I was walking in Salzburg University’ s small but quaint botanical garden a while ago when I stumbled upon two young gardeners (students?) cutting back a big patch of Darmera peltata. My initial thought was why destroy such a beautifully established plantation, but as kept walking along the waterway that separates the garden in two, I realized that it had maybe taken over too much ground and needed to give space over to others. Darmera is not an invasive plant but it certainly knows how to fight its ground. It is very competitive and precious little can dislodge it once established. I left a clump unattended for more than 10 years in a field and when I went back, nothing had succeeded in growing through it, not even tree saplings.
This giant saxifrage used to be known under the descriptive name of Peltiphyllum (from the Greek peltos, shield, and phyllos, leaf) for its beautiful round plate-size leaves (glossy and slightly concave, unlike the similar but matte and convex Astilboides). It had just changed name when I encountered it for the first time as a burgeoning gardener twenty years ago.
Darmera is a great bog plant that offers a good contrasting shape to reeds, irises, cattails and other linear marsh dwellers. It is very easy to grow and although it relishes mud (even if it won’t survive with its rhizomes submerged in water), it will grow happily in ordinary garden soil. It will grow in full sun if the soil is damp, but prefers shade during the hottest part of the day. Although the plant is amenable to drier conditions, the foliage can start to look tired early on and flowering is diminished considerably. Darmera is normally grown as a foliage plant and advertised as such, but under auspicious conditions flowering is abundant and a beautiful sight.
Early in spring, its large pink umbels emerge from the mud on tall crimson stalks. It is a welcome burst of life at a time of year when little else is out in the bog garden. I have been hopeful to find a white form somewhere but thus far none has materialized. Perhaps if one went scourging its natural habitat on the West Coast of America in April, one might get lucky. I haven’t come across a variegated sport either. The only variation I am aware is of a dainty dwarf form aptly called ‘Nana’. I cannot establish how it originated but it has been around for a long time in the United Kingdom. Despite its long period of cultivation, ‘Nana’ remains a rarity as it is a very slow growing plant. Unlike the species, it needs a rich humid spot to do well and does not take kindly to dry conditions. Yet ‘Nana’ is a darling plant that fills a niche since most wetland plants are too aggressive and/or invasive for small ponds. Its foliage also takes on colourful shades in the autumn more readily than the species and it is often ablaze with golden yellow and red in October here.
Both the species and its dwarf form will take a few years to reach their full potential. One can expect the foliage to be much shorter and smaller the first year and sometimes even the second year after planting. Darmera is not a plant that needs dividing often, mine has been in the same place for nearly 20 years and retains all its vigor. Some books say that it gets thin in the center after a while, but that’s not my experience or what I have observed from other gardens. New rhizomes seem to fill gaps made by old ones that die out and the clumps remain dense for very many years.
As I looked at the Darmera removal operation in Salzburg, a second thought came to my mind. These gardeners were going to need a lot of will power to dig this network of rhizomes after they finish cutting back the foliage. They did not seem very enthusiastic, let’s hope there was machinery available nearby.
Were hellebores to flower at the peak of the spring entourage rather than late winter to early spring, they would not be as popular as they are with the horticultural cognoscenti. These herbaceous perennials, European and east Asian in distribution, have universal appeal that spans temperate regions of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Going from John Massey’s poly houses of hellebores during February in England to Barb Jennings’s flowering plants during June in Tasmania, Australia, is a momentous lesson of popular garden plants. Part of their popularity owes to their remarkable promiscuity that a complex heritage has produced Helleborus x hybridus, and few interspecific crosses once thought untenable have been achieved through biotechnology ingenuity. Marketed along with cyclamen and primroses, these interspecific hybrids now appear in the potted plant section of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. However, Helleborus x hybridus (once classified under Helleborus orientalis, a true species itself and uncommon in cultivation) has received the most scrutiny from plant breeders. The British and Germans have been breeding hellebores seriously for decades; Eric Smith whose breeding work with hostas yielded ‘Halcyon’ and ‘Blue Moon’, hybridized and grew hundreds of seedlings in the 1960s, as did Helen Ballard who acquired species from the Balkans to enhance her genetic material. Adding to the British hellebore breeding circles was Elizabeth Strangman of Washfield Nursery who did much to popularize these plants, as well as Robin White of Blackthorn Nursery who was among the first to introduce a double-flowered seed strain Party Dress. Ashwood Nurseries, under Kevin Belcher and John Massey’s direction, developed their famed selections on these earlier breeders’ work. The German plantswoman Gisela Schmiemann who published a photographic tribute to Helen Ballard refined her seed strain sold under the Lady Series. Today the bloodlines of British and German hellebores are perpetuated within Winter Jewels™ series, the magnum opus of Ernie and Marietta O’Byrne’s two-decade painstaking work.
The O’Byrnes did not develop an interest in hellebores until they saw beautiful examples depicted in Graham Rice and Elizabeth Strangman’s The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores, a book that was the source of Americans’ covetous envy at what the British grew. These hellebores were leagues away from the muddy colors and poor forms that plagued strains sold in United States.
Motivated by the book’s pictures, the O’Byrnes first obtained seed from the hellebore specialists Will McLewin and Gisela Schmiemann. It took a seminal visit with friends to Ashwood Nurseries in the Midlands, England to convert them into full-time hellebore breeders. At least several dozen Ashwood hellebores, augmented by those from Blackthorn and the Dutch nursery De Hessenhof, were successfully imported to Eugene, Oregon where the O’Byrnes reside and garden.
Eugene, 2 1/2 hours south of Portland, Oregon, has an ideal climate with average summer and winter temperatures of 70s and 40s F, despite being 100 miles inland and less within the moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean. Because hellebores still continue to grow throughout the year, the mild climate encourages earlier maturity and consequently earlier flowering than elsewhere in United States. Ernie said that growing essentially ceases when temperatures fall below 35 degrees F, therefore seedlings in the Northeast US may take two to four years to flower. This climatic advantage allows the O’Byrnes to evaluate and cull failures in their breeding program.
Breeding usually starts in mid-January when the stock plants in the nursery’s three poly houses flower. The O’Byrnes’ tools of the trade include No. 6 watercolor brushes, tags, alcohol, and fabric bags. Like a roving bumblebee, Marietta transports pollen from one plant to another. She and Ernie then place fabric bags over the flowers during early April to secure the ripening seed lest any fall to the ground and make their careful record keeping negligible. Seed is usually harvested and cleaned in May, and then sowed (some seed are reserved for sale to overseas customers only; the O’Byrnes do not sell domestically to safeguard their work from being propagated illegally).
Although wholesale nurseries are the primary beneficiaries of the hellebores, the O’Byrnes open their premises twice – one in mid to late February, and another in early March (the last two years had them sold out earlier on the first weekend, causing cancellation of the March open house) – for hellebore enthusiasts to purchase flowering plants. People often queue hours early prior to the 10 am opening for the first dibs on particular colors or shapes, and a mad frenzy of flailing arms and elbows and crouched knees explode in the sales area. It is impressive to see the nearly emptied poly houses in photographs posted on Facebook. “The first year we introduced payment by credit card,” Ernie said, “all our sales went up the roof because people were buying more plants.” Our visit did not coincide with the open days, but we did see the preparations in progress – plants were organized by color and priced accordingly by size; a part time employee was re-potting some overgrown seedlings.
What does the future hold? “We want to concentrate on rich colors,” Ernie emphatically said, “we’re moving away from lighter colors like white and pink. And there is always room for better doubles.” Such strive for excellence certainly puts the O’Byrnes at the pinnacle of their hellebore breeding game, and we can only wait with abated breath for exciting strains in the future. ~Eric
Behind each creative mastermind is someone who possesses the expertise to obtain the ‘nuts’ and ‘bolts’ for the vision to be realized fully. Just as the fashion designer cannot complete a collection with a team of seamstresses or tailors to execute his designs, the landscape architect or garden designer is dependent on someone who can supply plants for their projects. Midwest plantsman Roy Diblik was tasked to source and grow for the Lurie Garden in 2001 – hardly any nurseries in the Chicago area had the variety, quantity or quality that Piet Oudolf sought. Diblik co-runs Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, Wisconsin, a 1 1/2 hour or so drive from Chicago. A Chicago Tribune article in 2010 christened him the ‘perennial persuader’. This ‘perennial persuader’ irrevocably altered Piet Oudolf’s original planting plans, especially after he took him to Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum and other Midwest landscapes. Now Diblik aims to proselytizes a wider audience through The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden (Timber Press 2014).
Roy wants his readers to revise their attitudes towards traditional gardening practices where herbaceous perennials are regarded for landscapes. For instance, the conventional method of incorporating manure and compost generously into the topsoil causes herbaceous perennials to senesce prematurely and weeds to prosper instead. Nor does the wood chip mulching benefit perennials.
The first few chapters are the requisite ones that address plant selection, site preparation and planting and maintenance. Any gardener can tell you that keeping ahead of weeds is always an ongoing battle – and weeds almost always seem to mushroom overnight after a good rainfall. As Diblik points out, weed suppression is an inescapable legacy of agricultural history for every healthy plant community contain few species of high fecundity and rapid colonization, and the rogue’s gallery of worst weeds sandwiched between weed control tactics and maintenance (i.e. watering. division) is useful as horticultural texts often skirt over the culprits.
The list of plants in Chapter 5: Key Plants for Know Maintenance Gardens may attract detractors for its lack of encyclopedic depth, but Diblik makes it clear that his selection fulfill the following criteria: hardiness and reliability in the Midwest and Northwest; adaptability within different climatic and soil variations; gradual beauty over the years. And his selection is on the mark as I have grown a few of the plants like Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ and Solidago spahecelata ‘Golden Fleece’ in my parents’ former garden and observed them in compromising public spaces repeatedly. Who can argue with a man who introduced Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’, one of the best ornamental grasses? Diblik even gives deserving due to sedges, which are woefully underused in gardens, and their diversity remains untapped for gardens. Narrowing the list to proven performers ensures that his readers have a better rate of success and once gratified, more open to experimentation with experience.
For those hesitant about using these plants, garden plans either named after places or paintings are included. It is no coincidence that the paintings can be viewed at the Art Institute of Chicago for which Diblik designed the plantings. Cezanne’s The Forest Clearing, a tonal study of green and blue, inspires a sunny planting of Allium (A. atropurpureum, A. flavum, and A. moly), Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’, Carex flacca, Echinacea ‘Pixie Meadowbrite’, Kalimeris incisa ‘Blue Star’, Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Moorhexe’, and Sesleria autumnalis. The ‘creative intersection’, the lack of which my blog collaborator Jimmy laments in a recent post, reveals Diblik’s artistic leanings.
Towards the end is a nice acknowledgement of individuals who have influenced, inspired, or worked with Roy in the Midwest US. I would have been interested to read more about the interesting work of these individuals, but that angle is entirely a book in itself. Cassian Schmidt’s gravel garden at Hermannshof, a brilliant garden itself in Germany, is an interesting case study for potential tough areas like parking lots or overscheduled people interested in the beauty of gardens, but lacking time to maintain them.
Photographs, while nowhere dreamy or moody as those in pretty useless books, illustrate the concepts well. They are solid, playing out Diblik’s practices well.
Informative and well organized, the Know Maintenance Perennial Garden rounds out nicely the spate of books regarding ecological or naturalistic gardening and native plants.
Seeing garden plants in the wild is always a pleasant, if not eye opening, experience. Familiarity is heartwarming, but one can also learn much from observing the immediate environment in which plants grow before tailoring our gardens to suit them once we return home.
I spent this past summer in Slovakia, a mountainous country situated in the hearth of Eastern Europe. It is a place of great biodiversity, and I enjoyed admiring the flora and botanizing. Although a wide array of plants is well represented, it is the wild sages (Salvia) that largely impressed me. They are ubiquitous and widespread throughout the country. Owing to their resilience and adaptability in disturbed habitats, salvias have an advantage over other species in the agrarian landscape here.
The first Salvia I encountered was Salvia nemorosa. It is common in central and southern Slovakia, growing in meadows and disturbed areas. Salvia nemorosa seems to love roadsides and a trail of purple often accompanied me on my peregrinations down to Austria or Hungary. Its flowering is a long affair, and even if it had been in bloom for some time since my arrival in early July, the flowers are still going strong as I pen these words at the end of August. The color is consistently a dark magenta-purple in the wild, although considerable variability appears in cultivation. Numerous cultivars have been selected for size and color, ranging from the diminutive blue ‘Marcus, scarcely a foot tall, to the tall pink ‘Amethyst’, towering over 3 feet.
Another cultivar worth mentioning here, but rather rare in North America is ‘Pusztaflamme’, an aberrant mutation with branched spikes of flowers that form a cone-shaped head. One presumes it must have been found in a meadow in Hungary since puszta, (pronounced ‘pussta’), is the Hungarian word for prairie. ‘Pusztaflamme’ is also known as ‘Plumosa’, a name that describes well the chenille-like texture of the flowers.
Although any Salvia nemorosa is deserving of a place in the garden, some sort are more dramatic than others. ‘Caradonna’, bred by Beate Zillmer of Zillmer Pflanzen in Uchte, Germany, is perhaps the most famous for its narrow spikes of dark purple flowers on black stems, an intense, but luminous combination.
Another common Salvia in Slovakia is a superb garden plant that I grow with fondness and ease in Canada: Salvia verticillata. This plant seems to prefer ditches, vacant lots and meadows where I saw it bursting with surprising vigor in gravel and even in dense grass. Its hardiness probably comes from its woolly leaves that retain moisture when needed and its long taproot capable of drawing water and minerals from deep down below. I had known Salvia verticillata well as a tough plant, having used it in less than ideal conditions without adverse results. Unlike other salvias, it does not need regular division or replacement, and indeed resents being moved (although recovery will happen within a year). Unsurprisingly vegetative propagation is difficult. Luckily, seeds are plentiful and easy to germinate, including the rare white form that comes true to type. For the rather special (but somewhat gloomy) all-dark cultivar ‘Purple Rain’ (which does not set seeds), basal cuttings in spring is the best option.
Fairly common in Slovakia too but only in short-grass meadows (including lawns) is Salvia pratensis. Linnaeus clearly observed the species’ habitat preference for pratensis means ‘of meadows’. Although Salvia pratensis comes in a variety of colors in gardens, the ones I saw flowering were all a particularly dark purple color. Flowering was not abundant in late summer because Salvia pratensis is a spring-blooming species. The few I saw flowering already had been mowed down and were on their second flush of flowers (an observation that I will not hesitate to put in practice). Although there was no color variation, the intensity of the color –the shade that my camera unfortunately refuses to capture as it should – impressed me. In the garden, Salvia pratensis does occur in various shades of white, pink, or purple, as well as bicolored. This species is usually propagated from seeds because clumps do not increase fast and therefore yield little divisions, but outstanding cultivars are occasionally propagated vegetatively from basal cuttings or tissue culture. One such example is the outstanding ‘Madeline’, a bicolor blue and white selection from the Dutch nurseryman and designer Piet Oudolf. Oudolf too has introduced a hybrid between Salvia nemorosa and S. pratensis (hybrids are now known as S. x sylvestris), ‘Dear Anja, in honor of his charming and eccentric wife. It is a luminous plant with blue flowers born out of dark magenta calyxes. If I were forced to choose only one salvia, ‘Dear Anja’ would probably be it. Unfortunately It is a difficult plant to propagate and has thus far remained rather elusive.
The last Salvia species I encountered on my walks in Slovakia less common and only in hedgerows and forest edges (sometimes even deep into the forest itself), was the lovely yellow Salvia glutinosa. I was surprised to see it in the shade since it has always grown well in full sunshine in my Canadian garden. Perhaps moisture is a deciding factor since Slovakia only gets half the rain we receive at home. Salvia glutinosa is a beautiful plant and one of my favorite salvias with its large heads of pale yellow flowers and its hastate foliage. It is the European answer to Japan’s Salvia koyamae, which coincidentally prefers partial shade. I look forward to trying Salvia glutinosa on the edge of our woodland, perhaps amongst Aconitum uncinatum or Actaea.
Laura Ekasetya was a week-long guest horticulturist at Chanticleer earlier this year, and I sensed in her an astute and inquisitive mind about plants and gardens. It is infrequent that we hear about the individuals who maintain the work of creative visionaries while keeping it afresh and evolving, and Laura is one of those fortunate souls who oversees the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois with her team of coworkers and volunteers. Coincidentally her colleague Jennifer Davit, the garden’s Director and Head Horticulturist, was my classmate when I enrolled in the public garden management course at Cornell. She had nothing, but plaudits for Laura’s work in tending the garden.
Please introduce yourself.
Laura Ekasetya, horticulturist at the Lurie Garden
The arts or the horticulture?
Horticulture and art are intertwined. Even though on a day to day basis I am not designing gardens, I’m maintaining the integrity of Piet Oudolf’s creative work, with plants providing the medium. I’m surrounded by the link between art and gardens every day. The modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago overlooks the Lurie Garden. The garden’s topography was designed with that wing in mind, even though the expansion of the Art Institute was still in its planning stage at the time of the Lurie Garden installation. On a daily basis I am maintaining living art as a conservator would do, though the effect of time on a planting design is welcome. I recently read a gardening memoir “The Gardener of Versailles: My Life in the World’s Grandest Garden” by Alain Baraton who has managed the over 2,000 acres of grounds including 230 acres of gardens at the Palace of Versailles since 1982. He writes that public horticulture is “an art de vivre–an art of living well and helping people to live well.”
What does your job involve on a daily basis?
I spend much of my time working outside weeding and editing the planting design. I work with eight terrific hands-on volunteers who help out two days a week, and part-time with an intern. I also give tours and teach workshops as part of the Lurie Garden’s year-round environmental programming. I spend a good deal of time answering visitor questions. I update plant information on our website and record the bloom times of the plants in the garden as well as keep our Facebook page interesting. I assist with maintaining our two beehives. I do my best to record the variety of wildlife in the garden such as insects and migratory birds.
How did you become interested in plants and horticulture? What led to your current job at the Lurie Garden in the Millennium Park?
In early grade school my family lived for a few years in Midland, Michigan where I would ask my parents to take me to Dow Gardens, a lovely botanic garden, and the Chippewa Nature Center which has woodland trails to explore as well as a log cabin homestead with a vegetable garden. Seeing pink lady slipper orchids growing in their natural environment was really exciting to me. We moved to a rural area in central Illinois where I enjoyed gardening in the yard, but never realized that there could be career possibilities. I did a lot of farm field work every summer since age 11, so doing labor intensive work outside is something I’m very used to. I came to horticulture as a career choice post college after working a few uninspired years for clinical research trials at a medical school. I volunteered at the Chicago Park District where I learned about a horticulture degree program at a city college. I interned in the city’s forestry department for a year and then came to the Chicago Botanic Garden as a seasonal where I enjoyed working in the research evaluation gardens. After three years I came to the Lurie Garden. This is my 4th year at the garden.
Central Park in New York City has an Arcadian landscape idyll envisioned through Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux who looked towards the pleasure parks and landscape gardens of Europe for inspiration. These greensward parks have become the imprimatur by which future parks were created. In contrast, the Millennium Park seems futuristic in fusing art, architecture, and landscape design Some people may argue that the ‘smoke and mirrors’ detract from a park’s primary purpose as a place of tranquility and recreation, a green respite from the urban jungle. What are your thoughts about a traditional park versus a contemporary park that deploys entertainment venues and interactive art?
It does seem on the surface that fitting in all these recreational areas with a prominent music venue, a restaurant, and places for displaying art exhibits is a lot to ask of 24.5 acres, but great cities are all about maximizing what can be done with limited land. Much thought went in to planning the park in a way that its various components would work well together. The Lurie Garden is visually connected to the Frank Gehry designed Pritzker Pavilion, but the garden is also separated from the rest of the park by its 12 foot high Shoulder Hedge that surrounds the garden on two sides. When you look out at the garden facing the hedge, you see the skyscrapers towering above the park and then a lovely row of mature maples and then the hedge of Thuja which steps the garden down to human scale. This relative calm of the garden allows the visitor to observe the smaller things happening down at the level of the plants. Various pollinators and other wildlife become noticeable. It’s exciting to see the gleaming architectural work of modern man towering above the natural architecture of the plants which host the drama of insect life. They live among us largely unnoticed, though they were around long before humans, and our bodies will one day be consumed by these smaller lives. Taking in these two opposing worlds gives visitors a chance to step outside the routine drum of office life and experience something that refreshes the senses. It was always in the plan for Millennium Park to have an area specifically set aside for a garden. Eleven different landscape architect firms submitted plans for what was then called the “Monroe Garden.” Fortunately, Kathryn Gustafson (GGN Llc.) teamed up with Piet Oudolf to create the design that became the Lurie Garden. Their work really is what allows this contemporary park to also have a quiet side, though it is every bit as interactive as the other features of Millennium Park.
I visited Millennium Park several years ago during the American Public Garden Association’s annual conference, and was fascinated by the dichotomy between the two art installations Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate and Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain and the Lurie Garden. It was fun to watch the public interact openly with these public art. Then you enter the Lurie Garden where the reactions were more ‘hushed’ and still enthusiastic about the lush plantings. What has been the public reaction towards the plantings in the Lurie Garden?
Though I wasn’t living in Chicago at the time, I did attend Millennium Park’s opening to the public in 2004. As the Grant Park Orchestra finished its performance for the evening, the Redmoon Theater company marched over Frank Gehry’s BP bridge bearing torches. The crowd from the concert spontaneously followed the parade of dancers to the Cloud Gate sculpture where a fire-themed performance was reflected into the mirrored “bean.” This performance fit well with the way the park encourages the visitors to physically interact with its features. People can go under and through Cloud Gate, even though it is a well regarded work of art. Fountains you are allowed to get into? Now that is an exciting concept. The Crown Fountain is full of families laughing and having a good time all the while literally immersed in fine art. The Lurie Garden has a water feature in the form of a stream that invites the visitors to dip toes in water on a warm day, a perhaps less jubilant activity than what goes on at the Crown Fountain, but one which encourages relaxation and taking in the surroundings peacefully. The way the paths of the garden move through the perennial plantings, you end up brushing against the plants. You really feel like you are in the middle of a meadow. The general visitor response at the time of the opening was a mixed one. The Seam feature has lovely lighting in the evening so that was easily appreciated early on, but to those not familiar with perennial gardens, they may have been underwhelmed at the size of the individual plants. It took about two years for the plants to grow to a size where the non-perennial plant savvy visitor could really “get” the garden’s design intent. Now when visitors see the garden for the first time they are amazed that such a vast expanse of planting exists right in downtown Chicago. The south entrance along the Seam has arborvitae on both sides for 70 feet or so and then opens up to the garden. A few years ago I was working near that part of the hedge when a child entering the garden shouted out, “This is Narnia!” There is a something similar to walking through C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe in entering Lurie Garden. It seems magically larger than its 5 acres somehow, and this is probably a result of the layered planting design having enough balance between complexity and coherence.
Piet Oudolf obviously cannot be at the helm of the Lurie Garden physically all the time, and somehow the Lurie Garden has to evolve without losing the Oudolf’s signature touch. Oudolf himself has moved away from the drift-like sweeps of his earlier work at Pensthorpe and RHS Wisley towards looser, less definable matrix planting that mimics nature. Do you and your coworkers see a similar gradual development towards that style?
Piet has stayed involved with the garden since its inception, so yes I would say any change in his own style would have some effect on the garden today. We were fortunate to have him here this July to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Lurie Garden and Millennium Park. He suggested a number of small changes to the garden that largely involve adding new plant species and improving on existing plant combinations by adding even more variety to them. Possibly because of the High Line project in NYC where the plantings are more intermingled, some visiting garden design enthusiasts have wondered if we will keep the salvia river (a large drift of four varieties of salvia) as a feature in the garden. The Lurie Garden has a completely different scale than the High Line, which has narrow plantings. The salvia river works well both with the scale of the garden and with its tendency to be viewed from above by the Art Institute, by the surrounding sky scrapers, and even from the part-shade Dark Plate side of the garden which is topographically higher than our full-sun Light Plate. The salvia river is iconic to the Lurie Garden and to Chicago.
There is sometimes a mistaken belief that naturalistic gardens, especially those by Piet Oudolf, are relatively low or no maintenance, needing little human input. How do you cope with self-seeding plants or plants in the original design that failed to thrive?
Because the Lurie Garden is a chemical free garden, all removal of self-seeding plants and other weeds is done by hand. Our team of 8 gardening volunteers have been working with the garden for several years, so they are very knowledgable about the garden. We do thin some seedheads to minimize the number of seeds. Chasmanthium latifolium has beautiful spikelets that also, unfortunately drop a good number of seeds. Thinning the spikelets by half actually allows them more room to rustle in the breeze. Sometimes less is more! We do the same to Anemone hupehensis, Penstemon sp., and Scuttelaria incana. For our Amsonia species, we remove the seeds entirely. Though these pods are attractive in winter, we have other less prolific seeders that provide winter interest, so we can reduce maintenance while still keeping a winter garden. When plants do not perform as well as expected we replace them with something that will. We consult garden magazines and books, Piet Oudolf, and Roy Diblik to select something better. Often Roy will grow the plants for Lurie at Northwind Perennial Farm.
What are some of the challenges you and your co-workers face in maintaining a large public garden in an urban environment?
Most days, visitors are just happy to have a quiet place amid bustling downtown and are respectful of the garden and the staff. We have round-the-clock security including cameras in Millennium Park so that helps a lot with some of the strange things that are bound to happen in a free public park that is open from 6:00 am to 11:00 pm every day of the year. The park expects 5 million visitors this year. Fortunately, if a well-attended parade or concert dramatically increases foot traffic to the garden, we can temporarily close the garden and then re-open once the crowds have dispersed. Sometimes people try to pick a flower as they walk by, but most of our plants near the edges are really tough prairie plants such as coneflowers that can’t be easily picked. This bends the stems so I have to prune that type of damage in the morning, but really most people just stop and take photos and enjoy the garden in a way that causes no damage. People occasionally step in the beds to have their photo taken. Often they don’t realize that this action can smash the plants and cause soil compaction, and they apologize after that is explained. We do have signs asking visitors to stay on the paths. We have great security that handle this issue well when staff are not around. Our garden is just as photogenic from the paths. We have this really observant security guard, Officer Barlow, who has been with the park since it opened. He is really great at his job and keeps a sharp eye on things.
The presence of wildlife in urban areas is always welcome. Have you see noticeable increase of wildlife taking advantage of the Lurie Garden during their migratory journeys?
The garden is just two blocks from Lake Michigan on the Mississippi flyway so migratory birds stop and rest in the Lurie Garden on their journey. We have plenty of insects and seeds for them. Many birders come to the garden during migration season. Since birds generally migrate at night, the morning and lunchtime are great times to see many different species of birds. We are a birding hotspot on Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology citizen science website, ebird (http://ebird.org/ebird/hotspot/L2132400). Insects such as monarch butterflies lay their eggs in the garden, and twelve-spotted skimmer dragonflies are around in summer and migrate with the dragonfly swarms along the Great Lakes in fall.
What places and gardens inspire you?
The research evaluation gardens at the Chicago Botanic Garden always inspires. There’s a beautiful view of Oehme Van Sweden’s Evening Island garden from the Lavin Sun Evaluation garden. Seeing all different cultivars growing right next to each other is really interesting. Many of the plants are part of Jim Ault’s breeding program, and it’s fun to see what is happening there. I often consult Richard Hawke’s evaluation notes on the CBG website.
Possibility Place Nursery, run by Connor Shaw and his sons, is an adventure. They propagate most of their stock from wild-collected seed, so it’s great to associate with people who have a lot of patience and passion for regionally native plants.
Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, WI is inspiring as well as charming.
Gardens by the Bay in Singapore has got to be the world’s most over-the-top horticultural project. Keeping glass houses cool takes more energy than the other way around and yet these two stunning 2.5 acre conservatories are carbon positive! This place is a joyous theme park for plants.
I had the opportunity to work as a guest gardener at Chanticleer for a week last May. That was a very inspiring experience for me. The staff there have such thoughtful visions for the areas they manage. I learned a lot from envisioning the different garden areas through the perspective of each person I worked with. The variety of plants at Chanticleer was thrilling.
The Europeans have always appreciated our Midwest flora that the garden writer Allen Lacy often joked about our plants going aboard for an European education before we American gardeners accept them in our ‘beds’. Only in the last ten or so years have we seen reinvigorated breeding programs in Baptisia, Coreopsis, and Echinacea on our shores. What are some of the North American prairie perennials or woody plants you feel are overlooked or underused? Some may be good candidates for breeding.
Pycnanthemum muticum is such a fantastic pollinator attractant that I can’t imagine having a garden without it. It doesn’t take over as readily as other mountain mints, and its mossy-green color is uncommon. This plant requires a bench in front of it so that the insect variety can be fully appreciated. I also love Euonymus atropurpureus for its color and showy fruit; it looks like a valentine. This shrub could be a good candidate for breeding for compact habit. An underused tree in the landscape is Carya illinoinensis. For areas in need of large shade trees, it really produces prodigious quantities of fantastic pecans (you will need two trees). Though more popular as a crop in the south, the pecans from this Illinois native and its cultivars have a higher oil content and superior flavor.
We are trying out Euphorbia corollata in the garden next spring. I’m really excited to see how this native beauty will fit in with the Light Plate plantings.
What is your desert island plant?
A durian tree. If I’m alone on a desert island there will be no one to complain about the smell.
What is your advice for those seeking a career in public horticulture?
Find mentors in the field, and if you can’t go work for them offer to help them out with something. Learn everything you can from those who have made horticulture their life’s work. I’m fortunate to have a boss who demonstrates amazing leadership and organizational skills. Your career will develop much more quickly if you work hard for people who have ability and are patient and confident enough to share that with others.
What do you look forward the most in the future?
Several years ago at the Chicago Botanic Garden I was planting some evaluation plots with Jim Ault and a group of volunteers. These two older ladies, who turned out to be sisters and in their late 80’s and mid 90’s, were barely holding each other up as they hobbled along the beds. They asked about this nearby plant and Jim told them it was a phlox he bred that he intended to put on the market but that it wouldn’t be available for a few years. They said they looked forward to having it in their gardens. I love the optimism there. Gardeners get a reputation for being grumpy, but really we are the most optimistic people around. That’s what I look forward to, a lifetime of looking forward to the next plant.
‘It is my own fault if I idealize a thistle until the thistle and I both think it is a vine,’ wrote Mary Cholmondeley in her Victorian novel Red Pottage. One may be forgiven to surmise that the famous icy blue clematis that bears her name was so called in this quote’s honour, but alas Mr. Noble named his vine a good 13 years before the famous passage was written. One wonders if Mrs. Cholmondeley was serious when she suggested she liked thistles so much as to idealize them. History does not tell, but it is clear that not everyone in her time liked thistles. A hundred and fifty years ago, when life still depended largely on cultivating the land with horse and plow, they represented challenges to the farmer who struggled to eradicate them from his field. Sheep or cows find them too prickly on the tongue, forgoing them altogether. The propensity thistles have in colonizing pastures anew with their abundant seeds or questing roots bristled the American political leader Robert Green Ingersoll to say that “The destroyer of weeds, thistles, and thorns is a benefactor whether he soweth grain or not.”. Perhaps he was not aware of the beneficial aspects thistles have on the ecology of meadows and wastelands. He may not have tasted the delicious pale honey made from their nectar or the beauty of their flowers. Ellen Willmott, the eccentric horticultural heiress would have disagreed with him on at least one thistle that she particularly liked and, it is rumoured, spread around gardens that she visited. Erygnium giganteum is now affectionately called Mrs. Willmott’s Ghost’ as a result of her seed scattering efforts, a rebellious act deemed guerrilla gardening today.
If I wanted to emulate Mrs. Willmott’s defiant act with my own favourite thistle, Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’, the effort would be fruitless since it is a sterile plant producing no seeds whatsoever. Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ is remarkably well behaved for it is reliably perennial, floriferous and self-supporting without the conquest ambitions of other thistles. In our garden, it starts blooming with camassias, early geraniums, Siberian irises and Martagon lilies and will go on flowering until severe frosts silence the show. Because the raspberry-red flowers beg for silver leafed plants, we too have planted the thistle with Salix exigua and shimmering pink Geranium psilostemon ‘Rose Finch’ to great effect. It would look stunning with the lacy Ammi majus ‘Queen of Africa’ and the sapphire spires of Anchusa azurea ‘Loddon Royalist’. Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ makes a superb cut flower, especially as its side shoots are of sufficient lengths for arrangements without compromising the plant’s growth. Its brushes are a unique crimson red that blends well with other colours, offering that touch of dark refinement often needed in floral arrangements.
“Rivulare”, meaning “of the riverside” hints at the cultural preferences for Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’. In dry soils, plants will be stunted, becoming poor semblances of their counterparts in rich, moist soils. Deadheading will be inconsequential since the plant is sterile, flowering continuously until summer heat exhausts it. Flowering will resume in autumn to accompany the New England asters and sunflowers.
European horticulturists and garden designers have wholeheartedly embraced Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ for its richly saturated wine-red flowers. Dan Pearson has used it very effectively at Home Farm where he planted it with glowing orange Eremurus. Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ featured prominently in Arne Maynard and Piet Oudolf’s 2000 Chelsea Flower Show garden’s mixed borders of Astrantia major ‘Claret’, Centranthus ruber ‘Coccineus’ (red valerian), and dark-leafed Actaea. At the Battersea Park’s Old English Garden, the young British garden designer Sarah Price uses Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ with Cenolophium denudatum (Baltic parsley), salvias, and scented herbs.
Unfortunately its availability in North America is limited. We imported our stock years ago from Great Britain and we sell out every spring. As Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ is one of our most requested plants and demand far outweighs the supply. We hate disappointing clients, so it has been a challenge to keep sufficient stocks through the years. Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ does divide easily and increases steadily but since division is our only mean of propagation (root cuttings have never worked, despite what literature says), it does take time to build stocks. Perhaps one day it will be micropropagated and we can use it with wild abandon!
Even scarcer still is the other known cultivar ‘Trevor’s Blue Wonder’. A sport of ‘Atropurpureum’, it was recently been introduced to the horticultural world by the British gardener Trevor Edwards. We have not had the opportunity of growing it yet, but it is reputedly an equal stalwart in the garden as ‘Atropurpureum’, its difference lying in its bright purple colour rather than crimson, an easier hue to combine with some pinks and yellows. ‘Trevor’s Blue Wonder’ should be a welcome new addition that will no doubt sustain the popularity of this thistle for years to come. No doubt both Mrs. Cholomondeley and Mrs. Wilmott would have approved and, we hope, perhaps even Mr. Ingersoll.
A good garden should have a few workhouse plants that look good regardless of the growing season, one or two rarities that need a bit of cosseting or sheltered protection, and a smattering of annuals, tender perennials, and bulbs. Pam and Sibylle, the former head gardeners of Sissinghurst Castle Garden, always said that for every three plants, one plant will do well while the other two will be mediocre or do poorly. Where space is limited, one becomes more selective and discriminating on plant selection. As I move into my new house and have one’s garden to call my own finally, I am forced to be catholic about what plants to grow. Visiting nurseries and gardens enable me to see how the plants look at maturity, whether the colors are appropriate for my designs, and what new plants have been introduced. The following herbaceous perennials and grasses, which tend to peak in summer, have caught my eye during my forays.
Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’
Autumn may seem ablaze with incidienary hues, yet a cooling refuge can be found among the dark blue-violets of aconitums. Being poisonous, aconitums do not fall prey to herbivorous critters. Their common name monkshood do resemble the ecclesiastical vestments of the religious higher clergy. The best of the lot is Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’, a worthy tribute to Georg Arends who gave the horticultural world several outstanding perennials. Offset by glossy dark-green leaves on strong stems (5′ to 6′ tall), its glowing rich blue-violet flowers arrive in early to mid October just as the first of autumnal tints appear on trees. Do not plant ‘Arendsii’ in dry soil, which causes the lower stems to defoliate – rich, moist soil will produce the most floriferous plants.
Aruncus ‘Horatio’ first came to my attention at the High Line where Piet Oudolf planted it with carices and Heuchera villosa ‘Brownies’. Its flowers had long finished, yet they did not detract from the plant in any way, providing a textural, if not tonal, contrast with its companions.
Curiously difficult to acquire in the nursery trade, Aruncus ‘Horatio’ was one of the four seedlings (other three being ‘Johannifest’, ‘Woldemar Meier’, ‘Sommeranfang’) raised, evaluated, and named from the German nurseryman Ernest Pagels’ deliberate cross between A. dioicus and A. aesthusifolius. ‘Horatio’ is said to be more drought tolerant and robust than either species, and has this added advantage over Aruncus, despite being white-flowered only. It inherited from Aruncus aesthifolius a finer and more delicate form, and the flowers do not turn brown simultaneously as they do in either parents. Instead, a two bicolor effect develops as the newer flowers open cream and older flowers gradually turn brown. In autumn the foliage can develop autumnal tints.
Hakonechloa macra is a rare example where its variegated versions ‘Aureola ‘ and ‘Albo-Striata’ are more readily available than the straightforward species. It is a telling fact when Internet searches turn up ‘Aureola’ more than the species itself. As long as adequate moisture is provided, the green-leafed version is more tolerant of light than ‘Aureola’, which look unattractively bleached under full sunlight. Tom Stuart Smith, the British garden designer, favors Hakonechloa macra in his commissioned work especially as a ground cover against rigid shapes (in a London courtyard, H. macra swirls around clipped boxwood balls and Dicksonia antarctica (Tasmanian tree fern).
Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’
Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ has been the benchmark by which subsequent heleniums have been judged. It does not seem prone to pests and diseases that beget the newer cultivars, and will flower for a long period as long as the flowers are regularly deadheaded. However, Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ has risen to be a equal contender – its clumps multiply within a short time, yielding more divisions to share or spread in the garden, and its cut flowers have remarkable longevity, holding up well and always inviting praise. The flowers of ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ appear more brilliantly saturated with reds, oranges, and yellows than ‘Moerheim Beauty’, and tend to hum with pollinators. In a large garden, I would plant aconitums, asters, dahlias, and grasses with Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ for that grand autumn spectacle.
Kniphofia ‘Nancy’s Red’
Except for a few species like Kniphofia caulescens and K. northiae, kniphofias will rarely win the foliage sweepstakes for their unkempt leaves. Even the flowers can brown in an unappetizing way. Kniphofia ‘Nancy’s Red’ is a tidy plant – the grass-like leaves do not kink in a disheveled pile, and the narrow spikes of coral-red flowers are profuse, attracting hummingbirds. It is reliably hardy, a virtue infrequently seen in showier kniphofias. I can imagine clumps of Kniphofia ‘Nancy’s Red’ with the steel blue Ergynium planum, serpent-like coils of blue-green Euphorbia myrsinites, and rosettes of orange-flowered Glaucium flavum var. aurantiacum.
Phlomis russeliana is not an ‘instant gratification’ candidate for it needs at least three to four years to fulfill its full potential. For the first two years, it may throw a sporadic flower spike, instead focusing on root development (the North American prairie herbaceous perennials, Baptisia and Silphium, behave similarly). The whorled yellow flowers are arranged tier-like on the thick stems. Even if Phlomis russeliana failed to flower, its felted heart-shaped leaves are handsome, offering a solid foliar bulwark against finer textured plants. The most effective combination I have seen was in a trifecta with Stipa gigantea and Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ at Cambridge Botanic Garden, Cambridge, UK. The durable seedheads are worth keeping for winter interest. Phlomis russeliana has been crossed with Phlomis fructiosa to produce ‘Edward Bowles’.
Thalictrum flavum ssp. glaucum can be unforgivingly floppy if not staked whereas Thalictrum rochebrunianum rockets upward without additional support. Coen Jansen, the Dutch nurseryman whose unerring eye for selecting good garden plants has rewarded us gardeners, combined the best attributes of these two meadow rues through ‘Elin’. From Thalictrum flavum ssp. glaucum comes moody blue-green foliage suffused with purple and T. rochebrunianum the self-supporting habit. ‘Elin’ can tower to 6′ in ideal conditions – in areas with hot summers, the foliage may become tatty and late summer dormancy can be expected. Because ‘Elin’ is a sterile hybrid, division is the best means of propagation (commercial nurseries depend on tissue culture).
In addition, I have shortlisted the following plants with promising potential and deserving wider evaluation.
Agapanthus ‘Timaru’ – London’s The Financial Times garden columnist Robin Lane Fox singles out ‘Timaru’ and ‘Jack’s Black’ among the best free-flowering New Zealand agapanthus hybrids that are hardy in United Kingdom and other places with moderate winters. He writes: “Two to look for are Jack’s Blue and the vivid Timaru. They send up flowers into early October and are extremely free-flowering at rather different heights. Jack’s Blue is tall, with stems up to four feet, but the flowers appear in quantity in a good shade of rich purple-blue. Marginally, I prefer Timaru, which is about two feet high and extraordinarily generous with a long succession of strong blue flowers on many separate stems.” While agapanthus are not reliably hardy in the Mid-Atlantic region, I’m always on the outlook for good container subjects. Because their foliage is rather boring, agapanthus must be distinct and flower profusely enough to be worth the trouble.
Perovskia atriplicifolia Lacey Blue ‘Lisslitt’ – Perovskia or Russian sage is one of the quintessential summer perennials, yet sometimes I find its color a bit lackluster in our heat and the stems susceptible to flopping (save for lean soils). Lacey Blue is reputedly shorter and more floriferious, a better choice for smaller gardens. If the under 18″ height of Lacey Blue proves true, then I am keen to pair it with Agastache rupestris.
Stipa lessingiana – Nassella tenuissima has become a garden designer’s cliche for introducing a naturalistic, cloud-like effect, and one can hardly deny its versatility. Stipa lessingiana, a steppe grass from Caucasus and Siberia is said to be hardier and taller than Nassella tenuissima.