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Plant Science and Conservation - Mon, 01/13/2014 - 2:09pm

As winter winds disperse prairie seeds and fragrant pinecones tumble down, Bianca Rosenbaum is busy collecting. As much as she would love to forage through the seasonal natural materials outside of her office at the Chicago Botanic Garden, that’s not what she is after these days. Rather, she is gathering data.

 Bianca Rosenbaum at her desk.

Rosenbaum manages data from her colorful office.

Seated at her desk in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, Rosenbaum taps away at her computer’s purple keyboard. The Garden’s conservation science information manager is busy finishing her masterpiece—a searchable collection of visual and numeric plant data. The new product is a one-stop-shop for information previously housed in three separate databases and accessible by few.  

Named the Science Collections database, the project centralizes the Garden’s data on seed collections, herbaria, and plant DNA. For the first time, the information is accessible online by anyone from international scientists to curious children.

“We saw this great opportunity to combine our databases and be able to cross reference collections,” she said. “It’s been very exciting. It’s one of my biggest, most challenging projects. It feels extremely rewarding.”

Since she began working at the Garden in 2002 as an expert in Microsoft Access, Rosenbaum has overseen the safekeeping of the data in all three of these areas as well as other Garden research collections. In just a few years, the way the information was stored and managed became outdated as technology progressed. She was thrilled with the opportunity to advance its management system.

When the Science Collections project began four years ago, one of her first tasks was to identify data used by all three databases and merge them into common tables to eliminate repetition and guarantee standardization. The result was a complicated set of linked tables that comprise the structure for the final product—called a relational database.

 Collections database search results screen.

A search in the Science Collections database reveals merged information about each species.

She then merged all of the data on each species. Now, rather than going to different databases to find all of the herbarium, seed, and DNA information recorded about a plant, it can be found in one place. 

Rosenbaum then worked with the Garden conservation GIS lab manager, Emily Yates, to add a spatial component to the data by mapping plant locations, which are linked to each collection record. Lastly, she built a web page to serve as a portal from the database to the internet.

Data from the Garden’s Nancy Poole Rich Herbarium are mainly visual, with 17,000 images of pressed plants alongside notes about location and related details. Information from the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank includes high-resolution images of seeds from 2,600 species. The program also includes notes about whether the Garden houses material that may be accessed for DNA sampling for a given plant. The records include information on all classifications of regional plants, and some international. Only those labeled as threatened or endangered are not shown on a map.

 Page from the herbarium with Liatris aspera sample and data.

Liatris aspera (Herbarium acc. 4439)

“This job has totally changed my outlook,” said Rosenbaum, who had no real interest in botany before coming to work at the Garden. “I feel very fortunate that I’ve been here and I’ve been able to combine both the tech world and the environment.”

As a child, she grew her love of technology with encouragement from her parents—an engineer and electronic assembler. She went on to study computer engineering in college, and gained work experience with coding and data management. As a Garden employee, she has coupled those computer skills with a new set of plant-related skills. She is now comfortable with plant names, discussing scientific processes, and even growing her own vegetable garden at home.

Although she spends much of her work day glued to her computer screen, Rosenbaum does find time to look out her window, or step outside to connect with her subject matter. “I think it’s very easy to not notice this world when you are in the tech world, or the business world,” she said. “Now I can connect the two and know what it is I am working on and see what I am working to protect and conserve.”

Rosenbaum often strolls the Waterfall Garden in warm months, but she especially looks forward to spending time in the peaceful Dixon Prairie.

The recently launched database is now open to exploration at www.sciencecollections.org. Check back in coming months for Rosenbaum’s forthcoming addition of advanced search options. 

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Make a Grapefruit Bird Feeder

Youth Education - Tue, 01/07/2014 - 12:50pm

My daughters love fresh grapefruit, and winter is the season when this fruit is at its best. Instead of throwing away the rind, we decided to make a bird feeder. This is a great winter project for the family.

 The supplies needed for the project.

The grapefruit sections have been cut and eaten; the rind is ready to become our bird feeder.

To make a grapefruit bird feeder you will need:

  • Half a grapefruit rind (you can also use an orange)
  • Three pieces of yarn, each cut about 18 inches long
  • A knife, skewer, pointed scissors, or other sharp tool
  • Birdseed

First, eat the grapefruit and drain the remaining liquid. Then, use the skewer or knife to poke three holes in the grapefruit. They should be about half an inch from the top edge and spaced evenly around the circumference. (Some people do this with four strings, but I find that using three strings makes it easier to balance the fruit.)

Push a piece of yarn through each hole and tie it off.

 Skewering the grapefruit rind.

Hold the grapefruit firmly with one hand while you poke the skewer through the rind. Be careful not to poke your finger!

 Tying yarn to the grapefruit to hang it.

Pull 2-3 inches through the rind and tie the short end to the longer strand.

Hold the grapefruit up by all three strings and adjust the length of the strands so the fruit is not tipping. When it is balanced, knot the strings together about 4 or 5 inches from the top. (The ends will probably be uneven, and that is all right.) Make a loop knot with those top ends, so you will be able to hang it from a branch. 

 The final product.

Our grapefruit bird feeder is balanced, full of seed, and ready to hang outside.

Finally, fill the fruit with birdseed and hang it outside for your feathered friends to enjoy. If you like, you can add a little suet, but you may find it doesn’t stick well to the wet fruit. Here in the Chicago area, you’ll probably find that most of your winter guests are black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos, common redpolls, and downy or hoary woodpeckers, who balance their primary diet of insects and grubs with bit of suet and sunflower seeds.

One more thing: Make sure it’s tied to the branch firmly so that your local (determined) squirrels — who will also find this bird feeder appealing — don’t knock it down.

Don’t worry if you don’t have any visitors the first few days after you’ve placed your feeder. It can take up to two weeks for birds to discover their new food source, but once they do, they tell all their friends in the neighborhood.

 Grapefruit birdfeeder hung from a snow-covered fir.

The final product is ready for visitors.

What is birdseed?

You probably know that if you plant birdseed, you won’t grow a bird. And there is no such thing as a birdseed plant. So what plants make birdseed? What we call “birdseed” most commonly comes from two sources: millet, which is a grass, and sunflower. Other seeds used to feed birds include thistle, safflower, cracked corn, and sorghum seed, which is also called milo. Some birds have a preference for certain kinds of seeds, so bird lovers stock their feeders with seeds to attract their favorite birds and keep them visiting the feeder.

After you hang your bird feeder, take some of the seed and plant it to see what grows. Maybe you can grow your own food for the birds this year!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Christmas Tree Taxonomy

Youth Education - Sat, 12/14/2013 - 8:15am
 A student in class is examining evergreen needles.

Quick quiz: is this boy holding a twig of conifer, evergreen, or both?

Every winter, as a public garden, the Chicago Botanic Garden turns its educational programming attention—as well as its decorations—to the only plants that stay green through the season: the evergreens. We teach class after class of school children how to identify different kinds of evergreens by their needles and cones.

It’s a lesson in sorting and classifying plants—in other words: taxonomy. 

Conifer vs. Evergreen

Every year we remind students of the meanings of the words “evergreen” and “conifer”—they are not the same thing!—and every year, someone is confused. I blame Christmas trees.

 Venn diagram showing a christmas tree in the intersection of the sets "evergreens" and "conifers."


The “Christmas Tree” intersects both of the sets “evergreens” and “conifers”—it’s both!

First, it’s important to understand that evergreens are any plants that remain green through the winter, like pine, spruce, fir, and Douglas fir. Conifers, on the other hand, are a classification of trees that produce seeds inside cones. These trees include pine, spruce, fir, and Douglas fir. Wait a minute…those are are the same trees!

You see, the problem is that our Christmas trees tend to be both evergreen and conifer, and as a result, many of us have forgotten the difference. To help us illustrate the definitions of the two terms, let’s look at some evergreens and conifers that do not fall into the intersection of those groups.

 Charlie Brown and Snoopy with a sad-looking, needle-free tree sporting a single ornament.

Charlie Brown’s tree might have been a bald cypress.

One conifer that loses its needles, and therefore is not an evergreen, is the bald cypress. These can be very attractive when covered in snow. (The bald cypress trees growing in the Heritage Garden have been pruned at the top and look like candelabras.) The needles on these trees change color in fall—the same way deciduous trees like maples and oaks do—and drop to the ground, making them look, well, bald.

Boxwoods and rhododendrons are woody plants that keep their green leaves all winter, but they do not produce cones. Boxwoods are occasionally used in wreaths and can be found in many places around the Garden.

 Closeup of a bald cypress branch in golden fall color.

Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is called “bald” for a reason—its needles change color and fall in autumn just like deciduous trees such as maples and oaks.

 Boxwood in the Japanese Garden.

Boxwood in winter in the Malott Japanese Garden: these true evergreens may yellow a bit with winter, but keep their foliage.

Now here is where things actually do get confusing. Female yews produce a bright red “berry” that might make you think they are just evergreens. Actually, when you take a close look at the hard core at the center of this berry, you would see small, closed scales like those on any other “pine” cone. Yep. Juniper “berries” are also modified cones. That means yew and juniper are both evergreen and conifer.

 Closeup of yew berries showing seed/nut inside the berry.

Yew berries (Taxus baccata)
Photo by Frank Vincentz, via Wikimedia Commons

So call your Christmas tree an evergreen or a conifer—you will be correct either way. But it’s worth remembering what the two terms mean. Recognizing how things are alike and different is the driving force behind taxonomy and is also fundamental to understanding the natural world.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Youth Farm celebrates double digits!

Community Gardening - Mon, 12/09/2013 - 9:49am

The Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban youth outreach and development program, Green Youth Farm, is celebrating its ten-year anniversary this year!

What started as one lone staffer and 13 teens on 1.5 acres in the Lake County Forest Preserve has grown to a program with up to six sites all across Chicago and in Lake County, cultivating a new appreciation for plants and wholesome food in 90 young people a year, while teaching them job skills for future success! Here’s a year-end recap on the people and hard work that make up Green Youth Farm (GYF).

That “lone staffer” mentioned above is also known as our fearless leader and Green Youth Farm program founder, Angela Mason. Angie is also celebrating her ten-year anniversary at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Maybe you haven’t met her…that’s probably because Angie has kept herself pretty busy over the past ten years!

Some of the things she’s developed have been the Windy City Harvest (WCH) adult certificate program in sustainable urban agriculture; the Harvest Corps program for young male offenders to learn about gardening while incarcerated and then placed in transitional jobs with our programs post release; the Kraft Foods Garden in Northfield; and most recently, a new partnership with McCormick Place to turn its green roof into a food production site. If you see Angie around the Garden, grab her quick, because she walks really fast, even in heels!

 Angie Mason with Vince Gerasole and GYF kids

That’s Angie with the shovel and the heels! :D

 Green Youth Farm alum/intern Joe Young.

Green Youth Farm alumni/intern Joe Young

 Green Youth Farm crew member Evon at the North Lawndale community farm stand.

Green Youth Farm crew member Evon at the North Lawndale community farm stand

Green Youth Farm hires program graduates! To date, we have two WCH graduates on staff, and have hired 15 Green Youth Farm graduates and WCH students as summer interns.

Green Youth Farm grows food! This season alone, on less than two acres of land, students and staff grew more than 25,000 pounds of sustainable fruits and vegetables.

 Truck bed laden with grocery bags full of fresh vegetables.

Delivery for the WIC cooking demos!

Green Youth Farm feeds communities! Eighty percent of the food we grow is distributed back into the food desert communities where our farms are located. We sell at below-market value prices at our community farm stands and accept all types of federal benefits — the Illinois Link Card; Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program coupons — as payment. We also partner with WIC through the Community and Economic Development Association (CEDA) of Cook County, the Lake County Health Department, and Sinai Health System to distribute boxes of food to moms with young children in need.

Green Youth Farm cooks! Teens learn that “all life depends on plants” by turning the plants they grow into delicious meals! Each week, a crew cooks a wholesome, plant-based meal for their peers, staff, and farm guests.

 Staff and crew feast at picnic tables in the shade on a sunny day.

Green Youth Farm staff and students enjoy a farm-fresh meal cooked by crew members!

Green Youth Farm students are successful adults! Our alumni leave GYF with a sense of community responsibility, a greater appreciation for the environment, and an understanding of what it means to be successful in whatever career they choose for themselves. They carry these values with them through life, no matter what they choose to do…whether that’s college, a job, farming, or raising a family. We are proud of our GYF alums!

 Facebook status update.

Facebook post from one of our alumni currently studying environmental studies abroad during a semester at Colgate University. Julio is the first in his family to attend college.

GYF inspires horticultural and food entrepreneurs! Former interns, growers, and coordinators have started businesses all over the United States. These include urban farms at tenspeedgreens.com, food trucks using local, sustainably grown food at luluslocaleatery.com, and sustainable floral design with fieldandflorist.com!

 Ten-Speed Greens  Lulu's Local Eatery  Field & Florist
 GYF student Tatiana talking with a guest about the farm's honey.

Tatiana shows off her hard work at the After School Matters annual gala event.

Green Youth Farm partners! Staff from Green Youth Farm works with more than 34 partners from all different kinds of organizations to help deliver quality programming in the communities we serve. Some of these include the Lake County Forest Preserve District, the Chicago Park District, NeighborSpace, Chicago Public Schools, After School Matters, and Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, Inc.

Green Youth Farm loves volunteers! This year, GYF saw the most dedicated crew of volunteers in its history…volunteers came together to support programming when teens were on-site and do the dirty work of farming when teens were back in school. If you are interested in learning more about the work we do at GYF to cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life in our city’s youth, contact the Chicago Botanic Garden volunteer department!

 Group photo of the 2013 Washington Park participants.

Green Youth Farm class of 2013 at the Washington Park (Chicago) Green Youth Farm

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Using Genetics to Rescue a Rare Desert Shrub

Plant Science and Conservation - Thu, 12/05/2013 - 9:03am

Huddled on a sand dune, the small community of bristly Lepidospartum burgessii plants would be easy for most of us to overlook. But to scientists from the Chicago Botanic Garden, the rare shrubs shine like a flare in the night sky. This is one of two known locations of the species worldwide—both in New Mexico—and the center of a rather dazzling rescue mission.

Evelyn Williams, Ph.D., a Garden postdoctoral research associate, is pulling out all the stops to save the sensitive species. Commonly called Burgess’ scale broom, it has suffered from a mysterious lack of seed production since the late 1980s.

 Burgess' scale broom (Lepidospartum burgessii).

Burgess’ scale broom (Lepidospartum burgessii) are among the tallest plants in their New Mexico location.

Standing about five feet tall, the silvery-green plants only grow on gypsum dunes. They possess unique characteristics that allow them to help stabilize sand dunes in the desert conditions where they live.

“I’m interested in how we can use genetics broadly to address conservation and ecological restoration questions,” said Dr. Williams. Her curiosity led her to the Garden in 2011 to join a team of genetic experts for this formidable undertaking.

The team suspects that, because the two populations of Lepidospartum burgessii are relatively small, the existing plants have interbred and are now too closely related to pollinate one another—which means they cannot produce seeds and create new plants.

Williams set out to confirm this theory, gathering plant cuttings during summer fieldwork in 2013. She hoped to grow the cuttings into full plants that she could cross-pollinate and study at the Garden. She also took samples from 320 plants back to the Garden. There, using a microsatellite technique, she recorded the genetic pattern of each plant, noting similarities and differences.

“When we have all of these different shrubs from a population, we want to use a fine genetic tool to tease apart genetic variations,” she explained. The microsatellite approach allowed her to identify genetic markers occurring in multiple plants down to the finest level of detail.

The results were encouraging. Williams found enough genetic diversity within the two populations that they should be able to cross pollen, or DNA material, and produce seeds. “Because there is diversity in these populations, we’re really hopeful that if we do a genetic rescue we can get some seeds in these two different populations,” said Williams. A genetic rescue, she explained, is when a species is revived with the addition of new genes, which normally occurs during pollination.

That day didn’t come right away, as the cuttings failed to grow in the Garden greenhouses. Accustomed to the trial and error process of scientific discovery, Williams moved on to her backup plan.

 Dr. Williams hand-pollinating a specimen.

Evelyn Williams, Ph.D., delivers pollen to a plant.

She returned to the field in October, where she personally carried pollen-filled flowers from one population of plants to another, brushing the fluffy yellow blooms against other plants that may accept their genetic material. With plants as much as one mile apart, it was a process of patience and precision.

She will soon look for seeds in the resulting buds from that pilot study with an x-ray machine in the Garden’s Harris Family Foundation Plant Genetics Laboratory.

Williams is poised for the challenge of whatever she may, or may not, find. Ultimately, she hopes to convey a successful technique to land managers who carry out the daily work of furthering the species and enriching the biodiversity of the southwestern landscape.

“I really like that as part of the Garden we can help these public agencies and use our knowledge of genetics and conservation to stabilize and increase some of these rare populations. That’s really important to me,” said Williams.

 Lepidospartum burgessii, framed by the sunset.

Lepidospartum burgessii, framed by the sunset. Photo: Mike Howard

She has been intent on advancing conservation science since childhood, inspired by her aunt, an ecologist. Her interest grew into expertise as she studied the genetics of ferns while earning her Ph.D. in botany at the University of Wisconsin.

In winter at the Garden, Williams takes every opportunity to walk through the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. “I like being here in the winter and seeing a side of the Garden that’s unexpected: the snow and the beautiful structures in the Malott Japanese Garden,” she said.

Perhaps it is that perspective, of looking for the unexpected, that will unlock the mystery of Lepidospartum burgessii one day soon.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Tree-O-Caching in Fall

Youth Education - Thu, 10/24/2013 - 10:02am
 Fall leaves in the Sensory Garden.

Fall leaves in the Sensory Garden

This is a treasure hunt to find trees.
Follow the clues to find them with ease.

Each clue has a hint to the tree’s location,
And a few facts for identification.

The numbers provided are GPS* clues,
Just in case our rhyming stumps you.

When you get to each tree you’re meant to find,
Read the message on the large brown sign.

*GPS coordinates give the general area and my not be exact. Use them to get in the vicinity, then look for a tree that fits the clues. (All trees can be found in adjacent gardens on the west side of the main island.) Don’t have a GPS device? You can use your iPhone or Android phone’s compass utility to follow the clues. Remember: leave any seeds you find for the critters that need food for winter!

 

 This shows the end of a branch with green pointed leaves and black berries.

Tree #1

1.

Enter a Garden of native flowers and grasses;
Walk ’round the fence and try not to pass this.

It’s tall and stately, and rough is its bark;
Look up to see woody, small berries, which are dark.

If you go past the fliers, frozen midflight,
“backtrack” your footsteps to the tree that is “right.”

GPS: N 42˚08.899′, W 087˚47.510′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’54″  W 87˚ 47’31″

CIMG1081

Tree #2

2.

If these trees were shorter, this clue’d be a hard one.
Follow the path through the Landscape Garden.

An evergreen trio are loaded with seeds;
They form narrow cones—look up high to see.

You may cross a stream discover these gems, 
Enjoying the moisture, to the water they bend.

GPS: N 42˚08.879′, W087˚47.499′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’53″  W 87˚ 47’31″

 close up of a yellow, star-shaped leaf

Tree #3

3.

For those who love fall color it’s plain to see,
Edna Kanaley Graham would have loved this next tree.

Come into the garden, where spring bulbs sleep.
Look right in the entrance and take a quick peep.

This tree’s fruits (now all fallen) are small prickly balls,
Star-shaped leaves are what’s left now—orange and yellow in fall.

GPS: N 42˚08.890′, W 087˚47.566′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’53″, W 087˚ 47’34″

 This is a pair of leaves with some type of nuts.

Tree #4

4.

Near the Circle Garden and the whistling of trains,
A group of large trees makes nuts from sun, air, and rain.

Squirrels and critters think that these nuts are great;
It’s also a favorite of Ohio State!

Can’t find our trees on your wander? Look down:
This time of year, fruit and husks litter the ground.

GPS: N 42˚ 08.849′, W 087˚47.465′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’50″, W 087˚47’34″

 Long seedpods hang between heart-shaped leaves

Tree #5

5.

From here, it’s off to the Enabling Garden you go;
Where a smattering of these trees you’ll find in a row.

This specimen grows very large heart-shaped leaves;
Long, narrow seed pods hang from its eaves.

Either side of the path they drip like fresh wax;
We hope from these clues you discover the facts.

GPS: N 42˚08.810′, W 087˚47.416′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’49″, W 087˚ 47’25″
 

Our ephemeral signs have now been removed from each site, but here are the answers:

  1. Hackberry (Celtis Occidentalis)
  2. Norway spruce (Picea abies ‘Acrocona’)
  3. Moraine sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Moraine’)
  4. Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)
  5. Northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Cicadas by the Numbers

Youth Education - Mon, 09/23/2013 - 10:37am

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.

 Front "face" view of a cicada, showing 5 eyes.

This cicada’s three simple eyes show up as three spots reflecting the flash from the camera.

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.

 Side view of a cicada.

The Latin name for this cicada is Tibicen canicularis. “Canus” is the Latin word for dog. Why do you think he’s called the Dogday cicada?)

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

6  legs

Want more cicada by the numbers? Click here to download a Color-by-Number Cicada.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Working toward a new harvest—on top of McCormick Place

Community Gardening - Mon, 08/12/2013 - 3:01pm

Earlier this summer I stood on the rooftop of the McCormick Place convention center along Chicago’s lakefront and looked around. In front of me were vast rectangular trays of a monoculture of low yellow sedum and bare soil.

 The roof of McCormick Place West planted with sedum

McCormick Place West planted with sedum

What I saw in my mind’s eye was bed after garden bed bursting with kale, collards, carrots, radishes, lettuces, peppers, beans, beets, tomatoes, and herbs. For in that space, as part of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s ongoing mission to promote sustainable gardening and to train Chicago residents for jobs in urban agriculture and green industries, we had just launched the largest farm-to-fork rooftop garden in the Midwest.

In partnership with SAVOR…Chicago, the food service provider for McCormick Place, the Garden has created a 20,000-square-foot rooftop enterprise that will likely yield about 4,000 pounds of produce this year—its first—and double or triple that amount in subsequent years. Already, we are well on our way to that first half-season harvest.

 More of McCormick Place West, this time planted with vegetables

McCormick Place West planted with vegetables

Within this enormous rooftop garden we will expand our urban agriculture capabilities, create more hands-on training and job opportunities for our Windy City Harvest participants, and serve as a local source of fresh produce to this major international convention center. Later this summer, we expect the first of what will be many harvests in years to come—and many lives changed for the better.

The McCormick Place rooftop garden was designed and planted by Angela Mason, the Garden’s director of urban agriculture, and staff from our Windy City Harvest program, which offers the state’s first accredited urban agriculture certificate.

 Stacey Kimmons, a crew member of Windy City Harvest, harvesting lettuce from the roof.

Stacey Kimmons, a crew member of Windy City Harvest

Over the past five years, Windy City Harvest has planted and maintained five acres of vegetable gardens at six Chicago locations. This newest rooftop garden, like the other sites, will become one of the program’s living laboratories, offering hands-on experience to Windy City Harvest students.

As I lingered on the rooftop that day, contemplating the garden-to-be in front of me amid the magnificent expanse of Chicago, I felt acutely my place as one of many people, within the Garden and well beyond, committed to the idea of making the world a better place, one step—or one garden bed—at a time.

Read more about the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture programs.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Food for Thought from Garden Interns

Community Gardening - Fri, 08/02/2013 - 12:23pm

Everyone one must eat. This basic need creates both common ground and opportunity for Myrna Vazquez and Sophie Krause, Chicago Botanic Garden interns bringing vegetables to market as they prepare for careers in environmental education.

“Food is more than a daily life necessity, it is a link to our cultures, economies, industries, and environments,” said Krause, who recently graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz. “Because of this, I see food as a powerful tool for fostering a more environmentally literate society.”

From left, Sophie Krause and Myrna Vazquez, sell Windy City Harvest produce at the Chicago Botanic Garden Farmer's Market.

Sophie Krause (left) and Myrna Vazquez sell Windy City Harvest produce at the Chicago Botanic Garden Farmers’  Market.

The Garden’s Windy City Harvest urban agriculture certificate program, an accredited nine-month course offered in partnership with the Richard J. Daley College, is providing Krause and Vazquez a practical, hands-on education in sustainable urban agriculture. Six months of study at the college’s Arturo Velasquez Institute taught the two women such farming techniques as soil testing, prepping raised beds, seeding, and planting. Their knowledge is growing through a three-month internship in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

“I’m learning to grow beautiful, functional, and educational gardens,” said Vazquez, who worked in an after-school drug-prevention program before enrolling in the certificate program as part of a midlife career change. Vazquez says she’s absorbing all the Garden has to offer, including beekeeping, natural pest control and native plant gardening.

 Sophie Krause

Sophie Krause gets vegetables ready for market.

The women gain market-management skills when they sell the produce at the Garden’s bimonthly Farmers’ Markets, offered the first and third Sundays of the month through
October 30. “Nothing feels better than working hard to harvest for market, where I get to see the whole system come full circle—from planting a seed to feeding a customer and to helping the Windy City Harvest program grow,” Krause said. “Today’s food system demands a revival, and it feels good to be part of that process.”

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Winter Farming

Community Gardening - Thu, 02/28/2013 - 1:32pm

Whenever I tell anyone that I work for the Chicago Botanic Garden, the first response I get is “Wow, you must have the best job ever!” (well, yes, in fact I do) followed quickly by “So, what do you do in the winter?” In response to this question, I have spent the last month or so keeping a photo journal of some winter days at Green Youth Farm.

 hoop house in winter.

Winter in the hoophouse, with a great crop of greens.

So what is it we do in the winter?
WE FARM!

Even though everything looks like it is frozen solid, under hoophouses and low tunnels, tucked beneath coldframes and cozy in greenhouses, food continues to grow! Spinach, lettuce mix, and swiss chard will be harvested all winter long, while carrots, onions, and kale await warmer weather and contribute to an earlier spring harvest. Last year alone, Green Youth Farm and Windy City Harvest grew more than 80,000 pounds of produce—all on less than four acres of land. This number would not be possible without maximizing our short Chicago growing season with low-tech season extension.

 beehives in winter

Keeping bees warm in winter — hay bales cut down on winter wind getting into the hives.

In addition to growing produce we keep beehives, and last year we harvested more than 70 pounds of honey with our students (many of whom were scared silly of bees when they started the program). Over the winter, we need to check the bees to make sure they have enough food and are staying warm. We are happy to report these hives at our Washington Park location are buzzing!

Confession time: just like the home gardener, we professional gardeners face winter frustrations, too. I’m not proud to admit that we left a couple of hoses out in the garden, now full of frozen water. So yes, some of our wintertime is spent making up for summertime haste.

 frozen hose in winter.

Who can we blame this on?

P.S. It was 14 degrees F. this day and the lock to the gate was frozen solid— so to add insult to injury, I had to scale the fence, get the hose, schlep the hose back over the fence…

P.P.S. Word to the wise: put the hose away in October, not February.

WE TEACH

Every year, Community Gardening staff go out to corporations, schools, and garden clubs, as well as conferences and meetings (American Community Gardening Association, Good Food Fest, American Public Garden Association, etc.) spreading the gardening gospel. Last year alone, we reached more than 500 people outside the Chicago Botanic Garden. Our favorite event of the year is our own Facilitator Training program, where we teach folks interested in replicating the Green Youth Farm model more about what we do and how we do it. This year participants came all the way from Springfield!

 playing roles in the food distribution system.

Laura Erickson leads the group in one of Green Youth Farm’s favorite workshops: The Food System Chain Game.

 

Recruiting new Green Youth Farmers!

Recruiting new Green Youth Farmers!

WE RECRUIT

The Green Youth Farm will hire 13 staff and more than 90 student participants. This year, we more than 50 applications for the three coordinator positions alone. In addition, each year the Green Youth Farm receives more than 250 applications from students from 15 different Chicago, North Chicago, and Waukegan high schools. It’s always fun reconnecting with former students during high-school recruiting visits.

WE MEET

Between Windy City Harvest and The Green Youth Farm, the Community Gardening Department has more than 50 community partners who enable us to do the work we do outside the Chicago Botanic Garden, providing us space to grow on and work in, and program enhancements like art and access to Women, Infant and Children (WIC) clinics and coupons (we distributed almost 1,000 boxes of produce to the clinics last season). The winter is a great time to reconnect with all of these partners to debrief how last season went and think about how we can constantly improve on our work together.

 The Community Gardening team.

Good times in Community Gardening.

While everyone’s job here at the Chicago Botanic Garden is a little different, each one of us is just like those bees in the hive—while the Garden might look peaceful from the outside, on the inside, we are all flapping our wings like crazy to stay warm and productive until spring shines her light on us once again. So until then, stay warm and think spring!!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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