May 27, 2009

A Sunday, in the Park, with Piet

I had the pleasure to spend a short weekend in Chicago this past weekend, for a small college reunion and a book signing. Whenever I find myself in this fabulous city, I like to take in the city’s amazing architecture, museums, and shopping. But the best place to take in the first two things, plus some amazing Lurie garden which was touched by the talented garden designer Piet Oudolf, found within Millennium Park. If you have any question that modern landscape design may seem harsh or un-natural, the plantings in Millennium Park will not only change your perception, they may even move you. When viewed in person, these amazing gardens are spectacular, and even the most amateur or well seasoned gardener can become inspired. I left with a long list of ideas to ‘steal’, such and color combinations, and the quantity of certain species which are necessary to achieve a spectacular effect. Chicago is one of those very ‘Global cities’ which has the unique power to move one emotionally with it’s significance. Experience is very human, and my short weekend here has reminded me that as human beings, we might pollute the planet and create junky movies, or start wars and do all sorts of evil things to each other and other species, but also, we as a species are quire remarkable. Chicago, like New York, London, or Tokyo, is one of the great human accomplishments. And the best place to celebrate and experience the ultimate expression of where we, as a culture are at this very moment, just might be in Chicago’s version of Central Park, specifically, Millennium Park, a new park on the lake, that was a collaboration of Pritzker Prize winning Architects, contemporary artists, and landscape designers that is one of the few, if not only place, out doors, that I can think of, that gathers together all of this greatness of the moment, and shares it with the public. Salvia x sylvestris in all of it's available named varieties are planted in huge drift showcasing the many names forms available today. When you see them this way, in these numbers, it is hard to choose which one is more beautiful. And I thought that I was doing well in planting 6 of each form! really, it must be at least 15 or 30 plants. Check out the plant list here, that is quite handy in inspiring us gardeners in making selections for our own gardens.

Millennium Park is an award-winning center for art, music, architecture and landscape design. The result of a unique partnership between the City of Chicago and the philanthropic community, the 24.5-acre park features the work of world-renowned architects, planners, artists and designers.

Tulips bloom in carefully selected colors near the Frank Gehry structure.
Among Millennium Park's prominent features, and there are some very significant ones, are the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion , the most sophisticated outdoor concert venue of its kind in the United States; the interactive Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa; the contemporary Lurie Garden designed by the team of Kathryn Gustafson, Piet Oudolf and Robert Israel; and Anish Kapoor's hugely popular Cloud Gate sculpture on the AT&T Plaza which most people refer to as ‘the bean’.
Anish Kapoor's Cloudgate sculpture

Since its opening in July 2004, Millennium Park has hosted millions of people, making it one of the most popular destinations in Chicago.
Last year, Joe and I spent a good part of June in Switzerland, and Zurich has a similar experiential park, sans the contemporary architecture and art, but the experience of people from all over the world, sharing leisure time together, was remarkable to see, like George Seurat's painting ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte - 1884 ( which ironically just happens to ‘live’ in the Art Institute of Chicago, which is located right here in Millennium Park now that I think about it! ( I remembered the scene in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off). In the Pritzker Pavilion, on the lawn today, there were all types of people resting, having a picnic, laying in the sun, and taking pictures. There were, babies in strollers, Frisbee-playing college kids, dogs, plants, and an overall feeling of human togetherness. I hope more cities take the steps necessary to support the arts and all of the things, which humans create, and build similar and unique versions of these amazing social spaces. In a world full of Twittering, Facebooking non-personal social networking, it is so nice to see people interacting with real, live people.

But most of all, here in Chicago’s Millennium Park, I love the gardens. Outside of Kew, I have never seen such plantings that are horticulturally interesting, artistically stunning, and sited in such perfect harmony with the architecture. The gardens have a narrative worth reading at the website for Millennium Park. It speaks of the shoulders of the city being expressed through metaphor in the Hornbeam hedges, the blue flowers as the Lake and River. This park is more like a museum, than garden.

I was particularly interested in the planting of perennials, since when last here three years ago, I had been so inspired, that I started the plans for our Blue and Gold Garden, using my memory at that time, which had recalled the sweeps of Salvia species, and other blue flowered plants like Amsonia, which this year I had ordered by the dozen after seeing them used as hedges at the New York Botanical Garden last October, I saw that even here, there are new plantings of Amsonia taebernamontana used as a perennial shrub reinforcing that all of the Amsonia species are quite on trend in mass plantings. Not surprising to me since the native form has been on my list for must-have mass plantings for a year now, and they should be on yours too, if not for their denim blue flowers in the spring, then for their golden feathery autumn foliage color in the autumn.

Other plants used en masse here include Various grasses, Baptisia, which are often clumped together with 15 plants or more, Camassia, which poke up amongst the Amsonia hubrectii and the other Amsonia species.

My hornbeam hedges which are pleached, look pale when compared to these incredible plantings. These are shrubs of various genus, planted within these steel structures, which will eventually be trimmed into sweeping arcs and walls. I remember these when first planted a few years ago, and they are already looking impressive. I can only imagine what they will look like once mature. Especially in the winter. Another thing to note, this garden had interest year round, check out the plant list link again.
Here is a good example of the number of plants used in each 'clump' , Lesson learned, again, if you want to look like a professional designed your garden.....ALWAYS plant as many plants as you can afford, and then double it.

Thoughfully planted bulbs like these Camassia leichtlinii ‘Blue Danube’ shoot up between plantings. Blue, Blue, everywhere.

A newly planted 'hedge' of Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia – Willowleaf Blue Star, not really a shrub, but a perennial that can reach shrub-like dimensions once established, but still herbaceous enough to die back to the ground each winter. I am beginning to love this plant, more and more, every time I see it, and it's relatives. That's why I ordered a dozen of these plants this spring, to create my own 'hedge', but now I am still deciding where to plant them!


  1. Matt thanks for sharing a great trip to Shy town, I'll go next spring to see future growth! I think all the civic plantings throughout the the city are spectacular...and nice people as well. B

  2. Wonderful to see Millenium Park develop. I visited soon after it opened and and see now that I need to visit again. Traudi


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