The surprise is that there have been so few surprises. But maybe that’s just what happens when you plant a 5-acre “stylized prairie” in downtown Chicago and half of the species selected are Midwestern natives. Even when the world-renowned plantsman making the choices was from Holland and had never seen a real honest-to-gosh prairie until he came to America several years ago.
The man in question, Piet Oudolf, was in town this summer for the 10th anniversary of the establishment of The Lurie Garden in downtown Chicago’s Millennium Park, and Chicagoland Gardening was able to steal a few moments from his busy schedule to sit down and get his perspective on what he had done.
“This is an extreme climate,” he noted, “yet there have been no big failures over the years, no big disappointments.” Yes, all the sedums died in the first year – victims, it is theorized, of summer humidity; and molina grass succumbed – a victim, it is thought, of summer drought. But replacing molina with prairie dropseed was an easy fix, and with all the abundance in the Lurie Garden, the sedums have hardly been missed. Even the rabbits’ chomping on the purple prairie clover and yarrow is something that most of us don’t really notice. Far more important: “Hardly anything was lost this past winter.”
Oudolf has revolutionized garden design on both sides of the Atlantic through his pronouncements on the importance of choosing plants for their structure and textural interest rather than solely for their flowers. “A plant is only worth growing if it looks good when it’s dead” is one of his principles. “Brown is a color, too” is another. Yet it takes time for us to adjust to such radical notions. We have to train our eyes to see beauty in more than one way.
There’s still plenty of time to see all kinds of beauty in the Lurie Garden while late-season plants are blooming, and when you go, note all the bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife that call this city oasis home. (During my last visit, a red-winged blackbird buzzed through my hair three times, and I felt privileged that he had chosen me when there were so many other strollers about.)
One reason for Lurie’s abundance is its diversity with half of the plants prairie natives and the other half non-natives such as calamintha that are wildlife-friendly (bees, in particular, love calamintha). In addition, Lurie Garden never uses chemicals or fertilizer. To improve the soil and provide mulch, the entire garden is chopped down each spring with a tractor mower and the detritus is then left in place to slowly decompose. Fast and efficient.
For Piet Oudolf, this summer’s check-up visit was a satisfying one since the work that continues is mainly what he calls “editing” – removing plants such as compass plant that are sometimes too much of a good thing. What does he like best? “The North American prairie parts of the garden. They show city people what their nation once looked like. It’s important for people to see what they may have never seen before.”