Red Poppies Lurie Garden

Last week Judy had to go downtown to get her second COVID shot (yay!) and while there decided to visit the Lurie Garden. What she found was a bit concerning, especially when combined with other developments at Lurie over the past several months.

Lurie Garden, March 2021

It appeared that no attempt had been made to start the spring clean up, though Crocuses and Snowdrops had started to bloom. Normally, a small tractor is used to cut back the grasses and other stems in this 2.5 acre garden. This is done while the ground is still frozen in order to reduce soil compaction and damage to plant crowns and early foliage. Also, it needs to be done early enough to showcase the Lurie’s magnificent bulb display, which features tens of thousands of spring blooms.

I should mention here that for a couple of years Lurie staff have tried to make their spring clean-up more pollinator-friendly by leaving stems standing in some areas of the garden. But it seems unlikely that this year’s total lack of spring cleanup is based on environmental concerns.

Not ready for spring?

More likely, it derives from the fact that the entire Lurie Garden staff was let go over the past year. The layoffs were packaged as a “restructuring,” but they have greatly reduced the Garden’s profile. Before last year, Lurie Garden had an active and devoted membership, dozens of volunteers, a lively presence on social media, educational activities, and outreach to communities of color. All that is gone, along with the staff who made it happen.

It’s hard to imagine that these changes were forced by budget concerns, given that Lurie Garden has a $10 million endowment.

Lurie Garden in October.

The last person let go was Laura Ekasetya, the Garden’s Director and Head Horticulturist. Apparently no one has been hired yet to replace her. The Lurie Garden’s website makes no reference to any staff, though two positions have been advertised – a horticulturist (who will no longer be the Garden’s Director) and a public garden apprentice.

Lurie Garden’s complex design requires constant monitoring, maintenance, and planning. Acclaimed garden designer Piet Oudolf, who had a key role in Lurie’s creation, visited every year to take part in the process.

The former staff did this job beautifully, constantly making improvements that kept the garden one of Chicago’s most vibrant public spaces. Moreover, they enhanced Lurie’s reputation as a world-class urban garden, on a par with New York City’s High Line. This can only be done as an immersive labor of love.

Red Poppies Lurie Garden
Lurie Garden in June

Of course, the pandemic has disrupted public gardens all over the world, but it seems unlikely that the drastic changes at Lurie can be seen simply as a response to COVID.

Lurie Garden is part of Chicago’s Millennium Park. In effect, the Director of Millennium Park is now directly in charge of Lurie Garden. Will the Millennium Park Director, combined with a smaller Garden staff apparently not yet hired, devote the kind of attention to Lurie that it needs to maintain its status as the jewel in the crown among Chicago’s public gardens?

I hope so, but the signs so far are worrisome.

46 Comments on “Uncertain Future for Lurie Garden?”

  1. Oh no! I had no idea the staff, including Laura, had been let go! This is a travesty and I can’t even begin to understand what that is about. It’s such a pity because so many people discovered the Lurie for the first time during the pandemic. I was just thinking the other day that I thought it was odd that I hadn’t seen anything about the gardens being mowed yet. I’m just sick about this.

  2. This really is worrying and extremely sad too. I hope the garden is not allowed to deteriorate. Please keep us up to date on any developments. The past year has put the wind up people and caused so much panic and unnecessary closures. I was hoping to visit a talk by Piet Oudolf this Spring at a regular plant show here in Bavaria, but the whole event has been cancelled this time around too. 🙁

  3. Nothing to do with Covid. Nor a lack of money. Or a lack of commitment by employees, I can vouch for that. Very poor management decisions. How can you sent home every one that cared for this thriving and living community garden and stand by doing nothing?! One can only speculate on the motives of the once responsible for that decision… Don’t expect them to come out and get their hands dirty though!

    • Hi My name is Tom Wolfe I was head gardener/horticulturalist for the Art Institute of Chicago for 34 years, Laurie Garden was our neighbor and friend since it’s inception, What a great addition to a once blighted site. The staff was super dedicated, knowledgeable,friendly and provided gardening knowledge to the urban community. I am saddened to hear of their dismissal especially the Horticulturalist Laura. The gardens will never find a replacement and I am afraid the garden will suffer as a result of this decision!
      Since my retirement from the Art Institute the new staff can not keep up with the proper horticultural care the garden requires because of budget and staff cuts!

      • Hi Tom,
        I loved that garden when I was there in 2019! Enjoying all sorts of gardens, plantings and nurseries in the area so I didn’t get inside the museum, but it’s on the list for sure.
        It is saddening what happened to Lurie staff, really feel for them. But it makes me angry that higher management just lacks the insight to what’s going on in the community surrounding them. How can you lay off the people in time of crisis if there is no a shortage of money. They should care for their people! And I’m not saying this isn’t about money, just that there has never been a shortage thanks to the Lurie Family.
        The community of Chicago is suffering. Under a terrible pandemic. It’s been hectic times with big movements showing anger inside the city. Inside the actual garden at times!
        This should be a public space where the community could find some healing this spring. Staff didn’t just take excellent care of the plantings, but had outreach programs for that. Big loss.

  4. Spoke to a gardener at the Lurie today. They have been cleaning it for the last day or so. I saw they also left an area cut higher. Gardener said it was for overwintering insects. I also saw they posted something on their Instagram about the work.

  5. This is so discouraging. I have only visited the Lurie Garden through your blog. Why on earth would such a prize possession with such a large endowment let their staff go? I read an earlier comment here; it sounds political and sounds as though it needs community outcry and outrage. Oh, please, give us our pleasant green areas in which to find solace and beauty in times of stress.

  6. As Jason and I wrote this, we were trying to come up with comparisons to Lurie Garden, which really is a world-class public garden in the center of Chicago, free and accessible to all. We thought of the High Line, which is similarly placed and free, also with plantings by Piet Oudolf. Let us know in the comments what other public spaces might compare. Lurie is truly a horticultural treasure. Chicago should be proud to have this garden and take good care of it.

    • Thank you for your article and for alerting the public to this loss. I attended the competition presentations for the Lurie Garden, was part of the original planting team and have volunteered every year since, until the pandemic. I was looking forward to resuming Lurie activities this year and was devastated by the news that this effective team has been dismantled. They combined a uniquely strong set of skills and personalities well fitted to the administration of this world class garden, and Laura was by far the most dedicated and design sensitive horticulturalist I worked with at the Lurie. I appreciate your bringing attention to this, will forward it to friends and hope it helps to bring the garden back to its rightful, well stewarded place in our city.

    • The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary in Minneapolis was founded in 1907 as the first public wildflower garden in the U.S. by a botanist from Maine for whom it is named. It is a true sanctuary near the center of downtown and is greatly loved. The Park District provides a full-time “curator” and there is a whole roster of volunteers who lead tours, staff the log-cabin-shelter, remove invasives, plant, etc. It would be a good model of how to run such a rich and complicated garden in a city. (Note: I am the author of The Wild Gardener: The Life and Selected Writings of Eloise Butler (North Star Press of St. Cloudm 1992).

  7. Interesting. We have a garden near us that was closed for a couple of months, but they kept everyone on staff because it opened up as soon as they got the mask wearing and the social distancing figured out. After that, it had a banner year because people wanted so badly to be outside and were willing to make reservations, wear a mask and social distance. Here’s hoping they get it back on track for all those who love it like you do.

    • Good comments. Thank you for sharing your garden’s excellent adaptations for keeping the garden in good shape and staying open. It is certainly puzzling as to why Lurie Gardens staff was let go.

  8. This is disturbing. I hold dear every visit I have made to the Lurie, it’s in my top 5 public gardens nationwide.I’ve taken hundreds of photos. I hope this is a temporary hiccup-I can’t believe anyone involved with this garden is unaware of the Piet Oudolf thing, unaware of the High Line, unaware of what is happening in Detroit.

  9. Guadalupe Gardens in San Jose has been experiencing similar or worse difficulty, but not just recently. It goes back for many years, since the Development of Guadalupe Gardens. The Heritage Rose Garden, which was the most complete collection of Old World roses in the World is in shambles now. Unfortunately, it is no surprise. Apathy is part of the culture of modern San Jose. It is shameful for the tenth most populous city in America. It is surprising that Chicago has similar problems, even if for financial reasons rather than cultural.

  10. I’ve so enjoyed your posts on the Lurie and one day, wanted to see it for myself, in person. I hope this is a glitch that will soon be rectified. Oddment has it right: we’ve never needed gardens more.

    Thanks so much for your past posts on the garden, I hope there are more–with good news–in the future.

  11. I’m really hoping that this isn’t the case and Covid did play a part in reducing staff and/or the work that was done in the garden this year so that things will return to “normal” in the future. It would be a downright tragedy otherwise & I’m sure the people of Chicago would have something to say about it, and loudly!

  12. I’m not from Chicago, and know nothing of the city except what I get through media or through bloggers like you. I have a bit of a cynical side that says politics is playing a role here. Whether that’s true or not, it is a fact that a treasure like this can’t simply be allowed to revert to an uncare- for state. Obviously, there are people who do care, but if the decision-makers don’t, it doesn’t bode well. The pandemic has been used as a handy excuse for every sort of foolishness. I hope that isn’t the case here.

    On a lighter side note, I went to the Lurie site and did some reading. I noticed Jason had commented back in 2018 or 2019, and there was quite a bit of conversation about Heather Holm and her role at the garden. I’d never heard her name until I came across it in conjunction with the publication of her new book on wasps. She’s another voice that might be helpful in getting things back on track at Lurie — if she isn’t already involved.

  13. You’re not kidding. This is really concerning…
    Last summer when I thought I’d be traveling to the area I specifically worked out a trip to the city to visit the garden. I wish it would have worked out because it sounds like this place is going downhill fast. As you know gardens don’t just sit around waiting for you.

  14. That’s quite a worrying set of events, this is the busiest time for gardens and gardeners and to have the park unkept is bad. I would have hoped that its ownership, funding and public use puts constraints on people being able to essentially pull the rug from under the running of this park. That’s a lot of horticultural knowledge lost too.

  15. Jason, I too wish that you might forward many of these thoughts to the editors at the Tribune. Lurie is a city treasure that was obviously developed and being nurtured by a caring and competent team. The time they took to help share what was going on each week in the garden showed their utter devotion and helped educate and delight many of us. The effort they’d put into keeping it vibrant and thriving for the city to enjoy year round was much appreciated. It breaks my heart that this hard working group was dismissed after giving Chicago’s jewel of a garden their all.

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