The term croft refers to a small agricultural unit, usually an enclosed field, and is part of a tradition in which gardening plays an essential role. The Croft Garden centers and champions manifold species through horticulture amid a sea of single-crop rotation fields, by transforming a pole-barn into a walled garden. The walls of the barn are cut to 6.5 feet, and a remnant of the gabled roof provides respite from the winds that sweep across acres of fallow fields adjacent to the Des Plaines River in Illinois. While the challenge is to create a florific garden out of a storage shed, the design maintains the ethos of site-wide adaptive reuse while establishing a strong connection to the heritage and vernacular of the farm.

In this part of semi-agricultural, ex-urban Illinois, the landscape is contoured by decades of maladaptive land-use associated with industrial agriculture. The over-scaled machinery, deep furrows, and drainage infrastructure have a profound impact on daily life, resulting in a sprawling, disconnected community. This project creates an area of respite for an extended family, a meeting place that helps bridge distances. The design sets out to transform daily practices, by adding a significant outdoor space that is comfortable in all seasons. A space for intimate conversations, games, large gatherings and parties, as well as a space to simply encourage life under the sky, out of doors and away from digital screens. More than an outdoor room, the Croft is also a cutting garden, so that families can take a piece of the garden home or offer bouquets to neighbors and friends who are also free to come and cut, tend, and exchange in the garden.

A close collaboration between the client, landscape architect, and architect resulted in a novel solution for a new garden space that limited the hauling of new material on and off site: unbuilding and reusing the existing timber-frame pole barn. While 12 trusses were repurposed for a new garage structure the cut remnants were capped and transformed into garden walls. The remaining trusses and roof shield against wind load and protect from sun and other elements. All remnant material is painted black, allowing the outsize structure to recede when viewed from other parts of the property. The eastern façade, structurally compromised without a truss, was rebuilt as a cedar wall with roofed storage, a small entry gate was recessed in once corner, and sliding cedar gates were constructed to fit existing openings on the north and south sides of the garden walls, framing views of the surrounding meadows and encouraging airflow. Exploratory excavation and soil testing revealed that the existing pad, while compacted, was composed of distinct and clean layers of gravel, sand, and clay loam; an area of 125’ x 55’ was excavated to a depth of 30”, the material mixed onsite with 55 cubic yards of compost and infilled back into place. The amended fill was micro-graded for drainage away from the central path and patio area.

Three single-stem, 6” caliper Crataegus anchor the garden and vibrant herbaceous drifts cross the main curvilinear path, guiding movement through the Croft. Only the tops of the Crataegus canopies can be seen from outside of the Croft, a hint at what might hide within the black walls of the façade. Through the design process the location of the trees was considered in tandem with the form of the path; the low-branching and sprawling canopies directing and obscuring views alongside the overlaps and layers created by the bending, weaving walk. A mix of native cultivars, straight species natives, garden classics, horticultural introductions, and some edible perennials, all grown by nurseries within 75 miles of the site, determine the diverse colors and textures of the Croft. The florific display works in dramatic contrast to the subtlety and expanse of the surrounding fields, meadows, and wetlands.

Plants were watered in but there is no plastic dripline; species were selected for toughness and drought-resistance. Three hose connections exist in the event of extreme drought. Dried foliage and seed pods are left all winter and cut back at the start of spring. To encourage self-seeding, planted areas are mulched with the same pea gravel that covers the patio areas. As with any garden, plants move around, some by chance or with the help of birds and insects, others are transplanted right after budbreak. As native species become robust in the Croft they are divided and transplanted into the surrounding landscape, continuing to propagate and perpetuate the long-term site adaptation.

Other landscape architecture offices involved in the design of landscape:
Architecture offices involved in the design: Decentralized Design Lab

Location: Illinois

Design year: 2021

Year Completed: 2023


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