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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Exploring the ‘Outdoor Rooms’ of Jamie Durie

Jul 24, 2012 12:08PM ● By Megy Karydes

For someone who talks about and hobnobs with plants and flowers all day every day, you’d think the last place you’d find Jamie Durie during his free time is in the garden. For this horticulturist, international award-winning landscape designer, author of nine bestselling books on gardens and outdoor spaces, editorial director of The Outdoor Room magazine and successful television host and producer, his garden is exactly where he wants to be. “It’s where I get some peace and tranquility,” Durie says.

Having visited the Chicagoland area both in the winter and summer months, most recently sharing his passion for the outdoor living room with garden enthusiasts at Chalet Nursery, in Wilmette, the Australian-born designer appreciates the fact that Midwest weather poses unique challenges for growing certain types of plants, trees and flowers.

“You really need to be mindful of what you grow in your zone [USDA Zone 5],” says Durie. He doesn’t shy away from recommending tropical plants, although he recognizes that they won’t survive Chicago’s harsh winters. In those cases, he offers consolation by recommending we either enjoy them during the summer months or if possible, bring them indoors so they can help us live through the winter.

Before planting whatever you find at a local garden center, Durie recommends doing a functional analysis of your outdoor room, the term he prefers to call a backyard, because it’s really an extension of living space.

“A functional analysis helps you identify spaces within your outdoor room and allows you to visualize what you want each area to be or how to function,” he begins, as he draws six interlocking circles on paper. “Decide what you want to achieve in your outdoor room first, and then execute your vision. You’ll save time, money and aggravation if you plan ahead.”

Durie also highly suggests changing the soil structure to allow more nutrients into the soil prior to planting, so it gives your plants the best start possible. “Break up the soil, go about a foot deep and incorporate a lot of compost, organic matter or gypsum to help improve the soil structure,” he says. “This basically gives your plants the best insurance policy to have a stronger immune system, which will help them survive and last longer than if you hadn’t taken the time to strengthen the soil.”

When asked about trends, he immediately answers: edible plants for both structural and functional purposes. “Dwarf olive trees, parsley, rosemary and artichoke all make great borders and hedges,” which he recommends as alternatives to traditional hedges. “Apple trees are great for screens and will grow well in your climate.”

Although he loves incorporating plants and flowers in any outdoor room, Durie reminds us that there are several ways to add color, create texture and a serene environment without living things. He encourages homeowners to consider using recycled materials as well, such as wood, branches, stone, natural textiles and woven screens. Durie states, “There are plenty of organic items available to add dimension to your outdoor space.”

As do most horticulturists, Durie says, if you love plants, you love the planet, and he spends a considerable amount of time educating gardeners about ways to tread lightly on Mother Earth. “Use water-wise plants, add rainwater tanks, insulate your house and incorporate energy-efficient lightbulbs,” he instructs. “These are all easy ways in which you can take an active role in being more environmentally friendly. Planting trees and shrubs are a great way to not only spruce up your space, but also to offset carbon emissions from our cars.”

Also, encouraging children to get active in the garden will instill a lifelong love for the outdoors and our environment. He feels so strongly about getting kids outdoors that he wrote a book about it. “Outdoor Kids is meant to help adults get their kids outdoors and to explore,” says Durie.

“Create an interactive garden, plant seasonal gardens so they can see things growing over different periods, help them build vegetable plots and play garden games like badminton or hopscotch,” he recommends. “The idea is to create small activities that they can do and enjoy.”

It’s clear Durie loves talking about outdoor rooms. His hope is that more people will learn to appreciate them as well, and create their own oases of peace and tranquility.

Durie’s books are available in stores and online. For more information, visit Chalet Nursery is located at 3132 Lake Ave., Wilmette. Call 847-256-0561 or visit