Interview with Jennifer Davit, Director of the Lurie Garden
You may know from earlier posts that the prairie-style Lurie Garden, in the heart of downtown Chicago, is my favorite American public garden. Jennifer Davit, the Director and Head Horticulturist at the Lurie, was recently nice enough to answer a bunch of questions I sent her.
Prior to taking her current position, Jennifer was the Director of Conservatory and Special Projects for Miami’s Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden. She has also worked in gardens in California, Hawaii, and Washington, DC. She has a Masters Degree in Public Garden Management from Cornell University.
We have some new pictures of the Lurie in mid-Summer to go along with the interview thanks to Judy, who brought her camera to work one day last week.
Q. You worked in a tropical garden in Miami for years. What made you want to come to Chicago with such a different (and colder!) climate and plant palette?
JD: I loved growing tropical plants, but growing plants in a conservatory requires constant use of fertilizers and pest control. I was looking for a position that embraced sustainability and environmentally conscious gardening in the way the Lurie does. I was also born in Chicago, and though my parents live in Ohio now, we do have a lot of family and friends in the city.
Q. Your title is “Director and Head Horticulturist”. What takes up most of your day during the gardening season?
JD: I don’t spend nearly as much time gardening as I would like. We are lucky to have an excellent horticulturist, Laura Ekasetya, who is out in the garden every day. When I am out gardening, though , most of my time is spent editing – removing in-seeded or migrating perennials. We try to keep the original design intent and part of that is making sure plants do not move too far out of bounds so you can still see the beauty of Piet [Oudolf]’s design.
Q. The Lurie Garden covers 5 acres. How many person hours does it take to maintain?
JD: It’s about 90 hours a week of maintenance, of which 24 comes from volunteers. We then hire contractors to maintain the Shoulder Hedge [the hedge that separates Lurie from Millenium Park] and do most of the pruning of the other woodies around the perimeter of the garden.
Q. How much effort is required to prevent invasive species from establishing themselves in the garden?
JD: Some of the plants we grow in the Lurie are prolific seeders. With some plants, like Phlomis, we will remove one half to two-thirds of the seedheads because they will seed everywhere. Then there is enough left over for winter interest, but not so much that the seedlings become unmanageable.
Q. Are any fertilizers or soil conditioners used at Lurie?
JD: In the perennial planting beds we do not use any fertilizers or soil conditioners. Most of the plants love a lean soil and perform better in prairie-like conditions. On the Shoulder Hedge we do use an OMRI [Organic Materials Review Institute] certified time release fertilizer called Boost.
Q. The perennial plants at Lurie seem to grow without much intervention such as staking, cutting back, and dividing. Is that really the case or do you just make it look that way?
JD: We do avoid staking, but we also pinch back some plants mid-season to keep them from flopping over. With some plants like Geranium ‘Orion’, when we see the new basal foliage growing we go ahead and cut back the older foliage and that promotes a new flush of growth. Because all of our plants are grown without fertilizer in a lean soil, and we do not water too much, the plants perform better in this setting and do not need as much intervention.
Q. Do you have anyone tracking the birds and other wildlife drawn to Lurie?
JD: A friend of the garden, David Johnson, is a birder and works at the AON building across the street. He keeps track of all the birds he sees and shares that information with us. We are also part of e-bird, the citizen science program http://ebird.org/ebird/hotspot/L2132400.
Q. Piet Oudolf mentioned recently during a lecture in Chicago that some plants included in the original design have been removed from the Lurie garden. Have you been surprised by any particular plants that have or have not worked well at the garden?
JD: Achillea ‘Paprika’ (yarrow) was originally planted in the garden in 2004 and it didn’t perform well at the time and pretty much died out. Then in 2012 we planted Achillea ‘Moonshine’ and it has been an amazing addition. Sometimes cultivar selection can be the key. I also think that when the garden was first planted, everything was watered regularly. When A. ‘Moonshine’ was planted we watered only when needed, which was not as often as other new plantings. It is a really tough plant that likes to be on the dry side, so knowing that and tailoring our watering schedule to suit it was key.
Q. Do you have any guidelines in terms of the ratio of grasses to flowering plants, or native to exotic?
JD: No guidelines – if it looks good and grows well, then it is in the right place!
Q. What in particular do you love about your job?
JD: I love the human element of the Lurie Garden. People who would not visit a garden will visit Lurie because it’s downtown. The Lurie Garden serves as a gateway into gardening and developing an appreciation for nature. I love seeing the look of surprise, delight, and wonder on people’s faces when they walk through the hedge and see this amazing garden. It’s priceless and makes this job so rewarding. I also work with an amazing team of people, our horticulturist, program manager, volunteer manager, membership manager, and intern – I love working with them.
Q. Can you promise me that you will never do away with the River of Salvia?
JD: It will always be part of the design. It’s now an iconic part of Chicago!