For the Ages: the English Walled Garden

Step past the sleepy stone lion, breathe in the cowslip primrose, and listen to the water trickle into an eighteenth-century lead cistern—the feeling is as timeless as the tiny thyme plants growing between the hand-pressed bricks. So how do we preserve that timeless feeling while making sure the English Walled Garden withstands the rigors of time?

PHOTO: An aerial view of the garden displays its perfect ordered chaos.
Work is underway to enhance the English Walled Garden’s magestical tapestry.

Dedicated in 1991 by Princess Margaret, the younger sister of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, the English Walled Garden features six garden rooms, surrounded by boundaries made of stone, brick, hedges, and trees. (At the dedication, Princess Margaret, by the way, wore a heavy, royal blue coat, buttoned to the collar; in a one-minute speech, she thanked the Garden for ensuring the authenticity of the English Walled Garden, according to a Chicago Tribune story. But we digress.)

PHOTO: Planted in a checkerboard design are alternating boxwood and artemesia.
The geometric Checkerboard Garden features a formal study of contrast in texture and color.

Like all gardens, this one is subject to constant change. Some plants overgrow their space and need pruning. Trees cast shadows over sun-loving perennials. And some plants succumb to disease or insects. Through generous funding from the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society, the English Walled Garden is updated periodically. Renovations are made in consultation with the garden’s designer, renowned landscape architect John Brookes, Member of the British Empire (MBE).

Brookes most recently toured the garden in 2012 with Chicago Botanic Garden staff members, including Tim Johnson, director of horticulture, and Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist. This year, as part of a new restoration project, the staff is rethinking the plantings. Some plants will be replaced with varieties that have more desirable qualities, such as disease resistance, increased vigor, a longer bloom period, or lower maintenance. “We’re going back to the original design plan and where it called for blue iris, we’ll work to find varieties that are new to the Garden’s collection and that fit the parameters of the original design,” Sherwood said.

“We’re also simplifying the diversity of the plantings at John’s suggestion,” Johnson added. “It’s a complicated, multilayered process that will be done in phases.” One high-priority project will be to overhaul the perennial borders so visitors can continue to experience the garden throughout the year.

PHOTO: A view through the English Walled Garden, with roses draping over a myriad of flowers in bloom.
True to Brookes’ vision, full plantings overflow their borders in the garden.

In designing the garden, Brookes said his intent was to present a typical period English country garden that would evoke as many of the senses as possible. The garden “should be visual, of course, with color, but also scent and texture in the planting, and a feeling of it all not being too immaculate,” Brookes said. “Plantings should be full and almost overflowing their borders. It should be a joyous and restful place above all else.”

 

This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the summer 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden. At that time, the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society was in its third year of “Growing the Future,” a $1 million pledge to the Chicago Botanic Garden. Proceeds from that year supported renovation of the English Walled Garden and replacement of trees damaged by the emerald ash borer.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Eating Weeds

If you ever find yourself grumbling over the dandelions that make their home in your lawn, or staring angrily at the purslane popping up in your vegetable garden, I have a suggestion for you: make a salad.

You may be familiar with the concept of foraging for weeds. I first became interested in the subject in college, when I realized that free food was everywhere once you knew where to look. (The reality soon set in that most of this “free” food was actually growing on lawns and private property.) Whenever you forage weeds and wild plants you have to be careful that what you take isn’t getting sprayed with herbicides—which is why I recommend only harvesting weeds from your own yard, or places you know have uncontaminated soil (and aren’t sprayed). It’s also very important to know exactly what you’re eating. Sometimes weeds have look-alikes that can be upsetting to the stomach or downright deadly. Others, of course, you can easily recognize from a distance, like yellow wood sorrel.

PHOTO: Yellow wood sorrel in bloom.
Great as a snack or a garnish, Oxalis is a tasty edible weed.

Oxalis stricta

Oxalis stricta, also known as yellow wood sorrel or lemon clover, is an annual weed that you can find anywhere…and everywhere. It spreads aggressively from its seedpods—which can explode on contact!

It only takes a brief sampling of the leaf to figure out why this weed is also called sour grass. The plants are full of oxalic acid, which is dangerous to humans in large amounts, but relatively harmless in small doses. The oxalic acid in the plant gives it a wonderful sour taste that makes for an excellent addition to salads. Oxalis grows commonly in lightly to heavily shaded garden areas. Look for them under plants like hostas.

PHOTO: Dandelion blooming in the lawn.
The long, lion-toothed leaves help identify suburban lawn villain Taraxacum officinale, but if you ever have a doubt, look for the aster-esqe yellow blooms.

Taraxacum officinale

Taraxacum officinale, or dandelions, are bothersome weeds, but they are truly “gourmet.” Dandelions get their name from their toothed leaves which are reminiscent of lion’s teeth, or as the French would say, “dent de lion.”

In its long botanical history, the dandelion has been used medicinally, but also as food. Dandelion roots, leaves, and flowers are entirely edible. Roasted, the roots can make for a caffeine-free coffee substitute. The young leaves make for bitter but interesting additions to salads. The plants can also be deprived of sunlight until the leaves become pale, which will change the flavor of the leaves to make them more palatable. The flower buds can be fried and eaten, while the open blooms can be used to make dandelion wine!

PHOTO: Purslane poking up through garden mulch.
Keep an eye out for the  fairly drought resistant  Portulaca oleracea in areas where the ground tends to crack.

 

Portulaca oleracea

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a weed that you can find in sunny garden areas. They have succulent, red to green, low-spreading stems with flat, paddle-shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers. Purslane actually has an ornamental relative called moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), which have leaves that are more pointed than flat, and much larger flowers. Though they are also edible, why bother when you have purslane growing naturally? Look for purslane in sunny areas, particularly where the ground can get dry. Harvest purslane any time before the flowers appear, because they can become quite bitter after flowering. Purslane is also incredibly nutritious, rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, and high in Vitamins A, C, and E, as well as magnesium, potassium, and iron, just to name a few. Try it raw, or in a stir-fry!

PHOTO: Lamb's quarters in the garden bed.
Chenopodium is an easy weed to scarf up while working in the garden.

Chenopodium album

Another common edible weed is Chenopodium album, also called lambs’ quarters, or goosefoot. It will grow in sunny to partly shady areas and is high in Vitamins A and C. Like Oxalis, it also has high amounts of oxalic acid, so remember to enjoy it in moderation. I prefer to eat the young seedlings which only have 2-3 sets of leaves. This makes for an easy snack while you’re in the garden. 

Steer clear of Chenopodium’s southern cousin, epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides or Dysphania ambrosioides). Native to Central America, South America, and southern Mexico, this weed can now be found on roadsides in North America as well. While epazote—whose long skinny leaves do not resemble a goosefoot—is used medicinally for a number of purposes, high doses can can cause severe dermatitis or allergic reactions. 

PHOTO: Spiderwort in bloom.
Tradescantia is more of a beautiful garden edible than a weed.

Tradescantia

As our final edible weed, I debated including Tradescantia, or spiderwort, in this list. Though it can spread in the garden, it is not anywhere as aggressive as the other weeds in this list. It is also commonly grown for ornamental purposes. In fact, I’m planning to order some of Chicagoland Grows’ Tradescantia ‘Tough Love’ —a reddish-purple-flowered cultivar—for my garden next year when it is released!

The wild plants vary a great deal in size from 1 foot to 4-5 feet tall, depending on species. The small, three-petaled flowers are often blue, but also come in purple, pink, and white. The name spiderwort may come from the fuzzy, webbing-like stamens of the flower, or from the way the mucilaginous substance in the stems will form thin, web-like strands when broken. If you’re planning on eating this one, peel the leaves off the stem and cook them like asparagus. You can also chop up the stems (or leaves) and fry them. But don’t stop there—the flowers are also tasty when raw. Since they usually last for just one day, you don’t have to feel guilty about eating them either! Plus, since they’re native plants used to grazing animals, they can take the abuse!

Interested in learning about more weedy cuisine in your yard? Join environmentalist, author, and forager Melany Vorass Herrera for The Front Yard Forager Workshop on Friday, June 20, from 6 to 8 p.m.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Plant Breeding Program Takes Perennials to New Heights

Interested in new perennials for your garden? How about ones that have proven to be exceptional—fragrant, colorful, drought tolerant, resistant to disease and pests, and hardy in the Midwest and similar climates? Just turn to our scientists, who have done the legwork for you through the Chicago Botanic Garden’s plant breeding and evaluation programs.

Breeding and selecting new perennials is a long, intense process that begins with cross-pollinating two plants, or moving pollen by hand from the flowers of one plant to the flowers of another plant with different traits. The two related plants—which ideally will produce exceptional offspring—are selected for breeding based on desirable attributes.

PHOTO: Jim Ault poses in a bed of bright pink- and purple-blooming asters he developed at the Garden.
Jim Ault, Ph.D., with Symphyotricum (aster) hybrids developed at the Garden
PHOTO: A closeup of the rich purple buds of Twilite false indigo.
Twilite false indigo (Baptisia × variicolor ‘Twilite’)
PHOTO: Using tweezers, Jim Ault hand-pollinates a Baptisia.
Pollinating Baptisia

“In the best-case scenario, from the first cross to the final plant worthy of introduction, it takes about seven years, maybe eight to ten. I have to think long-term in generation time, from seed to first bloom to maturity,” said Jim Ault, Ph.D., plant introduction manager and Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Director of Ornamental Plant Research.

The most promising new plants are propagated by cuttings or tissue culture and then scrutinized by the Garden’s Plant Evaluation Program, managed by Richard Hawke. He compares the plants to cultivars and species already in the trade to ensure that the plants from the breeding program are unique and worthy of introduction. Hawke also recommends plants for use as parents in the breeding program.

PHOTO: Richard Hawke crouches down, examining the progress of a cultivar planted at the Garden.
Richard Hawke at work

“The public can see about 80 percent of the breeding program plants as we are growing them in the ground in the evaluation gardens,” Dr. Ault said. Plants with the highest marks move to licensed commercial nurseries that also conduct field and container trials and then propagate the new plants for sale to home gardeners and the horticultural trade.

In recent years, popular offerings from the breeding program have included the first orange coneflower ever released, Art’s Pride coneflower (Echinacea ‘Art’s Pride’), and Forever Pink phlox (Phlox ‘Forever Pink’). “The interest in ‘Forever Pink’ has exploded,” Ault said. “It has three weeks of peak bloom in late May to early June and then it repeat-blooms on about 10 percent of the plant all summer and fall. It’s compact and, unlike other summer-blooming phlox, has had no powdery mildew whatsoever.”

You can expect to see more noteworthy perennials in coming years. Ault is hybridizing several types, including ground-cover phlox, asters, and other genera. “Something really wonderful should bloom this spring out of the hundreds of new seedlings that we’re growing,” said Ault.

Visit chicagobotanic.org/research/environmental/breeding for a full list of the perennials released commercially through the Garden’s Plant Breeding Program.

PHOTO: A closeup of the unusual bright orange color of Art's Pride coneflower.
Art’s Pride coneflower (Echinacea ‘Art’s Pride’)
PHOTO: A bed of a dozen plantings of Forever Pink phlox in full bloom.
Forever Pink phlox (Phlox ‘Forever Pink’)

PHOTO: Tidal Pool prostrate speedwell.
Tidal Pool prostrate speedwell (Veronica ‘Tidal Pool’)

Support for the plant evaluation program is provided by the Bernice E. Lavin Evaluation Garden Endowment, the Woman’s Board Endowment for Plant Evaluation Research and Publication, and the Sally Meads Hand Foundation.

This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the spring 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Today’s Harvest: Lettuce

Learn to love the leaf!
Home-grown garden lettuce beats grocery store lettuce for taste, nutrition, and freshness. Planting seeds 2 weeks apart in spring ensures you can enjoy fresh greens all summer long. More tips follow in our Today’s Harvest veggiegraphic: lettuce!

Infographic on cultivating and harvesting lettuce.

Parents: Read This

It’s a fact: kids can lose valuable reading skills during summer break. It’s called “summer slide,” and the loss can be large—two months worth of lost reading skills is not unusual over the summer, and teachers will tell you that retraining in fall regularly takes up precious class time.

It’s also a fact: by reading just 20 minutes per day, your child maintains his or her reading level through the summer. 

At the Lenhardt Library, our creative librarians have come up with a fun way to help you make the latter happen.

Bookcover: There's a Hair in my Dirt! A Worm's Story.

Bookcover: Homegrown Honey Bees: An Absolute Beginner's Guide.

Bookcover: Compost Stew, An A to Z Recipe for the Earth.

Bookcover: Attracting Butterflies to your Garden.

Bookcover: The Plant Hunters.

Bookcover: Jardineria Facil para Ninos.

Sign up now to be a Summer Nature Explorer at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Between May 31 and August 17, your child can read books and have fun at drop-in activities, earning stamps and prizes—encouragements that help kids stave off reading loss.

It’s also our library’s link to the National Science Foundation’s STEM program (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) that aims to increase science skills in the United States. Here’s the foundation’s interesting and fact-filled site: www.nsf.gov/nsb/sei/edTool.

Here’s how our Summer Reading and Nature Program works:

  • Sign up at the Lenhardt Library. Take home a reading and activity log.
  • Read a book; get a stamp. The log helps you keep track of your books.
  • Play at a Family Drop-In Activity; get a stamp. Great for reluctant readers who learn critical thinking skills in different ways.
  • Earn 5 stamps; get a prize. Bring your child to the library for the prize—we don’t want to give away the surprise!
  • Earn 10 stamps; get a prize. At 10 books, the reader earns the temporary frog tattoo shown below.
  • Earn 15 stamps; get a prize. Hint: it’s something to tuck into your backpack for school.
  • Earn 20 stamps; get a big prize. We’ll hand the proud reader a free ticket for his/her admission to Butterflies & Blooms. (Parents, you can sign up, read some great books, and earn your own free ticket, too!) 
  • Here’s the link for more details: chicagobotanic.org/library/summer_reading.

ILLUSTRATION: A cartoon of a frog reading a book.

Not reading yet? Even the pre-K set can sign up! Parents/adults can earn stamps/prizes for littler kids by reading books to them—that’s how a lifelong love of reading begins! (Of course, little kids love getting the same treats as their already-reading siblings, too.)

Of course, members have check-out privileges at the library, but nonmembers are welcome to sit and read—the reading nook (pillows on the floor, kid-sized reading table) has been known to attract many a bookworm parent, too. On the library shelves, look on book spines for:

  • Yellow dots = Books for the 2 to 6 crowd
  • Yellow dots with blue stars = For readers 7 to 10
  • Yellow dots with red stars = Spanish-language books for kids
  • Blue tape = New to our collection!

Family Drop-in Activities shake up the routine with a roster of unusual, nature-based activities: kids might dissect a seed at the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden…or search for underwater creatures at Kleinman Family Cove…or make a samurai mask at the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. Drop-in activities take place every summer day—for the line-up and locations, go to chicagobotanic.org/forfamilies.

And did we mention that it’s all free?

Happy summer reading, and we look forward to seeing you at the circulation desk!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org