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Lurie Garden: The 3-acre downtown gem with bulbs, perennials, oaks, magnolias and animal stories

“Spring Bloom” promises to make Lurie Garden something special this spring; and add a dash of animal stories.

A favorite shot of Lurie Garden in its glory in May of 2016. Lurie staff indicated it is the red buds of prairie smoke, the pink ones left are shooting “Aphrodite” with some daffodils in back. Credit: Dale Bowman
Now you need to look close to find good color at Lurie Garden. In a couple months, it will be peak as it was in its glory in May of 2016. Lurie staff indicated it is the red buds of prairie smoke, the pink ones left are shooting “Aphrodite” with some daffodils in back.
Dale Bowman

Two workers with trash pickers worked through the beds of Lurie Garden Tuesday morning as I began a behind the scenes tour of Spring Bloom with director Laura Ekasetya.

“We’re trying to get the hooch bottles picked up,” Ekasetya said.

“Hooch bottles” are words not spoken often enough.

More seriously, a heavily used public space centered on plants presents its own challenges. It is the sort of intersection that I find fascinating.

Plus Lurie Garden fits in my bundle of favorite near lakefront spaces that includes the South Rocks at Montrose Harbor and Wooded Island at Jackson Park. They are not wild spots per se, but at least two are wildscapes.

I usually wander Lurie Garden, three acres at the northwest corner of Monroe Street and Columbus Drive, at least once every season. It is vastly different now, mainly browns and stubble. In two months, it will spin colors as vibrantly as a native Peruvian dance. Much of the stubble was cut back to 15 inches in the warm weather last weekend. (The 15 inches is to leave enough stalk to help native bees.) Ekasetya said Mother’s Day is the peak of color. My favorite photo was taken in May four years ago.

Spring Bloom will be special, or should be, with 61,000 bulbs planted by volunteers and staff last fall.

“We want to make a spring display because winter is so long,” Ekasetya said. “It’s great to have an early display for the visitors.”

This time of year, you have to look closer for early color, such as for crocuses on Tuesday. Credit: Dale Bowman
This time of year, you have to look closer for early color, such as for crocuses on Tuesday.
Dale Bowman

Red-winged blackbirds trilled as we started. Ekasetya said they had arrived two days earlier. There are already hints of color, but you need to look close for the crocuses and snowdrops.

“A fox came by one evening when we working [last fall],” Ekasetya said.

She has never seen a raccoon in the garden. Coyotes are around, but have not been seen in the garden. Rabbits are there, but populations are held in check. They don’t have snakes, probably because of the cement and asphalt surrounding the garden.

“Crows are eating the voles,” she said.

They have seen opossums, noted for their eating ticks and being a marsupial.

I was surprised to see that some oaks, chinkapin and Hill’s (sometimes known as northern pin oak), were planted. They are relatively shallow-rooted oaks that should survive in the three to four feet of soil of the garden. Oaks support tremendous amounts of life, one reason they were planted. So far squirrels have only come when the acorns fell from the chinkapin.

John Bryan, the philanthropist that Mayor Richard M. Daley tapped to help with fundraising, is commemorated with a Hill’s oak that Piet Oudolf, the original designer of the perennial gardens, suggested in one of his regular visits. Hill’s oaks have good red fall color.

Ekasetya took the train from Kansas City and visited Lurie Garden the day it opened in 2004. When an opening came in 2010, she applied, then started in February of 2011. She came from the Chicago Botanic Garden where she tended to perennials grown under research evaluation. In 2017, she became director.

Director Laura Ekasetya explains some of the late winter work starting at Lurie Garden. Credit: Dale Bowman
Director Laura Ekasetya explains some of the late winter work starting at Lurie Garden.
Dale Bowman

I always thought that Lurie Garden flowed into its setting literally in the shadows of downtown skyscrapers.

“That informs where I put the trees,” Ekasetya said. “I am careful where I put them.”

Ekasetya touched on some things that help us mortal gardeners. Both for Lurie and home gardens, one of the big challenges is what plants to pull. For Lurie Garden, that is doubly important because chemicals are not used and quackgrass is something that needs keeping after.

I found some new plantings intriguing, including bigleaf and umbrella magnolias. The choice to go with bigleaf is significant. It’s leaves can reach a yard across and it is native to southeastern United States. With climate change, planting them here is a chance to stay ahead of climate change. That’s an option more gardeners in the area might consider.

As we finished talking, a murder of 30 crows headed north, roughly following Michigan Avenue. Always wanted to write ``a murder of crows.’’

A robin flew in low and landed near the north edge shrubbery.

It was time.

Lurie Garden is open 6 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. The only closures are for such annual events as the Shamrock Shuffle and the Chicago Marathon and irregular celebrations for the World Series or Stanley Cup.

For more on Lurie Garden, events, volunteer opportunities and tie-in events such as with the Millennium Park Film Series on Tuesday nights, go to luriegarden.org. Gardeners can pick up tips by following on social media.

Or just take a break and wander around the garden after work or when visiting Millennium Park.

Or at this mix of brome tussock sedge, white-tinged sedge, plantain sedge, and greater snowdrop for early color. Credit: Dale Bowman
Or at this mix of brome tussock sedge, white-tinged sedge, plantain sedge, and greater snowdrop for early color.
Dale Bowman