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A blog for visitors to the Garden.
Updated: 6 hours 29 min ago

The Power of Plants: Botanical Weightlifters

Fri, 04/06/2018 - 9:48am

There are things I look forward to seeing every season.

In spring, I watch for “mighty plants” that emerge from the ground with enough force to heave the soil above ground. These botanical weightlifters—the bulbs, grasses, and other emergent plants—pushing up soil that was compressed by a blanket of snow never fail to impress me. I am in awe of the strength of plants. 

 Daffodil leaves have pushed through the mulch, lifting it off the ground.

Daffodil leaves erupted from the ground in March and lifted the mulch in the beds around the Regenstein Learning Campus.

Seeing bulbs coming up all around me inspires lots of questions. I want to understand how this is possible and I want to test their strength. So I spent a few weeks playing around with this phenomenon in the Learning Center’s Boeing Nature Laboratory. 

To begin, I wanted to demonstrate that seeds will lift soil in a pot. I soaked bunch of wheat seeds overnight and planted them in a pot. I covered them with a generous amount of potting soil (about a 1/2-inch layer) and I tamped the soil down gently so that it would be compressed—like the topsoil might be after a winter of snow cover. Three days later, I had results! I sprayed the soil disk to give it a little adhesion, so I could see how long it would hold together as the grass lifted it up.

 A few days after planting the soaked wheat seeds, they are already sprouting and pushing up the soil.

Day 3 after planting the seeds: They are pushing up the compressed layer of soil.

 The wheat leaves have grown to an inch over the pot and are holding up a disk of soil.

Day 4: The leaves have pushed the soil up a little more.

 The wheat is 2-3 inches above the pot and still suspending the disk of soil.

Day 5: The soil is light and there are a lot of wheat plants, so they continue to lift the soil.

 The grass is now 4-5 inches tall and the disk of soil is on top, but leaning to the side, about to fall off.

Day 6: “Get off me, Soil! – Umph!”

 The disk of soil that was lifted by the grass has fallen to the side of the pot.

Day 7: Phew!

That was so much fun, I tried the same thing with a bunch of bean seeds.

 the top of the soil is rising about a half inch out of the pot.

Bean sprouts pushing…

 the sprouting beans can be seen pushing up the top of the soil, now 1-2 inches over the top of the pot.

…pushing…

 a dozen bean plants are growing out of the pot and pushing the top soil disk to the side.

…and bursting from inside the pot.

This demonstration was pretty easy and impressive. It is a simple activity to illustrate how plants and other living things change their environment to suit their needs (which is a disciplinary core idea in Next Generation Science Standards for kindergarten). I recommend doing it in the classroom or at home, just for fun.

This is just the beginning. I will be sharing the results in a future blog post. But before I do, I would like to make a few points about the nature of science and how scientists work. 

  1. Science is a collection of established facts and ideas about the world, gathered over hundreds of years. It is also the process by which these facts are learned. Science is both “knowing” and “doing.”
  2. Discoveries start when you watch nature and ask questions, as I did in watching spring bulbs come up. Before beginning an experiment, scientists play. They mess around with materials and concoct crazy ideas. They are constantly asking, “I wonder what will happen if I do ___ ?” That is when discoveries actually happen.
  3. Scientists do formal experiments with purpose, hypothesis, procedures, results, and conclusions after they think they have made a discovery. They use the experiment to test their discovery and provide convincing evidence to support it. In some cases, the experiment disproves a fact or idea, which is a different kind of new understanding about the world. 

I have to agree with Boyce Tankersley, the Garden’s director of Living Plant Documentation, who recently wrote “The SciFi Rant.” Those of us who lean toward botany instead of horticulture are more interested in growing plants to yield ideas rather than meals. In my continuing investigation, I have two goals, and neither is to produce anything to eat.

First, I want to determine the strength of sprouting seeds and see how far I can push them. For example, how many bean sprouts will it take to lift a coconut? I want to find a standard way to measure seed strength.

Second, I want to establish a reliable method for experimenting with seed strength so teachers and students can replicate the procedure, modify it as needed, and use it for their own investigations without going through the awkward phase of figuring out the best way to do this.

 a 6 inch square pot is topped with a round plastic lid and a coconut.

Will the mighty beans sprouting under this menacing coconut have the power to lift it off the top edge of a pot? Stay tuned…

I invite you on my journey.
(To be continued.)

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Celebrating George Washington Carver during Black History Month

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 9:07am

In honor of Black History Month, I would like to call attention to a botanist who would have fit in very well at the Chicago Botanic Garden: George Washington Carver. He was a gardener, a soil scientist, an inventor, a genius, and a good guy.

George Washington Carver (1864–1943)

George Washington Carver (1864–1943)

You probably know Carver as the famous black scientist who invented dozens of products for peanuts. What’s most important about his story is why he devoted so much time and ingenuity to peanuts and how he did so much more than make a high protein sandwich spread and cooking oil.

I’m not a historian or biographer, so this story will omit details about Carver’s life—being born into slavery,  studying agriculture in an era of racial discrimination, and becoming a botany professor at Tuskegee University. While these details are interesting and definitely worth learning, you can read about all that in other places. Instead, this snapshot is devoted to celebrating how one humble scientist used his botanical superpowers to solve a real-world problem. It is a story about successfully tackling agricultural sustainability and economic stability at the same time.

Carver grew up in the south and he knew the agricultural conditions very well. Soil in the southern states is fine and dry. Summers are long and hot. These are suitable conditions for growing cotton, a profitable cash crop. The problem is that cotton needs a lot of nitrogen. Several years of growing cotton on the same patch depletes the soil, making the crop yield less and less over time. In the late nineteenth century, commercial fertilizer was not available—and even if it had been, the poor people who worked the land couldn’t have afforded it. To make things worse, in 1892 a little pest called the boll weevil moved northward from Mexico and began invading and destroying cotton crops. The boll weevil population spread and plagued the south through the 1920s and ’30s, making the life of a cotton farmer even harder and less rewarding.

Peanut plant (Arachis hypogaea)

Peanut plant (Arachis hypogaea)
Photo by Biswarup Ganguly [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A cotton boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis)

A cotton boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis)

Freshly harvested peanuts, still attached to the roots of the plant.

Freshly harvested peanuts
Photo by Pollinator [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Carver knew this life because he had lived it, and he wanted to make it better. He worked to teach farmers about crop rotation. Legumes (like peanuts and soybeans) and sweet potatoes have the ability to convert nitrogen from the air to a form that plants can absorb from the soil. Planting what is called a “cover crop” of peanuts instead of cotton for a year restores the nitrogen in the soil so the cotton grows better the next year. As an added benefit, diversifying crops by growing peanuts and other plants that the weevils do not eat helps reduce their population so there are fewer to harm the cotton crops. Sounds like the answer to all of their problems, right? So of course, farmers changed their practices right away, and lived happily and sustainably ever after.

Not quite.

You see, at that time peanuts were only used as cheap feed for livestock, and nobody was buying a lot of them. A farmer could not earn as much money growing peanuts as he could from his dwindling crop of cotton, so changing crops was financially risky, even as the cotton was failing. Carver realized he had to solve the market problem or farmers were never going to plant cover crops. THAT is why he set out to invent more than 100 uses for peanuts from 1915 to 1923. 

Products that were developed by George Washington Carver and made available commercially.

Products that were developed by George Washington Carver and made available commercially. Photo via the National Park Service Legends of Tuskegee exhibition.

He didn’t stop there, He also worked to promote his inventions to businessmen and investors in order to create a demand for peanuts, because, as we all learned in high school economics, when the demand goes up so does the price. Then—and only then—did the sustainable practice of crop rotation take hold.

But wait, there’s more.

The increased demand for peanut products also led to an increase in peanuts imported from other countries. In 1921, Carver spoke to Congress to advocate for a tariff on foreign peanuts so American farmers would be protected from the competition. Though it was highly unusual for a black man to speak to Congress in those days, his appeal won over the legislators and tariffs were imposed.

Peanut flower (Arachis species)

Peanut flower (Arachis sp.)

George Washington Carver did not seek wealth or fame for his work. He found personal satisfaction in scientific discovery and using his talents to make the world a better place for farmers and everyone. I believe if he were alive today, he would have embraced the challenge of researching and teaching people about sustainable urban agriculture to improve the health, nutrition, and livelihood of low-income city dwellers just as he did for rural farmers 100 years ago, and I believe programs like our Windy City Harvest grow out of that same spirit and desire to help people make a better living for themselves.

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Get ready to play with Little Diggers

Mon, 11/27/2017 - 1:04pm

There’s a chill in the air. Flurries are flying past the windows. And your child is whining. Winter is coming and parents will need a cure for their children’s encroaching cabin fever. Little Diggers is the answer.

This four-class series gives 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds a chance to meet once a month and explore nature with caregivers in all seasons—yes, even in winter. The colder months in particular are the best time to encourage children to play in nature, said Mila Love, who coordinates the program.

“We really want to get outside and teach kids that it’s OK to be outside in all types of weather,” she said. “This isn’t a passive, sitting around and listening kind of hour.”

Outdoor play is a part of every Little Diggers class.

Outdoor play is a part of every Little Diggers class.

The benefits of nature play are many. Research has shown that children who play outdoors build confidence and creativity, and have lower stress levels, among other benefits. Nature play doesn’t need to stop when the holiday decorations come out. Increase the benefits by playing outdoors year-round.

Spending time outdoors is fun for everyone.

Spending time outdoors is fun for everyone.

So, what does a typical Little Diggers class look like?

  1. Kids and caregivers greet the instructor and check out the activity stations set up for the class theme of the day. Winter themes will be nocturnal animals (January), life in the pond (February), weather (March), and spring (April). They’ll get the chance to try out the different stations, and maybe create some art or build structures. Kids are free to decide what interests them.
  2. Circle time! Kids gather to talk about the month’s theme and read a book about it, then participate in an active, hands-on experience.
  3. Free play time gives Little Diggers participants a chance to check out the activity stations again or pot up a plant to take home. Winter Little Diggers take-home plants will be purple basil (January), nasturtium (February), lamb’s ear (March), and pansies (April).
  4. Next, the group goes outside. There are several locations at the new Regenstein Learning Campuswhere Little Diggers participants explore nature. Snow digging might take place in the outdoor classroom space. Planting activities take place in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden, while Kleinman Family Cove is where you can get a close-up look at aquatic plants and animals.
  5. Wrapping up the hour, kids come back to the classroom to pick-up their plants and projects, and say their goodbyes.

The only time the class stays indoors is when it’s too dangerous to be outdoors (if, for example, the temperature dips below zero degrees Fahrenheit). But that’s rare, so winter Little Diggers participants should dress warmly enough to be outdoors for an extended amount of time.

Instructor Mila Love leads a class of Little Diggers in the Regenstein Learning Center.

Instructor Mila Love leads a class of Little Diggers in the Regenstein Learning Center.

Little Diggers make clay veggies

Little Diggers make clay veggies

Love said she recommends Little Diggers as a first social group experience for toddlers. Because the adults stay with the children, it’s a great way for them to participate in a classroom-like setting before preschool or kindergarten starts, without being too far from their caregivers. Parents can benefit as well from meeting other parents, she said.

At home, children can care for the plants they potted in class. Instructors will often pass on instructions to recreate some of the fun. That herb-scented play dough they loved at Little Diggers can easily be made at home.

In winter, it’s common to want to stay inside because it’s cold. Having a nature-focused program like Little Diggers to look forward to, kids will want to get out and play, no matter what the weather is like.

The winter doldrums won’t stand a chance.

Online registration for Winter Little Diggers is now open. Members receive a discount. Have an older child? Sign up for one of our upcoming Weekend Family Classes, like Joyful Gingerbread of Loco for Cocoa.

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Growing Plants in Martian Soil

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 9:50am

The Martian: Many of us watched and loved the movie. Some of us read the book. A few of us got inspired to use the story to teach plant science to students.

 a novel

If you are a science enthusiast, I highly recommend reading the book.

The Martian by Andy Weir tells the fictional story of NASA astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, who becomes stranded alone on Mars and has to figure out how stay alive until the next NASA mission returns to rescue him. He plants six potatoes and successfully propagates a crop of potatoes in Martian dirt fertilized with human poop.

The story got me wondering if we could replicate Martian soil with local ingredients and use it for plant experiments. So I contacted the Garden’s soil scientist, Louise Egerton-Warburton, and asked her if this was possible. She responded with a recipe:

  • Mix two parts crushed volcano rock, two parts basalt dust, one part sand, plus 0.2 parts feldspar
  • Autoclave (heat to very high temperature) three times to kill microbes
  • Experiment away!

You know you work in a great place when you can ask a colleague for directions for making Martian soil and you get an immediate, enthusiastic response with suggestions for how to use it. I acquired the materials and cooked up a batch.

 a box of basalt, a cup of sand, a bag of feldspar, and a glass beaker containing the Martian soil mixture

I keep the ingredients for Martian soil in my office, in case Mark Watney drops by. Because you just never know. Matt Damon and Andy Weir are also welcome, but I hear they have both moved on to other projects.

One important thing I must mention: technically speaking, this mixture is not truly “soil.” Soil is the upper layer of material on the Earth that serves as an ideal medium for growing plants. It contains inorganic minerals from weathered and broken rocks combined with organic material from the decomposed remains of dead plants and animals. Real soil hosts microscopic bacteria and fungus that facilitate a cycling of nutrients through the ecosystem and convert minerals to a form plants can absorb and use. Soil also supports many little macroscopic critters, like worms and mites, that increase the porosity and affect other properties of the mixture.

The substance we would find on the surface of Mars is called regolith, which is mineral particles that result from weathering of rocks. Since my mixture is an approximation of what might be found on Mars, but made from Earth-sourced ingredients, it should actually be called simulated Martian regolith. But that’s a mouthful, so from here on I’m going to call it Martian soil and ask you, dear readers, to accept the inaccuracy for the sake of simplicity. OK?

I took my Martian soil and set out to answer my first question: what happens if we try to plant seeds in this stuff? Put another way, is it possible to grow plants in Martian soil without adding anything? To answer this question, I took a polystyrene egg carton and planted marjoram seeds (because I had some laying around) in my Martian soil and in some Earth potting soil for comparison.

 an 18 egg egg carton that has the 9 cells on the left planted with Martian soil and the nine cells on the right planted in earth potting soil; marjoram has sprouted in all 18 cells.

It was overcast outside when I took this picture in the greenhouse—you’ll have to look closely to see that the marjoram seeds sprouted in both Martian and Earth soils. So far, so good.

The Martian soil is completely different from the potting soil in appearance and texture, and it responds differently when watered. Shortly after the seeds germinated in all of the cells, the Mars side went south. It didn’t hold water very well; it dried out and became hard, almost like concrete. It was no surprise that all of the seedlings on the Mars side died soon after germination. Plants on the Earth side continued to grow and thrive.

 The same 18 cell egg carton now has nine Martian soil cells with no plants and nine cells with healthy marjoram growing in Earth potting soil.

It is clear from this test that the Martian soil needs to be amended to grow plants. We were told this in The Martian, but now I know it from personal experience. We can use our observations to understand why Martian soil is not a good medium for plants. That’s real science learning!

In the book, Watney used a bucket of Earth soil and human waste to amend the Martian soil for his potato crop. The book and the movie differ on this part—likely because the process required to make Martian soil suitable for growing potatoes was long and tedious. It wouldn’t make for riveting cinema. Instead of cultivating the soil over time, movie-Watney planted a spoonful of rehydrated human poop next to each piece of potato. 

While movie-Watney’s actions remind us of stories about the Pilgrims teaching the indigenous people to place a piece of fish next to each kernel of corn to improve the crop yield, there are some problems with applying this method to our Martian soil. The Martian soil would still lack sufficient organic materials and therefore not be able to hold water (as I demonstrated with my marjoram seed experiment). There would be an insufficient population of microbes to break down the human waste. Furthermore, the fecal matter might be so concentrated in nutrients that it could actually be toxic to the potato plants. I don’t believe it would actually work.

This compelled me to do some myth busting for my next experiment: since “humanure” would be unsafe—and gross!—I used worm poop, or vemicompost, which I have in plentiful supply from worm bins in our Learning Center nature laboratory. Also, I discovered that you can order “Martian Regolith Simulant” from a company online (who knew?). Although it’s expensive, it saved me the effort of crushing rocks, so I’m using it from now on.

This time I planted russet potato pieces and some sweet potatoes that had sprouted in my pantry at home (oops!) in azalea pots. I set up three conditions: Martian soil, Martian soil plus vermicompost, and Earth potting soil for comparison. 

 

 Martian soil, potting soil, and mixture of Martian soil with vermicompost

In spite of my doubts, I’m actually hoping that the potatoes in Martian soil plus vermicompost out-perform the potatoes in plain Martian soil, because bringing worms on a space voyage could prove to be a good solution for future colonists on Mars! But we’ll have to wait and see.

Underlying these experiments (and few other I have tried) is a basic investigation of what plants need to survive. By testing to find the right combination of Martian soil and amendments, and limiting solutions to those that could be transported by a spaceship to another planet, we are using engineering practices because we are trying to solve a problem. This is real-world science and engineering that students could do in the classroom. 

 Kathy J. sitting in her office wearing a space suit.

Here I am, working on my next astro-botany experiment, for myself, for teachers, and for science!

Besides satisfying my personal curiosity, these experiments are paving the way for some science lessons we are writing for teachers and students.

If you are a teacher interested in learning more about how to teach NGSS-aligned life science lessons using Martian soil, sign up for our workshop, STEM: Growing Plants in Martian Soil on Saturday, December 2, 2017. And watch for other Martian soil training opportunities in the future. 

We may never need to grow crops in Martian soil. But as we investigate the challenges of colonizing another planet, we can learn more about what plants need to thrive and also develop a genuine appreciation for how amazing our Earth soil is.

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Kids become ecologists on Ms. Frizzle-worthy Garden field trips

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 10:35am

Tiny hands, belonging to a class of third graders, carefully fold rulers into squares and rest them on a grassy meadow near the Dixon Prairie. Inside these 2-by-2-foot quadrants is a fantastical world to discover: the height of different species of plants, the temperature of the soil, the wind and the sun, and the climate of the lawn.

The children have a mission on this blustery October morning, an adventure in the far reaches of the Chicago Botanic Garden, where a yellow school bus opens its doors to a field trip inside the life of a Garden scientist.

A young boy studies tallgrass on the prairie during a guided field trip at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Learning about ecosystems outside the classroom creates valuable experiences and future scientists.

Prairie Pondering is just one of the Garden’s guided field trips, where students from Chicago area schools can experience the day-to-day work of a Garden ecologist. Trained Garden volunteers engage students in guided field trips from September to June. They use the same tools as horticultural scientists, take samples in the field, and ask questions that Garden experts examine on a daily basis. The goal of the field trips is to create real-life opportunities for students to have fun with science outside of their classroom walls, said Drew Wehrle, the Garden’s coordinator of student field trips.

To get their hands dirty, so to speak.

A teacher and group of students study the ecosystem in the 2ft-square area they have blocked off.

Evaluating the ecosystem of a particular quadrant helps scientists of all age focus their study.

“What are the biotic—or living—things affecting the prairie?” asked a Garden volunteer during Prairie Pondering. Students scribble answers in their notebooks: sun, wind.

“What does the soil look and smell like?” More answers: dry, smells bad.

“What is the temperature of the soil? Why do you think it’s different from the temperature in the air?”

One girl watches her thermometer fluctuate from 77 to 76 degrees. “The temperature is changing!” And so begins an early, hard lesson about Chicago weather.

As the group moves on to the prairie, the children are asked to consider the many different plants they’ve found. One girl counts 100, another 200. One boy points out a milkweed plant that reminds him of the game Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare.

“The point of the field trips is less about botanical expertise and more about asking the kids to consider why they think a plant looks or behaves the way it does,” Wehrle said.

Two girls compare answers as they walk through the prairie on a field trip.

Sharing time together outside is part of the fun of guided field trips.

A boy on a field trip runs through the prairie.

Field trips are a great opportunity for outdoor fun, too.

Each of the guided field trips is crafted to fulfill age-appropriate state Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), so students get to explore while also engaging with ideas that complement what they’re already learning in the classroom. Guided field trips include a range of botanical and nature topics, including The Wonders of Worms and Soil, Lake Investigations, Water Bugs, and Tree Detectives. Field trips are offered for third grade through high school students, and can be guided or self-directed. Self-guided field trips allow groups of all ages to explore while their teachers direct them on independent activities.

For more information about field trips, or to sign up, visit www.chicagobotanic.org/fieldtrips.

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

DIY Living Plant Wall

Mon, 05/15/2017 - 11:45am

This year, the Living Wall in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden needed to be replanted. The metal cells that hold the plants to the wall were removed and taken to the Garden’s greenhouse nursery to grow new plants before placement outside for the summer.

This left us with four empty walls at the entrance to the Growing Garden. So we decided to get creative. We made an “alternative” living wall. 

 sixteen cone-shaped pockets containing small plants are displayed on the brown walls.

The south-facing wall is now covered with burlap pocket planters containing alyssum, lettuce seedings, grass, and coriander.

Our carpenters covered foam boards with brown burlap and installed these panels on the living wall frame where the plant cells had been removed. Students from the Garden’s Nature Preschool planted seeds and transplanted seedlings into small pots. We placed the plants into colored burlap planters and pinned them to the foam walls, and voila! We have a vertical garden again.

You can do this at home. Making planting pockets is simple and fun.

  1. Plant seeds or transplant small plants and let them sprout. We used biodegradable Fertilpots, but you could also start seeds in egg cartons, newspaper pots, or plastic pots.

2. Cut the burlap into squares that are twice as long and wide as the pots.

 The picture shows the size of the burlap square next to the pot that was used.

Our Fertilpots were 4″ tall, so I cut the fabric roughly into 8″-x-8″ squares. This does not need to be exact.

3. Fold the square in half diagonally and sew a seam along the side. You can use a heavy duty needle with a sewing machine or do this by hand with a darning needle. It might be possible to use a hot glue gun to make the seam, but I did not try this.

 This shows what the burlap looks like after it is sewed in half.

I used a sewing machine because I made more than 100 of these. They could be sewn by hand.

4. Turn the triangle inside out to form the pocket. Slip the planted pot into the pocket and get ready to hang it on a wall.

 This shows the pocket with a pot inside.

The seam side of the pocket is the back, and the pointed front top can either be folded down or cut off.

5. To hang on the wall, pinch the extra fabric so the burlap fits snugly around the pot. Fold down the point in front or cut it off—your choice. Push a long pin through the pot and the fabric and pin the pocket to the wall. (I had pins used by our horticulturists to propagate cuttings; you could use T-pins or other pins with large heads.) You could also lace a ribbon around the top of the pocket and cinch the fabric, then hang the planter by the ribbon.

 The picture shows a hand holding the fabric to make the pocket fit around the pot.

Gathering the extra fabric will help hold the pot better, and it will look neater on the wall.

Students in our Nature Preschool enjoyed helping to grow the plants and pin them to the Living Wall. Each child wanted to place his or her planter next to a friend’s planter so they could grow close together.

wall KJ with girl

Just for fun, we experimented with some other kinds of planters, including plastic bottles and shoes.

 a 2 liter plastic bottle turned sideways and filled with soil and oregano plants is pinned to the wall.

If you want to try growing a plant in a 2-liter bottle, cut a rectangular opening in the side of the bottle, poke six to eight holes on the opposite side for drainage, fill with soil, plant, and hang it up.

The preschoolers are fascinated by the soda bottle planter. They like to look in the round opening on the side. The toddler shoe makes everyone smile. We may add more surprising planters over the next few weeks, just to keep it interesting.

 a toddler shoe with alyssum growing in it is laced with twine and hanging on the wall,

An old shoe can become a whimsical planter that sparks imagination.

If you decide to try something like this at home, be advised that the small pots need to be watered frequently (ours need watering daily) because they tend to dry out faster than larger containers. It’s a good project for young children because they will get to do a lot of watering without harming the plants.

Our “alternative living wall” is only temporary. Stop by the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden between now and June 12 to see how it’s growing. After that, the real living wall will be installed for the rest of the year.

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Give thanks for pollinators on Thanksgiving

Tue, 11/22/2016 - 1:46pm

Thanksgiving is here again, and we at the Chicago Botanic Garden are thankful for all the pollinators who make our food possible, every day, around the world. Bats, bees, butterflies, birds, and more pollinate plants that create one-third of the food we eat.

 Thanksgiving placemat to color and match pollinators to the food they produce.

Click here to download the PDF (11″x17″) of this placemat.

As you enjoy a meal with friends and family, take a moment to say thanks for the little things that make such a big difference—pollinators!

Draw and color the foods you are eating at your feast in the center of your plate on our placemat. Check the answer key to see who pollinated them.Instructions: Click on the image above to download our placemat to enjoy with your feast.

The ideal printing size is tabloid (11 x 17 inches). Letter size paper (8.5 x 11 inches) will also work if you choose “fit to page” when printing.

Draw and color the foods you are eating on our placemat. Check the answer key to see who pollinated them. Then, fill the Thanksgiving plate by drawing and coloring the foods—fruits, vegetables, and spices—that were brought to you by pollinators.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

What Kids Learn in a Cooking Class at the Garden

Thu, 11/10/2016 - 10:12am

Why cooking classes? I’ll tell you. I recently watched my 14-year-old “honor roll student” completely botch the job of making herself soup for lunch. I’m not talking about homemade soup; this was a can of tomato soup. Yes, a can of soup. 

 A girl with a bag over her head, holding a pot in her right hand, a whisk in her left.

What is a teenager to do without any cooking skills?

She was stymied when she couldn’t find the directions on the label—you know, where it says, “Mix soup + one can water.” She fumbled with the can opener. She picked out the wrong size pot. I suggested that she use a whisk to break up the lumps, and her face tensed in an expression of utter despair (oh, teen drama!) until I pointed to the container of utensils within reach next to the stove. By this time, the unincorporated tomato puree was boiling over in a watery grave because she had the heat set too high. 

This is largely my fault for not involving her in the kitchen more. It has been challenging to muster the patience to teach my kids domestic skills that seem easier to do myself. I started thinking about all the things my daughter has missed by not having any good cooking lessons: understanding cooking terms, skills with tools and materials, mastery of any food preparation processes, and confidence in the kitchen, not to mention being able to make a hot meal for herself. A quick search on the web confirmed my fears. Over the last decade, lots of people have written about why we need to teach kids how to cook. Allow me to summarize the list of benefits:

Health: Studies show that when kids learn to prepare food, they are more likely to try new foods, and also to be open to making healthier food choices.

Math: We use all kinds of math in the kitchen: counting items, estimating volumes, measuring weight and volume, and keeping track of time.

Reading: Following a recipe requires reading and understanding cooking vocabulary.

Safety: Learning about safe kitchen practices could prevent a miserable experience with cuts, burns, or microbes and food poisoning.

Self-Esteem: Mastering skills such as mixing, chopping, and kneading requires practice, and so it builds self-confidence. When we learn to perfect particular dishes, we feel a sense of ownership and accomplishment.

Science: Cooking has many science applications: combining different ingredients involves working with chemical reactions; cutting up ingredients reveals the physical structures of plants, animals, and fungus. 

Social Studies: Cooking is linked to culture and tradition, and so there is a connection to history and social studies. 

Social Skills: Communication skills are essential when learning to cook. If there is one thing food TV shows have shown us, it’s that people love to talk about food as much as they enjoy eating it, and food gives shy kids something interesting to talk about.

Clearly, I have failed my daughter, but I suspect I’m not the only parent in this sinking gravy boat.

 The pumkin pie ingredients are all on the counter, and two middle school girls are taking turns adding ingredients to the bowl.

Making a pumpkin pie requires lots of academic skills: reading, measuring, following directions, and even social skills.

And so, to address this deficiency in our children’s lives, my colleagues and I decided to bring back the fun and educational experience of a middle school cooking classes in our new ITW Kitchen at the Learning Center on the Regenstein Learning Campus.  In addition to all of the aforementioned benefits, we wanted all of our Chicago Botanic Garden cooking classes to teach kids where food comes from as we demonstrate cooking vegetables and fruits that are grown at the Garden.

 The girl is turning the crank on the vegetable noodle machine and watching the curls of zucchini noodles fall into a bowl.

Turning a zucchini into noodles, also known as “zoodles,” was a favorite activity in this cooking class.

If cooking classes are so great, why were home economics classes cut from elementary schools? I believe this happened when our country’s leaders decided that students needed to devote more time and attention to pure reading and math. This was done with the best of intentions. However, cooking gives kids a practical reason to learn those academic disciplines. It makes all subjects more meaningful and worth learning, so maybe it’s time to say, “No Child Left Out of the Kitchen.”

 a girls is smiling as she holds the plate of muffins she made, and is going to taste.

Why do kids like cooking? Because they like eating good food!

Have I convinced you? Then consider enrolling your youngster, or even yourself, in a cooking program. The Garden is the perfect place. And remember, if you leave the teaching to us, then you won’t have to clean up afterward.


Here are some upcoming cooking classes held in the new ITW Kitchen.

Healthy Cooking for Kids: Baking is a four-session class for Grades 5–8; the first in this series of cooking classes. 
Sundays, January 22 – February 12, 2017
1 – 4 p.m.
ITW Kitchen, Learning Center

An experienced kids’ culinary instructor will offer young teens some basic food-preparation techniques, as they follow recipes using healthy ingredients from a garden. By the end of this multi-week course, students will be able to bake savory scones, whole grain muffins, and other treats.

Weekend Family Classes are 90-minute programs with monthly mouthwatering themes, ideal for families with children ages 4-10 to make a dish together.

Sensational Squash
Sunday, November 13, 2016
9:30 – 11 a.m.
1 – 2:30 p.m.

Joyful Gingerbread
Saturday, December 3, 2016
Sunday, December 4, 2016
Saturday, December 17, 2016
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m.

Loco for Cocoa!
Saturday, January 21, 2017
Sunday, January 29, 2017
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m.

Sweet Treats: Cold Eats 
Sunday, February 12, 2017
Saturday, February 25, 2017
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m.

Churn It and Flip ‘Em (Make your Own Butter and Pancakes)
Saturday, March 4, 2017
Sunday, March 12, 2017
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m. 

Pizza Party 
Saturday, March 25, 2017
Sunday, April 2, 2017
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m.

Adult Cooking Classes are hands-on 90-minute workshops taught by food experts, who will introduce new ingredients, flavors, and techniques into your culinary repertoire.

Don’t forget summer camp!

ITW Kitchen Camps are week-long, food-featured summer camps for Grades 1-7.
Summer camp registration opens December 5, 2016.

  • Cooking A-Z, Grades 1-3 
  • Botany in the Kitchen, Grades 3-4
  • Cuisine, Grades 5-7

 

 Two girls are eating carrots. One holds two fingers up behind the other's head to give her bunny ears.

Kids and bunnies like garden-fresh carrots, especially if they are preparing their own snacks and meals.

Check our website at chicagobotanic.org for the latest details about new classes, dates, times, registration, fees, and future cooking programs.

One final note: Since writing this blog, my own daughter can now make mac & cheese and a pretty good omelet. 

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Play a game to learn about water conservation

Thu, 11/03/2016 - 8:58am

A few years ago, my Daisy and Brownie Girl Scout troop was working on their Household Elf badge. We needed a fun way to teach about conserving water at home—not a lecture—because let’s face it, after a full day of school, 6- to 9-year-old girls would will not sit still and listen to another lesson. I decided to make a board game for them. The main message of this game was a really important one: in Chicago, all of our water for drinking, cleaning, and recreation comes from Lake Michigan. If we waste water, then we waste the lake. It is that simple. 

 Board, cups, beads, and game tokens are arranged for the water conservation game.

The Water Conservation Game is set up and ready to play.

The girls responded very well to the activity. I am sharing it on the Garden’s blog for others to use, because at the Chicago Botanic Garden, we would also like people to understand the importance of conserving water from our lakes and other sources. Obviously this game was created for Chicago residents, but the same principles apply everywhere, in every community. The game could be adapted for another location by replacing the image of the Lake Michigan with an image to represent the local water source. (For most cities, that is groundwater.)

Download the game board

Click to download the water conservation game.

Click the image above to download your copy of the Water Conservation Game.

I discovered, to my surprise, that many of my Brownie Scouts were not familiar with board games. Most millennials have lots of experience pushing virtual buttons on a screen and competing against friends in cyberspace, but tossing a die and moving a token around a board with actual friends? Not so much. Anyone replicating this activity may find they need to explain how a game like this works. Also, it was also important to require that the players actually read the board squares in order to understand why they are taking two or three or ten beads as they move around the board. Having a discussion at the end of the game proved essential to getting the message across. 

After playing the game with my Scouts, I shared it with a group of middle school girls who were studying conservation in an after-school program. Believe it or not, it worked well with the older students, too. In fact, they loved it—mostly because they got to make a bracelet. But hey, whatever works, right?! 

To use this activity with your group, make one complete game set for every three to five students.

A game set includes:

  • 1 game board, printed on 11″ x 17″ paper
  • 1 six-sided die
  • Place marker tokens; one per person (these can be any small object, or borrow them from another board game set)
  • About 100 pony beads (I like to use transparent blue plastic beads because they look like water)
  • 1 small cup per person, plus one cup to serve as the bead reservoir
  • Elastic thread cut into 8-inch pieces; one per person (this is to make bracelets)

Game rules

  1. The object of this game is to move around the board and be the person who uses the least water. Remind players that every time we use water, we take a little more out out of Lake Michigan.
  2. Put about 100 beads in a cup and place it in the middle of the lake. The beads represent water from Lake Michigan. Players will keep track of how much water they use by collecting the beads in their cups as they move around the board.
  3. Players place their markers on “Start.” Each player rolls the die; the player with the highest roll goes first. If there is a tie, roll again to break the tie. The player sitting on the left of the first person goes second and players take turns going around the board in a clockwise direction. (I had to explain this to the girls in my troop.)
  4. The first player rolls the die and moves that number of spaces on the board in the direction of the arrows. The player lands on a square, reads what it says and follows the directions, collecting the beads from the reservoir and putting them into her own cup. Each player takes a turn and until everyone has moved around the board once and ended at the lake. It is not necessary to roll a perfect number to reach the end.
  5. When everyone is swimming in the lake at the end, tally up the number of beads each player has collected. The player with the fewest beads wins, because she used less water than the other players. 
  6. Return beads to the reservoir and play again once or twice to give others a chance to win. 

What is this game telling us? 

Ask the players to think about water use. The questions below can stimulate discussion. This can be brief, but it is important to reinforce the message that all of our water comes from Lake Michigan and we need to be responsible with water use.

  • What activities in the game used a lot of water and made someone lose the game?
  • What are some ways people waste water?
  • What practices use less water? 
  • What would happen if everyone was careless and used all the water from the lake? 
  • What can you do at home to reduce the amount of water you take out of Lake Michigan? 

 

 Package of 620 pony beads and a bracelet made from the beads

Transparent blue pony beads resemble water and make a nice bracelet.

Make a water bead bracelet

For a fun wrap up, each player can make a bracelet using the beads and elastic string. Wear the bracelet to remember to try and use less water at home. The bracelet makes a nice reward for learning outside the classroom.

One last important note

When teaching young children about water conservation, avoid the temptation to bring up stories of environmental problems that are beyond their ability to solve right now in their lives, like unpleasant images of industrial pollution, drought, and famine. Child development experts will tell you that when we burden children with messages about how they need to help save the planet, we actually do more harm than good by making them feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and less inclined to adapt sustainable habits. Focus on things they can do, like turning off the water when they brush their teeth. It is enough that they learn not to use more water than they need at home so that they can share it with all of the creatures they love. This is a message we can respond to positively at any age.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Science Activity: Albino Plants

Mon, 10/17/2016 - 11:10am

Leaves are green. There are very few exceptions in healthy living plants, and most of the exceptions are partially green with red, yellow, orange, or white patterns; or they look white, but upon closer inspection they are actually whitish, bluish-green, and not pure white. The pigments that give all leaves their color are essential for the plant’s ability to harness energy from the sun and make sugars in the process we know as photosynthesis.

But every once in a while, a completely white seedling sprouts from a seed. This happened with some basil I grew a few years ago. 

 

 this picture shows two seedlings, one has two green seed leaves and the other is white and only half as big.

The green and albino seedlings came up at the same time, but the albino seedling never grew true leaves, and eventually withered and died.

My albino basil survived only a few days. Without any chlorophyll—the green pigment necessary for photosynthesis—this seedling was doomed. That is the case with all albino plants. The gene mutation that gives rise to albino plants is fatal to the plant, because without the ability to make sugars, the plant runs out of energy to live.

So when I was perusing the online Burpee seed catalog and came across “variegated cat grass” I was curious. VERY curious, and perhaps you are, too.

 a potted plant of white grass leaves.

How can this albino plant survive? (Photo permission from W. Atlee Burpee Company)

I had several questions: 

  • The term “variegated” implies that the leaves would be striped or multicolored, but in the picture it appears that there are all white leaves. What will this grass actually look like?
  • How long will it take to sprout?
  • How easy it to grow?
  • Is there enough green on those leaves for the grass to survive or will it die off like my basil?
  • If it does survive, how long can I keep it growing?

And most importantly:

  • Would this make an awesome science activity for students in the classroom and at home to investigate the importance of chlorophyll in plants?

There was only one way to find the answers. I ordered the seeds and grew some variegated cat grass in our nature lab at the new Learning Center. You can do this in your classroom to find answers to my questions and your own. 

Before I give you directions for growing cat grass, you may be wondering:

What IS cat grass?

The cat grass you may have seen sold in pet stores is usually a type of wheat, or Triticum. Our “variegated cat grass” is a type of barley (Hordeum vulgare variegata). Both are cereal grains that have been cultivated as food for hundreds of years. Both are sold commercially as cat grass because some cats like to chew on the leaves. Not being a cat owner, I don’t know if cats actually like this stuff, but apparently it sells.

Variegated barley was the result of science experiments on genetic mutations in barley seeds in the 1920s. The hybrid barley seeds have been packaged and sold by different seed companies because…well, they’re attractive and intriguing—they caught my attention.

How to plant cat grass, barley, wheat, or any grass seeds

You need:

  • A container that will hold soil at a depth of at least 2 inches; drainage holes are best, but not necessary
  • Variegated cat grass seeds (sold as “cat grass, variegated” and available at Burpee and other seed suppliers)
  • Potting soil
  • Water
  • A warm, sunny location for your plants

 

 Twelve plants have sprouted, one green, three green and white striped, and the rest all white.

In less than a week, a few more than half of the twenty variegated cat grass seeds planted in this 4-inch pot grew to 4 – 6 inches tall. The taller plants are ready for a trim.

Fill the container with moist potting soil. Spread seeds on the surface of the soil. Cover seeds with a thin layer of moist soil and tamp the soil down so that most of the seeds are covered. It’s all right if you can see some of the seeds through the thin layer of soil. Place in a warm, bright location. The seeds will sprout in a few days, but may take a week depending on the room temperature.

If students plant their own individual pots, have them place 20 – 30 seeds in each 3-inch container. The seeds I bought came 300 to a pack, so that means you need at least two (maybe three) packs to have enough for everyone in the class.

 most of the grass is all white, but there are nine or ten all or partially green leaves.

Half of the 100 seeds planted in this 8-inch pot have sprouted, and more should be coming up soon.

You can also use the whole pack in a 8- to 10-inch container, or even spread more seeds in a foil baking pan filled with soil to grow a carpet of grass. The more densely you plant the seeds, the closer the plants will grow together and it will look and feel more like a healthy lawn. A sparser planting makes it easier to observe individual plants. It’s up to you how you want to do it, really.

Keep the grass in a warm, sunny location. Water when dry, but do not allow it to dry out. When the grass leaves are more than 3 inches tall, use a sharp pair of scissors to trim them to a uniform height just as you would mow a lawn. This will prevent the grass from going to seed and keep it alive longer. You can plant new seeds in the same planter to revitalize in two to three weeks when it starts looking a little tired.

Now the REAL science part: 

Whether you make a single classroom planter or have each student plant her own pot, observe your variegated cat grass for the next four to six weeks, or even longer. Keep it watered and trimmed. Measure its growth. Take photos or sketch it to record how it grows and changes. Ask your own questions and try to find answers, and ultimately reach a conclusion about what happens to white plants. If you and your class are really interested, plant some more cat grass and change the procedure to test your own ideas. It’s that easy to do plant science in your classroom.

Want more albino plant science? Read on.

More activities for inquiring minds

You can experiment with other genetically modified albino seeds available through science supply companies.

 A packet of genetically modified corn seeds and instruction booklet

Seed kits enable you to investigate different genetic traits, including the albino mutation.

Carolina Biological Supply Company sells hybrid corn that will grow white leaves and stems. I have planted these seeds and they work pretty well, but require a bright window or light and a warm environment to sprout successfully. A classroom kit contains soil, planting trays, and 500 seeds for a classroom investigation, and costs about $100. You can order just the seeds in packs of 100 genetic corn seeds that are all albino (90 percent of the seedlings will grow to be albino) for $18.50, or a green/albino mix—which means about 75 percent of seedlings will be green and 25 percent white, for $10.50. The latter enables you to compare the mutation to the normal strain. 

 Ten white corn seedlings are a few inches tall.

Five days after planting, albino corn seedlings are beautiful, but ill-fated.

Nasco sells seeds and kits to investigate albino plants. Their “Observing the Growth of Mutant Corn Seeds” kit serves up to 40 students and costs $62.50. Nasco also has albino tobacco seeds with 3:1 green to white ratio, 1,200 seeds for $12.05. Tobacco seeds are smaller, and therefore more difficult for little fingers to handle than corn or barley. I have never tried growing them, but that might be my next science project this fall.

 Cat Grass (Barley).

After a two months, my densely planted variegated cat grass is thriving at the nature lab, even though it no longer resembles the catalog photo.

The answer to my question? Yes! This is an awesome science activity for students because it’s easy and demonstrates something really important—in fact, something essential to our existence!

You don’t need to purchase the fancy kits to investigate why plants are green. You can get a lot of good science learning out of a pack of variegated cat grass. All you really need to do is look around you and notice the colors in nature. Do you see white leaves anywhere? If you do, then there is probably a science investigation waiting for you.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Color the leaves to understand the shades of fall

Wed, 10/05/2016 - 12:55pm

During the summer, tree leaves produce all the pigments we see in fall, but they make so much chlorophyll that the green masks the underlying reds, oranges, and yellows.

In fall, days get shorter and cooler, and trees stop producing chlorophyll. As a result, the green color fades, revealing the vibrant colors we love. Eventually, these colors also fade, and the leaves turn brown, wither, and drop. Then the trees become dormant for winter.

Parents and teachers: download a coloring sheet for your kids here!

Fall Color at the Garden

There are four pigments responsible for leaf colors:

  • Chlorophyll (pronounced KLOR-a-fill) – green
  • Xanthophyll (pronounced ZAN-tho-fill) – yellow
  • Carotene (pronounced CARE-a-teen) – gold, orange  
  • Anthocyanin (pronounced an-tho-SIGH-a-nin) – red, violet, can also be bluish

Leaves are brown when there are no more photo-sensitive pigments; only the tannins are left.

Color these leaves according to the pigments they produce:

honeylocust leaf
Honey locust

Leaves turn color early in the season; the lighter carotenes glow warmly against the blue sky and green grass.

 

sugar maple leaf
Sugar maple

The fading chlorophyll, combined with xanthophyll, carotene, and anthocyanin, produce the spectacular show we anticipate every year. Leaves change slowly and over time may be any combination of the four pigments, ending in a brilliant flame of anthocyanin.

 

japanese maple leaf
Japanese maple

The darker anthocyanin hues turn these feathery leaves the color of shadows—fitting for the spooky month of Halloween.

 

sweetgum leaf
Sweetgum

Like the maple, this tree puts on an awe-inspiring display of xanthophyll, carotene, and anthocyanin all together.

 

ginkgo leaf
Ginkgo

Light filtering through the xanthophyll and lighter carotene of these leaves creates an ethereal glow. The ginkgo drops all of its leaves in a day or two.

 

sumac leaf
Sumac

The anthocyanin in these leaves makes them the color and shape of flames, and appears as fire against the duller colors of the surrounding landscape.

 

buckeye leaf
Buckeye

Carotenes recede quickly around the edges of the leaves as they prepare to parachute to the ground.

 

tulip tree leaf illustration
Tulip tree

A pale hint of chlorophyll mixes with xanthophyll and a touch of carotene as this tree shuts down for winter.

 

pin oak leaf illustration
Pin oak

This stately tree holds its anthocyanin-rich leaves through the fall. The color eventually fades, but the tree holds its pigment-less leaves through the winter.

Download a coloring sheet for your kids here!

Facts about fall leaf colors:

  • Trees use the sugars they produce through photosynthesis to make all of the pigments we see.
  • The best fall color display comes in years when there has been a warm, wet spring; a summer without drought or excessive heat; and a fall with warm, sunny days and cool nights.
  • Chlorophyll, carotene, xanthophyll, and anthocyanin are also responsible for the coloring of all fruits and vegetables, including corn, pumpkins, beans, peppers, tomatoes, and berries.
  • Peak fall color comes earlier in northern latitudes than southern latitudes, so if you miss the best of the sugar maples in Chicago, take a trip south to get your color fix.
  • You can preserve a leaf by ironing it between sheets of wax paper.

Fall color(ing) activity correct colors:

Fall Color(ing) Activity Answers

Illustrations by Maria Ciacco
©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Opening the Doors to a Dream at Learning Campus

Thu, 09/08/2016 - 9:00am

Seven years ago, we dreamed of turning a gravel parking lot at the Chicago Botanic Garden into something defining—a place where learners of all ages could explore and become inspired by the natural world.

My name is Eileen Prendergast, and I’m director of education at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time flipping through blueprints of that place, the Regenstein Learning Campus, the new home base for the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden. And I’ve been counting the days until we could open the doors to the public.

That day has finally arrived.

 The Regenstein Learning Campus, as viewed by drone.

The Regenstein Learning Campus

I never could have imagined the rich details, the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the Learning Campus connects people to nature. Consider the heart of the campus, the Learning Center, which has 12 indoor and two outdoor classrooms (for cooking, yoga, and other classes, along with space for the new Nature Preschool). The Learning Center is also home to:

  • an art installation that reveals the transitioning shades of the Chicago Botanic Garden throughout the seasons—color rectangles show leaves, stems, berries, or flowers, photographed in extreme close-up,
  • benches made by a master wood-carver from the reclaimed wood of ash trees, and
  • an enclosed indoor beehive that allows honeybees to roam outside—and pollinate flowers in the new Nature Play Garden—and return through a long tube in the Learning Center’s roof.
 A young visitor examines the new indoor beehive in front of nature photographed in extreme close-up by artist Jo Hormuth.

A young visitor examines the new indoor beehive in front of nature photographed in extreme close-up by artist Jo Hormuth.

Now the last—and most important—piece of our dream is about to come true. I can’t wait to see the Learning Campus come alive with people—splashing, rolling, climbing, and finding their own inspiration—at the free Opening Celebration. I look forward to meeting you.

 Yoga is in session at the new Learning Campus.

Yoga is in session at the new Learning Campus.

Come to the free Opening Celebration, September 10 and 11, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; parking fees apply. Enjoy live music and activities, take home a free plant, and more. Take 10 percent off classes when you sign up on-site on opening weekend (members get 30 percent off). Members are welcome to stop by the lounge for light refreshments and a commemorative gift.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Nature Preschool: Awesomeness and ABCs

Tue, 09/06/2016 - 8:50am

A small pink bicycle—with training wheels and pink ribbons—was parked outside the new Nature Preschool at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It was just a sign of things to come at the preschool, which opens September 6 at the new Regenstein Learning Campus, home to the Garden’s education programs.

 Bike parking right outside the new Regenstein Learning Campus.

Parking right outside the new Regenstein Learning Campus

Learn more about the Nature Preschool at the Garden on our website.

Open houses for the 2017-18 school year will be held this fall. Meanwhile, we talked to some of this year’s students at the orientation for 4-year-olds about their future career plans and other matters.

 Gemma plays in the outdoor mud kitchen.

Gemma plays in the outdoor mud kitchen.

Gemma

Q. What are you looking forward to doing in school?
A. I like studying and putting all the things into baskets and seeing if the temperature is hot or cold and climbing trees and playing outside and looking at the stream and measuring and weighing things and to paint and do art.

Q. What’s so interesting about plants?
A. I like to see if a little walnut will grow into a walnut tree.

Q. What do you want to be when you grow up?
A. An explorer.

 Ethan works with homemade play dough.

Ethan works with homemade play dough.

Ethan

Q. What are you looking forward to doing in school?
A. I like playing on the big hills and the rocks and in the garden and cutting the putty and working in the mud kitchen and ABCs.

Q. What is your favorite plant?
A. Cactus. [Why?] Because it has pointy things.

Q. So you already know things about nature.
A. I know a blue jay eats worms. I know that the cactus keeps water so he doesn’t need much.

 Harrison explores tools in the science corner.

Harrison explores tools in the science corner.

Harrison

Q. What do you think the Nature Preschool is going to be like?
A. Awesomeness.

Q. What do you want to be when you grow up?
A. A scientist.

 Erin works in the math station.

Erin works in the math station.

Erin

Q. Why do you want to go to the Nature Preschool?
A. I want to learn about plants. I like digging in the dirt. At home, I pull weeds. Mom does, too. I want to climb a tree.

Q. What’s your favorite subject?
A. I like writing and animals.

 Serena enjoys a snack.

Serena enjoys a snack.

Serena

Q. What do you want to do in preschool?
A. Go down the hills, play in the water and splash, read things.

Q. What’s your favorite subject?
A. Science.

Q. What do you want to be when you grow up?
A. When fishes and sharks get sick, I’ll fix them.

Q. What else will you do?
A. Just that.

 Kids and families explore the Kleinman Family Cove.

Explore with us.

Come to the Regenstein Learning Campus’s free Opening Celebration, September 10 and 11, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; parking fees apply.

Enjoy live music and activities, take home a free plant, and more. Members can stop by the lounge for light refreshments and a commemorative gift.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Nature Play Never Stops

Thu, 09/01/2016 - 1:30pm

Keep summer fun going with outdoor activities that encourage creativity and independent thinking.

School is in session, but that doesn’t mean outdoor summer fun has to stop. Sure, going back to school might mean the long summer days of riding bikes and playing hide-and-seek outside will be replaced with classrooms and school bells, but kids can still find time to play in nature when they aren’t in school. And the good news is that outdoor play time has many benefits; a growing body of research shows that nature play encourages creativity and problem solving, boosts academic performance, helps people focus, reduces stress, and promotes positive social relationships.

 Three young boys peek into a bucket full of lake water looking for life.

Sharing discoveries—like water creatures from Garden lakes—is a great way to cement knowledge.

Nature play abounds at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and can be found in many of our education programs, including family drop-in activities, Camp CBG, and the new nature preschool. Ann Halley, coordinator of early childhood programs, outlined a few nature play activities kids and families do at the Garden that can also be done at home. Choose an activity—or two—to keep children playing in nature throughout the school year:

 British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy inspired this nature art at Camp CBG.

British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy inspired this nature art at Camp CBG.

Create land art. Use twigs, rocks, and leaves to create artistic sculptures and let creativity be the guide. Build a stone tower topped with a flower, or let a design naturally reveal itself. Discover the beauty of natural materials and make whatever feels right. There are no limits on what can be created using material found in the backyard and a bit of imagination.

 A young boy mixes mud in kitchen baking pans.

Half the joy of painting with mud: mixing your colors.

Paint with mud. Why use regular paint when mud is so much more fun? Swap out watercolors for mud and ditch brushes for hands to create all-natural art. Take sustainability up a notch by using an outside surface—the sidewalk, a driveway, or back patio—instead of paper as your canvas. Wash creations away when you’re through.

Dissect flowers. Pick a few wildflowers and take them apart. Examine each petal and stamen. Compare different flowers and notice the shapes and colors of each. For older children who are interested in art, use the dissected flower pieces to make geometric patterns. Budding scientists can compare different kinds of flowers to learn more about what attracts certain pollinators.

 A small girl picks apart the seed pods of Lunaria, or money plant.

Peeling apart leaves, seeds, and flowers reveals all kinds of interesting information about the natural world.

Go on an adventure hike. It seems obvious to suggest a hike when talking about activities that can be done outdoors. But an adventure hike makes the walk more fun. Give the hike a theme and try to hunt for on-topic items. The theme can be a color (things that are blue), a shape (look for circles), or whatever else you think might be fun. Turning the hike into an adventure means children will be more aware of what’s all around them and will stop—maybe even literally—to smell the flowers.

Study the clouds. Look up. A cloudy day provides an opportunity to find inspiration in the sky. Younger children can look for different shapes. Older kids can discuss the different types of clouds and identify those currently over their heads. The best part about this activity? No tools required.

Can’t get enough nature play? Check out the new Regenstein Learning Campus and sample some of the Garden’s educational offerings at the Opening Weekend celebration on Saturday and Sunday, September 10 and 11, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. You can get artistic with a photography or mosaics class demonstration, stretch your muscles with yoga or tai chi, or have some fun running on rolling hills or splashing in the water of the Nature Play Garden.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Deeply Rooted at the Regenstein Learning Campus

Fri, 08/19/2016 - 12:00pm

This September, find even more ways to learn, play, and get inspired. Our new Nature Play Garden’s plants and natural features encourage discovery, sensory interaction, and imaginative play.

But the best learning opportunities you’ll find on the Regenstein Learning Campus come from horticulturists and educators with lives deeply rooted in nature. Here are a few of their personal stories.

Explore the Nature Play Garden at the Learning Campus’s free Opening Celebration, September 10 & 11, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (parking fees apply). See the complete schedule for our Opening Celebration events on our website.

Kris Jarantoski

 Kris Jarantoski, age 3.

Kris at age 3.

 Kris Jarantoski, Executive Vice President and Director, Chicago Botanic Garden.

Kris Jarantoski, executive vice president and director, Chicago Botanic Garden

I grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We lived across the street from a woods and river, and I played there all the time. With friends, we built forts and swung around on grapevines. I noticed that the hawthorn flower had a funky smell, and to this day, whenever I smell hawthorn flowers, I’m transported back to those woods.

My parents took me to visit Mitchell Park Conservatory and Boerner Botanical Gardens. Boerner Botanical Gardens especially made a huge impression on me. It had gardens on a scale that I did not have at home and a diversity of plants from around the world that could never fit into my yard. It expanded my horticultural horizons immensely and was a fantasy world to me.

I started out in college majoring in music, playing the organ. In my sophomore year I took a botany class and was fascinated. I switched my major to horticulture and loved designing and planning gardens. Once I decided to pursue a career in horticulture, I knew it had to be working in a botanic garden.

I got my dream job in 1977, when I started working at the Garden as an assistant horticulturist. Over the years I have been fortunate to work with talented staff to plan and plant 27 distinct display gardens and four natural areas.

Amy Kerr Wells

 Amy Wells as a child in her grandmother's garden.

Amy in her grandmother’s garden

 Amy Wells, Manager, Youth & Family Programs.

Amy Wells, manager, Youth & Family Programs

Here I am, at age 5, with my Grandma Kerr in her garden in Iowa, which we visited every summer. I loved her garden—she told me that she had a fairy living in her garden, and we would look for it as soon as we got there. Her flowers were big and tall—almost unreal to me as a youngster. Her magical touch in nature really stuck with me; her flowers were amazing, and I did not see them anywhere else.

I still carry that “garden magic” with me. I ask our camp teachers to have kids look for the magic in a seed, a tree, a pond—to take the time to just be in nature, whether that is listening to all the sounds in the Kleinman Family Cove, digging in the soil sandbox, chasing fireflies, or rolling down a hill—taking it all in—the sights, sounds, and smells.

Ann Halley

 Ann Halley as a child.

Ann helps in the backyard garden.

 Ann Halley, Coordinator, Early Childhood Programs.

Ann Halley, coordinator, Early Childhood Programs

My parents were born in Ireland, and, to hear them tell it, were outside every day. We lived on the west side of Chicago, and when I was 3 years old, my dad decided that we would put in a garden. I decided that he needed my help. We gardened, played under the sprinkler, jumped in puddles, and came home covered nearly head to toe in dirt just about every day.

The influence of being exposed to nature—the pretty and the messy—has very much influenced my life. Having this childhood, with parents who encouraged us to “live” outside every chance that we could, allowed me to value its importance and led me to teaching children how to learn in and through nature.

Julia McMahon

 Julia McMahon as a baby.

Julia as a toddler in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

 Jullia McMahon, Coordinator, Family Programs.

Julia McMahon, coordinator, Family Programs

I grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a landscaped front yard and a wooded backyard. I spent hours jumping from stone to stone in my mother’s rock garden, picking blueberries from bushes in our front yard before the birds gobbled them up, and “designing” and planting the annual bed along the walkway to our front door.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, my best friend and I were allowed to explore the woods by ourselves. One time we “discovered” a plant we called the umbrella plant. It was about 5 inches tall with horizontally held, fan-like branches covered in scale-like leaves. We excitedly brought it home and, although it didn’t last long, the impression did.

This exposure to nature and being allowed to explore outside on my own shaped many aspects of my life, including my decisions to study plant science at Cornell University and earn a master’s degree in elementary education at Loyola University Chicago. My position as family programs coordinator at the Chicago Botanic Garden combines my fondness for the natural world and my love of children and teaching. I look forward to teaching and sharing similar experiences with children at the new Regenstein Learning Campus.

Discover more about our deeply rooted scientists, educators, and horticulturists in our previous post, Deeply Rooted: Garden educators, scientists, and horticulturists are made early in life.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Summer Reading Program launches on June 4

Wed, 05/18/2016 - 3:01pm

Read, play, earn prizes! Kids of all ages are welcome to participate in the Lenhardt Library’s summer reading program at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The Summer Nature Explorer: Reading and Activity Program begins on June 4 and runs through September 5.

With the program, you can encourage the joy of reading and literacy skills in your kids and help reluctant readers enjoy STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities to develop critical thinking skills.

Research has shown that reading 20 minutes per day (or 300 minutes per summer) reduces the “summer slide” and enables students to maintain their reading level during summer vacation.

Here’s how the program works:

  • Sign up at the Lenhardt Library and receive your Summer Nature Explore: Reading and Activity Log.
  • Read a book to get a stamp.
  • Play at Family Drop-In Activities sites to get a stamp.
  • Earn 5 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 10 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 15 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 20 (or more) stamps: Get a certificate of completion and a big prize at the Lenhardt Library.

 

Summer Nature Explorers

Here are a few books in the Lenhardt Library’s children’s corner to pique your interest. (Books with yellow dot are for younger readers, while those with blue star are for more advanced readers.)

 Explore Honey Bees! by Cindy Blobaum.

Explore Honey Bees!

Blobaum, Cindy. Explore Honey Bees! White River Junction, VT: Nomad Press, 2015.

Amazing honey bees have been pollinating our world for thousands of years. With descriptions and activities, this book covers it all.

Call Number: QL568.A6B56 2015 blue star icon.

 A Pop-Up Book by David A. Carter.

Spring: A Pop-Up Book

Carter, David A. Spring: A Pop-Up Book. New York, NY: Abrams Appleseed, 2016.

A bright and colorful pop-up book of flowers, trees, birds, and bugs that delights!

Call number: QH81.C37 2016 yellow dot icon.

 From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! by Felicia Sanzari Chernesky and Julia Patton.

From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! 

Chernesky, Felicia Sanzari, and Julia Patton. From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! Chicago, Illinois: Albert Whitman & Company, 2015.

From apple varieties on their trees to the cider press, this family’s rhyming visit to an orchard is great fun to read.

Call number: PZ8.3.C42Fr 2015 yellow dot icon.

 When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano and Julie Morstad.

When Green Becomes Tomatoes

Fogliano, Julie, and Julie Morstad. When Green Becomes Tomatoes. New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2016.

Poems for each season with lovely illustrations to accompany the journey.

Call number: PS3606.O4225A6 2016 yellow dot icon.

 How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World by Loreen Leedy and Andrew Schuerger.

Amazing Plant Powers: How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World

Leedy, Loreen, and Andrew Schuerger. Amazing Plant Powers: How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World. New York: Holiday House, 2015.

Spike E. Prickles, the superhero plant, teaches all about plant life in a whimsical way.

Call number: QK49.L44 2015 yellow dot icon.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

All-Season Nature Crafts for Kids

Wed, 04/06/2016 - 9:12am

As a mom and working artist, I try to think of ways I can introduce my 3-year-old daughter to the outdoors and the power of imagination through craft projects. And as an employee at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I am inspired by all sorts of family programs and drop-in activities for kids and families that celebrate the outdoors.

What’s fun about nature art is that it starts with an adventure and ends with a surprise. For instance,  the “family of owls” that we created may appear in story time later.

Here are some of the nature-inspired activities and kid-friendly crafts that have come out of my journey as a mother and continue to get the best reviews from Laila, my toughest little critic.

Dirt is cool

Even when she was a baby, my daughter was intrigued by dirt. She is still fascinated by it, in any form. In the long winter, when we’re tired of being cooped up, we bring a little of the outdoors inside and put together a mud pie prep kitchen. Supplies include dropcloth, potting soil, spray bottle, pouring cups, pie plates, and sticks, rocks and/or sand for decorating.

 Mudpie in progress.

Don’t forget to have an old towel underneath your creation station.

 Laila holds her finished mudpie.

The finished muddy treat

Happiness is when mom says it’s OK to play with your food

This is the best way to distract a picky eater, or wow guests with an inexpensive dish you can design with your kids. Laila and I made these creations out of various fruits, vegetables, herbs, and cheeses.

 A cheese and fruit plate in a holiday theme is fun for kids to graze.

Bite-sized holiday snacks are great for kids who graze.

 A vegetable butterfly makes for delicious, healthy snacking.

A vegetable butterfly makes for delicious, healthy snacking.

It’s an outdoors treasure hunt

Laila and I start by taking adventure walks and filling our pockets or a basket with sticks, leaves, flowers, and other found art objects. Everywhere you look, there are free art supplies.

 Laila through the year, enjoying the outdoors.

Every season has something outside to explore.

 Sticks and grass make a portrait of our house; Laila works on a mulch sun.

We made a portrait of our house. Sticks and grass set the scene; Laila works on a mulch-made sun.

 Onion skins provide the fall leaves for our tree painting.

Take gatherings inside to make nature scenes or collages inspired by the seasons. Here, onion skins provide the fall leaves for our tree painting.

Rock ’n’ roll with it

Hand-picked rocks can be collected, cleaned, painted, and polished to transform into precious stones with a story attached. Even little nature lovers can apply homemade or washable paint to their rocks before an adult adds a clear topcoat finish. The rock art can be used as a paperweight or embellishment to a potted plant. Add a pipe cleaner and clothespin to make it a photo holder.

 Laila collects stones on the beach; the painted stones below.

Every child likes to collect rocks.

 A photo holder made from a painted stone, clothespin, and colorful pipe cleaner.

Collected stones can be painted or polished as keepsakes. Here, we’ve added a pipe cleaner and clothespin for a photo holder.

Impromptu art

One day we found pine cones and added fabric, buttons, and ribbon to create a family of owls that found a new home in our Christmas tree. Another time we used sticks, wire, glitter, and beads to build a twinkling mobile.

 A family of hand-made pinecone owls using buttons for eyes and ribbon feet.

A family of pine cone owls made great Christmas ornaments.

When the projects are done, we talk about what we made, where our supplies came from, and who we can share our creations with.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of outdoor exploration with my mom. I hope Laila someday will feel the same way.

Want to get more nature into your child’s world? Join us for a Nature Preschool open house April 7, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Deeply Rooted: Garden educators, scientists, and horticulturists are made early in life

Mon, 04/04/2016 - 9:39am

A growing body of research tells us that children are better off when they have daily contact with nature.

Nature play encourages creativity and problem solving, boosts academic performance, helps children focus, increases physical activity, improves eyesight, reduces stress, and promotes positive social relationships. 

Chicago Botanic Garden scientists, educators, and horticulturists credit their personal growth and professional development to early doses of “Vitamin G” (a term used to describe the benefits of exposure to green environments). Their words and childhood pictures best capture the joyful effect of nature on their lives.

Deeply Rooted Educators

Jennifer Schwarz Ballard, Ph.D. Jennifer at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, age 4

Jennifer, age 4, at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle

Jennifer Schwarz Ballard

Vice president, education and community programs

“Even though I spent the early part of my childhood in Hyde Park, Chicago, I can’t remember a time when as a family, we didn’t take every opportunity to head out of the city to northern Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula, or northern Michigan for camping, canoeing, or hiking. Later, we moved to (almost) rural New York, where my sister, friends, and I became intimately familiar with the acres of woods, fields, and streams behind our house, disappearing for hours to explore our private, imagined world. As an adult, when I had the opportunity at the Chicago Botanic Garden to combine my expertise in learning science with my love of nature and share it with others, I thought, ‘This is the place for me.’”

Eileen Prendergast Eileen at Silver Lake in Grand Junction, Michigan, age 4

Eileen, age 4, at Silver Lake in Grand Junction, Michigan

Eileen Prendergast

Director of education

“The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”—Richard Louv, journalist and author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

“Some of my fondest memories of childhood include our summer vacations at Silver Lakes in southwestern Michigan. My brothers and cousins and I would spend all day, every day, playing in the sand and splashing in the water. We’d take the rowboat out to the ‘lily pads’ to see if we could catch any frogs—we were (disappointingly) never successful, though we did manage to get the rowboat stuck once for what seemed like an hour, but was probably just a few panicked minutes.

I have a particular fond memory of my close cousin Jean and I filling buckets with sand, mixing in just the right amount of water, and carefully making a batch of sand pancakes to cook on our folding chair stove. The simple pleasures derived from the freedom to play and explore outside throughout my childhood reinforces for me the importance of ensuring those same opportunities for play time in nature are available for my own children at home and the children participating in the programs at the Garden—making sure there are places to run, to hide, to dig, to splash, to have fun.”

Julia McMahon Julia as a toddler in Pittsburgh, Pensylvania

Julia as a toddler in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Julia McMahon

Coordinator, family programs

“I grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a landscaped front yard and a wooded backyard. I spent hours jumping from stone to stone in my mother’s rock garden, picking blueberries from bushes in our front yard before the birds gobbled them up, and ‘designing’ and planting the annual bed along the walkway to our front door. When I was 7 or 8 years old, my best friend and I were allowed to explore the woods by ourselves. One time we ‘discovered’ a plant we called the umbrella plant. It was about 5 inches tall with horizontally held, fan-like branches covered in scale-like leaves. We excitedly brought it home and, although it didn’t last long, the impression did.

“Preschool educators have long known that animals, plants, water, and other aspects of the natural world delight children and draw them in as learners.”—Natural Start Alliance

This exposure to nature and being allowed to explore outside on my own shaped many aspects of my life, including my decisions to study plant science at Cornell University and earn a master’s degree in elementary education at Loyola University, Chicago. My position as family programs coordinator at the Chicago Botanic Garden combines my fondness for the natural world and my love of children and teaching. I look forward to teaching and sharing similar experiences with children at the new Regenstein Learning Campus.”

Amaris Alanis-Ribeiro Amaris, age 14, at the Chicago River clean-up

Amaris, age 14, at the Chicago River cleanup

Amaris Alanis Ribeiro

Manager, secondary education

“Here I am in my teens at a Chicago River cleanup in the woods, holding a toad. I was lucky enough to have attended a Chicago public high school that got me out in the forest preserves and into nature. The experiences are part of why I studied ecology, and also why I wanted to inspire other Chicago teens to do the same. Now, I recruit Chicago public high school students for Science First and College First.”

Deeply Rooted Conservation Scientists

Kayri Havens, Ph.D. Kay on vacation in Maroon Bells, Colorado, age 7

Kay, age 7, on vacation at Maroon Bells in Colorado

Kayri Havens

Medard and Elizabeth Welch Senior Director, Ecology and Conservation

“My best childhood memories were all outdoors…playing in the garden, growing vegetables, picking up seashells, going bird-watching. That love of nature has stayed with me, and I consider myself very fortunate to be able to have a career that allows me to continue to explore and study plants and the natural world.”

Pati Vitt, Ph.D. Pati in Virginia, age 6

Pati, age 6, in Virginia

Patt Vitt

Susan and Roger Stone Curator, Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank

“There are very few pictures of me as a child, most of them posed…except this one. It is outside in an open field, where I and my siblings tramped around at will, falling in love with the outdoors.”

Andrea Kramer, Ph.D. Andrea in her backyard in Nebraska, age 2

Andrea, age 2, in her backyard in Nebraska

Andrea Kramer

Conservation scientist, restoration ecology

“I grew up in a small town in Nebraska in the corn belt where, as you can imagine, trees were not very common. I spent a lot of quality time either climbing in or sitting under this particular tree when I was young. A few years after this photo was taken, a family of owls took up residence in it. I can’t imagine a childhood that didn’t involve nature play—climbing trees or sitting quietly with binoculars to watch owls interact with each other and the plants that they called home helped me see the world from a larger vantage point, and made me want to understand it by becoming a scientist.”

Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. Jeremie, age 6, at home in Adelaide, Australia, with a friendly kangaroo

Jeremie, age 6, at home in Adelaide, Australia, with a friendly kangaroo

Jeremie Fant

Conservation scientist, molecular ecology lab manager

“Growing up in a part of Australia where the weather was often nice, it was easy to spend most of your time outside. I am not sure I can remember when I was not outside in flip-flops and board shorts. No matter what we were doing, there was always something to get me excited. Sometimes it was something as amazing as a dolphin swimming close to the beach or a kangaroo caught by surprise on our hikes. It was clear from a young age that the thing that got me so excited was the flora, and a botanist was born. The smell of the eucalyptus still sends memories flooding of hikes after rains, recalling the wonderful discovery of small patches of donkey orchids in winter.

Ultimately, I combined this love of native flora with working in the garden. I would often spend afternoons walking through the Adelaide Botanic Garden for inspiration and to marvel at its collections. I went to university to study horticultural sciences and volunteered on weekends at the botanic gardens as an undergraduate. All of these interactions played an obvious role in my life’s trajectory as a scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden.”

Deeply Rooted Horticulturists

Lisa Hilgenberg Lisa, age 3, with her dad in Iowa

Lisa, age 3, with her dad in Iowa

Lisa Hilgenberg

Horticulturist, Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden

“My mother was a teacher and felt that it was so important to incorporate learning play. Here’s what she had to say: ‘Lisa, there was probably no time in your early years that you were not connected to nature. Starting with the simple joy of playing outdoors, you watered flowers for grandma and dad, made daisy chains, raked and played in the leaves, built snowmen, ice skated, and sculpted sand castles at Lake Harriet, Minneapolis. You planted gardens, learned to fish at Deer Lake. You loved having collections of rocks and leaves (author’s note: yes, I majored in geology and my childhood rock collections are still in the basement). You showed a love of dogs, gerbils, fish, white mice, even squirrels (you fed them peanut butter crackers at the back door). You were bonded to nature as a young child and it continues to this day!’”

Heather Sherwood Heather in a greenhouse in California, age 7

Heather, age 7, in a greenhouse in California

Heather Sherwood

Senior horticulturist, English Walled Garden and English Oak Meadow

“In my early childhood, I remember playing at my friend’s house. They had a very old forsythia bush, perfect for ‘house building,’ great tunnels, and hours of imaginative fun! When we were a bit older, the same best friend and I would meet down by the creek (between our two houses about a mile from each of us). We would spend hours walking in the creek bed, looking for crayfish, spiders, plants. (We brought skunkweed home to harass our siblings.) We would build forts with branches and grasses. When I was 12 years old, on a family vacation, we went to an enormous conservatory at the Grand Ole Opry Hotel. I walked into a breathtaking environment, and I knew. I knew I wanted to make people feel that same rush, excitement, wonder, as I did, and I was going to do it with plants. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Tom Weaver Tom in Little Canada, Minnesota, age 7

Tom, age 7, in Little Canada, Minnesota

Tom Weaver

Horticulturist, Waterfall Garden and Dwarf Conifer Garden

“This picture (left) was the first time I had flowers of my own, and it was so exciting! Even to this day I still try to make sure I have at least one zinnia plant somewhere in my life, whether it’s in a garden I work in at the Chicago Botanic Garden or at home because I fell so in love with the flowers as a child.”

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Painting with Veggies

Fri, 03/25/2016 - 11:08am

We’ve discovered a fun way to encourage our Camp CBG campers to try a salad. Many kids turn up their noses when they hear the word, but after painting with food, our campers are eager to “dig into” their creation.

For little ones, this project is easy and fun to do with a grown-up and provides opportunities to identify colors and start learning about plant parts. Older kids can use new kitchen tools (with adult supervision) and discuss what is really a fruit or a vegetable

Watch Painting with Veggies on YouTube.

Supply list:
Cutting board
Sharp knife
Food processor or grater
White plates

Recipe:
1 red bell pepper (see notes)
2 carrots
¾ cup chopped pineapple
½ head red cabbage
1 head broccoli (see notes)
Favorite salad dressing—we used ranch

Notes from the chef/artists:

  • Bell peppers don’t work well in the food processor. I recommend finely chopping them with a good knife. 
  • Broccoli was a bit difficult to work with. Next time I’d use a bag of broccoli slaw.
  • Other vegetables I’d like to try are fresh corn (off the cob), chopped celery, black beans, and dried fruits or nuts.
  • This would be fun to do with a spiralizer, which would add a different texture. Check out this post by fourth-grade teacher Lindsay for eight great spiralizer ideas.

Prepare veggies by shredding in a food processor, and place each kind in a bowl. Use your imagination to “paint” your canvas (plate). Make sure to take a picture before digging in. Once you are done creating, top with dressing and enjoy.

 Face made from veggies.For details about more fun for the family, visit chicagobotanic.org/forfamilies. Camp registration is open. Register for Camp CBG today.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Make a Mini-Terrarium Holiday Ornament

Thu, 12/10/2015 - 3:35pm

For one December session of our Plant Explorers after school program at Chicago International Charter School—Irving Park, the students made living ornaments for the holidays.

This tiny terrarium project can have a calming influence on a potentially hectic holiday, because green and growing plants make us feel more relaxed. It requires you to find some live moss, but it makes an extra special decoration for kids—and adults—who love plants. 

 The finished moss terrarium ornament.

The finished moss terrarium ornament

 Moss globe ornament supplies.

A fillable plastic globe ornament, small amount of potting soil, live moss, ribbon, and little wooden reindeer are what we used to create our ornaments. (Charcoal is not shown.)

To make your own “moss-some” terrarium ornament you will need:

  • 3-inch or larger plastic sphere ornament that splits into two halves (available at craft stores)
  • Live moss that you find growing in a shady place in your yard (or you can buy it from a garden store that sells terrarium supplies)
  • Activated charcoal (sold in garden and aquarium stores)
  • Soil
  • About 12 inches of decorative ribbon
  • Any miniature item you want to add for whimsy (optional)

Separate the halves of the DIY ornament. If your ornament is like mine, it has little “loops” for attaching a hook at the top. Start by tying a 12-inch piece of ribbon to each half of the ornament through the loops.

In one half of the ornament, add about a teaspoon of activated charcoal. Fill the rest of that ornament half with very wet soil to about a half inch below the top.

 Tying the ribbon a the globe ornament.

Use whatever decorative ribbon you like, but make sure it’s narrow enough to fit through the ornament loops and that it’s knotted securely.

 The moss ornament is almost complete with charcoal, soil, moss, and reindeer!

The moss ornament is almost complete with charcoal, soil, moss, and reindeer!

Place the moss on top and gently press it into the soil. If you like, add a miniature object to add a little whimsy. Craft stores have lots of miniature objects that would look good in this ornament. We chose these woodcut reindeer to look like the animals were walking through a forest. And there were enough in the pack for all 15 students to get one. Use whatever you like!

If you have a spray bottle with water handy, it helps to give the moss leaves a gentle misting before closing the ornament.

 Moss globe terrarium ornament.

Seal the moss in a closed terrarium ornament. The moss can live inside this globe indefinitely.

Place the other half of the ornament on top, but instead of lining up the two loops, put them at opposite ends so that you can hang the ornament ball sideways and not disturb the arrangement. You can tape the two halves together with clear tape if you are concerned about them coming apart. I suggest only taping the sides near the loops rather than wrapping it all the way around so the tape is less obvious and you can open the ornament later if you want to.

The moss just needs light from your home to survive through the holidays. Moisture will evaporate from the soil and will collect on the insides of the ornament. It will roll back down to keep the moss watered indefinitely.

Now you’re wondering if (and how) the moss will survive. I have your answers: read on.

Some Facts About Moss

Mosses are simple plants that scientists classify as bryophytes.

What you see as a clump of velvety green carpet is actually hundreds of tiny individual moss plants clumped together. Botanists refer to these as gametophytes.

 A close up of moss seen from above shows the tops of hundreds of individual plants clumped together.

A close-up of moss seen from above shows the tops of hundreds of individual plants clumped together.

 Seen from the side, the moss looks like a tiny, dense forest.

Seen from the side, the moss looks like a tiny, dense forest.

Mosses do not have true roots. They have rhizomes that anchor the plant to the soil and send up buds for new individual moss plants, but the rhizomes do not transport water like true roots. Mosses absorb water, nutrients, and carbon dioxide through their leaves. 

The rhizomes are fine and grow at the surface of wherever they are planted, so they do not require deep soil. As a result, moss can grow in any porous surface, like tree bark or a stone (but maybe not on a rolling stone!). So moss can thrive in the small amount of soil in your ornament. The moisture sealed inside the globe will keep the air humid and supply the leaves with water.

Mosses also do not flower or make seeds. They produce tiny spores that are difficult to see without magnification. The spores are carried by wind until they fall, and there they wait for the right conditions to grow into new moss plants.

 A single moss gametophyte grows from a root-like rhizome.

A single moss gametophyte grows from a root-like rhizome.

 Moss reproductive structures.

The tips of the taller slender structures are sporophytes that will release spores and continue the life cycle of the moss.

If your moss dries up or becomes dormant, do not despair! You can bring it back to life by soaking the dry clump in water and keeping it moist. This will reinvigorate the dormant moss and activate spores that are lying hidden in the dry moss, enabling them to grow into new moss.

 Moss terrarium ornament with deer.Find more fun projects for the holidays! Make Spicy Greeting Cards and Rock Candy, or a Grapefruit Bird Feeder. ‘Tis the season for a little Christmas tree taxonomy!

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