What’s the right kind of mulch? How much do I put down? When’s the best time to mulch? How often do I need to amend the mulch? Is mulch the best weed barrier?
Great questions about a basic garden element.
Mulch is an important facet of your garden, and too often, its use and application are ill-informed or misconstrued; the most prevailing idea is that mulch is a definitive weed barrier. I hate to be the bearer of sad news, but the answer to that one is, well…have you noticed that weeds will grow quite well from the seams in the sidewalk? Or from the smallest cracks in the driveway? Or apparently straight out of bare concrete along the expressway? So, seeing that weeds will grow in the most adverse circumstances, you can safely assume that an organic medium such as mulch will inevitably play host to weeds as well and just live with it. (Besides, they pull out easily).
Let’s make the distinction here, too, that when crushed stone or gravel is used in place of mulch, we’re really talking about a walking surface—alternative to paving—or decorative stone covering, and not organic mulch in the strictly horticultural sense. Ideally, organic mulch immediately adds nutrients to the life cycle of plants. If not thoroughly composted, it can (and will) break down or compost into smaller, organically beneficial material. But its primary benefit for trees and shrubs is threefold:
- To protect and optimize the root zone
- To protect the trunk, stems, and bark
- To define the turf/bed edge
When we consider that many shrubs and trees are planted either singly or in groupings throughout turf areas, we need to imagine what’s going on underground, where the roots grow. One common plant myth that was taught to me thousands of years ago in the fifth grade was that the taproots of all trees go down as deep into the earth as the tree is tall. The fact is, most mature trees don’t have taproots; instead, they have large, lateral, anchoring roots that tend to dominate the side of the tree that faces into the prevailing winds. As these major root structures fan out into the surrounding soil to gain a firm hold, their secondary roots likewise fan out laterally; branching out into progressively smaller and finer filaments that probe the soil for water, oxygen, and nutrients. Research has found that the smallest of these roots can be the diameter of a human hair and extend hundreds of yards away from the tree! And their depth in the soil can be from 8 inches to 2 feet down, depending upon the soil composition. They grow best where the oxygen level remains above 18 percent. Clay soil, consisting of densely compacted soil particles, will cause roots to grow higher in the soil than a sandier, looser soil, and 75 percent of the tree’s root mass can be found within its drip line.
What’s a drip line? Imagine the tree’s canopy of leaves to be the protective canopy of an umbrella, and the handle is its trunk. The point on the ground directly below the canopy edge where the rain drips off of the umbrella is its drip-line. The circle on the ground which this area describes encompasses the tree’s primary root zone, and this is the area from which the tree derives its greatest benefit from proper mulching. Typically, this ground area consists of turf. How many grass roots do you imagine this to contain? For smaller trees, this would number in the hundreds of thousands; larger trees would count in the millions. Like the tree’s roots, each of these grass roots is also searching for water, air, and nutrients; and, since they’re closest to the surface, guess which roots are going to capture the most of these essentials? Correct: turf will hog it all first. Therefore, to better serve the deeper needs of the more significant plants—trees and shrubs—it’s best to eliminate the competition. And let’s face it, the garden has its hierarchy of plants, and it’s best to sacrifice the smaller for the sake of the grand.
Once removed, the former turf area now can receive a 2 to 4-inch (thumb-deep; no more!) layer of organic mulch to stabilize the soil and allow for the unrestricted passage of air, water, and nutrients through the soil and into the tree’s root zone. With the root zone de-turfed, the repetitive visits of mowers and accompanying foot traffic reduces soil compaction in this area, which is significant, because the air spaces between the soil particles are very important for the health of the roots, as they serve as a conduit for the movement of air and water through the soil. Additionally, with mowers and weed whips relegated to the drip line, there are far fewer opportunities for damaging contact with the bark, which, if injured, can threaten the health and longevity of the tree, depending upon the extent of the damage.
Nothing lasts forever, and good organic mulch continues to compost down to nothing. Well, nothing that you can see, but something that amends the soil over time, and improves the overall friability—the “crumbliness” and breakdown of the adhesion of clay. It’s a continuing investment; not a waste of money. With the proper addition of organic mulch over time, you don’t even need to consider the addition of chemical nutrients. Yes, shredded rubber mulch will last until the end of time, but trust me, your plants won’t like it. An annual good feeding of organic mulch will prove to become a pillar of your overall garden quality and success.Protecting the trunk, stems, and bark
Another way tree bark can be damaged is—believe it or not—mulch itself! You’ve likely seen it widely practiced by landscapers and homeowners alike: the piling up of mulch around the base of the tree into a conical mound that sometimes reaches depths of a foot or more: the dreaded “mulch volcano.” Considering that there are none to very few “working roots” located this close to the base of a mature tree, this pile of mulch serves no horticultural benefit to the tree (and likewise with shrubs). For a young, newly-planted sapling, this pile can easily cover the total root mass, and the mulch volcano can actually shed water away from the roots!
The detriments are many, as this mulch pile will retain whatever moisture content exists in the mulch against the bark, which, over an extended period of time, can soften and begin to rot because of this continuous moisture. In this compromised state, molds, blights, bacteria, bugs, vermin, and more can gain entry otherwise prevented by dry, healthy bark; it’s an even more egregious intrusion with thin-barked trees and shrubs. This is an easily avoidable mistake. Gardeners, remember that mulch should NEVER touch the bark! Think of mulch as being the same as soil: you would never plant a tree or a shrub too deep; placing the bark under the soil, would you? After all, that’s the roots’ job, right? Despite occasional rain or snow, the bark remains dry in the open air while the roots do their job under the soil. When these factors get reversed, the plant loses.Defining the turf edge
Defining the planting bed with a cut-turf edge is the most naturalistic, economical, and efficient method that you can use. Yet some folks over-do this edging and create such deep cuts that they can be ankle-twisters more resembling irrigation canals than their intended purpose requires. The best edge is cut with a sharpened spade with the top of the blade angled out 15 degrees from vertical, and cut only 2 to 3 inches deep. If viewed in profile, the resulting wedge of soil proves to be a strong-enough “foot” to support the turf (and its root mass) from the weight of foot traffic and lawn mowers while resisting erosion. Coupled with mulch properly in-filled immediately adjacent to this edge, you have in place an edging system that requires little maintenance through the season, and you’ll find that the mulch will handily support the lawn mower wheels, which will eliminate the turf scalping commonly occurring when the wheels drop lower into the bed; placing the blades at a sharp, downward angle, rather than keeping them optimally parallel to the turf. And because the mulch is very airy compared to the soil, the grass roots tend to not grow out into the mulch. It’s truly a win-win situation: a sharp, clean edge derived from a modest investment of time and effort. (Watch our edging how-to here.)Choose the right mulch for the job
As for the mulch itself, look for the most organic, pH-compatible material that you can find. The Garden uses leaf mulch for that very reason—the leaves collected are from a virtually identical range of plants, with the same, cumulative pH. Buying bags of cypress mulch at the gas station and piling it up under your beech tree just won’t work. You would use the cypress mulch for your cypress trees. Likewise, you wouldn’t pile up acid-pH pine needle mulch underneath a maple tree. (Note: please rethink the artificial coloring, too. Red mulch might add color to the landscape, but the chemicals that make it red are not natural.)
Stick with the basics and emulate what happens in nature: trees in the woods drop their leaves to the ground below, where they remain relatively close to their parent plant, compost naturally, and provide the optimum benefits of mulch. This has worked well without human assistance for eons. Why mess with success? Save the shredded tire mulch for the playground. And save the free wood chips municipalities provide for things that begin with the letter “P,” such as pathways (they make a great barrier against mud!), playgrounds, picnic grounds, and parking areas. Wood chips are not composted, easily wash away with a hard rain, and frankly, look out of scale with smaller trees, shrubs, and perennials. Remember, those wood chips are free because it’s cheaper to give them away than to haul them away and pay for disposal.
So do your trees a favor, and treat them the way that nature does—they’ll be the better for it!
My summer intern, Melanie Jensen (now a senior studying horticulture at Southern Illinois University), has always wondered how botanic gardens put together their impressive seasonal displays. In fact, she was so intrigued by them that she did her final presentation—a graduation requirement for the Garden’s horticulture internship program—on the complexities and challenges of preparing these displays.
To say the work is complex and challenging is almost an understatement. Sometimes our work here seems like magic. Overnight, the Garden can transform from spring to summer or summer to fall. Yesterday there were spring troughs, summer palm trees, or fall mum towers in the Garden. Today, there is something completely different. Yes, it does seem like it happens just like that, perhaps with the snap of a finger. But behind the scenes, for months or even years before most visitors get to see a display, a team is already hard at work making it happen.
Melanie and more than 50 other staff and volunteers had a front row seat this summer to help me create this fall’s signature display in the Heritage Garden—the Viola pyramids, which are now on display. The pyramids themselves are really just a set of simple flowers presented in a very unique way. The story could end right there, but what I think makes this display fascinating to people like me and Melanie (and hopefully to you, too) is the astonishing amount of work it takes to get the pyramids from concept to finished product.
The Garden began working on this project more than a year ago, when outdoor floriculturist Tim Pollak and I were brainstorming on how we could use the pyramids in another display. Last used about five years ago, the pyramids have traditionally been used as a summer display component, planted with two cultivars of Alternanthera. Pressed to take a fresh approach to the pyramids, we settled on the idea that they would make a great fall display. We considered using mums (too fragile, and many growing challenges) and Verbena (not frost-tolerant enough for fall), and concluded that Viola were our best option. Others agreed.
Saying we are creating Viola pyramids is the easy part. Actually doing it is a completely different story, and it’s a testament to great project planning and teamwork at the Garden.Here’s what it took:
1. Our production team grew 6,400 Viola plants, half orange and half purple, so they were ready for planting into the pyramid structure by early August. The pyramids are 9 feet wide at the base, and 10 feet tall at the apex.
2. In the meantime, Melanie and I led the team to prepare the pyramid frames. Working in the nursery, our first step was to attach landscape fabric to the front face of the pyramids using hundreds of zip ties. Landscape fabric helps hold the soil and the plants in the frame. We had to be very careful that the fabric covered every nook and cranny of the frame. If not, soil would leak from the frame, and it would undermine the integrity of the entire planting space.
3. Next we custom-blended special planting media, using lightweight potting soil and perlite. The pyramids retain water differently at their tops versus their bottoms, so we changed the composition of the media throughout the frame to accommodate this variance. Near the top of the pyramid we used a heavier, more water-retentive blend of about 70 percent soil and 30 percent perlite. At the bottom, where there is a risk that the pyramid could become waterlogged, we created a lightweight mix that was about 30 percent soil and 70 percent perlite. You can see in the picture how the soil/perlite composition changes from top to bottom.
4. Most of the time we will water the pyramids with a hose and water nozzle, but sometimes we need to give them a deeper soaking, especially on hot and sunny days. To help with that, we weaved soaker hoses throughout the frame so that we could water from the inside out.
5. To make the pyramids lighter (each individual panel weighs about 500 pounds—meaning each pyramid weighs 2,000 pounds), and to reduce the amount of soil and perlite needed, we stuffed sheets of foam insulation into the bottom of the frame. A mesh screen secured all of these materials inside the frame.
6. Time to plant! We cut tiny holes into the landscape fabric and inserted a Viola plant. As we planted, we also pinched and deadheaded each and every Viola. During the critical first few weeks of growing in the pyramids, the Viola plants need to spend their energy developing roots and spreading foliage to cover the entire frame, rather than producing flowers. Removing all of the flowers is a hard thing to swallow, but it’s really for the best long-term interest of the display.
(Incidentally, the cut flowers were put to good use, donated to our Roadside Flower Sale team. Pressed flowers are sold at their annual sale, with proceeds supporting Garden initiatives, including generous funding for the horticulture department.)
7. The original plan was to leave the Viola plants simply to grow as-is under the care of our great production team until they were display-ready in mid-September. However, Mother Nature had other plans. The weather caused the Viola to grow faster than expected, and by late August it became clear that we would need to do another round of deadheading. Staff and volunteers again converged in the nursery for two days of meticulous work removing every flower head and seedpod from the display. It was a lot of work, and a little disconcerting to again make a beautifully colorful pyramid all green and flowerless, but it was an important task so the Viola could flower prolifically later into the season.
8. Time to move to the Heritage Garden! It took 15 strong groundskeepers, some extra machinery and ropes, a lot of creative thinking, and 1½ days of hard work to move the pyramids from the Nursery to the Heritage Garden. Come by and take a look!
I often like to break down the numbers for a project, because it articulates the scope of work in a way that words cannot. So, here are some numbers for this project: Over one year of planning, more than 50 people involved, 6,400 plants used, and more than 500 hours of labor to get the job done. Yes, 500 hours!
It seems like a lot of work—and it is—but I hope that everyone who sees the display takes away something uniquely personal to them. Perhaps it sparks your creativity on how to use simple plants in unique ways. Maybe seeing something new and special triggers your passion for plants and horticulture, either as a hobby or as a career. Sometimes the display will draw your attention to a part of the Garden that you never explored before now. Or maybe you like it just because it looks pretty cool. It’s even O.K. if this display just isn’t your thing: artistic choices are very personal. Whatever your take-away is, however, my hope is that we can use this display and others like it to engage you in a conversation about plants and to help you connect to the Garden in an exciting new way. That makes 500 hours of work worth it for me.
When most people think of bulbs, they think of spring-flowering plants such as tulips and Narcissus, or maybe summer ones such as Allium or lilies. One often-forgotten season is fall, even though fall is prime time for one of the most carefree and surprising bulbs of all, Colchicum.
Commonly known as autumn crocus or meadow saffron (although it is important to note that they are neither saffron nor a crocus and are poisonous if ingested), these lovely ephemerals are jewels in the fall garden.
Get your own Colchicum bulbs (and more!) at the Fall Bulb Festival, October 4 – 6.
Although they’re commonly referred to as a bulb, Colchicum are not a true bulb, but are corms, much like Gladiolus and Freesia. Colchicum have an unusual habit of growing their foliage in the spring (just like most plants), but then instead of flowering, they go dormant for several months. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, they send up dozens of purple, pink, white, or checkerboard flowers just as the rest of the garden is getting ready for fall.
Colchicum prefer a location with full sun until midspring and grow best in a location with well-drained soil that does not stay wet during the summer dormant period. This makes them ideal for planting under trees, where other plants might not compete as well with the roots. The bulbs should always be planted two to three times deeper than the bulb is tall to help ensure a long life.
To appreciate these intricate flowers, plant Colchicum in large groups near the front of a border. Because the foliage remains green until early summer, it is best to either plant them in an area with a groundcover, or to choose a low-growing annual to plant over them once the foliage has gone dormant for the season. This not only hides the bare ground, but also provides some support to help keep the flowers upright.
Look for Colchicum at the Chicago Botanic Garden beginning in mid-September and continuing through October. The Bulb and Home Landscape Gardens have the best displays of this fall beauty.
Cicadas have been out and singing for a while now. If you live around trees, you may be enjoying their late summer serenade. You also may be finding them on the ground. After they emerge from underground burrows, they molt and enter their adult stage. Then they mate, lay eggs, and die. When you find one, you can examine it to learn more about these big bugs.
Did you know that cicadas have five eyes?
In school we learn that insects have compound eyes, and we use toy bug eye viewers to get a sense of what dragonflies and bees see. But the real picture is a little more complicated. In addition to the pair of compound eyes, many insects, including cicadas, have three simple eyes. They are easy to see on a cicada if you look carefully.
The simple eyes are called ocelli, and they are usually arranged in a triangle between the compound eyes, like those in picture of the cicada’s face. Grasshoppers, bees, and praying mantids also have them.
Let’s do some cicada math!
If you find a cicada on a tree or the ground, see if you can count:
1 mouth part to drink sap from trees
2 antennae that grow under the eyes and look like whiskers
3 body parts: head, thorax, and abdomen
4 wings, arranged in two pairs
5 eyes, 3 simple + 2 compound
Want more cicada by the numbers? Click here to download a Color-by-Number Cicada.
Are you looking for a plant that offers some “wow” at the end of the season? That particular something that offers color, and maybe even more? Here’s something on steroids: Heptacodium miconioides.
This large shrub or small tree (15 to 20 feet tall on average), native and rare in the wild in China, was successfully reintroduced to western horticulture in the 1980s, and its popularity has come to span the globe for good reason: this is not just a brilliant autumn performer—it’s a year-round beauty! I suppose we can start the story when this ornamental shrub is dormant in the winter, with its striking exfoliating bark peeling off of nearly every branch in tan, cream, or light brown ribbons or patches, revealing the underlying tissue that has developed into a wash of many colors: vertical striations of creamy white, deep yellow, green, tan, bluish-green, olive green, brown, ochre, and even rust; more so as the plant ages. But that’s just the beginning of the show.
Heptacodium are among the first to sprout leaves in the spring, and their light green color is especially attractive. Should they break dormancy in an early thaw and the leaves succumb to a return of the cold, do not fret, because they’ll start over again. This plant likes to grow. Once the leaves fill in and the warm weather settles in, you’ll have a beautiful, irregularly umbrella-shaped, dense canopy of long, shiny, deep green leaves. And suckers. Be sure to catch them in late May and cut them off, as they can easily and rapidly form straight whip-like vertical branches that mess up the plan. You may even need to revisit the suckering scene in late summer, as it simmers down and readies to bloom.
Let your Heptacodium establish for a couple of seasons into a V-shaped, multistem plant, then select three to seven sturdy stems for the plant to stand on, and cut off the rest of the stems, including the suckers. (As we’ve mentioned, this plant likes to sucker. Profusely. Even if it gets run over by an off-road vehicle—and some of ours have—it will sucker back into a strong and proper plant in one or two seasons.) They really like to grow, and with few natural (nonautomotive) pests to disrupt their progress, they’re reliably hardy in the Chicago area’s Zone 5 climate.
In late summer the plants begin to set up for their flower display, developing whorls of buds at the tips of the branches; these structures form bracts of seven, hence its common name, “seven-son flower.” These open progressively, until the entire plant is covered in a cloud of tiny white blooms that smell somewhat like jasmine or alyssum—a sweet scent, to be sure. As amazing as this display can be, it changes even more. As the small dark fruits (or seeds, or berries) form, the white petals fade, and the corollas (flower petals) form sturdy calyces (a calyx is a specialized petal that wraps around the fruit) that color up into reds ranging from rose to nearly purple; some are even bluish in color, which can last as late as November, when the birds will find these treats and finish them off.
But wait—there’s even more! We’ve come full-circle back to the amazing winter display of that colorful, textural, exfoliating bark. With all of this to enjoy, seriously consider placing one (or more) of these beauties in a highly visible, year-round spot in your garden.
It’s that time of year again—time for student science fair projects. Many students I know struggle to find a good idea, and sometimes wait until the last minute to do their experiments. We in the Education Department of the Chicago Botanic Garden are committed to helping make science fair a painless and even fun learning experience for students, parents, and teachers by offering some simple ideas for studying plants.
A no-brainer botany project is testing germination of radish seeds in different conditions. Radish seeds are easy to acquire, inexpensive, large enough to see and pick up with your fingers, and quick to germinate under normal conditions. Testing germination does not take weeks, doesn’t require a lot of room, and is easy to measure—just count the seeds that sprout!
To set up a seed germination experiment, use this basic procedure:
- Gather three or more small plates, depending on how many ways you will be treating your seeds.
- Place a folded wet paper towel on the plate.
- Place ten seeds on the wet paper towel. You can use more seeds—the more you have, the more reliable your results will be—but using multiples of ten makes it easier to calculate percentages.
- Cover with a damp paper towel; label the plates.
- Treat the seeds the same way in every respect except for one thing: the condition you are testing. That condition is your “independent variable,” which may also be called the “experimental variable.” No matter what you are testing, one plate should be set up with the basic directions and no treatment. That plate is the “control” that all the other plates can be compared with.
- When the seeds sprout root and leaves, remove the top paper towel. Compare the number of seeds that germinate and the time it takes for seeds in each condition. You should be able to wrap this up in less than a week.
Now all you need are some ideas for conditions to test. Here are eleven questions you can investigate at home or school using the same basic proceedure:
1. Do seeds need light to germinate?
Place your plates of seeds in different light conditions: one in no light (maybe in a dark room or a under a box), one in indirect/medium light (in a bright room, not near the window), and one in direct light (by a south-facing window). Compare how well the seeds germinate in these conditions.
2. Do seeds sprout faster if they are presoaked?
Soak some seeds for an hour, a few hours, and overnight. Place ten of each on a germination plate, and and compare them with ten dry seeds on another plate.
3. Does the room temperature affect germination rate?
You’ll need a thermometer for this one. Place seed plates on a warming pad, in room temperature, and in a cool location. Monitor temperature as well as germination rate. Try to ensure that the seeds have the same amount of light so it’s a fair test of temperature and not light variation.
4. Do microwaves affect germination?
Put seeds in the microwave before germinating and see if this affects them. Try short bursts, like one and two seconds as well as ten or 15 seconds, to see if you can determine the smallest amount of radiation that affects seed germination.
5. Does pH affect germination rate?
Wet the paper towels with different solutions. Use diluted vinegar for acidic water, a baking soda or mild bleach solution for alkaline conditions, and distilled water for neutral.
6. Does prefreezing affect the seed affect germination?
Some seeds perform better if they have been through a cold winter. Store some seed in the freezer and refrigerator for a week or more before germinating to find out if this is true for radishes or if it has an adverse affect.
7. Does exposure to heat affect germination rate?
Treat your seeds to heat by baking them in the oven briefly before germinating. See what happens with seeds exposed to different temperatures for the same amount of time, or different amounts of time at the same low temperature.
8. How is germination rate affected by age of the seeds?
You can acquire old seeds from a garden store (they will be happy to get rid of them), or maybe a gardener in your family has some old seeds hanging around. Find out if the seeds are any good after a year or more by germinating some of them. Compare their germination rate to a fresher package of the same kind of seed.
9. Do seeds germinate better in fertilized soil?
Instead of using the paper-towel method, sprout seeds in soils that contain different amounts of Miracle-Gro or another soil nutrient booster.
10. Does scarification improve germination rate?
Some seeds need to be scratched in order to sprout—that’s called “scarification.” Place seeds in a small bag with a spoon of sand and shake for a few minutes and see if roughing them up a bit improves or inhibits their germination.
11. Does talking to seeds improve their germination rate?
Some people claim that talking to plants increases carbon dioxide and improves growth. Are you the scientist who will show the world that seeds sprout better if you read stories to them? Stranger discoveries have been made in the plant world.
That eleventh idea may seem silly, but sometimes science discoveries are made when scientists think outside the seed packet, so to speak. Students should design an experiment around whatever question interests them—from this list or their own ideas—to make the research personal and fun. As long as students follow the scientific method, set up a controlled experiment, and use the results of the experiment to draw reasoned conclusions, they will be doing real science. The possibilities for botanical discovery are endless, so get growing!
To some people, gathering in an auditorium on a bright summer day for a packed schedule of science presentations might not seem exciting. I will confess that once I was among those poor, unenlightened individuals. Now, I know better.
The reason I know better is because recently, I attended the Fifth Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium at the Field Museum in Chicago. There, college students participating in the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the Chicago Botanic Garden and at the Field revealed some intriguing research findings about plants and animals.
For example, who knew that hormones likely determine the rigid caste system of those scary army ants? (“Scary” was not a scientific term used in the presentation, but trust me, they are.) Or that some species of tropical trees in the Yucatan Peninsula access water by sending their root systems through the tops of underground caves, enabling them to survive drought? And that native plant restoration helps fight air pollution? (How, you wonder? It improves carbon sequestration, a process in which carbon dioxide is transferred from the atmosphere to the soil—do not even think “dirt”—thereby removing the air pollutant.)
Funded through National Science Foundation grants, the REU program is held each summer, and hundreds of hopeful candidates from colleges and universities throughout the United States apply to the programs at the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Field Museum. Selected participants number only in the teens, and this fortunate group explores a diverse array of scientific topics related to plant and animal biology and conservation. They receive a stipend of $4,500 for the ten-week program, plus an additional subsistence and travel allowance.
Though the stipend is much appreciated, the main benefit of the REU program is professional: these young scientists perform detailed research out in the field and within sophisticated laboratories, under the skilled mentorship of senior scientists and doctoral and master’s students. Along the way, they gain meaningful professional experience that will help them as they pursue further education and careers. At the Garden, for example, participants have access to the laboratories of the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, equipped for research in ecology, soil science, genetics, reproductive biology, GIS, microscopy, population biology, geochemistry, isotopic analysis, and other areas of investigation. Some of the Garden’s REU participants use these labs while they serve as research mentors for teens attending Chicago Public Schools and participating in the Garden’s College First program.
“The REU internship program is a human infrastructure development initiative funded by the National Science Foundation. What better way to introduce students to doing scientific research than immersing them in it over the summer?” said senior scientist Patrick S. Herendeen, Ph.D., co-director of the Garden’s Division of Plant Science and Conservation and director of academic partnerships. “We select applicants with an interest in the science that we do here at the Garden. Many of them have not had an opportunity to participate in research, so the internship is a great opportunity for them, and for us too! When the interns return to their colleges and universities for their senior year, we keep in touch and provide guidance as they consider the next steps in their career path.”
On August 16, after a rigorous summer of scientific exploration, the REU graduates gathered at the Field Museum to lay it all out.
Kenneth Angielczyk, Ph.D., curator at the Field Museum, introduced the combined group of 17 presenters. “This symposium is the capstone experience of the REU program,” he said, noting that for many students, it was the first time they presented a talk in a scientific context. Dr. Angielczyk warmly welcomed the Chicago Botanic Garden REU participants, who traditionally have made their presentations separately, at the Garden’s Glencoe campus. “I hope this is the beginning of an ongoing collaboration going forward,” he said.
One by one, the speakers stepped to the stage and described their work. The breadth of their research, and the significance of what these undergraduates concluded, was startling. (See the agenda, which lists their topics.) Through the focus of research varied widely, the subtext of climate change provided a sobering backdrop to many of the presentations.
After a couple of hours my focus began to waver, but only because my caffeine levels had dropped. Fortunately, Stephanie Ware, Field Museum research assistant and REU symposium coordinator, had arranged for coffee and pastries between sessions.
Soon I found myself perusing the poster presentations in the lobby, coffee in one hand and muffin in the other. (There may have been some healthy snack offerings, too, but if so I trotted by them too quickly to notice.) Nearby, REU participants, their families, and the scientists who mentored them mingled, and I overheard phrases like “mediated plasticity,” “fungal partners,” “phylogenic attributes,” and “bryozoan morphogenesis.” Then it was back into the auditorium for another round of presentations.
At the event’s conclusion, conservation scientist Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., the Chicago Botanic Garden’s molecular ecologist and laboratory manager, and coordinator of the REU program at the Garden, thanked the participants. He encouraged the students to consider presenting their summer work at other meetings. “Mentors and audience members alike are impressed with the caliber of your presentations today, which are worthy for presentation at any national science meeting,” he said.
Meet the Chicago Botanic Garden’s 2013 REU interns.
The REU program begins accepting applications in January 2014 for next summer’s program. If you are an undergraduate student passionate about plant science and conservation, consider applying to the Chicago Botanic Garden’s REU program. The Field Museum’s program also offers unique collections-based research opportunities. Both enable students to get involved in what Dr. Angielczyk described as “the real scientific process” through meaningful mentorships.
In early June, the Garden’s resident pair of adult trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) gave birth to two offspring, called cygnets, in their nest near the Visitor Center. Much to the delight of Garden visitors, over the ensuing months the proud parents have enjoyed showing off their family as they paddle about the Garden Lakes.
A little background on trumpeter swans: the trumpeter swan is North America’s largest waterfowl, with a wingspan of more than 7 feet. Famed for their French-horn call and immortalized by author E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, by the late 1800s the swans were nearly hunted to extinction in much of the United States and Canada for their meat, feathers, down, and quills. By the 1930s, just 69 trumpeter swans were known to exist in the continental United States. But thanks to the ambitious conservation efforts in our region and beyond that began in the 1980s, trumpeter swan populations are making an incredible recovery.
The Garden’s two adult trumpeters are flightless, so cygnets born here at the Garden aren’t able to learn important skills. For quite a few years, the Garden has been a partner with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Trumpeter Swan Restoration Program. More than a dozen cygnets born at the Garden have been brought to Iowa, where they’re assimilated with wild populations of trumpeters.
Just last week, our two cygnets (together with five born at the Lincoln Park Zoo this spring) were transported to Iowa, where they’ll be kept in a safe area over the winter. Come next spring, they’ll be able to interact with wild populations and begin the journey of becoming proud parents themselves one day.
While it may be with some sadness that we bade farewell to our cygnets, we can take comfort knowing that they are helping to bring renewed hope for a species that, until recently, seemed headed for extinction.
Twice a year we are blessed with the migration of birds, butterflies, moths, and dragonflies. Many species that we don’t normally see (or don’t see in large numbers) are now moving through the Chicago area. Each day is a mystery as to what I might come across.
Today I chose to head over to McDonald Woods. Before I could even get to the path, I was greeted by red-eyed vireos. I stayed there and watched them for some time. One thing I have learned is to photograph birds wherever I see them, and to avoid the impulse to assume I’ll find more birds, or better birds, elsewhere. Just because the birds are hopping here doesn’t mean they will be hopping everywhere: best to take advantage of the birds wherever they are, even if it’s just the parking lot.
Only when the activity slowed did I head into the woods to see what else might be there. Right away, I saw some movement up high. Yep, warblers. I could tell by the flash of the tail feathers that these were redstarts. My instinct is to try to focus on any bird that moves. However, another thing I have learned is to resist the urge to photograph birds up high and backlit. The best photos are taken at eye-level. I look for movement and listen for bird calls to help me find a likely place to get some good photos. When I do, I relax and wait. Yes, wait. It might take 15 or 20 minutes for the birds to filter down. It is tempting to try to find the birds, or to follow them, but all that tends to do is send the birds higher up.
After just a few minutes, I see a young warbler hopping in the lower branches. I get a few shots before it takes off. Then, in zooms a hummingbird. The nice thing about hummingbirds is that they will often come back to the same perch over and over again. So I slowly move toward where this little one is sitting. Just as I get close, it takes off. So I position myself with a good view of the perch, and wait. Yes, there is that word again. Trust me, the “wait” will be worth it! Soon the hummingbird is back, and yes, it lands right on the same perch, and I’m able to get some really nice shots. Learning about the habits of birds comes in handy. If I did not know that the hummingbird would be back, I would not have been ready to take the photo when it got there. One way to learn about the habits of birds is to hang out and chat with birders. I like to go on bird walks with them and read bird books when I can.
When I’m waiting for warblers and other migrants, I like to practice my photography skills on the more common and perhaps slower-moving birds. It’s a way to make sure that my camera is set properly, and it helps me get comfortable with my equipment choices for the day. If I can’t take an amazing photo of a common bird, it is unlikely that I will take an amazing shot of a tiny, quick-moving rarity. Practice is key! For bird photography, I like to use my 80-400mm lens, but anything over 200mm will work. I keep my shutter speed at 1/400 of a second or faster. Sometimes that means upping my ISO to get the faster shutter speed. Otherwise these little birds will be big blurs.
I have to keep an open mind. Even though I might really want to photograph a yellow-winged warbler, what I might get instead is a blue jay, or not even a bird at all. Sometimes my best “bird” shot of the day is a butterfly. Or like today, I was treated to dozens of hawk moths! I’ve never seen so many in one spot, and what amazed me most was how many people walked right past them! They were so focused on something else, they missed what I thought was the coolest migrant of the day. I can’t tell you how many times I went out with one intention and came back with shots of something I could have never predicted—all because I kept an open mind to all the wonders that are out there to discover. There will be a stream of migrants visiting Chicago through November, and I hope you can get out and enjoy the amazing wonders that the autumn migration will bring right to you.
People who raise backyard chickens say there’s one potential pitfall — getting too attached. It’s too late for Chicago Botanic Garden horticulturist Ayse Pogue. Cradling a black-and-white hen with a bright-red comb, she says, “I love my chickens.”
Breeders describe chickens as either single purpose — raised for their eggs, or dual purpose — raised for both eggs and meat. Pogue sees a third purpose for her hens. “I grow vegetables,” she says. “I think the chickens add another dimension of having fresh food from your yard.”
The clucking of hens blends into the sounds of summer in Pogue’s suburban backyard; which contains a patio, lawn, perennial garden, vegetable patch, and chicken enclosure. Pogue cleans the coop and run once a week and adds the used straw and wood chips to a compost pile in the corner of her yard. The mixture makes good winter mulch for her organic vegetable garden. Omnivores, the hens also eat up kitchen scraps, insects, and mice.
Chickens became part of Pogue’s life last year when, inspired by the growing backyard-chicken movement and a related lecture at the Garden, she decided to order three chicks. “I was just hearing about it, hearing about it everywhere,” she said. “I told my husband. He said, ‘Oh no, I don’t think that’s going to happen.’ I said, ‘Too late. It’s happening.’”
Three days-old chicks — now known as Henrietta, Misty, and Fistik — arrived at the post office last July in a small cardboard box with breathing holes. They sheltered in Pogue’s garage until September when they were big enough to go outside in the small compound hand-built by a colleague, Garden horticulturist Dale Whiting.
Whiting built the coop, ramp, and run for about $300 (spent mainly on hardware). He kept costs low by using wood scraps, slightly damaged lumber sold at deep discounts, and shingles leftover from a neighbor’s roofing project. The roughly five-by-five foot coop, and eight-by-seven-by-six foot run can shelter three to five cold-hardy hens through Chicago’s sweltering summers and bitter winters. A heated dispenser prevents the chicken’s water supply from freezing, and on the very coldest days, Pogue uses a small heating element to warm the coop.
Pogue was sure to select breeds that can tolerate freezing weather. Henrietta is an Easter Egger, a chicken named for its beautiful blue and green eggs. Misty and Fistik are Barred Rock chickens, which do need an occasional application of Vaseline to keep their prominent combs from freezing in the worst of winter. The three are in their peak laying year and provide Pogue’s family with one to two eggs a day. “Every time I pick up an egg I’m amazed at how perfect they are,” she says.
The many rewards of backyard chickens have inspired Pogue to expand her flock with three new chicks — Cody, another Easter Egger, and Pearl and Olive, hardy blue laced red Wyandottes. The days-old chicks are bright-eyed and fluffy, small enough to hold in one hand and cute enough to steal anyone’s heart.
Before getting too involved, it’s wise to check with your local officials. Not all municipalities allow residents to raise chickens. Those that do often ban roosters and limit flock size.
O.K., I did know what a proboscis was before my trip to New Mexico last month. But learning how to uncoil a hawkmoth’s 3-inch nectar-sucking hollow tongue while trying to calm the toad-sized insect in my hand was the biology lesson of a lifetime.
Thanks to Chicago Botanic Garden scientists Krissa Skogen, Ph.D., and Wes Glisson (who recently earned his master’s degree in plant conservation biology from the Garden/Northwestern University graduate program), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) New Mexico state botanist Mike Howard, I learned about hawkmoths, the plants they pollinate, and how to collect plant cuttings for scientific study.
I also had the opportunity to meet and work beside two remarkable interns, Kate Wilkins and Elisabeth Ward, from our Conservation Land Management Internship Program (and enjoy a few absolutely perfect hours of exquisite silence in the desert at the foot of the Guadalupe Mountains on the New Mexico/Texas border).
I had been asking around the Garden’s scientific staff to see whose fieldwork would fit with my summer schedule. Krissa was planning a trip to southern New Mexico to film an episode of Chris Martine’s great video web series Plants are Cool, Too. Krissa’s episode, which will air in October, highlights her work on long-distance pollinator movement, focusing on Oenothera harringtonii, an evening primrose endemic to southeastern Colorado and other closely related Oenothera species. The flowers of Oenothera harringtonii and many other evening primroses open soon after sunset and are pollinated primarily by hawkmoths. These moths feed on the nectar of Oenothera flowers, which they locate by the strong fragrance produced by the flowers. We commonly think of floral scent for its role in attracting pollinators, but it may also be used as a cue by floral and seed predators.
By studying the shape, smell, and color of Oenothera flowers, Krissa and her colleagues hope to determine what it is that attracts pollinators to these flowers. She can also determine how the plants “reward” their pollinators by studying nectar—how much flowers produce and how much sugar the nectar contains. And lastly, by collecting pollen grains from pollinators, Krissa can determine which plant species the pollinators rely on most, which brings me to catching hawkmoths and collecting pollen from their tongues.
The first night of our trip, we set out to find some hawkmoths. After visiting a couple of sites in the Organ Mountains, we found them. Above is a photograph of Dr. Krissa Skogen, Elisabeth Ward, and me holding the toad-sized moths we attracted to a blacklit white sheet held up on a PVC armature.
After sunset, the hawkmoth uses its long hollow tongue to extract the nectar from deep down within the narrow mouth of the flower. The moth’s nightly journey often covers a distance as far as 20 miles. Krissa gently rolled out the tongue to show us just how long it is!
The next day, we set out early to collect Lepidospartum quamum for our colleague Evelyn Williams, Ph.D. Evelyn, a post-doctoral researcher, has been working with Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., Kayri Havens, Ph.D., and Mike Howard on this plant since 2012 in an attempt to figure out why it is threatened with extinction in this area of New Mexico. The plant grows in a unique environment—the gypsum salt flat.
Evelyn’s previous collecting trip this spring needed to be supplemented with new cuttings. We worked all day to collect the cuttings, which we sent back to the Garden for germination in our production greenhouses, as well as samples for genotyping in the Garden’s Harris Family Foundation Plant Genetics Laboratory.
This important work, which ultimately aids seed growers, restoration practitioners, and government agencies to select appropriate plant materials to restore diverse plant and animal communities, was funded by a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) grant as part of the Native Plant Collections Initiative.
It’s a fact that most people are more attracted to animals than plants—and therefore more inclined to know their names and fight for their survival. Just compare the following two photographs—the Lepidospartum quamum specimen we were studying, and this lizard that darted by and immediately commanded our attention (yes, even botanists and plant-lovers are drawn to a cute face).
But all life depends on plants and the healthy habitats on which they depend. When we think of fighting to save wildlife, let’s remember that wildlife includes plants! I am hopeful that by working with collaborations from gardens, zoos, government agencies, and other land-trust and conservation organizations, we can integrate plants into wildlife action plans both in the U.S. and abroad. I particularly like how this report by NatureServe summarizes this issue.
We can all point to moments in our life—when we’ve experienced something new or met someone special—when our understanding of life changes. My two days with these five scientists—at all phases of their careers—was one of these experiences I will never forget.
One last note: Hawkmoths are essential to ecosystems from Venezuela to here in Chicago. My son and I watched one this afternoon drink from the hostas on our street! Below is one we filmed in the English Oak Meadow of the Chicago Botanic Garden last week.
“What is that?”
Sure, you’ll see tomatoes and corn and apples at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden—but, during the course of the growing season, we have more than 400 of the earth’s 30,000+ edible plants to see, consider, and think about cooking.
How many of the ten summer fruits and vegetables below do you recognize? Come see them in person soon—harvest is just around the corner!
1. It’s a cardoon. Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus is, at heart, a thistle. While cardoon’s cousin, the artichoke, is a more familiar food, the thick leaves of cardoon itself are edible—though preparation is…lengthy. Find cardoon in the cold frames.
2. It’s an eggplant. Solanum melongela is showing up in markets and on menus in more shapes and colors these days, and we’re growing several varieties of them this year: white ‘Casper’, pink ‘Rosa Bianca’, bicolor ‘Udumalapet’, and this more traditional variety, ‘Hansel’.
3. It’s a medlar. Mespilus germanica or common medlar bears a little pome fruit that must be softened, or bletted, to be edible. This is the second year of excellent fruit set on our medlar tree, located just across the Fruit & Vegetable Garden bridge.
4. It’s taro. Colocasia esculenta is commonly seen in flower beds and containers—you might know it as “elephant ears.” The tuber or corm is toxic when raw—but when cooked, it’s a staple in cuisines around the world. Taro is in the pool under the wisteria arbor.
5. It’s a Mexican miniature watermelon, or gherkin. Melothria scabra grows as a vine, with dozens of cute and cucumbery fruits. Eat them fresh or pickled. You’ll find them in containers under the wisteria arbor.
6. It’s a tomato. Lycopersicon esculentum has a new member in the family and…it’s blue. ‘Indigo Rose’ was bred (at Oregon State) for high anthocyanin levels, which suppressed green color while raising purple. It’s full of antioxidants and is not a GMO (it’s open-pollinated). It’s a sensation. Find it in our Backyard Garden beds and the Small Space Garden.
7. It’s a pepper. Capsicum annuum var. lycopersiciforme ‘Alma Paprika’ looks rather like a tomato as it turns from white to yellow to red. As its name suggests, this is the variety from which paprika is made—let it dry, then grind it to make your own.
8. It’s a quince. Cydonia oblonga is the fruit-bearing quince (different than flowering quince). In this country, many people are unfamiliar with both the look of the fruit (like a bumpy pear) and its taste (often sour and astringent, it requires cooking). Currently loaded with fruit, the quince tree is near the grape arbor.
9. It’s a fungus. Ustilago maydis is known as Huitlacoche in Mexico, where the fungus—called corn smut here—is considered a delicacy. It occurs naturally on ears of corn—we’ve found one ear with it in our Backyard Garden so far.
10. It’s borage. Borago officinalis is a multitasker: the gorgeous blue flowers are edible and can be steeped as tea, the leaves add cucumber freshness to a salad, and the plant itself attracts tomato hornworms away from your tomatoes. Turn right after the bridge to see borage in the beds there. Ours, however, are the cultivar ‘Alba’—which, as you may guess, has a white flower.
A living museum presents special challenges to its curators.
At the Chicago Botanic Garden, we not only acquire and display our collections, but we must also keep them alive and healthy. As curator of the Garden’s collection of woody plants, I’m responsible for the welfare of more than 13,000 trees. Disease, infestations, and extreme weather events are the kinds of things that keep me awake at night.
As you may know, the Garden is undertaking a ten-year plan to remove about 400 trees due to the emerald ash borer. It’s up to me to suggest suitable replacements to continue our tree legacy. To do so, I first needed to know which of the trees now growing in the Garden would continue to thrive in a warming urban environment. Thanks to a $120,000 research grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, we’ve been able to undertake an adaptive planting study to identify which trees will continue to thrive in Chicago’s urban forests under worst-case carbon-emissions scenarios.
Climate-change modeling indicates that some trees—those currently growing at the northern edge of their hardiness—will actually do a little bit better in slightly warmer conditions around 2020, but by 2050, ten of the 50 trees under study—20 percent—will no longer find the metropolitan area a welcoming habitat. The real concern sets in when we look at the data for 2080, which projects that only 11 of the initial trees would continue to do well in Chicago and the upper Midwest.
The trees growing along our city streets, parks, residences, and public gardens enhance the quality of metropolitan living and also play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The cooling summer leaf canopy reduces our energy needs, and the trees themselves store significant amounts of carbon.
Our adaptive planting study suggests two key calls to action: drastically reducing carbon emission to slow climate change and help protect existing trees, and carefully selecting the trees we plant for future generations. To help both public officials and private property owners in their tree selections, the Garden has created an Adaptive Planting page on our website. There you’ll find information on a selection of 60 suitable trees for 2050.
Emily Yates has covered a lot of territory.
Once a summer intern who collected plant seeds in North Dakota, she now manages an innovative mapping laboratory at the Chicago Botanic Garden. A scientist and artist, Yates translates massive amounts of data into accurate, colorful depictions to help researchers communicate their findings. Scientists, land managers, volunteers, and others use this information to help advance collective conservation goals.
Her newest project was freshly completed when we met in her office at the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. It’s a project that has set the pace for modeling the immense database of the Plants of Concern (POC) program, and is likely to garner much attention at upcoming scientific conferences.
POC volunteers are citizen scientists who use GPS, global positioning systems, to gather geospatial data marking the location of rare plants in the Chicago area. “Part of what Plants of Concern wants to do is monitor, over time, changes in all the populations that are known of these rare plants,” said Yates, Seed Bank coordinator and conservation GIS Laboratory manager at the Garden.
Why rare plants? They have such specific environmental requirements and occur so infrequently, that they could be entirely lost if conditions change.
In late August, Yates wrapped up several months of work with a team including an intern with the Garden’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. Together, they mapped the potential presence of Hill’s thistle (Cirsium hillii) and wooly milkweed (Ascelpias lanuginosa) across six northeastern Illinois counties monitored by POC. The two species are only known to grow in habitats characteristic of gravel hill prairies. The map was created using ten years of data on these two species.
“Sometimes with ecological data it’s easier to see things visually and spatially rather than in table format, and maps help to do that,” said Yates.
Looking at factors such as required soil type and land cover, they plotted locations where the plants have already been documented and used models to predict where the plants may exist due to favorable conditions. “Because these plants are rare, sometimes it’s very likely there are populations we haven’t found yet, so these maps can be very helpful in determining where to look,” said Yates. “GIS helps narrow [data] down and concentrate resources—enabling better land management decisions.”
What next? The paper the team generated will serve as a model for mapping the hundreds of other species monitored by POC, and it could be shared broadly through conferences and other means. Already, it was presented at the conclusion of the REU program.
Also, the project served as a valuable learning opportunity for the REU intern, who worked on the project in the GIS Lab with Yates, and in the field where he confirmed data records alongside scientists. Yates mentored an intern last summer as well, and is already thinking of the possibilities for next year.
According to Yates, “a lot of students express an interest in doing GIS projects because it is a skill that can be applied to a lot of different fields. Its focus on spatial thinking couples well with ecology and plant science, and it is a great, practical job skill to have.”
After completing her graduate studies, Yates expanded her own work to include a specialty in GIS. “My first love is nature and plants,” she said. “I became interested in how to look at plants and the natural world in a spatial context. I like the idea of cartography used for visualizing ecological patterns because it helps you see the connections.”
Yates, who also teaches GIS and spatial analysis to students in the Northwestern University and Chicago Botanic Garden graduate program in plant biology and conservation, is already hard at work on her next project. She is creating the spatial component for a database of the Garden’s Dixon National Prairie Seed Bank, part of the National Seeds of Success program. “When you put the spatial component into [data], it kind of makes it come alive,” she said.
Summer isn’t all about work for Yates, who is also a gardener. It is the time of year when she most loves to visit the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden to find inspiration. When we talked in late August, she was already brimming with ideas for her garden next year. Surely, it won’t be long before she has it all mapped out.
Interest in mushrooms is, if you’ll excuse the expression, mushrooming, as growing numbers of people seek food from local, sustainable—and even foraged—sources. Thanks to a vibrant network of farmers’ markets and an expanded offering of mushrooms sprouting up in the produce section of grocery stores, most of us can lay our hands on an interesting variety of mushrooms without heading out on a mushroom hunt in the woods.
The most commonly available mushrooms are white buttons, baby bellas, and portobellos. Some wild varieties—such as oyster mushrooms with their wonderful almost fishy fragrance—are now being cultivated and sold in supermarkets, while others appear seasonally in open markets. I’m always happy to see one of my fall favorites—hen of the woods—among the autumnal produce at the farmers’ market, and local mushroom hunters sometimes supply the markets with morels in May.
Mushrooms can add flavor and texture—and a surprising nutritional punch—to many meat dishes, but are robust enough to carry a hearty, vegetarian meal. Portobellos are a particularly good substitute for meat patties. Lightly brush the caps with olive oil and grill them, first on the gill side, then on the cap side. Remove when tender but still firm and place on a grilled burger bun. A slice of Monterey Jack or Swiss cheese can turn the dish into a “portobello cheeseburger.” When topped with tomato sauce and cheese, the grilled caps can also make a “mushroom pizza.” You can always add cream to stretch the mushrooms and make a creamy, filling dish without meat. Chopped and sautéed mushrooms can provide a rich and satisfying filling for puff pastry and quiches.
Many people mistakenly believe that mushrooms have little nutritional value, but they are a great plant source of vitamin D, and also contain high amounts of other vitamins and minerals, including riboflavin, niacin, and potassium.
Thyme or sage added to chives are my favorite herbs to combine with mushrooms. I enjoy seasonal fall and spring mushrooms sautéed and then added to vegetables or pasta. Especially good is the hen in the woods with butternut squash ravioli and sautéed sage.
There are compost bins, and then there are AWESOME compost bins.
When carpentry supervisor Andy Swets got the call to build a better bin in the compost area at the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden, he pulled out all the stops: 2x4s, 2x6s, and 4x4s in Western red cedar…reclaimed 1x4s…stainless steel exterior-rated handles and latches…heavy-duty hinges…and 20#-rated hydraulic-assist lifts that open and close the lid noiselessly and safely.
The resulting 36-inch-square bins are terrific looking and solidly built: constructed with half-lap joints and routed slots, sloped in height from 40 inches to 28 inches for easier shoveling, and finished with plugged screw holes and a hinged front door for easy access.
Andy and assistant carpenter Brian Flood didn’t just build one—they built a set of three, the better for kids to lift the lids and compare how compost ages over time.
While kids love peeking into the bins (and throwing their banana peels in), we’ve noticed that adults are admiring their design and construction—so we’re posting this video of Andy and Brian in full construction mode. Get inspired—build the compost bins of your dreams!
Foraging for edible mushrooms is a treasure hunt that always yields a reward. You never know what you’re going to find. At the least, you’ve spent enjoyable time outdoors in nature.
My tools are simple: a hand lens, knife, and a flat-bottomed basket that prevents any mushrooms I’ve collected from scrunching together. I like to wrap my finds in wax paper or wax paper bags. Paper bags can work too, but mushrooms tend to dry out after a while. (At the other extreme, mushrooms wrapped in plastic tend to sweat and can develop undesirable molds.) I typically head out in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt—protection against the poison ivy and bugs abounding in the woods.
I also carry knowledge that helps me discern among the more than 1,200 types of mushrooms identified so far in the Chicago metropolitan area. For more than 30 years, I’ve researched the vital role that fungi play in ecosystems around the world (but my interest in mushrooms and love of nature extends well beyond the laboratory).Great finds: black trumpets, and more importantly—chanterelles!
Summertime is the fruiting season for two of my favorite edible mushrooms: chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) and black trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides). Chanterelles are one of my very, very, very favorite things to collect.
I look for chanterelles in oak woodlands because chanterelles and oaks need each other to survive. The long fibrous root system of the chanterelle’s mycelium—the long-lived part of the mushroom comprised of microscopic filaments that grow through the soil—forms a protective sheath around the roots of the oak and provides the tree with water, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients. The symbiotic relationship allows the chanterelle to take up excess sugar the tree has produced through photosynthesis. We wouldn’t have a forest without mushrooms like chanterelles, and we wouldn’t have chanterelles without a forest.
Chanterelles have a yellow-gold color that makes them somewhat easy to spot on the woodland floor, and they offer up a fruity, apricot-like smell when picked. They do, however, bear a resemblance to the toxic jack-o-lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius), the second-most common mistakenly eaten mushroom in the United States. (The green-spored lepiota [Chlorphyllum molybdites] is the most common.) We can tell chanterelles from jack-o-lanterns when we turn them over and look at the underside of the cap: chanterelles are nearly smooth to strongly ridged, while the jack-o-lantern has well-developed gills like a grocery store mushroom.
Chanterelles are also getting a closer look from the scientific community. Until fairly recently, we assumed that the chanterelles growing around the world belonged to a single species. Subtle differences in color and size were attributed to normal variations within a species. DNA analysis suggests that the chanterelle genus contains myriad distinct species. My team of researchers has found three different types growing in the Chicago area alone, and we believe this is just the tip the iceberg. The findings have important implications for plant conservation. What are the threats to individual species of chanterelle? What will happen to local ecosystems if a unique species is lost?
In early August I discovered my first chanterelles of the season growing in a nearby oak woodland. I won’t harvest these—it’s illegal to collect mushrooms in forest preserves in counties surrounding Chicago—but I can imagine the delectable mushrooms sautéed in butter or a little olive oil, and minimally seasoned (so I can enjoy the pure chanterelle taste). For a more substantial dish, a chanterelle omelet is just to die for. You can learn more about the mushrooms growing throughout the region at the upcoming Illinois Mycological Association Show. Maybe I’ll see you there.
You are a monarch butterfly. You weigh less than one gram. You are traveling 1,000…2,000…perhaps 3,000 miles on migration from Mexico to your northern breeding grounds. You are desperate for flower nectar; for the safety and shelter of shrubs and trees; for shallow, still water to “mud puddle” in; and for milkweed plants on which to lay your eggs. Suddenly you see a sea of color—a flower-filled yard in a yawn of lawns…
You are a hummingbird. You weigh less than a pencil. You have just flown 500 miles nonstop (not to mention crossing the Gulf of Mexico) in search of the perfect spot to build your walnut-sized nest. You need fuel: the nectar from tube-shaped flowers, and lots of it, as in sips from 1,000 flowers per day. Suddenly you see a mass of flowers below…
You are a homeowner with a yard. You are weighing a new approach to your landscape: you’d like to incorporate butterfly/hummingbird-friendly plants. You’ve heard about butterfly bushes, and you picture a yard filled with flitting and fluttering all summer long.
You need Tim Pollak. He’s the outdoor floriculturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and he’s our resident butterfly guy, who teaches frequent classes at the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden on the subject of attracting butterflies and hummers to your yard. Consider this a mini-class: in the video below, Tim brings you up close to flowering plants that are both butterfly-attractive and visually attractive to you and your neighbors.