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Plant Conservation Is Happening Right Over Your Head

Garden Blog - Thu, 05/29/2014 - 11:31am

What if the next plant conservation project wasn’t down the street, or in the neighboring county, or far away in the wilderness? What if it was right above your head, on your roof? In our increasingly urban world, making use of rooftop space might help conserve some of our precious biodiversity in and around cities.

 Ksiazek bending to examine blooming sedums on Chicago's City Hall green roof.

The green roof on Chicago’s City Hall supports an amazing diversity of hundreds of plant species.

Unfortunately, native prairie plants have lost most of their natural habitat. In fact, less than one-tenth of one percent of prairies remains in Illinois—pretty sad for a state whose motto is the “Prairie State.” As a Chicago native, I found this very alarming. I thought, “Is it possible to use spaces other than our local nature preserves to help prevent the extinction of some of these beautiful prairie plants?” With new legislation at the turn of the century that encouraged the construction of many green roofs in Chicago, it seemed like the perfect place to test a growing hypothesis I had: maybe some of the native prairie plants that were losing habitat elsewhere could thrive on green roofs.

This idea brought me to the graduate program in Plant Biology and Conservation, a joint degree program through Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Here, I am investigating the possibility that the engineered habitats of green roofs can be used to conserve native prairie plants and the pollinators that they support.

 Ksiazek examines plants in a prairie, taking data.

Which plant are you? In 2012, I surveyed natural prairies to determine which species live together.

Since I began the program as a master’s degree student in 2009, I’ve learned a lot about how native plants and pollinators can be supported on green roofs. For my master’s thesis, I wanted to see if native wildflowers were visited by pollinators and if they were receiving enough high-quality pollen to makes seeds and reproduce. Good news! The nine native wildflower species I tested produced just as many seeds on roofs as they normally do on the ground, and these seeds are able to germinate, or grow into new plants.

Once I knew that pollinator-dependent plants should be able to reproduce on green roofs, I set out to learn how to intentionally design green roofs to mimic prairies for my doctoral research. I started by visiting about 20 short-grass prairies in the Chicago region to see which species lived together in habitats that are similar to green roofs. These short-grass prairies all had very shallow soil that drained quickly and next to no shade; the same conditions you’d find on a green roof. 

 Ksiazek poses for a photo among prairie grasses.

Plant species from this dry sand prairie just south of Chicago might also be able to survive on green roofs in the city.

 Plant seedling.

A tiny bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) seedling grows on the green roof at the Plant Science Center at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

 Hand holding a seedling; paperwork is in the background, along with a seedling tray.

One of my experiments involves planting tiny native seedlings into special experimental green roof trays. They’re now on top of the Plant Science Center. Go take a look!

I’m now setting up experiments that test the ability of the short-grass prairie species to live together on green roofs. Some of these experiments involved using seeds as a cheap and fast way of getting native plants on the roof. Other experiments involved using small plant seedlings that may have a better chance of survival, although, as any gardener could tell you, are more expensive and labor intensive than planting seeds. I will continue to collect data on the survival and health of all these native plants at several locations, including the green roof on the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center at the Garden.

Ideally, I would continue to collect data on these experimental prairies to see how they develop over the next 50 years and learn how the plants were able to support native insects, such as pollinating bees and butterflies. But I didn’t want my Ph.D. to last 50 years so instead, I decided to collect the same type of data on green roofs that have already been around for a few decades. Because the technology is still relatively new in America, I had to go to Germany to collect this data, where the history of green roofs is much older. Last year, through a Fulbright and Germanistic Society of America Fellowship, I collected insects and data about the plant communities on several green roofs in and around Berlin and learned that green roofs can support very diverse plant and insect communities over time. We scientists are just starting to learn more about how green roofs are different from other urban gardens and parks, but it’s looking like they might be able to contribute to urban biodiversity conservation and support.

 Ksiazek collects insects from traps on a green roof in Berlin.

I collected almost 10,000 insects on green roofs in and around Berlin, Germany in 2013.

 Closeup of a pinned bee collected from a green roof in Berlin.

I found more than 50 different species of bees on the green roofs in Germany.

Now that I’m back in Chicago and have been awarded research grants from several institutions, I’m setting up a new experiment to learn about how pollinators move pollen from one green roof to another. I’ll be using a couple different prairie plants to measure “gene flow,” which basically describes how pollen moves between maternal and paternal plants. If I find that pollinators bring pollen from one roof to anther, this means that green roofs might be connected to the large urban habitat, rather than merely being isolated “islands in the sky,” as some people have suggested. If this is true, then green roofs could also help other plants in their surroundings—more pollinating green roof bees could mean more fruit yield for your nearby garden.  

 Aerial view of Chicago at Lake Michigan, with green rectangles superimposed over building which house green roofs.

The green boxes represent green roofs near Lake Michigan. How will pollinators like bees, butterflies, and moths move pollen between plants on these different roofs? This summer, I will be carrying out an experiment to find out.

There are still many questions to be answered in this new field of plant science research. I’m very excited to be learning so much through the graduate program at the Garden and to be collaborating with innovative researchers both in Chicago and abroad. If you’re interested in keeping up with my monthly progress, please visit my research blog at the Phipps Conservatory Botany in Action Fellows’ page

 A wasp drinks water from a flower after rain.

A friendly little wasp enjoys the native green roof plants on a rainy day in Paris.

And if you haven’t already done so, I hope you’ll get a chance to visit the green roof at the Plant Science Center and see how beautiful plant conservation happening right over your head can be! 

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Happy Birthday, Rachel Carson

Garden Blog - Tue, 05/27/2014 - 4:02pm

Thank you, Rachel Carson.

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For me, personally, Silent Spring had a profound impact. It was one of the books we read at home at my mother’s insistence and then discussed around the dinner table. . . . Rachel Carson was one of the reasons why I became so conscious of the environment and so involved with environmental issues. Her example inspired me to write Earth in the Balance. . . . Her picture hangs on my office wall among those of political leaders. . . . Carson has had as much or more effect on me than any of them, and perhaps than all of them together.

—Vice President Al Gore, “Introduction,” Silent Spring, (1994 edition), xiii

silentMy mom was a grade school teacher. During a brief period where she stayed at home with the children, she became an environmentalist. It all began with the book Silent Spring. My mother read about chemicals used in farming post-World War II and the decline of birds, and that was it; she had to take action. She remembers going to her parents’ house, and my grandfather was going around the yard, spraying DDT without protection, as his grandchildren played. He had a big bottle of DDT in the garage that had gone unnoticed until then. My mother could not believe what was happening and stopped him immediately. She had her dad throw out all pesticides. My grandfather didn’t realize there was any danger, as these chemicals promised a beautiful, American-dream green lawn. I remember at family gatherings, our family kept saying to my mother, “Elaine, what are you so worried about?”

 Mom holds her smiling baby daughter in the air.

My hero, my mother

We became a family that ate whole wheat bread, and got the 1970s equivalent of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes. I would say that this book changed my childhood.

Some highlights:

  • My mom baked organic whole wheat bread every week; it was not commercially available yet. (Imagine going to middle school with a sandwich of PB&J on badly cut homemade whole wheat bread, surrounded by kids eating bologna on Wonder Bread white. My brother and I felt so out of place at the time. (And now it would be so accepted, wonderful, and charming.)
  • We did not have a microwave.
  • No pop. No junk food. No candy.
  • Our suburban lawn had dandelions. Mom had a dandelion knife.
  • We used nonphosphate detergent.
  • We went to weird hippie health food restaurants in Chicago. For her birthday, my mom knew she would get her requested restaurant so she would pick the only organic one in town.
  • There were no TV dinners (and we could watch one hour of television a day).
  • We all got transcendental meditation mantras.

But I digress…

She was the co-founder of S.A.V.E.: Society Against Violence to the Environment. “When Zion’s nuclear power plant was being built, we felt that it was so close to a large city…I put a full-page ad in Highland Park News, and I wrote an article about nuclear waste and terrorists.”

 Dandelion knife.

A classic tool I still use today: the dandelion knife

When my mom wasn’t lying down in front of bulldozers, or arguing with the Park District of Highland Park or Highland Park High School about spraying grass that children played on, she was going door-to-door, stopping the spraying of mosquitoes in our town.

After we moved to San Diego, I remember lugging many heavy grocery bags filled with organic oranges and organic flour from San Diego State University’s co-op parking lot, ½ mile each way every week (several trips each time).

Later, when she got cancer,  she endured the remark, “Oh, you with your organic food, you got cancer?”

Now you can find organic food everywhere. Who doesn’t meditate?

Teach your children well…

New times and different challenges…now we are concerned with global warming.

As Rachel Carson said:

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one less traveled by—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

 Baby robins chirping; a sign of spring's arrival.

Baby robins chirping; a sign of spring’s arrival

Thanks, Mom. You taught me about Mother Earth. I still don’t have a microwave. I eat organic food, grow some my own, and am lucky to work at a garden that cares about the environment. :)

Join us for World Environment Day, Saturday, June 7, and learn what you can do to help the environment.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Strawberries

Garden Blog - Mon, 05/26/2014 - 3:00pm

When I was 8 years old, I traveled with my family to Przysietnica, Poland, to spend the summer with relatives. My grandparents’ farm was the home base for my adventures with cousins and siblings. We spent hours in the breezy northern hills, picking the sweetest strawberries I ever had. They grew wild and tasted like candy. We often brought some back to share with the family, but there is nothing quite like a strawberry fresh off the plant.

 Blooming strawberry plant in the garden.

First described by the ancient Romans, strawberries were first cultivated in gardens in the 1300s.

The Cultivated Strawberry

The garden strawberry is the strawberry we most often think of when we think of strawberries. This is the strawberry from the clear plastic boxes you find at the grocery store. This strawberry is Fragaria × ananassa, which has only been around for about 260 years, and has undergone a lot of breeding in that time.

Fragaria × ananassa is actually a cross of the Chilean and Virginia (or wild) strawberry, which arrived in Europe in 1712 and 1624, respectively. The hybrid plant was discovered in the 1750s and recorded in 1759 by Philip Miller, a famous English horticulturist. He referred to it as the “pine strawberry” for its taste, which was similar to pineapple.

If you’re taken aback by this assessment of flavor, you’re not alone—the modern garden strawberry has undergone a great deal of breeding, which improved firmness but did little for its taste. Some of the modern breeding programs are working to fix this problem.

Fragaria × ananassa is not the only cultivated strawberry on the market. There are more than 20 species of strawberries worldwide, with only a small portion of those being grown in gardens for eating. Some of the popular species include the musk strawberry (F. moschata), the alpine strawberry (F. vesca), the Chilean strawberry (F. chiloensis), the Virginia strawberry (F. virginiana), Fragaria nipponica, and Fragaria viridis. Most of these strawberries originate in Europe (Fragaria nipponica is Japanese in origin); the Chilean and Virginia strawberries are the only cultivated New World species. While there are many edible strawberries, these tend to be the most popular.

 Rows of strawberry plants mulched with (what else?) straw.

Strawberries planted in rows and left to their own devices will spread wildly within a few years.

Biology

Do you know how the strawberry got its name? The popular theory is that strawberries are so named because they are cultivated on straw. The truth is, strawberries were named before straw was ever cultivated. Have you ever seen strawberries growing? They spread by stolons, or above-ground roots. These stolons reach out, find a good moist spot away from the parent, and put out roots, producing a new clone of the mother plant. In this way, a single cultivar of strawberry can reproduce itself dozens of times and still be identical or nearly identical to the mother plant. The stolons that give rise to new strawberries are called “runners.” This habit of growing is what gave it its name; strawberries tend to be strewn (spread) about.

It’s generally accepted that strawberries will either produce runners or flowers. Though sometimes producing both simultaneously, the energy is usually dedicated to one task over the other. This is why there are three main types of garden strawberries: ever-bearing, day-neutral, and June-bearing. Strawberries tend to be June-bearing by nature, which means you’ll harvest your fruit in late spring to early summer. Though you sometimes end up with a second crop in fall, the June-bearing strawberry will produce runners for the rest of the year. Ever-bearing strawberries prefer to put their energy toward making fruit, so you’ll end up with few runners and strawberries several times per season. Day-neutral will produce strawberries continually throughout the year, and create the fewest runners.

The white tissue under the pistils is what swells into a red juicy strawberry

The white tissue under the pistils swells into the sweet edible “fruit”

“Fruit”

Did you know that a strawberry isn’t a fruit? It’s an “aggregate of achenes on a swollen receptacle.” Achenes are those little specks on the surface of the strawberry; these are the true fruit of the strawberry. The achenes break apart much the way that sunflower seeds do. An aggregate refers to a cluster or grouping, and the receptacle is the part of a flower that bears the sexual organs.

Seems complicated? Try this: cut a strawberry flower in half and look inside.

The female parts of the flower (pistils) are near the top center of the flower with the male parts (stamens) forming a ring around the outside. When the flowers are pollinated, the area under each pistil swells and turns red. When the whole flower is pollinated, you end up with a perfectly red strawberry.

 Time lapse of strawberry fruiting process.

Time lapse of a strawberry, flower-to-fruit, by Tomas ‘Frooxius’ Mariancik.

Humans have known about strawberries for hundreds of years, but strawberries only became commercially common within the past century, thanks to refrigerated trucks and breeding programs that gave strawberries their firmness. Ever since, they have been one of the top ten favorite “fruits” in the United States.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Grafting Tomatoes

Garden Blog - Sun, 05/25/2014 - 8:36am

Grafted tomato plants are available at garden centers and through mail order nursery catalogs, but sell out quickly, as the idea has captured the interest of home gardeners, farmers, and professional greenhouse growers.

 Tomato graft with silicon tubing holding the graft in place to heal.

The finished tomato graft: this will be placed into a “healing chamber” for a week while the graft seals.

An ancient art and science long used on fruit trees, grafting is the placement of the tissues of one plant (called a scion) onto another plant (called a stock). The rootstock is thought to impart disease resistance and increased vigor to a less vigorous—perhaps heirloom—tomato grafted on the top, producing more tomatoes over a longer period of time.

Curious about the process and whether the price tag could be justified—grafted plants run from $9 to $18 a plant—I decided to graft some tomato plants myself and grow them out. My first foray was in winter 2013. The Chicago Botanic Garden’s propagator in the plant production department, Cathy Thomas, had just returned from a conference at Longwood Gardens, where one of the topics was grafting vegetables. She willingly supported my quest and enthusiastically discussed the details with me.

The process seemed fairly straightforward after we settled on which varieties to graft together. Deciding to graft the cultivar ‘Black Cherry’ onto ‘Better Boy’ rootstock, we worked with tiny, 3-inch-tall tomato starts, taking care that the top and bottom stems of each plant were exactly the same diameter at the place they were to be grafted. Our grafting tools included clear silicon tubing cut to 10 to 15 millimeter lengths, a new, unused razor blade, and our tomato seedlings.

Starting by sanitizing our hands, we used a new razor blade to slice the stem of the scion (top graft plant) off at a 45-degree angle. The plastic tubing, soon to be the grafting clip that would bandage the graft union, was prepared by splitting it in half. All the leaves were removed from the scion, leaving only the meristem. (The meristem is the region of stem directly above the roots of the seedling, where actively dividing cells rapidly form new tissue.) Two diagonal cuts were made, forming a nice wedge to fit into the rootstock. The rootstock was split and held open to accommodate the scion. A silicon clip was slipped around the cleft graft. Newly grafted plants were then set into a “healing chamber,” a place with indirect light and high humidity, for up to a week. In the healing chamber, the plants can heal without needing to reach for light, which can cause the tops to pop off. We placed our new grafts in a large plastic bag in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden greenhouse. The healing began.

 Slicing the top off the rootstock tomato seedling.

Cut the root stock off at the meristem; discard the top of the seedling to avoid confusing it with the scions you will be grafting.

 Slicing the top of the meristem to insert the scion graft.

After cutting off the top of the rootstock, user the razor to vertically slice the top part of the remaining meristem.

 Removing the leaves from the tomato scion graft.

Remove the extra leaves from the scion, leaving only the top set.

 Sharpening the tip of the scion to a point.

Make two 45-degree cuts to the end of the scion to create a sharp tip to insert into the rootstock.

 The scion is inserted into the rootstock of the tomato graft.

Using the razor’s edge to pry open the split rootstock, gently insert the prepared scion.

 Closeup of the finished tomato graft.

Slice the silicone tubing open and wrap the cuff around the graft, entirely covering the graft to support the top plant and speed healing.

Two weeks later, we had a dismal one-third survival rate! Much to my relief, the lone survivor was a superlative tomato plant in almost every way. Oh, what a strong tomato we had! My excitement rose—what if heirloom tomatoes could be as delicious and more prolific and adaptable? When soils warmed, we planted our grafted tomato out in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, positioned right next to a ‘Black Cherry’ plant growing on its own root, so the differences would be easy to discern. Our hope was that we could address some of the ins and outs of grafting for the public, and the feasibility of DIY (Do It Yourself) for gardeners. Do grafted heirloom tomatoes have more vigor, better quality, and bear more fruit than ungrafted “own-root” heirloom tomatoes? Which has a more abundant harvest over a longer period of time?

Last summer, our grafted tomato plant certainly provided the earliest harvest. Comparatively, it was earlier to fruit than the plant grown on its own root by two weeks, and was prolific throughout the season. That being said, in the organic system of the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, our soils are nutrient-rich and disease-free in large part due to crop rotation and soil-building practices. The question used in marketing “Is the key place for grafted tomatoes in a soil that has disease problems?” didn’t apply to us. Are grafted tomatoes the answer for those with less-than-ideal environmental growing conditions? For greenhouse growers unable to practice crop rotation as a hedge against a build-up of soil-borne disease, or home gardeners who contend with cool nights and a short growing season, I would say yes, I think so, but at a cost.

 Grafted tomato in healing chamber.

Place the finished graft in a humid location, out of direct sunlight, to heal for up to one week.

When planning on grafting, growers must buy double the amount of seed and need to double the number of plantings (to account for the graft failure rate) to maintain the same number of viable seedlings to plant. Cathy and I tried our grafting project again this spring and are looking forward to growing ‘Stripes of Yore’ and ‘Primary Colors’ on ‘Big Beef’ hybrid rootstock. I swapped seed for these unusual varieties with a tomato enthusiast who attended our annual Seed Swap this past February. Our rootstock has excellent resistance to common tomato diseases: AS (Alternaria Stem canker), F2 (Fusarium wilt), L (Gray Leaf Spot), N (Nematodes), TMV (Tobacco Mosaic Virus), V (Verticillium Wilt). So far, three of our eight plants are viable, healed, and strong.

We are looking forward to planting the grafted tomatoes the week of June 8 in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, right alongside some of the other 52 varieties of heirloom and hybrid tomatoes. So whether you choose a regular or a grafted plant at the garden center this weekend, come on over! It’s time to talk tomatoes! @hilgenberg8

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Lenhardt Library: New collaborations for future advancement

Garden Blog - Fri, 05/23/2014 - 10:15am

In early May, I was gratified to hear that the Lenhardt Library’s application to become an affiliate member at the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) had been accepted. BHL is an open access, all digital repository of biodiversity literature.

 View into the Lenhardt Library at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The Lenhardt Library is open to the public. Garden members may borrow materials for 28 days.

BHL founding member libraries are based at universities, botanical gardens, and natural history museums, and include renowned institutions such as the Missouri Botanical Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Harvard University, and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

These libraries contribute digital scans of books and journals in their collections. All pages are freely accessible through the BHL portal. Constantly updated, as of today, BHL includes 43,697,651 pages of biodiversity literature. Users of biodiversity literature are researchers based around the globe with nodes in Europe, Australia, and China. BHL also serves as the foundational literature component of the Encyclopedia of Life.

Plans for the Lenhardt Library’s involvement are to contribute literature unique to our collections and not held at other libraries. That may mean adding early volumes that pre-date current content in BHL, filling in missing horticulture resources, or adding volumes from the rare book collection.

Another recent Lenhardt Library affiliation is with the Center for Research Libraries (CRL). CRL is a library’s library with holdings of 5 million items. The Lenhardt Library joined this consortium of academic and research libraries to gain access to these materials to fulfill library research needs for the Chicago Botanic Garden’s staff and visitors.

Partnerships and collaborations are vital to small research libraries such as the Lenhardt Library for advancement and growth. Library collections and resource sharing ensures literature is available for study, scholarship, and scientific advancement.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Best. Plant labels. Ever.

Garden Blog - Wed, 05/21/2014 - 8:40am

One of the best things about visiting (and working at!) the Chicago Botanic Garden: you get great ideas for your own garden.

I put one of them to work in my new “all vegetable” front yard garden this weekend.

Last summer, at the Heirloom Tomato Weekend, horticulture program specialist Nancy Clifton faced the challenge of labeling dozens of different heirloom tomato varieties in containers. Her solution was simple and elegant: gather up the paint stirrers and get out the chalkboard paint!

  Clean out the paint shelf! Old paint stirrers, stakes, and even wooden spoons can work as plant markers.

Before: Clean out the paint shelf! Old paint stirrers, stakes, and even wooden spoons work as plant markers.

 Plant labels painted with two coats of chalkboard paint.

After: Two coats of chalkboard paint ought to do it. Tip: Looks better when you paint the sides, too.

The photos are testament to how easy it is: assemble a pile of paintable wooden markers-to-be, scrub-brush lightly under running water, and let dry. (No need to overdo it on the pre-cleaning—the paint covers most everything.) On a fine spring day, apply two coats of chalkboard paint. I went for black, but you can have the white base paint tinted any color. (Ooh! Lime green would have been good!) Let paint dry between coats.

 Pile of black plant markers with names inscribed.

A pile of tomato markers await 50 degree-plus nights before the tomatoes can go in.

To write the names,  I used the same basic white grease pencil—found at any art store—that’s used on the metal signs at the Garden. It withstands rain, wind, and dirty hands.

Like many gardeners, I’ve tried lots of different methods for labeling over the years: Popsicle sticks (disintegrate fast, get stepped on), zinc and copper markers (too small to read from a distance, get stepped on), and rocks (hard to keep in one spot). This approach is simple, recyclable, nice looking, and kind of fun to do—makes a good kid project, too!

Can’t wait to get those tomatoes in the ground…

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Trouble for Monarchs — But You Can Help

Garden Blog - Tue, 05/20/2014 - 1:00pm

Monarch butterflies have left their overwintering sites in Mexico and are heading back toward the Midwest, including the Chicago area.

Unfortunately, far fewer monarchs will be making the northward flight this year and the chance to see large numbers of these beautiful butterflies in your garden or flying across a prairie is becoming less certain.

Join us Friday, June 6, for the Make Way for Monarchs research symposium.

 Asclepias tuberosa, a native milkweed species, in bloom.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is one of many native milkweed species that provide food for monarch butterfly caterpillars and a nectar source for flower visitors such as bees and butterflies.

In the 1990s, hundreds of millions of monarchs made the journey each fall from the northern plains of the United States and Canada to forested sites north of Mexico City. In western North America, more than a million monarchs made a shorter flight to tree groves on California’s coast. However, monarch numbers have been declining for more than a decade, and this year scientists documented record low numbers. We have seen more than a 90 percent decline.

Why is this occurring? We don’t know for sure, although there are several factors that are likely contributing. Habitat loss due to urban development and large-scale agriculture are key concerns. Farms now cover vast areas and many grow genetically modified crops that allow herbicide applications to be used on and around the crop, including in areas where milkweed—the one plant that monarch caterpillars need—used to grow. These “Roundup ready” crops have been identified as a major cause of milkweed loss throughout the Midwest. Additionally, millions of acres of farms and urban land are treated with toxic insecticides. The loss of forest habitat in Mexico and the decline of monarch groves in California may also be playing a role. In the West, severe drought is likely contributing to reduced monarch populations. These threats are compounded by climate change.

We do not have to sit and watch these declines continue.

We can provide these butterflies (and other wildlife) with high-quality, insecticide-free habitats. This is not something that needs to be restricted to a distant wilderness. Indeed, it is a cause in which everyone can take part. Homeowners and farmers can plant milkweed to support monarch caterpillars, and native flowers to provide nectar for adult butterflies, and work to limit the impact of insecticides. Land managers can ensure that milkweed stands are adequately protected.

Sign up for “The Monarch Butterfly: How You Can Help Save This Iconic Species,” Saturday, June 7, at 1 p.m.

 A native milkweed pod burst open in winter, distributing seeds.

The Milkweed Seed Finder gives you quick access to regionally appropriate seed sources, with options to search by milkweed species and by state.

The Xerces Society’s Project Milkweed has been working with native wildflower seed nurseries, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and community partners to produce huge volumes of milkweed seed that are being used to restore monarch habitat. In just three years, this work has led to the production of 35 million milkweed seeds! As a result of this effort, milkweed seed is rapidly becoming more available in many regions of the country. To make it easier for people to find seed sources, we’ve launched the Milkweed Seed Finder, a comprehensive directory of milkweed seed vendors across the country.

In addition, the Xerces Society’s work with farmers and the NRCS has led to the creation of tens of thousands of acres of wildflower habitat that includes milkweed, across much of the monarch’s breeding range.

Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” For the sake of the monarch—and so many other species—it is time to heal as many wounds as possible.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A Year in Bulbs: Part Three

Garden Blog - Sun, 05/18/2014 - 9:01am

In just over a month, we’ve gone from having only a handful of small blooms to a lush display of thousands of blooms in every shape and size. Thanks to several warm days, the annual display beds pushed forth to be in their prime just in time for Mother’s Day last weekend.  

 Sweeps of tulips line the winding paths of the bulb garden.

Sweeps of tulips line the winding paths of the Bulb Garden.

Those warm days also meant the end of the main daffodil season, leaving us with just a few of the late-blooming varieties such as Narcissus ‘Dickcissel’, a unique jonquil-type daffodil with dark yellow flowers and a white cup.

The real star of the late spring garden though, are the tulips. As if by magic, more than 5,000 tulips in our annual displays started blooming overnight. Doubles such as Tulipa ‘Orange Angelique’ and Tulipa ‘Foxtrot’ add unique texture alongside bold colors like Tulipa ‘Queen of the Night’ and Tulipa ‘New Design’.

 Narcissus 'Dickcissel'.

Narcissus ‘Dickcissel’ is consistently among the latest-blooming jonquils in the Bulb Garden.

 Tulipa 'Queen of the Night' and Tulipa 'Orange Angelique'.

Tulipa ‘Queen of the Night’ and Tulipa ‘Orange Angelique’

In addition to these showy giants, there are more subtle species tulips adding pops of color throughout the garden. Tulipa batalini ‘Apricot Jewel’ adds spots of warm yellow to lighten up a planting of dark-leaved Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’, Camassia leichtlinii, and Allium aflatunense. These species tulips are often better perennializers, making them great additions to the garden, as long as they’re protected from rodents.

In addition to all these big, showy bulbs, there are many that require a closer look.

This bed might look like it’s mostly perennials, but if you stop and look you’ll see a sweep of Fritillaria acmopetala and Fritillaria uva-vulpis, along with a groundcover of the tuberous Anemone ranunculoides, and several varieties of Narcissus.

 Fritillaria acmopetala.

Fritillaria acmopetala

 Fritillaria are sprinkled amidst other spring bulbs under a ferociously blooming pink crabapple tree.

They might be hard to see from a distance, but this bed contains dozens of Fritillaria, each with a unique pattern.

We’re currently experiencing elevated lake levels, which gives us an opportunity to show that there are at least a couple of bulbs that will survive standing water for a period of time: Bletilla striata and Camassia.

 Bletilla striata.

Bletilla striata

 Camassia leichtlinii blooming though flooded.

Camassia leichtlinii can handle seasonal flooding without any issues.

Bletilla striata is a hardy ground orchid native to China and Japan that is very tolerant of saturated soils during the growing season. (However, it should never be allowed to sit in water in the winter.)

Camassia are native to the Pacific Northwest and naturally grow in wet meadows. This makes them a terrific bulb for gardeners who experience seasonal flooding or have areas with poor drainage. The tall blue spikes of flowers provide a welcome dose of color after your main spring bulbs are finished blooming; the plants also are long-lived.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Create Your Own Horticultural Therapy Containers at Home

Garden Blog - Sat, 05/17/2014 - 9:07am

It’s finally starting to feel like spring in Chicago, which means it’s time to get those home gardens up and running.

In the Horticultural Therapy Department, we’re in the process of setting up our off-site gardens at facilities all over the greater Chicago area. These gardens come in all shapes and sizes and fall on a wide spectrum of costs. For today, we’re focusing on how to create your very own home horticultural therapy garden—or perhaps more accurately—your own home horticultural therapy containers.

 Three container plantings of varying heights.

Three containers at various heights create visual interest in the Buehler Enabling Garden.

To start your own home horticultural therapy garden, the first thing you need is a good container. At the Buehler Enabling Garden, as well as off-site gardens, horticultural therapists utilize raised, round containers for planting. 

We recommend that you purchase a planter of decent size (24 to 28 inches in height and diameter) or a few slightly smaller ones. This will enable you to plant a wide variety of plant materials—from grasses to small perennials, herbs to large vegetables. Also, be sure to use a container with drainage holes to avoid root rot and water logging.

The next item you’ll need is a rich, nutrient-filled, potting soil. If you’re using a large container, filling the entire container with soil will make it heavy and difficult to move. Placing light, mesh landscape materials in the base, such as Better Than Rocks drainage medium (sold in rolls of bright green mesh), or household items like empty water bottles and landscape fabric, will help keep your container light and decrease the amount of unnecessary soil.

 A circle of Better Than Rocks planting mesh is cut out of a roll of the material, and placed in the bottom of the pot.

Find Better Than Rocks drainage mesh—used in the bottom of our pot—at your local nursery.

With the container(s) set and filled, we are now ready to plant our home horticultural therapy garden.

Gardens planted with a horticultural therapy intent often consist of plant materials that are engaging to the senses and good for programming. When I refer to “programming,” I’m speaking to the desired slate of uses for the garden. Your “program” may be to provide yourself or a loved one with an easily accessible personal garden to tend to and enjoy. It may also be to grow edibles that can be picked, prepared, and shared with friends and family.

Being in a garden facilitates therapeutic outcomes and interacting with plant material enhances the therapeutic experience that much more. By selecting plants that will encourage activity, you are increasing the likelihood for therapeutic outcomes.

Some of my favorite horticultural therapy-inspired plant pallets are those with a variety of textures and sensory qualities as well as pallets that bring about seasonal harvest.

 Sample diagram for a sensory container garden planting

Sample diagram for a sensory container garden planting

In the first sample illustration, I’ve laid out a container of sensory-rich plant material as one option for your garden. Start with a “thriller” or focus plant such as a Pennisetum rueppelianum grass or Caladium X hortulanum (1). This plant can be placed along the side or in the middle. I like to place my focus plant slightly off center in my containers. Next, add some filler sensory plant materials such as Solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Kong Red’ coleus (2) and perhaps an edible plant such as a Stevia rebaudiana (3). Stevia is one of my favorite horticultural therapy plants; the super-sweet leaf makes for a fun treat when maintaining your garden. The final plants are your trailing or spilling plants. This will bring added visual interest to the outside of your container and give your garden that extra pop. I love to use Ipomoea batatas ‘Margarita’—Sweet Potato Vine (4) and/or Calibrachoa x hybrida—trailing petunias (5)

Each of these plants has wonderful sensory qualities. The grass stalks or large caladium leaves provide soft fascination as they rustle in the wind. The coleus and stevia add visual texture and color while also lending themselves to programming. The coleus plants can be picked and used for flower pounding, pressing, or for propagation. The petunias can be used for pressing flowers, and at the end of the season, you can dig out your sweet potato vine and eat the tuber/potato at the root. 

 Sample diagram for an edible container garden planting.

Sample diagram for an edible container garden planting

The second illustration—and container—has been laid out to focus on edible plant material. This planter would be ideal for a household that would like to have fresh harvest for cooking activities and experiences. A cherry tomato plant such as Solanum lycopersicum ‘Sun Gold’ (1) can easily be grown in a container. This variety performs very well in our climate (USDA Zone 5) and produces delicious, orange-colored cherry tomatoes. Tomato plants will get leggy as the season goes on, but certain plant material can be placed next to a tomato without interfering with or overpowering it. I enjoy placing a few varieties of herbs in my edible planters. In this example, I placed Ocimum basilicum ‘Super Sweet Genovese’ basil (2) and Thymus vulgaris, or garden thyme, (3) with my tomato, so that I could make delicious items such as fresh pizza, bruschetta, and tomato-basil-mozzarella paninis throughout the summer. Lastly, because it’s an absolute favorite, I snuck in a few Lavandula angustifolia ‘Mini Blue’ lavender (4) plants. These can be used for pressing, drying for sachets, and pure sensory enjoyment.   

A horticultural therapy garden is about enjoyment and interaction. At the end of the day, you want it to be something that you enjoy caring for.

During this time of year, local nurseries and stores are chalk full of garden experts who will be happy to help set you up with all the materials you need. And remember, staff and volunteers are always available at the Chicago Botanic Garden to instruct you on fun and simple gardening basics; just come visit us and ask!

Happy gardening!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spring Chorus

Garden Blog - Thu, 05/15/2014 - 10:09am

My favorite moment of spring is the blooming of daffodils. But this year, I am adding a new highlight: the uplifting sound of…frogs.

http://my.chicagobotanic.org/wp-content/uploads/sophia_frog_chirping.mp3

 

I have to admit, I’ve never heard such spring peeping at the Chicago Botanic Garden before. But last weekend, as I enjoyed several long walks here (including one with my sons on Mother’s Day at 6:45 a.m.!), I felt serenaded by a loud chorus of frogs and toads. (Some visitors are even mistaking the sound for chirping birds.)

Learn more about local frogs, toads, and their calls.

 A northern leopard frog seen from ground level, peers at the camera suspiciously.

A northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens) peers at the camera suspiciously. Photo by Benny Mazur from Toledo, Ohio (Mister Leopard Frog) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Working off the hypothesis that the Garden’s shoreline restoration efforts have helped increase frog and toad populations here, I turned to Garden scientists for answers.

And this is what I learned: of the Garden’s 385 acres, nearly one-quarter (81 acres) is water. More than three-fourths of the Garden’s shoreline has been restored since 1999, addressing long-standing erosion problems. Most recently, the Garden restored 1¼ miles of shoreline around the North Lake; the ten-month project was completed in summer 2012. As part of the project, we added more than 120,000 native plants—the largest perennial planting project in the Garden’s history—to stabilize shoreline soil. The sturdy plants, some with roots more than 6 feet deep, resist erosion and enhance water quality by filtering eroded soil and excess nutrients. The renovated shoreline provides an enhanced habitat for our aquatic life, which includes wood ducks, double-crested cormorants, and snapping turtles, along with bullfrogs, American toads, and other members of their croaking chorus. Build a healthy habitat and they will come!

Adding to the cacophony is an even bigger chorus than usual because of our “compressed” spring this year. Usually, the frogs emerge first, followed by the toads. This May, the frogs and toads are singing together—but not for long; come to the Garden soon if you want to hear them.

Discover the details and challenges of our restoration project.

 Native plants and grasses surround the restored shoreline.

Abloom in May, native plants and sedge create habitat, protect shorelines, and create a beautiful border around the North Lake.

Even if you miss hearing them, I encourage you to listen to the short audio clip above and think about frogs (at least for a few seconds). Sometimes, we overlook the humble frog in favor of the more romantic songbirds in spring. In popular culture, the frog tends to fare better in other parts of the world. In Japan, for instance, the frog is considered a symbol of good luck. The Japanese word for frog is kaeru, which also means “to return.”

When I hear the frogs at the Garden from now on, I will think about how their return, spring after spring, announces that they’ve come home. I am proud that our conservation actions here have given them a healthy habitat in which to thrive, and I feel grateful to the frogs for giving me a moment to reflect on the importance of the Garden’s mission: We cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life. 

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Make Way for Monarchs

Garden Blog - Wed, 05/14/2014 - 9:21am

Did you know that one in every three bites of food you take required a pollinator visit? Pollination is essential for many of our favorite foods—from almonds to vanilla, and so many fruits and vegetables in between.

The decline of pollinators around the world is threatening not only our food supply but also the function of plant communities and ecosystems. Multiple factors play a role in pollinator decline, including land-use changes, pesticide use, climate change, and the spread of invasive species and diseases.

The well-documented plight of the iconic monarch butterfly has become emblematic of widespread pollinator decline. Perhaps many of you, like me, have childhood memories of setting out with a butterfly net and a jar with nail holes in the lid. I recall with pleasure catching and admiring monarchs up close until it was time to set them free. I worry that children may not have that simple pleasure much longer. After their previous all-time low population count in 2012–13, monarch numbers dwindled even lower this past winter (2013–14), when monitored in their overwintering location in Mexico.

 A cluster of monarch butterflies rests on a plant, entirely covering it.

Now a much less common sight: a monarch butterfly cluster. Image by Christian Mehlführer (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 A monarch sips nectar from common milkweed on the Dixon Prairie.

A monarch sips nectar from common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) on the Dixon Prairie.

In the case of the monarch, several factors are likely contributing to its rapid decline. Loss of forested wintering grounds; loss of the milkweeds, which are their larval host plants; severe weather events; and a reduction of nectar plants along their migration routes due to drought have probably all contributed. Three leading monarch experts, Dr. Lincoln Brower, Dr. Chip Taylor, and Dr. Karen Oberhauser, have all cited GMO (genetically modified) crops as a leading factor in the decline. Milkweed (Asclepias sp.) once thrived on the edges of farm fields throughout the Midwest. Modern farming techniques use herbicide-resistant crops coupled with an increased use of herbicides; the native milkweeds are disappearing, and as they go, so do the monarchs.

Make Way for Monarchs

Click here for registration and schedule information.

On Friday, June 6, the Chicago Botanic Garden will host a symposium by Make Way for Monarchs: Alliance for Milkweed and Butterfly Recovery (makewayformonarchs.org). Members of this group conduct research on monarch butterfly recovery and promote positive, science-based actions to avert collapse of the milkweed community and the further demise of the monarch migration to Mexico. They aim to promote social engagement in implementing solutions in midwestern landscapes through collaborative conservation. Speakers include Gary Nabhan, Lincoln Brower, Chip Taylor, Karen Oberhauser, Laura Jackson, Doug Taron, and Scott Hoffman Black. They will discuss monarch decline and tangible solutions we all can help implement. Mr. Black will also present a lecture on monarchs at World Environment Day, Saturday, June 7.

 Closeup of a single, tiny butterfly egg on the underside of a leaf.

Monarch egg on a milkweed leaf by Forehand.jay (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

There are things all of us can do: from planting milkweeds and other native plant species that provide nectar throughout the growing season, to minimizing pesticide use, and to supporting organic farmers. We can also become citizen scientists, reporting monarch observations to programs like Monarch Watch and Journey North, or working with the Monarch Joint Venture.

Perhaps, with our help, new generations of children will continue to know the joy of admiring the beautiful monarch butterfly, and then letting it go to continue its amazing migratory journey.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Power-Line Prairie

Garden Blog - Mon, 05/12/2014 - 9:32am

You know it’s bad news when the troublemakers—such as Queen Anne’s lace, purple loosestrife, or another invasive species—start to take hold in the landscape. Imagine the sight at Illinois Beach State Park when a dense thicket of more than 20 invasive species took over a ten-acre utility corridor—and began to grow steadily toward 50-foot-high power lines.

To ComEd, which manages the utility corridor, the thicket was potentially hazardous. According to safety regulations, plants under such transmission lines should grow no higher than 10 feet to ensure that overgrown plants do not interfere with service lines and threaten power disruptions.

 A ComEd employee examines a plant in the field, open plant ID book in his hand.

A ComEd employee does some plant identification in the field.

In 2010, ComEd turned to the Chicago Botanic Garden for help in managing the overgrown narrow leaf cattail, reedy phragmites, common and glossy buckthorn, and other invasive species. “We reached out to the Chicago Botanic Garden as a partner to research the transmission corridor and see, over time, with different maintenance practices, what would come back,” said Kevin Jury, senior project manager for vegetation management at ComEd. “We wanted to use the information to guide our practices and see if there was something we could tweak in our process to reap an economical benefit and a benefit for the environment.”

As a result, the Garden developed a pilot program to research ways to turn overgrown corridors into sustainable native landscapes. “We’re interested because ComEd is the second-largest land owner in the state, and improving the habitat could have a major impact on the whole region,” said Greg Mueller, chief scientist and Negaunee Foundation vice president of science at the Garden. “It fits the type of public-private partnership that allows companies like ComEd to be better stewards of their land and allows the Chicago Botanic Garden access to land for use as a research opportunity.”

 Michigan lilies (Lilium Michiganense)

Michigan lilies (Lilium Michiganense)

Now, in the program’s third year, plant life abundant nearly 200 years ago has reemerged with surprising vigor. Tall stalks of scouring rush—the same kind used by prairie homesteaders to scrub pots and pans—are growing under power lines alongside bright red cardinal flowers (Lobilia cardinalis), orange-petalled Michigan lilies (Lilium michiganense), and eastern prairie fringed orchids (Platanthera leucophaea).

Nearly 300 different plant species, including 225 native species and 40 newly identified species, have been recorded on six research plots. The plots are bounded by transmission towers and divided into three experimental conditions: two sites receive annual spot treatment with diluted herbicide solutions that control broad-leaved plants but protect grasses; two receive prescribed burnings every two to three years; and two sites are left unmanaged as experimental controls.

In addition to the current research sites at the state park, two new research locations are underway in Vernon Hills and Highland Park.

 ComEd employees use a frame built of PVC pipe to measure a number of plants in a given square foot of prairie.

Two ComEd employees measure square-foot growth in the prairie.

When the research is finalized in 2016, the Garden, ComEd, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources aim to implement the most effective approaches in ComEd’s ongoing maintenance of 3,000 corridor right-of-way miles and 5,300 miles of power lines throughout northern Illinois. “The lasting impact of this partnership will reintroduce, protect, and enhance native ecosystem locations throughout northern Illinois,” Mueller said. “We are hopeful the lessons learned from this collaboration can one day serve as a road map on how a groundbreaking public-private partnership can protect natural habitats beyond northern Illinois.”

Visit the Garden for World Environment Day on Saturday, June 7, and discover how you can make an impact in restoration and conservation.

This post was adapted from an article by Jeff Link that appeared in the winter edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Pioneering Woodland Restoration

Plant Science and Conservation - Sat, 05/10/2014 - 8:30am

Tranquil, peaceful, and serene are words often associated with the McDonald Woods, which wrap around the northeastern edge of the Chicago Botanic Garden. But to Jim Steffen, senior ecologist at the Garden, the oak woodland is a bustling center for natural processes and species, and may hold answers to unsolved scientific questions.

 Multi-flowered milkweed blooms.

Purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) blooms in the McDonald Woods.

“Nothing out there exists by itself. It’s all a network,” said Steffen. Since he arrived at the Garden 25 years ago, he has used his powers of observation to document, study, and breathe life into the systems that sustain a healthy woodland.

In the late 1800s, most area native oaks were cleared for settlement, leaving behind a fragmented and altered landscape. Invasive plants, including buckthorn and nonnative critters, such as all of our present-day earthworms, moved in. The climate began to change. While many may have thrown up their hands and walked away from this complex puzzle, Steffen saw a treasure.

Taking Flight

At age 15, he began to explore the natural world in earnest and to grow the insight that guides him today. After taking a course in his community, he was federally licensed to band birds for research, a pursuit he followed for another 40 years. As he searched for hawks, owls, and other birds of prey, Steffen couldn’t help but notice the activity beneath his feet. Among the fallen leaves were scuttling rodents, insects, and blooming plants. He realized their presence was integral to the entire community of life in the woods.

 A clump of blooming sedge grass.

Carex bromoides is one of many sedge plants essential to the woodland ecosystem.

“I started getting more into how those things are related rather than just narrowly focusing on the birds or the plants,” he said.

Steffen developed a broad ecological background as he pursued his education and worked toward a career in conservation science. He was hired to manage 11 acres of woods alongside a nature trail at the Garden. Now, that management responsibility includes more than 100 acres.

Master Plan

Although he does not expect to recreate the exact natural community of the past, Steffen does aim to grow an oak woodland of today. “My goal is to increase the native species diversity and improve the ecological functioning that is going on in the Woods,” he said.

Early in his career, he successfully advocated to expand the managed area to include adjacent acres. His management activities and detailed inventory work has grown the number of species there from 223 to 405. Of those species, 345 are native to the region.

 The woods in winter, showing both cleared, walkable woods and unpassable buckthorn-infested area.

Invasive buckthorn plants are interspersed among the trees on the right, while they have been removed on the left.

The leaf canopy of the second-growth woodland was nearly 100 percent sealed when he arrived. It is now more open, allowing sunlight to punctuate the ground—encouraging the reproduction of oak species and promoting the flowering and seed-set of the native grasses, sedges, and wildflowers. The rewards of his work? Less carbon being released from the soil, improved water retention and nutrient cycling, and a place to bolster native species of plants and animals.

 Jim Steffen in full protective gear including helmet and goggles, up in a tree with a chainsaw.

Jim Steffen begins to remove an ash tree infested with the invasive emerald ash borer insect.

Each season brings new challenges. This winter, Steffen, his crew, and hired contractors carefully removed nearly 600 ash trees killed by emerald ash borers, cleared three acres of mature buckthorn, and conducted a six- to seven-acre controlled burn.

“It’s a difficult thing to do,” he said of oak woodland management. Steffen is grateful for each helping hand. “I’d say I’d be about ten years behind if it hadn’t been for my dedicated volunteers who help with the physically demanding work.”

Springing Into Action

This spring, Steffen and his team will begin to collect seed from more than 120 native plants they nurture in the Garden nursery and from dozens more in the woodland.

The process continues through November. It includes plants like the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), which was once common in Glencoe’s natural areas.

Native woodland plants are grown for seed in the Garden nursery.

Native woodland plants are grown for seed in the Garden nursery.

Berries are collected for seeding.

Berries are collected for seeding.

Steffen also collects seed from external natural areas, bringing new genetic diversity into the Woods to strengthen existing plant populations. (This is an increasingly challenging task, as 50 percent of his collection sites has been lost.) Collected seeds are scattered in prepared areas of McDonald Woods, either in the spring or fall, or sometimes in the middle of winter on top of the snow.

Groundwork

“Everything you see growing, walking, or flying in the woodland is just 10 percent of the picture. In any native ecosystem, probably 90 percent of the diversity is at and below the soil surface,” he said. An entire network of plants and other living organisms exist and interact there, helping to sustain what grows above them. Oak trees and most other native plants rely on entrenched fungi, for example, to deliver nutrients and water or protect them from herbivores and disease.

 Closeup of a tiny brown spider clinging to the back side of a leaf.

This tiny Pisaurina spider helps support the woodland ecosystem.

Microarthropods living in the leaf litter and soil, such as tiny springtails and mites, and larger organisms including spiders, also play important roles. Together with a volunteer, Steffen has dedicated 14 years of work to better understanding those interactions. They have found several species never found before in Illinois and some that even appear to be new to science. “We are still identifying some of the things we collected ten years ago,” Steffen said. And similar, rarely studied subcommunities exist higher up in the trees. “That’s another hint as to how complex the system is and how much we don’t know about it,” he added.

Some things are clear. A pioneer of oak woodland restoration, Steffen was among the first to notice that the natural layer of decomposing oak leaves and plant material was vanishing from the ground in the McDonald Woods and most other woodlands in the region. He attributes the effect to higher levels of nitrogen from the decomposing leaves of nonnative plants, and the presence of exotic, invasive earthworms. “Because so many organisms live in that layer and depend on it for survival, they are disappearing,” he cautioned.

But first, it is time to take in the rewards of winter. May is peak season for migrating birds in the Woods, including warblers and flycatchers. Sedges will bloom, along with spring ephemerals such as trillium.

 A spare woods has dappled sunlight throughout.

The lush woodland landscape is healthy today.

Activity is everywhere, and it is a welcome sign of progress for Steffen. “It’s much healthier now than it was when I started,” he said. “All this diversity is able to function more easily now.”

The McDonald Woods are also an educational resource. Steffen will lead a rare off-trail hike there this year, and teach classes in bird watching and sedges through the Garden’s Adult Education programs.

Learn more about Jim Steffen and watch a video about his work.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Undercover Science

Garden Blog - Sat, 05/10/2014 - 8:30am

Tranquil, peaceful, and serene are words often associated with the McDonald Woods, which wrap around the northeastern edge of the Chicago Botanic Garden. But to Jim Steffen, senior ecologist at the Garden, the oak woodland is a bustling center for natural processes and species, and may hold answers to unsolved scientific questions.

 Multi-flowered milkweed blooms.

Purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) blooms in the McDonald Woods.

“Nothing out there exists by itself. It’s all a network,” said Steffen. Since he arrived at the Garden 25 years ago, he has used his powers of observation to document, study, and breathe life into the systems that sustain a healthy woodland.

In the late 1800s, most area native oaks were cleared for settlement, leaving behind a fragmented and altered landscape. Invasive plants, including buckthorn and nonnative critters, such as all of our present-day earthworms, moved in. The climate began to change. While many may have thrown up their hands and walked away from this complex puzzle, Steffen saw a treasure.

Taking Flight

At age 15, he began to explore the natural world in earnest and to grow the insight that guides him today. After taking a course in his community, he was federally licensed to band birds for research, a pursuit he followed for another 40 years. As he searched for hawks, owls, and other birds of prey, Steffen couldn’t help but notice the activity beneath his feet. Among the fallen leaves were scuttling rodents, insects, and blooming plants. He realized their presence was integral to the entire community of life in the woods.

 A clump of blooming sedge grass.

Carex bromoides is one of many sedge plants essential to the woodland ecosystem.

“I started getting more into how those things are related rather than just narrowly focusing on the birds or the plants,” he said.

Steffen developed a broad ecological background as he pursued his education and worked toward a career in conservation science. He was hired to manage 11 acres of woods alongside a nature trail at the Garden. Now, that management responsibility includes more than 100 acres.

Master Plan

Although he does not expect to recreate the exact natural community of the past, Steffen does aim to grow an oak woodland of today. “My goal is to increase the native species diversity and improve the ecological functioning that is going on in the Woods,” he said.

Early in his career, he successfully advocated to expand the managed area to include adjacent acres. His management activities and detailed inventory work has grown the number of species there from 223 to 405. Of those species, 345 are native to the region.

 The woods in winter, showing both cleared, walkable woods and unpassable buckthorn-infested area.

Invasive buckthorn plants are interspersed among the trees on the right, while they have been removed on the left.

The leaf canopy of the second-growth woodland was nearly 100 percent sealed when he arrived. It is now more open, allowing sunlight to punctuate the ground—encouraging the reproduction of oak species and promoting the flowering and seed-set of the native grasses, sedges, and wildflowers. The rewards of his work? Less carbon being released from the soil, improved water retention and nutrient cycling, and a place to bolster native species of plants and animals.

 Jim Steffen in full protective gear including helmet and goggles, up in a tree with a chainsaw.

Jim Steffen begins to remove an ash tree infested with the invasive emerald ash borer insect.

Each season brings new challenges. This winter, Steffen, his crew, and hired contractors carefully removed nearly 600 ash trees killed by emerald ash borers, cleared three acres of mature buckthorn, and conducted a six- to seven-acre controlled burn.

“It’s a difficult thing to do,” he said of oak woodland management. Steffen is grateful for each helping hand. “I’d say I’d be about ten years behind if it hadn’t been for my dedicated volunteers who help with the physically demanding work.”

Springing Into Action

This spring, Steffen and his team will begin to collect seed from more than 120 native plants they nurture in the Garden nursery and from dozens more in the woodland.

The process continues through November. It includes plants like the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), which was once common in Glencoe’s natural areas.

Native woodland plants are grown for seed in the Garden nursery.

Native woodland plants are grown for seed in the Garden nursery.

Berries are collected for seeding.

Berries are collected for seeding.

Steffen also collects seed from external natural areas, bringing new genetic diversity into the Woods to strengthen existing plant populations. (This is an increasingly challenging task, as 50 percent of his collection sites has been lost.) Collected seeds are scattered in prepared areas of McDonald Woods, either in the spring or fall, or sometimes in the middle of winter on top of the snow.

Groundwork

“Everything you see growing, walking, or flying in the woodland is just 10 percent of the picture. In any native ecosystem, probably 90 percent of the diversity is at and below the soil surface,” he said. An entire network of plants and other living organisms exist and interact there, helping to sustain what grows above them. Oak trees and most other native plants rely on entrenched fungi, for example, to deliver nutrients and water or protect them from herbivores and disease.

 Closeup of a tiny brown spider clinging to the back side of a leaf.

This tiny Pisaurina spider helps support the woodland ecosystem.

Microarthropods living in the leaf litter and soil, such as tiny springtails and mites, and larger organisms including spiders, also play important roles. Together with a volunteer, Steffen has dedicated 14 years of work to better understanding those interactions. They have found several species never found before in Illinois and some that even appear to be new to science. “We are still identifying some of the things we collected ten years ago,” Steffen said. And similar, rarely studied subcommunities exist higher up in the trees. “That’s another hint as to how complex the system is and how much we don’t know about it,” he added.

Some things are clear. A pioneer of oak woodland restoration, Steffen was among the first to notice that the natural layer of decomposing oak leaves and plant material was vanishing from the ground in the McDonald Woods and most other woodlands in the region. He attributes the effect to higher levels of nitrogen from the decomposing leaves of nonnative plants, and the presence of exotic, invasive earthworms. “Because so many organisms live in that layer and depend on it for survival, they are disappearing,” he cautioned.

But first, it is time to take in the rewards of winter. May is peak season for migrating birds in the Woods, including warblers and flycatchers. Sedges will bloom, along with spring ephemerals such as trillium.

 A spare woods has dappled sunlight throughout.

The lush woodland landscape is healthy today.

Activity is everywhere, and it is a welcome sign of progress for Steffen. “It’s much healthier now than it was when I started,” he said. “All this diversity is able to function more easily now.”

The McDonald Woods are also an educational resource. Steffen will lead a rare off-trail hike there this year, and teach classes in bird watching and sedges through the Garden’s Adult Education programs.

Learn more about Jim Steffen and watch a video about his work.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Bird Report

Garden Blog - Fri, 05/09/2014 - 9:31am

There was a nice assortment of birds at the Garden this morning!

White-crowned sparrows were the most abundant, and could be seen in almost every location. I saw a few warblers scattered about, but none in any large numbers. My best spot for finding birds was along the water in the woodland walk area of the Sensory Garden. I saw black-and-white warblers, Nashville warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, gray catbirds, warbling vireos, palm warblers, flycatchers, and an ovenbird.

Southerly winds are expected for the next two days, which should bring in a LOT more birds. Now is the time to get out your binoculars and cameras and see some of these amazing birds for yourself! In a few short weeks they will be gone.

 Nashville warbler.

I saw a few Nashville warblers in the newly budding flowering trees. ©Carol Freeman

 

 Black-and-white warbler.

Black-and-white warblers can often be seen hopping up and down tree branches, looking for insects. ©Carol Freeman

 

 Gray catbird.

Gray catbird calls really do sound like cats! These robin-sized birds are fairly easy to find. ©Carol Freeman

 

 White-crowned sparrow.

I saw white-crowned sparrows in almost every location of the Garden. They like to forage in the leaf litter. ©Carol Freeman

 

 Least flycatcher.

This is most likely a least flycatcher. These guys can be hard to identify. They dart out, grab an insect, then land. ©Carol Freeman

 

 Ovenbird.

The ovenbird is a thrush-like warbler. They like to forage on the ground. I find them to be shy birds, often flying off as soon as they see me. ©Carol Freeman

 

 Warbling vireo.

These guys love to sing! You can often find warbling vireos by following their sweet song. ©Carol Freeman

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

If it’s fresh, it’s at the new Garden View Café

Garden Blog - Wed, 05/07/2014 - 2:20pm

“Fresh. Seasonal. Delicious.”

That’s how area executive chef Michael Kingsley describes his food philosophy at our newly re-opened/revamped (and renamed!) Garden View Café.

Let’s start with a few photos of the food—just to focus the brain.

 Yogurt with honey and fresh granola and berries.

Breakfast at the Garden? Try the fresh-made yogurt with granola and fruit.

 Salad of baby greens with watermelon radish, bacon, tomatoes, and homemade croutons.

Lunch at the Garden? Try a salad of baby greens with watermelon radish, a hint of bacon, and homemade croutons.

 Sandwich of grilled chicken breast, local white cheddar, roasted tomato, lemon-basil mayo, sourdough ciabatta.

Dinner at the Garden? Enjoy outdoor seating under the willows with your fresh-made balsamic chicken panini.

Chef Kingsley has the experience to know what those words really entail. He’s done it all in his decade-plus as a chef: cooked in the world of hotels, country clubs, and French restaurants; served VIP dinners to former President Bill Clinton, to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and to sommelier Alpana Singh of Check, Please! and, as area executive chef for Sodexo, overseen the restaurants at some of Chicago’s most popular public institutions.

In a fun and foodie interview, the chef explained what makes the Garden View Café’s approach so interesting.

The Menu: Seasonal and Plant-centric

 Flatbread with shaved cheese, grilled tomatoes, and balsamic vinegar on baby salad greens.

Seasonal veggies never tasted so good: arugula topped with shaved cheese and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar on a fresh-baked flatbread.

“We wanted a truly seasonal menu,” Kingsley says, “that changes three times per year, according to what grows in spring, summer, and fall. What we’re serving here is what’s really growing around here.” Of course, it takes a lot of planning to gather all the ingredients for a fresh-based café menu.

First, the chef worked closely with our horticulturists at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden and Windy City Harvest Youth Farm to coordinate what’s being grown outside with what’s being served inside. That means some of the heirloom tomatoes, supersweet peppers, kale, onions, and carrots—the staples of the Café—are grown by the Chicago Botanic Garden itself. “Sometimes the produce picked in the morning will be used in the kitchen that afternoon,” Kingsley says. “The cross-pollination between the Café and our other Garden programs gives visitors unique access to truly fresh food.”

Map showing local sources for food at the Garden View Café.

Know where your food comes from: local suppliers from the quad-state area are proudly pointed out at the Café.

Beyond the Garden, Kingsley honed relationships with the local vendors that supply what the Garden can’t: bread from Chicago’s Red Hen Bread, pastured chickens from Indiana’s Gunthorp Farms, handmade cheeses and fresh sausages from Wisconsin’s best artisans, asparagus from Michigan’s Daisy Farms. “It’s not just that we use local chickens,” Kingsley explains, “but also that we support our neighbors—and therefore grow an economically healthy community for us all.” It’s a fantastic group of resources, whose names are proudly posted in the Café. Check out the full list of providers here.

The Service: Quick and Casual

With his resources in place, the chef turned to the how-to’s of service. How to grab a quick takeout or snack (at easy-to-browse coolers and a farmer’s table at the Café entrance). How to order from the fresh-cooked menu (walk right up to the counter at the open kitchen, where it’s prepared on the spot). How to get hot food to your table quickly (servers deliver and/or pagers buzz when it’s ready).

 A pizza goes in to the pizza oven.

Flatbreads are baked to perfection on demand.

Two conveniences stand out:

  1. A Wood Stone brick-style oven. It’s big. It’s fast. It cooks Kingsley’s flatbreads (thin pizzas + yummy toppings) to crispy perfection. The daily flatbread special is always posted on the chalkboard, and there are four standard versions on the menu, too.
  1. Barista service. Double-skinny vanilla latte with a splash of hazelnut? No problem. At the new barista station, we proudly serve Starbucks coffee…and its full menu of hot and cold beverages. The baristas—all of whom have been trained by a Starbucks coffee master—are happy to talk roasts and brews, too.

An awesome view

 View of the remodeled cafe.

The new Garden View Café

 A view from the Skokie Lagoons of the cafe deck, with trees in bloom.

The café deck, abloom in springtime

It’s renamed the Garden View Café for a reason. The clean, open, airy interior lets in maximum light—and a photo-worthy view—through the big, Edward Barnes-designed windows. They act like frames around the always-changing view of the lakeside garden: daffodils in spring, flowering natives in summer, hibiscus in fall. Two outside decks (take your tray across the hall to relax with a view of Bird Island) act like the ultimate sidewalk café—except without the traffic, the concrete, or the noise. 

And then there’s the food

It’s good. Really good. Because it’s local and fresh, the tastes are vibrant. Because the cooking techniques are simple, it’s healthier for you. And because the menu is in tune with the seasons, each dish satisfies. “Even the desserts are minimally produced, but full of flavor,” the chef notes. (Yes, they are: have you tried the house-made baked goods yet?)

“Of course we give out Café recipes,” smiles area executive chef Michael Kingsley. “They’re not proprietary, and they’re uncomplicated—you can make meals this way at home, too.” Three seasons’ worth of café recipes are on our website.

Kids get the healthy treatment, too (though they won’t realize it). Sure, there are chicken tenders, but they’re baked with a cornflake crust. There’s mac and cheese, with good-for-you butternut squash as a hidden ingredient. And almond butter panini with apples subs for PB&J.

 Cornflake-crusted chicken tenders with a skewer of fresh fruit.

What kid wouldn’t try fruit shaped like a star?

“Food at cultural institutions used to be high calorie and high fat,” Kingsley recalls. “Now, we want to educate people about how to stay healthy. The Café isn’t just a place to go out of necessity—we want you to say, ‘Let’s go eat at the Garden. The food’s great there.’ ”

We couldn’t agree more.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Expanding Food Horizons…Kohlrabi Lovers Unite!

Garden Blog - Tue, 05/06/2014 - 8:50am

Recent interactions at the neighborhood market have reaffirmed our work of inspiring folks to become more adventurous vegetable gardeners and consumers. The girl at the checkout counter often questions my vegetable selections. Recently, she had to ask (holding up a bag of produce), “…peas?” I said, “fava beans.” Of another bag, she asked, “lettuce?” I replied, “Napa cabbage.”

It’s exciting to expand our food horizons. Like the mouse who expands his horizons in If You Give A Mouse A Cookie by Laura Numeroff, when you set out to do one thing, it often snowballs, becoming a cascade of challenges and rewards. You often become more involved and do more than you originally set out to accomplish. The mouse only wanted to eat a cookie, but quickly realized that if he ate that cookie, he’d need a glass of milk. Set a goal of growing three new vegetables this year—it may be the beginning of an interesting sequence of events. If you grow three new veggies in the garden…you’re probably in for new culinary adventures in the kitchen, or maybe you’ll dig out an old family recipe. Perhaps you’ll share a meal with a neighbor. Sounds pretty good to me. Here are a few veggies you might like to try.

 Young kohlrabi plants bordered by onions on the Fruit & Vegetable island.

Kohl is the German word for cabbage, and rübi means turnip. Find kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea ‘Kolibri’) in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

Kohlrabi

The Victory Garden movement of World War II was responsible for bringing kohlrabi to the American dinner table, because it was so easy to grow. Kohlrabi is a reliably cooperative vegetable to grow, and completely underrated. There are two old varieties—green and purple. ‘Early Purple Vienna’ is not only a beautiful heirloom in the garden; it has sweet, white flesh, and is crisp like an apple when eaten as raw matchsticks. It can also be cooked like cabbage. A quickly-maturing, hardy spring and fall crop, it matures in 55 days. Due to its ability to hold well in the field, the bulbs (botanically, the edible bulb is actually part of the stem) won’t need to be harvested all at once. You can enjoy one sweet kohlrabi at a time. 

 Rutabega in the garden.

Rutabaga (Brassica napus)

Rutabaga

Another common vegetable in the Victory Garden, rutabagas are “a butter and cream veggie, as Scandinavians would prepare them,” according to Deborah Madison in Vegetable Literacy. Rutabagas are named for their dense roots—the name in Swedish means root bag. They are also commonly known as Swedes or yellow turnips. This cabbage turnip cross yields lovely, pale, crisp, buttery yellow flesh. More nutritious than turnips—unless you eat their greens—rutabagas are delicious mashed or pureed with root vegetables or julienned into french fries. Long-seasoned in the field, they take 90 days to mature and last a long time in proper post-harvest storage. What a difference the rutabaga made to hungry families in lean times! 

Turnip

Our final selection, turnips, are best grown quickly during the cool seasons of spring and fall, and vary greatly in taste and quality depending on climate, variety, and culture. Some varieties were widely used to feed livestock, while other turnips indulged the most sophisticated epicure. The Hakurei turnip is a beautiful, white, Japanese salad turnip that is best grown quickly (40 days) in the spring garden. When harvested young, Purple Top Globe lends itself to delicious sea-salted slices. While turnips and radishes resemble each other, turnip greens are more nutritious. Both can be sweet and crisp or hot and spicy depending on maturity and weather. Enjoy raw or cooked turnips with radish greens. They are wonderful when eaten together.

 A bunch of white Hakurei turnips.

Hakurei turnip ( Brassica rapa ‘Hakurei’)

Turnips also happen to be part of what we are growing this year as part of our Victory Garden display, growing the vegetable varieties and plants people would have grown during wartime to sustain themselves and their community. The value of Victory Gardens is tremendous, and the message is current again: a local and multi-faceted food system—home gardeners, urban farmers, other small scale growers—supports a more resilient community overall.

As these Victory Garden plantings unfold in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden this season, perhaps we will take a moment to contemplate our own personal food histories allowing them to inform us as to why we eat the way we do. Our work of today finds such congruence with the Victory Garden experience—a time when the United States government printed and circulated vegetable-growing primers. This was a time when our country grew 41 percent of its produce at home out of duty, honor, and necessity, and with the help provided by botanic gardens, community gardens, horticultural societies, and garden clubs. While our war is thankfully different today, it is a war still. It’s a war on nutritional deficiencies and obesity, on food deserts and hunger. Learning to grow your own is a powerful way to participate, to contribute and to change your food footprint!

Like the mouse who eats the cookie, which leads him to ask for a glass of milk, perhaps we will plant the heirloom seed that will grow a bumper tomato crop that will necessitate learning how to can tomato sauce. Whether it’s food preservation, saving on your grocery bill,  sharing with a neighbor, or exploring exotic vegetables that interests you, dig deep and find the motivation to grow food at home!

Tweet to me @hilgenberg8 and let me know which three vegetables you chose to plant in your garden this spring. Good growing to you!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Bottle Cap Bouquets

Youth Education - Sun, 05/04/2014 - 8:50am

Miniature flower arrangements offer a charming and whimsical gift for mom, grandma, or anyone special. A nice feature of these tiny bouquets is that you can show off the beauty of small flowers that always sing backup to showier blossoms in large arrangements. Also, you can use aromatic herbs with small leaves as filler greens to add a pleasant scent.

 The supplies for creating bottlecap bouquets.

The supplies for creating bottle cap bouquets.

 a tiny bouquet of mini carnation, baby's breath, and a sprig of sage.

This little arrangement of mini-carnations, baby’s breath, and a sprig of sage has pink burlap ribbon wrapped around the bottle cap to mimic a fancy basket of flowers.

What you need:

  • A cap from a plastic bottle, such as a milk container or soda bottle
  • Floral foam (the wet kind)
  • A bunch of small flowers—I used mini-carnations, waxflowers (Chamelaucium uncinatum), and baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata)
  • Fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, and lavender work well because they have stiff stems)
  • Optional: ribbon for added decoration

The directions are pretty simple.

Cut the floral foam to fit the inside of the bottle cap. Start a little larger than you need, and then trim it to fit. Push it into the cap. If your cap is narrow, like a milk bottle cap, you may want the foam to be above the level of the cap so there is enough room to hold the flowers. Otherwise, trim the top so the foam does not stick up. Add water to soak the foam.

 hands tracing around a bottlecap and block of foam with a pencil.

Trace the cap on a piece of foam and then carve the foam with a butter knife to fit inside the cap.

 hands poking flowers into floral foam.

Begin sticking the flowers into the foam. Here, we started with a waxflower in the center and added smaller flowers and herbs around it.

Cut the flower and herb stems about 3 inches. You can trim them shorter depending on the desired height in the arrangement. Stick them into the foam. You might want to start with one of your larger flowers in the center and then add smaller flowers and herbs around it.

 a tiny bouquet of waxflower, baby's breath, and rosemary.

Waxflower, baby’s breath, and rosemary complete this delicate arrangement.

 a tiny bouquet of baby's breath and thyme.

Not into pink? This yellow cap with baby’s breath and thyme is fragrant and cheerful.

When you are satisfied with your floral creation, you can either leave it as is—especially if the color of the bottle cap looks nice with the flowers—or you can tie a ribbon around the bottle cap. The best way to keep it in place is by using a few drops from a hot-glue gun. 

 a tiny garden created in an old contact lens case.

Surprise! An old contact lens case becomes a miniature garden of waxflower and thyme that smells as amazing as it looks.

Tips

When using a shallow bottle cap, limit the number of larger flowers like mini-carnations or mini-daisies to three or fewer. Floral foam has limits. Adding too many flowers will cause the foam to fall apart and the flowers to flop over. If the first attempt suffers from floppy flowers, start over with a new piece of foam and add fewer flowers. 

If you really want more than three large flowers, use a taller cup, such as a medicine cup from a bottle of cough syrup, as the vase. Even then, take care not to overload the foam. This is a small bouquet, after all!

 the final bottlcap bouquet arrangements in a group.

Precious and colorful, these-mini bouquets will stay fresh and bring cheer for a few days.

Floral foam is irresistible. Your kids, even teenagers, will want to play with it. Parcel it out in small pieces so they don’t play around with the whole block before you can use it. 

You can use the same procedure to make a mini-dried flower arrangement; just don’t wet the foam. Any way you make them, these little bouquets are sure to bring big smiles from someone you love. 

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Bottle Cap Bouquets

Garden Blog - Sun, 05/04/2014 - 8:50am

Miniature flower arrangements offer a charming and whimsical gift for mom, grandma, or anyone special. A nice feature of these tiny bouquets is that you can show off the beauty of small flowers that always sing backup to showier blossoms in large arrangements. Also, you can use aromatic herbs with small leaves as filler greens to add a pleasant scent.

 The supplies for creating bottlecap bouquets.

The supplies for creating bottle cap bouquets.

 a tiny bouquet of mini carnation, baby's breath, and a sprig of sage.

This little arrangement of mini-carnations, baby’s breath, and a sprig of sage has pink burlap ribbon wrapped around the bottle cap to mimic a fancy basket of flowers.

What you need:

  • A cap from a plastic bottle, such as a milk container or soda bottle
  • Floral foam (the wet kind)
  • A bunch of small flowers—I used mini-carnations, waxflowers (Chamelaucium uncinatum), and baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata)
  • Fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, and lavender work well because they have stiff stems)
  • Optional: ribbon for added decoration

The directions are pretty simple.

Cut the floral foam to fit the inside of the bottle cap. Start a little larger than you need, and then trim it to fit. Push it into the cap. If your cap is narrow, like a milk bottle cap, you may want the foam to be above the level of the cap so there is enough room to hold the flowers. Otherwise, trim the top so the foam does not stick up. Add water to soak the foam.

 hands tracing around a bottlecap and block of foam with a pencil.

Trace the cap on a piece of foam and then carve the foam with a butter knife to fit inside the cap.

 hands poking flowers into floral foam.

Begin sticking the flowers into the foam. Here, we started with a waxflower in the center and added smaller flowers and herbs around it.

Cut the flower and herb stems about 3 inches. You can trim them shorter depending on the desired height in the arrangement. Stick them into the foam. You might want to start with one of your larger flowers in the center and then add smaller flowers and herbs around it.

 a tiny bouquet of waxflower, baby's breath, and rosemary.

Waxflower, baby’s breath, and rosemary complete this delicate arrangement.

 a tiny bouquet of baby's breath and thyme.

Not into pink? This yellow cap with baby’s breath and thyme is fragrant and cheerful.

When you are satisfied with your floral creation, you can either leave it as is—especially if the color of the bottle cap looks nice with the flowers—or you can tie a ribbon around the bottle cap. The best way to keep it in place is by using a few drops from a hot-glue gun. 

 a tiny garden created in an old contact lens case.

Surprise! An old contact lens case becomes a miniature garden of waxflower and thyme that smells as amazing as it looks.

Tips

When using a shallow bottle cap, limit the number of larger flowers like mini-carnations or mini-daisies to three or fewer. Floral foam has limits. Adding too many flowers will cause the foam to fall apart and the flowers to flop over. If the first attempt suffers from floppy flowers, start over with a new piece of foam and add fewer flowers. 

If you really want more than three large flowers, use a taller cup, such as a medicine cup from a bottle of cough syrup, as the vase. Even then, take care not to overload the foam. This is a small bouquet, after all!

 the final bottlcap bouquet arrangements in a group.

Precious and colorful, these-mini bouquets will stay fresh and bring cheer for a few days.

Floral foam is irresistible. Your kids, even teenagers, will want to play with it. Parcel it out in small pieces so they don’t play around with the whole block before you can use it. 

You can use the same procedure to make a mini-dried flower arrangement; just don’t wet the foam. Any way you make them, these little bouquets are sure to bring big smiles from someone you love. 

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A Year in Bulbs: Part Two

Garden Blog - Sat, 05/03/2014 - 8:20am

Things move quickly in the bulb garden in the spring!

In three weeks, we’ve already seen the “little blue bulbs” (Scilla and Chionodoxa) come and go, the first of the species tulips burst forth with color, and the foliage fill out, creating a rich, green backdrop, allowing the flowers to shine. Even with our cold spring, we’ve already had a month of flowers—which goes to show just how tough these plants really are. We’re on our third flush of flowers while many other gardens are still just waking up for the season.

 A view of the south path, dotted with the blues and reds of scilla and tulips.

The south path on April 21, showing the last of the Scilla and Tulipa batalinii ‘Bronze Charm’

The little blue bulbs are making way for the most popular and well-known of the bulbs; the daffodils (Narcissus) and hybrid tulips. We’ve also got many types of Fritillaria, Corydalis, and Muscari adding unique colors and forms to the display. The foliage is filling out, creating a lush oasis of green in an otherwise still-dreary spring.

 A view of the south path, now filled with narcissus.

The south path on April 30—note how the Scilla and tulips have given way to Narcissus, with many more flowers waiting to burst forth

 A combination of differently-shaped blooms in purple and white make a beautiful contrast.

Corydalis solida ‘Purple Bird’ and Muscari aucheri ‘White Magic’

 Closeup of Muscari 'Pink Sunrise' blooms.

Muscari ‘Pink Sunrise’

Look closely as you walk along the paths, and you’ll see many unique flowers, such as several varieties of Erythronium and Fritillaria of all different sizes and colors.

 A closeup of Fritillaria imperialis 'Aureomarginata'.

Fritillaria imperialis ‘Aureomarginata’

 Closeup of Erythronium hendersonii in bloom.

Erythronium hendersonii

On May 1, we had our first Meet the Horticulturist for the season. I had the opportunity to lead a group of visitors around the Graham Bulb Garden and highlight some of the most unique and exciting things in bloom. Some visitor favorites included Corydalis varieties with their jewel-toned flowers and soft cushions of blue-green foliage; the cheerful spikes of blue, white, or palest pink Muscari; and dwarf Iris ‘Evening Shade’, which is a new hybrid Juno iris, with a unique growth habit, that looks very much like a miniature corn plant. Another plant that really wowed the visitors was the variegated crown imperial fritillary (Fritillaria imperialis ‘Aureomarginata’).  

Meet the Horticulturist events are a great way to get a more in-depth view of some of your favorite gardens. We’ll be featuring four more throughout the summer, with various other gardens as the highlight. Come talk with us!

 Narcissus in the Bulb Garden.

Narcissus are just starting to put on a show.


 Closeup of dwarf Iris 'Evening Shade'

Iris ‘Evening Shade’

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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