The Ornamental Grass Garden in Grant Park


This past August I noticed a new garden along South Michigan Avenue, just south of Jackson Street, in downtown Chicago, and while most of the landscape beds along the commercial district of Michigan Avenue are filled with seasonal flowers, these beds were more reflective of the nearby gardens designed by Roy Diblik at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Shedd Aquarium, and Piet Oudolf’s Lurie Garden in Millennium Park, two blocks north; the beds were planted entirely in ornamental grasses, including some Midwest native grasses.


The parkway beds, shown fallow in spring, once held seasonal displays of annual flowers
– Google streetview

These beds once held petunias, angelonias and other summer annuals.  The new plantings of ornamental grasses are not only a better economic solution, they beautifully give a nod to the unique Midwest prairie landscape.


Over a dozen varieties of grasses and sedges make up the plantings, the various species form a block-long tapestry of complementary and contrasting texture and color.  Below is a list of the grasses that I identified, some cultivars are a “best guess.”

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Having been only recently planted, the grasses are not yet mature, but are looking good during their first August.






Some Autumn Images of the Garden



The purple of the Regal Mist Grass had turned a warm straw color in November



An aluminum figure stands among the grasses, part of a larger art installation called “Borders” by Icelandic sculptor, Steinunn Thorarinsdottir.


A Ribbon of rose colored Little Bluestem runs through the center of this bed in November

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Photo taken in Mid-August

Some of the grasses show a dramatic color change, such as the Little Bluestem.  Shown above in its summer blue-gray foliage, and below in its autumnal copper-rose hue.  Also notice, also, how much the ‘Red Rooster’ sedge has grown since August – the “hair plug” look is gone.


Photo taken in Mid-November

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Out in the Yard in November – Beautiful


Milkweed pods catch the rays of a setting sun in my backyard meadow.

“If you’ve got just lawn grass, you’ve got nothing,” said Mace Vaughan of the Xerces Society, a leading organization in insect conservation. But as soon as you create a front yard wildflower meadow you go from an occasional honeybee to a lawn that might be full of 20 or 30 species of bees and butterflies and monarchs.”  New York Times, Jim Robbins, 22 November 2013

When I first moved into my home in the fall of 2005, I was excited about having a big yard, but the yard, as it was, was all mowed lawn – not very exciting at all.  When I read the article, The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear, by Jim Robbins last week, about the decline in Monarch butterfly populations, it made me think of my yard, both how it was, barren, and how, when I look out my windows now,  I see variety and life, activity, beauty, nature.

The Front Yard


My home, in the winter of 2006, shortly after I moved in.

My housewarming present from my father was a small seedling oak that he had dug from his yard, my first planting in my yard.   And so it began.  During the first spring in my home, I started marking out planting beds, laid out my vegetable garden, and planted more seedling oaks and other trees native to my region.  All the trees were started from seed collected on, or adjacent to, my parent’s property, a remnant of second growth oak woods.


Today, the fall of 2013

Those small trees grew fast – I was really amazed.  After a few years of putting roots deep into the ground, they started growing at two to three feet a year.  The American Hophornbeams, shown below with their leaves still intact, were only thirty inches tall three years ago.  When I look at photos from past years, I am amazed at how short a time is needed to transform a yard from a sterile no-man’s-land, to something that makes one breathe deep in awe – a landscape full of beauty and wonder.  A classroom, a sacred place.



A young Red Oak (Quercus rubra), in the foreground, will take over as the short lived Silver Maples decline.


January of 2006


Today, November of 2013

The narrow strip of land between my driveway and my neighbor’s driveway receives plenty of sun, why mow grass when our native prairie grasses and flowers are so incredibly beautiful and would do so well in this location?  This garden has evolved quickly from a prairie flower garden with Black-eyed Susans, Pale Purple Coneflowers, Prairie Dock, Orange Milkweed, and Prairie Dropseed, to a more mature garden of mostly Midwest native grasses and trees, including Winged Sumac, Red Oak, and Hawthorn.  Prairie Dropseed grass (Sporobolis heterolepis) and a young Hawthorn (Crataegus sp.) can be seen in the above photo, with a ‘Twilite Prairie Blues’ Prairie Indigo just behind.  The larger scale of these plants works well for this open space.

The Back Yard


Shortly after I moved in, January 2006. The one foot tall caged oak (a gift from my father) to the right of the clothesline was my first planting.

“Around the world people have replaced diverse natural habitat with the biological deserts that are roads, parking lots and bluegrass lawns. Meanwhile, the plants people choose for their yards are appealing for showy colors or shapes, not for their ecological role. Studies show that native oak trees in the mid-Atlantic states host as many as 537 species of caterpillars, which are important food for birds and other insects. Willows come in second with 456 species. Ginkgo, on the other hand, which is not native, supports three species, and zelkova, an exotic plant used to replace elm trees that died from disease, supports none. So the shelves are nearly bare for bugs and birds.”  New York Times, Jim Robbins, 22 November 2013


That little oak is now over ten feet tall and it has the company of over thirty other young oaks.

I do still have plenty of turf grass, too much, some of my friends tell me, some of it is aesthetics, as a landscape architect, I like long views, and some of the turf is practical, including the area around the clothesline and over the septic field.  But the aerial photos, shown below, hopefully help show how greatly the yard has changed over the past few years.  Now its a joy to take a stroll through the gardens and explore the changes year to year, even day to day.

My Yard in March of 2006:

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My Yard in September of 2013:

2013 summer w labels


Old Chicago street pavers stacked as sculpture until they are needed in the garden for another purpose.

Found objects play a big role in the design process.  The granite street pavers were salvaged by me after they were removed from an abandoned roadbed in Chicago.  Knowing their history, what street they came from, makes them even more interesting as repurposed objects in the landscape.


More granite pavers waiting to be artfully stacked


Some of the 100 year old granite pavers were used to create a retaining wall. The Maindengrass (Miscanthus sp.) while not native, creates an effective living screen.


A trilobite fossil was found in a piece of salvaged limestone while building a low retaining wall.


The remaining granite pavers may be used to replace the badly settled walkway along the garage.


It’s not hard to tell where my property stops.  Eight years ago both sides of the photo looked the same.


Salvaged building materials can make for interesting garden art.


This garden chair was found in a creek bed, now it’s sculpture under the branches of the old apple tree.


Other found objects were assembled to create a steampunk effect in the garden


Stacked bits of driftwood show the passing of time.


Rocks are my favorite form of sculpture, stacked, they show a human presence, evoking ancient rituals.


Souvenirs from vacations do not have to be T-shirts and ceramic mugs, this Deborah Silver sculpture reminds me of my visit with her at her Detroit Garden Works.


Silhouettes on the winter sky.





Mowed lawn for fifty years, now a prairie meadow, mowed once a year in March.


One of Illinois’ native Opuntia cactus showing this season’s fruit, “prickly pear”



Standing in an oasis, I see the desert beyond


The remnants of Stiff Goldenrod seedheads – the flowers may be gone, but the beauty has not.



Little six foot oak, grew two feet this season. Reach for the sky mighty oak.


Pasture rose shows off its seasonal decorations


Mounded Prairie Dropseed grass surrounded by taller Little Bluestem grass in my backyard meadow


Poverty Oats grass, how beautiful you are.




Orange Milkweed pods spreading seeds and giving hope to future Monarch visitors


Solomon Seal fruits, understated beauty


Mountain Mint, seed heads


American Hazelnut catkins in November, ready for a warm spring day to release their pollen.


‘Annabelle’ Hydrangea, with Serviceberry trees, combine well with a few non-native evergreens including the groundcover Epimedium and Japanese yew shrubs .. makes a nice winter garden composition.



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Piet Oudolf’s Lurie Garden at Millennium Park


The Lurie Garden, opened in 2004, is located at the southeast corner of Chicago’s Millennium Park.  The garden covers approximately 2.5 acres of the 24.5 acre park.  The design of the garden resulted from an international competition, the winning team consisted of the Seattle based landscape architect, Kathryn Gustafson; lighting and set designer, Robert Israel, and Dutch nurseryman and landscape designer, Piet Oudolf.  Gustafson and Israel designed the shapes of the beds, water feature, pathway locations, and other hardscape elements.  Oudolf created the planting plan, with the help of Wisconsin nurseryman Roy Diblik, co-owner of Northwind Perennial Farm, where most, if not all, of the perennials for The Lurie Garden were contract grown.

For more about the symbolism of the garden elements, including the underlying meaning of the surrounding hedge, and what the light and dark plates represent, you can visit Wikipedia.  I’m particularly interested in, and will be discussing, the plants used in the garden and how they were laid out as a composition.


As I earlier eluded, the garden consists of a Light Plate (sunny garden) and a Dark Plate (shady garden) with a seam (water coarse with parallel boardwalk) separating the two, and all of it surrounded on two sides, to the west and north, by a 12 foot tall hedge of evergreen arborvitae and deciduous beech and carpinus trees, with Monroe Street and Columbus Drive bordering the south and east sides.


The gardens contain more than 35,000 perennials, 5,200 trees and shrubs, and at least 120,000 spring flowering bulbs.  A more or less complete list of plants can be found here and here.

Along Monroe Street; Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’, with its big mound of blue-green leaves; tall Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) topped with domes of pink flowers; and the somewhat lost, Moor Grass, Molinia ‘Transparent’ with its airy (hence the name) flowers, fight for real estate.  As a groundcover, purple ajuga is used with Clematis integrifolia using the tall plants as a living trellis.


Clematis integrifolia, shown below, climbing over a baptisia, blooms from mid to late summer with understated (unlike many spring flowering clematis. Yes, I’m talking to you jackmanii) blue flowers.  The fuzzy seed heads, also visable in the photo, add fall and winter interest to the garden.


Six foot tall stalks rise from the Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum).  Birds, especially finches, relish the seeds produced by the bright yellow flowers.  Prairie Dropseed grass and Purple Love Grass along with White Echinacea and Rattlesnake Master intermingle with the Compass Plant.


The blue-green leaves of False Blue Indigo ‘Purple Smoke’ (Baptisia sp.) complement the strappy, silver-green leaves of the Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) with its spiky gray flowerheads rising above its leaves.


The airy flower stalks of Molinia ‘Transparent’, Moor Grass, along with the pinky-purple flowers of Joe-Pye-Weed ‘Purple Bush’ mingle together in the “dark plate” of the garden.  In the distance, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ Grass shows off its straw colored seed heads.


Autumn Moor Grass (Seslaria autumnalis) massed in a corner of the “Dark Plate,” shows off its late summer flower spikes and its bright green foliage next to Hosta ‘Royal Standard’ with the white spikes of Culver’s Root ‘Diane’ showing behind them.


A bright blue mass of  Scutellaria incana (Skullcap) in the “Dark Plate”


Separtating the two “Plates” is the “Seam,” a shallow body of water along a boardwalk made of Ipe wood from South America.  The stream of water steps down towards Monroe Street, creating small waterfalls.  A quiet, peaceful place to sit and soak your feet …


… While 200 feet to the west, the under-ten-crowd had their own idea of what a water feature should be ..


giant faces spitting water into a very shallow reflecting pool, otherwise know as the Crown Fountain, but I digress.


Back to the Light Plate of the Lurie Garden.  Here, Autumn Moor Grass catches the sunlight, with Calamint (Calamentha nepeta susp. nepeta).  Calamint is a great filler species, long blooming (bracts remain showy) and complements other perennials such as coneflowers, Alliums, daylilies, and grasses to name a few.


On its west and north flanks, the garden is enclosed by “The Shoulder Hedge” consisting of a steel framework planted to Beech, Carpinis, and Arborviatae.  Beyond, rises the Modern Wing of The Art Institute of Chicago.  The walkways in the garden are granite pavers cut from countertop scraps.  Originally, the pathways were made of crushed stone.




The designer of the garden, Piet Oudolf, wants us to see beauty in the garden, beyond the flower.  When creating a planting plan, he looks at the plant’s shape, texture, and color, so that even after a plant is finished blooming, the garden still looks good, overall.  The following pictures of the garden reflect that thought process.  ENJOY:



Tennessee Coneflowers and Allium ‘Summer Beauty’ in combination, surrounded by Amsonia hubrichtii, Baptisia, Russian Sage, and Rattlesnake Master


Bright green Amsonia hubrichtii with ‘Chicago Apache’ Daylily and ‘Shenendoah’ Switchgrass


While the blue mid-summer blooms of the salvia have faded to brown, they still complement the silver of the Rattlesnake Master combined with the blue of Russian Sage.


The seed heads of the Blazingstar and Purple Coneflower still hold interest, while the Purple Love Grass and the blue Sea Lavender bring in accents of color.


As the white bracts of the calamint start to turn a lavender color, the Blue Bottle Gentian, growing with it, will be in spectacular bloom – one of many thoughtful plant combinations


The great mound of calamint mimics the Pritzker Pavilion beyond the hedge


The massing of various Blue Salivias is tranquil and understated in August, but is a river of blue in Mid-summer




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