a large vegetable garden and fruit trees on their one-third-acre property. When dad Eric’s business required a move to the Chicago area in 1991, the family settled on a 15-acre property in the countrified suburb of Barrington Hills. The Georgian-style home had a small garden, but much of the property was choked with weeds and buckthorn, an invasive shrub that quickly edges out other plants.

    At first the goals were simple: to expand an existing rose garden and to clear a path to a nearby pond so the family could cross-country ski. But the energetic clan, which includes another daughter, Kate, quickly checked those items off the to-do list and set new goals. Some 21 years later, the property, which the Olsens call Woods Walk, is home to nine garden “rooms” and thousands of plant specimens. And, perhaps best of all, the aforementioned pond is now visible from the Olsen home. 

    Peggy and Eric spent much of their free time in the garden when their girls were little, so the girls did, too. A pleasant day has always meant one thing for this outdoorsy bunch: a garden project. Though they have some help with weeding and watering, Olsen family members do all of their own design work and much of the maintenance themselves.

    It probably shouldn’t have been a surprise when, after studying painting and art history in college, Liz accepted a job with a landscaping company. After five years of learning the business, one plant at a time, she and husband Andrew Wolfgram formed their own garden-design business, Avant-Gardenscapes, in 2010.

    “When she was a little girl, I never imagined my daughter would own two dump trucks,” Peggy laughs. Trucks aside, Liz says garden design nicely combines her enthusiasm for plants with her passion for color, texture, and shape.

    “The more varieties of things you know, the better combinations you can come up with,” she says. “My parents let me ‘play’ in their gardens, testing things out,” Liz adds. “Because we’ve lived here so long, I know what an arborvitae is going to look like after 20 years.” That helps when she chooses plants for clients at Avant-Gardenscapes, known for blending many varieties. “Even the humble marigold can find a home in the right setting,” she says.

    At Woods Walk, a mix of sun and shade provides growing conditions just right for a mind-boggling number of plants. Paths wind through an oak savannah sheltering beds of spirea, viburnum, azalea, astilbe, phlox, and cimicifuga. Sun-loving specimens such as clematis, salvia, monarda, canna, hollyhock, and crocosmia thrive in the English Pool Garden, which is also home to hundreds of floribunda and tea roses. The Leo Lion Garden, named for a beloved family cat who “oversaw” its construction, includes grasses, ferns, weeping birch, coneflowers, and dwarf evergreens.

    The family adds new rooms as inspiration strikes: Wedding Walk, created by Liz as the backdrop for her 2008 nuptials, features clematis and rose arches, as well as a vibrant butterfly garden.

    Liz and Andrew recently purchased their own home nearby, but dinnertime often finds them at Woods Walk, where their golden retriever, Honey Bear, dashes down garden paths with Finnegan, her parents’ golden. As mealtime nears, work projects are wrapped up, and the family and guests take a meandering “woods walk,” which has become a family tradition. 

    “We walk around and take a look at the work we’ve done during the day,” Peggy explains. “We talk about what’s not doing well and spray for bugs if we need to.” It’s a time to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and to celebrate relationships grown strong in the soil.

    The Olsens’ garden will be part of the Garden Conservancy’s 2013 Open Days Tour. You can visit the garden on Sunday, June 23rd, from 10 AM until 4 PM. For more information and ticket purchase, please visit their website.

    Photography: Peter Krumhardt

    Produced by Hilary Rose

    Garden design: Avant-Gardenscapes, 847/305-0579,

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    Gala Garden

    Nestled by the pond is the sun-loving Gala Garden–bright with climbing “Jacob’s Robe” roses and “Jackmanii” clematis–enclosed by two arching rows of brilliant blue pillars.

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    Saturated Hues

    The brilliant purple of clematis is striking against deep blue latticework.

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    Stepping Stones

    Flagstone steppers lead to the gazebo.

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    Morning Dew

    The garden is especially beautiful on dewy mornings.

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    Looking Glass

    The reflection of the Adirondack chairs in the pond lends an otherworldly beauty.

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    David Austin English rose ‘Abraham Darby’ and ‘East Friesland’ salvia display saturated hues of pink and purple.

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    Pretty Fringe

    Brightly colored ground covers add a layer of texture and color, like fringe on a scarf.

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    Homeowner Peggy Olsen and her daughter, landscape designer Liz Olsen, relax with a spot of tea.

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    Imposing Entry

    The emerald lawn and globed borders help make the entrance imposing.

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    Pinks and Whites

    Plenty of pink and white enhance the romanticism of the garden’s palette.

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    Water Feature

    Situated off the dining room, a small pond area showcases roses and a Japanese maple tree.

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    “My parents let me ‘play’ in their garden, testing things out,” says landscape designer Liz Olsen. “Because we’ve lived here so long, I know what an arborvitae is going to look like after 20 years.”

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    English Pool Garden Entrance

    Announcing the entrance to the English Pool Garden is a pair of classical urns placed on wide Eden Flagstone steps.

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    Container Plantings

    Container plantings punctuate the garden, adding an element of structure to swaths of soft blooms. 

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    Holding aloft an urn of purple ‘Wave’ petunias and ‘Silver Falls’ dichondra, the statue was a Father’s Day gift from daughters Kate and Liz to their dad, Eric Olsen.

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    Sitting Area

    The garden abounds in restful sitting areas.

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    A Touch of Whimsy

    A fanciful planter brings a smile. 

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    Alfresco Dining

    Details make the table, as well as the garden.

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    Happy Hues

    Sunny yellow blooms add cheer.

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    Green Cascade

    Throughout the garden, cascading plants contribute a sense of movement.

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    Classic Vignette

    Would you agree there is something slightly Mt. Vernonesque about this vignette?

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    Vertical Elements

    Vertical elements vary the garden’s tempo.

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    Columned Area

    A colorful potted annual lantana tree situated near woven wicker furniture makes the pool pergola an inviting place to sit. A Thomas Jefferson vine is entwined on the obelisk.

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    Pink Blooms

    ‘Ville de Lyon’ clematis lends exoticism to the English Pool Garden.

  • Garden Information

    Where: Barrington Hills, Illinois
    Conditions: Zone 5a; clay, amended with compost, gypsum, and organic fertilizer.
    Highlights: Classic English Pool Garden with perennials and fragrant rosebushes; shaded walk under a canopy of oaks.

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    Arches and Pergolas

    Arches and pergolas are among classical motifs employed in the garden.

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    Bone Structure

    The sharp angles of paths give the garden its striking bone structure.