Archives For July 2018

Planting a fire escape herb container

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  July 18, 2018 — 1 Comment

I love coming home to my quiet, tree-lined Chicago neighborhood, but one thing I miss about urban living is ample outdoor space.

The back door of my apartment leads to a wooden fire escape—built after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 as a second means of exit from the building. The landing is wide enough to finagle furniture during moves, but doesn’t invite much summertime lounging or late-night stargazing. Still, I find myself dreaming of an herb garden growing in the little patch of morning sun that filters through the stairs.

Fire escape inspiration at the Fruit and Vegetable Garden.

Fire escape inspiration at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden

Growing an herb container doesn’t require a whole lot of space, luckily. To find the best inspiration, I turned to Lisa Hilgenberg, horticulturist for the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. She recently planted an herb container tower in the garden, so ideas were fresh on her mind when I talked with her. Here are her tips for starting an herb container, no matter where you live.

  1. Find the right container: Drainage is key for healthy herbs, says Hilgenberg, so make sure to find a pot with holes at the bottom. “I like to use terra cotta pots because they’re porous and absorb water. Otherwise, you could certainly use copper planters. A hanging basket might work if that’s allowed on your porch, or a strawberry jar with a dozen holes in it. You can get really creative.”
  2. Consider the light: Most herbs like at least four to six hours of bright, direct light, but there are a few that can handle fewer hours of full sun. If your outdoor space is covered, or east-facing like mine, choose herbs that can take some shade, such as chives, thyme, or parsley, says Hilgenberg.
Lisa Hilgenberg's towering herb container.

Lisa Hilgenberg’s towering herb container.

  1. Plan your herbs with recipes in mind: What herbs do you use most in your cooking? Are you always buying basil? Do you like to use mint? The fun of planting herb gardens is to use them in cooking, so take some time to think about what herbs could be homegrown. “When I teach veggie classes, I reference Ina Garten’s potato salad. It calls for two types of potatoes, and four or five different herbs. If you go to the store and buy these ingredients, it could cost eight bucks apiece. To grow scallions, dill, basil, and parsley together yourself is a really cool thing to do,” says Hilgenberg. For French cooking enthusiasts, she recommends growing herbs de provence (marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and savory).

Lisa’s ultimate herb container: Sweet marjoram, thyme, sage, parsley, and chives.

  1. Use high quality potting soil: Low fertility potting mix is preferable for herbs, says Hilgenberg. You won’t have to feed or fertilize these soils. “Just make sure to water regularly, and check that the soil drains completely between waterings,” she said.
  2. Give some herbs room to breathe: Herbs don’t mind being planted in close quarters, says Hilgenberg. You can plant several in one container. An exception, however, is basil: “For healthy basil production, always put one plant per pot in 12-inch containers.”
  3. Harvest herbs before they flower: “Right before plants look like they’re going to flower is when they’re fully matured and ready to harvest,” says Hilgenberg. “Use herb snips to harvest two leaf nodes down. If you harvest by the leaf you’ll get a leggy, tall plant.” Always remove flowers, especially on basil. This encourages new growth. “The rule of thumb is to harvest about three times per season,” she says.

If you’re wondering whether July is too late to plant an herb container, Hilgenberg says it’s perfectly fine. And with that, I’m off to the garden center to pick out my herbs. I can smell the sage tucked under the skin of a buttery roast chicken already. Yum.

Come learn more about herb gardening with how-to demonstrations and family activities at Herb Garden Weekend, July 28–29, from 11 a.m.– 4 p.m.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

If you happened to walk around the Heritage Garden in late June, the unusual blue color of the Moroccan mountain eryngo (pronounced eh-RING-go), Eryngium variifolium, probably caught your eye, and its peculiar perfume tickled your nose. It was also swarming with flying insects.

The odor was not lovely and sweet. I would describe it as similar to musty, molding fruit—not unpleasant, but certainly not a fragrance you would wear. It only lasted a few days, during which time it hosted an amazing number and variety of insects. I attempted to photograph and identify as many of them as I could. This was a lot harder than I expected, because the insects were in constant motion and most of them were small. I didn’t always capture the key features needed to identify them at the species level. In spite of this, you’ll see that that the variety was astounding. Let me introduce you to what I found at the Chicago Botanic Garden recently.

1. Carpenter bee

PHOTO: a carpenter bee perched on a eryngo flower.

Carpenter bees are often confused with bumblebees because of similar size and coloring. The carpenter bee has a black abdomen and a black spot on the back of its thorax (middle section). That’s how to tell the difference.

2. Mason bee

PHOTO: a mason bee on an eryngo flower head.

Mason bees are in the Megachile family. The are also known as leaf-cutter bees.

PHOTO: a megachile bee is covered in pollen.

This mason bee has filled the “pollen baskets” on its hind legs with pollen from the eryngo, and they are now swollen and bright yellow. Pollen is also sticking to the hairs on its thorax and underside. It is a good pollinator!

Carpenter bees and Mason bees are native to our region. Honeybees are not native to the United States. I saw honeybees in the Heritage Garden, but they were not interested in this flower. Honeybees tend to go for sweeter-smelling flowers.

3. Red admiral butterfly

PHOTO: a Red Admiral butterfly is perched on a eryngo flowerhead.

The red admiral, with its characteristic red stripe across the middle of the upper wings, is  common in our area.

4. Azure butterfly

PHOTO: the azure butterfly's wings are smaller than that flower head it is perched upon.

This tiny gray-blue butterfly is an azure. Some azures are the same blue color as the eryngo flower.

A monarch butterfly also flew overhead while I was taking pictures, but it didn’t stop by. Again, the scent of this flower isn’t attractive to all pollinators. 

5. Squash vine borer (moth)

The squash vine borer larva can be a nuisance in a vegetable garden, but it is a beautiful and beneficial pollinator as an adult moth. Sometimes we have to resist the urge to judge our fellow creature as being good or bad. 

PHOTO: Picture of the moth perched on an eryngo flower head.

The squash vine borer was the flashiest visitor I saw on the flowers.

6.  Syrphid flies (hoverflies or flower flies)

When we think of flies, we tend to think of those annoying houseflies or other pests, but there are other kinds of flies. The Syrphidae family, also known as hoverflies or flower flies, feed on pollen and therefore serve as important pollinators for many plants. I found three species of syrphid flies on the eryngo.

PHOTO: flower fly hovers next to the flower head.

Flower flies resemble bees because of their yellow and black striped pattern, but this little insect bears the large eyes and short antennae that are characteristics of a fly.

PHOTO: flower fly on a leaf.

This syrphid is very small, only about a a quarter of an inch long. It looks a lot like the first, but it had a rounder abdomen. The pointed end is an ovipositor, so after inspection, I believe this is the female and the other may be male, so I counted them together.

7. Another kind of syrphid fly

PHOTO: syrphid fly on a eryngo flower

This syrphid fly is a little bigger and fuzzier than the previous one. It could easily be mistaken for a bee.

8. Mystery fly, possibly another syrphid

PHOTO: small black fly on a eryngo flower.

I was having a difficult time getting good picture of some of these small insects, and as a result, I didn’t get enough details to identify this half-inch-long fly with white triangles on the back of its abdomen.

9. Green bottle fly

Houseflies fall into the family of flies known scientifically as Calliphoridae, also called the blowfly family, and they were also represented on our eryngo plant.

PHOTO: green bottle fly seen from the back.

One view of this green bottle fly (genus Phormica) shows its iridescent green body.

PHOTO: Green bottle fly from the front.

The same green bottle fly can bee seen with its proboscis sipping nectar from the flower in this image.

10. Cluster fly

PHOTO: cluster fly on a flower.

This is the only image I got of another blowfly species, a cluster fly (genus Pollenia).

11. Tiger fly (I think)

Tiger flies prey on carpenter bees, which were feeding on the eryngo flowers, so seeing this predator around the eryngo makes sense.

PHOTO: a fly of some kind is perched on a leaf, partially hidden by the stem of the plant.

I could not get a good picture of this one, because it was hiding in the shadows under the flowers. The wing pattern suggests some kind of tiger fly. Its secretive behavior is also a clue to its identity.

12. Vespid wasp

The wasps I observed were far too busy collecting nectar and pollen to notice me. I had no concerns about being stung.

PHOTO: wasp perched on a eryngo flower.

Vespid wasps are a large family of wasps that include paper wasps—those insects that make the big paper nests. These insects live in colonies and they do sting when they feel threatened.

13. Black garden ant

I watched a few ants appear very determined as they walked up the stems of the eryngo, dipped their heads into the flower centers, and went back down the stem as swiftly as they arrived.

PHOTO: Ant on an eryngo.

The ants must have a colony living in the ground under the Eryngo.

14. Damselfly 

Where there are a lot of flying insects, there are going to be some predators. There were damselflies hovering over the blossoms, feeding on the flies, not the flower. 

PHOTO: bronze and blue damselfly perched on an Eryngo flower.

Damselflies are difficult to identify without getting a really good closeup of their abdomens and markings—and my picture wasn’t good enough. I believe this is some kind of spreadwing.

15. Assassin bug

Assassin bugs fall into the category of insects known as “true bugs.” I saw few assassin bugs lurking around the eryngo flowers.

PHOTO: an assassin bug hangs out at the bottom of the flower, probably about to catch another insect.

Assassin bugs and their kin have piercing mouth parts that penetrate their prey and suck the juices out. This guy wasn’t there to feed on nectar or pollen.

16. A spider web

Like the damselfly and assassin bug, this spider is hanging out somewhere under the flowers to prey on the flies, bees, and other insects that happen into its web.

PHOTO: Spider web that was underneath the flowers.

Spiders tend to set their traps and hide. I never saw the spider that made this tangle-web but I suspect it was well fed.

In total, I found two kinds of bees, two butterflies, one moth, six flies, one wasp, one ant, one damselfly, one assassin bug, and one spider—sixteen different bugs on this one bright, smelly plant!

The take-away from my experience is that scent is a really successful strategy for attracting pollinators. Like the titan arum, the Moroccan mountain eryngo produced a super potent blast of odor for a brief period time and then moved on to the next phase in its life cycle, which suggests that it requires a lot of a plant’s energy reserves, and may not be sustainable for a long time. This strategy works well  as long as the timing of the bloom coincides with the pollinators’ need to feed and ability to get to the flowers. 

I find this phenomenon fascinating. If you share my passion for plants and their relationships with insects, check out Budburst at budburst.org and find out how you can help scientists who need your observations to contribute data to their research. 


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On a bright, sunny Saturday in June, more than 1,500 people came to see just what was happening inside the renovated paint store along Ogden Avenue in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago.

It was the opening weekend for the Farm on Ogden, a joint project between the Chicago Botanic Garden and Lawndale Christian Health Center (LCHC) that brings food, health, and jobs together under one roof. Visitors explored the 7,300-square-foot greenhouse, marveled in the blue-purple glow of the 50,000-gallon aquaponics system, and picked up vegetables grown in the corner Windy City Harvest Youth Farm.

The new Farm on Ogden in Chicago

The new Farm on Ogden—a renovated building that was once a Sherwin-Williams paint store in North Lawndale—brings health, food, and jobs together in one location.

Autumn Berg, a North Lawndale resident for 17 years, could barely contain her emotions. “I’ve never been more excited about my neighborhood in my life,” she said.

The day before, Garden President and CEO Jean M. Franczyk thanked the many donors and partners for their generous support and steadfast belief that growing food locally makes for healthier individuals and communities. Speakers included Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and Alderman Michael Scott, Jr. (24th).

“For a corner that needs economic development, it’s everything a community could ask for. I’m just so happy the Garden has decided to invest in a community like North Lawndale,” said Scott.

Here’s a look inside the Farm, which will be managed by Windy City Harvest, the Garden’s urban agriculture program, in partnership with LCHC.

A little girl leans over the fresh produce counter in the new Farm on Ogden.

The indoor market and farm stand at the Farm on Ogden will provide fresh, affordable produce year-round.

Kids look over flats of seedlings growing at the Farm on Ogden's greenhouses.

Interested people and community members toured the 7,300-square-foot greenhouse, which will grow seasonal vegetables and fruits year-round.

A customer gets information on the selection of herbs currently available at the Farm on Ogden.

Nearly 1,500 people attended the Farm on Ogden opening celebration on Saturday, June 23.

Visitors check out the purple grow lights near the aquaponics system at the Farm on Ogden.

The neon glow of the purple grow lights drew people toward the 50,000-gallon aquaponics system, which will produce 2,500 heads of lettuce every week, year-round, and 14,000 pounds of tilapia a year.

In the outdoor beds at Farm on Ogden, visitors admire the next crop to be harvested.

Outside, people admired giant lettuce leaves growing in the Windy City Harvest Youth Farm: a space for teens to learn—and earn—through sustainable growing, healthy cooking and eating, and farm-stand selling.

Visitors get a tour of the Farm on Ogden.

The Farm on Ogden also serves as a distribution center for Veggie Rx, a cooperative program that delivers boxes of fresh produce and offers nutrition education and cooking lessons to Lawndale Christian Health Center patients.

Learn more about the Farm on Ogden at chicagobotanic.org/urbanagriculture.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

As plant collectors, we spend a lot of time and energy researching the flora of the areas we are going to visit. We search out areas of the world where the climate is similar to that of the midwestern United States, and we make lists. Lots of lists.

Massive spreadsheets document travel plans, emergency contacts; high-value germplasm that we hope to find at each of our planned collection locations; and costs: airfare, gasoline in the country, driver wages, botanist guides, food, and lodging. All of this data is condensed into a one-page document that our hosts submit to the national environmental agencies within each country for approval and permits for the trip. Among our goals on plant-collecting trips is to collect seeds to conserve and to look for plants of horticultural interest to display in our collections.

Paeonia tenuifolia

Paeonia tenuifolia

Invariably, some of the treasures we return with are unanticipated. Such was our discovery of a very large population of Paeonia tenuifolia that was unknown to Georgian scientists in the remote and sparsely populated Vashlovani Reserve—a peninsula-shaped area surrounded by Azerbaijan on three sides, containing large rolling hills breaking into badlands—areas so heavily eroded I thought I was in the Badlands of the Dakotas.

We were in search of seeds of unusual bulbs in the Vashlovani Nature Reserve with Peter Zale from Longwood Gardens (the trip organizer), Panyoti Kelaidis from the Denver Botanic Gardens, and Manana Khutsishvili from the Institute of Botany, Ilia State University.

It was one of those breathtakingly beautiful days, with the rolling grasslands backdropped by the snow-covered peaks of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range. Dirt roads had not been graded in quite a while, and the sun-baked ruts left over from the winter rains gave rise to the trip joke: shaken, not stirred. This was definitely four-wheel-drive country.

One of our target species in this area was Merendera trigyna, a beautiful spring-flowering Colchicum relative with pale pink to white flowers about twice the size of Crocus and blooming about the same time. Our data source was a herbarium voucher on file with the Institute of Botany Herbarium in Tbilisi. Peter had entered the coordinates into the GPS receiver after lunch, and the road seemed to head in the correct direction. A couple of hours later we were on the border with Azerbaijan and the coordinates suggested we needed to cross the border—not a match with the written description of the location on the herbarium voucher.

We continued to skirt the border, and an hour later we found a hilltop that allowed Manana to make a cellphone call back to the herbarium in Tbilisi. Thirty minutes further down the track, on another exceptionally high hill, we learned the coordinate system recorded on the voucher was from a Russian GPS system, not the American system our GPS was programmed for.

By that time it was too late to retrace our steps. In new territory for all of us, we continued on the track paralleling the Azerbaijan border, knowing that eventually it would lead us to a small Georgian town. By this time, it was about 6 p.m., and as we surmounted another rise we were greeted with thousands of fernleaf peony (Paeonia tenuifolia) in full flower. Each flower was the size of a salad plate, and a deep, intense red. Unlike the 8-inch-high representatives of this species in our American collections, the whole population was 2.5 to 3 feet in height, with an equal width. This population was unknown to the Georgian scientific community until we managed to get lost and found it in the process of working our way back home.

Paeonia tenuifolia in the remote and sparsely populated Vashlovani Reserve; the Caucases in the background.

Paeonia tenuifolia in the remote and sparsely populated Vashlovani Reserve; the Caucasus Mountains in the background.

A trip is planned for 2019 for the Republic of Georgia. It is timed to collect seeds from this population, as well as the nine other species of peonies native to this floristically rich country. Who knows what unsuspected treasures we will discover next year?


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org