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Updated: 18 min 36 sec ago

Winter Infographic

Fri, 01/16/2015 - 9:25am

Think plants look brown and dead in winter? There’s plenty of life still going on beneath the surface!

 An infographic about winter.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A Scientist with Orchid Fever

Wed, 01/14/2015 - 9:12am

With our second Orchid Show set to open on February 14 and the first shipment of flowers due to arrive any day, we all have a touch of orchid fever here at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Naturally, we wondered who among us might have the worst case (or best, depending on how you look at it). So we sent out a simple query: do you grow orchids at home? Here follows the best answer ever, from Jim Ault, Ph.D. (He’s our director of ornamental plant research and manager of the Chicagoland Grows plant introduction program.)

 Orchids in kitchen window at Ault house.

A view of the kitchen window at the Ault house.

Yes, I do indeed grow orchids at home. I haven’t counted them recently, but I’d admit to 50-plus plants. 

I simply find orchids to be fascinating for their seemingly infinite variations of flower sizes, shapes, colors, fragrance (very important to me!), and for their diverse ecological adaptations (epiphytes, terrestrials, lithophytes) and the resulting puzzle of how best to cultivate them. I first got interested in orchids in the 1970s, both from seeing some in the greenhouses at the University of Michigan, and also from visiting my grandmother in Miami. She was very active in the Florida fern society of the time, and had a backyard of ferns she grew from spores, with a smaller collection of orchids. She would send me home with plants on every visit, all of which I eventually lost, as I didn’t really have a clue as to how to grow them! But I was hooked, I think safe to say now, for life.

 Rhynchostylis gigantea.

Rhynchostylis gigantea

As a graduate student in the 1980s, I had a fairly extensive collection of orchids, and was in fact breeding them and germinating their seed in tissue culture; my first breeding projects ever. This hobby actually led me to my career as a plant breeder (of perennial plants) today. I was a member of the Baton Rouge Orchid Society for five or six years, attended quite a few orchid shows and meetings, gave lectures on orchids, and had the chance to visit some of the venerable orchid businesses like Stewart Orchids in California, Fennell’s Orchid Jungle, and Jones and Scully in Florida at perhaps their peak heydays. But my orchid collection had to be abandoned in the late ’80s when I moved to Pennsylvania. Most were sold to a nursery in North Carolina, and some were donated to Longwood Gardens, where I worked from 1988 to 1995.

My orchid hobby came and went multiple times over the intervening years (decades), mostly from a lack of appropriate space to grow them, time, etc. But starting about three years ago, I began seriously accumulating plants again. There was a bit of a learning curve, as many of the hybrids I knew were no longer available; there has been an explosion of breeding new orchid hybrids, many of which were unknown to me; and also orchid names are changing rapidly due to modern DNA technology being used to revise their nomenclature. Just figuring out where to buy plants was an adventure, as most of the orchid nurseries I knew were long gone.  

 Slc. Little Toshie 'Gold Country' (upper) and Sc. Seagull's Beaulu Queen (lower).

Slc. Little Toshie ‘Gold Country’ (upper) and Sc. Seagull’s Beaulu Queen (lower)

Currently I grow mostly Cattleya alliance species and hybrids, with an emphasis on the “mini-catts” or miniature Cattleyas, and also a smattering of the larger Cattleyas. Among my favorites of this group are Cattleya walkeriana selections with their heady mix of cinnamon and citrus fragrance (to my nose) and their hybrids like Cattleya Mini Purple; various species formerly in the genus Laelia such as Laelia pumila, (= Cattleya pumila), Laelia dayana (= Cattleya bicalhoi), Laelia sincorana (= Cattleya sincorana), and other closely related jewels of the orchid world.

I’m excited to have in bloom right now the diminutive Sophronitis coccinea (= Cattleya coccinea) with oversized, 2-inch wide flowers of an intense orange-red on a plant no larger than 3 inches tall. S. coccinea is a challenge to grow at all, let alone grow well, but its hybrids are much easier to cultivate, and strut their stuff with flamboyant flowers in deep red, orange, purple, and violet, often produced two and even three times a year.

I also grow a modest number of other species and their hybrids, mostly Neofinetia falcata, Rhynchostylis gigantea, and related hybrids.

 Laelia pumila 'Hawaii'

Laelia pumila ‘Hawaii’

I grow most of my orchids in bark mixes, some in New Zealand sphagnum. I use both plastic and clay pots as well as plastic or wood baskets. I prefer the latter as the plants respond best to the excellent aeration around their roots that the open wood baskets provide. Unfortunately this also poses a challenge, figuring out how to hang baskets close enough to windows to provide the necessary high light needed, as well as providing sufficient humidity in the dry winter months. 

My plants spend the summer outdoors on a nursery bench under a piece of shade cloth, and overwinter indoors under lights in the basement, and in nearly every south-facing window in the house! My family is to be commended for their suffering—and patience—after finding sinks and bathtubs filled with plants freshly watered, or obstructed views out windows crowded with plants. Such is life with an orchid addict.

The 2015 Orchid Show opens on February 14—a lovely way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Order your tickets now!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Between a Rock and a Future

Sat, 01/10/2015 - 9:30am

A pretty little iris growing in the mountainous rocky outcrops of Jerusalem is the focus of a research collaboration stretching over 6,000 miles.

Scientists at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Jerusalem Botanical Gardens have combined their strengths to study the natural population structure, or remaining genetic diversity, of the rare Iris vartanii. What they have discovered may save the species, and others like it, into the future.

The finicky wildflower exists in just 66 locations in Israel’s Mediterranean ecosystem—a dangerously low number. New road construction, urban expansion, and even afforestation in the area have reduced the availability of its natural habitat, fueling the crisis. For a plant that is endemic to, or only lives in, one narrow region, that spells trouble.

 Iris vartanii ©Dr. Ori Fragman-Sapir

Iris vartanii Photo ©Dr. Ori Fragman-Sapir

“Whenever you have a rare plant, you always have concern that as diversity starts to go down, the plant becomes more and more endangered,” explained Garden volunteer and molecular biologist Eileen Sirkin, Ph.D. “The idea of diversity is that maybe one plant is more drought tolerant, another is more flood tolerant, and another is more wind tolerant, for example, so no matter what the conditions, there will be some survivors. As you narrow that, you are more and more in danger of losing that species.”

Do the existing plants contain adequate genetic diversity? And to sustain the species, how many plants are enough? These are the central questions.

Gaining a Foothold

The scientific partnership between the two gardens was forged when Jerusalem Botanical Gardens’ Head Scientist Ori Fragman-Sapir, Ph.D., who has monitored the species and studied its demography in the field, visited the Chicago Botanic Garden and met with Chief Scientist Greg Mueller, Ph.D. The two quickly saw an opportunity to combine Dr. Fragman-Sapir’s research with the genetic capabilities of the Garden to answer those critical questions.

“Conservation genetics is one of the core strengths of our science program,” said Dr. Mueller.  “There are few other botanical institutions that have this expertise, especially internationally, so we are happy to collaborate on interesting and important plant conservation projects like this one.”

“Conservation genetics is one of the core strengths of our science program,” said Dr. Mueller. “There are few other botanical institutions that have this expertise, especially internationally, so we are happy to collaborate on interesting and important plant conservation projects like this one.”

It wasn’t long before Fragman-Sapir began shipping leaf samples to the Garden’s molecular ecologist, Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. Together with his dedicated volunteer Dr. Sirkin, Dr. Fant set to work extracting data from the samples and documenting DNA fingerprints for each plant. Once they had a large enough data set, they compared and contrasted the findings—looking for similarities and differences among the plants’ genetic compositions.

Gaining Altitude

To give scientists a point of comparison, Fragman-Sapir shared tissue samples from five populations (geographically separated clusters of plants) of a more commonly occurring related species, Iris histrio. By also documenting the DNA fingerprints of those plants, which grow in the surrounding area, but unlike Iris vartanii are not rare, Fant was able to determine how much diversity is needed to sustain the species.

 Volunteer Dr. Eileen Sirkin

Dr. Eileen Sirkin volunteers in the laboratory.

Although the study subject is far away from the Garden, its challenges hit close to home. In 2013, Fant and Sirkin published findings from a similar study on a rare plant found at Illinois State Beach Park, Cirsium pitcheri. For that initiative, they examined the DNA of plants from a restored site at the beach and compared them to the DNA of naturally occurring plants across the range, measuring diversity.

“We’re always working with rare and endangered species, and we collaborate with different people around the world to answer those questions,” explained Sirkin.

The Summit

After completing a statistical analysis of Iris vartanii’s DNA fingerprints, Fant made several encouraging conclusions but also issued an alert for continued attention.

The rare species’ genetic diversity was similar to that of Iris histrio. “This does tell us that genetic diversity in Iris vartanii is not likely an issue,” said Fant, who was not surprised by the conclusion. “Genetic diversity of any population is determined by the origins of the species, the age of the population, and proximity to the site of origin,” he explained. “As both species likely arose locally [from Jerusalem northward to the Galilee and further on] and have been around for a very long time, they possess similar levels of genetic diversity.”

 Dr. Jeremie Fant.

Conservation scientist Dr. Jeremie Fant

Especially encouraging was that each Iris vartanii population had significant differences in their genes, likely a result of their longtime separation. The findings highlight that it is all the more valuable to conserve each population for their potential to contribute unique genes to future plants, according to Fant.

Although many populations showed high diversity and low inbreeding, which is preferred, others showed the reverse, increasing their potential risk of extinction. The latter group, explained Fant, may benefit from extra special monitoring and care.

To conserve the existing populations, attention will need to be given to their surrounding natural areas, explained Sirkin. “If you find a species that people like and you study it and say we need to do all these things to save it, you are not just saving one plant, you are saving an ecosystem, including all the other plants, insects, other invertebrates, lizards, birds, and whatever else is involved in that ecosystem,” she said.

The findings and recommendations give land managers a clear direction for their conservation efforts, all because of one eye-catching plant that told the story of many.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Armchair Gardening

Thu, 01/08/2015 - 3:18pm

January is such a satisfying month for gardening…especially of the armchair variety.

 Kris Jarantoski with his favorite library reads.

Kris Jarantoski, the Garden’s executive vice president and director, among stacks of his favorite books

Just think: no digging, no hauling, no sweating. Instead, you have the opportunity to sit in the slowly increasing sunlight, with an inbox or mailbox full of gardening PDFs and catalogs and books. It’s a time to dream and learn and plan.

In short, January’s a fine month for reading about gardening.

Every gardener has his or her favorite books and resources that they turn to in winter. This got us wondering: what does our head horticulturist Kris Jarantoski pull off the shelf when he’s thinking about his next gardening endeavor?

His answers reflect his 30 years of garden experience here—indeed, Kris was the Garden’s very first horticulturist—and a lifetime love of the natural world.

Herbaceous Perennial Plants by Allan Armitage

Herbaceous Perennial Plants by Allan Armitage

Herbaceous Perennial Plants by Allan Armitage

Its full title, Herbaceous Perennial Plants: A Treatise on Their Identification, Culture, and Garden Attributes, gives you the sense that this is an authoritative resource, and this gardening classic doesn’t disappoint. Armitage is that rare garden writer who is informative, interesting, and witty all at once. “If my mother had known that the spores overwintered on the blistered, ignored leaves by the garage, she would have removed them. Actually, she would have told her sons to do it, and we would have probably taken the Lawn Boy to them,” Armitage writes of hollyhocks—and his youth.

“This is my most-used reference book,” Kris admits. “We have lots of herbaceous perennials here at the Garden, and I do at my home, too. Armitage’s book is easy to use, up to date (it’s on its third edition), and if you want one place to go for reference, this is it.”

Garden Masterclass by John Brookes

Garden Masterclass by John Brookes

Garden Masterclass and The Essentials of Garden Design by John Brookes

Walk through the blue gates of our English Walled Garden and you’ve entered the world of John Brookes. A visitor favorite since its 1991 opening, the garden’s six “rooms” feature all that Brookes is known for: impeccable thought process, original design, and a masterfully creative use of plants.

Kris was there during every step of that Garden’s implementation. “John Brookes is brilliant,” he shares. “The way he sizes up a landscape, his sense of proportion, and his ability to know how things will work together is amazing. I’ve used his grid pattern on page 83 of Garden Masterclass at my own home—gardeners of any skill level can benefit from it.”

The Gardener's Practical Botany by John Tampion

The Gardener’s Practical Botany by John Tampion

The Gardener’s Practical Botany by John Tampion

An older (1973) but beloved resource, Tampion’s book is important “because anybody who gardens should know how plants work—how they breathe and take up water and have a vascular system,” Kris explains. “If you know how and why plants work—basic, practical botany—then you understand what’s happening when a rodent girdles your fruit trees.” Can’t find Tampion’s book? Try Biology of Plants by Peter Raven/Ray Evert/Susan Eichhorn—just one of the great botany books on the shelf at the Lenhardt Library.

The Artful Garden by James van Sweden

The Artful Garden by James van Sweden

The Artful Garden by James van Sweden

Less a reference book than a work of art about the art of gardening, 2011’s The Artful Garden became the final book by the late landscape architect James van Sweden (who died in 2013). By relating gardening to the arts—music, painting, dance—van Sweden “opened my mind as to how things work together in a landscape,” Kris says. “He was the visionary behind Evening Island, and the great photographs in this book remind me of how we thought about every aspect of the design as we worked on it.” A fine book for daydreaming about gardens large and small.

Garden Design by Sylvia Crowe

Garden Design by Sylvia Crowe

Garden Design by Sylvia Crowe

A true lesson in design by a grande dame of British landscape architecture, this book teaches on the grand and historic scale. Sylvia Crowe created cityscapes, public properties, and institutional landscapes, but she also understood the importance of the land and was one of the first to act on the idea of sustainability. “This is one of the books I return to again and again,” Kris notes. “Sylvia Crowe was ahead of her time, and her thoughts on design continue to resonate today.”

Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest by C.E. Voight and J.S. Vandermark

Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest by C.E. Voight and J.S. Vandermark

Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest by C.E. Voight and J.S. Vandermark

The secret to many an Illinois gardener’s success, this University of Illinois publication is a favorite of the state’s many master gardeners. “It’s well laid out,” Kris explains, “and the illustrations are very good. The focus is on vegetables that thrive in the Midwest, so it’s a must-read for gardeners in our area. My copy has been well used over the years!”

Landscape Plants for Eastern North America by Harrison Flint

Landscape Plants for Eastern North America by Harrison Flint

Landscape Plants for Eastern North America by Harrison Flint

Which perennial, shrub, or tree, would work best in that tricky corner of your yard? This is the book that tells you. With several thousand plant listings, hundreds of photographs, and handy illustrations of plants compared in youth and at maturity, Flint’s book is a solid reference for seasoned and novice gardeners alike. “Dr. Flint is from the Midwest, and he understands what works in our gardens,” Kris adds. “I think of this book as a truly local resource. His book can be hard to find, though—it hasn’t been updated over the years—in which case you can turn to Michael Dirr’s well-known Manual of Woody Landscape Plants.”

Trees for American Gardens by Donald Wyman

Trees for American Gardens by Donald Wyman

Trees for American Gardens and Shrubs for American Gardens by Donald Wyman

“These two titles are sentimental choices for me,” Kris mentions with a smile. “They’re out of date now, but they’re like old friends to me—textbooks used in the horticulture program at the University of Wisconsin/Madison when I was there. Donald Wyman set the tone and format for all the great horticultural reference books to come. When I open these books, it whisks me back to that thrilling time of learning about new plants, especially shrubs and trees.”

The magazine/periodical racks at our Lenhardt Library are a gardener’s guilty pleasure: gorgeous cover after gorgeous cover begs “pick me” for every gardening topic under the sun. A magazine browse is a fine way to spend a January day.

 Woman with laptop in the Lenhardt Library.

Bring your sketchbook or laptop and plan your spring garden in the Lenhardt Library.

We asked Kris for his top magazine titles:

  • Horticulture
  • Fine Gardening
  • The American Gardener (the American Horticultural Society’s magazine)
  • Garden Design
  • Chicagoland Gardening
  • Northern Gardener (Minnesota State Horticultural Society magazine)
  • Gardens Illustrated
  • The Garden (Royal Horticultural Society magazine)
  • The English Garden

Nearly all of the above titles are available at our Lenhardt Library (free checkout year-round for members!). It’s a resource that Kris knows well. “I’ve always used our library,” he says. “My dad, who was an engineer, loved books and had an extensive collection, and I inherited that love of libraries from him.”

Pull up a chair. Pull out a book. And enjoy a little armchair gardening in January.

What are your favorite gardening books and websites? Tell us your top three titles in the comments section below!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Growing the Garden

Mon, 01/05/2015 - 3:26pm

Increasing attendance at the Chicago Botanic Garden and sister institutions around the country supports my conviction that public gardens are more relevant than ever to peoples’ lives. Our living museums are uniquely positioned to meet the pressing challenges of our time—climate change, a need for improved physical and mental health, workforce training, stress, and more.

The Garden’s mission statement says it best: We cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life.

As we work to fulfill our mission, we attract more and more visitors: In 2014 we welcomed 1,058,368 visitors, a 6 percent increase over our record-breaking 2013, and 52 percent more than in 2005. These numbers tell us that something very significant is happening at the Garden.

Graph of Garden attendance.

Our mission compels us to provide meaningful and joyful experiences that speak to the essential role plants play in all of our lives. We continuously work to improve the relevance of that experience and in 2014 enhanced our already-rich menu of programs and services.

 Orchid by Zak Yasin

The 2015 Orchid Show will run February 14 through March 15. (Orchid photo by 2014 photo contest entrant, Zak Yasin)

February saw the launch of the Garden’s first month-long orchid exhibition, a stunning celebration of the world’s largest flowering plant family. The Orchid Show filled the Regenstein Center with fragrance and color, attracting 25,000 visitors seeking respite from the Chicago winter. The beauty of the tropical blooms inspired awe, and also helped visitors understand the value of plant diversity and the importance of conserving the natural habitats on which all life depends.

A newly refurbished Garden View Café opened in spring. The updated menu features the best in local and seasonal food—some of it grown through the Garden’s Windy City Harvest urban agriculture program. We’ve added a brick pizza oven and barista station, and now serve brunch all day on Sundays. Our Sprouts Meals put a healthy twist on traditional children’s favorites. The café serves up delicious, fresh meals, and also serves as a model for sustainability.

 Breaking ground on the new Jarantoski campus, July 29, 2014.

Breaking ground on the new Jarantoski campus, July 29, 2014

In summer, the Garden broke ground for a new 151,000-square-foot outdoor nursery, the first phase of construction for the Kris Jarantoski Campus. The campus will include a new plant production facility and display garden designed by Belgian landscape architect Peter Wirtz. The facility will ensure horticultural excellence, support advanced conservation research, and expand the plant-based educational programs at the Garden. Wirtz’s innovative landscape design will unify the south end of the campus and draw visitors to a lesser-known corner of the Garden.

The North Branch Trail addition opened in early fall and makes the Garden more accessible to the roughly 80,000 to 90,000 visitors who enter by bike or foot each year. The multiuse path provides a safe, scenic route from the Braeside Metra Station in Highland Park to the Garden, and connects the North Branch Trail with the Green Bay Trail.

 North Branch Trail addition (bike path).

The North Branch Trail addition opened this past fall.

The Garden’s expanding influence extends well beyond our Glencoe campus. In December we celebrated 20 years of helping Chicago Public Schools students succeed in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In addition to the over 30,000 students who participate annually in the Garden’s formal education programs, to date, approximately 500 students have taken part in the Garden’s Science Career Continuum programs. Nearly all participants tracked since 2006 have enrolled in college; of these, more than three-fourths majored in a STEM field, and nearly two-thirds pursued science.

A USDA NIFA (National Institute for Food and Agriculture) grant is enabling the Garden’s Windy City Harvest urban agriculture programs to mentor urban farmers in Chicago. Three years into the grant, we’ve created four incubator farms as part of the redevelopment of the former Robert Taylor Homes public housing project. Other Windy City Harvest components include a teen leadership training program and a series of professional certificates offered through the Arturo Velasquez Institute, a satellite of Richard J. Daley College, City Colleges of Chicago.

 The Windy City Harvest’s Legends Farm at 4500 S. Dearborn Street.

The Windy City Harvest’s Legends Farm at 4500 S. Dearborn Street

In December, the White House announced the Chicago Botanic Garden’s C3I initiative as part of a sweeping new approach to climate-change education. C3I (Connecting Climate to Communities Initiative) unites 12 Midwest community organizations in an effort to engage populations underrepresented in the environmental movement.

Our scientists travel the globe, collaborating with peers worldwide to monitor, conserve, and restore critical habitats, research underutilized food crops, and mitigate the effects of climate change. The Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center opened five years ago and so far has graduated 50 master’s degree students from our plant biology and conservation science program, offered in conjunction with Northwestern University. We are looking forward to seeing the first Ph.D. candidates graduate this spring.

Look for continued growth in 2015 as the Garden continues to progress toward goals set out in its ten-year strategic plan, “Keep Growing” (2010–20). What keeps us going? We believe beautiful gardens and natural environments are fundamentally important to the mental and physical well-being of all people. We believe people live better, healthier lives when they can create, care for, and enjoy gardens. We believe the future of life on Earth depends on how well we understand, value, and protect plants, other wildlife, and the natural habitats that sustain our world. Please join us in our mission.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Mushroom Discovery

Mon, 12/29/2014 - 9:30am

All the possibilities for the Obama Library plus our Windy City Harvest Youth Farm are featured on National Geographic’s website! Read about it in Greg Mueller’s article, The Next New Species Could be in Your Backyard: Why Exploration and Discovery Matter—Everywhere on National Geographic. Mueller, chief scientist and Negaunee Foundation vice president of science at the Garden, describes the excitement of discovering new species in our own neighborhoods and parks.

 F, C0210207F

Photograph by Patrick R. Leacock

Read more by Garden scientists at voices.nationalgeographic.com
Copyright © 2014 National Geographic

Creating Blooming Dish Gardens

Sat, 12/27/2014 - 10:00am

Create a miniature landscape in an open, shallow container: a dish garden! Gather small foliage and flowering plants together in a decorative container—like a basket or saucer—for a versatile display you can enjoy throughout the year. 

Dish gardens are easy to grow, very adaptable to most environments, and can be placed anywhere in the home. Even if you do not have a green thumb, you’ll find it difficult to kill a dish garden. They last much longer than fresh cut flower arrangements, although if you like, you can add fresh cut flowers—they will last up to a week or more. Once done blooming, the flowers can be easily removed or replaced, and the dish garden can be enjoyed for many more months.

Watch this video to learn more.

  • Choose the container: Your dish garden should be planted in a shallow container. The size depends only on how many plants you want to put into it. Almost anything can be used as a container—let your imagination be the judge. 
  • Provide drainage:  Adequate drainage is probably the most important rule to ensure the success of your dish garden. Be sure to remove excess water and avoid over-watering. Drainage holes on the bottom are best, but not mandatory. If drainage holes are not present, use a plastic liner or saucer in the container, or add a layer of gravel or pebbles on the bottom for drainage.
  • Choose the plants: Use small starter plants; 3-inch or 4-inch pots work best. Choose plants with the same general light and water requirements. Using seasonal flowering plants or interesting seasonal focal points—such as poinsettias for the holidays—and change them out throughout the year: replace your poinsettia with a flowering primrose or bulbs in the spring.
  • Dish garden themes: Be different! Try a cactus or desert garden, bulb garden, flowering annuals, African violets, or herb garden. Or try to spruce it up with special decorations for a holiday or event.
  • Planting and design: Always use a well-draining peat-based potting soil. Place the tallest plants in the center if the dish garden is to be viewed from several sides, or place them in the back of the container if viewed only from one side. Mix plants with contrasting foliage, colors, leaf sizes, and shapes. Top dress the soil with a layer of Spanish moss, gravel, or bark chips.
  • Care of your dish garden: Again, they are easy, needing only proper drainage, water, light, and an occasional dose of general fertilizer, and minor trimming if needed. They can last in the home for 1-2 years before repotting is needed.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Putting Down Roots: Urban Agriculture at Work

Tue, 12/23/2014 - 9:15am

Two years ago—before his life took a head-spinning turn—Fernando Orozco was a 19-year-old juvenile offender in the Cook County Sheriff’s detention center. Recently, he completed work as a grower and crew leader on the Kraft Food campus in Northfield, Illinois, as part of a 13-week stint in Windy City Harvest Corps, an educational and transitional jobs program run by the Chicago Botanic Garden.

 Fernando Orozco.

Fernando Orozco at the Kraft Makers Garden

“I never thought I’d have a job like this where I have my own site and, not only that, the responsibility of caring for a crew of other guys,” Orozco said, on a break from work last summer in the 8,000-square-foot Kraft Makers Garden.

His crew included young men, ages 17 to 21, in the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice system. The team grew enough tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and other produce to fill 55 boxes a week for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program. Other crops included cherries, beets, swiss chard, and watermelon, made pretty with plantings of scarlet runner beans and firecracker flowers, all grown in full view of Kraft employees as they worked out in the company gym. Produce from the site is donated to WIC centers and food pantries in the networks of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Orozco became interested in farming at the sheriff’s detention center, where he learned basic growing and organic practices in a program run by Windy City Harvest, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture education and jobs-training initiative. He went on to complete the nine-month Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship program, earned a certificate in safe and sustainable urban agriculture, and interned at locations including chef Rick Bayless’s home garden in Chicago.

The Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship program attracts a diverse group of students, including young adults with a history of incarceration and those with significant barriers to employment. “Just because they’re checking that box that says ‘felony offense’ doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad people,” said Angela Mason, director of Windy City Harvest. “They just need someone to give them a chance and support them through those changes. ”

Fernando and WCH Crew work at Kraft

Using organic methods and operating on eight acres at a dozen locations throughout Chicago and Lake County, Windy City Harvest students annually grow about 100,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables, serving an estimated 143,000 people.

Now Orozco tells the former juvenile offenders with whom he works that they can leave their past behind. “I’m not the smartest person in the world,” he tells them, “but I saw an opportunity and I took it, and the same opportunity is happening to you guys. Are you going to take advantage?”

Orozco hopes to run his own farm some day. “But, for now, I’d be happy if I were here, doing the same thing, just perfecting the craft, growing food and helping people, growing people,” he said. “I can’t ask for a better job.” 

This post was adapted from an article by Helen K. Marshall that appeared in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

20 Years of College First at the Garden

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 9:20am

Twenty years ago, I was running school field trip programs at the Chicago Botanic Garden when then-education manager Alan Rossman received a grant to start a brand new program called “College First.” This program would use the Garden site and staff to introduce 12 students from three Chicago Public Schools to careers in the green industry. He hired retired teacher Gwen Yvonne Greenwood to coordinate the program and enlist staff from all over the Garden to mentor and teach these young people.

 Six high school students are posing in the Fruit and Vegetable Garden, wearing dark green uniform College First T-shirts

These six students from 2003 are all college grads with jobs now.

At the time, there weren’t many programs like College First anywhere in the country. College First was even unique among the other museum teen program start-ups, in that our goals were not merely to make the institution more relevant to this age group, but also to provide a springboard to meaningful careers in science-related fields. Who knew that 20 years later, with some changes and improvements along the way, this small program would evolve and grow into the Science Career Continuum we have today?

We now bring 60 students (like Mely Guzman, whom I blogged about earlier this year) from all over Chicago to the Garden every summer and expose them to environmental and conservation sciences, with the hope that a few of them will be inspired to pursue a career in this field, and maybe go on to do something important for our planet. To date, College First has served more than 500 students from 116 schools. The majority of them have attended college and have entered—or are entering—productive careers. Many of them have pursued science-related careers as a direct result of their experiences at the Garden.

 At the reception of the College First 20-year reunion.

Program manager, Amaris Alanis Ribeiro (standing on the right) reminds a group of former students to visit Wonderland Express after they are finished eating.

We celebrated the success of College First on December 14, with a reunion party at the Garden, including a visit to Wonderland Express, for all past students, instructors, mentors, donors, and their families. More than 200 people attended the event. In between the many reunion hugs, congratulations, and words of encouragement for current students, we gave all program participants an opportunity to reflect on their experiences by telling us their stories on video, writing comments on a talk-back wall, and tweeting about the event while a live Twitter feed displayed the comments.

 College First participants shared their thoughts and feelings on a mural outside the auditorium.

College First participants shared their thoughts and feelings on the comment wall outside the auditorium.

A former program coordinator, William Moss, is now a gardening guru and media celebrity. (Even our instructors have moved on to great things in their careers!) William presided as master of ceremonies during a presentation to recognize all the people who have made this program possible. We honored staff mentors, Louise Egerton-Warburton, Jeremie Fant, and Tom Soulsby as outstanding mentors. The College First 20th Anniversary event was made possible by the generous support of Joel Friedman of the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund. Awards were presented to Annette Kleinman and family of the Sheridan Foundation, the W.P. & H.B. White Foundation, and the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation for their generous financial support over the years.

 William Moss at the podium.

William Moss—television celebrity, author, gardener, and all-around good guy—helped us to honor all the people who have made this program successful.

For me, this was a very rewarding event. It was such a pleasure to see so many past and present students coming together and sharing in the success of this program, especially those who are now adults with spouses and children of their own. This group represents our scientific future.

 Group photo of past College First participants.

A total of 57 past and present College First participants attended the celebration and posed for a picture. Wow!

I wish each and every one of these smart and talented young people a happy new year and all the best in their bright futures!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Gift of Bonsai

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 4:30am

Thirteen years ago, when I was working as an exotic animal veterinary technician, I bought my friend a gift—a juniper bonsai—that would set me on a course that I never could have imagined.

I already had a yard full of tropical plants, succulents, and orchids, but once I added my first bonsai, I knew something had changed. It was the beginning of a journey that took me from Gainesville, Florida, to Washington, D.C., to Japan and finally here to the Chicago Botanic Garden, where I am the curator in charge of the Bonsai Collection, which is known as one of the best of its kind in the world.

 Chris Baker pruning bonsai.

Tending this large bonsai is a delicate task.

Shortly after I purchased my first tree, I started learning about bonsai and joined a prominent bonsai club in Gainesville. In 2006, Gainesville (home of the Gators) hosted the State Bonsai Convention. That weekend was an eye-opening experience for me, as I got to learn from and assist international bonsai artists like Jim Smith, Colin Lewis, and others. That weekend convention was very influential and would fuel my desire to continue learning.

Less than a year after that convention, I had an opportunity to move to Baltimore, Maryland, and work at the National Aquarium. I quickly joined the Baltimore Bonsai Society and continued learning. Feeling more and more drawn to a career in horticulture, I made the move from veterinary technician to horticulturist of the Rainforest Exhibit at the National Aquarium. This opportunity made me think that I actually could have a career working with bonsai. Then, during a Baltimore Bonsai Club event at the National Arboretum’s Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C., I had a chance meeting with the curator Jack Sustic. I introduced myself by saying, “Hi, I’m Chris Baker. I have aspirations of being a bonsai curator some day, and I would like to volunteer here at the collection.” That sentence would forever alter my path. My time as a volunteer and then intern at the National Arboretum was inspirational and educational, and ultimately would lead me to Japan.

Jack Sustic would become a mentor and friend; he introduced me to Torhu Suzuki at the Daijuen Bonsai Nursery in Okazaki, Japan, where he had spent some time. Suzuki, or “Oyakata” (an honorific reserved for a person of high authority) as we would call him, was a third-generation bonsai master and prominent figure in Japanese bonsai culture. In 2012, I spent six months as an apprentice at Daijuen. In that time I learned so many lessons and skills that I use every day. It also gave me an entirely different perspective on how the practice of bonsai has evolved in Japan for centuries.

In April 2014, I started as the curator of bonsai at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Having the opportunity to be the first full-time curator here at a collection of this caliber is a dream job, which comes with a lot of expectations and responsibility. During the display season (April to November), horticulturists Joe Olsen and Gabe Hutchinson provided great support in keeping the trees watered and benches looking great for our visitors. The remaining trees are kept on the south end of the Garden, in the production area. Brian Clark, manager of plant production, and his team help care for the trees on my days off. Last but not least, the support of my 12 volunteers is essential. They are a great team of dedicated people who each brings something different to the Collection. 

 Volunteer Eileen Michal working on Bonsai with Chris Baker.

Volunteer Eileen Michal working on the Collection with me.

I’m often asked what has drawn me to bonsai, and why would I pursue a career in it, with only ten or so full-time curator jobs in the entire country? For me, bonsai starts with an appreciation of nature over all things. An ancient tree has the power to move people and evoke emotion. It’s what inspired the Chinese centuries ago to take something of beauty they saw in nature and grow it in a container.

Creating bonsai takes the eye of an artist, the horticultural knowledge of a botanist, and the hands of a mechanic. I have been painting and creating art with many mediums for years. I often draw my trees prior to styling them. It allows me to see different style ideas before I even touch a single branch. I love the horticultural aspect of bonsai, from soil science, to fertilizing, to advanced techniques of grafting and air layering. To me, the mechanical aspect is fun as well. I enjoy making large bends in branches using rebar and guy wires on developmental trees, as well as doing the fine detail work for a show-quality tree. A bonsai is never finished, and the skills and knowledge of a true bonsai expert take a lifetime of study to master and fully understand all it has to offer.

Bonsai has taught me many things, introduced me to wonderful people, and taken me to places I never thought I’d see…At this point in my life, it just seems silly for me to do anything else.

 Bonsai Book

Know someone else curious about the Garden’s Bonsai Collection? Bonsai: A Patient Art makes a great gift.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Long Road Home

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 9:15am

Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) is gaining ground in its native Oregon for the first time in more than 80 years. Recent reintroductions have seen the charismatic species flourish on its historic prairie landscape. To keep the momentum going, scientists are pulling out all the stops to ensure that the new populations are robust enough to endure.

“Genetic variability will be key to the reintroduction success of golden paintbrush,” explained Adrienne Basey, graduate student in the plant biology and conservation program of the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University.

 Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta).

Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) growing in propagation beds in Oregon. Photo by Tom Kaye

Basey, who previously managed a native plant nursery, is now studying the genetic diversity of golden paintbrush plants before, during, and after they are grown in a nursery prior to reintroduction to the wild.

“My work is looking at the DNA, or genetics, of the wild, nursery, and reintroduction populations to see if there is any change through that process,” she said. If there is a change, she will develop recommendations for adjusting the selection and growing process to better preserve diversity. “My goal is to give both researchers and practitioners more information to work with,” she noted.

Building for the Future

The research is unique in the relatively young field of restoration science, according to Basey’s co-advisor and molecular ecologist at the Garden, Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. “Adrienne’s study is awesome because of the fact that it has data and the samples to back it up; it is early on in this game of reintroductions and restorations, and potentially could have a lot of impact, not just for that species but what we tell nurseries in the future,” he said.

 Adrienne Basey with herbarium specimens.

Basey works with herbarium specimens

Basey is working with data collected over the past decade by research scientists at the Institute for Applied Ecology in Corvallis, Oregon, and University of Washington herbarium specimens from Washington and Oregon dating as far back as the 1890s, and data she has collected from existing plants during field work. “It’s a perfect partnership,” said Dr. Fant, who noted that the Garden is guiding the molecular aspect of the study while colleagues in Washington and Oregon are providing a large portion of the data and samples.

The availability of all of this information on a single species that is undergoing restoration is very rare, explained Fant. “It’s a very unique scenario that she has there, so we can look at how diversity changes as we go from step to step and hopefully identify any potential issues and where they are occurring in the process.”

The study itself will likely serve as a research model for other species in the future. “There isn’t much research out there to help propagators understand when and where genetic diversity may be lost during the production process,” said Basey’s co-advisor and conservation scientists at the Garden, Andrea Kramer, Ph.D.

Last year, Basey, Fant, and Kramer worked together to write a paper outlining ten rules to maximize and maintain genetic diversity in nursery settings. “My goal is to support reintroduction efforts by informing nursery practices and demonstrate to nurseries on a broader scale how their practices can influence genetic diversity through a single case study,” said Basey.

A Green Light Ahead

Her preliminary research is focused on four golden paintbrush populations. Early evaluations show clear distinctions between a few of them, which is good news. Basey will next compare those genetic patterns to those of plants in reintroduction sites.

According to Fant, earlier studies by other researchers have shown that many restoration efforts for threatened species suffer from low levels of genetic diversity prior to reintroduction, due to a number of causes ranging from a small population size at the outset to issues in propagation. It is critical to work around those issues, he explained, as the more genetic diversity maintained in a population, the better equipped it is to survive environmental changes from drought to temperature shifts.

Basey will also compare the current level of diversity of golden paintbrush to that of its historic populations, to get a better sense of what the base level should be for reintroduction success. She plans to wrap up her lab work well before her summer 2015 graduation date.

 A golden paintbrush is visited by its primary pollinator, a bumblebee.

A golden paintbrush is visited by its primary pollinator, a bumblebee.

For now, she is pleased with the level of diversity she sees in the current population. “I think the fact that it has a high genetic diversity means that these reintroductions could be successful,” she said. “But if we are creating a bottleneck, we need to know that so we can mitigate it as quickly as possible.” (A bottleneck is an event that eliminates a large portion of genetic variability in a population.)

Fant is enthusiastic about the timing of the study as the field of restoration is taking off. “We can jump in early as programs are being started,” he noted. “If we all learn together, I think it really does ensure that everyone gets what they need in the end.”

For Basey, it’s about building a bridge between the theoretical and the applied aspects of restoration. “My interest isn’t so much in this single species but more in the communication of science to practitioners. I like to bridge the line between research and the people who are using research,” she said.

Basey, like the golden paintbrush, is looking toward a bright future.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Seeking out the Elusive Wild Phlox

Sat, 12/06/2014 - 8:40am

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking at a symposium on plant exploration that was held in Des Moines, Iowa. The audience was enthralled following the plant collecting exploits of such luminaries as Dan Hinkley, one of the founders of the renowned (alas, no more) Heronswood Nursery, to far-flung locales such as Vietnam, China, and Bhutan.

Much of my presentation focused on plant collecting a tad closer to home—not as exotic perhaps, but still crucial in support of my research as the Chicago Botanic Garden’s plant breeder. So let’s go seek out the elusive wild phlox.

Phlox is predominantly a North American genus (one species sneaks into Siberia) best known for its gaudily—some say garishly colored—harbinger of spring, the moss phlox (Phlox subulata), and for that summer stalwart, the garden phlox (Phlox paniculata). For an idea of the diversity of the garden phlox, you can see Richard Hawke’s latest evaluation report on Phlox paniculata cultivars. The woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) and the meadow phlox (Phlox maculata) also have their selections and garden advocates. It’s likely that every midwestern gardener has a phlox or two in their landscape.

Most of the remaining 60-plus phlox species are relatively unknown to horticulture, yet can delight the senses with their almost infinite variation of flower color and fragrance. The underutilized species are admittedly a persnickety group to cultivate, with many of them inhabiting harsh habitats from baking desert valleys to frigid alpine rock outcrops. So phlox breeding efforts in the past have focused (and rightly so) on the more amenable-to-cultivate species mentioned above. 

My breeding work at the Garden has always focused on developing new garden plants from interspecific hybridization, or crossing different species in the same genus. I’ve used this approach to develop new coneflowers (Echinacea) and false indigos (Baptisia), to name a few. In 2006, I started assembling a collection of phlox with the intent of testing my luck in creating novel hybrids between the species here as well. The botanical and horticulture literature wasn’t too encouraging on this front, with perhaps about a dozen authenticated natural and man-made interspecific hybrids known to date. But my perseverance led to two interspecific hybrid phlox, which gardeners may be able to purchase in 2015: Phlox x procumbens ‘Pink Profusion’ and Phlox ‘Violet Pinwheels’.

 Pink Profusion phlox.

Phlox × procumbens ‘Pink Profusion’ PPAF

 Violet Pinwheels phlox.

Phlox ‘Violet Pinwheels’ PPAF

You may ask,“And where is the plant exploration in this story?” I’m getting there!

Most of the phlox species simply aren’t available in the horticulture trade, yet I desired them for my breeding program. So commencing in 2011, I started my own plant collecting efforts to locate, study, and collect species phlox in the wild. Weeks were spent pouring over old taxonomic literature, maps, herbarium records and the like just to find out where phlox may yet exist in the wild. I say “may,” as the earliest records I located were from the 1940s—never a good harbinger, as urban sprawl, agriculture, and the like all too often swallow up such older stands of native plants. But records from recent years gave me strong hope that some phlox species are still “out there.” Modern collections invariably include GPS coordinates in their notes. Google Earth became my friend at this time, helping to locate potential collecting sites and plan out my trips.

 Jim Ault in Russia.

On a trip a few years ago, a bit further afield: an expedition in Russia with colleagues

Finally: boots on the ground! I’ve made local trips around northern Illinois and Indiana, and trips further afield to South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada. I’ve settled into a now-familiar routine. Do my research ahead of time, as above. Then go locate the plants in bloom, which translates into days of cruising bumpy, muddy, delightfully scenic and isolated dirt roads out west with one eye on the curves and drop-offs ahead and the other on the disturbed road edges, where so many phlox tend to congregate. Phlox as a rule are resentful of heavy plant competition, and so ironically, often thrive on road edges where the occasional mower or bulldozer damage clears out the competitors. It is that or scramble up steep cliffs and talus slopes, or venture out on to harsh alkaline flats, where yet again the plant competition is light, allowing phlox to thrive.

 Haemanthus aliblos in vitro specimen.

Another project in vitro: Haemanthus aliblos specimen
Photo by Jim Ault

As I find populations with plants that appear promising for cultivation, I record field notes and GPS readings, then return in another month or year with collecting permits in hand to collect seed or cuttings. Slowly, I have been building collections of several phlox species, with the hope of ultimately combining through breeding their traits of varied flower shapes, color, and fragrance, plant habits, and adaptability for cold, heat, drought, moisture, high pH, and salinity. Phlox typically take two years from a rooted cutting or a germinated seed to grow into a flowering-sized plant, so the process of growing the species and then using them in breeding is taking time. But this year marked the first I saw a significant number of plants bloom that were hybrids made between garden cultivars and wild-collected plants. As is typical in plant breeding, most of the plants were “dogs” with terrible flowers or habits, or poorly adapted to our local garden conditions. These all got the heave-ho to the compost pile. But a few gems stood out. Stay tuned for future updates!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Working to restore a rainbow of wildflowers in the Colorado Plateau

Fri, 12/05/2014 - 2:09pm

I’m a conservation scientist here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I have an incredible job that allows me to work with many wonderful graduate students and a team of researchers to study ways to restore natural areas in the Colorado Plateau.

If you’ve ever visited national parks like the Grand Canyon or Arches, you’ve experienced at least some of what the Colorado Plateau (also known as the Four Corners region) has to offer. It includes more than 80 million acres across Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona—and the largest concentration of national parks in the country.

 Andrea Kramer in the Colorado plateau.

Our research team heads out across a recently-burned area in search of data.

Although beautiful, the Colorado Plateau’s natural areas are facing many threats, including wildfires, a changing climate, and destructive invasive species such as cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and Russian knapweed (Acroptilon repens). Working with many partners, including the Bureau of Land Management, we are studying which native plants may be best able to handle these growing threats (we refer to them as “native winners”). The ultimate goal is to help make restoration of these plants and habitats as effective as possible in order to maintain healthy natural areas that support wildlife and pollinators, and help keep our air and water clean.

 Andrea Kramer at Rio Mesa.

Another beautiful day at Rio Mesa

This is no small task. The invasive species that the native plants are up against are very impressive. For example, Russian knapweed is allelopathic (prevents other plants from growing nearby), and it has roots that can grow more than 20 feet deep, seeking the water table. Fortunately, some native species are also able to grow in these conditions, and some even appear to be evolving and adapting to be better competitors.

Three Northwestern University graduate students are working with me. Master’s student Nora Talkington is testing how different populations of a native grass are able to compete with Russian knapweed, while doctoral student Alicia Foxx is researching how different root structures of native plants help them compete with invasive species. Master’s student Maggie Eshleman is studying six native wildflower species including the smallflower globe mallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia), which has tiny, fiery orange flowers. These wildflowers are likely “native winners” and are strong candidates for increased use when restoring habitat in the Colorado Plateau.

A rainbow of wildflowers for restoration:

  • Tansy aster (Machaeranthera canescens): This purple-flowered plant is good for pollinators, one of the few plants that flowers late in the season, and on top of that, is really good at growing in sites that need to be restored.
  • Woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica): This cute little annual plant is often the only thing we find flowering and producing seeds during extreme drought years. It is very impressive!
  • Bee plant (Cleome lutea): This annual plant has gorgeous yellow flowers. It’s good at growing in disturbed areas and, as its name indicates, is a great forage plant for bees.
 Cleome lutea.

Bee plant (Cleome lutea) by Andrea Kramer

 Sphaeralcea parvifolia.

Smallflower globe mallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia) by Andrea Kramer

 Machaeranthera canescens.

Tansy aster (Machaeranthera canescens or Dieteria canascens) by Maggie Eshleman

 Plantago patagonica.

Woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica) by Andrea Kramer

This summer was a busy one. My students and I spent many weeks in the Colorado Plateau working with collaborators to collect seeds (as part of Seeds of Success collectors—a national native seed collection program). These seeds are now being used for studies in the Garden’s research greenhouses and growth chambers, and at study plots in Utah, Arizona, and Colorado. In the Garden’s Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, we are also using incubators to create spring- and summer-like conditions that will help us understand when and why seeds of certain species are able to germinate and grow. This is an important aspect of ultimately being able to restore species in a degraded habitat.

 La Sal mountains in the background; the plains abloom in May.

La Sal mountains in the background; the plains abloom in May

How cool is it to be able to take research that’s been done on a small scale and actually apply it to the real world? I feel so lucky to be able to do this work, and being here at the Chicago Botanic Garden has allowed me to build long-term partnerships that investigate the application of research, rather than just focusing on publishing it. Stay tuned for updates on how these native winners perform.

This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Making Topiary Trees for Wonderland Express

Thu, 12/04/2014 - 2:16pm

Imagine a winter landscape: White birches reflect the December sun. Snow drifts around the bare trunks. A glaze of ice gives a silvery cast to evergreens. Such a scene was the inspiration for the topiary trees designed by the horticulture staff for this year’s Wonderland Express.

 Finished topiary tree.

Tillandsia ‘Black Beauty’, Cryptanthus ‘Pink Starlight’ and ‘Ruby’, and the spoon-shaped succulent leaves of Cotyledon ‘Orbit’ make up this 3-foot topiary.

The popular holiday event, with its indoor model train display and miniature replicas of Chicago-area landmarks, offers something for visitors of all ages and interests. The topiary room in Joutras Gallery recreates a winter scene from plants you don’t typically see in holiday arrangements. Drifts of white poinsettias resemble an undulating snowfall, and the frosty evergreens are constructed from hundreds of diverse air plants and succulents. The result is an unusual horticultural presentation that feels both wintry and alive.

The display may also give visitors ideas for incorporating different types of plants into their home holiday décor. Hens and chicks, Tillandsia, aloe, mother-in-law tongue, and agave can all be incorporated into beautiful arrangements to last all winter. Construction of a basic topiary tree is relatively simple, and gardeners looking for an indoor project might consider creating a tabletop topiary for their home.

Here’s how we did it:

Liz Rex stuffing the topiary tree frame

Bags of styrofoam peanuts fill the tree frame, covered by a layer of sphagnum moss. You’ll want gloves for the moss—it can be pointy, and a skin irritant.

  1. Stuff it! We started by stuffing cone-shaped frames with bags of styrofoam peanuts. The bags have some give and are relatively lightweight, yet help anchor the plants used to cover the frame. The topiary forest in the Joutras Gallery has a central tree standing 8 feet tall, surrounded by six smaller trees. For the biggest trees we used Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Moonshine’, Sansevieria parva, Cryptanthus fosterianus ‘Elaine’, and Euphorbia stenoclada. A tabletop tree for the home could stand 12 to18 inches tall, and be composed of more delicate air plants (Tillandsia).
  2. It’s a wrap! We took fishing line and wound it around the frame to create a grid for extra support.
  3. Gather moss. Next, we covered the frame with handfuls of sphagnum moss. The moss medium holds moisture needed to keep the plants healthy and happy. If you’re trying this at home, it’s a good idea to wear plastic gloves when handling the moss. You can also use floral oasis foam cut to shape as an alternative to the frame and moss.
  4. Insert plants. We used floral wire and sod staples to poke plants through the moss and into the Styrofoam. For smaller plants, such as the Tillandsia, wrap the wire in an inconspicuous place at the base of the plant, and twist the ends into a pick. Larger plants are held in place with the staples inserted at an angle and hidden by the foliage. Start at either the top or the bottom and work in one direction. Plants should be touching, but not completely overlapping. Place a few plants, step back and look at your work. Your eye will tell you if the plants are too sparse, overcrowded or just right. Spanish moss can help fill in any remaining gaps.
  5. Have fun! Topiary trees allow you to be creative with live plants, and make something really special for your home. The arrangements can last for months if you spritz them with water, and protect them from light and temperature extremes.
    Topiary tree detail

    The jagged white and green stripes of Aloe ‘Delta lights’ contrast with thin-leaved Agave gemniflora and a purple-edged Agave ‘Blue Glow’.

Looking for great combinations to try at home? Here’s what we used:

The 3-foot trees:

  • Tillandsia juncea
  • Garland Tillandsia abdita
  • Cotyledon ‘Orbit’
  • Cryptanthus ‘Ruby’
  • Cryptanthus ‘Pink Starlight’
  • Tillandsia ‘Black Beauty’

The 4-foot trees:

  • Tillandsia harrisii
  • Tillandsia juncea
  • Cryptanthus ‘Pink Starlight’
  • Sempervivum ‘Purple Beauty’
  • Sempervivum tectorum ‘Pilioseum’
  • Agave ‘Rasta Man’
  • Tillandsia bergeri
  • Kalanchoe tomentosa

The 6-foot trees:

  • Aloe ‘Delta lights’
  • Agave ‘Blue Glow’
  • Agave gemniflora
  • The starburst on top is Euphorbia stenoclada
  • Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Moonshine’
  • Agave gemniflora
  • Agave ‘Blue Glow’
  • Aloe ‘Delta Lights’
  • Kalanchoe tomentosa
  • Agave ‘Rasta Man’
  • Haworthia fusciata
  • Sempervivum ‘Purple Beauty’
  • Several different kinds of Tillandsia 

The 8-foot tree:

  • Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Moonshine’
  • Sansevieria parva
  • Cryptanthus fosterianus ‘Elaine’
  • Euphorbia stenoclada

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Holiday Gift Book Recommendations from Our Lenhardt Librarians

Sun, 11/30/2014 - 9:30am

Despite all of the electronics and gadgets that surround us and demand our attention, a book is still one of the most thoughtful and personal presents to give and to receive at the holidays.

Here’s a quick quiz; fill in the blanks:

  1. This holiday, I just want to relax on the sofa with a good _____.
  2. My kids ask me to read that _____ to them every night.
  3. Our ____ club is meeting next Tuesday evening for some holiday cheer.

Does this sound familiar to you? It did to us! So we turned to our book experts—the staff at our Lenhardt Library—to ask for their recommendations for holiday gift books.

Librarian Leora Siegel with book stack

Librarian Leora Siegel chills out with some good friends.

Their well-rounded, garden-oriented list covers botany, horticulture, landscape, cooking, arts, crafts, trees, birds, and vegetables—with occasional commentary from the librarians themselves. All selections are part of the Lenhardt Library collection—which means free check-out for members. (Another great reason to become a Chicago Botanic Garden member—click here to join.)

Eight selections are available to purchase at our Garden Shop, too. Shop online, visit the shop before/after your Wonderland Express visit, or come by to browse during holiday hours.

Of course, you can order from our Amazon Smile link; 5 percent of the profits go to support the Garden! https://smile.amazon.com/ch/36-2225482

We even included our library call numbers so you can find these books easily—and browse 125,000 other volumes—when you come to the library. We look forward to seeing you!

A Potted History of Vegetables by Lorraine Harrison

A Potted History of Vegetables by Lorraine Harrison

Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2011.
SB320.5.H27 2011

Compact, lovely to look at, and full of useful information, this is a beautifully illustrated and handy book that includes vegetable history, how-to’s, etc. This tucks nicely into a Christmas stocking, too. 

—Ann Anderson, library technical services manager

Bonsai A Patient Art

Bonsai: A Patient Art: The Bonsai Collection of the Chicago Botanic Garden by Susumu Nakamura, consulting curator; Ivan Watters, curator; Terry Ann R. Neff, editor; Tim Priest, photographer

Garden logo. Purchase online from the Garden Shop

Glencoe, IL: Chicago Botanic Garden in association with Yale University Press, 2012.
SB433.5.C55 2012

This book captures our Bonsai Collection. It has stunning photographs, paired with copy that brings the world of bonsai to life.

Cooking with Flowers by Miche Bacher

Cooking with Flowers: Sweet and Savory Recipes with Rose Petals, Lilacs, Lavender, and Other Edible Flowers by Miche Bacher; photography by Miana Jun

Garden logo. Available on-site at the Garden Shop

Philadelphia, PA: Quirk Books, 2013.
TX814.5.F5B33 2013

This book features common, everyday (and edible!) flowers used in fabulous ways—I’ve given this book to gardeners and to people who love to cook. The illustrations are lovely. The dandelion chapter first captured my interest (what could be easier to acquire?)…and then there was the lilac sorbet…

—Donna Herendeen, science librarian

Encyclopedia of Garden Plants for Every Location

Encyclopedia of Garden Plants for Every Location 
editors Jenny Hendy, Annelise Evans

New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2014.
SB407.E53 2014

Destined to be dog-eared and brand new on the shelf, this book is an info book that gardeners of every type and experience level can trust for facts and advice.

—Leora Siegel, library director

Floral Journey Native North American Beadwork by Lois S. Dubin

Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork by Lois S. Dubin

Garden logo. Available on-site at the Garden Shop

Los Angeles, CA: Autry National Center of the American West, 2014.
E98.B46D83 2014

This book features native American history, encoded in beadwork. Gift this book to history buffs, fashion fanatics, and craft-devoted friends, all sure to be gobsmacked by the sheer audacity and intricacy of it all. Read our full review here

Ginkgo the Tree that Time Forgot by Peter Crane

Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot by Peter Crane

Garden logo. Available on-site at the Garden Shop

New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.
QK494.5.G48C73 2013 

Were you one of the lucky attendees at Peter Crane’s lecture at the Garden in 2013? In his beautifully written and realized book, the former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, goes beyond botany and horticulture to cover the art, history, and culture of one of the planet’s most ancient trees. Read our full review here.

 The Past, Present, and Future of our Forests by Jeff Gillman

How Trees Die: The Past, Present, and Future of Our Forests by Jeff Gillman

Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2009
SD373.G55 2009

A thoughtful gift option for a deep thinker, this book impressed me both with the writing and its illumination of an often-overlooked fact: trees can live extraordinarily long lives. It’s a comfortably sized book for reading, too.

—Donna Herendeen, science librarian

Living Wreaths by Natalie Bernhisel Robinson

Living Wreaths: 20 Beautiful Projects for Gifts and Décor by Natalie Bernhisel Robinson; photographs by Susan Barnson Hayward

Garden logo. Available on-site at the Garden Shop

Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2014.
SB449.5.W74R63 2014

The cover is so stunning that it compels you to open this new-on-the-shelves book, which is filled with step-by-step instructions for designs both simple and extravagant. Or buy the book for yourself, then gift your friends with your own handmade versions.

—Ann Anderson, library technical services manager

Orchids by Fabio Petroni and Anna Maria Botticelli

Orchids
photographs by Fabio Petroni; text by Anna Maria Botticelli; translation, John Venerella

Garden logo. Purchase online from the Garden Shop

Novara, Italy: White Star Publishers, 2013.
Ovrz SB409.P48 2013

We admit it: we’re partial to orchids (The Orchid Show opens at the Garden on Valentine’s Day, 2015). We’re also partial to this coffee table-sized book as a great gift, filled with stunningly detailed and thoughtful photography of the world’s most beautiful flowers. 

—Stacy Stoldt, library public services manager

Peterson Guide to Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson

Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2008.
QL681.P455 2008

Birds and plants go together. As a gardener, bird watcher and traveler, I’ve always wanted one ID book for the United States, not just the east or west. Slightly larger than the typical Peterson guide, this edition fits the bill.

—Donna Herendeen, science librarian

Plantiful by Kristin Green

Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-sow, and Overwinter by Kristin Green

Garden logo. Available on-site at the Garden Shop

Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2014.
SB453.G794 2014

What a great idea for a gardening book: focus on the plants that do the work themselves. “It spreads” was once anathema to a gardener, but this book takes a surprising and creative new approach to 150 “free” and garden-worthy plants.

—Christine Schmid, library technical assistant

Seven Flowers and How They Shaped Our World by Jennifer Potter

Seven Flowers and How They Shaped our World by Jennifer Potter

New York, NY: Overlook Press, 2014.
SB404.5.P68 2014

Lotus, lily, sunflower, poppy, rose, tulip, orchid…author Jennifer Potter traces the powerful effects that seven simple but seductive flowers have had on history, civilization, and culture. Tulipmania? Orchid fever? The War of the Roses? All is revealed and explained in this compelling, lushly illustrated book.

—Leora Siegel, library director

The Big, Bad Book of Botany by Michael Largo

The Big, Bad Book of Botany by Michael Largo; illustrations by Margie Bauer

Garden logo. Available on-site at the Garden Shop

New York, NY: William Morrow, 2014.
QK7.L25 2014

The cover alone is enough to propel you into this endlessly fascinating, fun, fact-filled, A-to-Z book. A great gift for anyone (any age!) who loves to cite a good fact, tell a shocking story, or learn about the natural world in unexpected ways.

—Leora Siegel, library director

Vauxhall Gardens A History by David Coke and Alan Borg

Vauxhall Gardens: A History by David Coke and Alan Borg

New Haven, CT: published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2011.
DA689.G3C65 2011

Similar to entertainment parks like Chicago’s Millennium Park or Denmark’s Tivoli Gardens, Vauxhall Gardens is mentioned everywhere in literature, but no longer exists. What was it like? Comprehensive and scholarly, this book explores the details—the history of social life, public gardens, culture—in a large format that does justice to the numerous period illustrations and maps.

—Stacy Stoldt, library public services manager

Especially for Kids

A Flower in the Snow by Tracey Corderoy.

A Flower in the Snow by Tracey Corderoy

London: Egmont, 2012.
PZ7.C815354Flo 2012

A little child…a big bear…a golden flower…and the power of friendship. A book that never grows tired of being read aloud over and over again, it’s a fine gift/addition to your child’s/friend’s library.

—Christine Schmid, library technical assistant

Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Eric Shabazz Larkin

Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Bellevue, WA: Readers To Eaters, 2013.
S494.5.U72M325 2013

Kids need to know the true story of Will Allen, former basketball star, who creates gardens in abandoned urban sites to bring good food to every table. This book is inspiring and motivating (and he can hold a cabbage in one hand!).

—Ann Anderson, library technical services manager

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Garden logo. Available on-site at the Garden Shop

New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1964.
PZ7.S39

This is a  beloved classic, now teaching another generation about the nature of giving. Your child or young friend doesn’t know it yet, but this heartfelt and tender story, illustrated so beautifully by the author, will become a staple on the nightly story request list.

—Christine Schmid, library technical assistant

Theres a Hair in my Dirt! A Worm's Story by Gary Larson

There’s a Hair in my Dirt! A Worm’s Story by Gary Larson

New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1998.
PS3562.A75225T47 1999

Like so many fairy tales and fireside stories before it, this witty, funny tale also has a darker twist, fittingly revealed in the final panel. Adult fans of Gary Larson’s The Far Side might enjoy this book as much as the perceptive kids you’ll gift with it. It always makes me laugh…and scream.

—Stacy Stoldt, library public services manager

Want more inspiration? Check out the library section on our website for hundreds more book reviews. Happy Giving!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Thanks…for Giving

Wed, 11/26/2014 - 10:00am

There are in the neighborhood of 1,400 volunteers working, helping, contributing, and giving their time and energies to the Chicago Botanic Garden. This fact about the Garden amazes me every time I hear it.

Isn’t that astounding?

I began at the Garden as a volunteer, too, so this Thanksgiving, I wanted to talk to a few others to find out when, where, how, and why they volunteer.

Suffice to say that I met some awesome people. It’s a pleasure to tell their stories—and to honor them in this season of giving thanks.

Volunteers Can Connect

Five years ago, Jack Kreitinger bought his first ticket to Wonderland Express—and promptly fell in love with the show. An architect by trade, “I wanted to build those little houses out of bark,” he laughs. Instead, he attended that year’s Volunteer Fair and signed up to become a guide for the walking tour program. (Mark your calendar: our next Volunteer Fair is Sunday and Monday, March 1 and 2, from 1 to  3 p.m. in the Regenstein Center.)

Jack’s Favorite Getaway

 Jack Kreitinger giving a walking tour.

Here, Jack gives a walking tour; he knows all the best spots in the Garden. He loves the viewing area at the top of the hill in the Sensory Garden, “where you can look through the tops of the trees down at the water. Someday I hope to buy a tree and donate it to be planted as part of that view.”

For Jack, volunteering is about making connections with other people. “Gardeners are the coolest people on earth,” he says. “I’ve met such interesting people from all over the world and, as a tour guide, I can convey how much I love the Garden and why they should love it, too.” Jack’s natural communication and leadership skills have transformed the Walking Tour Guides team as well: he’s a volunteer team leader.

A committed time slot works well for Jack: Thursday mornings find him leading a 45-minute tour from the Crescent Garden through the Heritage Garden, Bonsai Collection, Circle Garden, Buehler Enabling Garden, English Walled Garden, and Krasberg Rose Garden; a second tour lasts a little longer since it’s open-ended.

“It grounds me in nature,” Jack explains, “since I get to see the changes in the gardens week by week, spring through fall.” Between his regular schedule, VIP tours, and special events (he takes special request tours!), Jack estimates that he’s hosted 1,500 people on tour in his five years as a volunteer.

“I get more out of it than I give,” he says. We respectfully and thankfully disagree.

Volunteers Can Specialize

Eight years ago, Ann Stevens took her first course in beekeeping. Seven years ago, the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden purchased eight new beehives and needed a beekeeper. It was a perfect match.

Ann’s Favorite View

 Volunteer beekeeper Anne Stevens.

Ann loves seeing the beehives nestled into the apple trees from across the water at the Esplanade. “It reminds me of the big picture: what the bees do for us, how they teach us about community, about working hard to benefit each other, all in an organized and logical way.”

Six years of volunteer beekeeping later, Ann does the math:

  • 50,000 bees at the end of each summer
  • x eight beehives
  • x six years
  • = 2,400,000 bees

That’s a lot of beekeeping. And Ann’s work is a great example of the specialized roles of some volunteers at the Garden.

“I love the freedom of it,” Ann says. “It’s a job I can go to when the weather’s right for the bees. I love the seasonality of it: starting new hives, getting them settled, working through the seasons.”

Ann speaks eloquently about working with bees. “I learn new things from them every year. Even if hives are side by side, the results in each are different. You have to adjust, nurture, and give them your best, but you can’t control it all. There are things that are bigger than us, and I get to experience that through the bees.”

Like every volunteer that I had the pleasure of interviewing, Ann also spoke glowingly about the visitors she interacts with at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden. “It’s so beautiful to see so many different people: different ages, different languages being spoken, young couples, families teaching kids to be respectful of the garden. There’s an international feeling at the Garden, and I get to be part of that. I’m so grateful.”

We’re grateful, too, Ann.

Volunteers Can Contribute

First things first: Eileen Sirkin already had a Ph.D. in microbiology and a long-time family membership at the Garden before she became a volunteer.

Eileen’s Favorite Place

 Volunteer Eileen Sirkin.

“The Butterflies & Blooms house in peak season is the happiest place at the Garden,” Eileen says with a smile. “The butterflies are all flying, and people come dressed in butterfly T-shirts and butterfly jewelry…some stay for hours, and some come back week after week. They all sigh with happiness.”

Ten years ago, she was ready to volunteer and to return to the field of science. Initially, she volunteered as a Plants of Concern citizen scientist (check it out here). When Dr. Jeremie Fant arrived at the Garden as a conservation scientist, she became a volunteer technician in the Molecular Ecology Lab—and has been there ever since.

“It’s like CSI for plants,” Eileen explains when asked about her lab work. Her assignments are wildly interesting (like most science!): her early work with Dr. Fant involved the selection of seagrass species to repopulate a section of Chicago’s Rainbow Beach; her current project involves the Jerusalem Botanic Garden and examines the DNA of Iris vartanii, a rare native that grows only in Israel.

Coworkers and volunteers are important to Eileen. “These are down-to-earth types of people, who love the natural world,” Eileen says. “There’s a lot of fellowship here.”

Also important is the sense of giving back and contributing to a larger cause. “The Garden saw something in me and gave me the opportunity to reactivate what was dormant—I’m grateful for the chance to return to science,” Eileen says at the end of our conversation. “I can’t leave this place. I love it.”

We’re so grateful for your contribution, Eileen.

Volunteers Can Influence

Carmen’s Favorite Spot

 Volunteer Carmen Reyes.

Carmen’s favorite? No contest: the “pepper pots” or viewing areas in the English Walled Garden, taking in the view across the water.

After 40 years as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools—teaching Spanish to kids little and big—Carmen Reyes had earned her retirement.

But after just six months, she missed the kids. And she missed teaching. So she turned to the Garden—a place that she already knew well from many summer visits—and she signed up as a greeter. When Judy Cashen, the ever-alert director, volunteer administration and engagement, asked her to help out in the education area, she jumped at the chance.

As an assistant for the school field trip programs, Carmen sets up for the classes that arrive, assists the team leaders, and does some presentations herself (her engaging approach to the subject of companion plants is always popular).

Carmen especially likes working with kids grades K through 8. “They’re wide-eyed, and they want more information,” she says. “Any bit of information that you offer is new to them.” Her bilingual skills are constantly in demand, and she often finds herself welcoming kids on field trips from her former employer, the Chicago Public Schools.

The Garden itself is a powerful draw. “You can’t beat the setting,” Carmen remarks. “And regardless of the time of year, there’s always something beautiful to see, something good for the soul. I’m thankful for the people who make it so beautiful and welcoming. It makes me feel like part of the family at the Garden.”

Thank you for investing in the next generation, Carmen.

Volunteers Have Fun

Carolyn’s Favorite Walk

Volunteers clean moss and lichen from birch trunks.

Carolyn and Ed Hazan take volunteering seriously…and have a lot of fun with it, too. Yes, they even scrubbed birch trees this year. Carolyn loves the woodland walk on the outside edge of the Sensory Garden. “But going for a walk isn’t always easy—every ten minutes, there’s someone to stop and talk to!”

Carolyn and Ed Hazan are the volunteer’s volunteer: they give of their time separately and together. Between the two of them, they’ve worked in nearly every garden, and the list of events that they’ve volunteered for reads like the year’s schedule at the Garden: Wonderland Express, the Orchid Show, World Environment Day, Kite Festival, Chef Series, and the Antiques & Garden Fair…and more

In 2001, when Ed decided that he wanted to learn how to grow vegetables, long-time volunteer Sam Darin suggested that he give volunteering a try. Both Ed and Carolyn began by volunteering two times per month—today they’re up to three or four days per week.

“It’s the people,” Carolyn says without hesitation when asked what drives them to volunteer. “We love it because we know everybody, and there’s always somebody new to talk to—you can never have too many friends!”

The photo of the couple says it all: they’re vibrant, intrepid, can-do people who have found their tribe at the Garden. And, yes, they’re washing the birch trees (every five years or so, the trees get a brightening scrub).

Thank you both for giving so much.

Three Cheers for Your Fellow Volunteers

Read about five award-winning volunteers in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing magazine (page 18). Ready to join us as a volunteer and make your mark at the Garden? Volunteering starts here.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Give Thanks with Pumpkin Fudge

Fri, 11/21/2014 - 9:08am

No Thanksgiving is complete without a pumpkin dish—and it doesn’t hurt to spice it up with a little something extra…

If you’re ready to start a new tradition (enough already with the pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, and pumpkin cookies), consider chef Michael Kingsley’s bourbon pumpkin-pecan fudge (available now at the Garden View Café). The bourbon bakes off so it’s safe for kids, but it gives the fudge a bit of a kick (and who doesn’t need a little jump-start during the holidays?).

The recipe is simple enough to get the whole family involved. Think butter…pumpkin…toasted pecans—what’s not to like? And what better way to celebrate the season than to spend time together, break fudge together, and give thanks that you’re able to do so?

Pull out your candy thermometer, 4-quart sauce pan, wooden spoon, measuring cups and spoons, 13-by-9-inch pan, aluminum foil, nonstick cooking spray, and seasonal cookie cutters (and get the camera ready—not that anyone is going to lick the spoon…). This is going to be delicious.

Bourbon Pumpkin-Pecan Fudge

 Pumpkin fudge

1¾ cups sugar
1¼ cups brown sugar
¾ cup unsalted butter
2/3 cup evaporated milk (5-ounce can)
½ cup canned pumpkin purée (no added sugar) 
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon allspice
2¼ cups white chocolate chips
7 ounces marshmallow fluff (any brand)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon bourbon (optional, but worth it!)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped

Start by covering a 13-by-9-inch pan with aluminum foil. Spray the covered pan with cooking spray. Sprinkle the chopped pecans evenly over the bottom of the pan. (They do not have to completely cover it.) Set aside.

Combine the sugar, brown sugar, butter, evaporated milk, pumpkin purée, spices, and salt in a pan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and continue to boil until the temperature reaches 236 degrees Fahrenheit on your candy thermometer. Remove from heat.

Working quickly, add the white chocolate chips, marshmallow fluff, and vanilla to the pan. Be careful, as this may spatter and will be very hot! Fold ingredients in until completely incorporated. Pour the hot fudge mixture over the chopped pecans and quickly spread evenly; it will immediately start to set up as it cools.

Place the pan uncovered in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours. Your mouth is probably watering already, but unfortunately, it will take this long to set up completely.

After cooling the pan completely for 3 hours, remove the pan from the refrigerator, and turn it upside down on a cutting board. The fudge should pop right out. Peel off the aluminum foil and discard. Want to make your treats extra special? Use cookie cutters to cut your fudge into festive autumn shapes—or maybe dinosaurs if you’re that kind of person—and enjoy!

Note: If you have it in your spice rack, you can substitute 3½ teaspoons of “pumpkin pie spice” for the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Checking the Weather? So Are We.

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 10:00am

It’s the humblest patch of green at the Garden, yet the information gathered there has national implications—and, though you may not realize it, it’s part of your daily prep for work, school, and play.

Although dealing with the weather is part of everyone’s job here, there is no meteorologist on staff at the Garden. Got questions about weather specifics or cooperative weather stations?

In a small, sunny, grassy, flat, fenced-in plot (there’s a reason for that), located on the outer road that encircles the Garden, stands an official National Weather Service Cooperative Station—a collection of instruments that measures the atmospheric conditions of the day. And every morning at 8 a.m., rain (or snow) or shine, a dedicated Garden staff member steps into the plot to read the instruments and record the results, then heads back indoors to transfer the information to the National Weather Service (NWS).

I got to tag along with Celeste VanderMey, Plant Records supervisor, on a recent fall morning for the daily readings.

 Celeste at the weather station temperature booth.

Celeste VanderMey explains that its beehive appearance might deter curious critters from poking around inside the weather shelter.

Reading #1: Temperature

Though it looks vaguely like a beehive, the little white structure is a weather shelter that houses two temperature gauges. The maximum temperature thermometer’s mercury rises to the high temperature mark of each day, then stays at the setting until it’s read the next morning. To reset it, Celeste just gives it a spin and the mercury drops.

An alcohol thermometer records the low temperature of each day: pure alcohol molecules move closer together as the temperature drops, shifting a tiny bar that marks the number.

Why no digital thermometers? “Not considered as reliably accurate,” Celeste says.

 The weather station rain gauge.

A long metal cylinder like a tiny rocket ship turns out to be a rain gauge. Celeste removes the lid and takes a reading.

Reading #2: Dew

Admittedly the least scientific of the daily measurements, dewfall is indicated as low, moderate, or heavy, simply by examining a surface: the top of the weather shelter, or the grass itself.

Reading #3: Rain

The National Weather Service provided us with the rain canister, which can hold up to 10 inches of precipitation (not that we’ve ever had that amount—see records below). Inside is a plastic funnel that directs rainwater into a smaller brass tin. A measuring stick—like a car’s oil dipstick—is inserted, then pulled out and read for rain depth—one-tenth inch of rain equals one inch on the stick.

Reading #4: Soil Temperature

A soil thermometer is as handy for home gardeners as it is for us—especially in spring, when it tells gardeners if it’s warm enough to put seeds in the ground. We measure the high and low temperatures of both bare soil and soil under sod/grass (that’s why the plot is flat, sunny, and grassy). An interesting fact: no matter what the air temperature in winter, the soil seldom drops below 26 degrees (it’s measured at 4-inch depth). 

 Weather station soil temperature gauge.

This gauge takes a reading of bare soil temperatures. Five feet over, another gauge measures the temperature under grass. It’s important information for farmers germinating seed.

Reading #5: Snowfall

It’s low tech, but it works: a white plastic board catches a winter day’s snowfall, which is measured with a yardstick to the tenth of an inch. Two or more inches of snow? Then a core sampling is taken down to the ground, and the core is brought indoors to melt for a water equivalency reading. As mentioned below, the NWS uses this information to predict flooding.

Reading #6: Evaporation

Next we moved to the 4-foot in diameter evaporation pan. Its three readings tell forecasters how much water has been absorbed into the atmosphere at this location.

An instrument with an intriguing name, a six’s thermometer, measures both high and low daily temperature of the water in the pan. An anemometer (wind meter) tells how many miles’ worth of wind has passed this spot. And a hook gauge in a stilling well measures the amount of water lost to evaporation (or added by rain).

 An anemometer measures wind speed.

The anemometer attached to the evaporation pan measures the wind speed at an exact height. All weather station gear must meet siting requirements, so that data are measured consistently from station to station.

 The hook gauge which usually rests in a container inside the evaporation pan.

The hook gauge rests in a standard-size stilling well inside the evaporation pan—the structure the anemometer is attached to in the previous photo.

Reading #7: River and Lake Levels

Finally, we take a short walk across the road to the South Bridge, and the weir (dam) beneath, where the waters of the Garden Lakes meet the Skokie River. Along the banks on each side of the bridge are measurement markers that are read (bring the binoculars!) and recorded daily, although they’re for the Garden’s own record keeping rather than the NWS.

Why track the lake and river levels? Flooding is always a threat in our lake system, says Bob Kirschner, director of Restoration Ecology. “We look at the levels every day,” he explains, “and we can adjust the lake level in anticipation of excessively wet or dry weather forecasts.” All of the Garden’s property is irrigated with water drawn from our lakes. Water levels matter to the half-million lakeshore plants that line the lakes, too—all installed with our normal lake level (623.95 feet above mean sea level) in mind.

 Fall in the Great Basin

Fall in the Great Basin

It takes just a few minutes’ time to record the morning’s numbers. Indoors, Celeste logs on to the NWS site and inputs the results, adding noteworthy conditions as needed: fog…haze…ice…thunderstorms.

Staff has been keeping records since 1982. That’s the year that then-Garden president Dr. Roy Mecklenburg, who was keenly interested in meteorology, arranged for the Garden to become a weather station. Stations existed at the time at Midway Airport and in Antioch, with none in between. A few notable numbers since then (again, note that all are since 1982, when our record keeping began):

  • January 2014 holds our record for snowiest January with 28.7 inches (1967 snowfall was higher).
  • February 2014 holds the record for coldest February: 26.6 degrees average high, usually 35.6 degrees.
  • 1993 holds the record for shortest growing season (number of days between last frost and first frost) at only 123 days. The average? 163 days.
  • August 14, 1987, holds the record for most rainfall in one day: 5.54 inches.

It’s fascinating to think that the Garden contributes daily to the national weather picture and that there’s always an eye on the weather here (thanks to Celeste, Veronica, Gabriella, Therese, and Lauren). Next time you check on the weather and hear a forecaster say, “and the Chicago Botanic Garden reported “x” inches of rain yesterday,” you’ll know where the information came from: a humble patch of green.

A Bit of Weather-Station History

Although it dates back to 1989, the preface of the official National Weather Service Observing Handbook (No. 2) is so wonderfully interesting that it’s blog-worthy on its own. Here’s the text, from page ii, with thanks to the unknown writer:

John Companius Holm’s weather records, taken without the benefit of instruments in 1644 and 1645, were the earliest known observations in the United States. Subsequently such famous personages as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin maintained weather records spanning many years.

The first extensive network of cooperative stations was set up in the 1890s as the result of an act of Congress in 1890 that established the Weather Bureau. Today, there are over 11,000 volunteer cooperative observers scattered over the 50 states, taking observations seven days a week throughout the year.

The above observers regularly and conscientiously contribute their time so that their observations can provide the vital information needed to define the climate in their areas. The records are also used constantly to answer questions and guide the actions of public agencies, agricultural and commercial organizations, and individuals. Their records also form a basis for preparedness for national and local emergencies, such as flooding.

 apples.

Our most frequently asked question this summer at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden: why no apples?

Turns out the weather played a major role.

Last winter’s long, deep cold meant very few flower buds. Then, in spring, when pollinators should have been out to feast on apple flower nectar, the weather was chilly. Since bees don’t fly when it’s less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, little pollination took place. No pollination means no fruit.

Add to that a second factor: apples typically have a two-year boom-bust cycle for fruit bearing. After a bumper crop in 2013, we expected a smaller harvest this year—made even less by the weather conditions above.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Star Appeal for the Holidays

Fri, 11/14/2014 - 10:00am

You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to fashion this charming star-shaped wreath from branches, raffia, zip ties, and a little duct tape.

 Heather models the finished star wreath.

Heather models the finished star wreath.

Find additional inspiration with a selection of wreaths created by Chicago Botanic Garden staff in 2013. See this year’s staff wreaths in our Greenhouse Gallery during Wonderland Express

Just follow these step-by-step instructions from Heather Sherwood, one of our very creative senior horticulturists, to get your own star appeal for the holidays. Heather has selected red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) for its warm, cheery color, but the star can be made from any combination of branches and natural materials, including evergreens (such as junipers) and corkscrew willows. If taste dictates, you can bling out with bells, bows, glitter, or other embellishments. Here’s how Heather does it:

Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Time Needed: Two Hours

Materials:  

  • Heavy scissors
  • Pruning shears
  • A large working surface
  • Five heavier red-twig dogwood branches roughly 3/8” in diameter, cut into equal lengths. Heather recommends 30-inch lengths for a front door wreath. You can use shorter lengths to make a smaller star. This will use less plant material and may be quicker and easier to assemble. The base can also be constructed of wooden dowels.
  • Five 4-inch lengths of duct tape  (Heather recommends black.)
  • 20 plastic zip ties (Heather likes 6-inch ties, but shorter ones will do.)
  • Five 1½-inch bundles of red-twig dogwood branches cut in roughly 22-inch lengths (or slightly more than two-thirds of the length of the base branches)
  • Five 1½-inch bundles of twigs cut in roughly 11-inch lengths (or slightly more than one-third of the length of the base twigs)
  • Roughly 90 36-inch lengths of raffia
  • An 8-inch length of floral wire to create a loop for hanging
  • A strand of Christmas lights and additional 8-inch lengths of floral wire (optional)


To Make the Base:

You will need the five heavier branches, duct tape, and zip ties:

  1. Connect the five base branches into one long strand, using the duct tape to create “knuckle” joints: Place the end of the first branch 1 inch away from the top of the duct tape. Position the branch so it covers one-third of the width of the strip. Place the second branch opposite the first branch, leaving a gap between the two branches. Wrap the 1-inch end of the duct tape around the branch ends. Take the longer length of duct tape and wind it around the ends in the other direction. The joint should bend at the gap in the tape between the two branch ends. Create three more joints so that the five base branches form one very long, bendy stick.
  2. Twist into a star: Hold each end of the long, connected stick and bend the first and last joints, creating a rough pentagon shape. Fold the right side of the pentagon over, then the left side. The base twigs should fall into a rough star shape.
  3. Create the final joint in the star: Notch both ends of the last piece of duct tape so it resembles a knuckle bandage. Hold the loose ends of the base sticks together, forming the last point in the star. Center the duct tape under this point. Wrap duct tape ends, one by one, around the point.
  4. Check to see that all five arms of the star are level and even. Rotate star to double check spacing of the points. Adjust as needed.
  5. Use zip ties to secure the base: You’ll see that the base branches intersect to create a pentagram in the center of the star. Loosely wrap a zip tie around each of the intersecting branches at each of the five angles of the pentagram, making sure the ties pull to the back of the star. Check again to make sure the star points are level and even. Tighten the zip locks. If you’re using freshly cut wood, remember that it will shrink and lose diameter.
 Place two branch ends together with a gap of 1/2 inch, and tape together with duct tape.

When creating the branch joints, leave a gap between the ends when taping them together, so that the finished joint will bend.

 Hold both ends of the long, bendy stick to create a rough pentagon shape.

Hold both ends of the long, bendy stick to create a rough pentagon shape.

 Cross the ends over to form the star shape.

Cross the ends over to form the star shape; tape the final joint together.

 Secure the inner joints of the base star with zip ties.

Secure the inner joints of the base star with zip ties.


Make the top layer:

You will need the longer and shorter bundles of branches, zip ties, raffia, floral wire, and optional Christmas lights.

  1. Start with the longer bundles of twigs: Lay the first bundle along a base branch, positioning the cut edges just past the inner edge of the inner pentagram. The uncut edges should extend 2 to 3 inches past the point of the star. “I want the stems to ooze around the base,” explains Heather. Secure the bundle with zip ties at two points, the middle of the pentagon, and the middle of the star point. Make sure the zip ties pull to the back of the work. Continue around the base branches, so that the pentagram and one side of each star point are covered with branches.  
  2. Secure the shorter twigs. You’ll arrange the shorter twigs in a similar fashion, laying the cut edges on the outside edge of the pentagram with the natural edges covering the star point. Blend the cut edges, to give the star a woven look, and fan out the natural edges to soften each star point. Secure the shorter branches with one zip tie in the center of the star point.
  3. Double-check the placement of the bundles. Tighten and trim the zip ties.
  4. Cover the zip ties with raffia: Heather has chosen a simple look, tying the raffia in the back with a square knot. You may decide to pull the knots to the front, tie the raffia in a bow, substitute ribbon for the raffia, or add other types of embellishments.
  5. Using four to five strands held together, wrap raffia around once and tie in the back. Continue winding the raffia around and around until it completely covers the zip ties and creates a nice, thick band around the bundle. Tie in the back and trim. Continue until all the zip ties are covered.
  6. Use floral wire to create a loop to hang your star.
 Start with longer twigs; uncut edges point outwards towards the star tips.

Start with longer twigs; uncut edges point outward toward the star tips.

 Continue placing bundles; one to each side of each star point.

Continue placing bundles; one to each side of each star point.

 Next, position and secure shorter bundles of twigs until the base is completely covered.

Next, position and secure shorter bundles of twigs until the base is completely covered.

 Cover zip ties with raffia.

Cover the zip ties with raffia or ribbon. Knot in back.

Add lights!

You can backlight your wreath by securing a strand of holiday lights along the back of the base branches. Lay the strand along the star outline and secure it with floral wire threaded between the base sticks and the stick bundles.

 Add lights by tying them to the back of the frame with floral wire.

Add lights by tying them to the back of the frame with floral wire.

For more holiday decorating ideas, consider Heather’s classes on Holiday Lighting Techniques or Winter Containers at the Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Plant Evolution Infographic

Thu, 11/13/2014 - 11:53am

It’s like having a time machine—supercomputers and gene sequencing allow scientists to study early events in plant evolution. 

One of our conservation scientists, Norman Wickett, Ph.D., is co-leader of a global initiative involving some 40 researchers on four continents. The team has spent the past five years analyzing 852 genes from 103 types of land plants to tease out early events in plant evolution. The results, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, expand our knowledge of relationships among the earliest plants on land.

An Infographic About Plant Evolution

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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