Karen wanted to visit The Art Institute of Chicago. I wanted to visit the Lurie Garden. It was easy to do both since they were separated only by the pavement of East Monroe Street.
What is it that draws us to these expressions of creativity in museums and gardens? What is their allure? Both are collections of eons of evolution, both are rich with inspiration, and both change how we see the world. But, the plants are living, breathing art. Art that touches the human spirit, art that sustains life, and art that enriches an ecology. Left to their own devices, they are fine. If we vanished from the earth, I pity the gallery collections as they, too, would one day likely find plants growing in the ruins next to the Picassos.
I knew the Perennial Plant cohort would be visiting Lurie later in the day Wednesday with tours, but I couldn’t wait. Plus, the gray skies that Monday left from rain were a perfect companion for photography. There was enough of a drizzle to saturate the hues.
I have to admit I was ecstatic to finally see the Lurie Garden. I had never been to Chicago in the summer, and this planting conjured by Piet Oudolf and crew was one I wanted to see so that I could learn more about naturalistic planting in urban areas and take that back to my students.
The Lurie Garden was smaller than I thought it would be. From the images I’ve seen, I envisioned it being larger, but I suppose that’s an effect of photography—long sweeping swaths of prairie that seem unbroken due to well placed pathways.
We entered on the upper northwest corner of the garden and found ourselves flanked by colorful perennials like Echinacea and Allium. Later, I would learn this full-sun western section was called the Light Plate and featured a patchwork of prairie plants set against a Thuja (arborvitae) hedge.
To the east was the Dark Plate, a portion of the garden that was designed to resemble an open woodland. I learned from Landscapes in Landscapes that the wooden pathway called the seam separated the two areas and was a throwback to the wooden sidewalks that once graced the streets of Chicago.
Camera in hand, I started documenting all I could see. Right off the bat, I found an educational sign about how Laura Ekasetya and her team had left plant stems from the previous year for pollinators to overwinter. Such education is important for those gardeners who want to start with a clean slate each spring. We can’t forget the little guys.
I have to say the plantings were spectacular. In some places they took your breath away. This garden of course is idealized prairie, but I couldn’t help but think this flora is what parts of the midwest and southeast looked like long ago.
In Piet’s talk the next day we would learn that while much of the Lurie Garden was planted with the blocked-style approach of planting, a southern section of the garden actually featured a matrix with scattered perennials. This experiment would become the basis of Piet’s approach of planting on the High Line.
You can see this difference in blocking and intermingled design in these plans that I asked Thomas Rainer if I could steal from his website. As Thomas states, they are definitely fun to study but even more fun to see in real life.
Since I study and teach students the layers in a designed plant community, I viewed the garden through this lens during my visit. I thought in this post that would be a helpful approach to break down the highlights. First, the uprights or primary plants since they are often prominent in the planting for multiple months during the year.
Egads, the Eryngium was everywhere, but not overwhelming. Kind of like white chocolate chips. Some spots had more, others less, but all of it added flavor to the garden. Looking back through my photos it seems I couldn’t get enough of it. There was something eye catching about seeing the argent spheres towering above most of the perennials in the garden just like the the gray, looming skyscrapers. There was a difference in texture, but a color echo. It was the same, but different. And, both alive—pollinators flocking to the plants just like people living in the high-rises.
Less plentiful was Silphium laciniatum, another emergent piercing out of the prairie sprawl. Even before it flowers the finger-like lobes are great contrast against the whimsy of grass foliage.
I also enjoyed seeing Oudolf’s incorporation of Liatris. It is a species with a medium level of sociability. You cannot have just one. It does better in scattered groups of 10–20 or more. Seeing the familiar Liatris pycnostachya that we use in plantings is a testament to its versatility. It is native from Texas through Minnesota.
A white form of Liatris spicata was also mingled with Limonium latifolium to help cover it’s bare feet. The color echo was spot on.
I’m jealous of the success northern gardens have with Veronicastrum virginicum. I want the spires erupting like you see below. I have one that’s two feet tall. :-/ My search for southern germplasm continues.
In some sections Parthenium integrifolium was scattered to and fro. It looks like insects could hop from flowering cloud to flowering cloud.
Seasonal plants really are the pulse of a planting, and the Lurie Garden had many that were celebrating summer.
I so wish we could grow more Allium in Texas. The lollypop flowers look so jolly, and en masse, content sigh, they are so spectacular.
Members of the mint family like Pycnanthemum and Monarda are also good seasonal plants and attract a plethora of beneficial insects.
And there were groundcover species, low dwellers like Calamintha that serve to carpet the ground and provide some relief for the plants around them to pop. Sporobolus heterolepis was scattered about since it is such a great candidate for planting beneath other perennials.
Combos that Caught My Eye
I love a good plant combo. One that makes you ponder, “Why didn’t I think of that?!” One of my absolute favorites is below. Amsonia + Pycnanthemum. The fine textured green-to-lemon colored foliage of Amsonia hubrichtii was such a good contrast against the silver, spade-shaped bracts of Pycnanthemum muticum.
And, here Pycnanthemum muticum combines well with the whites of Veronicastrum and Euphorbia corollata. Each white also has a different texture which makes the planting even more engaging.
Another combination that was so simple and so effective was Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah' and Echinacea. Again, different textures but a monochromatic color scheme.
I left the Lurie Garden full from indulging myself on this beautiful naturalistic planting. I even continued my Dutch dreaming at the Art Institute. Partly because at the entrance I met for the first time Tony Spencer, author of The New Perennialist and moderator of the Dutch Dreamers group on Facebook. But, also because seeing all the paintings in the museum made me think back to the quote…
I believe that gardens like the Lurie have the power to change the mentality about the importance of nature and plants. We as gardeners can flip those works of art around so that people really can see their beauty and how they fit into our life AND us into theirs. To see these plantings done so well can only inspire others to follow suit.