When one enters Chicago’s Lurie Garden or New York’s High Line, it is clear these are not traditionally cultivated gardens, nor are they prairies, woodlands, or meadows, where composition is left to the whims of natural forces. Rather, they are composed and curated landscapes that evoke a site’s ecological past, celebrate the best attributes of plant life, and invite visitors to slow down, look closely, and ask questions.
In the spring of 2009, I had the pleasure of visiting Piet Oudolf’s nursery in the Netherlands with my fellow classmates from IIT’s Master of Landscape Architecture Program.
Upon arrival, Oudolf took us directly into his garden to share the visible, yet subtle, tides of spring – buds breaking on Helleborus (lenten rose), peonies and Baptisia (wild indigo) barely sprouting out of the ground like alien asparagus, and Stipa tennuissima (Mexican feather grass) awaiting its spring cutting. We eagerly followed him from bed to bed, peering closely at the quietly unfurling plant life through a new lens provided by the experienced plantsman.
Although tulips would soon be on parade throughout the Netherlands, Oudolf cautioned us against over-planting bulbs. “Small drifts here or there are fine, but they do not appear as solid blocks of color in nature, so why plant them that way? After all,” he said, “spring has its own beauty. It is about anticipating all the things to come!”
This comment often comes to mind when I experience Oudolf’s gardens. A visual master storyteller, his work celebrates a process unleashed – stunningly beautiful in the moment while promising a different beauty tomorrow. Akin to putting down a good book, when I leave his gardens, I can’t wait to return and learn the rest of the story.
Breaking Through Cultural Convention
While several Dutch gardeners have been influential in the New Perennials Movement (also known at the Dutch Wave or the New Wave), Piet Oudolf has emerged as the leading contributor to this new philosophy of gardening. His work at Battery Park (2003), Lurie Garden (2004), and New York’s High Line (2009) is critical to the success of these public spaces, placing perennials center stage and demonstrating their unique ability to connect visitors to the unfolding drama of perennial plant life.
Since the disciplines of landscape architecture and design are inherently dynamic, one might ask why Oudolf’s work with perennials is considered so noteworthy. Certainly, many U.S. landscape architecture firms and garden designers have demonstrated artistry in perennial design. But until recently, the majority of this work has been performed at private estates or within the walls of botanic gardens.
If you were to survey the plant life in public spaces in the US designed prior to 2003, you would find that even in the best public parks and plazas, the plantings are predominantly trees, shrubs and lawn.
Typically, when working on public spaces, landscape architects are charged with creating unique, durable places that can accommodate a lot of wear and tear with minimal maintenance. A project’s plant palette is one of many important elements landscape architects must consider when leading the design process. They must also consider how to organize space for desired activities, how people will circulate through the site, how components will be constructed, how to address lighting, ensure handicapped accessibility, etc. All of these elements are orchestrated by the landscape architect, building upon their overall vision for the project. (To learn more about the incredible design vision for Lurie Garden created by landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, read their blog post.)
A diverse palette of shade and ornamental trees, flowering shrubs, and lawn can be used to create rich landscapes that become more beautiful as they become mature – over decades. Lawn is durable and can be walked on which provides programmatic flexibility. It requires regular maintenance, but this work is considered routine and requires less skill than other options.
Perennials have been perceived by most clients and designers as less permanent, less durable, and more difficult to maintain – especially in a culture where the word “maintained” is synonymous with “orderly and tidy.” Until recently, gardens in public spaces have typically been organized as rather non‐diverse pockets of seasonal color maintained in alignment with long‐held cultural expectations. Spent flowers are deadheaded at first sign of decline, fading foliage clipped, and come September, everything is cut to the ground, leaving neat beds of mulch for the next 6 months.
When clients and designers approach a project with these perceptions, reinforced by an awareness of public landscapes that have been successful in the past, it is understandable why they rely more heavily on shrubs, trees and lawn as shorthand for durability and low‐maintenance.
While North Americans have historically appreciated highly manicured landscapes, we have also held “nature” and “wilderness” in high regard. Seemingly-wild landscapes such as prairies and meadows are ecologically beneficial – absorbing stormwater, providing habitat and food for pollinators, etc. Beyond these benefits, a part of the lure of these landscapes is this illusion that they exist without human interference or involvement.
Native prairie and meadows can be established through the use of seed mixes that contain different percentages of native grasses and forbs, based on a site’s conditions – the soil make up, amount of precipitation, etc. These landscapes can be relatively low-maintenance once established, but they require a certain amount of “gardening” – monthly mowing, hand weeding and spot spraying with herbicides. Once mature (approx. 3 years), they still require maintenance in the form of annual cutting or prescribed burning.
In other words, contrary to the idea that these are “wild” landscapes, in most cases, human stewardship is essential for their survival. At the same time, these landscapes are not “designed” or composed by humans – rather, the aesthetics are determined by natural processes.
A large swath of prairie or meadow is undeniably appealing in its ability to connect visitors to a region’s ecological heritage. But in smaller-scaled public spaces, the wildness can be perceived as “weedy” and perhaps not intentional, making this approach to landscape inappropriate.
The tidy, lawn‐heavy landscape and the “natural landscape” represent a standing dichotomy on how we see gardens and nature as two very separate things. Michael Pollan summarizes this divide as follows:
“The two most important contributions America has made to the world history of landscape are the front lawn and the wilderness preserve. What can one say about such a culture? One conclusion would be that its thinking on the subject of nature is schizophrenic, that this is a culture that cannot decide whether to dominate nature in the name of civilization, or to worship it, untouched, as a means of escape from civilization. More than a century has passed since America invented the front lawn and the wilderness park, yet these very two different and equally original institutions continue to shape and reflect American thinking about both nature and the garden.” – Michael Pollan, “Beyond Wilderness and Lawn”, Harvard Design Magazine
So, where does the New Perennial Movement fit into all of this? Public spaces like Lurie Garden and the High Line transcend the perceived divide between “cultivated gardens” and “natural landscapes” on many levels:
- They offer a new aesthetic that blurs the line between the “garden” and the the “natural landscape.”
- They connect us with natural processes.
- They make us re‐think our perceptions about what it means to maintain a landscape.
- They offer many of the same ecological benefits as landscapes we perceive as more “natural.”
A New Aesthetic Born out of Plant Knowledge
Upon entering Chicago’s Lurie Garden or New York’s High Line, it is clear that these are not traditionally cultivated gardens, nor are they prairies, woodlands or meadows, where composition is left to the whims of natural forces. Rather, these gardens are skillfully composed and curated landscapes that evoke a site’s ecological past, celebrate the best attributes of plant life, and invite visitors to slow down, look closely, and ask questions.
The “untidy” aesthetic of Lurie Garden or the High Line often takes visitors by surprise. Working at Lurie Garden as an intern in 2011, I would often overhear visitors experiencing the garden for the first time. “Are they going to cut down those dead flowers?” “Is this a prairie?” Often, their faces revealed a sense of wonder as they digested a landscape that didn’t neatly fit within the expected cultural conventions. Five minutes later, they might start taking pictures and asking about plants they’ve never seen before.
Andi Pettis is the former Director of Horticulture for Friends of the High Line, the organization that maintains and operates the High Line in partnership with NYC’s Department of Parks and Recreation. She has noticed a change in perspective over time and says, “When the High Line first opened to the public in 2009, so many of our visitors had no idea what they were seeing. What many people saw was a park full of weeds; the same unruly plants that grew along the roadside. Seven years in, I’ve watched public perceptions of what a garden is change dramatically.”
The artistry in these “New Perennial”-styled gardens is quite accessible – visible in the bold juxtaposition between forms and textures and the mysterious, dream‐like quality of lesser-known plants. The flowers are beautiful, but their color is not essential to the composition.
As respected plantsman Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farms describes in his book, The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden, “Piet’s influence encourages us all to look beyond the flower color and bloom time of a plant, to look deeper into its generous nature and year-round character. We have all grown up looking at gorgeous flowers – it’s hard not to. But each of us needs to learn the richer beauty of the whole plant. Piet’s gardens show us why that effort is worth it.”
The impact of Oudof’s work as a plantman can be seen in the increased availability of unique perennials to designers and gardeners alike. Brent Horvath, owner of Intrinsic Perennial Gardens and author of The Plant Lover’s Guide to Sedums says “Piet’s depth of plant knowledge and unique eye for beauty has had a profound influence on the nursery industry and on they way I see plants personally. As a fellow plantsman, he generously collaborates with me and many others. He has broadened the plant palette that we grow and sell and what our customers are looking for. He has introduced me to several grasses and perennials, and he has also shared plants that we’ve introduced such as Geum ‘Mai Tai with Europe’.”
Oudolf’s decades of experience as a plant breeder and nurseryman give him a deep understanding of how plants behave ‐ individually and with other plants – not within a static moment, but over their lifetime. This has enabled him to develop his signature approach of “intermingling ” plants within drifts. In other words, while landscape designers commonly lay out many plants of the same species in one area (a drift), Oudolf will mix two or three plants in that same area. Plants are mixed in order to extend visual interest throughout the season or to draw contrast between forms.
Drifts of plants are further blurred through the introduction of gypsy‐like plants such as Zizia aurea (golden alexander), Eragrostis spectabilis (purple love grass) and Digitalis ferruginea (rusty foxglove). These plants can be prolific seeders, and they appear in different locations in the garden from year to year. However, they don’t necessarily overwhelm other perennials. Rather than shying away, Oudolf embraces the opportunities and dynamism these plants present. At the same time, he empowers and trusts the gardeners to reign in these wanderers as needed.
These techniques, along with many others Oudolf has investigated in his gardens and his writing, have resulted not only in a new aesthetic; they also magnify the constant change occurring in the garden.
Connection to Natural Processes of Change
While trees and shrubs provide seasonal changes, perennials can look dramatically different from week to week. Oudolf’s work takes advantage of these metamorphoses, enabling visitors to experience the transformative power of time and to connect with natural processes that are not as visible over longer durations. Rather than erasing the signs of seasonal decline, Oudolf encourages us to enjoy the inherent beauty of the browning of flowers and foliage, seed-heads persisting into winter, and the graceful lean of one plant on another. In showcasing nature’s changes, we feel the cyclical pull of the seasons, and ultimately, we can make connections about our own place in time.
At Lurie Garden, the work of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, the landscape architects responsible for the overall design, have provided the stage and the framework by which we can gauge the ongoing change in the garden. The hedge, fortified with a metal structure, creates a distinct “room” for the garden within Millennium Park, allowing visitors to experience it at a different speed. The dark color of the hedge provides a backdrop for perennials to be viewed from almost any angle.
Modern limestone edging and the ipe boardwalk lend a steady frame by which we can make sense of the wildness. The paths enables visitors to get close to the plant material while the gradual topography within the garden allows the plants to be viewed as a spectacular, layered vista.
“We greatly admire Piet’s work,” says Principal Landscape Architect Shannon Nichol. “By joining forces for the Lurie Garden, bringing Piet’s perennial planting artistry into GGN’s historically driven landscape design and landforms, we were able to create something truly exceptional.”
Challenging Assumptions about Maintenance
There is no doubt that world‐class gardens demand a high level of expertise from the horticulturists who nurture them. Still, the experience of interning at Lurie Garden challenged a lot of my assumptions about perennial maintenance.
As a gadget enthusiast, when I arrived the first day at the garden shed, I expected to learn about new and unusual tools that the pros use. But when the shed doors opened, there were very few tools inside – wheelbarrows, gloves, weeding tools, buckets, the occasional shovel, No. 5 pruners, and a push broom.
The staff horticulturalists and experienced volunteers are experts in identifying and caring for the plants, but the maintenance routine does not require expensive machinery – just an understanding of the original design intent, horticultural knowledge, and the ability to make judgment calls to help guide the evolution of the garden.
The philosophy and aesthetic of the garden curtails the need for the removal of seed-heads and pruning. This allows more time for weeding by hand and other projects such as thinning out the Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ (hybrid wild indigo) and Silphicum laciniatum (compass plant) in the meadow, dividing plants (although it is rarely needed) which are then shared with non‐profit groups, and collecting seed to give to industry partners and to the public in October during Lurie Garden’s Urban Wild event.
During the summer of 2011, we planted less than 8 dozen plants. Certainly, that number varies from year to year, but given that there are over 220 species and thousands of individual plants in the garden, this is a surprisingly low number.
Oudolf selects plants for his projects with durability and longevity in mind. His palettes do not contain plants that require constant soil amendment or chemicals to thrive. There is no mulching necessary, other than leaving last season’s plant material in place after the garden is mowed in late winter / early spring with a brush cutter. The small lawn at the south end is weeded by hand and mowed with a manual rotary mower.
For the most part, the plants are drought tolerant, minimizing watering needs. The design of the irrigation system also conserves water, allowing the gardeners to water only when and where needed, as opposed to watering the entire garden on a set time schedule.
Lurie Garden is a living example of how to integrate ecological maintenance practices into a landscape, challenging our cultural ideas about garden maintenance. Lawn care may seem inexpensive, but when you consider all the ecological costs – gas-run equipment, the constant need for water, fertilizers and other chemicals – along with the lack of ecological benefits for wildlife, it doesn’t seem so inexpensive after all. Perennial care may require more specialized workers but the educational, experiential and ecological benefits are worth the additional expense!
“With projects like the Lurie Garden, Piet Oudolf has brought the use of grasses with new types of perennials into public awareness, which is particularly helpful in water-conscious California, where traditional water-intensive lawns need to continue to be replaced with creative, textural, drought-tolerant options.” – Scott R. Lewis, Principal, SLLA
Projects like Lurie Garden provide many of the same ecological benefits as landscapes we consider to be “natural.” Although Lurie Garden is not an actual native prairie, it absorbs stormwater, helps restore the natural water cycle, and provides food and habitat for pollinators and wildlife. Even better, it does all of this on a former industrial site, on top of a garage, in the heart of an urban area.
The plant palette is not all native to Illinois, and many of the native species are cultivars, bred for certain characteristics. Yet, the garden is teaming with pollinators, suggesting they whole‐heartedly endorse the garden as legitimate “nature.”
Migrating birds such as Magonolia Warblers, Cedar Waxwings and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds consider the garden a much needed resting point during their journeys. Other birds such as Grackles and Cardinals, take up permanent residence in the hedge.
Lurie Garden collaborates with scientists as they study the habits of pollinators and wildlife, climate change, and other topics of interest. And all of this happens while thousands of other animals – mainly humans – visit the garden, taking it all in and connecting to these larger ecological systems at work.
The Inspiration of a Mindset
Oudolf’s gardens, along with his writings and photography of plants, has re‐shaped what we perceive as beautiful. His projects have created a demand for public gardens that are, at once, artfully composed and ecological, diverse in plant material and easy to care for.
Andi Pettis of the High Line adds, “Piet’s designs in parks like the High Line, The Battery, and Lurie Garden have done so much to promote the idea that a garden can be more than a set of beautiful flowers arranged by people to grow in a particular pattern. They can be lush and wild and beautiful, and attract wildlife and absorb stormwater and immerse people in nature, right here in the city.”
Terry Guen of Terry Guen Design Associates, the landscape architect of Millennium Park that collaborated with GGN and Oudolf on Lurie Garden, says “Now more than ever, we need to create spaces that allow the public to improve its fluency with nature. As designers, we need to make sound decisions and provide solutions that keep our planet and its residents healthy. Piet’s work enables us to experience beauty, access to nature, and ecological performance intertwined. Visiting Lurie Garden is like a welcoming trip back to meet old relatives. They know who we are, but we are just beginning to discover our own history.”
Of course, in visiting these gardens, it is clear that there is a level of artistry, research and plant knowledge required to make these landscapes successful. It’s a collaborative endeavor between designers, plantsmen, and horticulturalists who literally keep the vision alive. Most importantly, Oudolf gardens have inspired a mindset – an understanding that a landscape is not complete at the ribbon cutting. Rather, it is a process set in motion – in collaboration with the forces of nature, the hands that cultivate it, and the passage of time.
To learn more about the unfolding story, visit these gardens often!
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Author Megan Wade is the principal at Fieldwork Design Group, a Chicago-based landscape architecture firm that opened in early 2016. She is currently working on a variety of projects, including a riverfront residence and a kid’s nature playground. In her spare time, she’s an avid gardener.