Bulbs are often thought of as a single season “wow,” beautiful in spring and gone by summer. This couldn’t be farther from the truth!
With a little planning, you can have beautiful displays of bulbs throughout the season. You can blend colors seamlessly for a year-long display, or you can mix things up seasonally to give yourself three or four new displays, one for each season! The ephemeral nature of most bulbs allows you to keep things fresh without constantly replanting.
This summer, we’ll be following the Graham Bulb Garden throughout the year to show how a palate of background perennial plants can be transformed into a stunning display of different colors and textures throughout the season.
So what’s blooming now in the Bulb Garden?
Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) provides an important source of nectar and pollen for early pollinators. On any warm day, you can see hundreds of honeybees scurrying among the flowers.
Giant snowdrop (Galanthus elwesii) is often one of the first things we see blooming in the Bulb Garden. This year, the first flowers were seen on March 20, well-timed for the start of spring! Snowdrops are best planted near doors or paths where you can appreciate their delicate nature.
Dwarf reticulated irises (Iris reticulata) come in a wide variety of colors, but the one thing they all have in common is their rich color and striking presence in the garden.
Early scilla, or white squill (Scilla mischtschenkoana ‘Tubergeniana’), might not be the most readily available bulb, but its icy blue color and ease of growth make it a great choice for early spring color.
When the glossy gardening catalogs come in the mail, or when you stop by to see what’s new at your local nursery, it’s tempting to dream—wouldn’t those pink-hued purple coneflowers be lovely in the front yard? Or what about that new, show-stopping snowflame hibiscus?
But before you grab your credit card, consider the pertinent question: which plant would work best in your garden? That’s where the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plant Evaluation Program comes in. For more than three decades, the program has conducted scientific studies to determine which plants offer superior performance in the Upper Midwest and in areas with similar climate and soil conditions.
“So many plants have a premium price, and if they don’t perform as expected, people get disenchanted,” said Richard Hawke, plant evaluation manager. “You’ll find what’s hot and new in catalogs and magazines, but I’m all about the tried-and-true. We’re here to tell the average gardener and the green industry how plants performed in our evaluations.”
Few plant evaluation programs are as large or as diverse as this one. There are currently 30 groups of plants growing in the Bernice E. Lavin Plant Evaluation Garden, a 2.5-acre site in full sun, and in the William Pullman Plant Evaluation Garden, which has perennials, vines, shrubs, and small trees growing in partial shade.
Plants are rated based on their ornamental characteristics, how well they adapt to the site, whether they are winter hardy, and how well they resist diseases and pests. “When we look at winter hardiness, it’s not just for cold temperatures but for wet soil, which can be very detrimental,” Hawke said. None of the plants is treated for diseases or insects.
The length of the evaluation varies from four to ten years based on the type of plant. Perennials are studied for four years, while shrubs and vines are a six-year study, and trees may take seven to ten years. “We observe and review them over a long period so we can say with fair certainty how the plant performs for us,” Hawke said.
The results are published in the Garden’s Plant Evaluation Notes, a series of reports made available to home gardeners and the green industry and available on the Garden’s website at www.chicagobotanic.org/plantevaluation.
Hawke is also involved in evaluating the potential for some popular ornamental plants, such as maiden grass (Miscanthus) and smartweed (Persicaria/Polygonum), to be invasive. This is a concern not only for home gardeners, but also for forest preserves and other open spaces where invasive plants compete with native plants.
It’s easy for visitors to check out the plant trials underway—the Trellis Bridge connects Evening Island to the Lavin Evaluation Garden across from the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, and there’s a new path within the evaluation site. “What’s great about the evaluation gardens is they are densely planted with things that you won’t necessarily see anywhere else in the Garden,” Hawke said. “You can see a group of different filipendulas or lavender growing side-by-side.”
The Plant Evaluation Notes are made possible in part by the Woman’s Board Endowment for Plant Evaluation Research and Publication. This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the winter 2013 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Danielle Rollins, preeminent Atlanta hostess and tastemaker, has a special connection to Chicago—a place that’s very close to home. Rollins lives in the stately home, Boxwood, that was built by Eleanor McRae in 1928 as a small-scale version of her Lake Shore Drive childhood home. Designed by architect Philip Shutze, Boxwood has been lovingly refurbished and serves as a gracious setting for the inviting parties Rollins shares in her book, Soirée: Entertaining with Style.
Q: Chicagoans are only able to entertain outdoors in the warm summer months. Can you suggest some ways to bring the grace and warmth of the South to our Chicago parties?
A: I think the key to entertaining in any of the four seasons is to focus on what makes your guests feel welcome, wanted, and happy. There are so many great celebrations coming up—Easter, Mother’s Day, or simply just because!
To me, summer is about outdoor entertaining. You’ve got nature as your inspirational backdrop and that should be your focus, with everything else blending into that. I love bringing the indoors outside. Without hesitation, I will incorporate my heirloom china as the place settings on a rustic table or have a full-blown picnic. Don’t be afraid to mix old and new, high and low. You don’t have to have the perfect items for entertaining. Stadium blankets, quilts, or even bed linens make the perfect table topper; I have even been known to use shower curtains as outdoor tablecloths! For your arrangements, nature provides everything you’ll need—as long as you have the clippers. With all this talk of nature, I offer my final suggestion for any fête: always make sure you have a backup plan; Mother Nature is a notorious party crasher.
Q: At the Chicago Botanic Garden, we encourage visitors to grow their own vegetables and support local farmers. How can these ideals be incorporated into entertaining?
A: I love shopping at my local farmers’ market down the street from me. I recommend shopping without a list. Go through and see what’s available and what’s local and build your menu around that. I can get really excited about radishes, carrots, English peas, asparagus, and fresh strawberries in early spring. What’s seasonal and what tastes best at the moment is my building block for any venue. The tabletop and flowers come second.
One of my favorite dinners I have ever orchestrated was a dinner with Blackberry Farms to honor heritage Southern farmers, complete with a flock of sheep on my front lawn! I used simple vases filled with a variety of wildflowers, and the place cards and napkins were tied with twine. The menu featured heirloom vegetables and mint juleps sweetened with sorghum. I think there’s nothing prettier than huge mounds of vegetables or fruits on a table. You don’t even need flowers.
Q: You’re known as a “gracious living” expert. What does that term mean to you?
A: Gracious living means having a sense of grace. It’s the one thing we can give to each other and to ourselves that makes life worth living. It means slowing down and focusing on each other. It means working to live, rather than living to work. Be kind to each other. Be kind to yourself. Take the time to enjoy the details. I think that’s something that’s hard for us all to do. The same thing translates to entertaining. Focus on what makes your guests happy and what gives them pleasure, and ultimately that will bring you pleasure.
Q: You’ll be a keynote speaker at the Antiques & Garden Fair, along with your friend and colleague Miles Redd. What have you and Miles learned from each other?
A: Miles is a great friend, and we share the same birthday. We met in 2001 and can finish each other’s sentences. He taught me a sense of scale, not to be afraid to change things, and that every room needs some sparkle! While Miles is a rule breaker, at heart, he’s really a traditionalist. He is also, without question, the reason I wrote my book. Miles is good at recognizing talent, but he’s even better at pushing that talent to realize their dreams.
Rollins often starts her parties with leisurely cocktails—her signature Rollins Collins and other creative mixes of spirits, fruits, and edible flowers. A favorite summer drink is the Bloody Mary, served at a bar abundantly stocked with limes, lemons, carrots, celery, cucumbers, skewers of olives, pickled okra and onions, a selection of store-bought tomato juices, Mexican beers, and vodkas infused with pepper, horseradish, and other flavorings. Guests can assemble drinks to suit their tastes. Rollins calls hers a “salad in a glass.” She likes using a heavier glass—French hand-blown La Rochère or even a pilsner glass—with a nice rim to dip in lime juice or Tabasco, followed by seasoned celery salt. We’ll be serving a version at the Antiques & Garden Fair, April 11 to 13. Come and try one! (You can download her special recipe—with candied bacon garnish—here.)
Danielle Rollins’s Classic Bloody Mary
Celery salt 1 lemon, juice of 1 lime, juice of 2 oz vodka (freeze vodka overnight) 6 oz pre-made Bloody Mary Mix (Freshies is my favorite) 1 dash Tabasco sauce 2 tsp prepared horseradish 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce 1 pinch celery salt or Old Bay seasoning 1 pinch freshly ground black pepper
Pour some celery salt or Old Bay seasoning in a small plate. Squeeze lemon or lime juice into a small bowl and dip the glass rim into the juice. Roll the outer edge of the glass in the salt or seasoning until fully coated. For extra zing, use Tabasco sauce instead of the lemon or lime juice. Add the remaining ingredients into a shaker and fill with ice. Shake gently and strain into the prepared glass.
Garnish with celery stalk (with the leaves on) and a strip of candied bacon (see recipe below) or a bamboo skewer of olives, tiny grape tomatoes, and a lime wedge.
½ cup packed light brown sugar 1½ tsp chile powder 20 slices of thick-cut bacon
Preheat the oven to 400° F. Line two rimmed baking sheets with foil. In a small bowl, whisk the brown sugar with the chile powder. Arrange the bacon strips on the foil and coat the tops with the chile sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until caramelized and almost crisp. Transfer the bacon to a rack set over a sheet of foil to cool completely.
Are you tired of winter? Silly question—we all are. Spring is way overdue.
Cheer up! The Garden has an answer to the dragged-out-winter blues: Vertverre™ (green vision) glasses. Put on a pair of these specially designed glasses and you’ll see the drab landscape turn into a time when spring came six weeks early.
Our sense of sight is a curious thing, and it can be manipulated to affect our outlook on the world. In the 1950s, a scientist created a set of vision-flipping goggles that made the world appear upside down. The first people who tested these glasses couldn’t even walk without stumbling when first wearing them. Eventually the brain adjusts, so that wearers see the world right side up again through the lenses. That is part of the scientific principle behind Vertverre.™
Garden staff approached Google.AFD about this idea two years ago when we realized the wonderful health benefits of experiencing an early blooming spring. Google.AFD works with not-for-profit organizations like the Garden to develop tools and technology for a better world. While creating sense-altering vision seemed like a stretch, Google.AFD techies were already working on several devices to enhance retina viewing, so the partnership turned out to be a natural fit.
How does Vertverre™ work? The lenses in these glasses send a signal to your retina, which transmits to your visual cortex, releasing a memory of that early blooming spring from years past. When you look at the landscape, Vertverre™ tricks your eyes into remembering spring flowers, green grass, from warmer times. The effect is so stunning that it has the same mood-enhancing effect as light therapy. Instantly you feel healthier and have a more positive outlook on life.
As the French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote: “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” Come visit the Garden and see for yourself. We only have a limited number of prototype models for our visitors and are taking reservations on a first come, first serve basis.