Can we as designers, horticulturalists and gardeners feasibly and successfully recreate park design and modern design features in our own gardens? My visit to Lurie Garden was all about looking at ideas, features and combinations and reinterpreting them to work on a home garden scale.

In 2015 the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) announced that one of its most renowned design competitions at one of its most prestigious flower shows in the UK was to have the theme of ‘Health, happiness and horticulture’ for the 2016 season. I was determined to submit a proposal but getting inspiration for an RHS show garden can be tricky and daunting.

The urge to design in a plethora of cool features or show off as many plants as possible can dominate and ruin your thinking. I was a bit like this when I started collating ideas but my visit to Lurie Garden in October 2015 sharpened my focus and crystallized my ideas. This is my experience of Lurie Garden and how, through reinterpretation and in combination with my own thinking, ideas and approaches it helped to inspire my show garden design titled, “A Home from Home.”

The RHS shows are visited by hundreds of thousands of people throughout the summer with show gardens taking the main stage and attracting the big crowds.

Royal Horticultural Society Flower Shows

Every year in the UK, a flurry of horticultural shows punctuate the summer months, drawing vast crowds and plenty of prominent media attention. They are often seen as the catwalk for garden design, where trends and styles are likely to be set.

There are now four ‘main’ RHS shows. Each show has their own feel and atmosphere. The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is the pinnacle of these with a rich history. The RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show has an enjoyably relaxed feel, and, on a bigger site, is the largest annual flower show in the world. The new kid on the block is the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show launched in 2017. The RHS Tatton Park Flower Show, near Manchester in the North West of England, perhaps seen as the baby brother of the shows, has earned itself a great reputation for giving young people in the world of landscape and horticulture a chance to exhibit gardens and displays.

The RHS Young Designer of the Year competition has been held at Tatton for several years now, receiving the most media attraction and often provides a successful launch pad for aspiring designers, some going on to exhibit at Chelsea and be leaders in the design field. This is the competition in which I was one of the three finalists and participated to create my own show garden.

Developing a Home from Home

When reflecting on the theme of ‘Health, Happiness and Horticulture,’ I thought of gardens as calm places to escape, relax and unwind: the essence of gardens being just nice places to be in. This enabled me to then think about the garden as a place not tied or linked to any particular place or setting, and actually helped me to determine that a home garden could indeed also be a place for health, be it mental or physical. But, it would still need careful thought and planning, thinking about a specific client but also exactly how the use of the garden, the context of the garden and the elements and features of it, would all work together.

Inspired by places, placing elements that give recognition to inspirations, telling stories and showing features in different ways; all of these can be created in any garden and give them much more meaning.

Elements a designer needs to consider are structural, horticultural, and artistic. I needed to think about the overall frame that would hold my garden, how someone would walk through the space, the materials that would be used all while thinking about what horticultural and rural patterns or themes I would need to recreate in order to transport them effectively into the rural mindset. My experience in the field allowed me to immediately have some ideas about what possible solutions may look like, but like any creative work, a good design develops with time, research and ‘getting out of the office’ to look at how others have created spaces.

I’m generally pretty good at picking out details and features of landscapes and places. On top of that I have an editor’s eye that helps me determine the importance of elements as parts of the whole; thinking about what is important, what really stands out, what could be used again seamlessly in a different context and so on. When I approach a space, I try to find the elements and understand how each contribute to the overall environment. One thing I find helpful is to ask myself “would this work the same if a particular element was taken away?”. If the answer is ‘no’ I know that it is crucial to the design.

Here, the path down the middle of the garden adds symmetry and brings clear direction and movement to the garden.


As opposed to here, where, without the path, there is no direction or movement and the lawn becomes a different area of the garden with a different feel.

This combination of designer and editor helps me greatly when I appreciate and enjoy gardens and landscapes, but also if I am on the hunt for some design inspiration or idea-provoking planting combinations for example.

Finding my Chicago inspiration

During my visit to Chicago, I found myself doing this on nearly every walk to nearly every destination both downtown where we were staying and further out in Oak Park, where our friends live.

The levels I experienced in the Lurie Garden were expertly and pleasingly incorporated in to the design, and added interest, often highlighted by different materials.

When I first walked into Lurie Garden one feature that I picked up on straight away in the was that of transporting the visitor away from the mostly grey and fast-paced nature of downtown Chicago. Among other things, I remember the change of levels from the streetscape being used to great effect – climbing up in the first instance but also down with the miniature level change adjacent to the stream, where the path steps down once or twice, adding interest, movement and almost encouraging you, on this smaller scale, to be nearer the water.

GGN drawing boardwalk level change - Lurie Garden

It was the levels nearest the water which really caught my eye though – as seen in this sketch. The steps to the water, inviting you to get nearer, enjoy and interact with the stream. – Drawing by Lurie Garden’s Landscape Architecture firm, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN).

To reinforce this and solidify it in my mind as an effective design technique to create ‘isolation’, I noticed this throughout Chicago’s parks and squares and I could not edit this away. The feeling of being taken into a garden or square but at the same time down and away from the hubbub of the streetscape was very effective and immediately calmed the space. It was and is undoubtedly effective and ensured that some design cogs were whirring – a miniaturization of escapism to the rural or countryside from the rigors of an urban life, perhaps…

Just to give a nod to Chicago’s other parks and squares, their modern design nature really appealed and resonated with me too, from the space and lighting at Calder’s Flamingo, the water features and materials at the Crown Fountain and to other less ‘touristy’ squares of commercial and residential buildings – there was one which particularly struck me outside the Aon building with crashing waterfalls, plenty of steps away from Randolph and chic contemporary materials and plants. The way that broad modern design principles and materials were combined with plants was a particular theme that I could relate too – you can’t have modern design and materials without great planting and you can’t have great planting with dated design and materials (broadly speaking).

Elsewhere in Chicago, the use of level changes stood out as a well thought out design element. At the Aon building the square successfully took you away from Randolph both laterally and vertically, with the level changes highlighted and accented by the crashing waterfall.

Lurie Garden Inspiration

But, back to the Lurie Garden. As well as the level changes, the materials and design forms were the first elements I picked up on in the garden. Perhaps because I visited in October, my eye flew over the planting and landed on these first, but this is no bad thing: the design features can be admired together as the ‘harder’ elements of the garden, as well as individually.

The metal frame around the arborvitae really stood out to me during my October visit. It’s design struck me, providing a firm boundary and a cool addition to a hedge that I’d not seen anywhere else.

Combined with the level-changing steps, the transition of materials from timber to stone near the stream is a really pleasing combination that pulls you down to the water’s edge. The narrow and colorful pavers provide a pleasing alternative in a park to those oft seen large pavers that can suck the sense of place from a space. And the metalwork encasing the hedge, gives a pleasing sense of security around the perimeter, but also a coming together of the natural and man-made.

As well as the arborvitae framework, the other harder elements struck me in the garden. Lurie Garden’s Landscape Architecture firm, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) combined these well to complement Piet Oudolf’s planting. The narrow, colorful pavers and the timber decking makes for pleasing pathways.

These harder elements work so well in the Lurie Garden and fit its context and design perfectly. However, could these be reinterpreted or looked at in a different way for a small home garden, like the one I was designing? The short answer was yes. The metal framework could be manifested into a trimming guide for a garden hedge, or perhaps used and presented in a different fashion combined with plants, recreating that combination again but in a different context, re-imagined.

It was this kind of theme or train of thought that enabled my inspiration from Lurie Garden to begin to manifest themselves into garden elements and features: can we as designers, horticulturalists and gardeners feasibly and successfully recreate park design and modern design features in our own gardens?

Piet Oudolf’s perennial planting is so effective in the Lurie Garden that even my experience of it in the traditionally more-barren month of October, there was plenty to see and appreciate, and take sheer delight in such as the wonderful grasses. It also enhanced the impact of the evergreen species, particularly the color and form of the hedge.

Ensuring I returned to the Lurie Garden several more times during my stay, the focus leapt from the hard to the soft. The plants have their own character in October, with the grasses particularly standing out, so by slightly filling in the gaps with my mind’s eye, I knew that the summer look of the garden would be one to aspire to.

However, some of this was not immediately transferable as Lurie Garden’s planting is very different to what you can do in a garden. Part of its magnificence lies in its scale; it is the large swaths of salvias, big blocks of grasses, and plants such as golden Amsonia hubrichtii (Arkansas blue star) swaying the in the wind with grasses that helps make it magical and leaves a lasting impression. Perhaps this would be difficult to fully replicate in a small home garden. But instead of a recreation this was an opportunity to do garden planting my own way, but with a Lurie Garden representation or twist incorporated into it.

The bold planting was still evident in October, and I took a lot of inspiration and confidence from seeing the successful use of large swaths of the same species. The species’ behavior in the wind was a very soothing aspect to the planting too, one that meant the planting appealed to more of the senses.

I was taken by the modern style of planting: big, bold blocks of the same plant or color with occasional pockets of others popping up; and combining the form of upright plants and grasses with the effect of foliage. Looking closer, several combinations, textures and plants stood out that I knew would work in a show garden. The grasses impressed me so much, and I tried to have some of the exact species grown in the UK for the show garden but unfortunately, they did not take well and had to be substituted.

The perennials in the blue-purple range of the spectrum – the cooler, calmer end of the color spectrum, so the one most apt for a garden designed with health in mind – were of great interest to me too, and although I haven’t seen it in all its summer glory in person, the concept of the river of purple is something that will stay with me.

The broad color scheme of the perennials, with purples and blues in abundance, played beautifully into my early ideas of a garden for mental health. The cool colors of blues and purples are, generally thought to be conducive to relaxation and a sense of calm.

Combining these with a Concept

Returning home, all of the inspiration I got from my travels to Lurie Garden, Chicago and beyond, then seemed to fall neatly into the idea for my garden. I envisaged someone who had moved from the countryside to the urban environment and wanted a garden that both embraced the urban lifestyle and evoked memories of their rural home. After being bombarded with the urban environment and stresses, a visit to such a garden would aid mental health thru the senses and comforting memories. This would then be a place to take refuge in, and lose themselves in comforting memories and sensory stimulations.

With all the inspiration from the Lurie Garden complementing my own ideas, goals and styles that I wanted my show garden to display, my design came together relatively quickly. The plan shows the strong, modern rectilinear forms as well as the journey of the stream and the blocky nature of the planting.

The planting was hugely successful. I had managed to get the plants working with each other on a textural level and height level. The planting was peaceful, tactile and the soothing colors of the modern planting had an obvious ‘Lurieness’ to it. An unsung hero was the familiar hedge making up two of the boundaries – it too helped to encase the garden and contain the eye to stay within it and promote appreciation of the space.

Final garden design, “A Home from Home.”

I included metal work and used some simple techniques such as salt water to weather steel, to give it a rich but industrial, modern color and look. The metalwork acting as the retainers for the beds successfully created a modern looking element next to the soft, natural planting and lawn.

The metalwork bed retainers created a modern looking element next to the soft, natural planting.

The metal was also used to contain the rill/stream, ensuring consistency in the materials, but also continuing a theme of representing a modern water feature made from a modern material. This itself was offset by a pleasing miniature deck that formed part of the pathway. The two together combined to be symbols of the urban/rural concept, representing a rustic countryside bridge. The paving that made up the rest of the path was made of recycled roof tiles, but laid in a contemporary fashion, on edge and in rows. This was really popular and worked well to create a modern path made out of rustic materials.

The sound of water helped create a sense of space.


Field barley was used as an ornamental plant for a direct rural representation and for tactile purposes. 

I used Hordeum vulgare (field barley) as an ornamental plant for a direct rural representation and for tactile purposes (think of the hand-in-the-crops scene from the movie, Gladiator). The barley worked brilliantly well with the Lurie Garden planting, as well as the modern material of the metalwork – a juxtaposition representing the natural and man-made coming together. An extending characteristic of the planting, and much like that of Lurie Garden, the sight of it swaying in the breeze was a particular delight.

The level changes gave the garden its own distinct character and sense of escape.

The level changes were recreated to good effect and gave the garden its own distinct character and sense of escape. Even on a busy show day, with thousands of people walking past, descending down the few steps into the garden did feel like a transportation, and a feel of an urban oasis was accomplished, complete with bubbling water sounds and verdant planting.

My inspiration from Lurie Garden was all about looking at ideas, features and combinations and reinterpreting and thinking about them for a home garden scale. Hopefully this blog and the images give an insight into how these influences came to be in my show garden, and how, mixed with my own style and design, they combined to create a wonderful garden.

This is something that I really appreciate in designs. Inspired by places, placing elements that give recognition to inspirations, telling stories and showing features in different ways; all of these can be created in any garden and give them much more meaning. An enjoyable garden that inspires our own feelings of health and well-being is something that all of us can aspire to create.


Rob Dwiar is a landscape designer and writer based in the UK. The multidisciplinary landscape company he works for, International Design Group in Bristol, South West UK, currently has ongoing projects such as a winter garden in Georgia, public realm landscape design in Dubai, and residential, commercial and golf resort projects in Egypt and Pakistan, among others. In his own time, he enjoys designing and modifying his own modest garden, designing residential gardens, and writing about gardens and landscapes, physical and virtual.