Gardening with Perennials: Lessons from Chicago's Lurie Gardenby Noel Kingsbury
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For gardeners, inspiration can come from the most unexpected places. Perennial enthusiasts around the world might be surprised to find their muse in the middle of a bustling city. Lurie Garden, a nearly three-acre botanic garden in the center of Chicago’s lakefront in Millennium Park, is a veritable living lab of prairie perennials, with a rich array of plant life that both fascinates and educates as it grows, flowers, and dies back throughout the year. Thousands of visitors pass through each year, and many leave wondering how they might bring some of the magic of Lurie to their own home gardens.
With Gardening with Perennials horticulturalist and garden writer Noel Kingsbury brings a global perspective to the Lurie oasis through a wonderful introduction to the world of perennial gardening. He shows how perennials have much to offer home gardeners, from sustainability—perennials require less water than their annual counterparts—to continuity, as perennials’ longevity makes them a dependable staple.
Kingsbury also explains why Lurie is a perfect case study for gardeners of all locales. The plants represented in this urban oasis were chosen specifically for reliability and longevity. The majority will thrive on a wide range of soils and across a wide climatic range. These plants also can thrive with minimal irrigation, and without fertilizers or chemical control of pests and diseases. Including a special emphasis on plants that flourish in sun, and featuring many species native to the Midwest region, Gardening with Perennials will inspire gardeners around the world to try Chicago-style sustainable gardening.
“Noel Kingsbury is the great chronicler of contemporary planting design. . . . Few garden writers are as prolific or as influential.”
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Gardening with Perennials
Lessons from Chicago's Lurie Garden
By Noel Kingsbury
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2014 Noel Kingsbury
All rights reserved.
The Story of the Lurie Garden
Millennium Park was the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle for the development of the lakeside area of Chicago. Most of that area, which had been part of Daniel Burnham's 1909 plan for Chicago, became Grant Park. Millennium Park, 24.5 acres in all, was thought of as a covering for an underground parking garage, itself built over the tracks of the Metra/Illinois Central Railroad. The making of relatively enclosed gardens in public parks is an old tradition, a way of concentrating an ornamental horticultural element and providing a quiet place in the larger, and sometimes noisier, park environment. Richard Driehaus, one of the original founders of Millennium Park, offered to underwrite an invited competition for the design of a garden in Millennium Park. The Ann and Robert H. Lurie Foundation agreed to provide an endowment for the future maintenance of the garden, which was to be named the Lurie Garden, in honor of their $10 million gift.
After considerable jury deliberation, the competition was won by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN). The principal, Kathryn Gustafson, had a reputation as one of the world's leading landscape designers; originally a fashion designer, she turned to landscapes and made a name for herself with a number of projects in France (e.g., the L'Oreal factory and the Rights of Man Square, in Évry). The winning plan was developed in conjunction with theater and opera designer Robert Israel and Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf. Gustafson and Oudolf were asked to submit designs separately, but given their complementary talents, they had decided that collaboration was the best way forward.
Oudolf's reputation had spread beyond the world of the garden with plantings for the Dreampark in the city of Enköping, Sweden, and a number of visitor destination projects in England: for the Royal Horticultural Society garden at Wisley, near London, and for the Pensthorpe Waterfowl Trust in the east of the country.
Gustafson describes meeting Oudolf: "When I was considering the Chicago competition ... we'd both read the brief at the same time ... I thought his work was extraordinary, I picked up the phone and suggested we collaborate." Collaborations between professionals in landscape and garden design have been rare up to now, but in Gustafson's view, "I think Piet has changed the way landscape architects see gardeners and horticulture professionals, they see them with a better understanding of what they can bring to a project ... we had decided that we don't know this type of perennial planting well enough and we need to bring in expertise." The Lurie Garden is a striking example of the success of such collaboration, but unlike great works of architecture, it has much to teach the ordinary home gardener, which is the message of this book.
The Design of the Lurie Garden
The whole 5-acre Lurie Garden site is treated as a work of art, with a central concept, the realization of which is heavily dependent on the 2.5 acres of Piet Oudolf's planting. A wide boardwalk was included, and a narrow waterway (the "Seam") divides the site into two distinct regions of planting: the "Dark Plate" and the "Light Plate." The Dark Plate is an area of open woodland, richly underplanted with shade-tolerant plants—symbolizing the wild landscape that existed before the arrival of white settlers. The Dark Plate concept is about lush, relatively dark-toned and coarse-textured vegetation with enough trees to cast some shade. Considerably larger, and set at a lower level, is the more open, expansive, and fine-textured area of the Light Plate.
"One of the most important aspects of design for me is creating a project that emerges from its place," says Gustafson of her approach to landscape projects—what she designs, must, she says, connect, with the history of the location. The Seam waterway, for example, is an evocation of the historic edge of Lake Michigan, whose natural boundary once lay on the edge of this site, but which nineteenth-century railroad development pushed farther into the lake. The wooden walkway adjacent to the Seam echoes the old wooden sidewalks that once lined the city's streets.
The Lurie Garden is separated from the rest of Millennium Park by a massive hedge, the evergreen conifer arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) and two deciduous trees: European beech (Fagus sylvatica) and hornbeam (Carpinus betulus). This is partly functional, sheltering the garden and its users from wind, but its muscular and monumental character is also intended to echo the well-known poem by Carl Sandburg (published in 1916) that describes Chicago as the "city of big shoulders." Kathryn Gustafson describes how "Shannon Nichol and I had worked on this with Bob Israel—we had decided we wanted a secret garden ... the problem was that after a concert in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion [designed by Frank Gehry; located just north of the garden] up to ten thousand people would pour out and make for the entrances to the parking garage; the Shoulder Hedge was our way of protecting the garden."
The "Shoulder Hedge" has another function; during the planning of the Lurie Garden, the architect Renzo Piano was designing an extension to the Art Institute of Chicago, so GGN and Israel decided to tilt the garden toward the institute so that, with the Shoulder Hedge behind it, it became, as Gustafson says, "very theatrical ... we set the stage for Piet to work in."
The area called the Light Plate makes up the bulk of the garden; open and sunlit, it is a place in which you are far enough away from the buildings in downtown Chicago that they can be appreciated as a backdrop. The garden is large enough to make it feel that you are not really in the city, that there is almost a sense of looking back at its architecture, that the great wall of steel, concrete, and glass that is Chicago has already been left behind on a journey to somewhere else. It is actually a very good place to admire this architecture. The ground of the garden gently rolls, and in this way it reflects much of the landscape of the Midwest. Oudolf's planting captures something of the landscape too; it is very much a stylized representation of prairie habitat. This is achieved by its informality (at least in contrast to the kinds of landscape usually seen in public places) but, in particular, by the use of scattered ornamental grasses—these always evoke in the mind's eye of the onlooker the memory of wild open spaces.
The ecologist might look at the Lurie Garden and say that there is nothing natural in it, particularly given that much of the planting is in the clumps that gardeners have conventionally used for perennials and small shrubs. Yet, looking at the Art Institute Garden designed by Dan Kiley in 1965, it is possible to see how far landscape design has come; the earlier garden looks rigid and tame by comparison. It is also worth remembering that the Lurie Garden is in effect a roof garden, with a soil depth of between 18 inches and 4 feet of soil on a concrete base over a parking garage—truly "greening the city," creating habitat where there was none before.
Oudolf's work as a planting designer is always moving forward. He is forever experimenting with new plants, new ways of using them, and in particular new ways of combining them. The Lurie Garden represented a new level in the complexity and sophistication of his planting design; it repeated a number of elements that had proved successful elsewhere but also played with new ways of doing things. The bulk of the planting is in clumps, where multiples of individuals of the same plant species are put together. A few groups, however, are combinations, designed to set one plant off against another: Geranium phaeum 'Album' and Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Firedance', for example, flower at different times, the former early, the latter late, while Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia and Agastache 'Blue Fortune' put two blues together—making a harmonious combination of color but contrasting in form.
A key element in the Lurie Garden with great popular appeal is the "Salvia River." This was something that Piet first created in the Dreampark in Enköping, Sweden, using European species of Salvia, a group of plants closely related to culinary sage, with flowers in a range of violet blues; planted in a wave shape, and flowering at a time (early summer) before much of the Light Plate is in flower, the impact is electric.
More radical in design terms, and owing a lot to the naturalistic design movement (increasingly influential in both Europe and the United States), is intermingled planting, which aims to mix plant varieties more intimately than has been conventionally done. There are two ways of doing this in the Lurie Garden: one is to dot plants throughout to create a particular visual impact; the other is to create a more self-consciously naturalistic combination. This latter idea has been developed at the southern end of the garden (i.e., nearest the Art Institute), in the area Oudolf dubbed the "Meadow." This area has a matrix of ornamental grasses, which gives the feel of a much more naturalistic area; inserted into this are a number of perennial species that rise up above the grasses, the colors and textures of their foliage enhanced by contrast with them.
The Dark Plate, the narrower, higher part of the garden, is dominated by trees. Its character will develop more slowly over time as the trees mature, increasing the amount of shade at ground level. The perennials used here are all selected because they will be able to cope with decreasing light levels; they or their wildflower ancestors are species that originate from woodland or woodland edge habitats.
When it came to implementing the Gustafson and Oudolf plans, many people were, of course, involved. Two in particular were crucial: Terry Guen, whose company Terry Guen Associates was responsible for the implementation of the plans (the building, planting, and supervision of the establishment of the garden, and indeed of all of Millennium Park), and nurseryman Roy Diblik, whose partnership Northwind Perennial Farm grew many of the perennials (the other main supplier was Midwest Groundcovers). Guen described her role as "chief nurturer, problem solver, and rabbit patrol"—rodent damage being just one of the many problems that had to be dealt with in the construction and first year of the planting; indeed rodents have remained a problem. Roy Diblik's role began with working with Oudolf on plant selection during the planning stage. "[Oudolf] responded with such enthusiasm to prairie habitats," recalls Diblik. "He made a very emotional connection to places such as the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum] and took some of his impressions into the planning of the Lurie Garden."
Although he is a northern European, there is little doubt that Piet Oudolf has entered into the spirit of the American prairie in making the Lurie Garden. Working with local nurseries and plant experts, Oudolf was able to include a large number of native Midwest plants in his design for the Lurie Garden. In actuality, Europeans have a long history of using North American perennials in their gardens, and during the early twentieth century when perennial borders became a major component of garden style in Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands, a large proportion of the plants were American in origin. In falling in love with so many American plants, Oudolf is part of a long tradition.
THE OUDOLF STYLE
The planting style that Piet Oudolf has evolved since the 1970s has its roots in northern Europe. Oudolf is Dutch; the Netherlands is a country with a rich horticultural tradition, both in plant production and in garden design. In using perennials, he drew very heavily on two sources: the work of German nurseryman, plant breeder, and writer Karl Foerster (1874–1970), who had popularized the use of grasses and ferns alongside conventional flowering perennials, and the British (or more accurately English) tradition of using massed ranks of perennials in borders. With his wife Anja, Oudolf established a nursery, primarily to supply plants for his design business, but which also proved very popular with private gardeners and, indeed, other designers. In seeking to stock the nursery, he undertook trips to British and German nurseries, looking for robust perennials that suited his style. Although for the first part of his career Oudolf had worked solely in private gardens, he was increasingly asked to design plantings for public spaces, in the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The Oudolf planting style has over the years changed quite noticeably, but at the same time there are some core concepts that have not changed at all. The most important has to do with the selection of plants for structure: "I'm not a color gardener at all," he says. "I choose plants for their good structure, especially if it is long-lasting." Plants that are colorful and decorative but look a mess after flowering are not favored; those that may not actually be that colorful but which have good structure all through the growing season may well be. His saying that "a plant is only worth growing if it looks good when it's dead" may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it says something about a core component of his style—that plants that look good in seed should be as valued as those with flowers.
Finally, we must note that the planting at the Lurie Garden was taken one very colorful stage further, when, in fall 2004, some sixty thousand bulbs were planted, to provide interest before the perennials started performing. Many more have been added since. Bulbs mix with perennials very effectively, and in most cases the bulbs will continue to flower from year to year. A Dutch bulb expert, Jacqueline van der Kloet, was employed to select and supervise their planting. Jacqueline's particular expertise is in integrating bulbs with other garden plants and in evaluating them for long-term performance. Such longevity is an important part of the commitment to environmental and financial sustainability that is central to the mission of the Lurie Garden and vital to its role as an inspiration to home gardeners.CHAPTER 2
It's Either Freezing or Baking—Gardening in a Midwestern Climate
Gardeners tend to talk about the weather even more than anyone else. In the long run, however, it is climate that dominates everything that happens in the garden—year in and year out, through hot and cold and rain and drought. Understanding climate is crucial for the gardener who wants to make planting that works over the long term.
The American Midwest has a "continental" climate: cold winters and hot summers, with a rapid changeover from one to the other. Visitors joke that there are really only two seasons, with a week for spring and another week for fall. This clear pattern is more moderate along the North American East Coast, with winters less likely to be very cold and summers less hot (although perhaps more humid). In the Southeast, the winters are usually much less severe and shorter, but summers are infamously, unbearably hot and humid. The climate of the Pacific Northwest coast is very different and has more in common with that of northwest Europe, a maritime climate, dominated by the moderating influence of the sea, so winters are cool rather than cold and summers are hot for shorter periods. There is also a distinct Mediterranean element to the climate of the US West Coast—with a tendency for dry summers and wet winters.
In our gardens, we use plants from a wide range of different geographical regions. But our climates do limit what we can use. Gardeners in West Coast maritime climates can get away with using a surprising number of plants from much farther south, because their normal winters are relatively mild. A gardener in a continental climate cannot do this, as long periods of freezing temperatures and bitterly cold winds soon kill off plants that originate in climates where such weather is not regularly experienced.
Excerpted from Gardening with Perennials by Noel Kingsbury. Copyright © 2014 Noel Kingsbury. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author
Noel Kingsbury is a horticulturalist and the author of many books, including Designing with Plants and Natural Gardening in Small Spaces, and coeditor of Vista—the Culture and Politics of Gardens. He lives and gardens in western England near the "book town" of Hay-on-Wye.
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