A Visit to Chicago’s Lurie Garden

Posted September 25, 2015 by Melissa
Categories: architecture, Environment, landscape, Landscape design solutions, Travel

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

In late July, I made a short visit to some friends in Chicago whom I hadn’t seen in many years. High on my list of sights to take in were two iconic but very different gardens – the Chicago Botanic Garden about twenty miles north of the city, and the Lurie Garden, sited downtown on the south side of Millennium Park. Happily, I was able to work in a visit to both, but let’s take a look in this post at the award-winning Lurie Garden, built about ten years ago on top of the Lakefront Millennium parking garage – right, a parking garage – smack in the middle of downtown, next to the Chicago Art Institute and a stone’s throw from the famous “bean” sculpture.

Visible from the second floor of the new modern wing of the Art Institute, the 3-acre public ‘botanic garden’ adjoins a bandshell ‘headdress’ sculpture designed by Frank Gehry that anchors the Great Lawn, a public venue for concerts and other events. The garden is divided into ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’ Plates, separated by what is (somewhat preciously) called ‘the Seam,’ a boardwalk boundary between the two.

Lurie Garden

A view of the Lurie Garden’s Light and Dark Plates, separated by the Seam, from the modern wing of the Chicago Art Institute.

Two outer edges of most of the garden are visually enclosed by what is called the ‘Shoulder Hedge,’ taking its name from the Carl Sandberg poem which referred to Chicago as the “city of big shoulders.” The hedge is big indeed, fifteen feet high (there are metal girders that act as frame and guide for pruning) plantings of dark evergreens, designed to protect the lower perennial plantings from visitors leaving the Great Lawn after events there. When I visited, mid-summer plantings of ornamental grasses, Amsonia hubrechtii, coneflowers and daisies were in full bloom in the Light Plate area.

The Lurie Garden won the 2008 American Society of Landscape Architects General Design Award of Excellence, honoring the Seattle landscape architecture team of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd. and the planting genius of Piet Oudolf (who was responsible for the perennial planting design). The following description of the garden comes from the ASLA website:

Chicago built itself up from marshy origins and continues to rise ambitiously skyward. A refinement of nature and natural resources has accompanied Chicago’s willful development. Similarly, the site of the Lurie Garden has been built up over time. It has been elevated from wild shoreline, to railroad yard, to parking garage, to roof garden. Lurie Garden celebrates the exciting contrast between the past and present that lay within this site.

The strong grid layout of Chicago’s streets highlights striking physical features that are not orthogonal. Railways form sensuous braids that merge and swell through the grid. Angled roads radiate out of Chicago like crooked spokes from Grant Park’s location in the center of the city. The paths and other forms of the Lurie Garden, and their relationships to the formal grid structure of Grant Park, are inspired by these patterns and by the strong forms of Chicago’s bold, urban, and Midwestern landscape.

Although I visited in mid-summer, the garden’s website photographs demonstrate clearly the beauty of the landscape year-round. If you’re visiting downtown Chicago in the coming year, I urge you to stop by the Lurie Garden and experience its pleasures for yourself.

CityGuides II – SF Architecture and Private ‘Public’ Spaces

Posted July 25, 2015 by Melissa
Categories: architecture, Environment, photography, Travel, urban photography

Tags: , , ,

If you read my last post, you know I’m a fan of San Francisco City Guides, a volunteer-run series of wonderful walking tours within the city. When I last visited, in June, I wanted to take their Tales of the Castro tour, but it had been cancelled for Pride Weekend (probably a wise decision given the other events scheduled for the area that weekend).

Instead, I opted for a walk called ‘South of Market Architecture Stroll,’ which promised to focus on architecture and history in and around the Financial District. To my delight, it not only delivered on that promise but also included a look at a number of privately owned ‘public spaces’ (or POPOS, as they’re called in San Francisco).

More about those in a moment. First, however, a look at the Bell Building’s amazing interior space – primarily the lobby, but  quite a show. Located at 140 Montgomery Street, the Bell Building was built in 1925. Parts of its exterior walls on one side of the building still have a bell motif with ‘telephone book’ pages above them.

Bell Building, San Francisco

One side of the Bell Building, at 140 Montgomery Street. Note the ‘telephone pages’ motif at the top, with repeating “bell” symbols at the bottom.

Inside the lobby, the Art Deco motifs are stunning.

At one point, there was discussion of turning the building into condos, which didn’t happen. Today, the primary tenant is Yelp (not all their employees, just some).

Much of the rest of our tour (although not all) involved seeing POPOS, or ‘privately owned public open spaces.‘ Since 1985, San Francisco has required developers constructing projects in defined areas of the city to provide publicly accessible spaces in the form of terraces, parks, atriums, and other spaces for use by the public. These spaces may be inside a building, on top of it, or completely outdoors. Buildings with such spaces are required to post signs (which must be a specified size or larger; apparently initially some building owners used miniscule signage to discourage people from learning about their POPOS!). Like this.

A 'Public Open Space' notice at 101 Second Street in San Francisco. Note that open hours are specified since this is interior space in a building.

A ‘Public Open Space’ notice at 101 Second Street in San Francisco. Note that open hours are specified since this is interior space in a building.

Some of the POPOS have food and/or restrooms available (although you may have to look a bit for the latter). Some have quiet spaces away from the bustle of the street, in case you are between appointments or want a place to hang out other than a restaurant or coffee shop.

A privately-owned but publicly accessible space in the form of an atrium at 101 Second Street. There is a coffee bar under the mezzanine area.

A privately-owned but publicly accessible space in the form of an atrium at 101 Second Street. There is a coffee bar under the mezzanine area.

Tucked away at the back of 55 Second Street is this spacious, large space sometimes used for meetings by City Guides volunteers.

Tucked away at the back of 55 Second Street is this spacious, large space sometimes used for meetings by City Guides volunteers.

The outdoor spaces are equally impressive, and often include art funded through the city’s “1% Art Program” which requires that large projects in  Downtown and nearby neighborhoods provide public art that equals at least 1% of the total construction cost.

There are so many POPOS that an entire CityGuides walk is devoted to them. You can also find a map online and lots of reviews by city natives of their favorites – just Google “POPOS.” I  hope to see more when I next return to the City By the Bay.

*          *          *

Garden Shoots will be on vacation for the month of August. See you in September!

Walking with CityGuides in San Francisco – Part 1

Posted July 10, 2015 by Melissa
Categories: architecture, photography, Travel

Tags: , , ,

Last February, I spent a long weekend in San Francisco visiting family. While I was there, I took a walking tour offered by San Francisco City Guides. This volunteer organization, started by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library over twenty years ago, offers free guided tours in countless parts of the city (donations are accepted at the end of each tour, to offset administrative and operating expenses). On this tour, I spent a fascinating two hours in the Mission District on a tour called “Mission Murals.” We started out at Precita and Harrison Streets, behind an elementary school. En route to the meet-up point, I’d already seen any number of murals.

Our guide (whose name I don’t remember, unfortunately – he was terrific) showed us murals on the back of the elementary school, then took us to the Precita Valley Community Center, where I struggled (unsuccessfully) to capture the mural in its entirety.

The Precita Valley Community Center is covered with a three-story mural

The Precita Valley Community Center is covered with a three-story mural

Many of the murals in the Mission have been created by PrecitaEyes Muralists, a nonprofit arts organization based in the community that sponsors ongoing mural projects in the Bay Area and internationally. Their artists are enormously talented. The final stop on this tour (which took up almost an hour, not surprisingly, was Balmy Alley, where virtually every garage door and building wall is covered in amazing murals.

It was a wonderful, colorful introduction to a part of the city I hadn’t known. Next post – discovering hidden ‘public spaces’ with CityGuides.


Hoorah for the Blue Danube

Posted June 26, 2015 by Melissa
Categories: landscape, Landscape design solutions, photography

Tags: , , , ,

Last year most of my hydrangeas were no-shows (or no-blooms, to put it more accurately). The culprit was a late spring frost which did in any hope of flowers from my mopheads (the H. paniculata ‘Limelights’ were fine).

This year I am overwhelmed with hydrangea blooms. And although I do love my ‘All Summer Beauty’ hydrangeas,

Hydrangea macrophylla 'All Summer Beauty' , Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘All Summer Beauty’ flowers next to variegated Hakone grass foliage in my front yard.

my favorite mophead is Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Blue Danube.’

'Blue Danube 'in bloom in 2008 in my back yard, before I lost the wooden arbor at left.

‘Blue Danube ‘in bloom in 2008 in my back yard, before I lost the wooden arbor at left.

I probably bought this variety of hydrangea over ten years ago, by order two gallon-sized shrubs from an online source, Wilkerson Gardens, which apparently no longer offers them. Several years later, in a fit of horticultural ingenuity, I read an article on how to grow hydrangeas from rooted cuttings, and voila – I had two more ‘Blues.’ The photo below shows one of them growing next to an ‘Endless Summer’ – if you look carefully you can see the difference in leaf texture as well as in the appearance of the blooms. Although the web descriptions of this shrub describe it as ‘compact’ and good for containers, my experience is that it becomes fairly large (although not as large as ‘Nikko Blue’ or ‘All Summers Beauty.’)

'Blue Danube' is on the left, with 'All Summer Beauty' on the right. The latter's flowerheads have smaller flowers and in my experience are less likely to color pink in my soil.

‘Blue Danube’ is on the left (flower buds not fully colored), with ‘All Summer Beauty’ on the right. The latter’s flowerheads have smaller flowers and in my experience are less likely to color pink in my soil.

I think I love this variety so because of the strong purple-blue and purple-pink hues that the flowers have (at least in my garden). ‘All Summer Beauty’ and H. macrophylla ‘Nikko Blue’ have softer blue blooms.

'Nikko Blue' in my side yard

‘Nikko Blue’ in my side yard

‘Blue Danube’ has colors that can’t be ignored.

That may also explain why it’s my favorite hydrangea for cutting – and for photographing when cut.
Blue Danube Hydrangeas1_20130708002

If all this has whet your appetite for a ‘Blue Danube’ or two of your own, I’m happy to report that Hydrangeas Plus offers them for sale online.

The Guests That Won’t Leave the Garden

Posted June 12, 2015 by Melissa
Categories: landscape, Landscape design solutions, photography

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Now that I can work in the garden again, I am overwhelmed. Spring’s abundant rains here have encouraged lush new growth not only of hydrangea buds (which were sadly absent last year)

Hydrangea 'All Summer Beauty,'

Hydrangea ‘All Summer Beauty’ began to bud last week.

but also of what I call “garden rogues” – plants I planted in small numbers (or not at all) which have become travelers all over my garden. There used to be a modest bed in my side yard between my arbor and a thriving Styrax tree, originally planted with selected shrubs and hostas, Carex, a few Heuchera, and a couple of toad lilies purchased from a local nursery. The other day I photographed it stuffed full of those plants and a million ‘volunteers.’

Mayhem in the borderl

Mayhem in the border

The toad lilies have gaily seeded themselves everywhere, as have a species Geranium (G. maculatum). Both have the good grace to be easy to remove (once the temps drop below 92, I’ll think about it . . .). What bugs me most is the constant proliferation of spiderwort (Tradescantia), which spreads by runners all over the damned place. It’s the blue-flowered perennial below. You can’t get rid of it without digging out the roots, which is an almost impossible task. I’ve settled for cutting it back at the base, knowing it will come back.

Tradescantia (spiderwort) and Indian pink have spread in this border without any encouragement from me.

Tradescantia (spiderwort) and Indian pink have spread in this border without any encouragement from me.

I’m happier about the spread of the Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica), shown above with the red blooms. I ordered three plants of it many years ago from an online nursery. Today I find it throughout the garden. It likes shade – what a surprise to see such a strong red color in a shade garden!

Felix-femina 'Lady in Red'

‘Lady in Red’ fern has red stems.

Another perennial with a little red in it that has spread unexpectedly in my garden is the fern ‘Lady in Red’ (Athyrium felix-femina ‘Lady in Red’). It was a new introduction when I splurged on it (having lots of deer who wander through the garden has increased my interest in and respect for ferns, which they avoid). But now I’ve found it a hundred feet away from where I first planted it. No problem for me.

Other plants I’ve been happy to see self-seed in my garden include dwarf goats-beard (Aruncus aesthusifolius), another stalwart for the shade, and – to my great delight – the lacecap hydrangea H. macrophylla ‘Blue Billows,’ which has appeared in two locations other than the two where I originally planted it. Now there’s a real bargain.


Hydrangea serrata 'Blue Billows'

‘Blue Billows’ in my back yard, with ferns and a variegated boxwood in the background.


Back Behind the Lens

Posted May 29, 2015 by Melissa
Categories: architecture, photography, Travel, urban photography

Tags: , ,

First of all, many thanks to my readers for putting up with such a long hiatus on Garden Shoots. In February, I broke a bone in my left hand and dislocated a tendon in one of the fingers. Typing was laborious and one-handed for quite a while. I’m happy to report that I am – finally – back to normal.

While I was taking this break, I did get to do some traveling, not to see gardens but to take some photography workshops. It’s amazing what you can do with only one fully flexible hand, and I also need to thank my friend and photographer buddy Sarah for helping to schlep my bags on the first trip. It was a workshop in Santa Fe (through Santa Fe Photographic Workshops) with the incomparable Sam Abell. Called “The Next Step,” it was focused on the process and intent of photographing. He encouraged us to be reflective about our work and – where  possible – “compose and wait,” paying attention, at the same time, to what would be included in our images.

At the end of the workshop, he spent time with each of us one-on-one, and suggested that over time, his own guiding principle has become “less is more.” Mine, too, as those you who know my work through this blog can attest.

Although I didn’t end up with a photograph-of-a-lifetime, it was a magical week. Here are some examples of what we did, on our two field trips, as well as on a side trip Sarah and I took to Taos.

Green Screens for Small Spaces

Posted March 7, 2015 by Melissa
Categories: landscape, Landscape design solutions, photography

Tags: , , ,

Garden Shoots is on a hiatus while I let my left hand heal. . .  Until I can type again with both hands, I hope you will enjoy one of the blog’s 
most popular posts from the past. Hope to be back in action sometime in April!


One of the requests I hear most frequently as a designer who lives in a suburban area is for screening plants. Maybe your neighbor’s house is a McMansion, or perhaps you just don’t want to look out your porch or the dining room window and see the street or – whatever. If you’re lucky, you have a large enough yard and enough sun that you can accommodate a mixed grouping of trees – some conifers (no Leyland cypresses, please!), a holly or two, and some deciduous but ornamental trees mixed in.

In some cases, however, the space available is more limited. Here is where I make a pitch for a tree that may not be as well known as the American holly or even the Japanese cryptomeria. Ladies and gentlemen, I present Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata,’ or the fastigiate hornbeam.

Before looking at the slimmed-down version, the straight species deserves its own moment of glory. I first encountered Carpinus betulus on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate outside of Asheville, North Carolina many years ago on a glorious early autumn day. Although the fall color is only hinted at in this photo, it’s a glorious golden hue and a real plus.

Carpinus betulus, European hornbeam

A mature Carpinus betulus starting to show fall color on the grounds of the Biltmore Mansion in Asheville, North Carolina

At the time, I didn’t know what kind of tree it was, but I made it my business to find out later. Since then, while I haven’t had clients with the kind of space needed in their gardens to plant one of these “regular” Carpinus, I’ve discovered the merits of its smaller cousin.

Carpinus betulus 'Fastigiata'

Young Carpinus betulus

Fastigiate hornbeams (‘Fastigiata’ or a supposedly even narrower version, ‘Franz Fontaine,’) have a branching structure that is so tight it stops the eye, even when the tree isn’t in leaf. I’ve seen them planted as close together as 4′ on center, although I prefer to space them out six to seven feet apart (measured from trunk to trunk). This photo shows three ‘Fastigiata,’ planted along a six-foot fence in a back yard in the District of Columbia about seven years ago. Today they are fully grown together, about twenty feet high, and the garden owner loves them, especially since she can no longer see the car parked in her neighbor’s back yard.

I have seen them planted more formally (and seemingly “topped”), as a backdrop for a parking area at Muddy Rugs in Connecticut last August on a Garden Conservancy Tour.

Carpinus betulus, fastigiate

Fastigiate hornbeams, looking like lollipops, screening a parking area at a Connecticut house.

They can be kept relatively short and used as a hedge in smaller suburban spaces between houses, although I’m not sure how attractive I find them when treated that way if the height is seriously curtailed.

Carpinus betulus, hedge

These fastigiate hornbeams have been clipped into a kind of hedge between two new houses in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

(Of course, the Ellipse at Dumbarton Oaks is the most famous use of a clipped hornbeam hedge that I know of, but there the height at which the trees are kept is probably closer to 30-40 feet.)

Dumbarton Oaks, Ellipse, Patrick Dougherty

The hornbeam hedge at Dumbarton Oaks (shown here with Patrick Dougherty’s  ‘Easy Rider’ installation).

So you probably get the picture. The added bonus is that hornbeams can “take a little shade,” as designers like to say. That allows them to be used in less than ideally sunny sites, either mixed with other kinds of screening trees or on their own. And the fastigiate varieties can be utilized where space is very tight (a narrow space between two houses, for example); over time you can limb up the lower branches so that they can clear a low fence, or prune them to keep them tight.

But truthfully? I prefer situations where you can give them some breathing room, even when using them for screening. Here’s a perfect example, where local landscape architect Guy Williams has used matching pairs to great effect on one side of a somewhat formally designed back yard, both to screen the house next door but also to set off the space with grace.

Carpinus betulus

Four European hornbeam trees act as a screen but also as a focal point in this garden.

So the next time you’re contemplating how to screen a view – or just add some beauty to your garden – give some thought to a hornbeam. You won’t regret it.

Garden Shoots will take a brief holiday break over the Christmas weekend. See you in the New Year!


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