Archives For February 2013

Winter Farming

So what do you do in winter, anyway?

Eliza Fournier —  February 28, 2013 — 1 Comment

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

PHOTO: hoop house in winter.

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

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

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

PHOTO: beehives in winter

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

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

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

PHOTO: frozen hose in winter.

Who can we blame this on?

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

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

WE TEACH

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

PHOTO: playing roles in the food distribution system.

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

 

Recruiting new Green Youth Farmers!

Recruiting new Green Youth Farmers!

WE RECRUIT

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

WE MEET

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

PHOTO: The Community Gardening team.

Good times in Community Gardening.

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


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Winter photography

Carol Freeman —  February 26, 2013 — 3 Comments

Brrrr, it’s cold outside!

OK, it’s winter. It’s cold. No flowers are blooming. So…is it time to take a break from photography? Heck no! It’s time to get out the warm clothes and get shots that you can get ONLY in winter.

First let’s talk about gear. With nature photography, one spends a lot of time standing still, so you can’t depend on moving around to keep you warm. To get those rare, really special shots, you have to take a LOT of shots…and that takes time. So, it’s important to be comfortable for many hours in the cold.

Suited up and keeping warm for winter photography. © Leif Otto.

Suited up and keeping warm for winter photography. © Leif Otto.

Let’s start at the top and work our way down. Some of these are obvious, some are not, but I’m surprised at how often I see nature photographers who are so anxious to get out of the cold that they miss many good shots.

Head: I like to wear a hat and cover my ears. On a really cold day, I’ll put my hood up as well. A scarf around my neck really helps keep the draft out.

Body: I make sure to have several thin layers. Thin layers work better to keep me warm and also allow for easier movement than one thick, heavy coat. Typically I’ll wear a t-shirt or long underwear, a turtleneck shirt with elastic cuffs, a fleece pullover, a vest, and a windproof coat.

Legs: I wear thick running tights and winter pants. When it’s really cold, I’ll pull out the snow pants to wear over these, too.

Feet: I wear thick wool socks and winter boots. I make sure my boots are loose enough to allow circulation, but not so loose that walking becomes a chore.

And finally…hands: Sadly, this is where I often get cold first. I like to have gloves that allow for easy maneuverability and control of my camera settings, but that are still warm enough for comfort. I wear glove liners and medium-weight gloves with wind blocking. I also put chemical-based, shake-and-heat hand-warmers into my gloves. This works for me for about an hour in sub-20 degree weather, and longer at warmer temperatures. I’ve talked to some photographers who say they like the mittens that flip open. Sometimes I will choose to sacrifice dexterity for warmth and put on thicker gloves. On those days, I may opt to have my camera on autofocus instead of on manual focus, which I prefer. There are some choices and compromises that you will have to make for comfort.

Magical, ephemeral, frost formations, only seen on the perfect winter morning. © Carol Freeman.

Magical, ephemeral, frost formations, only seen on the perfect winter morning. © Carol Freeman.

One of the most important things you can do to keep warm is to be vigilant about having as little skin exposed as possible by closing all the gaps. Make sure your socks cover the gap to your pants, and that your coat sleeves cover your wrists. I have a coat that has adjustable wrist openings so I can cinch them tight to my gloves.

Lovely, otherworldly landscapes appear when bubbles are frozen in ice.© Carol Freeman.

Lovely, otherworldly landscapes appear when bubbles are frozen in ice.© Carol Freeman.

Now, you are suited up and ready to go. So, now what? One amazing thing to photograph is early-morning frost. When freezing nights are cloudless and wind-free, you can often find beautiful frost gracing trees and grass the next morning. These formations are magical, and are only around for a short time until the sun melts them. Also, when the streams or lakes freeze up, often you can find leaves and bubbles suspended in the ice, creating lovely frozen compositions.

An unusual irruption of this cute little red breasted nuthatch this winter at the Garden! © Carol Freeman.

An unusual irruption of this cute little red breasted nuthatch this winter at the Garden! © Carol Freeman.

Another treat is seeing the rare birds that come to the Garden only in winter. One fun winter visitor that has invaded the Garden this year is the cute, red-breasted nuthatch. They are bold little birds, and you can sometimes see them by the feeders in the Enabling Garden.

You can fight winter, or you can embrace the season, and photograph those rare moments only seen on the coldest of days…made all the more rewarding for the bit of extra effort it takes to get them.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Simulating Summer in the Plant Science Center

Getting seeds to reveal their secrets

Andrea Kramer —  February 25, 2013 — Leave a comment
Seeds of potential native winners from the Colorado Plateau.

Seeds of native species from the Colorado Plateau.

These seeds may not look like much right now, but the story they tell is full of adventure and promise. This week we are simulating summer in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center to get them to reveal some of their secrets.

My research takes me to the Colorado Plateau (you may know it as the “four corners” region), which is one of the most starkly beautiful places in the United States. I work with many Garden scientists, graduate students, and public land management agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to carry out research that helps make native plant restoration and management on public lands throughout the Colorado Plateau as efficient and effective as possible. We are particularly focused on understanding how to help native plants cope with encroaching invasive species, changing land use, and shifting climates.

So these seeds come from a gorgeous place. But more importantly, they were produced by some pretty impressive native plants that were tough enough to not only survive last year’s crazy weather, but to also flower and produce seeds in some pretty harsh sites. Like Chicago, the Colorado Plateau experienced one of the hottest, driest summers it has seen in a long time. Most of the plants in the Colorado Plateau sat out the flowering season last year — they conserved their resources for a better year. We are interested in the plants that braved really bad conditions to produce seeds, because we think they will be especially useful when restoring habitat that has been badly damaged by wildfire or invasive species. We call these plants native winners.

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Unfortunately, very little is known about what makes these native winners tick. Our research is helping to uncover some of their secrets. Alicia Foxx (a student in our joint graduate program with Northwestern University) and I have just set up an experiment that will reveal the specific seed germination requirements for these native winners. We are using incubators that allow us create spring- and summer-like conditions that will tell us when and why seeds of these species are able to germinate and grow. Knowing this information is just a first step in our research that will help us improve the outcome of restoration practices.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Project Overview:
Shannon Still and Nick Jensen work on a project studying the impact of climate change on the distribution of rare plants in the western United States. The grant, funded through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), examines the changes in projected species distributions between now and 2080. The goal of the research is to help BLM to make informed management decisions regarding rare plants. The research takes them to many exciting destinations as they search for rare plants in the west.

 

habit of Enceliopsis argophylla

Habitat of Enceliopsis argophylla, which thrives in gypsum-rich soil.

The silverleaf sunray (Enceliopsis argophylla),  is a photogenic species in the Asteraceae, or sunflower, family. This rare plant grows in basal clumps of silver-colored, hairy leaves with flowers extended on long stalks, and the entire plant may reach 2 feet tall. The flowers nod with maturity.

The large yellow daisy flowers are 3 to 4 inches across when open. They are quite a sight and stand in stark contrast to the habitat. Due to the extreme habitat, silverleaf sunray offers one of the more striking photo opportunities as the plants grow from a barren landscape.

Silverleaf sunray on a barren hillside.

Silverleaf sunray on a barren hillside


Nick Jensen with a silverleaf sunray.

Nick Jensen with a silverleaf sunray

These gems are found in Clark County, Nevada, east of Las Vegas in the Lake Mead area. They are also found in Mohave County, Arizona, close to Lake Mead.

The habitat for the silverleaf sunray has been encroached by Lake Mead and is threatened by off-highway vehicle use to a minor extent. The habitat in which the sunray grows is easily damaged due to the fragile soil environment (see photos to left) in which the species lives. Much like the dwarf bear-poppy (Arctomecon humilis), the silverleaf sunray grows in a gypsum-rich soil that typically has a healthy soil crust. Damage to this crust can allow invasive plants to grow more easily.

The Bureau of Land Management lists the silverleaf sunray as a sensitive species in Nevada and the species was considered, but rejected, for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Around Lake Mead the silverleaf sunray grows with the golden bear-claw poppy or Las Vegas bear-poppy (Arctomecon californica), a federally listed species. So while the species is not federally listed, the habitat is often protected due to the proximity of other federally listed rare plants.

Side view of the silverleaf sunray flower.

Silverleaf sunray is a striking plant that grows in close proximity to urban and recreation areas. If you are ever in the Las Vegas area, it is worth traveling the short distance to see these plants.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I made that?!

Prairie plant wall tile looks artistic, even though I’m not

Amy Spungen —  February 19, 2013 — 4 Comments


One of the advantages to working as an editor here is being among the first to read about new classes offered by the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Last summer, after proofing a description of a prairie plant wall tile class led by artist Janet Austin, I immediately registered for it, as did my web-design colleague Christina. I was a bit dubious, having last taken an art class in sixth grade, but this workshop sounded too intriguing to pass up.

When that Sunday rolled around, Christina and I joined a group of other adults eager to make art using plants. After we had gathered in our Garden classroom, Janet introduced herself and explained that we would be choosing among the prairie flowers and grasses collected in several vases and pressing them into clay. After that, we were to use tiny dried pasta letters to spell out the plants’ names—or anything else we wanted to “write.“ The pasta would be incinerated in the kiln, leaving only the imprinted letters. Clever!

We both chose bold purple coneflower. I thought it had a shape that would translate readily onto clay, unlike (I thought) the spindly looking Queen Anne’s lace next to it. I resumed my seat and looked down at my slab of clay, fighting a kidlike impulse to begin squishing it around madly. My mature adult nature asserting itself, I carefully pressed my coneflower into the slab, then lifted it up and took a look. Hmm. Not much there. I pressed harder. This time, I could see the contours of the leaf, the stem, and an array of pinprick dots left by the stiff cone.

Next came the letters. I shook the box of alphabet pasta over my desk, then began searching for the correct letters to spell out “purple coneflower” while Christina used the plant’s Latin name, Echinacea purpurea. Then we students wandered around, admiring what the others were doing. Best of all was picking  up our tiles a few weeks later, after Janet had applied verdigris glaze and fired the pieces. Amazing! Beautiful! Artistic! I made that?!

PHOTO: Prairie plant wall tile from Janet Austin's workshop at the Garden.

I gave my tile away as a holiday gift, but Christina still has hers, pictured here. As it turned out, one of the most beautiful tiles of all featured Queen Anne’s lace. Who knew its delicate beauty would translate to clay so well? The grasses were gorgeous, too.

Janet is offering another wonderful prairie plant tile class on Thursday, March 14 — the Garden Marker Tile Workshop — creating the same style of tile, but in a set of hanging row markers for your garden’s bounty. Don’t miss out on the fun!


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org