Lurie Garden's Summer Intern on Garden's Design

Guest post by Benjamin Futa, photos by me.

Spring bloom at the Lurie Garden in Chicago's Millennium Park.png

This past summer, I had the fortune and privilege to be accepted as the intern with the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park. Having completed only a single semester of my landscape architecture and horticulture college career at the time I applies, I assumed my application would be turned down on those grounds alone. However, as the weeks went by and I received one, two, then three interviews, I began to wonder if my earlier skepticism was justified. I still remember my over-brimming excitement and enthusiasm when I received the job offer. At the time, I had no way of knowing that my expectations would pale in comparison to the stunning and life changing experiences I would have during my time with the garden and living in Chicago. It would be impossible for me to recount my entire experience in the space of one blog posting, but a few points I would very much like to share.

As part of the intern experience, the Lure Garden staff works with
their intern(s) to devise a special project on a topic of special
interest that will be beneficial to both the garden and the intern.
Given my study of landscape architecture, I had a keen interest in the
design evolution and development of the garden. This led me to conduct
interviews of some of the key players in the garden’s design and

If you are not already aware, the Lurie Garden
is imbued with many unique messages and symbolism that directly relate
to Chicago and its history. For a brief example, the hedge that
surrounds the garden is called the “Shoulder Hedge” and pay homage to
Carl Sandburg’s quote referring to Chicago as the “City of Big
Shoulders.” Additionally, over ten thousand allium bulbs are planted in
the garden that reference the origin of the name of Chicago from the
Native American word for “Stinking Onion.”

Much of this
information is available via the Lurie Garden website,, or by attending one of the free Sunday tours that
run from May through September. My goal by interviewing the designers
was to find out where they got the ideas and information that
eventually led to the many symbolic elements in the garden and I was
surprised by some of the answers!

First, I’m going to talk about
the retaining wall of the “Dark Plate” area of the garden – which is
the area of planting to the east of the central boardwalk, otherwise
known as “The Seam”. The wall is a beautiful smooth-face golden
limestone that creates an impressive transition from one area of the
garden into another. It was known that the idea for the wall came from
the time when the rail yards dominated the coastline and a sea wall was
built to contain the eroding shores. After the Chicago fire, most of
the debris was simply pushed into the lake, thereby expanding the
shoreline as is today. The Lurie Garden is situated on the approximate
site of the old sea wall

What I discovered during my interview
with Kathryn Gustafson, a principal of GGN – the landscape architecture
firm responsible for the hardscaping and layout of the garden – is that
that sea wall still exists. It’s buried, under layers and layers of
development over the years, but it still exists. Suddenly, a seemingly
unimportant retaining wall takes on a whole new significance in the
overall design of the garden.

Next, I’d like to talk about the
Extrusion Plaza. This is an area of the garden that is not often
thought of as being part of the garden, as it resides outside of the
shoulder hedge to the west and east of the footbridge to the Art
Institute. It is a simple paved plaza with a few thin strips of
evergreen plantings consisting of boxwood and yews. It may seem like a
rather drab area until one knows its history.

As you may know
all of Millennium Park is essentially a giant roof garden, housing two
parking garages as well as stations for the South Shore and Metra train
systems. If you were to place a plan of the arrangement of the tracks
underneath Millennium Park at the location of the Extrusion Plaza, you
would see a striking resemblance between the pattern of tracks and the
arrangement of the beds above. This is another fantastic example of the
site-specific symbolism that does a superb job of making the Lurie
Garden a true Chicago treasure that could be duplicated no where else
in the world.

I would also like to talk about the planting
design of the garden, which is a masterpiece of the Dutch plantsman
Piet Oudolf. Unlike many gardens that exist on one, maybe two levels of
experience, the Lurie exists on three distinct levels. Some of the
plant combinations that Piet chose to use can only be truly appreciated
at an up close and personal level. I call this the “intimate” level.
However, that same combination, when viewed from an “intermediate”
distance, can take on an entirely new appeal and add to the greater
context of the garden design.

The viewing platform of the new
Modern Wing of the Art Institute creates the “intermediate”
perspective. To view the garden from the Institute presents Piet’s
design style in a whole new way. The graceful drifts and undulations he
tends to incorporate into his designs become much more apparent as the
smaller details of the plants are lost, and they become wide swatches
of color. However, certain strong elements like the vertical spires of
the Rusty Foxglove and seed heads of Echinacea still stand out from
this view.

The final view, which is almost entirely unique to
the Lurie Garden, is the “distant” view – that is, how the garden looks
from fifty stories up when viewed from the surrounding skyscrapers. I
had occasion to view the garden from this perspective during my summer,
and it becomes a new experience yet again. Any fine detail is
completely lost, and the garden becomes a dynamic two-dimensional
painting through the seasons. Single white peonies look like pearls
lying in the lush green carpet of surrounding foliage, and the
undulating colors of the famous “Salvia River” blend together to become
as liquid as the great lake Michigan that is its backdrop. Piet
considered all these levels as he designed the garden and, in my
opinion, had great success at every one.

What I’ve written so
far is only a small, small piece of the wonderful design and layers of
symbolism of the Lurie Garden and its history. The planting design is
unparalleled, and the stage for such a display is one of a kind.
However, design and research aside, the piece of my summer experience
of which I am most proud is the people I met along the way. I would
like to close this posting with an excerpt from my closing presentation
this past summer.

A garden takes on the personality and humanity of those who interact with and maintain it. Without such guiding hands and unending passion, a garden would cease to become a garden and nature would reclaim her space. Those of us in this room and those who could not attend this evening are all helping to continue the successful evolution of this garden that in such a short time has become a treasured landmark beyond its founders’ wildest hopes and dreams.

None of this would be possible without a clear mission and energetic, dynamic leadership. I refer of course, to the Lurie Garden staff.

During my time here this summer, I have been gifted with the unique opportunity to see this tight-knit, motivated and inspired team manage the garden and its operations. They approach everything with good humor and playfulness as well as a serious attitude born of perseverance and careful judgment. They have a sense of self and a sense of mission which combine to make them true leaders and visionaries.

I would like to take this moment to share my personal thanks with everyone here. You have truly made this summer of a lifetime. To say that I have enjoyed my time here would be a dramatic and horrendous understatement. It’s easy to become lost in the moment-the many moments, I should say. I revel at how easily I would forget the broader scope and larger implications of what I was doing-simply because I was doing what I’ve done since forever, something where I am most happy and most content, most at peace, and most at home-gardening.

If there are any questions you might have, please feel free to contact me. I love talking about the garden, and if I don’t know the answer-I’m sure I know someone who does!

About the Author:
Benjamin Futa has been gardening since the age of three. The first word he learned to spell was “iris,” the German bearded variety are among his favorite plants. He is currently in his third semester at Purdue University studying landscape architecture with a minor in horticulture. In his free time he does planting design for his friends and family. Upon graduation he hopes to work in a public garden and at some point enroll in the Longwood Garden and University of Delaware graduate program in public horticulture. He recently plant PLAN-T, which he plans to expand in the coming weeks and months to be a resource and networking hub for all things “plant nerd” related. At the moment he is “scheming” to attend the American Public Garden Association annual conference in June of 2010.

Related Post:
Chicago’s Lurie Garden in November ’09


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  • Those photos are beautiful! The purple flowers make me miss warm weather...

  • In reply to MalloryHoke:

    It is still "warm" outside. I think winter won't be making an appearance this year.

  • Ben,

    Thanks for writing this post and for sharing your experience working at the garden this year.

  • Very nice post Ben! I didn't realize the Extrusion Plaza beds were reflective of the Metra tracks beneath it. When I head downtown to visit the Lurie, I ride the Metra Electric train. Next time I visit I'll be sure to pay more attention to this part of the Garden, which I usually hardly notice.

    How lucky you are to have been able to intern at the Lurie this sumemr!

    MBT, thanks for hosting this lovely guest post!

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    No thanks necessary, it was my pleasure and I learned some new stuff. I'd noticed Extrusion Plaza before but didn't realize the importance of it until I read Ben's post.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    In September, the singing of the crickets in the garden grasses was prominent. Do you know if the crickets naturally migrated to the garden or were they brought in?

  • In reply to didurkes:

    Hi Diana,

    I've put up a request for an answer to your question. If I hear anything back I'll let you know.

  • In reply to didurkes:


    Yesterday, I heard from Ben who doesn't think any of them were brought into the garden. Today, I heard from Sue Markgraf of GreenMark Public Relations, Lurie Garden is a client of their's, and she says no crickets were brought in. That only leaves us with the possibility that the crickets found the garden on their own.

    Thanks for asking this question, it was interesting.

  • I think I went more times this spring than I have since it opened and then didn't go back until this spring. You should get out to it more.

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