Spring Awaits in Production Greenhouses

Spring isn’t progressing very quickly outside, so we stopped by the production greenhouses to find out how spring is growing behind the scenes. Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist, was excited to show us what it takes to grow thousands of the spring annuals and vegetables that will soon be planted outdoors.

Tim told us we are growing 73,000 spring annuals and vegetables this year to be planted outside in the gardens in April. If you like pansies and violas, you are in for a treat, as we’ve planted almost 30,000 of them! A lot of planning goes into scheduling when to start seeds, thin them, transplant them, and harden them off to be ready when each horticulturist needs them. The production team of more than 50 staff members and volunteers makes it all look easy, but I’m guessing with this harsh winter, it hasn’t been easy.

Just one of the wows visitors will see this spring are the hayracks that hang over the bridge from the Visitor Center to the main island. Staff members and volunteers just recently spent 12 hours planting them with 1,200 plants. They will grow safely in the greenhouses until the weather gets warm enough to bring them outside. Can’t wait!

Click on the video link above or watch on YouTube to learn all about getting ready for spring!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A practical gift…with a rare provenance

A friend/colleague recently gifted me with a new Chicago Botanic Garden office mug—so appropriate since she knows I don’t go anywhere without a cup of tea. What she didn’t know was that I’d soon be digging into the Rare Book Collection at the Lenhardt Library because of it.

PHOTO: Delicate orchids decorate a white china tea mug.
My new office mug…tells quite a story.

View all the items in the Orchid Show collection.

On the cup is a lovely graphic design of orchids—a topic that’s very top of mind here because of the Orchid Show, now in its final week at the Garden (click here for tickets). Fueled by a new-found love of the family Orchidaceae (a classic case of orchid fever), I took a closer look at the design. Was that a slipper orchid? Which one? What was the story behind it?

Turns out the design stemmed from one of the Garden’s great treasures: our Rare Book Collection. At the Lenhardt Library, director Leora Siegel related the history and details.

The drawings are by Henry Lambert, from a portfolio of 20 plates published as Les Orchidées et les Plantes de Serre; Études. The plates are chromotypogravures (a nineteenth-century French style of photolithography); Paris bookseller Armand Guérinet compiled and issued them in portfolio form, rather than as a book, between 1900 and 1910.

PHOTO: Illustrated orchids from Les Orchidees par Henry Lambert.
The portfolio’s title translates as Orchids and Plants of the Greenhouse; Studies.

The portfolio entered the Garden’s collection in 2002 as part of the purchase of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s rare books. In need of TLC—“bumpy, bruised, and dirty,” according to Siegel—the loose prints were sent for conservation to the prestigious Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in 2011. (Read more about the process in this recent blog.)

Looking lively upon their return in 2012, the plates then became contenders for an interesting project: the development of the Garden’s own line of merchandise to complement the Orchid Show. Of ten finalists, Plate 4 from the portfolio won out, as seen here in the Illinois Digital Archives (page 8).

Two orchids share the plate. The daintier, spotted, clustered flower is identified as Saccolabium giganteum (later re-classified Rhynchostylis gigantea), an orchid that’s native to Myanmar (formerly Burma). In 1893, its habitat was described as “where the hot winds blow and where the thermometer in the dry season is about 45 degrees Celsius (112 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade….” (Veitch, A Manual of Orchidaceous Plants…).  The American Orchid Society has a nice write-up about this species and its varieties here.

The slipper orchid Cypripedium schrodere is listed in the 1906 Hortus Veitchii as Cypripedium (Selenipedium) x Schröderae, with the note, “It is one of the finest of the Selenipedia hybrids, and was named as a compliment to the late Baroness Schröder of the Dell, Egham.” Nomenclature for lady slipper orchids gets complicated; the American Orchid Society goes deep into the history here.

PHOTO: Montage of orchid-related products in the Garden Shop.
A Mother’s Day (May 11) gift idea: an exclusive Orchid Show item, plus the promise of a trip to the Orchid Show in 2015!

Next, a graphic design specialist worked with the orchid illustrations, using a bit of creative license to fit the prints to the shape of the products: the cut of a coaster, the drape of a tote, the curve of a coffee cup. From that work came the Garden’s exclusive collection—it’s only available online and at the Garden Shop!—of items that are practical, meant for everyday use, yet connected to a deeper story.

Good design transcends time. It’s quiet, yet thought-provoking. Now that I know the story behind the orchid design, I look at my friend’s gift differently.

Come to think of it, it’s time for a nice cup of tea…

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Homegrown Fruit: Tips for Strawberries and Raspberries

Historically, fruit trees, shrubs, and berries were grown at home out of necessity. Colonialists were entirely dependent on what they could produce themselves, and in time, a fruitful garden became a common symbol of independence from foreign imports—highlighting a new American pride in agriculture.

The farm-to-table movement of today epitomizes the fruit-growing traditions of the past by “growing as close to the plate as possible.” Sweet, juicy fruit can be easily grown in gardens of all sizes: on small urban lots, in containers on terraces, or in large suburban gardens. Harvesting homegrown fruit continues to be a gardener’s most satisfying pleasure, and with a bit of advance planning, choosing suitable varieties to plant this spring is possible. Here are a few ideas to get you started creating, and/or caring for, your edible landscape.

PHOTO: A hanging basket growing a mix of strawberry cultivars and lettuces.
Day neutral strawberries are grown in our vertical wall and hanging baskets in the Regenstein Fruit &  Vegetable Garden.

Plan to plant strawberries

No grocery store strawberry ever tastes as good as one grown in your own yard. An easy starter crop, strawberries are self-fertile, so you can start small if you like—plant just one variety or only one plant—and still reap a reward. Choose strawberry varieties carefully, however—they vary greatly in flavor, disease-resistance, tolerance of different climates, and harvest time.

Good choices for Illinois gardens are larger June-bearing strawberries such as ‘Earliglow’ and ‘Allstar’. Day-neutral or everbearing strawberries were developed to produce flowers and fruit continuously throughout summer and fall, ignoring the seasonal effects of day length on fruit production. Of the many day-neutral and everbearing varieties to choose from, ‘Tristar’ is a reliable berry for our zone. At the Garden, we grow everbearing strawberries ‘Mara de Bois’ and ‘Seascape’ in hanging baskets and vertical plantings, because they are among the first to fruit in the spring, but also produce a June crop followed by a final fall crop.

Planting several varieties together in your garden extends your harvest time, ensuring there are plenty of strawberries for eating out of hand and enough fresh berries left over to make strawberry jam.  

Choose healthy plants for a healthy harvest

Start with quality, virus-free, and disease-resistant plants. Mail order nurseries and garden centers have bundles of bare-root plants available. Lesser quality plants are prone to fruit rot, mold, and fungal diseases like Verticillium wilt.

PHOTO: Glass cloche cover strawberry plants in a garden plot in early spring.
Strawberry flowers are susceptible to frost. Here, a transparent plant cover called a cloche (from the French word for bell) is used to protect plants if frost is expected.

Select a planting location in full sun; avoid low-lying spots or crop beds that have grown tomatoes, potatoes, or cane fruit in prior years. These crops can harbor soil pathogens like Verticillium and Phytophthora which can affect new plantings. While strawberries prefer to grow in soil with a bit of acidity, a pH of 6.2 is ideal; the varieties mentioned above perform well in Chicago.

Aim for early spring planting, as soon as the soil can be worked, and its temperature is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Mid-April to mid-May is ideal. Space plants 12 inches apart, leaving 3 feet between rows. Fifty plants produce enough fresh home-grown fruit for four people all summer long.

Plant with midpoint of crown at soil level. Roots should be planted straight down. Strawberries are shallow-rooted, and mother plants spread by runners—which can be removed if desired, to develop stronger plants and to promote bigger fruit.

Water your plants well, particularly when they are fruiting. Mulching with straw helps keep fruit clean and dry, and up off the soil.

Spring tasks: Prune Raspberries

Red, yellow, black, or purple raspberries are easy to grow in hedgerows as natural barriers along lot lines or on post-and-wire trellises. Cane fruit is best managed with proper spring pruning, which prevents a tangled mess and makes your late-summer harvest far easier. Regular pruning keeps brambles in line while allowing air flow through the plant—lessening the risk of fungal diseases like Botrytis and rust, and increasing both yield and berry quality. Both types of raspberries—summer-bearing and everbearing (or fall raspberry)—benefit from a good March pruning.

PHOTO: Different kinds of berries in baskets, lined up in a grid.
A bountiful berry harvest on its way to our Farmers’ Market? A bountiful home harvest is also possible with vigilant pruning.

Summer-bearing raspberries produce a single crop in the summer on canes which have overwintered. It is important to confine them to a 1- to 2-foot-wide hedgerow to encourage air flow and sunlight. Begin your pruning by removing dead, diseased, or damaged canes first. Then, head back (prune) the spindly top 6 inches of cane tips. Removing the thinnest wood which produces the smallest berries forces the growth into the more vigorous lower part of the plant.  Finally, remove less vigorous canes—in an established plant, those canes with less than a pencil’s diameter thickness—leaving 6 inches between canes (enough room to easily pass your hand between canes).

Fall-bearing red and yellow raspberries can produce fruit on both the current season canes (called primocanes) and second-season growth (floricanes). Thus, they can be pruned to bear one or two crops with a method called, “double cropping.” (We demonstrated both methods last year on our brambles in the Regenstein Fruit &  Vegetable Garden.)

  1. To produce one heavy fall crop, cut all autumn raspberry canes back to ground level in the spring. Canes should be cut as close to the ground as possible to encourage new buds to break just below the surface. All new canes will grow from this radical pruning and produce a single crop of berries.
  2. A second method of pruning produces a small crop on the previous year’s growth and later, a second crop on the current season’s canes. When a double crop is desired, remove dead, diseased, or damaged canes in March, leaving the vigorous canes to fruit. Tip-prune those back by one-third of the total length of the cane, or to trellis height. The new shoots or primacies will produce the second larger crop. After the second fruiting, the canes will die and should be removed.

Pruning for blackberries is similar to raspberries. They are also pruned in March by heading back the “leaders”—the main canes—by one-third (or about 36 inches). This tip-pruning helps to stimulate the growth of lateral branches, which is where blackberry sets fruit. The lateral branches should be pruned back to 12 inches, or where the branches’ thickness is about the diameter of a pencil. 

Want to learn more about cultivating berries? Join us for Growing Fruit Trees and Berries, May 29 to July 10, or check out other fruit cultivation classes at the Garden this spring.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Blooms with Boyce: The Orchid Show

We learned about some of the more unusual orchids featured in the Orchid Show (purchase tickets here) when we toured with Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation.

PHOTO: Dendrobium Comet King 'Akatsuki' orchid.
Dendrobium Comet King ‘Akatsuki’

Boyce told us we have 183 taxa of orchids in our plant collections and 53 of those are straight species found in the wild. Of course, none of our orchids are wild-collected because that does damage to the species, so the orchids we acquire are propagated through tissue culture. We display the orchids that do best in our greenhouse growing conditions, and most of those do best in the Tropical Greenhouse.

Some of the orchids Boyce shows us in the video below are Vandas, which are native to the Philippines and other islands in Southeast Asia.

Boyce shared his love of Dendrobiums and revealed a goal to visit an area of the Himalaya Mountains where they cover the oak trees. But watch out: Boyce warns us of leeches in the area! (Don’t worry, we don’t have those in our greenhouses!)

Finally, we examined an interesting ground orchid, Phaius tankervilliae ‘Rabin’s Raven’, which is growing very well in our greenhouse conditions.

Vanda Orchid
Vanda manuvadee
Nun orchid
Phaius tankervilliae ‘Rabin’s Raven’

Click on the video link above or watch on YouTube to get the full tour!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Making a Splash with Orchids

Anne Nies hopped off the corporate ladder and landed in a wetland. There, she was charmed by the enchanting yet elusive white lady’s-slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum). Or maybe it was the mountain of data that pulled her in.

PHOTO: Anne crouched in the field on a sunny day, in sun hat and gardening gloves, scribbling notes.
Anne Nies at work in the field.

After years of working in management, Nies enrolled in a master’s degree program with the Northwestern University-Chicago Botanic Garden Graduate Program in Plant Biology and Conservation. She was curious to see how she could apply her mastery of numbers and modeling from an earlier degree in mathematics to conservation challenges.

Now 1½ years later, as she prepares to graduate in June, she is completing a study of the state-threatened orchid that has a spotty record of success in Illinois.

Working with more than ten years of data collected by Plants of Concern volunteers, she has sorted through some perplexing trends with the delicate white plants. The orchids showed varied success levels in separate locations that are all classified as high-quality prairie. If the locations were equally strong, then what was causing certain populations to thrive and others to falter?

It was a question Nies had to answer, because, as she explained, when one of these plants perishes, it is almost impossible to restore or replace.

PHOTO: The orchids in the field; surrounded by taller grasses and plants.
White lady’s-slipper orchid can be camouflaged by surrounding foliage.

“What I’m looking at is how the population has access to nutrients in its habitat and how that drives population behavior,” she said. “What are the nutrients that are available to the population, and how does that affect the plants’ behavior, and in particular, how does that affect flowering?”

After a preliminary review of the data, armed her with questions and theories, Nies traveled into the field in the spring and again in the fall for a first-hand analysis.

The initial challenge was to actually find the plant. When it isn’t flowering, white lady’s-slipper blends in easily with surrounding foliage. So she learned where to look and found herself returning again and again to wet and sandy locations, such as wetlands, within the prairie ecosystem.

“Orchids in general tend to be really specific in their habitat,” she said. “I realized there was probably something really different between the prairie as a whole where the orchids live and the specific spot where they are growing.” 

Nies brought back samples of plant tissue, soil, and even root tissue where fungus lives to the Garden’s Soil Laboratory in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center for exploration.

She hoped to find that a high level of fungus, which lives in the roots of many orchid species, was leading to the healthier populations. But that wasn’t what she found. 

PHOTO: Microscopic image of beneficial orchid fungi.
Helpful fungi live in the roots of orchids and can be identified through a microscope.

Lab results showed that in locations with nutrient-rich soil, the plants had high levels of the beneficial fungi. They also had low levels of photosynthesis—the internal process that creates food from sunlight for a plant. They were not doing very well.

In locations where the plants had higher levels of photosynthesis, Nies found that they had soil low in nutrients.

“What I’m hoping is that knowing the nutrient levels and the high sand composition can help maybe inform land managers and also with the propagation of this orchid,” she said.

Nies plans to incorporate this information with her pending conclusions into her final thesis for her master’s program, before going on to pursue a doctoral degree in the near future.

Much like math, according to Nies, everything is connected in botany, which is what makes it appealing to study. “One of the reasons I’m so interested in orchids is because they are so deeply connected to their habitat,” she explained.

PHOTO: Anne Nies.
Anne Nies explores the Tropical Greenhouse.

Even though she has transitioned to botany, Nies will surely stay connected to her background in pure math, bringing a new perspective and skills to mounting scientific challenges. “It’s amazing to me how much we still don’t know, and how much is out there that still needs to be learned,” she said.

When she has time to wander, Nies heads to the Garden’s Tropical Greenhouse, where there is always another plant calling her name.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org