The head of a Chicago-area landscape firm drapes his garden in history and traditional style. Think you could say yes to the dressy? Take a tour and pocket ideas for a yard of any size.

By Gary Thompson and Gary Thompson; Photographer: Matthew Benson
April 17, 2020
Credit: Matthew Benson

If, as they say, the cobbler’s children go shoeless, does that mean the landscaper’s backyard looks barren? Not if it’s Frank Mariani’s.

For more than 40 years, Frank has led Mariani Landscape, based in Lake Bluff, Illinois. His firm creates award-winning designs in some of the Chicago area’s most prestigious neighborhoods, plus it does work for A-list corporate and institutional clients. But Frank tends his own garden too. And oh, what a garden.

Less formal or cottage- style gardens have curvy, meandering pathways and borders, but here, things mostly stay on the straight and narrow. Interest comes from varied surfaces—stone, gravel and grass.
| Credit: Matthew Benson

He and his wife, Sherri, live on a 10-acre expanse called Old Mill Farm in nearby Lake Forest. The grounds, which abut a forest preserve, include a French-style kitchen garden, an English perennial border, a wild prairie and an impressive variety of trees. It’s anchored by a 1929 Tudor home originally owned by George Rasmussen, whose family founded the bygone National Tea Company grocery chain.

When Frank and Sherri bought the place in the 1980s, the forest preserve had pretty much swallowed the acreage and once grand home— scraggly limbs poked at windows. But with his landscaper’s eye, Frank saw how he could turn the salvageable bones—interesting trees and a few ornamentals—into a spectacular garden.

Give your garden good bones—the structural parts you see all year, like shrubs, fences, arbors, paths and trees. Those anchors will make your yard interesting and attractive even when blanketed in snow and seen through a window. Pointed arbors echo the inverted V of the gable on Frank Mariani’s Tudor-style home (as do his trellises, obelisks and fence pickets). Lesson: Let a key architectural detail (like an arched window or stone porch pillars) set the tone, so your garden sings in tune with your home.
| Credit: Matthew Benson

The Marianis renovated inside and out, finding a welcome surprise in the attic—famed landscape architect Jens Jensen’s 1934 plans for the estate. Frank kept the woodland garden Jensen had designed, incorporating 90-year-old lilacs and continuing Jensen’s use of native plants, such as bluestem grass. “Mother Nature does a pretty nice job,” Frank says.

Frank’s neatly trimmed yew and boxwood hedges divide his lawn into little rooms and lend height, geometry and symmetry. For a formal vibe in a smaller yard, use a hedge to frame a square patio or flank a front walk.
| Credit: Matthew Benson

The secluded site and traditional look make guests feel like they’ve gone back in time. After passing modern homes, “All of a sudden you see nothing but forest preserve, and after 1,500 feet, our property,” Frank says. A thick carpet of hellebores and ferns edges the driveway.

But the main attraction is in back. Tidy hedges enclose perennial gardens. A Belgian fence with espaliered trees corrals an orchard. There’s a pool, a berry patch, a shade garden and a butterfly garden. The vegetable garden is set off by X-shaped manicured boxwoods.

Proud of their garden and its history, the Marianis hope to maintain it for future generations. It’s easy to imagine kids of tomorrow running barefoot in the backyard’s perfect grass. Maybe it’s the landscaper’s grandchildren who go shoeless?

Focus on a few bloom colors and mass them for impact. Frank favors pinks and purples, such as the vegetable garden’s sweet pea blossoms. Think green too. Interesting foliage is a hallmark of formal gardens.
| Credit: Matthew Benson
Terra-cotta pots with classical shapes and ornate designs make a garden look more formal. Frank uses containers en masse, singly and in pairs, elevating some pieces—like an urn or cloche—for more prominence.
| Credit: Matthew Benson

Inspiration Tour

Alas, Frank’s garden is private—but these other Midwest beauties aren’t. Public gardens offer year-round inspiration, and many host workshops, lectures and plant sales.

Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, Illinois Frank’s company implemented renowned landscape architect James van Sweden’s design for Evening Island, a backdrop to the garden’s central lake.

Olbrich Botanical Garden, Madison, Wisconsin Stroll 16 acres, including the Rose Garden designed in Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style. It features a 30-foot tower and native-stone fountains.

Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, Missouri See more than 75 acres of formal gardens, greenhouses and woodlands in the city’s heart. The Japanese Garden is one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere.

Lauritzen Gardens, Omaha, Nebraska The 100-acre urban sanctuary along the Missouri River Valley south of downtown features formal gardens, a wildflower meadow, a shady glen and an arboretum.