Chicago: Big town on the prairie

Cloud Gate, popularly known as the Bean, in Millennium Park

I would return to Chicago for the gardens alone. From street-corner planting boxes filled with tumbling perennials and annuals to prairie-style Lurie Garden to the vast Botanic Garden, Chicago had my head swiveling to take it all in. My husband and I flew up for the marathon, which he ran on Sunday despite dreadfully hot conditions, and we stayed for two more days to sightsee. It was a first visit for both of us.

After watching the race from several locations on Sunday morning, I walked to Millennium Park to meet my husband at the finish line. Along the way, I came upon the magnificent stainless-steel sculpture Cloud Gate, pictured at top, and Lurie Garden, an open vista of ornamental grasses and prairie perennials sheltered by a tall, evergreen hedge, the skyscrapers beyond providing a second vertical backdrop.

In collaboration with Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd., Piet Oudolf designed the perennial planting, and his signature sweeps of grasses glowed incandescently in the late-morning sunlight, in glorious peak bloom.

Despite its proximity to the finish line, where the heat-plagued marathon straggled to an end, Lurie Garden was nearly deserted, to my delight. I wandered along its paths, stopping to take in the large views and the close-ups, like this aster.

Old and new buildings stand shoulder to shoulder beyond the garden. In the foreground, the rust, copper, and tan hues of autumn play across the grasses, perennials, and ornamental trees.

More grasses

A seasonal sign helpfully identified the dominant grasses, a mix of exotic and native.

Coneflowers, gone to seed, stand erect and distinct like skyscrapers in miniature.

Although the temperature didn’t reflect it, fall had arrived in Chicago.

Earlier that morning, I watched the runners fly past at approximately the 1-mile mark. The heat hadn’t yet taken its toll.

But by the 12-mile point, the fatigue and strain was evident. Hordes of runners pressed on anyway, bless ’em, and we spectators, sweaty just standing there and watching, cheered them on. It’s inspiring to watch a marathon. Don’t ask me to run one though.

After the race, limping back to the hotel, one happy runner shows off his hard-earned finisher’s medal.

Click for my first post about the gorgeous Chicago Botanic Garden, where we spent most of Tuesday. I’ll leave you with another photo of the Bean.

Update: Click here for my post about Lurie Garden in spring bloom.

22 Responses

  1. That bean is amazing.

    It really is—even more so in person. Thanks for visiting, GLM. —Pam

  2. Lori says:

    Wow, it’s such an arresting contrast between the prairie style garden and the gothic architecture behind it! Not what I expected from a garden in the middle of a city. :)

    Thanks for your comment, Lori. It is different, isn’t it? So many city gardens focus solely on flowers and eye-catching color, and Chicago had its share of those, but this was something different. I was fascinated by its movement and texture and its reference to the native landscape that once existed in the region. —Pam

  3. Colleen says:

    Thanks for the tour, Pam! I’ve heard that Lurie Garden was a beautiful spot, and now that I’ve seen your photos of it in all it’s autumnal glory, I definitely need to visit sometime!

    My kids would get a real kick out of The Bean. Who am I kidding?—I’d get a kick out of it :-)

    You sure would, Colleen. It was spectacular. —Pam

  4. Layanee says:

    Wow! I have long wanted to visit Chicago and will have to make more of an effort! The bean is quite a site and you have captured it beautifully in your photos. The grasses stand along don’t they? Thanks for the tour!

    You’re welcome, Layanee. I’m glad you enjoyed the tour. More gardens from Chicago coming soon. —Pam

  5. Layanee says:

    Oh, one more thing, who do you think is in charge of polishing the bean?

    Someone with very long arms? —Pam

  6. Congrats to your hubby for finishing! That’s quite an accomplishment in any marathon but this was an historic one with them closing the course half-way.

    Chicago is one of my favorite cities. I’ve only been there a couple of times on business trips and so had to snatch time for sightseeing (it was snowy and 11 degrees!) I love the architecture. Even the hinges on the doors are gorgeous. My dad’s from Illinois and my mom came up from New Mexico to go to college. They’d go to Chicago for special trips. I try imagine how that big city seemed to my mother, who grew up in tiny ranching town in northern New Mexico before TV or the internet made available the sights of the world.

    Looking at your photos I get a sense dramatic contrasts. Thanks for helping us armchair travellers see the gardens of the world.

    I wondered how it would be to see Chicago in winter. I’m not sure I’d handle their cold weather very well.

    You’re right, there were dramatic contrasts, especially in Lurie Garden, an open, prairie garden with the tall backdrop of the city behind it. On the other side of it lies Lake Michigan, looking for all the world like the ocean, so that provided yet another contrast. —Pam

  7. shirl says:

    Hi there, Pam

    What a treat to be able to see Lurie Garden! Thanks so much for sharing your visit with photos :-D

    I have a number of books by Piet Oudolf and I am so very jealous of your visit. If I ever visit Chicago a visit here will be top on my list – Thank-you :-D

    I’m glad you enjoyed the pics, Shirl, and you should definitely add Chicago to your list of places to see. I really enjoyed my visit, and it was a joy to walk through one of Oudolf’s gardens. —Pam

  8. Kathleen says:

    Lovely pictures, thank you for those. I grew up just outside of Chicago and have never been to that garden. I love the Bean, I want one. The temperatures down here in Texas are still up there, althought when I drove out of the Hill Country this am it was at 59. Hopefully it will cool off soon.

    Hi, Kathleen. I believe Lurie Garden is only a few years old, so you wouldn’t have been able to see it very many years ago. If you still have family up there, perhaps you’ll get the chance sometime. It’s well worth a visit. So is the Bean! —Pam

  9. Carol says:

    Love the bean! Never heard of the bean! I’ve been to Chicago a few times for work, but didn’t have much time to see the sights and it always seemed to be in the winter time. Thanks for giving us a look around.

    Carol at May Dreams Gardens

    You’re welcome, Carol. I’m not sure I’d have had the stamina for winter sightseeing either (I hear it gets COLD!). Maybe you’ll be able to go in spring or fall someday. —Pam

  10. Ellis Hollow says:

    Huge Oudolf fan here. (No surprise.) I was in Chicago for a meeting right after the garden was planted. It was pretty sparse at the time. But you could tell that it would be amazing when everything filled in. I wonder how hard it’s been to manage?

    Did you blog about it when you saw it? I’d be interested in seeing early photos. Regarding the maintenance, I wondered that myself, and not just about Lurie Garden. There are so many streetside gardens in Chicago that I imagined they must have a landscaping crew in the hundreds to keep it all looking good. —Pam

  11. irena says:

    Chicago is getting a rep as a garden city. Another blog raved about all the plantings throughout the city earlier this summer. All cities should follow Chicago’s lead. The bean is awesome.

    Do you remember which blog it was, Irena? I’d love to read their take on it. Thanks for dropping by. —Pam

  12. Robin says:

    Pam, I’m glad that your hubby was able to complete the marathon, especially since you guys traveled all that way for it. What an accomplishment for him! My husband travels to Chicago fairly often and just recently took our son with him. I’ve not really had much of a desire to go there but you have inspired me by your lovely pictures. Since we are so close it would be a shame not to go some day and see it for myself.

    I didn’t have much of an opinion about Chicago before I went, but in preparation for our trip we asked around for advice. A number of friends had visited and were unanimous in their praise, telling us what a great city Chicago is. After visiting, I have to agree. There’s a lot to do and see, and kids would enjoy all the attractions too. I hope you’ll be able to go with your husband next time. —Pam

  13. When the seal of the city of Chicago was first adopted in 1837, it included the motto “Urbs in Horto”, City in a Garden – I’m so glad you were able to see that part of Chicago, Pam – not just the hot pavements! The Bean was still partially covered when I was there a couple of years ago, but the Crown Fountain with the twin faces spouting water and the Lurie Garden were already spectacular. You saw the fullness of autumn – I went in early June, and saw fields of lavender.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Ah, lavender fields. Well, now I want to see that too. ;-) I suppose a trip to the Hill Country would satisfy that impulse though. I’d read about the city’s motto. They’ve certainly taken it to heart. —Pam

  14. Nicole says:

    Great photos- the bean one is cool, and good for your hubby being able to complete the marathon! The use of the grasses in the urban setting is interesting, and looks very lovely, and as you said, the two vertical aspects make for a pleasing aesthetic. I wish other urban planners would follow suit. On some Caribbean islands the choice of landscape plants in public places esp the urban areas leave a lot to be desired.

    It’s a shame that the urban areas in the Caribbean are not more “green,” with plants suitable to the region. I bet you could do a lot with tropical plants to enliven city streets. Austin has gone native with much of its city planting areas, to great effect. But we still don’t have as many urban garden spaces as Chicago seemed to have. —Pam

  15. chuck b. says:

    I would very much like to walk through a Piet Oudolf landscape one day. Thanks for bringing us along with you, and congratulations to Mr. Penick!

    So there isn’t one in San Francisco, Chuck? Sounds like a trip to Chicago is in order. —Pam

  16. Thank you for being so complementary about our city. Gardens have become an integral part of Chicago in recent years, from the Lurie Garden, to the median planters to the rooftop garden at City Hall. It’s too bad you could not have seen any of the rooftop gardens, which are actually green roofs. Chicago is leading the way with this eco-friendly technology, but most tourists aren’t aware of it because it can’t be seen from ground level. In answer to the question about winter in Chicago, I’ll just say that it’s perfectly bearable if you can go to Florida or Arizona for a week in January or February. Otherwise, it’s not that great. Unreliable snow cover and major temperature swings put a damper on most winter sports. It can get brutally cold, but never for more than about a week at a time. You came at the best time of year, & I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    I forgot to mention the green roofs, but we did actually see a few from the bird’s-eye view atop the Sears Tower. In fact, it looked to us as if they were in the process of installing one on one of the lower roofs of the Sears Tower itself. Pretty cool! For more info on Chicago’s green roofs, click here.

    I’d love to visit Chicago again, but after reading your description of the winters, I think I’ll stay away at that time of year. —Pam

  17. Benjamin says:

    How did I miss this garden in two visits? GORGEOUS. Thanks.

    That’s too bad. But did you make it to the Botanic Garden? I loved it too. Thanks for commenting, Benjamin. —Pam

  18. Gloria says:

    This is a good time of year to see the grass in full dominance at the LURIE GARDEN. But then I think anytime is good. I have been there in winter when the snow is softly falling and not another person is in sight. I have listened to the bird song at early morning and seen the park in the glow of the lighting at night. From the sight of first bulbs in early spring right through winter it is wonderful. Sometimes as I enter through the evergeen hedge the the beauty is so intense that I must step back, take a moment, then re-enter to experience again. The designers of this park did a great job and Piet Oudolf creates living art with plants.
    Most of the original plants have been very hardy with the only problems being rabbits. Other pests have been almost nil.Editing weeds has not been near the problem I thought it would be,as the plants have filled in this becomes less and less an issue. Some of the trees have experienced distress. It is a rooftop garden over the public parking spaces. The soil is deepest at about 4 feet. The south end is grown as meadow and self seeding is encouraged.
    I am one of a small group of volunteers that help out.
    It is always interesting to see the pictures visitors take.

    I am thrilled to hear from you, Gloria. How wonderful that you’ve been a part of this beautiful garden’s maintenance. I love your poetic description of the garden in other seasons. And thanks to you I learned that Lurie Garden is a rooftop garden, which I did not realize. Do any signs at the garden mention it?

    Another commenter on this post mentioned rooftop gardens in talking about Lurie, but I didn’t make the connection. Now I’m even more impressed with this garden. Thanks for commenting! —Pam

  19. […] After unseasonable heat for the Chicago Marathon weekend, our last day in Chicago, October 9th, dawned clear and cooler, with highs in the 70s. Ahhh, much better! Taking advantage of the beautiful day, we took a 45-minute train ride north of town to the Chicago Botanic Garden. We had to hoof it a mile or so from the train stop along a suburban road to the entrance, but once we stepped through the gates, the gorgeousness on display made the journey worthwhile. […]

  20. Mary says:

    Hi Pam. So glad to find your site. I will send it to my (former Chicagoland) friend now living in Austin. Many years ago I visited and saw the wildflowers along the roads (Bluebells and Indian Blanket?). I would love to see the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower garden. She was truly ahead of her time. Thanks to our mayor we are cutting edge, too, regarding gardens, environmentalism, and international influence.

    I was just at Lurie today after a dowtown appt. I have seen it all four years but never in full regalia in autumn. Your pictures are fabulous and many are views I just saw. It is however even more intensely colored now – and the feathery, yellow amsonia in with the grasses is striking. I took a side entrance I had not before and it was like a framed picture. I almost gasped. I understand the person who said you have to leave and re-enter to take it in. And yes, I love the backdrop of the older architecture along Michigan Avenue there. The nearby pavillion by Geary also frames it in it’s openings through the framework overhead. BTW – Millenium Park was built over a former railroad yard. It did not make it in time for the Millenium, but was worth the wait. It has added a major tourist and resident destination to our city.

    I am a huge fan of Roy Diblik (Northwind Perennial Farm owner – Wis.) and provider of many of the plants for Lurie. And now I am also a fan of Piet. His grasses and design books are amazing. I went to the opening a year later and met him and was pleased he was so humble. And Roy is very down to earth. A good pairing. Roy has a philosophy of gardens as communities and I think that is expressed in the volunteer’s comments about the health and lack of pests here. He chooses plants that work together and help each other out – just like with people.

    I am very proud of our city and Mayor Daley gets much credit for that. He is responsible for so many gardens – I keep tripping over new ones. The museum campus (itself fairly new) now has a lovely walk leading to it along the lake, lined with crabtrees. It is exquisite when the classical museums are lit at night. He has planted 250,000 trees (as of a few years ago) and of course brought us ideas from other countries such as Cows on Parade. And he promotes roof gardens – the showcase being City Hall. I was lucky enough to see it even though it is not open to the public. Unlike many made up of sedum and low grasses, his is a true garden with shrubs and trees. An Audubon friend of mine monitors the birds on the City Hall roof and they have beekeeping there! They test the temps on that side and the County Building side. The differences are dramatic.

    One other inside bit – the sculptor hates that his Cloudgate is called The Bean. I think he should be happy it has become a fixture here, like the Picasso.

    Glad you survived the marathon. As you can see our weather is screwy of late, so winters are a gamble. These past several years it has not been as snowy as I like (for beauty and garden cover) but at any time we can get a traffic crippling blizzard. We have had long cool springs and hot dry summers. It rained so much this summer I forget to water my garden when it finally stopped. These past two weeks have gone from blustery November to perfect fall days. Come in the spring, summer, or fall to avoid most bad weather and enjoy gardens and outoor activities. There are tons of fests in the summer, much of it free.

    Mary, I am thrilled to have another Chicago gardener’s perspective on her fair city. Thanks so much for your detailed comment. I wish I’d known all this before I went so I could have made even more of an effort to see the city gardens. However, our visit was short, and I do feel lucky to have seen as much as I did.

    I didn’t learn that the Lurie is a rooftop garden until I got home. We noticed a couple of rooftop gardens from the top of the Sears Tower, which impressed us. They’re just starting to do rooftop gardening here in Austin. And that’s an interesting tidbit about the sculptor of “Cloud Gate” not liking the popular moniker “The Bean.” You can never control nicknames, unfortunately, as they usually take on a life of their own. I think it’s an apt one, though not as lofty as “Cloud Gate,” and everyone seems to be crazy about his work. I am too.

    Thanks for all the great information about Chicago. I hope to go back one day and see even more of it. Thanks for writing, Mary. —Pam

  21. Valerie says:

    Just ran across your post when I googled prairie gardens, and, being an amateur photographer and Chicagoland resident, I was very impressed by your photos. The way you used the grass gardens as foregrounds for the buildings on a beautiful clear day was a surprise to me, and very inspiring. And the view of the Bean that makes it look as if it’s disappearing on one edge is very intriguing. Thank you for a beautiful homage to the gardens in Chicago.

    You are welcome, Valerie, and I thank you for your kind comments about my photos. I really enjoyed your city, its gardens, and the public art and just wish I’d had more time to see it all. —Pam

  22. Wow! It looks like October would be a great time to visit the Lurie. The flowers look like they were definitely fading, but the contrasts between the browns and greens is terrific. You can really see the effect of using plants that go through interesting growth cycles, leaving interesting dried leaves, seed heads or other great structure. It’s nice to see Oudolf respect aging plants in a way that recalls the attitude towards age reflected in the Japanese garden at the Chicago Botanical Garden that you wrote about. This garden doesn’t look at all like a Japanese garden, of course, but it has the spirit of one.