Miniature maintenance!

With just two months to go until the Model Railroad Garden opens, one dedicated group of volunteers undertook a big job this week: cleaning and retouching the 500+ miniature figurines that accessorize the garden’s landmark buildings.

Led by Becky Maganuco, volunteers got out the toothbrushes and toothpicks, the glue and the triple-zero paintbrushes, and set to work.

PHOTO: Volunteer Becky Maganuco with a box of miniatures.
Becky gets the boxes of miniatures out from winter hibernation. It’s good to see familiar faces!
An ark's worth of animals prop the Railroad Garden's landmarks.
An ark’s worth of animals prop the Model Railroad Garden’s landmarks.

Over the course of several days, they washed (the cars, trucks, and tractors were especially dirt encrusted), touched up paint (eyes and eyebrows are the trickiest), and glued back the tiny hands and feet that are inevitably broken (weather, errant human footsteps) during five months spent outdoors in the Model Railroad Garden.

PHOTO: George and Judy Knuth sorting a pile of miniatures.
Railroad Garden volunteers George and Judy Knuth sorted, organized, and repaired figurines.
PHOTO: Volunteer painting a horse miniature.
An appaloosa horse gets fresh tiny, tiny spots in volunteer Gerry Lewis’ expert care.

I always look forward to the May days that Becky and fellow miniaturists, many of whom are members of Northbrook’s North Shore Miniature Society, accessorize the garden. It takes them a couple of days to layer in all the right details: the barber pole on Main Street…the sunbathers and sailboaters on Cape Cod…the lone wolf and the bears in Yellowstone National Park…even Bo the dog at the White House.

Their work makes the buildings come to life, and never fails to delight—key factors in a garden that’s especially for children, for whom the magic and humor of the small will always trump the realities of life-sized.

PHOTO: Rows of miniature citizens.
Freshly painted figurines—some for circus, some for city—drying in an organized fashion.

There’s a practical side to their miniature work as well: “Visitors take close-up pictures and use telephoto lenses a lot in this garden, so it’s nice to make the details look a little more real,” says Becky.

What’s new for 2013? Volunteers are mulling how to accessorize the most recently added landmark, the Lincoln Memorial.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Make a Bird-Nesting Bag

Spring is here and the birds are returning from their winter homes. Some birds fly through the Chicago area to their nesting habitats up north, while others return and stay in the area.

Spring is the season for laying eggs, because it gives the juvenile birds all summer to mature and become strong before they need to migrate in the fall. Also, as spring turns to summer, the growing chicks require more food. The trees grow leaves, insects hatch, fruits ripen, and other food sources become more plentiful. The birds’ habits are perfectly synchronized with the seasons. 

At this time of year, recently returned birds will be looking for material to build a nest and lay eggs. You can provide some bling for a lucky bird family with a few things you have around your home.

You will need items including these:

  • A plastic netting or mesh bag, like the kind oranges and apples are sold in
  • Scraps of yarn or strips of fabric cut 1/4 inch wide and at least 6 inches long (longer is fine)
  • Optional — dryer lint, metallic thread, any other attractive loose materials
PHOTO: supplies to build a nesting bag
Let’s put this empty apple bag and some leftover fabric scraps to good use!

Put all of the scrap materials into the mesh bag. Tease out the ends of the material through the holes in the netting all around the bag so it looks like a bundle of loose stuff. Tie the top of the bag. Hang the bag securely on a tree branch where a bird can perch and pluck pieces of material from the bag.

PHOTO: The finished nesting bag
Wall art or condo furnishings? Hang your bag outside and watch for birds!

Now you will be ready for International Migratory Bird Day, which is Saturday, May 11, this year. Watch the bag for signs that a bird is using the material. Look around your neighborhood for nests to see if any bird used the materials to build its nest. And have a happy bird day!

PHOTO: our bird nesting bag in situ
Let’s see where our fabric scraps end up this spring…

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Drawn to Nature II

ILLUSTRATION: Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) by Derek Norman
Bull thistle (Cirsium Vulgare)
by Derek Norman

Recently, I helped kick off an exhibition of artwork focusing on wildflowers and other plants found in midwestern woodlands and prairies. This amazing show, at Ryerson Woods in Riverwoods, Illinois, features works by members of the Reed-Turner Artists’ Circle, some of whom teach in the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden.  This exhibition and activities related to it provide a terrific example of what a “citizen artist” program can accomplish, helping to protect our native plants and the benefits they provide humankind by documenting their beauty and engaging the public. 

The Artists’ Circle works to further the interests of botanical art, conservation science, botany, and horticulture at the local level. To highlight the beauty and importance of plants in our lives, the Artists’ Circle promotes and exhibits members’ work in collaboration with local and regional institutions.

In my opening remarks, I spoke briefly about how all life depends on plants, which is one of the basic tenets of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Plants provide us with food, shelter, oxygen, and medicine; they also provide vital services such as climate regulation, air and water quality improvement, and flood control. Yet we are in the midst of a well-documented plant biodiversity crisis, and some experts estimate that up to one-third of the world’s plant species may become extinct within the next 50 years. Unfortunately, far too little is being done to address this crisis. In fact, much of society suffers from “plant blindness”—an inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment.  

ILLUSTRATION: Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) by Lynne Railsback
Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana)
by Lynne Railsback

Members of the Artists’ Circle, thankfully, are acutely tuned in to the environment, viewing plants and their role in the world with a unique clarity of vision. Not only are they producing beautiful works of art, they are thinking about developing a “citizen artist” program, and some members have been brainstorming about this idea with me. This program would parallel and enhance the important work that citizen scientists are performing throughout the region and beyond, through Garden involvement in such programs as Project BudBurst and Plants of Concern.

The Drawn to Nature II exhibition, which runs through April 30, highlights the important contributions of botanical artists. It is impossible to be unimpressed by the beauty and complexity of plants when viewing the outstanding drawings and paintings here, created by members of the Artists’ Circle. The subtlety of the art prompts the viewer to see these objects of nature in a new light, eliciting a powerful, emotional response. By provoking such a visceral response, botanical art becomes an effective tool in fighting plant blindness.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fruit Trees Chill Factor

Looking for a reason to be glad for the cold weather in winter’s stretch? Consider the needs of fruit trees. Fruit trees need to spend a certain amount of time during their dormant winter period at cool temperatures in order to satisfy their chill requirement.

PHOTO: The apple archway in winter (in the Fruit and Vegetable Garden).

Simply defined, the accumulation of chill units (CU) is a cumulative measure of the number of hours trees spend between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Liken this process to a reset of the tree’s biological clock. This clock counts down the time needed to change the nutrients stored in the roots into a form that can flow up the trunk as the weather warms and support flowering and growth. Time spent at winter temperatures above 60 degrees and below 32 degrees counts against the number of accumulated chill units.

PHOTO: the apple archway in full bloom.

Getting enough optimum chill time ensures the tree will successfully break dormancy, flower, and set fruit. The wild weather fluctuations of 2012 brought the warmest March on record (there were 9 days above 80 degrees), which signaled to the trees that it was time to start growing. April’s subsequent sharp drops to freezing temperatures caused tissue injury and poor flowering, leading to a significant loss of 2012’s fruit crop.

Trees are able to withstand cold temperatures when they are dormant as they are now. Chill requirements vary between different pome fruits. Apple, pear, and quince varieties each have their own climate-specific needs. Low-chill apples, while productive in California, won’t produce well in our colder northern climate because they bloom too early.  

PHOTO: Autumn brings apples to fruition!

The Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden’s 34 apple varieties have chill requirements ranging from 600 to 1200 CUs. Chicago’s weather historically can meet those requirements, barring extreme fluctuation like last year. Our current cool weather is right on track and looking positive for growers.

Knowing a fruit tree’s chill requirement is a tool for choosing the right plants for your garden. Come to the garden for a quiet early spring walk through the orchards, perhaps finding inspiration to plant fruit trees in your own garden this spring. In the meantime, please be reassured that the trees and fruit growers are happy with this consistent wintry weather.

The Garden’s Plant Information Service can help you select the right fruit trees for this area. Contact them today!


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Slow Flowers

Recently, I enjoyed a lecture at the Garden by Debra Prinzing, the author of Slow Flowers:  Four Seasons of Locally Grown Bouquets from the Garden, Meadow, and Farm.

PHOTO: color chart by sophia siskel

While Debra helped us discover how to use the best locally grown cut flowers all year long, I’ve been on a “slow flower” journey of my own this winter, taking Botanical Drawing with Colored Pencil with instructor Derek Norman and 13 other Garden members in the Design Studio at our Regenstein Center. Slow processes (cooking, springtime, gardening, travel, motherhood) always demand patience, and constantly toe the line between joy and frustration. Drawing is no exception!

Derek brought in fresh flowers or leaves weekly and led us in studying their forms and showing us how to render them—in our own ways—on different kinds of paper with colored pencils, which we got to know by number, not color name.

During some class sessions, when I could work without self-consciousness and distraction, I felt freedom and joy—a pure relaxation I rarely experience. And I was proud of my work:

ILLUSTRATION: Apples by Sophia Siskel

ILLUSTRATION: Ivy Leaf by Sophia Siskel

Some sessions proved challenging and exhausting, especially those that followed my visit to the wonderful Picasso exhibition at the Art Institute or a weekend examining the exquisite botanical drawings by Ellsworth Kelly. I was full of doubt and frustration, and the drawing experience and images suffered.

ILLUSTRATION: Narcissus sketches by Sophia Siskel    ILLUSTRATION: Tulip sketch by Sophia Siskel

I am not an experienced artist. (The last time I took a drawing course was as a student at Wellesley.) And since I’ve been working at the Garden I have seen (and been intimidated by) so many remarkable botanical illustrations, like those produced by the members of the American Society of Botanical Artists or shown at the Garden’s Annual Student Botanical Arts Exhibition.

ILLUSTRATION: Waterfall by Marian Scafidi
Waterfall by Marian Scafidi (©2012)
ILLUSTRATION: Shitake Mushrooms by Christina Lovering
Shiitake Mushrooms by Christina Lovering (©2012)

ILLUSTRATION: Tulip by Sophia SiskelBut last summer, my sister-in-law, nephew, and I spent an afternoon in Wisconsin drawing pansies and wild geranium. What alternating feelings of joy and frustration! I’d make progress on my petals only to look up and see that my sketch looked nothing like the plant on the picnic table before me. But my 7-year-old nephew gave me the encouragement I needed. He told me enthusiastically, “Just go for it, add some watercolor, don’t worry!” His sweet voice cut through my filters of, “I can’t, I won’t, I’m scared,” and I added some purple paint…and eventually felt inspired to sign up for the Garden class.

I am glad I did. I learned new skills, used new tools, and got to know myself—and the Garden—better. I made new friends, whose works of art I so admire. I’ll be back—sketching at the Garden and signing up for another class (maybe even watercolors!) as soon as possible. 


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org