Interview with Jennifer Davit, Director of the Lurie Garden

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!

37 Comments on “Interview with Jennifer Davit, Director of the Lurie Garden

  1. What does she mean by pinch back, as in: “*pinch back *some plants mid-season to keep them from flopping over.” I am always having a problem with plants flopping over, and I’d love to have a technique to prevent that from happening.

    *Jean Butzen* Mission + Strategy Consulting

    • Jean, it depends on the plant, but for your New England asters for example, I would cut them back by half to two thirds in early June. You might also want to cut them back again around the middle of July.

  2. Nice insight Jason, some great questions too. Interesting to read about achillea paprika, I have lost all of mine and will try moonshine. Really like the editing description it sounds a very constructive. I hope one day we get to visit.

  3. What an interesting interview, I love how straightforward she is. The gardens are simply stunning and go so well with the towers.xxx

  4. What a beautiful place! I’d love to visit someday. My purple salvia stops blooming in high summer, which is so frustrating. That river of salvia is stunning!

    • Yeah, I don’t expect much from my perennial salvia after early July. You should definitely come to Chicago. Judy and I would show you lots of great gardens! Consider that a standing invitation!

  5. This was just awesome! I really loved everything about this interview because I admire this garden so very much. It is fascinating to hear the behind the scenes on it! And it is so refreshing to hear how natural it all is! WOW! What a job she has! Outstanding job Jason…and yes I would really like to see your garden! Wishing you a wonderful week! Nicole

  6. Jason, I’m curious to know when Jennifer attended Cornell? My dear friend Rachel’s dad taught in the Landscape Architecture dept there for many, many years, retiring only a few years ago, and maybe Jennifer knows him. His name is Marv Adelman, and he is now living nearby and I know he would welcome visits from former students. Please contact me if you can help make that connections, I know it would be deeply appreciated!

  7. PS:Marv recently had a visit from a couple of former students that Jennifer might know: Michael van Valkenberg, who designed Maggie Daley Park, and Kenny Gallit, who owns Foliage Design Systems in Chicago (they do a lot of the rooftop gardens). Maybe they are before her time, but they are both Cornell alumni. Anyway, here is an article in the Trib from last week that mentions him: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/ct-maggie-daley-park-kamin-met-0724-20140726,0,6860360.column

  8. I think this is my favourite public garden anywhere in the world. You are so lucky to live close by. Do you volunteer? Lovely to read her thoughts on the garden.

  9. Thank you for a great post. An interesting interview about a really stunning garden. Lovely photos. A river of Salvias is a wonderful idea.

  10. Having lived in Coral Gables for years, I was lucky to have visited Fairchild Tropical Gardens several times and they are beautiful. What a different job to be working in Chicago now…an interesting interview.

  11. I first saw this garden in the spring of ’09 during the Chicago Fling, but I’ve never been back during another season. Thank you so much for all the photos, Jason–I love seeing what is blooming in the summer, especially all the coneflowers. I have to go back here! Such an interesting interview–a great post! Glad to know there will always be the “River of Salvia.”

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