Waiting until spring to cut down the garden is not conventional, but the benefits are visual and ecological.

We appreciate and understand both the beauty and ecology of perennial plant landscapes, and have chosen to manage the Lurie Garden for the benefit of both aspects. A consideration in the design of and plant selections for the Lurie Garden was to achieve a true four-season—a garden that celebrates change across timescales of individual moments, days, seasons, and years.

Managing this four-seasons of splendor means garden staff leave perennial plants uncut throughout the fall and winter; bringing the beauty of brown (as well as gold, tan, and similar colors) to the landscape. Added benefits of leaving perennial plants up year-round comes from the ecological services provided by the presence of seed for feeding birds and animals, ample cover for overwintering insects and critters, and abundant material for nest building by birds and other animals.

Conventional gardening practice historically tells us to cut back the browning stems and leaves as the plants enter winter dormancy, providing your landscape with a clean appearance and saving you time when “restarting” your garden come spring.

The practice of cutting back and cleaning the garden in fall is a habit, reinforced by the continued teaching of a horticultural skill set rooted in European formal gardening practices. This habit is further strengthened by the horticulture industry itself, which continues to promote this practice to clients whose human nature craves a clean, tidy appearance. Looking at our gardens through an environmental and ecological lens, the act of cutting back perennial plants in the fall serves no meaningful purpose, provides no significant ecological value, and, in fact, robs the environment of beneficial services.

At Lurie Garden, perennial plant cutting takes place in the late winter or early spring before the first spring bulbs push up their leaves. Cutting takes place in the early morning when the ground remains frozen, minimizing soil compaction and interference to garden visitors. Watch the cut down from 2015 here.

Lurie Garden - Late Winter - Post mow-down

Lurie Garden after the late winter mow-down.

Most of the Lurie Garden is cut using a mechanized brush cutter fitted with a mulching blade set at five-inch height—the only time engine-powered equipment is used within the perennial planting beds. There are selected areas of the garden that receive hand-cutting, such areas planted with bunch-type grasses with large crowns and within the root-zone of trees. All cut detritus remains in the garden to serve as organic matter to feed the garden’s living soil.

Management strategies at Lurie Garden are informed by and adapted from strategies used in natural areas management. The early-season cutting of the garden models disturbance and regeneration processes seen in wild prairies and woodland habitats; although fire, rather than a brush mower, is the primary mechanism of “cutting” in these natural systems. Many people often ask why staff does not use prescribed fire to manage Lurie Garden’s perennial planting areas.

The garden’s perennial plant palette is comprised of native, prairie-type and non-native plants combined in a near-native designed plant community. Fire is not used as a management tool at Lurie Garden because many of the non-native plants are not fire-adapted and would be killed.

Lurie Garden offers numerous tours, classes, and workshops where you can expand your gardening knowledge and skills. Join us and learn to manage your garden for both beauty and ecological impact.

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