Ecological Gardening Still Fashionable in Chicago

Millenium Park, which includes the Lurie Garden, has displaced Navy Pier as the top tourist attraction in the American Midwest (both are in Chicago). Today’s Chicago Tribune tells us that Millenium Park was visited by nearly 13 million people in the second half of 2016, while Navy Pier had 9 million visitors for the entire year.

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Lurie Garden’s River of Salvia



There is a connection between this development and a contemporary horticultural debate. Recently a number of garden writers have argued that the naturalistic style associated with Piet Oudolf, one of Lurie’s designers, is getting old and tiresome. For an entertaining discussion of this argument, read Tempest in a Flower Pot by Tony Spencer in his The New Perennialist blog.

Suffice it to say, critics of Oudolf view the choices we make about our gardens (public and private) as essentially matters of fashion. Fashion by its very nature needs frequent change, and Oudolf-style garden design has, in their view, essentially outlasted its welcome.

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Lurie Garden in autumn. 

I should back up here and note that Millenium Park includes several major attractions in addition to Lurie, including Pritzker Pavilion, Crown Fountain, and the Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as “the bean”. (Although one day I was approached by a German-sounding gentleman who asked where he could find “the potato”.)


However, there is no doubt in my mind that Lurie Garden is fundamental to the huge popularity of Millenium Park among tourists and native Chicagoans alike. (I’ve never really been that fond of Navy Pier, which seems to me like a cross between an upscale Coney Island and a shopping mall.)

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White wild indigo and the Chicago skyline.

Lurie and similar gardens retain a powerful appeal that goes deeper than horticultural fashion. The way they combine an urban setting with idealized elements of a natural landscape is both exciting and comforting. They speak to our desires and fears at this moment in the history of people and the planet.

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These days citizens of the developed world live for the most part in metropolitan areas. We like our urban comforts, but at the same time many are anxious about environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. Ecological gardening integrates a naturalistic ambiance into our urban world, providing beauty but also reassurance that our connection to nature is not entirely and irrevocably lost.

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Pale Purple Coneflower at Lurie Garden

It is right and proper that we should find this appealing, it seems to me. As writers like Douglas Tallamy have argued, the future of our environment depends in part on the choices we make for our urban and suburban lots. The ecological approach to gardens developed by Oudolf and others provides us with inspiration and direction as we try to make choices that allow our public spaces and our tiny gardens to collectively contribute to a healthier planet.

39 Comments on “Ecological Gardening Still Fashionable in Chicago”

  1. I am not surprised that the Lurie is a big draw in the downtown area. Everyone loves a beautiful garden and this one is easy to get to if you are touring the downtown. This also tells me there are more people that garden in the US than what many people think. It annoys me when I read that people in the US aren’t interested in gardening. I think there are many of us. We just aren’t as well known as say an Oudolf.

  2. Well, I have a bit of a one-sided view on this since I am all about eco-gardening. That said, I think the trend is only now taking off. Most cities are just beginning to embrace the concept and incorporate native and pollinator friendly plants in their “list of acceptable plants” to landscape. As I drive around Atlanta, I still see more gardens than not that are completely sterile. My hope is that gardening for wildlife becomes the norm in home gardens. The more people see this style in public gardens the better educated they become and eventually translate that into their backyards.

  3. Great post – looks like a beautiful place to visit. I agree that a more relaxed approach to planting in cities is becoming increasingly important. The over-landscaped park may appeal to urbanists and their need for imposing structure and order but giving plants space to ‘do their thing’ and seeing where this goes is so important for biodiversity. A recent ‘expert horticulturalist type’ visiting the Melbourne Botanical Gardens from the US said it needed to be ‘more entertaining’, suggesting the gardens needed more people oriented ‘things’ which would generate income like rides and ‘things to do’. Luckily Melburnians didn’t agree – we just like our trees and the way they generate oxygen.

  4. Thank you for such a great post about Millennium Park and Lurie Garden, both standout public spaces amid a great diversity of such spaces in Chicago. The role gardens–public or private–play in providing ecological function in the built environment is certainly coming to the forefront in discussions on landscape design and management. Lurie Garden is a leader in this discussion, serving as a place where people can gather to learn about the balance between strong aesthetic design and ecologically-influenced management practices. For Chicago, you will certainly see more of this into the future…from Oudolf himself, as well as many other local designers.

  5. My many trips to Chicago have almost all revolved around architecture or conferences. I must have seen this garden while at the park, but for the life of me can’t remember it. I need to go look at some of my many photos.

  6. I would travel across the ocean to visit Chicago’s Lurie garden do I’m not surprised by its popularity. I prefer to think in terms of trends rather than fashion; personally I think this style has still more to offer and isn’t finished yet, but already the planting has changed a little.

  7. Great article! I think the very definition of gardening is starting to change because of people like Tallamy and Oudolf but I also think there’s a large population who gravitate toward whatever’s socially acceptable which many times is the showiest, most ground covering and exotic looking stuff at their local garden center. The thing about people like Tallamy is the word trendy doesn’t fit into the equation. Trendy is something temporary. Supporting biodiversity is working towards human sustainability and that’s not a trend I hope. Personally, I love the Lurie garden but I know there are many who feel this gardening style is disorderly or is making some kind of political statement or is inviting unwanted pests like ticks or rats. As much as I hate the word marketing, marketing may be the ticket to selling this idea. But if we are marketed does it then become just another trend?

  8. Such a terrific post. I visited Illinois back in 2008 for 2 weeks. I stayed just outside of Chicago, but was told I would get to spend a day or maybe two exploring Chicago. Instead, I was only given 2 measly hours to take in city–the bean, the gardens, the shops, the art museums. I loved all of it and was greatly disappointed that my host rushed me.

    Anyway, in response to Lisa’s comment above, in the town where I live when I’ve asked people, “Do you garden” their response has often been “no.” Yet I see them outside planting flowers and shrubs. I finally realized some people think of gardening only as vegetable gardening, not gardening with flowers, shrubs, trees. etc.

    I am not interested in trends or fashion, but I love Oudolf’s work. I hope Lurie doesn’t change.

  9. I loved a previous post you did on Lurie garden, and the first photo of this one it looks even better…… an absolutely gorgeous green space. Hopefully the news of natural plantings going out of fashion won’t trickle down to Australia.

  10. This is such a famous and beautiful garden, and one I’d like to visit sometime (if it is still around.) It is interesting how even in the gardening world there are trends that wax and wane. I am very happy that environmental mindfulness and using native plants still seems like it is trending in this area, and I really hope that that is to stay, no matter the design.

  11. Chicago is the perfect place for the Oudolf-style garden, which has a prairie emphasis. I’ve been drawing on the work of Tallamy and Darke and of Rainer and West to figure out how to adapt those ecological principles to a non-prairie ecosystem.

  12. Great post, Jason (and great photos, Judy). I’ve been wanting to visit the Lurie for some time now. I read Tony Spencer’s post when it came out and it seemed to me that those who dismissed Oudolf as “out of style” were those who were promoting style changes in order to generate income rather than good gardening practices. My educated guess is that you are right about the Lurie and the chord it strikes for the urban dweller. The High Line in NYC, also designed by Oudolf, has become a huge destination for tourists as well as playing an integral part of the daily lives of those city dwellers. I’m planning a trip there this August to visit and photograph it.

  13. To me, a lot of the aspects of the Lurie garden are an artistic idealized impression of the prairie and other native landscape. Beyond just the trend of that type of gardening, I hope this is forming more into a movement because it is simply better for the environment.

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