Gardens at Ball

September 28, 2011
Written by Greenhouse Magazine
The Skyframe walkway at the Gardens of Ball in West Chicago.

The Gardens at Ball in West Chicago, Illinois, have been the evaluation and testing grounds for the world’s wealth of horticultural introductions and improvements since the early 1930s.

George J. Ball created the first Ball Horticultural Company test sites at his Glen Ellyn, Illinois, greenhouse to compare various cut flower strains. Recognizing the importance of evaluation, and with the company’s expansion to nearby West Chicago in 1928, he increased the trials to include outdoor gardens composed of bedding plants. In 1933, the Gardens resembled traditional row trial-style displays for seed varieties. This format is a useful way to compare growth habits, flower quality and disease resistance between varieties.

The comparison gardens.
On Aug. 5, 1953, Ball held its first Field Day, a special annual event where Ball customers were encouraged to visit the trial grounds in West Chicago and learn about new products from the sales force, breeders and product managers. This first Field Day drew several hundred visitors, and attendance continued to climb in subsequent years. By the 1956 event, nearly 1,400 registrations were received and 33 U.S. states were represented.

In 1964, the Gardens were significantly enhanced with the completion of the Geo. J. Ball Test and Demonstration Garden, designed and constructed by landscape architect William E. Rose. Updates included a modern flagstone building to serve as a studio for photography, which is still onsite today and known as “The Cottage.” New design elements created a more casual and relaxed viewing space for varieties.

Since that time, the Gardens have grown to become one of the most extensive trialing facilities in North America. A centennial celebration of Ball Horticultural Company in 2005 prompted a larger transformation of the grounds. This latest design inspires visitors as they compare products in an exciting and innovative display. It also encourages creative ideas for home garden and commercial settings.

A large display of sun containers.
Douglas Hoerr (Douglass Hoerr Landscape Architecture, Evanston, Illinois) was the senior architect of this most recent transformation. Clauss Brothers, Inc. was the construction contractor, and facilities consultant Werner Rader and garden manager Jim Nau were Ball coordinators. No longer a series of row trials, the Gardens were reshaped into an integrated horticultural display.

The makeover included a permanent structural “skeleton” with beds that alter from year to year, as well as land restoration and ecological rehabilitation of nearly 30 acres of Ball property. The renovation project cleared invasive plant species, developed walking trails, and native plantings encouraged wildlife. It also restored ecologies of the area, among them prairie, savannah, wetland, wet forest and sedge meadow.

A view of the hillside gardens.

Today, the Gardens at Ball includes approximately nine acres of display beds for thousands of annual, perennial and shrub varieties, nearly 150 combination containers, and the latest plant genetics and promotional campaigns from the industry’s leading breeders.

Some design highlights include Vertical Garden structures; the Sky Frame Garden (17 arbours filled with colourful annual varieties trailing down from overhead); the Sun and Shade Container Gardens; a new Perennial and Shrub display; and the Hillside Garden, consisting of 38 permanent concrete containers filled with colourful annuals, vines and tropicals.

The Ball Field Day continues to be an important annual event, drawing over a thousand guests each July and highlighting the best Ball has to offer. The ever-changing and ever-impressive Gardens at Ball remain the key spectacle each year.

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