Chasing the Meadow: A Trip through Midwest Gardens
This past October I had the wonderful opportunity to visit public gardens in the Midwest thanks to the Smithsonian Gardens Staff Travel Grant Program. I planned an amazing chlorophyllic journey from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin, hitting as many gardens as possible in 7 days. I think I could churn out a book based on all of the details that I saw, but two places really stood out to me – Lurie Garden and Olbrich Botanical Gardens.
Lurie Garden is a 3-acre garden designed by Piet Oudulf and nestled within Millennium Park, a 25-acre public space adjacent to Lake Michigan in Chicago. It is a magnificent setting literally humming with people enjoying all aspects of the park—from selfies at ‘The Bean’ to wandering the gardens or just hanging out on the lawns, this is a space that is obviously beloved by all. And me? Mesmerized.
The garden is divided into a full sun area and a shade area; Oudulf calls them the light and dark planes. I found the light plane captivating from every angle. This completely herbaceous garden is on a gentle slope. When viewed from the bottom of the slope, the naturalistic garden leads the eye up to the reflective skyscrapers creating a stunning juxtaposition. The garden belongs here. It is like a small portion of prairie has been overtaken by the city. The plantings are all relatively low so you can look over the space from every angle. The plantings are complex with featured plants intermingling as they do in the wild.
During my visit I was able to meet with Lurie Garden Director Scott Stewart and Horticulturist Laura Ekasetya who were very generous with their time and answered my plethora of questions.
The other garden which stood out to me during my trip was the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin which is a shared undertaking between the city of Madison and the non-profit Olbrich Botanical Society. Even before you enter the front door of the visitor center for this 16-acre garden you know it is different. The parking lot and the beds surrounding the visitor center feature drought-tolerant gravel gardens rather than the riot of exuberant color that normally frames entry spaces.
The garden prides itself on being sustainable and earth friendly—something especially evident when you enter the conservatory since it not only highlights awesome plants but also houses canaries, waxbills, and tropical quail. No chemicals could possibly be used in here! I saw quite a few lust-worthy plants impeccably displayed. My nerd senses were piqued!
Olbrich’s outdoor garden is arranged with themed “rooms” radiating off a circular lawn area. In addition to traditional favorites like herb, rose and perennial gardens, Olbrich also features gravel gardens, a prairie drop-seed meadow, and a sedge meadow. Some of these areas are quite small – for example, the sedge meadow is a narrow pathway leading to two chairs. The space is a sweet, intimate nook showing an attractive alternative to the typical American Lawn. The meadow’s simple signage identifies the species used to create the low maintenance lawn and the seating area invites you to sit and absorb the bucolic environment. It really did show that you can live large in a small space and do it beautifully while respecting the environment.
The gravel gardens at Olbrich might look like normal perennial gardens, but they are actually some of the most cutting edge of gardens. Olbrich’s Horticulture Director Jeff Epping starts these gardens with an application of 5-6 inches of gravel over the planting soil and then plants drought-tolerant species in the gravel so their roots just touch the soil. Not only do these gardens require up to 80% less maintenance than a typical perennial garden, they also need less water and weeding since any weed seeds normally dry out in this environment before successfully establishing. Maintenance involves an annual cutback and removal of all material to keep the soils lean. This may prove to be a great way to expand the hardiness of many more drought-tolerant things here in the D.C. area since we often lose plants due to winter wet rather than cold temperatures. The process really sparked my curiosity and interest.
Overall, what are the big impressions I came away with?
- Integrate more grasses! Molinia, Sesleria, Bouteloua and Sporobolis can add movement, texture, and depth without being overpowering.
- Tropical plantings are fun to play with, but–for me–well designed ‘naturalistic’ plantings trigger a more emotional reaction.
- A garden does not need to be large or complex to be moving and contemplative.
– Janet Draper, Mary Livingston Ripley Garden Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens