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You may know from earlier posts that the prairie-style Lurie Garden, in the heart of downtown Chicago, is my favorite American public garden. Jennifer Davit, the Director and Head Horticulturist at the Lurie, was recently nice enough to answer a bunch of questions I sent her.

Chicago Davit Photo: Chicagoflower.com

Jennifer Davit
Photo: Chicagoflower.com

Prior to taking her current position, Jennifer was the Director of Conservatory and Special Projects for Miami’s Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden. She has also worked in gardens in California, Hawaii, and Washington, DC. She has a Masters Degree in Public Garden Management from Cornell University.

Compass plants (Silphium  laciniatum) echo the Chicago skyline, or is it the other way around?

Compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) echo the Chicago skyline, or is it the other way around? Incidentally, the hedge around Lurie is called the Shoulder Hedge, a reference to the Carl Sandburg poem ‘Chicago’.

We have some new pictures of the Lurie in mid-Summer to go along with the interview thanks to Judy, who brought her camera to work one day last week.

Echinacea and rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium). Lurie grows eight kinds of Echinacea; I won't guess which one this is.

Echinacea and rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium). Lurie grows eight kinds of Echinacea; I won’t guess which one this is.

Q. You worked in a tropical garden in Miami for years. What made you want to come to Chicago with such a different (and colder!) climate and plant palette?

JD: I loved growing tropical plants, but growing plants in a conservatory requires constant use of fertilizers and pest control. I was looking for a position that embraced sustainability and environmentally conscious gardening in the way the Lurie does. I was also born in Chicago, and though my parents live in Ohio now, we do have a lot of family and friends in the city.

More compass plant against the skyline.

More compass plant against the skyline.

Q. Your title is “Director and Head Horticulturist”. What takes up most of your day during the gardening season?

JD: I don’t spend nearly as much time gardening as I would like. We are lucky to have an excellent horticulturist, Laura Ekasetya, who is out in the garden every day. When I am out gardening, though , most of my time is spent editing – removing in-seeded or migrating perennials. We try to keep the original design intent and part of that is making sure plants do not move too far out of bounds so you can still see the beauty of Piet [Oudolf]‘s design.

Even without flowers, Lurie offers an enchanting patchwork of colors and textures.

Even without flowers, Lurie offers an enchanting patchwork of colors and textures.

Q. The Lurie Garden covers 5 acres. How many person hours does it take to maintain?

JD: It’s about 90 hours a week of maintenance, of which 24 comes from volunteers. We then hire contractors to maintain the Shoulder Hedge [the hedge that separates Lurie from Millenium Park] and do most of the pruning of the other woodies around the perimeter of the garden.

Lurie Garden volunteer at work.

Lurie Garden volunteer at work.

Q. How much effort is required to prevent invasive species from establishing themselves in the garden?

JD: Some of the plants we grow in the Lurie are prolific seeders. With some plants, like Phlomis, we will remove one half to two-thirds of the seedheads because they will seed everywhere. Then there is enough left over for winter interest, but not so much that the seedlings become unmanageable.

Big drifts of 'Summer Beauty' Allium are gorgeous in July.

Big drifts of ‘Summer Beauty’ Allium are gorgeous in July.

Q. Are any fertilizers or soil conditioners used at Lurie?

JD: In the perennial planting beds we do not use any fertilizers or soil conditioners. Most of the plants love a lean soil and perform better in prairie-like conditions. On the Shoulder Hedge we do use an OMRI [Organic Materials Review Institute] certified time release fertilizer called Boost.

Nice.

Grasses, horsemint (Monarda punctata), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum). Nice.

Q. The perennial plants at Lurie seem to grow without much intervention such as staking, cutting back, and dividing. Is that really the case or do you just make it look that way?

JD:  We do avoid staking, but we also pinch back some plants mid-season to keep them from flopping over. With some plants like Geranium ‘Orion’, when we see the new basal foliage growing we go ahead and cut back the older foliage and that promotes a new flush of growth. Because all of our plants are grown without fertilizer in a lean soil, and we do not water too much, the plants perform better in this setting and do not need as much intervention.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) with switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) with switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).

Q. Do you have anyone tracking the birds and other wildlife drawn to Lurie?

JD: A friend of the garden, David Johnson, is a birder and works at the AON building across the street. He keeps track of all the birds he sees and shares that information with us. We are also part of e-bird, the citizen science program http://ebird.org/ebird/hotspot/L2132400.

Straight pathways preserve a sense of order.

Straight pathways preserve a sense of order.

Q. Piet Oudolf mentioned recently during a lecture in Chicago that some plants included in the original design have been removed from the Lurie garden. Have you been surprised by any particular plants that have or have not worked well at the garden?

JD: Achillea ‘Paprika’ (yarrow) was originally planted in the garden in 2004 and it didn’t perform well at the time and pretty much died out. Then in 2012 we planted Achillea ‘Moonshine’ and it has been an amazing addition. Sometimes cultivar selection can be the key. I also think that when the garden was first planted, everything was watered regularly. When A. ‘Moonshine’ was planted we watered only when needed, which was not as often as other new plantings. It is a really tough plant that likes to be on the dry side, so knowing that and tailoring our watering schedule to suit it was key.

Flowers backlit in the morning sun.

Flowers backlit in the morning sun.

Q. Do you have any guidelines in terms of the ratio of grasses to flowering plants, or native to exotic?

JD: No guidelines – if it looks good and grows well, then it is in the right place!

More 'Summer Beauty' with calamint (Calamintha nepeta).

More ‘Summer Beauty’ with calamint (Calamintha nepeta).

Q. What in particular do you love about your job?

JD: I love the human element of the Lurie Garden. People who would not visit a garden will visit Lurie because it’s downtown. The Lurie Garden serves as a gateway into gardening and developing an appreciation for nature. I love seeing the look of surprise, delight, and wonder on people’s faces when they walk through the hedge and see this amazing garden. It’s priceless and makes this job so rewarding. I also work with an amazing team of people, our horticulturist, program manager, volunteer manager, membership manager, and intern – I love working with them.

Echinacea with Russian Sage 'Little Spire' (Perovskia atriplicifolia).

Echinacea with Russian Sage ‘Little Spire’ (Perovskia atriplicifolia).

Q. Can you promise me that you will never do away with the River of Salvia?

The River of Salvia. Photo taken June 6, 2014.

The River of Salvia. Photo taken June 6, 2014.

JD: It will always be part of the design. It’s now an iconic part of Chicago!

Almost every day Judy and I drive by the garden of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston. Today we decided to walk the mile from our house to give it a closer look. This garden was created when the congregation rebuilt their old synagogue so as to meet the highest certification standards of the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

 

Entrance to the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation.

Entrance to the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation.

The garden utilizes predominantly native plants and a minimum of inputs. Lying between Dodge Avenue and the west side of the synagogue, it is mostly in full sun, though there are two sizeable redbud trees (Cercis canadensis). (Speaking of sun, the day was quite overcast and less than ideal for taking pictures.)

2014-07-26 17.37.09 JRC

In mid-summer, the garden’s most visually dominant plant is wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Yellow and purple coneflower (Ratibida pinnata and Echinacea purpurea) and nodding onion (Allium cernuum) were also much in evidence. Not 100% sure about the Allium ID, though.

2014-07-26 17.36.06 JRC

The whole place was buzzing with bees when we were there, and we also saw two Monarch butterflies.

Wild bergamot.

Wild bergamot.

The clumps of wild bergamot seemed remarkably upright, and didn’t seem to be suffering from the dry weather we’ve been having lately.

Nodding onion with purple coneflowers and wild bergamot.

Nodding onion with purple coneflowers and wild bergamot.

There were swathes of wild onion, though mostly not yet in bloom.

Nodding onion

Nodding onion

There were a few exceptions, though. I keep meaning to put some of this Allium into my garden.

Yellow Coneflower

Yellow Coneflower

On the other hand, I have lots of wild bergamot and yellow coneflower, so when I see them in a garden it’s like running into old friends.

Blazing star in front of a wall built with construction debris.

Blazing star in front of a wall built with construction debris.

Extensive use of recycled construction materials is a requirement for the LEED certification.

2014-07-26 17.33.03 JRC

A path wanders through the garden, allowing a closer look.

Two benches near the center of the garden.

Two benches near the center of the garden.

There are also a couple of benches for kibitzing or contemplation.

There was still some butterflyweed in bloom.

There was still some butterflyweed in bloom.

On its website, the congregation notes the religious basis for environmental stewardship, including this quote from Ecclesiastes: “God led Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, ‘Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world – for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you’.

2014-07-26 17.37.57

Neither Judy or I are religious people (my family is Jewish, hers is Lutheran), but I find it encouraging when people of any faith recognize that environmental sanity is a moral and practical imperative. Aside from that, it’s always good to find a congregation with a more exciting and creative approach to landscaping their own small piece of the earth.

The first garden we visited as part of the 2014 Garden Bloggers’ Fling was Lan Su, located in Portland’s Chinatown. According to its website, Lan Su is the most authentic Chinese garden outside of China. It was created in the style of a Ming Dynasty “Scholar’s Garden” by craftsmen from Portland’s Chinese sister city of Suzhou.

Moon Locking Pavilion, seen from the Terrace

Moon Locking Pavilion, seen from the Terrace

I’m very glad I got to see this garden, but I could not love it. Even so, Lan Su had some wonderful qualities. (A note about the photographs – I took the pictures here because Judy had to miss the first day of the fling, so please excuse any decline in quality.)

I was occasionally startled by glimpses of office buildings, reminding me that I was in downtown Portland.

I was occasionally startled by glimpses of office buildings, reminding me that I was in downtown Portland.

Behind its walls, this garden makes the visitor feel removed from the intensely urban area that surrounds it. The design creates a sense of space much larger than the single acre it occupies.

View of Scholar's Garden through archway.

Courtyard viewed through archway.

Part of this illusion derives from the framed views that seem to exist in every direction, no matter where in the garden you happen to be. Plus, so many of those views seem to be of distinct but connected spaces. And to visit all the different spaces you can only go by a circuitous route.

2014-07-11 12.58.52 lan su garden

 

2014-07-11 12.58.23 lan su garden

All of the plants are native to China, and it was a pleasure to examine the plant palette.

2014-07-11 13.02.38 Lan Su garden

But this garden is really more about water and stone than it is about plants.

More water lilies.

 

2014-07-11 12.55.34 Lan Su water lilies

Though I loved all the water lilies.

Willow, stone and water.

Willow, stone and water.

 

2014-07-11 13.22.20

And Lan Su does showcase in many ways how water and stone can be beautiful.

Window onto the scholar's garden.

Window onto the Scholar’s Courtyard (I think).

However, if every garden is a compromise between wild and controlled, soft and hard, quiet and drama – for me personally, Lan Su leans too far toward control, hardness, and quiet.  We read in Lan Su’s website that this type of garden was intended to bring nature to the city. While any attempt to emulate nature is artificial to a degree, “nature” in this garden seems a little too stylized.

2014-07-11 13.01.22 Lan Su

Though perhaps my reaction has to do with the type of landscape being emulated. The gardens I love are inspired by the prairie, while Lan Su seems to be about mountains.

2014-07-11 13.14.30 lan su mimosa

I respect the fact that this reflects a cultural tradition of which I am not a part. And yet, we can only love what we love.

Weeping tree.

Weeping tree.

 

2014-07-11 13.19.14 lan su

In any case, Lan Su is an intricate garden that needs to be experienced slowly, piece by piece.

Mimosa

Mimosa

There were horticulturists available to talk about the garden, and I wish I had taken more advantage of this resource, but there was so much to absorb just by looking.

Tired Flingers in front of the Hall of Brocade Clouds.

Tired Flingers in front of the Hall of Brocade Clouds.

The day was getting hot, though it was still morning. The Flingers were getting tired and ready to get on the coach for a ride to the next garden.

What’s your opinion of Chinese gardens?

I’m not real thrilled with my containers in sun this year. Each of the individual plants is nice, but they don’t collectively have the impact you would wish for. Back in the spring my containers were filled with tulips or pansies with a bit of stock (Mattheola incana). They  had real visual punch.

Containers in sun on the front walk and stoop.

Containers in sun on the front walk and stoop: not much punch.

Now my containers in sun seem to be delivering only a faint tap.

Mexican petunia

Mexican petunia

Of course, I picked many of this year’s container plants because last year they were attracting hummingbirds in droves (though we never did get a picture). This year: same plants, but no hummingbirds. Which brings their visual appeal to the fore.

Cigar Plant

Cigar Plant

For tall plants, I’m using Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana)  and cigar plant (Cuphea ignea). The Cuphea flowers are profuse but too small, and the Ruellia flowers are nice but too sparse.  (Also, I tried some Mexican petunia in the Driveway Border – it did not do well.)

Containers on the front stoop: cigar plant, star flower, Mexican petunia, nasturtium.

Containers on the front stoop: cigar plant, star flower, Mexican petunia, nasturtium.

The starflower (Pentas lanceolata) does better in this regard. It has clusters of little five pointed flowers – in my garden, mostly red.

Nasturtium 'Empress of India'

Nasturtium ‘Empress of India’. It’s hard to tell this is a container because it is nestled into a bunch of violets and Rudbeckia.

Also, I am definitely happy that I planted nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), both the red/orange ‘Empress of India’ and the ‘Alaska Mix’. Love the color and it trails nicely over the side of the container. Plus the flowers and leaves are edible (tastes like watercress).

Nasturtium 'Alaska Mix'

Nasturtium ‘Alaska Mix’, red star flower to the right

I had underplanted the tulips with sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), and I left them in because the weather has been pretty mild. Usually they fizzle when after a couple of weeks of really hot temperatures. At this point some have fizzled, but a few are still looking good.

The sweet alyssum is still doing ok cohabiting with nasturtum in my old sneakers, but the clematis wants to butt in.

The sweet alyssum is still doing ok cohabiting with nasturtum in my old sneakers, but the clematis wants to butt in.

Though one problem with leaving in the sweet alyssum is that now you can see bare patches in some of the containers.

Anyhow, now I’m thinking maybe next year I will keep the nasturtiums and starflower but just combine them with marigolds and tall Zinnias.

What are your favorite plants for containers in sun?

 

 

 

New Guinea impatiens (Impatiens hawkeri) are the workhorses of my shade containers. Their virtues include a full, mounded habit; larger velvety flowers, and shiny foliage. Plus, they are resistant to impatiens downy mildew, which has devastated annual impatiens plantings around the country.

Caladium, New Guinea Impatiens, and golden creeping jenny in the back containers.

Caladium, New Guinea Impatiens, and golden creeping jenny in the back containers.

Their biggest defect is that they are much more expensive as plants than the regular impatiens (I. walleriana). Growing them from seed is not an option given my spring travel schedule.

The old wheelbarrow full of NG impatiens

The old wheelbarrow full of NG impatiens

I noticed that one of my neighbors grew common impatiens last year and they did not become infected. He’s planted them again this year, and so far they are fine. If they make it through the season without signs of disease, I may consider going back to I. walleriana for 2015.

I move these containers to cover up the area where the Virginia bluebells have gone dormant.

I move these containers to cover up the area where the Virginia bluebells have gone dormant.

Anyhow, I’ve kept my containers in shade very simple. White is the primary color in the back garden, and most of the New Guinea impatiens are white. However, I have a hanging basket of red ones that I put out for the hummingbirds.

For the containers against the house, the New Guinea impatiens are a mix of white, lavender, and red. This is to provide some transition between the white in the containers and the red in the hanging basket (also, I want them to stand out a little against the house, which is painted white).

At this time of year the back garden depends on containers for a good deal (though not all) of its color.

At this time of year the back garden depends on containers for a good deal (though not all) of its color.

Actually, what they call lavender really looks like pink to me, and I may just try to find a pale pink next year.

Along with the New Guinea impatiens I’ve mixed Caladiums and golden creeping jenny (Lysimachia numularia ‘Aurea’) as a “spiller”. The big leaves of the Caladiums stand out against the pattern of impatiens blooms and foliage.

Do you use New Guinea impatiens or common impatiens in your shade containers? If you’ve stopped using common impatiens, would you consider going back to them in the future?

A Monarda Moment

In mid-summer the Monardas take center stage in the Sidewalk Border. The blue and purple salvias retain a bit of color, but are mostly done. The ‘Husker Red’ Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis) and golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) have been cut back. Now come the Monardas in red, lavender, and purple (yes, purple).

'Raspberry Wine' bee balm

‘Raspberry Wine’ bee balm

The Monarda that demands your attention first is ‘Raspberry Wine’ (Monarda didyma), with its enormous red flowers. This Monarda reminds me of certain  relatives whose normal speaking voice is a shout – but they are so entertaining you love them anyway.

Bumblebees like Monardas.

Bumblebees like Monardas.

Monardas are members of the mint family, and ‘Raspberry Wine’ is a particularly vigorous grower. However, I just pull out the stems if it pokes up where it is not wanted. Like other Monardas, it is beloved by bees and butterflies.

Wild Bergamot

Wild Bergamot

If  ‘Raspberry Wine’ is a happy shout, wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is a soothing murmur. This is a wild species Monarda with much smaller flowers that come in a calm lavender-blue.

Good companions.

Good companions.

Wild bergamot (an ingredient in Earl Gray tea) does not compete as energetically as ‘Raspberry Wine’ and other varieties of M. didyma (bee balm).

A view of the Sidewalk Border.

A view of the Sidewalk Border. Oh, and the neighbors just put their house up for sale. Any garden bloggers in the market?

Even so, I think the two are good companions – both the contrasting colors and heights look good to me.

'Purple Rooster' bee balm

‘Purple Rooster’ bee balm

I have another Monarda growing in the Island Bed, behind the Sidewalk Border. This is ‘Purple Rooster’, a more compact variety (though by no means a dwarf, mine grows 3-4′) of M. Didyma.

Looking the other way.

Looking the other way.

Powdery mildew is the biggest complaint most people have about Monardas. ‘Raspberry Wine’ is supposed to be resistant. However, by late August the leaves of all my Monardas are infected. I’ve decided to just ignore it, and switch my attention to the asters and goldenrods that are coming into bloom.

Monardas like moist soil, but I’ve found wild bergamot to be more adaptable.

Swamp Milkweed

Swamp Milkweed

In this part of the garden the Monardas share the stage with swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). The pink-red of the species are still opening, and you can sometimes catch a whiff of the vanilla scent.

Switchgrass and Monardas

Switchgrass and Monardas

The big grasses also are coming into their own now. Switchgrass ‘Northwind’ (Panicum virgatum) is not yet blooming, but its tall upright leaves and stems add some dignity to the proceedings.

Northern sea oats.

Northern sea oats.

Also, the seedheads of northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is starting to form. At this stage they seem like bits of green confetti dangling from fishing lines.

'Mr. Banana'

‘Mr. Banana’

On the other side of the sidewalk, the daylilies are what you notice right now in the parkway plantings. In particular, there is an enormous banana yellow daylily whose name I cannot remember. It was actually a freebie that came with a shipment I ordered from Oakes Daylilies. Since I can’t be sure of the cultivar name, I have come up with my own private name for the big fella: ‘Mr. Banana’.

Are the Monardas blooming in your garden?

 

Rose Report

This year got off to an inauspicious start for my roses. All in all, though, it wasn’t a bad year. I am a relative newcomer to roses, and there is only a modest selection in my garden. Even so, I’m very fond of the ones I have.

'Strike It Rich' rose

‘Strike it Rich’.
Photo: Heirloomroses.com

The saddest development was the death of ‘Strike it Rich’, which I had planted the previous August. This was a gorgeous orange rose, sometimes shifting to red along the petal edges. Perhaps if I had waited until spring it could have survived a harsh winter, but I’ll never know.

'Cassie' has small semi-double white flowers in abundance.

‘Cassie’ has small semi-double white flowers in abundance.

On the other hand, ‘Cassie’ behaved as if a brutal winter was just what she needed to really rise and shine come spring.  This is the first rose to bloom in my garden.

It quickly became clear that 'Cassie' had shrugged off the freezing cold.

It quickly became clear that ‘Cassie’ had shrugged off the freezing cold. This picture was taken on June 7.

‘Cassie’ bounced back vigorously from her March trimming with masses of flowers. Normally a floriferous rose, this year she really outdid herself. I had gotten the impression that ‘Cassie’ tends to be ignored by most gardeners, so I was glad to discover a robust specimen at the Chicago Botanic Garden this year.

'Sally Holmes' blooms in trusses of flowers that fade from pale pink to creamy white.

‘Sally Holmes’ blooms in trusses of flowers that fade from pale pink to creamy white.

At first I feared for ‘Sally Holmes’, whose canes had all been killed to the ground. However, not only did ‘Sally’ send up new canes in the spring, but she bloomed with big trusses of pink buds that turn into creamy white flowers.

The brand new canes of 'Sally Holmes' were weighed down by blooms.

‘Sally’ reborn. The brand new canes of ‘Sally Holmes’ were weighed down by blooms.

Actually, I think ‘Sally’s’ habit has been improved by having her old canes die back.

'Darlow's Enigma' is sweetly but not powerfully fragrant.

‘Darlow’s Enigma’ is sweetly but not powerfully fragrant.

‘Darlow’s Enigma’ is a rambler that blooms from June through September. I am trying to train it up an arbor in the back garden. ‘Darlow’ lost about 2/3 of its canes to winter kill.

'Darlow' is a rambler. I'm working on getting it to ramble up the arbor in the back garden.

‘Darlow’ is a rambler. I’m working on getting it to ramble up the arbor in the back garden.

It recovered, however, sending up new growth and blooming about as much as it did last year.

Prairie Rose. I took this with my phone, sorry it's a little fuzzy.

Prairie Rose. I took this with my phone, sorry it’s a little fuzzy.

The last rose to bloom in my garden is the wild prairie rose (Rosa setigera). Prairie rose is a climber, and I am training her against the south wall of our garage. Like ‘Darlow’s Enigma’, she suffered lots of winter kill but then recovered.

Prairie rose.

Prairie rose.

Prairie rose has rosy pink single flowers that are supposed to be fragrant, though I have never noticed much scent. Like ‘Sally Holmes’, they fade to white – but much more slowly. A nice thing this year is that the trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) has started twining itself around the canes of R. setigera. Unfortunately, the Lonicera‘s peak bloom is well before that of the wild rose.

As you can see, I have a weakness for white flowers that are single or semi-double. I also like fragrant flowers. ‘Sally Holmes’ and ‘Darlow’s Enigma’ are sweetly but mildly fragrant. Sometimes you can smell the scent on the air, but at others you have to put your nose up against the flower. Prairie rose is supposed to be fragrant, but I haven’t detected it.

How have the roses done in your garden this year?

 

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