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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.