At the Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America, you see model trains chugging charmingly through the trees, mountains, and cityscapes, and clacking across bridges as they merrily toot their horns.

You don’t see the workshop crammed with test tracks, a lathe, a drill press, soldering irons, a drawer filled with spare train motors, dozens of bins of spare parts, and rows of small jars of paint labeled “CNW yellow” and “Wisconsin Central maroon.”

But that’s what keeps the trains rolling at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Watch our engineer interview video on YouTube.

Have a tiny engineer? Don’t miss Trains, Tricks & Treats on October 21 & 22.

Small boy with a microphone talks about the Model Railroad Garden.

This summer, a few of our younger visitors got a chance to interview our engineers. View the video on YouTube here.

A room in the basement of the Regenstein Center is the hive of repair activity for the Model Railroad Garden, which operates through October 29. There are also ghost trains for Night of 1,000 Jack-o’-Lanterns (October 26 to 29), and trains that wend through Wonderland Express, which begins November 24. That is why there is a staff of three year-round engineers and 18 seasonal engineers, helped by 66 volunteers, that keep the repair shop busy year-round.

The work is crucial. The Model Railroad Garden has 350 model railroad cars and 125 engines, and during the season they run on a punishing schedule: eight to nine hours a day, seven days a week.

“The trains are not designed to operate the way we operate them; companies will not design them that way,” said chief engineer Dave Rodelius. “So we just continually use up the trains, and when they’re used up, we discard them. We get two of everything. When one breaks down, we replace it with the other.”

The engineers replace motors, wheels, and track—400 feet of track a year. They repair motors. They wire the electronics that make the trains run, testing the trains on the workshop tracks before putting them into service; incorrect wiring causes the fuses to blow. They install circuit boards with electronic sound cards that make horn or bell sounds when the train travels over magnets.

They also invent their own fixes. They have to.

Every spring, the miniatures also get a mini-makeover. Read more about our Miniature Maintenance.

PHOTO: Miniature Chicago Cubs fans.

Cubs fans in fresh whites never lose hope for their team winning one day.

“The Amtrak train hasn’t been made since 2004; we couldn’t get wheels anymore,” said operating engineer John Ciszek. “So we re-engineered the truck assembly (which holds the wheels) with a bolster plate.” Now they can replace the wheels with ones still being made.

And when they need a part that doesn’t exist, they have it custom engineered.

The behind-the-scenes work continues outside. Discreetly tucked away in the Model Railroad Garden is a shed that stores cars and engines overnight, and another that houses banks of remote controllers that operate the engines and their charging stations. A board fitted with small colored lights shows the direction each railroad line is operating—green for clockwise, red for counterclockwise.

The constant work is a labor of love. Rodelius, Ciszek, and maintenance technician Dave Perez have been model railroad enthusiasts themselves since they were children.

“Most of the engineers have their own layouts in their basements,” Rodelius said. “It’s the perfect job for most of the people here. They love it. You can’t keep them out of here.”


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Gerit Quealy is passionate about the Bard of Avon.

Her latest book, Botanical Shakespeare: An Illustrated Compendium of All the Flowers, Fruits, Herbs, Trees, Seeds, and Grasses Cited by the World’s Greatest Playwright (HarperCollins), is beautiful proof. She will talk Shakespeare at a lecture and book signing at 1 p.m. Sunday, October 15, at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Honeysuckle illustration by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins for Botanical Shakespeare: An Illustrated Compendium

Honeysuckle illustration by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins

The book’s splendid illustrations are by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins and its foreword is by Helen Mirren—yes, Dame Helen’s an avid gardener. But it is Quealy, the book’s writer and editor, who dug through historical manuscripts from the sixteenth century’s “Elizabethan horticultural boom” to unearth more than 170 plant references in Shakespeare’s poems and plays.

For instance, apples often play a role in the Bard’s works, for as Quealy writes: “Shakespeare finds the apple ripe for metaphor.” Consider the Apple-John variety in Henry IV: “I am withered like an old Apple-John,” says Falstaff.

The mix of history and mystery captivated Quealy, who as a child read every Nancy Drew book she could find. It took 20 years to research and compile the book. “Letters and manuscripts still have not been transcribed because not enough people know how to do it, and it’s costly and time-consuming,” she told us. “And I was like, wow, there’s this secret repository of stuff.”

With no historical photographs to work with, though, Quealy and artist Sumie “had a lot of talks about the color things were.”

Gourd illustration by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins for Botanical Shakespeare: An Illustrated Compendium

Gourd by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins

The book should charm gardeners who might prepare an autumn feast by emulating the Bard’s locavore and organic credentials. Quealy suggests featuring carrots, turnips, potatoes, leeks, apples, grapes, plums, pears, thyme, or marjoram. Shakespeare, as noted in Quealy’s book, can provide conversation starters for each of these ingredients.

Potatoes: “Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves…” (Falstaff in Merry Wives of Windsor)

Apples:  “I will make an end of my dinner. There’s Pippins and cheese to come.” (Sir Hugh Evans in Merry Wives of Windsor)

Grapes:  “The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes.” (Menenius in Coriolanus)

Leeks: “His eyes were green as leeks.” (Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Plums: “There’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune.” (Falstaff in Henry IV)

Quealy has been in love with the Bard since a traveling troupe performed Twelfth Night for her third-grade class. “I just think the story and the way the story unfolded, maybe the rhythm of the language, is something that I responded to,” she says.

Grapes illustration by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins for Botanical Shakespeare: An Illustrated Compendium

Grapes illustration by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins

Born in Virginia, raised in Florida, and now living in New York, Quealy has been an actor (theater, television), a journalist (newspapers, magazines), and an author. A television project is in the works (FLOTUS: Playing the Woman Card in the White House); as is a project on Shakespeare’s kitchen.

The Garden event will include a lutenist and a soprano, who will perform during the free October 15 program (preregistration required). Quealy hopes the event and the book will help people connect with Shakespeare. “Shakespeare is all around you.”


Guest blogger Judith Hevrdejs-King is a freelance writer.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fall brings new foods and flavors, and there are many beers that pair perfectly with the apples, gourds, and Thanksgiving classics you’ll be enjoying this season.

There are two spots in the Chicago Botanic Garden where beer is served: the Garden View Café and the Rose Terrace Beer Garden. Now that it’s fall, the Beer Garden is only open on weekends (weather permitting), but the new season also means there are new flavors and varieties to try there.

I sat down with Matt Sherry, beverage supervisor at the Garden, to find out what beers are best this time of year, which beverages pair well with classic fall dishes, and what interesting craft brews are available at the Garden this fall.

Beverage supervisor Matt Sherry and colleague prepare for our beer garden's grand opening this past summer.

Beverage supervisor Matt Sherry and colleague prepare for our beer garden’s grand opening this past summer.

A basic rule in pairing alcohol with food is to make sure there is balance between what’s in your glass and what’s on your plate, so the flavors in your drink don’t overpower your meal, Sherry said. That’s, of course, true for beer as well. 

Here are his fall food and beer pairings (all of the beers are available at the Garden):

beer-3Sheeps-Cashmere-HammerTurkey chili: A darker beer like 3 Sheeps Brewing Company Cashmere Hammer would work well with a heavy dish like chili. Its creamy flavor and texture has chocolate notes that complement the cinnamon and cardamom spices usually found in chili.

Roast turkey: IPAs have a bitterness that cuts through the taste of the fat in foods like turkey. Citrus is always a good pairing with poultry, so choose  Goose Island Juicy Double IPA, which is brewed with orange juice, for Thanksgiving dinner or leftovers.

beer-My-Shout-Sparkling-AlePumpkin pie: For a rich, dense dessert like pumpkin pie, a lighter beer works best. Goose Island My Shout, an Australian sparkling ale, is a limited-edition release that has hints of stone fruit, making it a good choice for pumpkin pie. If you want to go overboard with the same flavors, go for a pumpkin ale.

Butternut squash soup: Skip the beer when you have butternut squash soup and grab a cider instead. A dry cider isn’t as sweet, so it won’t overpower the flavor of your soup. Virtue Cider Michigan Brut is especially nice.

beer-Petal-to-the-KettleAnti-fall choices: If you want no part of sweater weather and pumpkin spice lattes, grab a SweetWater TripleTail. This IPA is brewed with tropical flavors like passion fruit and papaya, so you can imagine you’re on a beach instead of gearing up for cold weather. Another good option is Upland Brewing Company Petal to the Kettle. Part of the brewery’s Side Trail Series, a limited edition set of experimental brews, this sour has hibiscus and strawberry flavors.

 

Ready to sample some creative craft beers? Come to Autumn Brews on Thursday, October 12. Tickets available online.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It might be fall, but the last weeks of September felt like summer, and that’s going to change how long trees will show off their seasonal colors.

On the official first day of fall, temperatures in the Chicago area reached well into the 90s. Heat and the recent lack of rainfall means trees are going into survival mode to conserve water, which means that mid-October’s typical fall colors will be affected. 

Deciduous trees, explains Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation, respond to environmental conditions when preparing to go dormant for the winter. Just like animals that hibernate, trees slow their processes down in order to conserve energy. What we can see of this process can be beautiful: leaves change from green to vibrant reds, oranges and yellows. Then trees will drop their leaves and wait out the winter.

In a regular year, trees aren’t in a rush to go dormant. The process that we see takes several weeks. The production of chlorophyll, which produces the green color in leaves, fades away, unmasking the beautiful colors we associate with autumn. As the season progresses, the leaves will eventually drop. In Chicago, our trees usually reach peak color in the first two weeks of October, and aren’t usually bare until late October or early November.

But this isn’t a regular year. The heat we’ve been feeling lately is a factor.

Fall leaf color

Expect color, but this year’s display will be shorter than usual.

“The higher the temperature, the faster the processes go,” Tankersley said. And this month’s drought is why we’re also seeing leaves dropping only a few days into fall. Local rain gauges have been virtually dry, with less than 2 inches recorded in the month of September.

“Trees don’t have minds, but they do respond to environmental clues. If there’s been little rain, they will drop their leaves early in order to conserve water and get through the rest of fall and winter,” he said.

If you’re a fan of getting family portraits done with a backdrop of colorful foliage, Tankersley suggests getting those done sooner rather than later.

“This year, we’re going to have to be a little bit more proactive about getting out there and getting photos as the trees come into color. They’re just not going to hold.”


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Autumn Asters

Jacob Burns —  September 26, 2017 — 1 Comment

The harbinger of fall, for many folks, is when asters finally bloom. Their flowers look like miniature daisies and come in shades of purple, blue, white, and occasionally pink. These cool tones allow autumnal hues of yellow, orange, and red to truly pop throughout the landscape. Aster blossoms twinkle across roadsides, meadows, woodland edges, and even home gardens. Interestingly, astéri is the Greek word for star.

White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata)

White wood aster among birch trunks near the Bernice E. Lavin Plant Evaluation Garden sets the perfect fall scene.

Hosts of pollinators favor asters. The late-season blooms provide vital sustenance for adult monarch butterflies during their annual migration to Mexico. Each flower contains plentiful sources of pollen and nectar, because the central disc is comprised of up to 300 tiny florets. After pollination, a disc will turn darker and reddish, informing other insects to keep moving. In the end, birds come to consume the seeds.

Asters belong to a huge family called Asteraceae, which also includes daisies, black-eyed Susans, and sunflowers. They are mainly native to North America and Eurasia. More than 600 species once made up the genus known as Aster. However, in the 1990s, taxonomists decided to divide New World species into ten other genera. The most common ones are Eurybia and Symphyotrichum. Few nurseries adopt these names and continue to list their plants under the genus Aster

Asters are easy to please with well-drained soil and adequate sunlight. Some even prefer shade. An assortment of heights (1 – 6 feet tall) allows them to shine in the front, middle, or back of the border. Powdery mildew is problematic for some, but you can always hide the unsightly lower stems among grasses or ferns. While pretty in nature, some asters just look scruffy in the garden. Selecting the right type is the key to a tidy look. The following asters perform best:

Jindai Tatarian aster (Aster tataricus 'Jindai')

Jindai Tatarian aster (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’) can be found in the Lakeside Garden and on Evening Island at the Trellis Bridge.

White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata)

White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) can be found in the Heritage Garden beds, throughout the Landscape and Bulb Gardens, in large groupings on Evening Island, and all around the Plant Science Center.

Jindai Tatarian aster (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’) originates in Asia and has uniquely large and toothed foliage. From mid- to late fall, lavender-blue daisies appear in showy flat-topped clusters upon 3 – 4 foot tall stems. Best planted in the back of a bed with plenty of sun and space, its roots slowly spread into a weed smothering ground cover. Pair it with some equally tall and tough switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).

White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) blooms for a long time, starting in late summer and lasting throughout fall. Clouds of starry white flowers are borne on 2-foot stems with heart-shaped leaves. It grows in woodlands of eastern North America where it spreads slowly by rhizomes and quickly from seed. Cut spent flower stems off if you do not want extra plants. Combines wonderfully with ferns, sedges, and shade-loving goldenrods like Solidago caesia or Solidago flexicaulis.

Avondale blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium 'Avondale')

Avondale blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium ‘Avondale’) can be found on Evening Island, just west of the carillon along the path.

October Skies aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'October Skies')

Find aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’) in the Landscape Garden, along the Lakeside Garden path, at McGinley Pavilion, on Evening Island near the Arch Bridge, and near the Plant Science Center.

Avondale blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium ‘Avondale’) is an extra-floriferous selection of an eastern North American species found at forest edges. A plethora of attractive blue flowers begin in early fall on 2 – 3 foot stems. Grows well in either sun or shade, where it adds additional color to perennials like Japanese anemone (Anemone hupehensis), monkshood (Aconitum), and the yellow fall foliage of blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii).

October Skies aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’) is a great alternative to New England aster (S. novae-angliae), because it is less prone to powdery mildew. With full sun, it forms a compact 2- x 2-foot mound of nicely scented foliage. In autumn, hundreds of blue-purple flowers cover the plant. The species naturally occurs across the central and eastern United States. Try it with fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides).

Frost aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum)

Frost aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum) overflows the center plantings of the Heritage Garden.

Frost aster, or hairy aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum) is a 3- x 3-foot, clump-forming plant with many branched and arching stems. In fall, it becomes loaded with little white daisies and creates a baby’s breath appearance among flowers like Japanese anemone (Anemone hupehensis). Frost aster is common in a variety of dry, sunny habitats in eastern North America. It spreads happily by seed, so if you have too many, cut off the spent flower stems before they develop any further.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org