Wednesday at the Lurie with Piet

So last Wednesday I got to spend an hour walking through the Lurie Garden with Piet Oudolf and about 20 garden lovers. It was extremely, extremely cool.

The unfortunate things were 1) Judy couldn’t come, as she was out of town for work; 2) I forgot her camera so I had to take pictures with my phone; and 3) I take terrible pictures with my phone, especially pictures of people. I feel very self-conscious about it, like I have to do it covertly. So the pictures with this post would have been a lot better if Judy had been there, and that’s why I don’t have a good picture of Oudolf.

Piet Oudolf discusses details of the Lurie with admirers.

Oudolf visits the Lurie about every two years. He walks through the garden with Head Horticulturist Laura Ekasetya and other staff, examining which plants are working and which are not. New plants are considered, others are slated for elimination or at least a reduction in numbers.

They walk through at least three times each day during the visit – each time they notice new possibilities for improvement. That’s easy to believe, as there is such richness and complexity in this garden.

While the Lurie Garden looks natural, it requires careful thought and constant maintenance. “Every garden needs a good gardener,” he told us – even a “natural” garden.

Listening to Oudolf talk, I felt confirmed in my inclination to remove ineffective plants and try out new combinations in my own garden. “Gardens are alive, they need to grow and change,” Oudolf told us. It’s a mistake to try to keep a garden the exact same from year to year.

A view of the Chicago Art Institute from the south end of Lurie Garden.

As Oudolf walked us through the Lurie, he thought out loud about garden design in general and the Lurie in particular.  One of the things he talked about was how a garden should work both in detail up close, and as a whole landscape viewed from afar.

Calmint and Bottle Gentian

One of the details we discussed was a plant combination I had never noticed before, despite my many visits to the Lurie: Calamint (Calamintha nepetoides) and Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andewsii). The mass of tiny white dots were covered with bees, and the contrast with the closed Gentians (they never open) was visually compelling.


Another striking combination for late summer: Rattlesnake Master (Erygion yuccifolium) and Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia). Oudolf values a transparent, airy quality in plants. A big part of the plant editing he does while visiting the Lurie involves preventing plants from obscuring each other.

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Oudolf talked about the shift from cutting everything to the ground in fall (once standard garden practice), to allowing plants to stand until spring. This is better for the critters but also enables us to appreciate the shapes and textures of plants through the winter.

In his books and during our walk, Oudolf stresses the shapes and structures of plants. “Just having beautiful flowers is not enough,” he told us. “In three weeks or so the flower is gone. You need something for the rest of the year.”

One of the things that strikes me about the Lurie is the absence of staking – though Laura Ekasetya admitted that in one spot she had tied a Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) to a lamppost. Everything seems to spontaneously fill out in a definite shape – upright, mound, globe. Oudolf and Ekasetya indicate that this is an effect achieved by determining through experience which cultivars are least inclined to flop. For example, I was amazed by the upright quality of the ‘Blue Heaven’ Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).

I’m inclined myself to use straight species where I can, but this reminds me of how the right cultivar can make all the difference to the appearance of a garden.

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I finally learned what this plant is called: Limonium latifolium – Sea Lavender. Oudolf says it is native to Europe but grows better in Chicago than at home. He emphatically rejects the idea that only native plants should be used in a garden. He is happy if a plant grows well and behaves well, regardless of geographic origin.

(Jeez, do you see the toes in the lower left? Did I mention Judy was not there to take the pictures?)

If you look at his combinations at Lurie, you can see that Oudolf often combines native and non-native. For example, in the photos above, Calamint and Russian Sage are exotic, Bottle Gentian and Rattlesnake Master are native.

When a plant is found that works well, it is repeated throughout the garden to maintain a sense of unity.


At Lurie Garden, change is managed and some room is left for spontaneity. A Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) popped up in one spot and was allowed to form a clump.


Similarly, in one corner some pink Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata) planted itself and was allowed to run wild a bit. Oudolf likes this Phox and wondered if it might make a new cultivar not yet on the market.


All in all, my hour in the Lurie Garden with Piet Oudolf was extremely gratifying. I got the sense of Oudolf as a garden designer and a person: pragmatic, flexible, innovative, with a profound love of plants and a unique sense of how they can be brought together to create beauty.

39 Comments on “Wednesday at the Lurie with Piet”

  1. First your photos are great and help the narrative. Still sorry Judy missed this. I so wish I could have been there! If he visits regularly do you think there is a way I could visit when he is there? I love the way he interacts with plants. “Gardens are alive, they need to grow and change,” I so agree with this…I have a quote of my own from my website bio -“That is the life of a gardener: celebration, awe, reverence and letting go. The garden is a microcosm of life. It has so much to teach us when we take the time to listen to its lessons.”…I can see you have gain much from listening to him and taking in his perspective. I also connected with his moving to cutting in early spring. We recommend that because the dried and even dead plant material can protect the roots. We do put in plants that will freeze but only to the ground. If you can protect the roots with plant matter or mulch they have a better chance. What a treat you have experienced…I look forward to seeing how you use it in your garden!

  2. What a fabulous opportunity, Jason. I am a fan of his gardening ethos and his planting so would have loved to have tagged along. Thank you for sharing your experience here (and the photos aren’t too bad either 🙂 Sorry that Judy missed out, though.

  3. Darn the luck that Judy missed out on this tour. I would have loved the opportunity to hear him talk about the Lurie. I hope you can remember all he had to say about the garden by next year when we see the Lurie again. ?? Missed you two at the Midwest meet up. A perfect day weather-wise. Great company and great gardens.

  4. Thank you a great post, I enjoyed the photos too. So glad to see Oudolf agrees with natives and exotics, I like a mix of both. I loved seeing the photos of the gardens up against the skyline of a big city. Just as all cities should be, surrounded by greenery and wonderful plants… warms the heart.

  5. Wonderful post! Actually, I think the toes, with their painted toenails, added a nice visual touch. No need to be sorry about that. Huh! Leaving plants uncut until spring. Will you be doing that, Jason?

  6. I don’t know that I’m quite as agnostic on the question of natives / non-natives as Oudolf when it comes to garden design.

    Both to create a sense of place and to support native fauna (especially Lepidoptera and others whose larvae may have evolved to feed only on a certain species of plant), I do believe in prioritizing natives when possible, but I also agree it makes sense to incorporate some well-adapted exotics when they serve a useful role and don’t make a nuisance of themselves (by acting invasive).

    I like the idea of allowing, even encouraging spontaneity in a garden. I do this by using certain reseeding annuals and perennials (purple coneflower, blanket flower, etc.). I had an Asclepias syriaca pop up this year too. Unfortunately it popped up right next to the mailbox, which is not an ideal place for me to start a clump of it. I was hoping it would make seeds that I could scatter in the back yard, but alas, despite producing fragrant (!) flowerheads that attracted swarms of small pollinators, I haven’t seen any seedpods …

  7. Have you read Anna Pavord’s latest article in Gardens Illustrated? I was quite intrigued about her remarks and it sort of created lots of questions…for me anyway, maybe others didn’t notice so much. About right plant, right place and if this style is really to be recommended for all. Bet you’ve had a fab day 🙂

    • I don’t think I’ve seen that issue yet – it arrives later on this side of the Atlantic. I don’t think this style should be imposed on anyone, and during the discussion Oudolf said it would probably not work so well in a hotter, dryer climate. But for myself, I do like it quite a lot.

  8. What a thrill this must have been! It’s interesting that you highlighted the calamint–I have never really noticed this plant before, but we saw a mass planting of it at Olbrich, and it was just covered with bees. I am going to have to figure out what I can eliminate from my own garden to add some calamint. And I think your photos are great, toes and all:)

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