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  • Jennifer Jewell


Photos Courtesy of Frailty Myths, All rights reserved.

Having just moved across the seasonal threshold of the Vernal Equinox here in the Northern Hemisphere, this week we continue our focus on land and land and ecology-based garden projects – this time in conversation with horticulturist and plantswoman Laura Ekasetya. I spoke with Laura late last season checking in with her on her work as Director and Head Horticulturist at the famed Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

As of January of 2021, following the vagaries of 2020, the Millennium Park Foundation, under the leadership of Executive Director Scott Stewart and Chair of the Board (and gardener herself) Donna LaPietra, made the decision to restructure the horticultural staff of the Lurie. They made permanent the furloughing of two positions from earlier in 2020, terminated two additional positions in the fall of 2020 and terminated the Director position in January 2021.

Donna LaPietra, who graciously reached out to me for this episode, and who has been with the Lurie since it “was a back of napkin sketch of an idea” all those years ago shared with me that the restructuring was in no way a reflection on the extensive skill and talents of the horticultural team. She is "deeply appreciative and admiring of the contributions of all the horticulturists who have made their mark and contributed to the Garden since its inception, making it the masterpiece it is today.” She also shared the Foundation is committed to maintaining the Garden at the highest horticultural level and will rebuild the horticultural team and re-envisioned programs beginning with announcing the hiring of a new head horticulturist this week, Kathryn Deery - who, according to Donna, will have active input on the rebuilding of the horticultural team.

Laura and the previous horticultural team for their part, “wish any new staff the best and hope that the history of the garden is carried on by the many dedicated volunteers. This is a history largely of women, as women have mostly made up the staff and volunteer force over the years. This community is knitted to the past staff and even volunteers who moved away. A garden has roots that reach wide beyond its borders.”

With landscape architecture by Gustavson, Guthrie and Nichol (primary design at Lurie Garden being done as noted in the conversation by founding member Shannon Nichol), and planting plans by Piet Oudolf, the 3.2 acre Lurie Garden is the living green jewel in the crown of downtown Chicago’s famed Millennium Park.

In his latest book “America’s Gardens", the voice of British Gardening Guru Monty Don writes: “I have seen gardens by Piet Oudolf all over Europe but this stands supreme both in detail and setting. It is a masterpiece.” And as Laura articulates: "Experts in the landscape design and public garden worlds look to Lurie Garden as an ideal model of stewardship and it has helped them understand the deep historical and technical knowledge required to care for such a space."

In following up with Laura after the restructuring, she shared with me the following:

"We are five women, all highly respected in our fields and who collectively had over 25 years of experience at the garden. We passionately worked to elevate the garden and its mission. We had evolved our understanding that the garden’s responsibilities were to the greater community and we built community around our work. We saw the momentum building because of our efforts...

...COVID did not stop the need for the garden’s care and the community’s need for online communications and education was and remains in high demand. Lurie Garden programming and outreach efforts met the needs of Chicago by providing free nature-education classes, workshops, tours, lectures, and events for all ages. From our seats, these programs are the heart of community connection. Gardens are about people—when visitors come to the garden they want to learn more and be engaged with the space. Public gardens should be meeting those needs. Education about sustainable gardening, ecology, plants, design of public spaces, etc., are important to the garden’s community and our collective future and sharing these values is part of the garden’s mission.

It’s important that all people have access to these resources, so we worked with our collaborators to bring them into city communities that are under-resourced. Partnering with organization such as Blind Services Association and Ruckus Teens expanded how gardens can be inclusive to many. The connections our community, the industry, designers, outreach partners, garden friends, and our long established volunteer core have been damaged by the removal of this talented group of women. No one ever imagined a scenario where this would happen. This is not ideal for the garden’s care. Historical knowledge is key to this kind of garden yet there is nobody left there to pass on the knowledge to a new staff. Historically the garden staff took the time to absorb the knowledge their predecessors.

For example, special programs started years ago were continued and expanded upon, such as an annual honey harvest celebration, Urban Wild. Little Lurie Gardners, a toddler program that had its own unique songs written by Libby Reed a past staff member and musician. We got to know parents over the years as they brought each of their children when they became toddlers.

Not only did we respect and absorb the past knowledge of our predecessors, but we were always evolving them to meet the needs of our audience. For example, in the very early days of the novel Coronavirus, our then Program Manager, Karen Taira had the foresight to begin converting several of our programs like Botany Basics to an online format. The garden’s community grew to rely on these opportunities to learn and share in the joy of nature and gardening.

2020 brought many lessons to all of us and we were reminded of our responsibilities as an organization with an audience. We were impatient to move forward with our new initiatives in 2021 like decolonizing the plant finder we built, working with new friends and collaborators, and increasing our online programming that could reach many. We find ourselves disappointed that the new staff will now need to spend their time getting to know the landscape and community instead of being able to immediately leverage Lurie Garden’s power to make change.

My love for the garden that I helped to nurture for 10 years has not waned. I hope the new horticulture staff will love it just the same and have asked long time friend, advisor, and close colleague of Piet Oudolf, Roy Diblik if he would be willing to transfer some of the new planting ideas they had put in motion for 2021. "

Meanwhile as would be expected the former Lurie Garden team is continuing to do great things out in the world. It’s Women’s History Month so let’s celebrate these great women!

Karen Taira, former manager of Lurie Garden’s rather robust and dynamic education programs and current chair of the festival and the president of the Evanston Environmental Association board. The Wild and Scenic Film Festival is online this year. It’s always amazing!

Jo ana Kubiak had been the garden’s Communications and Membership Manager and was the force behind the garden’s writing and photography. Jo ana is currently writing and continuing her work with pressed plants and explorations in plant morphology. Her stunning art invites one to look more closely at nature. You can see some of this on her website

Caroline Imreibe Zayed recently had her photography featured in an academic Landscape Architecture text book in Italy. She is formerly the Volunteer Manager at Lurie Garden. Her website is

Yaritza Guillen is now communications and organizing associate with the National Wildlife Federation. (Formerly the amazing Horticulturist and Community Outreach manager at Lurie Garden) She also has this beautiful equity consulting website which if you care about social justice and inclusion at your nonprofit or business, it is worth checking out!!

Laura Fernald Ekasetya is thrilled to be working with the @pietoudolfcollection to bring Piet Oudolf’s garden design to North American home gardens, and participating in a community driven garden design project with Yaritza and community members of North Lawndale, which Roy Diblik is assisting with as well. You can learn about the historic Sears Sunken Garden and the project in this facebook group: sunkengardenproject/?ref=share Pastor Rashorna Fitzpatrick, the pastor of the Historic Stone Temple Church which has an amazing history as well, is a community leader on this garden project.

You can follow Laura's work and ongoing garden life journey story on Instagram: @zorrobird





Thinking out Loud this week...


When I reached out to Laura a few weeks ago to let her know that her episode would air the week after the vernal equinox, and she wrote letting me know about the restructuring at Lurie, she was sad, and I was sad.

Administrations the world over have had to make hard and difficult decisions the world over this past year + and I cannot speak to the reasoning, whys, and wherefores of those faced and met by the Millennium Park Foundation.

In her words, she expressed: "Because we had no seat or representation at the table where executive decisions were made about Lurie Garden, our sudden dismissal felt like the rug was suddenly pulled out from under us. "

And in fact, plantspeople from around the world wrote to express their concern about the loss of institutional knowledge of this beloved garden. The change is of course just one example of what we all know to be true - in times of Covid, yes, but always: that gardens are ephemeral as are gardeners.

They are profoundly important in our lives individually and communally, and they are remarkably adaptable and resilient and yet they are also living dynamic beings that are fragile and ephemeral too. Perhaps this is why I care so deeply about this work of gardens and cultivating place, the importance of bearing witness, of writing down, and holding on to some amount of this shared gardening experience and knowledge between one another across time and space – even as it is ever evolving.

Time of course being the element that was high on Laura’s mind when we spoke in late autumn.

One of the interesting things that strikes me in this conversation and it’s recurring motif of TIME being an important element in gardens and garden design - is embedded in Laura’s sharing of her first encounter with Piet Oudolf: when he reframed the everyday task of weeding as in fact full of import and decision-making and editing as much as anything.

"Editing" of course being a signifier that gardening is a creative and literate endeavor. Which reminds me of some thing you all have heard me say so many times before but which bears repeating: Our gardens are more than places of respite, or personal places, or even public places in a static moment. They are moral and philosophical, spiritual and prosaic, creative and documentary libraries and narratives testifying to us as people, as planet mates to all other species, and as kindred to one another.

They tell us who we are - and as Laura’s account of her time at Lurie Garden - a fabulous example of public and private interests coming to gather to the benefit of the entire body politic - demonstrate, they also hint at who we can be.

As gardeners, it is I believe part of our task to hold ourselves as gardeners accountable, and to help care for and hold accountable gardens in the public trust such as the Lurie in terms of who they are and who they can be in this garden world. I encourage any of you that can get into board rooms, sit as gardeners at decision making tables, advocate for diversity and experiential knowledge at those tables.

All of our gardens need all of us.

Cultivating Place is in some very real way an archive is the phenology of gardens and gardeners in a way. And that's important data to hold on to.




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