If the powers that be at Chicago’s Millennium Park ever asked me to choose a theme song for Lurie Garden, I would suggest Up on the Roof, first performed by The Drifters in ’62 and later James Taylor in ’79.
When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there the world below can’t bother me….
Lurie Garden, in case you didn’t know, is a 2.5-acre roof garden planted over the underground garages that serve Millennium Park. Designed by Piet Oudolf and GGN (Kathryn Gustafson, Jennifer Guthrie, Shannon Nichol), Lurie Garden opened in 2004. If this garden isn’t on your bucket list, it should be. It’s open daily and free, so why not?
I made my first Lurie Garden visit on a Chicago-crisp evening in late April after helping my son move into a nearby apartment. It had been a long haul from Texas, but all my cares drifted away as we walked up the steps leading to the Promenade and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Beyond the Great Lawn, we reached the garden gate.
The light was dim when we strolled in. A sweep of Narcissus ‘Thalia’ and white tulips stretched across the upper Light Plate. I was confused. Like a fan who expects Tom Cruise to be taller in real life, I had imagined it bigger. There must be more I thought, and there was more, much more. I forced myself to slow down, make note of every tiny detail. I visited four times in the forty hours I was in Chicago. I never wanted to leave. It was…sublime.
On my final visit I was able to meet Head Horticulturist Kathryn Deery and Assistant Horticulturist Kristian Brooks. I was curious to know more about the gardeners. Both were hired in 2021 after a restructuring of garden operations. I wondered what it must have been like for the new team to dive headlong into the care of a prominent public garden, with a crowd watching to see if they were going to sink or swim.
Lurie Garden is filled to the brim with ambitious perennials and Deery works with them to create a haven for both people and wildlife, while also striving to protect the integrity of Oudolf’s design. The garden is an art installation within Millennium Park. Make a wrong move and you’ve spoiled the Mona Lisa.
Happily, the Mona Lisa still smiles. Deery and Brooks are swimming along just fine, still getting to know the pace and rhythms of the garden, but all is well. They heaped praise on the garden’s previous stewards. Deery credited her predecessors with establishing the optimistic character of the place. “We have freedom here. This is still a garden for exploration and experimentation.”
I asked about financial stress, a blight that strikes too many public gardens. Fortunately, finances do not seem to be a pressing concern. Deery said, “We have what we need for the garden,” and then she went on to explain that the garden is supported by a $10 million endowment gift, which was made to the Millennium Park Foundation by the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Foundation. Talk about a gift that keeps on giving!
In addition, Lurie Garden benefits from an enthusiastic cadre of nearly 40 volunteers. Most serve as “Ask Me” docents sharing “what is the moment” with visitors from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Fridays in May through October. A handful of lucky volunteers also work side by side with the gardeners.
I crossed the street to see the cheerful garden Diblik designed for the Art Institute of Chicago and twice visited Eischeid’s plantings within Millennium Park, which were at the height of their spring display.
Designer Piet Oudolf remains engaged with the garden. The gardeners described Oudolf as they might a favorite uncle. The most recognized plantsman in the world, Oudolf is generous and helpful, albeit somewhat vague in his instructions. During one visit, he gestured to an exuberant section of plants—”Everything is too much here but looks so good I could die here.”
Oudolf, of course, gets it. Naturalistic gardens never sit still. There is no “maintaining” them. They can be managed, nudged in the right direction by the small actions and decisions the gardeners make every day, but as Brooks said, “It would be silly to think we are the boss of the garden.” Deery is careful to consider the consequences of early intervention and sees the merit of patience and “waiting to see how things unfold over the season.”
Working at Lurie Garden is not all brilliance and joy. It can be unpleasant. An adorable fox family lives under a metal tree grate in the Dark Plate, but they are messy eaters, so the first thing the gardeners must do each morning is clean up the leftovers—pigeon entrails, squirrel tails, the lost legs of unlucky bunnies. I will spare you the photos.
They also have tulip thieves. On a glorious fall day, the gardeners and volunteers had planted 2,000 species tulips (‘Lilac Wonder’ and ‘Shogun’). When Deery returned the next morning, she discovered hundreds of empty craters where the tulips had been. “Bulb casings were strewn everywhere. I was despondent.” Fortunately, the gluttonous squirrels had left enough bulbs to maintain the integrity of the spring display.
I asked the gardeners what they wanted for their Lurie Garden over the next few years. They said they wanted it to be “a place where home gardeners will see a garden doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.” They want to develop a mix of programming that will appeal to gardeners and nature enthusiasts of all experience levels. And they want the garden to be a place where non-gardeners, both people and migrating Monarch butterflies, can just relax and enjoy themselves. What more could you ask for?
After spending time with this dynamic duo, I have no doubt that Lurie Garden is in good hands. I can’t wait to get back there with them, up on the roof.