I did not expect much when meeting Jennifer Davit, to take a look at her garden. Spring had barely arrived, and the last snow had barely melted.
What I discovered was the enthusiasm that blossoms early and often when people feel a connection to the land. Do you see empty branches or the steady sprouting of miracles, one bud at a time, as spring settles in?
Much changes quickly during this time of year, and that includes the heart of Chicago, where the scant splashes of lavender poking through near-bare ground turn into a thick and brilliant river of purple salvia by Memorial Day.
So goes the seasonal rebirth of the natural world, be it in your back yard or at Lurie Garden, whose five acres thrive within Chicago’s 24.5-acre Millennium Park (one of the world’s largest rooftop gardens because of its perch atop a mass transit station and parking garages).
Odd and alluring outdoor sculptures – like the bright silver Cloud Gate, whose reflection stretches and twists the cityscape – distinguish this urban park from others. So does the Lurie Garden because of its sustainable design, which is low in maintenance, a tranquil respite from big-city bustle and a magnet for more than 4 million visitors per year.
“We see a lot of interest, even in winter, because of the habitat this area provides for birds,” says Jennifer, the garden’s new chief horticulturist. Foliage is not cut back, so dustings of frost or snow add subtle to dramatic visual effects.
Jennifer is one of two paid staff who tend Lurie Garden. Ten volunteers donate hands-on time, and another 40 lead tours and workshops throughout the year.
Most of the plantings are perennials that are carefully arranged, not just to appear attractive, but to lessen runoff and the need for mass irrigation. Volunteers will plant more than 120,000 flower bulbs May 2.
“Color was really the last thing that the designers looked at,” Jennifer says, of the garden layout. “It’s about variations in texture and height, and how the plants interact with each other in the bed.”
Hedges, which share a “Big Shoulders” nickname with Chicago, protect and enclose two sides of the area, creating a natural buffer against city sounds and a microclimate conducive to plant growth.
The garden’s slight tilting enhances water flow. Many plants will grow shoulder high, to help you feel immersed in surroundings.
An elevated wooden path, suspended over shallow water, divides the garden’s sunny and shaded areas, which staff and designers refer to as the light and dark plates. The latter takes on an intentionally rougher and wilder appearance.
“We’re a good urban demo garden that shows what gardeners can do at their own home,” Jennifer says. She is referring, in part, to the native plants that take up the majority of garden space and provide attractive habitat for wildlife.
The garden also teaches lessons of plant compatibility – what looks good together, grows harmoniously and requires logical but minimal nurturing.
“It’s a living entity,” Jennifer says. “You can’t have too many expectations about what’s going to happen on any given day.”
Her goal is to “promote the garden as a destination of itself – to have this here is a gift. It has its own identity.” Admission is free, and free tours occur on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.
For an excellent elevated view, follow a new pedestrian bridge from the garden to the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Upcoming free lectures include “Leps in the City,” about Chicago butterflies, April 22; “Rain Barrels for Beginners,” May 13; and “Planning a Garden for Birds and Wildlife,” June 3. All begin at 6 p.m.
Other free events include a workshop to create dish gardens with desert plants, May 15; bees in gardens, June 5; garden tour and plant identification, June 26; and the therapeutic value of native plants, Aug. 14. All are 10 a.m. to noon.
An aside: At least two national organizations for flower lovers meet in Wisconsin this year. The American Iris Society meets May 31 to June 5 in Madison, and tours include the Janesville Rotary Botanical Gardens, which for two years has grown more than 550 kinds of irises in preparation for the event. For more: www.irises.org.
The Janesville gardens host the American Peony Society conference June 4-6. Some events are open to the public, and thousands of peonies will be in bloom at Parker Education Center.
For more: www.americanpeonysociety.org.