A blog for visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Updated: 5 min 33 sec ago
Tue, 02/12/2013 - 3:07pm
For gardeners, February is an exciting month: it’s seed-starting time! That’s why we’ve made Sunday, February 24, a day dedicated entirely to seeds.
The morning kicks off with classes led by our friends from Seed Savers Exchange (they’re coming in from Decorah, Iowa). Shannon Carmody takes you step by step through a “Seed-Saving Primer” from 9-10 a.m., then digs a little deeper for “Planning Your Garden for Seed Saving” from 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
After you take a lunch break in the Garden Cafe, settle in at the Alsdorf Auditorium at 2 p.m. for a lovely hour of “Seed Letters,” a free lecture by SSE’s seed historian Sarah Straate. Sarah charmed the audience with a version of this presentation at the Seed Savers Exchange Annual Conference last year (the photographs she shows are terrific!).
At 3 p.m., it’s time for Seed Swap! Bring seeds you harvested from your own garden, or seed packets that you never got around to finishing. (I’m bringing French marigolds that I harvested from my community garden plot last year, love-in-a-mist seedheads from my front yard garden, and a few packets of never-did-grow-those veggie seeds). Make sure your seed is clearly labeled and include as much info as you can to help out your fellow swappers.
Also on hand: staff and volunteer experts (including master gardeners from our Plant Information Service desk) who can answer all your questions about seed starting, germination, seed saving, and everyone’s favorite topic: growing tomatoes.
This is our second annual Seed Swap—the first swap was so much fun that we can’t wait to see some of the same faces there again—hopefully bringing seeds harvested from last year’s seed-swapped crops!
Saving seeds can be fun and easy—to get you started, here are five vegetables with easy-to-save seeds to harvest for next year’s swap:
- Peas. Just train them up a trellis, fence, or tuteur, let them grow, then let dry on the vine—instant pea seeds for next year’s planting. Every gardener (even kids!) can do this, and it’s fun to pop the dried peas out of their shells mid-summer.
- Beans. Incredibly beautiful seeds dry right on the bush, vine, or pole. Harvest when pods are dry but before they crack open and scatter their contents. Do a little reading beforehand, as there are many different types and varieties of beans.
- Lettuce. All lettuce likes it cool outside. Once summer’s heat kicks in, lettuce bolts, then sets hundreds and hundreds of seeds per plant. Harvesting is easy, though: slip a bag over the seedhead and tie it in place. Once seed has set and dried, just clip the stalk, invert the bag, and shake seed loose. Instant storage, too!
- Tomatoes. As everyone who’s ever bitten into a fresh tomato knows, there’s goo around the seeds in the center. How best to separate out the seeds? Talk to our tomato experts at the Seed Swap, and check out this blog post.
- Parsley. Like lettuce, parsley eventually bolts and sets seeds that are easy to collect in a bag. Unlike lettuce, the process takes two years, which can seem…challenging. It’s actually quite simple: Let your parsley plant grow (try not to harvest TOO much from it) straight through ‘til fall. The leaves will yellow and wilt. As winter arrives, mulch the plant lightly with straw or leaves. The following spring, the plant will re-energize, sending up flower shoots that set many tiny, poppy seed-sized seeds. Harvest as above for lettuce.
Fri, 02/08/2013 - 5:21pm
After the recent snowfall, I took my camera out for a walk to find evidence of wildlife around the Learning Campus. The first animal tracks I found were those of at least one coyote running across the snow.
The individual track was not a clear footprint, but it was the right general shape and size to be a coyote.
The tracks formed a few paths across the campus.
The tracks did not follow the paths that people walk, but tended to run closer to trees. This makes sense for an animal that is trying to stay hidden from other animals. I also found a spot where the coyote seemed to run up, do a little turnaround, and take off in another direction.
This isn’t the clearest picture, but you can still see that the coyote came from the wooded area toward the front of the picture, then it turned around and sank its front paws in the snow where you see two clear side-by-side holes in the snow. It turned and ran to the right of the picture frame. You can imagine a spirted puppy running excitedly as it plays in the new snow, and leaving tracks like these.
I was hoping to find evidence of animals interacting. The closest thing I found was this set of rabbit tracks.
Here the rabbit hopped to the corner of the building, stopped, and then turned around and went back the way it came. Did it possilby see or smell the coyotes that were running around and decide to go back to hiding?
On my walk I found squirrel, bird, and mouse tracks. And then I found these strange marks in the snow.
What could these strange lines be? “It’s elementary, Mr. Watson!” These “fingerprints” were left by elementary school students as they dragged their hands along the snow at the Learning Center this morning.
If you want to find animal tracks in the snow and figure out what stories they tell, here are some tips:
- Go out and look when the snow is fresh.
- Think about which animals you have actually seen around, and where you have seen them. Look there.
- Search around trees and shrubs, especially if there are places a small animal might crawl into for shelter.
- Be alert for sources of food; the snackers and nappers may be out looking for a meal, and they will leave their marks.
Good luck, and remember not to eat yellow snow.
Fri, 02/08/2013 - 10:31am
If you took advantage of the warm weather last Tuesday and decided to visit the Chicago Botanic Garden, you may have noticed something unusual, especially if you wandered over to the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden.
The sight of horticulturists walking on water was not a hallucination.
In spite of the 60-degree weather, the lake was still frozen and we took advantage of the situation to finish some winter pruning.
Though this willow pruning appears very intense, even harsh, it provides airflow into the tree and gives young branches more room to grow. Some of the large, more upright branches are left to provide height. From an aesthetic point of view, this pruning gives the tree significantly more texture, creating clumps that flow into thin weeping branches. As willows can become quite large, pruning also prevents the tree from becoming disproportionately so.
For the past four years, Benjamin Carroll, the senior horticulturist who maintains the Japanese Garden, has been working with arborists from the area to shape up his trees to give them a more traditional appearance. This style first emerged in Japan.
Before this style of pruning was implemented, the willows were pruned to appear mounded. For the first three years of this pruning style, many large branches were cut to drastically change the appearance of the trees. This past year we were able to focus on smaller branches.
January is the best time for us to do this because the trees are dormant and the sheet of ice on the lake is fairly thick. Tree dormancy is very important when pruning because nutrient flow is minimal and the wounds made by winter pruning will heal quickly in the spring.
The thickness of the ice is also helpful to us because it simplifies cleanup.
Cleanliness is very important to us because it not only keeps the Garden looking its best but it also reduces debris that could cause disease problems in the future.
Though we look fairly confident walking on the ice, it is important to remember that ice is always dangerous. We always have seasoned professionals and the proper safety equipment nearby.
Wed, 02/06/2013 - 1:01pm
In the deep green landscape of Vancouver, British Columbia, Norm Wickett stood spellbound. As an undergraduate biology major at the University of British Columbia, he was enchanted by the seemingly endless ribbons of moss wrapped around the region’s natural areas.
“My heart is in mosses,” he shared during our recent conversation in his office at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “My first love in biology is mosses.”
Many of us non-scientists might consider this common plant—often seen lurking in shadowed, damp areas, to be a turnoff. But to Wickett, Ph.D., now a conservation scientist at the Garden, it presents an irresistible puzzle. How did this plant, likely one of the first to have lived on land, evolve from relatively few species during the Jurassic period to the 15,000 species living today? How did it adapt to all of the environmental changes that occurred?
“I’m attracted to more primitive plants,” said Wickett. He enjoys observing early species in the Garden’s Dwarf Conifer Garden.
As the recipient of a new grant from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Wickett is working to put the pieces together. “This grant is going to allow me to get back into mosses and it’s a great opportunity,” he said.
Part of the National Science Foundation initiative called “Assembling the Tree of Life,” Wickett’s project is one of many branches of study the organization is funding to explore how all life is related.
His work, he believes, will answer important questions about the evolution of all plants from mosses to the conifers and flowering foliage that ensued. Also, it will allow him to identify the ways in which past environmental events, such as climate change, influenced the evolution of mosses, other plants, and animals. This type of knowledge will help researchers predict how plants could respond to future environmental changes.
Wickett’s research process begins in growth chambers in the Garden’s Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. There, he nurtures plants for study. He then takes samples of them to capture the many strands of RNA, or genes, in each species. An expert in plant genetics, he uses new computerized technology to compare the genes of many species of moss and look for patterns.
Why are genetic patterns important? They draw a mazelike course scientists can follow to answer vital questions. Wickett will trace them from species to species in order to see which mosses share RNA and are therefore related. He will also use this information to determine when new species, which share some genes with earlier moss species but also carry some slightly different genes, emerged and what the environmental conditions were at the time that allowed them to thrive.
Timing is everything. He explained that the arrival of new genes must happen at the same time as a complimentary environmental condition for a new species to endure. For example, a plant which developed the ability to hold more water would have been successful during a drought, while it may not have survived during a flood.
The genetic change can only last, according to Wickett, if it occurs at a time when it gives the plant a benefit in its environment. “It’s a combination of genetic changes in the moss and changes in the climate and finding the change that is most successful,” said Wickett. “For all these things the first step is that there has to be a change in the genes.” Then, he said, “we can go back in time using computer modeling to see what caused the changes.” These are the pieces Wickett plans to assemble into a bigger picture of evolution during the next three years of his research project.
It is too early to predict where his discoveries may take him, but for now, at least, it is clear that his heart is in the right place.
Look for liverworts, a relative of moss, growing in the Greenhouses on your next visit!
Tue, 02/05/2013 - 11:39am
Since it’s winter, and we’re all stuck looking at leafless plants outside, why not try growing some plants indoors? Better still, why not experiment with your plants to understand them better?
In this activity, you will confuse a bean sprout and train it to grow in any direction you want. Sound like fun?
You will need:
- a gallon-size zip-top bag
- paper towels, preferably 2-ply (if they are single-ply, double them)
- a pinto, lima, or kidney bean (try whatever you have) soaked in water overnight
- a stapler
Lay the paper towel flat inside the plastic bag. If it doesn’t fit exactly, fold the edge of the paper towel.
Put a staple in the middle of the bag, and place the bean just over the staple. Add two staples that are separated by more than the length of the bean.
The staples hold the bean in place, but should give enough room for the bean to grow between the staples. Watch to see how the bean grows and needs the space. Add just enough water to the bag to wet the paper towel. Take care not to have a pool of excess water in the bag.
Now tape the bag to a wall, or your refrigerator, or a window if it’s not cold. That’s right, put it right on a vertical surface. Don’t close the bag, because it’s good to allow water and air to move in and out. The picture shows you what it should look like. (Ignore the four staples, only put three on yours. I discovered that four staples trap the seed and ruin the activity.)
As soon as your plant has grown a root and a stem that is 1-2 inches long, turn the bag one quarter turn and put it back. You may have to wait a week – less if your bean is warm, more if your bean is in a cooler location, like my office.
This is what it may look like at this stage after I turned it.
Now wait. When the sprout has grown another inch or so, turn the bag again in the same direction. Since the opening of your bag will now be on the bottom, you should seal it. Then wait.
Yes, I know, you have to wait a while to get results. The timing will depend on the level of light and the temperature. That’s the way it goes with growing plants. Horticulturists – the people who grow plants – are some of the most patient people you will ever meet!
Here are the results of one bag I started in early January, about three weeks ago. Since I turned the bag clockwise, the roots and stem appear to be going around counter-clockwise.
From here on it’s up to you. Let the plant grow and turn the bag when you want to change the direction of growth, let it go for as long as you like. Can you make it grow in a full circle around the middle of the bag?What is Going On Here?
Plants are affected by the gravitational pull of the earth. When you turn the bag, you change the direction of the force and the plant responds by changing direction of growth. This phenomenon is called geotropism. A tropism describes an organism’s response to a stimulus. In this case, the “geo” refers to the Earth, and it is the scientific way of saying that the earth makes leaves grow up and roots grow down. This phenomenon may also be called gravitropism.
The Garden’s horticulturists play with gravitropism. Look at this picture of the Visitor Center bridge in fall. Notice the gorgeous pink mums hanging from the trellis.
Left alone, the stems of these plants would naturally grow up like the mums planted on the sides of the bridge. Our horticulturists train the stems to grow down, cascading over the sides of their container, by tying small weights on the stems while the plants are growing in the greenhouses. They actually use metal nuts from a hardware store! The weights are removed before the planters go on display, and they look fabulous, thanks to the horticulturists’ success in playing with the plant’s response to gravity.
Thu, 01/31/2013 - 10:31am
“Rise and shine, campers, and don’t forget your booties, ‘cuz it’s coooold out there today!”
If you love Groundhog Day the movie, or just the idea that there’s a Groundhog Day at all, then visit the Garden on Saturday as our own groundhog mascot, Botanical Bill, goes on an adventure. Download a PDF of the scavenger hunt here.
Bring your smartphone and hunt around the Regenstein Center for the answers to the questions below — get five of the ten correct and you’ve earned a cup of hot cocoa at the Garden Café, plus a d.i.y. photo op with Botanical Bill at the Visitor Center Information Desk where he’s hanging out all week!1. An exhibit called Woodcut would sound good to a woodchuck — which, along with “whistle pig,” is another common name for a groundhog. Botanical Bill brought his name tag along on his adventure, which starts at the Woodcut exhibit. What material makes up the exhibit’s title?
2.Groundhogs have good eyesight — their eyes are placed high up on their heads, the better to peek out of their burrows while staying mostly hidden. Nonetheless, Botanical Bill used the magnifying glass to get a good look at this tree’s cross section in Woodcut. What kind of tree was it?
3. Groundhogs like to stay close to home—they rarely travel more than ½ mile from their burrow in their entire lives. Botanical Bill sure liked the look of this garden, though, from the In Search of Paradise exhibit in Krehbiel Gallery. Where would he have to travel to visit the real thing?
4. Groundhogs are rarely seen at the Garden. Much like British royalty and nobility. What collection of books is Botanical Bill admiring in the Lenhardt Library? (Hint: the collection was put together for fans of a popular television show).
5. Groundhogs eat plants — lots of plants — including up to 1½ pounds per day in the summer. Botanical Bill isn’t so sure about these plants in the case in the Arid Greenhouse — they look like rocks! What kind of plants are they?
6. Groundhogs dig burrows that are 2 to 5 feet deep and extend up to 30 feet long! Foxes, snakes, raccoons, and rabbits often reuse old groundhog burrows. Botanical Bill met this fellow burrow maker in the Arid Greenhouse. What kind of topiary animal is it?
7.Groundhogs graze on grasses and clovers — but what they really love are vegetables and fruit growing in gardens! Botanical Bill gazes longingly at the just-out-of-reach bananas ripening in the Tropical Greenhouse. Walk down to the base of the banana plant — what name is on its plant label?
8. Groundhogs are “edge” creatures that like to live in brushy areas on the edges of forests, in farm fields, or even in landscaped neighborhoods. Botanical Bill is admiring the “meat-eating” plants like Venus fly-traps and sundews in the Temperate Greenhouse. What plant is hanging in the basket above him?
9. Groundhogs like to sun themselves on rocks, along branches, or on stone walls. Botanical Bill found a sweet spot to catch some sun at The Sower. What year was it installed here? (Hint: Look down for the memorial plaque.)
10. Groundhogs aren’t big water drinkers — they get their water from rain and dew on the plants and fruit they eat, instead. While Botanical Bill’s relaxing with a mug of water in the Garden Café, answer this question: What was the name of Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day?
Now scamper over to the Visitor Center Information Desk with your answers. It’s Groundhog Day! Don’t forget to take your picture with Botanical Bill and post it on our Facebook Page!
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