Archives For Erica Masini

You might have noticed a group of hard-working high-schoolers wearing hard hats and toting shovels at the Chicago Botanic Garden this summer. The aspiring conservationists—part of the Conservation Corps—are doing important restoration work throughout the Forest Preserves of Cook County, including a stint at the Garden.

Conservation Corps Teens Working

Conservation Corps teens cleared overgrown bushes and installed new plantings at the Garden.

The Conservation Corps is a paid summer internship that gives young people hands-on conservation and environmental science experience. Students partnered with Garden horticulturists and learned to identify plants and remove invasive species. This year, they worked to clear and trim overgrown bushes, install new plantings, and remove invasive plants. In addition to their work at the Garden, Corps members worked at Harms Woods near Glenview and took field trips such as an environmental science career day at the Field Museum.

We asked a few teens about their experience and what they learned while working at the Garden. Here’s what they had to say:

“It’s a great building block to what I want to do. I’ve already learned so much about identifying plants, trail mulching, steps you can take to improve the environment, and different environmental careers. I’m looking forward to what’s ahead.” —Gabby Onnenga, 17, Skokie

Conservation Corps teens removed stumps

It was hard work. The interns removed stumps – 14 in a single day.

“It’s allowed me to connect with a lot of people I wouldn’t have before. Last Friday we went to the Field Museum and talked to a lot of interesting people there. I talked with one of the leaders here at the Garden who recommended me to someone who runs a fungus organization. It could connect us to other opportunities.” —Aaron Ivsin, 16, Chicago

Forest Preserves Conservation Corps

The program is part of the effort by the Garden and its partner, the Forest Preserves, to build the next generation of conservation leaders.

“I want to be an environmental biologist. This will help me later in life because everybody knows each other in the field.” —Ushus Hermanson, 17, Chicago

The program is part of the effort by the Garden and its partner, Friends of the Forest Preserves, to build the next generation of conservation leaders. “It has been great to have another Forest Preserves Conservation Corps crew this summer,” said Beth Dunn, the Garden’s director of government affairs, who helped coordinate the program. “Not only is it a great help for the Garden’s staff to tackle needed projects, it is a great learning experience for the crew members who may be for the first time working as part of a land management team.”

For many, it was just the place they wanted to be. “Right from the beginning, I knew I made the right choice,” said Sile Surman, 16, of Wilmette. “I’m very passionate about the environment, and it’s a great experience to be surrounded by people who are also passionate.”


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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

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

Summer is in the air. As the nights heat up, it’s a perfect time to get outdoors and entertain in your garden. Chicago Botanic Garden floriculturist Tim Pollak shares how you can bring the party to your garden with a few simple tricks for evening entertaining.

Plant light-colored flowers
Enhance the darkness of evenings by planting white or cream-colored foliage and flowers. White flowers and plants create brightness in your garden by reflecting moonlight, candlelight, and firelight. Some flowers even “glow” in the moonlight, including white and yellow lilies. Pollak recommends flowering shrubs such as hydrangea, roses, and hibiscus.

hibiscus moscheutos 'Blue River II'

Hibiscus moscheutos

rosa 'Dicjana'

Rosa ‘Dicjana’

hydrangea arborescens

Hydrangea arborescens

Add fragrant, evening-blooming flowers
In areas where you can sit and entertain, use plants that emit mood-setting fragrance. Scent in a garden carries farther and longer in the evenings than in daytime, said Pollak. Plus, evening blooming plants often give off strong fragrance that attracts night-flying pollinators (additional guests for your party). Some examples of especially fragrant plants include heliotropium, nicotiana, and ipomoea alba.

outdoor garden lightingInstall night accent lighting
Lure guests down the garden path with purposefully placed outdoor lighting. You can shine focal points on specimen plants, and create wonderful shadows and backlighting effects that will enhance the setting of your evening party.

Keep warm with fire pits
People are drawn to fire pits, which create a campfire-like atmosphere, said Pollak. Fire pits also serve as focal points in your garden, providing warmth, light, and a cooking source. Stay warm on cooler nights, and enjoy the light and ambience that make fire pits a natural gathering spot for entertaining. Many fire pit options are available, including natural or electric, modern or traditional, in-ground or portable. Be sure to consider the placement of seating as well, with flexible options in case of wind and smoke.

evening outdoor entertaining - sculpture

Enhance the mood with garden structures and sounds
Nighttime atmosphere can make for a magical evening. A few sensory features such as white or gray painted structures or statues, wind chimes or fountains will add the perfect finishing touched to your evening ambience.

Keep out pesky party crashers
Mosquitos are never a welcome guest at a nighttime gathering. Keep them at bay by eliminating all standing water. You can also use citronella (including the actual citronella plant, or candles, lamps, and tiki torches) to help keep them away.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Time to Take Your Urban Houseplants Outside

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  May 27, 2018 — 4 Comments

Hey, Chicago. It finally feels better outside. Everyone breathe a sigh of relief with me. Sigh. We made it.

Now that it’s officially patio season, it’s time to get out and enjoy the sun. Which has me wondering…should my houseplants join me outside? Can they?

Spider plant

The spider plant catching some rays.

The process of moving indoor plants outside, called “hardening off,” typically happens around when nighttime temperatures stay above 42 degrees Fahrenheit. By now, pots are popping up all along back wooden porches across the city. But if you have little to no outdoor space—like me—it can be a challenge to give your houseplants a much needed breath of fresh air.

I turned to Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, who lives in Chicago. She has an open lot next to her apartment, but also has some restrictions like me. Her lot gets 100 percent shade, so she can’t even grow vegetables. My apartment has an eastern exposure back stairwell, with mostly shade and some indirect morning light. 

Here’s what she says about putting my plants outside:

  • Be careful about sunburn. Sunburn isn’t a concern just for us humans. Plants can get scorched, too. Don’t put them in blazing sunlight. Porches with shade are prime locations for orchids and birds of paradise plants.
  • The outdoors makes your plants happy. A lot of plants really enjoy the strong swing in temperature that only the outdoors can provide, said Sherwood. If you have the space for it, and moderate sunlight, your indoor houseplants would love to feel the extended daylight.
  • Keep a watchful eye. You’ll need to water outdoor plants more often, said Sherwood. Plants dry out much quicker in the sun, so check them daily. Also be aware of the weather forecast; if it’s predicting wind and rain, you may want to bring your plant babies back inside until it blows over.

Of my plant collection, Sherwood said my spider plant would probably do best outside. She also recommended elephant ears as a new outdoor option. I don’t have room in my apartment for a large plant, but I’ll keep that idea in my back pocket.

I’m going to bring my spider plant outside and see how it fares over the next few weeks. Who knows, maybe I’ll even start a vegetable container. Stay tuned!

Plant Family Check-ups

Aloe (Aloe hybrid)

Aloe (Aloe hybrid)

I’m not sure whether it’s OK, because the tips of its leaves are a little brown and soggy. I don’t think it’s dead, though. I think. I hope.

Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura)

Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura)

Seems to be doing all right, but I’m a little disappointed by its lack of movement. I bought the prayer plant partly because I wanted to see its leaves bend up and down. From what I can tell, it doesn’t move. It’s still pretty, though!

ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

Honestly, I forget it’s there half the time. Which is great! It’s my lowest maintenance plant, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

Flamingo flower (Anthurium andraeanum)

Flamingo flower (Anthurium andraeanum)

New growth! I spotted a few red blooms shooting up from the soil, and it’s made me so happy. This is my favorite plant. Shhh…don’t tell the others.

Mexican firecracker succulent (Echeveria setosa)

Mexican firecracker succulent (Echeveria setosa)

This one is the most worrisome of the crew. It hasn’t lost any more leaves, but it still doesn’t seem too happy. I moved it out of direct sunlight, and have been resisting watering it, but the leaves still feel a little soft and squishy. Keeping an eye on this one.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)

Loving its new home outside!


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org