Archives For Education

The Chicago Botanic Garden offers classes for every age, interest, and skill level with instruction by experts in their fields.

Sure, they are fun pets and a good educational tool for your kids, as well as a great source of fresh eggs. But what do chickens have to do with the environment? There are a number of ways that having hens in your backyard can be environmentally beneficial.

PHOTO: Jennifer Murtoff with one of her pullets.

Jennifer Murtoff of Home to Roost, LLC with one of her pullets

Poultry Pest Patrol

Forget those nasty pesticides! Chickens are omnivores by nature and thoroughly enjoy chasing down plant-destroying insects like grasshoppers, grubs, beetles, and larvae. 

Betsey Miller and her colleagues at Oregon State University recently conducted a study with red ranger chickens to test the insect-finding power of poultry. They placed hundreds of insect pest decoys in leaf litter, placing some litter in the chicken pen and some outside. A day later, they examined both piles and recovered any remaining decoys. The results: all the decoys remained the control pile, but there were no decoys to be found in the chickens’ pile. The birds had gobbled them up! This study illustrates the chickens’ persistence in ridding an area of potential pests in a very short time.

Poultry pest patrols can be applied to flower and vegetable gardens. In addition, business enterprises are also reaping this benefit of keeping chickens: Earth First Farms, run by Tom and Denise Rosenfeld, is a local organic orchard that uses chickens as natural “insecticide.”

Biddie Biorecycling

Many eco-minded individuals tout a zero-waste trash stream as an important part of their green living plan: no materials leave the home as trash to be added to a landfill. Many people recycle waste, repurpose materials, and compost their vegetable matter. Chickens can be included in this schema as well, helping to reduce the amount of organic waste.

PHOTO: A mother hen teaches her chicks to forage.

A mother hen teaches her chicks to forage. By fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons

An adult chicken eats around 9 pounds of food per month. For the sake of argument, let’s say that 75 percent of that is layer ration (which I recommend for a healthy, balanced diet). That means each bird can biorecycle more than 2 pounds per month in vegetable matter and table waste. A flock of four birds, if fed a diet of 75 percent layer ration and 25 percent food waste, can eat more than 100 pounds per year in waste. If you take layer ration out of the equation completely, four birds can power through more than 400 pounds of food waste in a year. (As an aside, only fruit and vegetable matter should be fed to the chickens on a regular basis; too much pasta, dairy, bread, etc., can lead to obesity and health problems.)

The idea of chickens as biorecyclers was so appealing to officials in the villages of Pince in northwest France and Mouscron in Belgium that they are offering chickens to residents. Says the mayor of Pince, “To begin with it was a joke, but then we realized it was a very good idea. It will also reinforce community links: just as people look after their neighbors’ cats and dogs while they’re away, they’ll also look after the chickens.”

Fowl Fertilizer

All the natural waste byproduct, better known as poop, comes out the back end of the bird to the tune of 1 cubic foot of manure every six months. While chicken manure can be messy, stinky, and just all-around not desirable, this “black gold,” as some call it, is very high in nitrogen. However, it contains ammonia, which makes it “hot” compost: it needs time to break down into a usable format. When mixed with organic “brown” material such as grass clippings and leaves, the waste eventually decomposes into nitrites (which are toxic to plants) and finally into nitrates (which can be used as fertilizer). This chemical process can take anywhere from six to nine months. The mature compost can be added to the surface of a flower bed or worked into the soil. So a flock of chickens can turn all that vegetable matter from your kitchen into highly effective, free fertilizer.

PHOTO: Chicken feet at work! These feet are made for scratching—and ridding your yard of insect pests.

Chicken feet at work! These feet are made for scratching—and ridding your yard of insect pests.

Hens and Humus

While chicken manure contributes to your compost bin, the birds can enrich your garden in other ways—with their feet. Chickens are ground birds, with strong, sturdy feet that are meant for digging and scratching in search of food. Turn your birds loose in the garden or on a raised bed and they will till the soil with their feet in search of grubs, worms, bugs, tender shoots, and other tasty tidbits. All this activity will turn leaf litter and dead biomatter into the soil while providing an easy aeration solution. If your soil is in need of a boost, put your chicken to work. When the birds have worked over a garden plot or raised bed, it will be tilled and ready to plant!

Environmental Egg-sistence

Envision an agribusiness egg farm with stack upon stack, row after row, of hens in cramped cages. You’ve no doubt questioned the system and its humanity and sustainability. Chicken houses produce tons of manure per year, and the hens who live in these barns may be force molted to keep up egg production by withdrawing food and water. These barns are considered concentrated animal-feeding operations, and the U.S. EPA cites them as being “a significant source of water pollution.” In addition, the air around these farms “can be odorous,” and the nitrogen can leak into bodies of water, causing algal bloom and destroying the natural habitat.

PHOTO: Eggs in straw.

The best benefit of backyard chickens—the eggs!

Backyard chickens provide a better alternative to the excessive environmental impact of factory farming. Compared to a factory farm, backyard hens produce a fraction of the manure in a much smaller footprint. You can handle their waste properly, returning it to the environment in an eco-conscious manner. If the coop is kept well, there will be little to no odor. In addition, the birds will also be happier and healthier. Their eggs, too, will contain better nutrition due to the birds’ ability to forage and eat a varied diet.

Chickens, like most critters, are at their happiest when doing what comes naturally to them—eating veggies and bugs, digging in the dirt, pooping, and living a happy, carefree existence on the open range. So consider adding these delightful birds to your garden as part of an eco-conscious living plan. You’ll be thanked with hours of entertainment and the best eggs you’ll ever eat!

Join me on World Environment Day, Saturday, June 6, and come learn more about keeping backyard chickens!


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Do you ever feel like trying to understand plant science research can be as daunting as deciphering a passage written in a foreign language?

As a budding plant scientist in the joint Chicago Botanic Garden/Northwestern University Ph.D. program, I find it exciting to pick through dense scientific text. Uncovering the meaning of a new acronym and learning new vocabulary can be thrilling, especially when decoding something new.

PHOTO: Kelly Ksiazek speaking in Sydney, Australia.

This past fall I spoke to a group of green infrastructure professionals in Sydney about the importance of urban biodiversity.

But the commonly used styles in scientific writing and presentation packed with language used to convey big topics in small spaces can be really off-putting to an audience of non-scientists. Many of us can conjure up a memory of a professor or teacher who seemed to like their subject matter but couldn’t convey the material in an interesting way. All of a sudden, science became boring.

Rather than struggling to learn this “foreign language,” many folks stop paying attention. Lack of scientific literacy, especially as it applies to plants, is a pity. Plants are all around us! They are so valuable to the entire planet. The very applicable field of botany shouldn’t be something that’s only discussed and understood in laboratories or scientific conferences—it should be for everyone.

This idea inspires me to try and bring my current botany research to a wide variety of people.

PHOTO: Ksiazek takes her presentation on the road to Pittsburgh.

I’ve had the chance to speak with many visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden about my research, and typically bring some of my research supplies, as seen here from a trip to Pittsburgh.

PHOTO: Growing UP in the City: A Book About Green Roofs.

Writing and publishing a children’s book helps bring my research findings to kids all over the world.

For example, I recently realized that there are very few resources available to teach young students about the habitat where I currently collect most of my data: green roofs. While some of the methods I use for data collection and analysis can be quite complex, the motivations behind my work and some of the findings can be broken down into some basic ideas, applicable to students of all ages. So a fellow botanist and I wrote and produced Growing Up in the City: A Book About Green Roofs.

Our children’s activity book teaches youngsters about some of our research findings. The book follows a pair of native bumblebees through a city, where they guide the reader through engaging activities about the structure, environmental benefits, and motivations for building green roofs. At the end, readers even have the opportunity to ask their own research question and carry out a green roof research project of their own.

Interested in your own copy of our book? More information and a free digital download of the book are available at greeningupthecity.com.

PHOTO: Ksiazek presents her work to a girls' middle school.

Talking to 100-plus middle school girls about why it’s cool to be a botanist was a great experience!

The activity book is just one example of ways that plant scientists can engage with a broader audience and make their research findings more accessible. Some of the other activities that my colleagues here at the Chicago Botanic Garden and I have participated in include mentoring undergraduate and high school students, speaking to community organizations, creating lessons for schools and school groups, volunteering for summer programs, and maintaining a presence on the Internet through online mentoring, blogging, websites, and Twitter.

PHOTO: Ksiazek and an undergraduate student identify green roof plants.

Teaching undergraduate students how to identify plants on green roofs is one way of passing on my research knowledge.

PHOTO: Ksiazek discusses her research with a visitor to the PCSC.

My experiments on the green roof at the Plant Science Center are visible to everyone. Come take a look!

Here at the Garden, we scientists also have a unique variety of opportunities to share our science with the thousands of visitors who come to the beautiful Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. If you’ve never been to the Plant Science Center, you should definitely stop by the next time you’re at the Garden. You can see inside the laboratories where the other scientists and I collect some of our data. There are also a lot of interactive displays that aim to demystify plant science research and decode some of the “foreign language” that science speak can be. For a really interactive experience, come visit us on World Environment Day, Saturday, June 6, and talk to scientists directly. Bring your kids, bring your neighbors, and ask a botanist all those burning plant questions you have! We promise to only speak as much “science” as you want.

For more information about my research and science communication efforts, please visit my research blog, Kelly Ksiazek’s Botany in Action, and follow me on Twitter @GreenCityGal.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Plant, water, and grow! Whether you are a parent, teacher, or caregiver, teaching children to plant seeds is a simple and authentic way to help them engage with nature. It’s an activity that the littlest of sprouts can do “all by myself,” or at least with minimal help from you.

PHOTO: Little Diggers pea planting in the raised beds.

Growing future gardeners in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden

Planting seeds leads to discussions about what seeds and plants need to grow and how food gets to our tables. Watering is a simple chore young children are capable of doing; it teaches them about responsibility and helps them feel they are making a contribution to the family or classroom. 

Students from our Little Diggers class, ages 2 to 4, planted peas indoors in mid-March and transplanted them outside into the raised beds in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden in mid-April. Come follow the steps we took to get there.

March: Planting the Pea Seeds Indoors

Supply List:

  • Seeds
  • Soilless potting mix or seed-starting potting mix in a wide-mouth container
  • Plant pots (plastic or biodegradable, roughly 2.5 inches in diameter)
  • Trowels, spray bottles, or watering cans
  • Plastic seedling tray with lid

Set-up Time: 10 minutes

Activity Time: 10–40 minutes of actual planting (depending on the size of the group)

Appropriate for Ages: 2 and up

Clean-up Time: 10–15 minutes

PHOTO: Large pea seeds are easy for small fingers to grasp.

Large pea seeds are easy for small fingers to grasp.

PHOTO: Use this kind of plastic seedling tray and lid.

Here I am modeling the latest in seedling trays. You can purchase these and our other supplies at your local garden center or home improvement store.

Select seeds that are big—the smaller the hands, the bigger the seed should be—and quick to sprout, or germinate. Also consider the amount of space the mature plants will occupy, and the time of year you are planting. Some seeds can be planted during the cool spring, while others should go in the ground once the threat of frost has passed.

We chose ‘Tom Thumb’ pea seeds because they are large enough for little hands to easily manipulate, they germinate in 7–14 days, they thrive in the cool spring weather, and they only grow to be 8 inches tall and 8 inches wide, making them great for small-space gardens and containers.

Tip: Some other large seeds suitable for little hands are sunflowers, beans, nasturtium (edible flower), pumpkin, and other squash. For more details about how and when to plant these seeds visit www.kidsgardening.org/node/101624.

PHOTO: A low, wide trug full of soil makes filling pots easy for younger gardeners.

A low, wide trug full of soil makes filling pots easy for younger gardeners.

PHOTO: Watering the seeds in is the best part of planting.

Watering in the seeds is the best part of planting.

 

Set out the potting mix in a wide-mouth container such as a flexible plastic tub, sand bucket, or cement mixing tray on the ground. Have trowels, pots, seeds, and spray bottles ready.

Tip: A soil container with a wide opening will lead to less soil on the ground. Also, more children will be able to plant at the same time.

Using a trowel, fill the pot with soil. Set two pea seeds on the soil and push them down ½- to 1-inch deep. Then cover the seeds with soil. Spray with a spray bottle until the soil is saturated.

Tip: Planting depth will depend on the type of seeds you are planting. Read the back of the seed packet for details.

Finally, each child should label their pot. We used craft sticks to easily identify each child’s plant.

Tip: Pot up extra seeds in case some don’t germinate. I potted up 10–15 extras. Every child needs to feel successful and have peas to transplant when the time comes. Once kids have planted seeds a few times and are a little older, you won’t need to pot up extras. Having seeds fail is the next great gardening lesson for more experienced young gardeners.

PHOTO: Our young grower adds his pot to the tray. It's a good idea to pot up extra seeds in case some don’t germinate.

Our young grower adds his pot to the tray. It’s a good idea to pot up extra seeds in case some don’t germinate.

PHOTO: Craft sticks easily identify each child’s plant. Keeping the top lid on slightly open helps air circulate around the plantings, so they don't grow fungus.

Craft sticks easily identify each child’s plant. Keeping the top lid on, but slightly open, helps air circulate around the plantings, so they don’t grow fungus.

Put the containers on the plastic tray and cover with a clear plastic lid. This will keep moisture in and will require less frequent watering. Allow the soil surface to dry out slightly between watering. Using the misting setting on the sprayer works well because it doesn’t create a hole in the soil and expose the seed like a watering can will.

Tip: Watch for white fungus growing on the soil surface. If this occurs, remove the plastic lid. This will kill the fungus and promote germination. If you will be away from the classroom or home for a few days, put the plastic lid on so the soil doesn’t dry out. Remove it when you return.

Tip: Peas don’t respond well to transplanting, so we planted the seeds in biodegradable pots to avoid this problem. These pots break down in the soil, allowing the roots to continue to grow undisturbed.

April: Transplanting the Pea Plants into the Garden

Supply List:

  • Pea plants
  • Trowels
  • Spray bottles or watering cans

Set-up Time: 10 minutes

Activity Time: 20–30 minutes or more (depending of the size of the group and the number of helpers)

Appropriate for Ages: 2 and up

Clean-up Time: 10 minutes

Choose a sunny location that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight every day and has well-drained soil. We planted our peas in the raised beds at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

Bring all the supplies out to the site. Have each child choose where they would like to dig their hole. Pass out a trowel and plant to each child. Dig a hole as deep as the soil in the pot. Place the plant, pot and all, in the hole. Fill in the space around the plant with soil and water the plants.

Check the peas daily and water them with a watering can or hose when the soil is slightly dry. About 50 – 55 days after planting, these shelling peas will be ready to harvest and eat! Come see the plants that the students of our Little Diggers class planted in the raised beds, just south of the orchard at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden!

PHOTO: Watering seedlings in the raised beds.

Remember to water in your seedlings when you put them in the ground!

PHOTO: Watering seedlings in the raised bed.

Sunshine and a good squirt of water will help this pea seedling grow!

Direct Sowing: Easy Peas-y Approach

PHOTO: Direct sowing is the easiest approach—and often the most successful with early spring vegetables. Not to mention: it's fun.

Direct sowing is the easiest approach—and often the most successful with early spring vegetables. Not to mention: it’s fun.

As a working parent, I chose this approach with my almost three-year-old. All you really need is a sunny spot with well-drained soil, seeds (we used ‘Tom Thumb’ peas because we have a small garden), a small shovel (trowel) and water. Choose a sunny spot for planting (6–8 hours of direct sun).

First I showed him how to draw lines in the soil with his trowel (they should be ½– to 1-inch deep). Then he dropped seeds along the lines. I wasn’t concerned about spacing 2 inches apart as recommended on the seed packet because I can always thin them out once the seeds start to grow. He covered the seeds up and watered them with the hose. Every evening, we enjoy checking to make sure the soil is damp.

Tip: If you’re little one is getting impatient, these peas can be harvested early and eaten, pod and all, like snow peas!


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Garden has a bright and cheery answer for overcoming classroom winter doldrums: take a field trip to see the Orchid Show

PHOTO: Students observe how orchids are adapted to the wet environment -- they grow aerial roots that can absorb water from the humid air.

Students observe how orchids are adapted to the wet environment—they grow aerial roots that can absorb water from the humid air.

At a time when schools are tightening budgets and limiting field trips, you might think that an Outrageous Orchids experience is a frivolous excursion—but, in fact, this is a luxurious way to learn life science principles. Our programs are grounded in fundamental science concepts outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards. From Valentine’s Day to St. Patrick’s Day, students get meaningful science lessons as they enjoy the sensational display of colors and aromas in our Greenhouses. 

Field trips are tailored to suit different grade levels. Younger students study the variety of color and shapes found in the exhibition to identify patterns. Early elementary level students examine the structures of orchids to understand their functions. Upper elementary students recognize how tropical orchids have adaptations for survival in a rainforest. These core ideas about orchids apply to all plants and are essential for understanding ecosystems. There isn’t a more beautiful way to study plant science anywhere else in the Chicago region.

PHOTO: It is easy for students to see how this flashy orchid attracts pollinators as well as people.

It is easy for students to see how this flashy orchid attracts pollinators as well as people.

As if being surrounded by gorgeous flowers in the dead of winter weren’t enough to engage a person’s brain, each student also gets to transplant and take a tropical plant to continue the learning after the visit. 

The Baggie Terrarium is a mini-ecosystem that reminds students of the water cycle and enables them to observe plant growth. 

Make a Baggie Terrarium

PHOTO: Baggie terrarium.

We call this a “baggie terrarium.”

Supplies:

  • 1 zip-top bag (quart-size or larger)
  • Potting soil, moistened
  • A small plant or plant cutting (during Outrageous Orchids classes, we let students take a spider plant “pup” from a very large spider plant)
  1. Pour soil into the bag to fill about 2-3 inches deep. Use a finger to create a hole in the soil for the plant.
  2. Bury the roots of the plant in the hole and gently tap the soil around the base of the plant. If you are planting a stem cutting, place the stem in the soil and tamp around the base. If you have a larger bag, you can add more than one plant. Three different plants in a gallon size bag can make an attractive terrarium.
  3. Seal the bag, leaving about a 1-inch opening. Blow into the bag to inflate it and quickly seal the last inch tight so the air doesn’t all escape. The carbon dioxide in your breath is good for the plant, and will give the bag enough substance to stand up.
  4. Place the terrarium in a bright location, but not in direct sunlight. Remember that most tropical plants grow under the canopy of taller trees and do not need full sun. In fact, too much direct sun makes their leaves fade!
  5. Watch for tiny water droplets forming on the sides of the bag. These will gradually roll down the sides of the bag and re-water the soil. As long as the bag is completely sealed, it will stay moist and you will never have to open the bag or add more water. But if it dries out, you will need to water the plants.

You can leave your terrarium alone for a long time and not do anything but watch the plants grow. Eventually, they will outgrow the bag. Then you can transplant them to a pot if you like, or take cuttings and start another baggie terrarium.

Like all of our programs, Orchid Show field trips inspire young people to learn more about plants! Visit our website at chicagobotanic.org/fieldtrips for more information about these programs. 


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Guest blogger and Bucknell University professor Chris Martine, Ph.D., talks about guiding students away from their electronic devices and into the plant world.

 

It is a pretty spring day. The sun shines through my office window, illuminating the old and worn photo on my desk. With the image is a handwritten note: “1912 photo of Bucknell botany class field trip.” Twenty-nine formally dressed students are shown sitting near a river, a specimen and an open floristic manual in each of their laps.

Inspired, I stand up to look out my window at the plants in bloom in my campus view. I wonder if the present-day students walking past have seen them, too, and are just as impressed as I am by the chromatic exhibition.

But then I notice something: nearly every one of them—instead of looking up—is looking down. Their attention is on the smartphones in their hands; they appear to be unaware that there is anything around them at all. This reminds me, once again, of the mission I have defined for myself as a professor of botany:

In order to help them understand and appreciate the nature of life on Earth, today’s students must first be taught how to see.

PHOTO: Dr. Martine's class poses for a group shot on a hike.

Chris Martine, Ph.D., brings his college students into the forest to learn to identify plants. They are learning to see plants a new way, through methods Martine encourages everyone to adapt: putting down electronic devices and experiencing nature firsthand.

“Plant blindness” (an incapacity for many people to recognize the green world around them) has been bemoaned by modern botanists for some time. The students beyond my windowpane, however, are suffering from an ailment of a different nature, something I have begun to refer to as the “Mantid Syndrome.” 

The Mantid Syndrome describes the positioning of one’s hands and forelimbs when staring at and thumb-typing on a smartphone: hands in front of face, elbows bent in a posture not unlike a praying mantid as it prowls along a stem.

Unlike the mantid, students exhibiting this syndrome are not scanning the world around them. Rather, they see nothing beyond the reach of the bouncing thumbs and swiping forefingers working their small glass touchscreens. The issue is not an unwillingness to discern the details of the nature in their world—it’s a fundamental inability to tear their eyes from their screens long enough to know that nature is even there.

PHOTO: Chris Martine, Ph.D.

Guest blogger Chris Martine, Ph.D., brings botany to his students’ screens, but prefers bringing students to botany.

This is dangerous, of course, and not just because “smartphone mantids” often walk in front of cars or into stationary objects. These tech portals may take a user almost anywhere and show them almost anything. Yet, at the same time, one also becomes all the more disconnected from a real experience in this world—especially an experience that includes a sense of connection to nature itself.

Thankfully, there are potential treatments. One is to develop electronic education and outreach tools that meet people where they are—in virtual spaces. I have personally taken the plunge and joined this effort in a number of ways, including developing and hosting the YouTube series “Plants are Cool, Too!”, blogging for the Huffington Post, and peppering social media outlets with posts/shares/tweets about plants and biodiversity.

Efforts like these can engender greater awareness, I think, but they are not enough. Unsurprisingly, the best way to connect people with the real world is still to get them outside, unplugged and in position to see real things in real places—just like my predecessor had done with his botany class a century before me. Plants, with their ubiquity, stationary habits, and approachable demeanors, are ideal subjects for teaching students to see. Experience has shown me that if you can see the plants in your world, all the rest starts to come unblurred.

On a recent morning with my field botany class, I asked the students to look around the forest we were standing in. Six weeks into the course, I knew they would have a hard time finding a species in this spot that they couldn’t recognize and assign a name to. A short time ago this was not the case for any of them—and yet here they were, having learned to see in a new way, feeling perhaps more at home in a forest than they had in their entire lives.

PHOTO: Martine's field botany class on a research trip in the woods.

Not a “mantid” in the group—Martine’s field botany class gets a feel for the forest around them.

These students are lucky to have access to that forest—and lots of other wild places in our region—where they can develop and realize their new vision. But many young people are not as fortunate. For the more than 50 percent of the global human population in cities, finding places to become acquainted with plant diversity might be perceived as a challenge.

Luckily for all of us, there are institutions like the Chicago Botanic Garden in cities around the world where people can visit, learn about, and come to love real plants. Botanic gardens are thus critical players in helping so many more of us learn to see. Even one special encounter with a plant can be enough to open a person’s eyes for good.

With that last point in mind, I turn away from my office window and walk out of my building. In a moment I recognize a student coming my way, her face buried in her phone. I decide to intervene, and I keep it simple.

“Hey, come have a look at these plants over here.”


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org