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.
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.
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.
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.
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.