Smart Gardener

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Cold Weather

What does it mean for plants?

The temperatures have been slowly dropping and sporadic frost has put the brakes on annuals, blackening their leaves or simply causing entire plants to wilt. Not to worry—there are things we can do to protect trees and shrubs and extend the last harvest as we move closer to winter.


Covering Plants

Cold Frames

Frost or Freeze?

The typical average date for the first fall frost in the greater Chicago area is October 15. In some years, the first frost happens in September or as late as November. Frost can form on the ground on clear, calm nights even though an outdoor thermometer may register in the mid- or upper 30s Fahrenheit. However, the same temperature conditions on a cloudy or windy night may not yield frost.

Although the National Weather Service (NWS) does not keep track of frost in its observations, it does track when temperatures hit the freezing mark or fall below. The NWS issues the following frost and freeze advisories, watches, and warnings during the growing season:

A frost advisory means that temperatures are expected to fall into the mid-30s, which could lead to frost on vegetation. Cover any sensitive vegetation.

A freeze watch means that temperatures are expected to fall below 32 within the next 12 to 48 hours. This cold air will likely kill any sensitive vegetation that is not brought indoors or protected.

A freeze warning means that temperatures are expected to fall below 32 within the next 36 hours. This cold air will likely kill any sensitive vegetation that is not brought indoors or protected.

Covering Plants
For those gardeners who have late-season edibles like swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, beets, brussels sprouts, or cabbage, you can protect them from freezing with a cover. Use frost cloth (available at some big box stores, garden centers, and online), cardboard boxes or large cartons, or a sheet or blanket. The air temperature around covered plants can be 3 to 7 degrees warmer than the actual temperature. Cover plants in the late afternoon to take advantage of the soil’s heat before it chills at night.

Cold Frames
A useful season-extender is the cold frame, which you can see in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. Cold frames are simply shallow boxes often sunk partially into the soil. They are typically made of wood, cement blocks, or hay bales, and covered with a lid—a sheet of clear glass, plastic film, or similar material. Cold frames are useful for protecting leafy greens and root vegetables for a late fall harvest.

Protecting Trees and Shrubs
Frost cracking occurs on the trunks of young trees when cold-weather temperatures fluctuate widely. The vertical cracks are caused by the expansion and contraction of a thin layer of bark. During the day, the sun warms the bark, which then rapidly cools with cloud cover or nightfall. Wrapping the trunk with tree wrap (burlap or paper tape) during the winter—or anytime when night temperatures reach freezing—can help prevent frost cracks. (Remove the wrap in spring.)

Protect tree trunks from hungry rabbits by securing 12 to 16 inches of hardware cloth in the soil about 3 inches away from the trunk. If deer visit your garden, deter them from eating twigs or rubbing antlers by placing snow fencing or several stakes around trees and shrubs.

Broadleaf evergreens like boxwood and rhododendrons can benefit from an antitranspirant spray used on the leaves. Throughout the winter, plants lose moisture, especially on sunny days. Antitranspirant products create a waxy layer that locks in moisture that would otherwise evaporate during harsh winter conditions and drying winds.

Place a layer of mulch around trees, shrubs, and in planting beds to maintain an even soil temperature. This helps to reduce the freeze-and-thaw cycles that cause perennials to heave out of the soil, exposing their roots to freezing temperatures and desiccating winter winds.

Terrain and structures affect how quickly plants may be damaged by cold temperatures. For example, some areas of a garden that are protected by walls, a dense evergreen hedge, or solid fences, may be slightly warmer than spots that are out in the open. Hilltops can be especially cold and windy, while low areas and ravines tend to collect cold air. Warm air rises while cold air sinks, so a garden at the bottom of a slope may have frost pockets and tender or half-hardy plants will be damaged sooner than plants that are in protected spots.

Cold Weather & Plants

Cold Weather & Plants

Cold Weather & Plants

Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois. Photos by Ellen Hodges.

Test Plant Info

Could your landscape use a little lift this summer? A few new plants? A trellis or two? How about a small water feature or a painted bench? Here are some ideas to put your design creativity in motion.

Enhance the Shade

Shade Gardening

Shade Gardening

Garden Design

Gardens change over time. A sunny perennial border becomes more heavily shaded as nearby trees and shrubs mature. We can’t grow roses or sun-loving annuals without six or more hours of sun, but we can choose perennials and annuals with attractive, colorful foliage that tolerate dappled shade. Look at this as an opportunity to try interesting shade-tolerant plants. Although hostas are the go-to workhorse for shade, numerous ferns, variegated Brunnera, native merry bells, Spigelia (Indian pinks), columbine, woodland wildflowers and other shade garden stars provide a contrast in textures and colors and that’s the “wow” factor. On the summer solstice, Sunday, June 21, we’ll experience the longest daylight of the year. That would be a good week to evaluate the shady spots in your garden and plant accordingly.

Put Color to Work

New gardeners are often smitten by the racks of flowering plants at the garden center each spring. Tempted by the displays, they fill their carts without quite knowing where the plants will go or how they’ll look together. (They’re not the only ones—experienced gardeners are tempted to do this, too!) However, having a color palette in mind and understanding how colors work together will save you time and money and improve your plant combinations—whether they’re in a container or in the ground.

Analyze It

Good soil is the foundation for great plants. When starting a new garden, especially in an urban setting, a soil test can indicate missing nutrients. Buy an easy-to-use soil test kit at a local garden center or online or send a soil sample to a laboratory. Good soil is loose, crumbly, and rich with organic matter. Add compost, composted manure, shredded leaves, or weed-free straw and work it into the top 3 to 4 inches of soil before planting. For pots, mix half soil-less potting mix and half compost, which increases fertility and water-holding capacity of the mix.

Take a Hard Look

This is a good time to examine your foundation plantings and hardscape materials (paths, walls, vertical elements). Go across the street and take some photos so you can see the property the same way passersby see it. The plants and the hardscape work together to create curb appeal for your home.

Paint It

Paint It

Paint It

Durable outdoor paints give metal, wood and plastic or resin elements a new life and new look in the garden. Could your patio furniture, bench, obelisk or trellis use a fresh coat of color? It’s a great way to recycle tired, worn pots and window boxes, too. A bonus: you can always change the color scheme when the mood strikes. Your front door may be a candidate for a color makeover as well.

Potted Plants

Living Mulch

Potted Plants

Containers instantly dress up a garden. They look great on decks, patios, flanking an entryway or placed at the head of a path. Invest in large, durable containers with drainage holes. If there’s no way for water to drain, the soil can become water-logged when it rains and roots will rot. Soil-less potting mix in small containers (less than two feet wide and two feet tall) dries very quickly in hot weather, leaving plant roots stressed. Select a theme for your container plant combos—tropical, moonlight, or contemporary—after all, you’re the artist and designer of your own garden.

Plants as Living Mulch

Nature abhors a vacuum. If you weed and leave the soil bare with no mulch--and there’s space between the plants--it will soon fill with unwanted seedlings. In the wild, Nature fills the ground with plants. It’s something to consider if you’re laying out your garden beds and borders on paper. Make a circle to show how much space each plant will need once it’s mature. And, it’s ok for plants to touch one another. Forming a blanket of ground cover, they’ll help prevent weed seeds from germinating.

Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois.

Digging for Black Gold

Repurpose, recycle, reuse. We’ve all heard those terms. Giving new life to old things, whether donating clothing or recycling plastic, prevents them from piling into a landfill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that food scraps and yard waste currently make up more than 30 percent of what we throw away! In landfills, these throwaways take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Instead, they can be transformed into compost—a rich organic substance—used to improve your soil. Homemade compost is practically free, costing only your time.


What is Compost?

Compost is simply a pile or container filled with three main ingredients—brown materials (dried leaves, twigs, small branches, used soilless potting mix, shredded paper), green materials (chemical-free grass clippings, vegetable and fruit scraps, weeds without seeds, used tea bags, and coffee grounds), and water.


brown materials + green materials + water


Compost is not fertilizer. Compost feeds the soil, while fertilizer feeds the plants. Compost contains many microorganisms, microscopic soil fauna, enzymes, and fungi, as well as earthworms, millipedes, and other minuscule creatures. When you add compost to soil, these life forms create openings around plant roots for much-needed air, water, and nutrients. A shovelful of compost contains millions of organisms that help replenish soil elements consumed by plants the previous growing season.

Why Compost?

Adding compost to plant pots, raised beds, planting holes, or as a mulch around annuals, perennials, or vegetables helps retain soil moisture. It’s a great soil amendment and conditioner that breaks up clay. Regular helpings of compost produce soil that is dark and crumbly, which is why compost is often called black gold.


You can buy bagged compost, but making your own is easy and saves money. Composting can be as simple as creating a pile of vegetable and fruit scraps, yard waste, paper, and twigs. The pile can be in sun or shade. The larger the pile, the faster the materials will decompose. Water the pile once a week or so to keep it slightly moist and turn it with a garden fork, a manure fork, or shovel a few times each month. As you add more materials, mix them into the center of the pile.


If that sounds too unkempt, the pile can be enclosed on three sides with fencing, recycled pallets, or chicken wire and stakes. Two or three bins are even more effective. As the materials decompose, move them into the second bin where they’ll continue to cook. That frees up the first bin for fresh materials.

Attractive composting bins are sold at garden centers, big box stores, and online. You can make your own compost bin with a large trash can and lid. Drill several small holes in the bottom and around the sides to allow air to enter and water to drain. Mix the layers of brown and green materials and moisten all of it. Continue adding materials as they are available. You’ll soon discover that the pile has shrunk as the materials decompose.


Using a bungee cord, secure the lid to the handles or edge of the can. Place the can on its side once a week and roll it back and forth to mix the ingredients. This type of enclosed composter prevents mice, raccoons, and other critters from invading the pile. Decomposition can occur in as little as a few months up to a few years depending on how, what, and where you are composting.

Compost Formulas

There are many recipes for making compost. The easiest method is to use three parts of brown material and one part of green material. Brown materials (straw, dry leaves, shredded paper) are rich in carbon. Green materials (kitchen scraps, freshly pulled weeds, and grass clippings) are rich in nitrogen. Active compost piles have a high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. Too much brown (carbon) and not enough green (nitrogen) slows decomposition. Too much green and not enough brown and the pile will not only decompose slowly, it might also be smelly and soggy. (If you’ve ever moved a pile of wet grass clippings or leaves, you’ll know what we mean!)

Not to worry. Composting isn’t an exact science. All organic material eventually breaks down. Take nature—the forest floor develops a layer of humus when fallen leaves decompose. Make it easy: use three buckets of brown and one of green materials when filling the pile or bin.

Here’s a simple recipe: one part fresh, untreated grass clippings or kitchen scraps, one part dry leaves or shredded paper, and one part good garden soil or used potting mix. Spread each ingredient in a 3- to 5-inch layer and keep adding layers as materials are available. Lightly moisten the pile with water and turn it from time to time. The finished product will have a fresh, earthy scent and few recognizable materials.

Heat it Up

You may feel some heat from the center of the pile. Heat is a by-product of intense microbial activity as the organisms convert the waste into humus. Some people use a long compost thermometer to determine the pile’s temperature. A hot pile (140 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit) isn’t critical, but it allows for usable compost within a month or so. High temperatures also kill most weed seeds, as well as harmful pathogens that can cause plant diseases. Commercial compost activators sold at garden centers and online contain microorganisms and protein that help raise the pile’s temperature.

To Turn or Not to Turn

Turning the compost pile with a garden fork or special compost aerator adds oxygen and blends the materials for faster decomposition. If you want a hot compost pile, turning it every three to five days is helpful. However, if you’re not in a hurry, you don’t have to do it. The pile will heat up again as long as material has not decomposed. The most decomposed material will be at the bottom. Turn the pile less frequently in cold weather to avoid releasing heat.

In-Ground Composting

Another simple method is to dig a hole about 12 inches deep and wide and fill it with brown and green materials. Cover them with soil. When it’s filled to the top, water it and place a flat stone over the hole to keep animals out. When the stone sinks in a few months, the materials will have decomposed, and you can plant in that enriched soil.

When to Apply

Once your compost becomes dark, crumbly, and basically unrecognizable, it can be applied at any time in the garden. Spread some in the spring where you will sow seeds or plant. Or use it in summer as a light layer of mulch around vegetables, annuals, or perennials. Autumn is also a good time to distribute compost because it allows earthworms to mix it with soil before the ground freezes.

Gardeners never seem to have enough compost, and once you use it up, you’ll be wishing for more. Don’t have a compost pile? Now’s a good time to start one.

Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois.


Winter Photography

The winter landscape, freed from its summer splendor, may appear bare and forlorn to some, but for those who take the time to stroll around the Garden, there are wonders to contemplate—and to photograph. Birds, berries, branches, and bark. Shadows and frost. Interesting seedpods, patches of moss in the woods, lichen, snow-covered evergreens, and much more. Winter at the Garden offers a quiet, serene beauty that’s unlike any other season.

Winter Photography

"Sometimes you have to work a little harder in the winter to find a suitable subject,” says Jack Carlson, who teaches photography classes at the Garden. “I like the challenge.”

Dress for the weather so you can take your time. Stop to look at the overall landscape—the exquisite vistas—as well as the small, interesting details up close.

Here are some of Carlson’s tips for taking better photos outdoors.


Controlling light in photography is important. “Often the snow looks gray or blue in winter photos; this is because there’s an enormous amount of light bouncing around from snow—it’s highly reflective—and the camera ‘squints’ just as we do in bright light. The old photo cliché “when it’s bright, add light” is certainly true in these conditions. Open your camera’s aperture or extend the shutter speed to brighten the image. A lens shade can prevent unwanted light from either side of the lens.”

Sparkles and Shadows

Carlson enjoys taking photos at the Garden early in the morning or in the afternoon as the sun begins to set. “At those times of day in winter, you get the added benefit of ice crystal reflection on the snow, causing a sparkling effect. Snow mounds can create longer shadows, and shadows and angles add interest to any picture, but especially in winter.” The ice crystals are most attractive on a bright day, he explained. To photograph them, he recommends angling the camera partly toward the sun: “Sounds counterintuitive, but it works.” A polarizing filter may help to increase color saturation. It is often considered to be the most useful filter since it’s adjustable to increase or decrease the amount of glare and reflections that a camera will pick up from a scene.

Go Black and White

On winter days when everything seems to look dull—picture that overcast or cloudy sky and dark silhouettes of trees against the snow—Carlson uses another tactic. “When the winter sun is out, the light is clean and clear. But when it’s a gray day, you can shoot in monochrome, black and white. Some cameras have that setting. Or if you shoot in color, you can change it to monochrome once the image is on the computer.” Carlson likes to shoot in black and white on gray days to underscore strong differences in light levels. “You can do that by finding a dark background. A tripod helps.”

Batteries and Memory Cards

“Always have an additional battery with you, especially in winter, since the battery drains more quickly when it’s cold,” Carlson said. Pack at least one extra memory card. “Put the battery in an inside pocket for protection to help keep it at full strength. You can see the battery energy level depleting on the camera setting.” A memory card, however, may sometimes stop working altogether without warning: “If it decides it doesn’t want to work anymore, it just shuts down, which sometimes results in a loss of the images. It’s not a storage device, so once you get home, transfer the images from the card to your computer, a portable device, or the Cloud.” Keep the spare memory card in an inside pocket as well.

Cold Weather Camera Care

Don’t keep your camera under your coat when walking outdoors in the cold. “It can warm up and result in condensation. Put your camera in a cloth or plastic bag so the moisture condenses on the bag rather than on the camera when you bring it indoors. And don’t leave the camera in direct sunlight in your car.” He also suggests keeping the lens cap on the lens when outside, again to keep condensation from forming on the front element (glass) once you’re back inside.

Winter Photography

Winter Photography

Winter Photography

Winter Photography

Winter Photography

Come explore the Chicago Botanic Garden's 27 gardens and four natural areas, where you can photograph winter subjects in their seasonal beauty.

Winter Landscape Photography

Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois.
Photo credits: Jack Carlson

Brighten the Winter with House Plants

Here’s one cure for cabin fever—grow some cool indoor plants and stage them like they’re pieces of art. Potted plants can sit on the floor, a bookcase, a shelf, a counter, suspended from the ceiling or attached to a wall. We don’t often think of “decorating” with plants, but it’s an opportunity to use them as displays, whether your style is minimalist, cottage, formal, funky or vintage.

House Plants in Winter

There’s the beauty of a fern with its delicate fronds or an African violet with a cluster of vibrant flowers. Some, like jasmine, add fragrance to a room. Ivy and pothos can send their glossy foliage trailing from the top of a bookshelf. And, you don’t have to be a gardening guru to get them to thrive.

There are plenty of places to stage plants indoors. They can go near the entryway to greet guests. Or place them on tables in the kitchen, dining room or bedside. How about that awkward, empty space that you don’t know what to do with? Accessorize it with a tall plant in a large attractive pot.

For the vintage enthusiast, there are Victorian wicker planters for ferns. For the no-nonsense minimalist, there are tall brushed stainless steel and ceramic cylinders to hold trailing or upright plants. Into vintage things? You can find plenty of 1950s-era plant pots in resale shops. Fill them with African violets or cyclamen and group them together for a fun and funky display.


House Plants in Winter

House Plants in Winter

House Plants in Winter

House Plants in Winter

The old-fashioned “mother-in-law’s tongue” (aka snake plant) adored by the Victorians for their parlors, has become popular once again—but for a different reason. The foliage is dramatic and looks like contemporary sculpture. There are several species and cultivars, but most have sword-shaped green leaves edged in yellow. Some have light gray-green horizontal stripes. Pop the plant in a tall vertical ceramic container and think of it as art—the upright succulent leaves rising to a dramatic four foot display. Easy to grow, they thrive on neglect, take up little room and are quite stunning.

Cast-iron plant is another oldie-but-goodie. Hardy and long-lived, aspidistra was a common house plant in England during the early 1900s where it survived poor light and polluted air. Today, the long, lance-shaped leaves add a tropical touch to any room. The bonus: it survives with little light.

Ficus elastica
Rubber plants are noted for their leathery, glossy, dark green leaves that grow up to 12” long and 5” wide. Some varieties have burgundy foliage or green leaves with white ribs. One large specimen makes a striking addition to any room.

Here’s a house plant that never goes out of style. In the 1970s, it was often placed in macrame hangers hung from the ceiling. What’s old is new again because fifty years later, macrame hangers are back (along with bell bottoms and tie-dyed clothes). This tropical vine has heart-shaped leaves that may be marbled gold, variegated green and cream, chartreuse or yellow. It’s one of the easiest houseplants to grow. It can trail down a bookcase or windowsill, grow horizontally on a mantle or climb up a trellis. If it outgrows the space, cut a few inches off the ends, place the cuttings in a jar of water where they’ll root—you’ll have free plants to give away to friends.

Looking for a plant that requires little maintenance?  The curious looking “air plants” fit that bill. Air plants are epiphytes (plants that grow on another plant but are not parasitic). For example, they can grow on tree trunks in tropical rain forests. They receive moisture and nutrients from the air. Like succulents, tillandsias have become wildly popular. No soil is needed. You can simply attach them to fishing line in bright indirect light where they can dangle from a thumbtack in the ceiling. They can be placed in wooden bowls, baskets or in vertical wall gardens. See how we’ve used them in topiary trees.

Alocasia and Colocasia
Elephant ears are impressive plants with leaves that often measure up to 2 feet wide.  The foliage can be green to deep purple and near black. While they’re often used as outdoor tropical plants in the summer, they can be grown indoors where there substantial size makes a statement.

Jade Plants can live for decades indoors given the right conditions. They’re easy going, low maintenance and as they turn into shrubby specimens they look like miniature trees.  Some specimens have red-tipped green leaves while others are silvery grey and flattened.

Decorators often choose plants for a design effect, but you can’t choose a houseplant the same way you choose a bedspread or curtains. Most people who buy plants want to keep them for the long term. If you’ve got the most perfect spot indoors to display a palm tree, but it’s not the perfect spot for the tree, it’s going to fail. Think of houseplants as living things, not inanimate objects. Houseplant care tips will help out, especially if you’re a newbie plant parent.

Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois.

Savor the Flavor

An Herbal Fix for Winter Doldrums

The winter solstice arrives on December 21. It marks the official start of winter. On that day, we’ll experience the shortest amount of daylight and longest night of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere. Have you noticed that the sunlight is weak and the skies are often somber? Freezing temperatures, the possibility of snow, and cabin fever—the spring seems far away. That’s all the more reason to have a little fun with herbs. Here are some do-it-yourself ideas for using these aromatic workhorses, fresh or dried, home grown or store bought. They’re sure to get you through the long winter months ahead.

DIY Herbal Facial Steam

Take time out for an herbal facial. First, wash your face. Place dried or fresh herbs (1 tablespoon of lavender, rosemary, mint or chamomile) in a large heat-proof bowl and slowly pour one pint of boiling water to cover the leaves. Create a tent by wrapping a towel around your head and draping it over the bowl’s rim. Hold your face about 12 inches from the bowl. Close your eyes, relax and inhale the fragrant steam for 5 to 15 minutes.

Make Some Herbal Butter

Mix fresh herbs into softened butter and you have “compound butter,” a tasty condiment to spread on bread, bagels, poultry, fish—you get the picture. You’ll need:

  • 1 cup sweet, unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tablespoon snipped fresh herbs, such as thyme, savory, parsley, basil or chives

Combine butter and herb(s). Spoon the mixture into a small decorative bowl or shape it into a log; cover in plastic wrap. Chill it about 3 hours. Refrigerate leftover butter.

Engage the Kiddies

Tasty, fragrant herbs are great plants for young cooks to know and grow. They can pick, rinse, and pat dry fresh whole basil leaves and place them on homemade or store-bought pizza, or add them to pasta sauce. Food stores often have fresh potted herbs—mint, rosemary, tarragon, basil, chives, oregano and more—in the produce section. Let kids pick out their own pots to care for at home and to harvest when they help you cook or bake.

Herbal Vinegars

Fresh herbs steeped in vinegar add flavor to salad dressings and marinades. Loosely fill 1-quart glass jars with 3 tablespoons of clean fresh herbs such as basil, bay, cayenne, chives, thyme, mint, oregano, rosemary or tarragon. Add vinegar (white wine, apple cider, or your favorite) to cover. Secure the lid and let the herbs steep for one to two months in a cool, dark place. Strain the vinegar (a cone-shaped paper coffee filter works well) and pour it into clean, sterilized bottles. Cork tightly and label the bottle with the ingredients and date.

Catnip Crafts

Do you have a feline or two at home? They can’t resist fresh catnip, which is easy to grow indoors. Harvest a few stems with leaves and dry them between paper towels. When thoroughly dry, crush the stems and leaves and place in their cat toys or small cloth bags. Frequent harvesting encourages the plant to produce more stems.

Lovely Lavender

Garden shops and hobby stores often sell dried sprays of lavender. You can hang them in a closet or remove the flowers and use them to make sweet-scented sachets. This traditional craft makes an attractive gift as fresheners for dresser drawers. Buy the small decorative cloth bags to fill and tie with a pretty ribbon; or if you’re crafty, sew a few.

DIY Herbal Tea

A small pot of herbs costs roughly the same as a box of fancy herb-filled tea bags. Instead, grow your own tea herbs, which can be used fresh or dried. Most herbal teas are prepared by infusion (pouring boiling water over the herbs). Infusion allows the herb’s oils to be released gently; if the herbs were boiled, the oils would evaporate.

For each cup, you’ll need 1 teaspoon of dried herbs—or 3 teaspoons of freshly picked herbs—and 1 cup of boiling water. Gently crush the leaves in a clean cloth or a sheet of wax paper to release their aromatic oils. Put them in a strainer or a mesh tea infuser and place it in the cup. Pour the boiling water over the herbs and steep them for a few minutes. Remove the herbs and add honey or a slice of orange or lemon. Herbal teas do not darken as they become stronger. They usually remain light green or amber. It’s like summer in a cup.

From Tea to Bath

Place dried herbs—lavender, chamomile, or peppermint—in a cheesecloth bag (like a tea bag). Pop one into the tub the next time you take a warm, relaxing bath and enjoy the aromatherapy.

South of the Border Hot Chocolate

  • Sprigs of mint
  • 6 (12-ounce) cans evaporated milk
  • 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • 2 (12-ounce) bags semisweet chocolate chips
  • Cocoa powder, for serving

In a large pot over medium heat, whisk together milk, cinnamon, vanilla extract and nutmeg. Add chocolate chips, stirring until they melt. Cover and turn heat to low for 5 minutes, occasionally stirring to keep the liquid from sticking to the pan. Pour into a mug, serve with a dusting of cocoa powder and add the mint sprig.

Savor the Flavor - Herbs in Winter

Savor the Flavor - Herbs in Winter

Savor the Flavor - Herbs in Winter

Savor the Flavor - Herbs in Winter

Savor the Flavor - Herbs in Winter

Savor the Flavor - Herbs in Winter

Savor the Flavor - Herbs in Winter

Holiday Herbal Cocktails

Here are a few adult beverages, each with an herbal surprise.

Herbal Cocktail

Minty Mojito

  • 1 3/4 ounces light rum
  • 2/3 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1 sprig fresh mint
  • 1 teaspoon superfine (caster) sugar
  • Sparkling water

Gently muddle the mint with sugar and lime juice in bottom of highball glass. Add rum, fill with crushed ice, top with sparkling water and stir. Serve with a straw.

Perfect Thyme

  • 2 1/2 ounces gin
  • 2 or 3 small slices of peeled, fresh ginger
  • 2 or 3 slices of lemongrass stalk (the white portion)
  • 1 sprig of fresh thyme

Muddle the ginger, lemongrass, and thyme in a shaker. Add ice cubes, then the gin. Stir to combine all flavors. Strained into a chilled cocktail glass.

Cilantro with Rum

  • 1 2/3 ounces spiced rum
  • 1/2 ounce elderflower cordial
  • 1 lime, diced
  • 6 cilantro sprigs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Demerara sugar

Muddle the lime, cilantro, and sugar in the bottom of an old-fashioned glass. Add crushed ice and remaining ingredients and stir.

Basil Splash

  • 2 ounces vodka
  • 1 ounce apple juice
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce cranberry juice
  • 4 basil leaves
  • Garnish: thin wedge of apple, basil leaf

Combine the ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake hard to bruise the basil leaves. Strain into an old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Add the garnish.

Lemongrass Collins

  • 1 2/3 ounce vodka
  • 2-inch piece of lemongrass (bottom white part)
  • 3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • club soda
  • Garnish: lemongrass stalk (white tubular part), mint leaves, a twist of orange (slice)

Muddle lemongrass in the bottom of a shaker. Add vodka, lemon juice, and simple syrup and shake. Double-strain into a highball glass filled with ice. Top it off with club soda and stir. Add the garnish.

Rosemary Tequila

  • 2 ounces tequila
  • 1/2 ounce Cointreau
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1 ounce agave syrup
  • 1 sprig (4 to 5 inches) of rosemary
  • Garnish: additional sprig of rosemary

Muddle the rosemary with the syrup in the bottom of a shaker. Add ice and the remaining ingredients and shake. Double strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add garnish.

Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois

Feeling Grateful for Gardens

container in fall

Celebrating the Garden in Autumn

“Wild is the music of the autumnal winds amongst the faded woods.” – William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)

This is the time of year when we can stand in our gardens, take a step back, slowly inhale the spicy fall air, and muse about how our gardens performed now that we’re putting them to bed. No matter what happened to the plants—(remember that very wet spring and seemingly endless summer drought and heat?)—we found many things to appreciate during the growing season.

Many vegetable gardeners boasted big harvests of beefy tomatoes. More children were helping their parents and grandparents in the garden. There was a renewed interest in victory gardens and attracting butterflies. And the demand for seeds for flowers and edibles left many garden shelves a bit bare this spring.

Gardeners can find much to be grateful for during the month when we celebrate Thanksgiving. November leads us deeper into autumn. It’s a good time to walk through the Chicago Botanic Garden, through your neighborhood, a local park, forest preserve, or prairie, or just relax in your backyard and appreciate the changing views.

"I see the turning of a leaf dancing in an autumn sun, and brilliant shades of crimson glowing when the day is done.” — Hazelmarie Mattie Elliott

Tree with fallen leaves

crabapples in fall


Some oak trees are holding the last of their russet and burgundy leaves, but they’ll soon float down. The ground beneath maple trees has become a blanket of red and gold. Soon, these deciduous trees will be bare, dark silhouettes as we move toward winter, and they, too, will be starkly beautiful in their leafless state. Find a spot with large shade trees where you can look at them with the sun setting behind their trunks and branches. When the sky is clear at dusk, admire their sculptural effects, which often go unnoticed in summer.

Many crabapple trees hold onto their shriveled red and yellow fruits for a few more months, until the birds find them sweet enough to eat. After a freezing rain or snow, the berries are among the most delightful sights in autumn as icy droplets cling to each one. Keep an eye out for interesting fungi sprouting from dead branches. And, you may find velvety layers of dark green moss on stones or fallen limbs, peeking through a light layer of snow and fallen leaves. These are the sights that make us feel grateful for our connection to nature.

“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.”— Nathaniel Hawthorne

Unlike gardeners who live in some southern and western states where the weather is constantly warm and the growing season is remarkably long, gardeners in the Upper Midwest can be thankful for the repose that autumn brings. No more weeding, watering, deadheading, digging, dividing, or fertilizing. No more humidity or drought. This is a time for reflection and gratitude for the gifts that nature readily provides us throughout the changing seasons.

There’s the pungent fragrance of fallen leaves, the low, soft angle of the sunlight, the migrating geese and sandhill cranes calling overhead—all of these things can give us a sense of pleasure and gratitude as our gardening tasks wind down.

"The tints of autumn...a mighty flower garden blossoming under the spell of the enchanter, frost.” — John Greenleaf Whittier

container in fall

The first freeze, 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, usually occurs across the Chicago area in October, but that date varies considerably depending on the location. After a cold, clear, windless night this month, the last of the hardy annuals—marigolds, sweet alyssum, and pansies—will likely have a crystal dusting of frost on their petals. The flowers will perk up once the sun rises, but eventually, those plants too will head to the compost pile.

“I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free, and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures, and where everything drew a free breath."— Para-Wa-Samen (Ten Bears) of the Tamparika Comanches

This is the time to walk through a prairie like the Garden’s 15-acre Dixon Prairie. Illinois is home to less than one-tenth of one percent of original prairie lands. The Garden is grateful to have an opportunity to maintain this important ecosystem for visitors, students, and researchers, and especially for the insects, birds, and other creatures that rely on and support the 250 species of native plants there.

It’s November, but our gardens are not going to sleep. They are simply at rest until they are ready to greet us next spring. Nature offers an array of incredible scenes through every month of the year. Let us be thankful for this season of rest and reflection.

Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois.

Trick or Treat

Plants That Celebrate Halloween

It’s just about that time of year for ghosts, goblins, witches, and treats. To celebrate, here are some plants that are not only creepy and chilling, but cool, charming, and cute. 

Baby boo pumpkins

Baby Boo Pumpkin

White Baneberry

Doll's Eyes,  Joshua Mayer / CC BY-SA

Cinderella Pumpkin

Cinderella Pumpkin


Baby Boo Pumpkin

Move over big jack-o'-lanterns. There's a new kid in town. Baby Boo is a miniature pumpkin that’s white as snow. These cuties measure 2 to 3 inches wide and 2 inches tall. Sow the seeds outdoors in May on a trellis or a fence and you’ll have a bumper crop by fall. (Tip: Hold all pumpkins—big or small—by the bottom, not the stems, which can crack.)

Fooled-You Jalapeños

Some people like their peppers hot, but fooled-you jalapeños are true to their name—they look like regular jalapeños but have virtually none of the tongue-scorching oils. They’re more treat than trick. Stuff them with some cream cheese, wrap them in bacon, and throw them on the grill.

Casper (the friendly) Eggplant

Most eggplants are a deep purple and are often bitter tasting. But here’s a ghostly eggplant with ivory-white skin and silky flesh that has a faint taste of mushroom. This Japanese eggplant grows about 5 to 6 inches long. They’re easy to grow in large containers during summer. Split the fruits lengthwise, lightly oil and season the flesh, and grill them for a yummy Halloween treat.

Cinderella Pumpkin

This flattened French heirloom pumpkin, called Rouge Vif d’Etampes, looks like a little fairytale coach. The deep orange flesh can be used in soups and purees. But it’s just as beautiful carefully stacked in a tower of other colorful pumpkins. Or create a Halloween party tablescape with the carriage “pulled” by a team of Baby Boo pumpkins.

Doll’s Eyes

On a walk through the woods, see if you notice any plants staring back at you. It might be Doll’s Eye, aka white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda), a native woodland perennial with upright stems of odd-looking "eyeballs." After the fragrant white flowers are pollinated, they become creamy white berries with black dots that look like dozens of dolls’ eyeballs staring in different directions. Enjoy them from afar—like other berries in the baneberry family—they are poisonous. 

Zombie Palm

Zombie Palm, Katherine Wagner-Reiss / CC BY-SA

Ghost plant

Ghost Plant, Will Brown / CC BY



This tropical plant gets its Latin name from the word “monstrous” or “abnormal,” which refer to its large leaves that often have perforations. The holes or deep lobes account for its other common name, “Swiss cheese plant.” Whatever its name, it makes a great monster of a houseplant.

Zombie Palm (Zombia antillarum)

You might encounter this palm while visiting Haiti or the Dominican Republic. You’d definitely want to avoid the spine-like needles, which are perhaps the scariest part of this plant. The thatched leaves are lined with long spines that are supposedly used as voodoo doll needles. Ouch.

Darth Vader Begonia (Begonia darthvaderiana)

This rare begonia was discovered in 2013 near West Kalimantan, a province in the southern Indonesian section of Borneo. Its common name is derived from its near-black leaves, but the plant is not nearly as dark and ominous as its namesake.

Stinging Nettle

This plant is a trickster, poking unsuspecting gardeners with small hairs that produce itching and swelling. Wear gloves, pants, and long-sleeve shirts to avoid contact with the plants when weeding. Although nettles (Urtica spp.) are annoying because of the stinging hairs and itchy skin, these plants can provide food for several species of butterflies.

Ghost Pepper

The bad boy of the chili world, ghost peppers are at least 100 times hotter than jalapeños. If you’re not into hot peppers, it will scare the pants off your taste buds. Also known as Bhut Jolokia, it’s one of the hottest peppers in the world. Although the ripe peppers are red, not white, the name “Bhut” in Indian means “ghost.” 

Ghost Plant (Ghost pipe)

Ghost plant (Monotropa uniflora) is a perennial that flowers from June through early fall. It’s striking because it’s completely white. Rather than produce chlorophyll like most plants—the pigment that creates green leaves and stems—ghost plant saps nutrients and carbohydrates from tree roots and thus has no need for chlorophyll...perhaps it’s the vampire of plants.

Corpse Flower

The only way to describe this towering stinkpot when it blooms is like that of a rotting corpse or spoiled meat. The titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) emits a fragrance that can only be described as a decaying, rancid, and rotten stench. It certainly doesn’t appeal to humans, but it’s a magnet for carrion flies and beetles, which are some of the pollinators drawn to the scintillating scent. Since the blooms last only 24 to 36 hours, the stink-loving insects have little time to dine.

Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois.

Discover more Spooky Plants.

Perennials and Shrubs for Tough Spots

If every home garden had fertile soil, a gentle once-a-week rainfall and the right amount of sunlight and humidity, gardening would be a breeze.

But gardeners know that’s wishful thinking. Poor soils, dense shade, competing tree roots, and lack of rain make gardening a real challenge. When we choose suitable plants for difficult sites, the art of gardening suddenly becomes more successful and definitely more satisfying. Here are some ideas for demanding sites.

Clay Soil

Clay is made of minuscule particles that trap water around delicate plant roots, leaving little space for oxygen, which roots need. Wet clay soil is often heavy and sticky, but once it dries, it tends to crack and form a crust, making it difficult to cultivate. Without organic material, such as compost or shredded leaves, clay soil becomes compacted. Plants that thrive in clay tend to have soil-busting root systems that can handle the compaction. A few examples are baptisia, bee balm (Monarda), hosta, sedum, coneflowers and Joe-pye weed. Many shrubs including Diervilla, elderberry, potentilla, flowering quince and Rose of Sharon tolerate clay, but you can make the soil more plant-friendly by adding compost.

Mondarda field

Bee balm

rose of sharon

Rose of Sharon

Sunny and Dry

Prairie dropseed is a small native grass with a graceful arching habit and airy flowers. It prefers dry, well-drained soil and tolerates clay and occasional drought. This clump-forming grass grows 2 to 3 feet tall and blooms in midsummer. Some gardeners say the flowers smell like popcorn or cilantro. Pair it with purple coneflowers, perennial alliums, asters, or black-eyed Susans. A few shrubs for sunny, dry spots include Japanese yew, Savin juniper, panicle hydrangeas, boxwood, roses, and flowering quince.

Sunny and Moist

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a native prairie plant that thrives in roadside ditches and in open spaces. In its native habitat, this milkweed grows in marshes, wet fields, and shorelines throughout Illinois. However, it readily performs in average garden soil, and if it’s moist, that’s even better. A bonus: it provides nectar for many beneficial insects and is a host plant for monarch butterflies. Pasture rose (Rosa carolina), Virginia sweetspire, black chokeberry, dwarf fothergilla, and bush cinquefoil are small shrubs (less than 5 feet tall) that also tolerate moist, sunny sites.


Some garden designers are creating perennial borders that contain a substantial layer of gravel at the surface. For gardeners who have spent years amending the soil and applying mulch, growing in gravel seems counterintuitive. However, the gravel layer prevents weed seeds from germinating and provides exceptional drainage—desirable attributes when growing many native prairie plants or perennial herbs like lavender that need well-drained soil. In Illinois, gravel prairies occur on kames and eskers (mounds and ridges of gravel deposited by melting glaciers). Charming native plants found in gravel prairies include little bluestem, side-oats grama, pasque flower, prairie smoke, fringed puccoon, shooting-star, blazing-star, prairie dropseed, prairie cinquefoil, sky-blue aster, prairie gentian, purple coneflower, rattlesnake master, silky aster, and hoary vervain. Their deep roots reach well beyond the rocky layer into the soil below.

Panicle Hydrangea

Panicle hydrangea

Swamp milkweed

Swamp milkweed

dwarf fothergilla

Dwarf fothergilla

Low Areas

A low spot in the garden can collect and hold water after a heavy rain. If the soil is primarily clay, it can take hours, if not days, for the water to drain away. Consider planting a rain garden in that area. The Chicago Botanic Garden's Rainwater Glen features native perennials with deep roots—marsh blazing star, spotted Joe-pye weed, great blue lobelia, and a variety of rushes and sedges, all of which tolerate rainfall fluctuations. And, the Garden has a rain garden how-to-manual just for you.

Moist Shade

Hostas are workhorses in the shade garden and will tolerate both dry and moist soils. Pair them with Japanese forest grass, Ligularia, iris and ferns, such as Japanese painted fern (Athryrium nipponicum)—all perennials that prefer shade and moisture. Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) and buttonbush are attractive shrubs that thrive in moist soil and partial shade.

Dry Shade

One of the most difficult growing conditions is under tall shade trees. A healthy 100-foot-tall tree uses thousands of gallons of water, in a single growing season, so you’ll need plants that can adapt to dry, shady conditions. The tree’s root system is generally in the top two to three feet of soil and spreads far beyond the drip line—the edge of the outer leaves. It’s rather difficult to grow lawns under big trees and the result is usually sparse grass. A shallow layer of mulch from the trunk to the drip line is one solution, but gardeners like plants. Alternatives to lawn include shade-loving perennials such as hostas, sedges, hellebores, and barrenwort (Epimedium). When first planted, all of these perennials need adequate water during the growing season to establish healthy root systems. Consider adding some spring-blooming native wildflowers, such as Canadian ginger, bloodroot, bleeding heart, and columbine, as well as smaller daffodils like February Gold.


Is there such a thing as plants that repel mice, chipmunks, squirrels, or rats? Well, we’d like to think so, but most of the information is anecdotal. Some gardeners plant strong-smelling herbs, such as lavender, thyme, and basil in the hopes that their fragrance will discourage rodents from digging holes and tunnels. There’s no proof that works, however. On the plus side, the herb flowers will attract beneficial pollinators. You can discourage chipmunks from tunneling by soaking a small piece of cloth in ammonia and placing it in the entry hole. To prevent them from digging in plant pots, place a layer of smooth pebbles on top of the potting mix. And, remove fallen birdseed to avoid attracting (and feeding) these four-legged critters.

Discover More:

Weather-tolerant Gardens
The Dirt on Soil
Shade Gardening with Colorful Foliage

Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois.

Rain Gardens

The thunderstorms this past May are just a memory now, but they left many homes and streets in northeastern Illinois with standing water. The rainfall resulted in the wettest May on record at Chicago O’Hare (9.51 inches) and Midway (7.65 inches) airport stations. For three consecutive years now, the O’Hare station has broken total precipitation records for the month of May.

A 1-inch rainfall on an acre produces about 27,000 gallons of water and it must flow somewhere. Impermeable surfaces such as roofs, sheds, patios, sidewalks, and streets shed rain to surrounding earth and sewers. Although a lawn would seem like a good permeable surface to catch rainwater, grass roots are only 3 to 4 inches deep. When the soil is dry, the water initially runs right off the lawn into adjacent areas. As cities and suburbs continue to develop and build structures and roads, there is less permeable space for water to enter the ground and, as a result, there is more flooding in many areas.

Allowing rainwater into the soil helps recharge underground aquifers and reduces surface runoff (and pollutants) that would otherwise end up in streams and rivers. One way to capture excess water on your property is to plant a rain garden. Rain gardens are basically shallow depressions in the ground filled with topsoil, sand, and compost. Picture a low spot where water can gather and infiltrate the soil. Rain gardens are sometimes located where water is collected from a downspout and directed away from the house. They’re typically planted with native perennials as well as nonnative perennials and grasses with deep roots.

Rain gardens are basically shallow depressions in the ground filled with topsoil, sand, and compost.

rainwater garden
black-eyed susan


The rain garden philosophy—create a landscaped basin where rainwater can gently seep back into the earth instead of into a basement, garage, or sewer—is good, but a common complaint is that rain gardens can look messy. Designing a rain garden can be a challenge. The site can be a little too dry or too wet for certain plants. Determine where and how the water flows on your property and the quality of soil as first steps in selecting the location and the plants. The space should look intentionally designed—it’s not necessarily meant to look like a natural area unless that is the look you want. Edging a rain garden with boulders, permeable pavers, or gravel will help define the space and neatly separate it from the lawn.

Plant Selection

Rain gardens can be placed just about anywhere—sun or shade—as long as you choose the appropriate plants. Rainwater generally soaks into the ground in 24 hours or so, depending on the intensity and frequency of the storms. With that in mind, know that rain gardens are not always moist. You need not use all native plants but you should give consideration to the type of plants. Some are rhizomatous and form large mats and should only be used in large landscapes, while others form well-behaved clumps.

Create a rain garden as you would any other perennial border. Select plants based on their ornamental qualities—flower and foliage color, form, texture, and seasonal interest—and plant them in drifts or groupings. Choose plants that not only tolerate occasional flooding, but those that can also handle the hot, dry months of July through September.

Mesic-prairie plants such as big bluestem, black-eyed Susan, and compass plant are native plants that can tolerate wet soil for short periods. Mesic soils are considered “medium-moist soils” and comparable to average well-drained garden soil, while wet-mesic soils are medium moist to soggy most of the year.

Herbaceous native plants for rain gardens in sun include swamp milkweed, common tussock sedge, blue flag iris, wild bergamot, marsh blazing star, rosin weed, spiderwort, switch grass, Joe Pye weed, and cup plant. If an area in your garden is continually moist, you’ll want to choose plants that tolerate wet soil for long periods.

Birds and Bees

Creating rain gardens is an important way to bring sustainable practices to our gardens while attracting beneficial insects and birds. Many native herbaceous perennials provide pollen, and some serve as specific host plants for moths and butterflies. Once established, native plants require little irrigation or fertilization. Think of rainwater as a resource, not a waste product.

compass plants
smooth hydrangea

Shady Sites

Designing a rain garden for shade is a matter of picking the right plants. For example, common mountain mint and showy black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) grow in full sun but will also grow in light shade. Brown fox sedge (Carex vulpinoidea) and palm sedge are some of the native sedges that perform in moist woodlands. Canadian anemone, green dragon, jack-in-the-pulpit, Virginia bluebells, false and smooth Solomon’s seal, and marsh marigolds are other native woodland perennials that can handle wet-mesic soil. Native shrubs that tolerate shady floodplain conditions include paw paw, bottlebrush buckeye, smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), red-twig dowood, button bush, spicebush, and nannyberry (Viburnum lentago).

Rain Garden Care

Rain gardens often require less care than other types of perennial beds. There is no need to buy bags of mulch, especially if the perennials are placed closer together when planting. As they fill out, they will help deter weeds. If you are planting a rain garden this fall, provide irrigation if the season is dry. A helpful tool is a triangular hoe to remove weeds from between the plants the first season. Cut the perennials down in spring, leaving some stems standing 6 inches tall for tiny native bees that will lay their eggs in them. If the clippings are chopped fine, you can leave them as a mulch that will break down quickly.

Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois.

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