Archives For Erica Masini

Does This Houseplant Make Me Look Like an Adult?

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  January 17, 2018 — 2 Comments

Hi, my name is Erica. I’m a bad plant parent.

The irony that I work at the Chicago Botanic Garden is not lost on me. (Please don’t fire me, plant bosses.) The problem is, I have no idea how to take care of plants. Not really.

Erica Masini, blog author and plant parent

I have no idea what I’m doing.

Walk into my apartment and tell me what you see: A wasteland of unsuspecting money trees and innocent spiderworts. A drooping pothos in the corner, desperate for water. Squeezing the life out of my little green pals does not bring me joy. And yet, here I am, a lone wolf among my jungalow-dwelling, millennial peers: A plant-killer.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever asked these questions: Does my monstera prefer direct sun? Will an aloe vera kill my cat? What if I get too caught up in my very important plans (read: binging Mindhunter on Netflix) that I forget to water my fern every day? Why would I even want a plant? (More on that later).

One of my goals is to have more life in my home; to lay down some roots, so to speak (plant-pun intended). And so I invite you to follow along with me as I chronicle my gardening adventures in Plant Parenthood—a blog series about growing a relationship with plants.

With the Garden’s horticulture staff as my guide, I’ll learn the ins and outs of soil, pests, and shade. I’ll make mistakes. I’ll definitely kill more plants.

But along the way, I’ll learn something. And I hope you will, too.

TL;DR? Click here for the “Three Things Every New #PlantParent Should Know”

A wee "air plant"

One thing I’ve learned so far is I’m not the only young person new to gardening. The 2016 National Gardening Report found of the six million Americans new to gardening, five million of them were 18- to 34-year-olds. Millennials, according to a widely shared Washington Post article last year, are gardening indoors because they’ve moved to small, urban apartments and crave nature. Look no further than Instagram to see the evidence: hashtags like #urbanjungle and #jungalow call up all sorts of gauzy photos of apartments brimming with foliage.

What’s more: These plant parents seem genuinely proud to show off their blossoming, plant-baby families. How do they do it, I wonder? Where is a recovering plant-ignoramus to start?

I went to Fred Spicer for advice. As executive vice president and director of the Garden, he understands plants. Plus, he wears a gardening hat 80 percent of the time, so I figure he must know something.

Fred Spicer, executive vice president and director of the Chicago Botanic Garden

Fred Spicer, plant guru

Turns out “plant blindness”—or the inability to notice, appreciate, and understand plants—is a common problem among humans. The term was coined in 1998 by botanist-educators James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler, who argued humans generally connect more with animals, despite the fact that plants fuel all life on earth. Think back to grade school science class, when you first learned about photosynthesis and plant biology. Have you thought much about it since? I began to worry about the imbalance of affection toward my cat versus my definitely dead lemon cypress.

“Humans generally don’t think too much about plants, unless we’re eating them,” said Spicer. “We’re animals, our pets are animals, we generally know what animals want. Plants are different. They don’t have the same biology we do. So they’re mysterious to us.”

For instance, plants aren’t active, at least not in the way animals are active. Their activity happens on a different timeline than ours. Humans pay attention to big and rapid changes, like when the leaves change during the fall, or when trees are bare in winter. But the small things, like a budding leaf, we don’t always stop to notice.

OK, so plants aren’t animals. How, then, do I begin to understand them?

Here’s what Spicer recommends:

Three things every new #PlantParent should ask:

  1. Light — No houseplant lives in the dark. Spicer asks whether your living space is plant hospitable: Do you have natural light? Are there places in your home that get more direct/indirect light? If not, are you open to artificial lighting, like grow lamps?
  2. Maintenance — How much do you want to interact with your plants? “Do you want to fuss with them every day? Do you want to be able to leave them for a week? Some plants need more attention than others,” said Spicer. Be realistic about how much time and energy you can spend.
  3. Purpose — What do you want to get out of your plants? Spicer asks: “Do you want to eat them? Do you want to see flowers? Do you want to create a particular design aesthetic?” Knowing your goals can help you pick the right plants.

As I sit with these questions, I think about a plant I picked up from the Garden last week. It was an azalea, a small shrub with white flowers that look like snowflakes. Left over from a recent exhibition, it most likely would die within a week, but nevertheless, as I placed it in the backseat of my car to take it home, I caught myself reaching for the seat belt. I almost buckled it in. Maybe plant parenthood won’t be so unnatural after all.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Many of the display gardens at the Chicago Botanic Garden may be sleeping this time of year, but our horticulturists definitely are not. They’re hard at work during snowy winters, thinking about all the new plants and planning for the New Year.

The Garden in Winter

We asked a few horticulturists for their gardening resolutions for 2018—whether at the Chicago Botanic Garden, or in their own backyard. Feel free to snag one of their ideas for yourself.

Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist, English Walled Garden

Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist, English Walled Garden
Some of my New Year’s resolutions are to clean and sharpen my tools, start a compost pile with my kitchen scraps, pet more bumble bees, and sit on a garden bench every day. Okay, maybe every week. Well, at least every month. Baby steps. Baby steps.

Michael Jesiolowski, senior horticulturist, Entrance Gardens

Michael Jesiolowski, senior horticulturist, entrance gardens
I want to include more bulbs in my perennial plantings. Bulbs might not be the first thing that comes to mind when going plant shopping, but they can be used to complement perennials in bloom or massed on their own to make a bold statement. How about an early summer combo of Allium ‘Globemaster’ and Eremurus ‘Cleopatra’? Hmmm…

Ayse Pogue, senior horticulturist, Japanese Garden

Ayse Pogue, senior horticulturist, Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden
My New Year’s resolution is to apply the principles of the  soil initiative the Garden has just begun. I am very excited to learn more about how to take care of our soils properly and, in the meantime, increase the vigor and resiliency of our plants.

Tom Soulsby, senior horticulturist, Rose Garden, Heritage Garden, and Linden Allee

Tom Soulsby, senior horticulturist, Krasberg Rose Garden, Heritage Garden, and Linden Allee
For me, plants with especially unique leaf characteristics such as color, shape, and variegation have recently piqued my interest. I’ll be on the hunt in 2018 for more plant ideas that express these characteristics. Distinctive plants inspire my seasonal designs in the Heritage Garden.

Wade Wheatley, assistant horticulturist, Greenhouses

Wade Wheatley, assistant horticulturist, Greenhouses
My horticultural New Year’s resolution is to be a better plant dad to my houseplants. Since I spend the day at work taking care of the tropical plants at the Garden, it is sometimes difficult to maintain enthusiasm to come home and keep watering plants. However, I know that when I am more attentive to my houseplants they thrive and brighten up my living space.

Tom Weaver, horticulturist, Dwarf Conifer Garden and Waterfall Garden

Tom Weaver, horticulturist, Dwarf Conifer Garden and Waterfall Garden
My New Year’s resolution for my home garden is to be less stressed out when my dog, Pepin, tries to help me by digging holes all over the garden. I chose this because she loves to dig and I don’t think I’m ever going to stop her, so I might as well use the help and make use of the holes she’s digging!


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Over the river and through the woods you trekked to find the perfect, most lush Christmas tree (okay, maybe you drove to the nearest retail lot and pointed at that one). Now that you picked your evergreen, how do you make it last through the holidays (and possibly even longer)?

Keeping your tree fresh isn’t hard—most can live up to a month—as long as you follow some simple rules of evergreen thumb. Get it? Horticulturist Tom Weaver explains how to get the most life out of your tree in a few easy steps.

christmas_tree_on_esplanade

Pick a fresh tree
If you’re shopping for pre-cut live trees at a nursery or retail lot, never buy a bagged tree, says Weaver. It’s harder to know whether the tree is fresh if it’s wrapped in netting. The best way to tell which pre-cut tree will last longest is to do the “shake test.” Grab a tree by its trunk and give it a little jostle. If more than handful of the tree’s needles fall off, you may want to keep looking. Also, make sure the needles are firm, flexible, and dark green—not dry, brown, and brittle. Firs keep their needles longest, but there are many kinds of evergreens to choose from.

Give the stump a fresh cut
If you purchase a tree at a location less than 20 minutes from your home, ask for the tree stump to be cut ½ to 1 inch while at the retailer. If you’re commuting more than 20 minutes with tree in tow, make the cut yourself at home. When a tree sits in a lot, its stump creates a callus to prevent it from losing water and sap. A fresh cut allows the tree to absorb water more easily. Make sure the cut is perpendicular, not at an angle or pointed.

Watering rules
As soon as you get your tree home, plunge it in a bucket of room-temperature water until you’re ready to put it in a tree stand. Make sure the tree stand reservoir can hold enough water for the size of tree you picked—Christmas trees generally drink a quart of water a day per 1 inch diameter of the tree’s stem. Most drink up to a gallon a day. Don’t let the water dish run dry!

To feed or not to feed?
Although some tree experts say water is plenty, Weaver recommends adding Christmas tree food to the mix. “Think of it as a giant cut flower,” said Weaver. “You’ll have better luck extending the life of your tree with some food.”

Step away from the heat
Though you’ll likely want to snuggle up next to the fire to gaze lovingly at your tree, the tree doesn’t share this wish. Position it far away from any heat source (fireplaces, furnaces, radiators, and heating vents), because heat speeds up the drying out process. Not only will that mean your tree will die sooner, but a dry tree is also a big fire hazard. Show your tree some love by keeping it in a cool place, and you’ll enjoy its piney scent through the New Year.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Full bellies and full hearts. It’s what great Thanksgivings are made of. This year, add a special touch to your holiday table with harvest-inspired centerpieces that bring the whole family together.

We asked Nancy Clifton, program specialist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, to share some easy, crafty ideas that would fit a variety of party styles. Here are three centerpieces you can create (and mix-and-match) to impress your guests.

A Festive Friendsgiving

Friends are family you choose, as the saying goes. For these cozy gatherings, pick your own flowers, too. Here’s how you can make Thanksgiving-themed floral centerpieces like a pro:

Thanksgiving Flower Arrangements

Thanksgiving Flower Arrangements

Pick flowers in autumn colors. Buy a few bunches of flowers in different fall colors and textures at your local grocery store. Nancy chose red roses, yellow mums, red-yellow mums, and hypericum berries to give the arrangements some variety.

Paint Thanksgiving mason jars. If you want to up your Thanksgiving game, paint your vases in holiday colors such as brown, orange, and ivory. Nancy used craft paint on mason jars, and sanded the lettering on the jars to give them a vintage look.

Save time by measuring flowers. Nancy’s time-saving hack is to trim one flower with pruners and remove foliage at the bottom of the stem. Place that flower in the mason jar vase. If you’re happy with the height, remove the flower and use it as a measuring tool to trim the rest of your flowers. Make sure you trim the flowers low enough so you can see your friends’ faces!

Impress-the-in-laws Pumpkin Planters

If you’ve got some serious entertaining to do (or at least want more excuses to use your hot-glue gun), wow your crowd with pumpkin succulent centerpieces. The best part? You can repurpose and eat parts of them when you’re done.

See the demo video on YouTube here.

Thanksgiving Centerpiece

The finished succulent and squash centerpiece

Gather the basic tools and ingredients. Grab a hot-glue gun, reindeer moss, and floral picks from the craft store. At your local grocery store, find small- and medium-sized pumpkins (you will want several), a succulent container, bunches of kale, and cabbages.

Assemble the planters. Cut the ends off of your succulents so they have a flat base, and set them aside. Adhere moss to the top of your medium-sized pumpkins with your hot-glue gun. Once the glue is dried, add the succulents on top of the moss, and adhere with hot glue or floral picks.

Arrange your centerpiece. When the pumpkins are dried, place them in the center of a large decorative tray. Add smaller pumpkins, bunches of kale, and cabbages to tray, arranging them in a bountiful display. You can even paint the stems of your small pumpkins with glitter-paint to give them extra-fancy glitz.

Give Thanks Table Runner

One of our favorite Thanksgiving traditions is sharing what we’re grateful for. A fun way to involve the whole family in this tradition is to have everyone write their “thanks”on a centerpiece mural.

Buy a roll of Kraft paper. Think of this as your table runner. You may want to lay this on top of a tablecloth to protect your table from stray doodles.

Decorate with thanks. Place markers around the table for guests to write their thanks on the runner.

Add an intimate glow. Nancy added pumpkin planters, candles, and string lights to the centerpiece to bring a warm, enchanting feeling to your party.

We hope you enjoy creating these centerpieces, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

Find more of Nancy’s ideas, check out her 101 on creating Thanksgiving cornucopias.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Tiny hands, belonging to a class of third graders, carefully fold rulers into squares and rest them on a grassy meadow near the Dixon Prairie. Inside these 2-by-2-foot quadrants is a fantastical world to discover: the height of different species of plants, the temperature of the soil, the wind and the sun, and the climate of the lawn.

The children have a mission on this blustery October morning, an adventure in the far reaches of the Chicago Botanic Garden, where a yellow school bus opens its doors to a field trip inside the life of a Garden scientist.

A young boy studies tallgrass on the prairie during a guided field trip at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Learning about ecosystems outside the classroom creates valuable experiences and future scientists.

Prairie Pondering is just one of the Garden’s guided field trips, where students from Chicago area schools can experience the day-to-day work of a Garden ecologist. Trained Garden volunteers engage students in guided field trips from September to June. They use the same tools as horticultural scientists, take samples in the field, and ask questions that Garden experts examine on a daily basis. The goal of the field trips is to create real-life opportunities for students to have fun with science outside of their classroom walls, said Drew Wehrle, the Garden’s coordinator of student field trips.

To get their hands dirty, so to speak.

A teacher and group of students study the ecosystem in the 2ft-square area they have blocked off.

Evaluating the ecosystem of a particular quadrant helps scientists of all age focus their study.

“What are the biotic—or living—things affecting the prairie?” asked a Garden volunteer during Prairie Pondering. Students scribble answers in their notebooks: sun, wind.

“What does the soil look and smell like?” More answers: dry, smells bad.

“What is the temperature of the soil? Why do you think it’s different from the temperature in the air?”

One girl watches her thermometer fluctuate from 77 to 76 degrees. “The temperature is changing!” And so begins an early, hard lesson about Chicago weather.

As the group moves on to the prairie, the children are asked to consider the many different plants they’ve found. One girl counts 100, another 200. One boy points out a milkweed plant that reminds him of the game Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare.

“The point of the field trips is less about botanical expertise and more about asking the kids to consider why they think a plant looks or behaves the way it does,” Wehrle said.

Two girls compare answers as they walk through the prairie on a field trip.

Sharing time together outside is part of the fun of guided field trips.

A boy on a field trip runs through the prairie.

Field trips are a great opportunity for outdoor fun, too.

Each of the guided field trips is crafted to fulfill age-appropriate state Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), so students get to explore while also engaging with ideas that complement what they’re already learning in the classroom. Guided field trips include a range of botanical and nature topics, including The Wonders of Worms and Soil, Lake Investigations, Water Bugs, and Tree Detectives. Field trips are offered for third grade through high school students, and can be guided or self-directed. Self-guided field trips allow groups of all ages to explore while their teachers direct them on independent activities.

For more information about field trips, or to sign up, visit www.chicagobotanic.org/fieldtrips.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org