The beautiful five-acre Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park has been steadily coming into its own since July 2004. Ten years on, Noel Kingsbury has set out to explain the aesthetic and ecological thinking behind its inspired design in Gardening with Perennials from the University of Chicago Press. Gardeners are encouraged to make use of this design in their own private spaces. Throughout, emphasis is on reliability and sustainability while keeping an eye on the challenging Midwestern climate and modern design.
Kingsbury, who is British, might seem an unlikely commentator on Chicago’s public garden. But he notes the global nature of the garden business these days. The Lurie Garden is largely the creation of Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf and Americans Kathryn Gustafson and Robert Israel. Collaboration is a recurring theme. It is even mirrored in arguments for using both native and non-native plants together. Although “more than half” of the Lurie’s plants are natives, Kingsbury advises gardeners to attend more to the overall health of the soil and birds and insects. He also explains how “companion plants” of different sizes and shapes can be ecologically helpful.
As for the Midwestern climate, Kingsbury warns against tailoring gardens solely to the bloom cycle. Gardens can and should provide visual interest and food for wildlife even in the off season—just as the Lurie Garden does. He discusses key plants whose dried stalks and seed heads can enliven a vast, snowy expanse while also providing sustenance for birds.
For nearly 150 years, horticulturalists have promoted the advantages of using hardy perennials and discouraging vast expanses of lawn. The fact that Kingsbury is still lamenting the use of fragile imports and the stubborn cult of lawn care only underscores the need for continued public education. As Kingsbury explains, fussy, showy exotic plants need extra water, special soil, and often yearly replanting, while short-changing wildlife. The Lurie Garden offers an alternative to the hundreds of people walking through it each day: an immersive experience in the subtle beauty of a sustainable landscape. Visitors also will be struck by the Lurie’s spectacular design—a marriage of wild prairie lands and Chicago’s heritage of industrial technology. Responsible gardening leaves plenty of room for artistic flare.
The structure of this 206-page book is well laid out. After an overview of the garden’s history, chapters cover practical issues including Midwestern climate; guidelines on soil, fertilizer, irrigation, and pest control; perennials; grouping plants for the greatest visual and ecological impact; seasonal maintenance tips; and a thoughtful discussion of native plants. The second half comprises a detailed plant directory ranging from the striking Dodacatheon meadia “Aphrodite” (shooting star) to humble “joe-pye weeds.” Terminology and concepts are clearly defined for beginning and amateur gardeners. Rare insight into cutting-edge landscape design will inspire more advanced gardeners too. Superb photographs grace nearly every other page, and at 6” x 7.5” it makes for a handy, portable reference guide.
Kingsbury rightly praises the striking juxtaposition of the garden against its impressive cityscape backdrop. But this raises one curious issue, though it may have more to do with the garden than the book: Given the garden’s urban setting, one might have wished for a chapter on container gardening for balconies or landscaping miniature townhome plots in an ecologically progressive way. Is it possible to use the Lurie’s perennials in extremely small spaces? Should one even bother? Perhaps the issue is complicated enough to merit its own volume.
On the whole, Gardening with Perennials will be of most practical use to those with larger spaces to cultivate. Kingsbury elegantly explores the concepts informing the Lurie Garden and makes an exceptional case for transforming typical gardens into something far more interesting and sustainable.
April 2014, University of Chicago Press
$22.50, paperback, 206 pages
—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton
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