Archives For Education

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

It was on a seasonably pleasant day this past May that 15 veterans from the Thresholds Veterans Project began a journey to be well in the Buehler Enabling Garden.

PHOTO: Chalkboard plant pot.

Inspirations: “Keep Going” planter, with a side of coffee.

We toured the garden, got to know each other, and sipped on coffee. Lots of coffee. The activity I led was called Inspirational Herb Dish Gardens and was intended to provide these vets with a lovely planter of kitchen herbs to cook with, as well as a message of encouragement they could reference for inspiration in their daily life. After the first retreat was done, I thought to myself, “Wow! That was a really good program!” And it was. It was really good. Over the course of the summer, these vets returned to the Garden five more times to participate in various retreats all focused on wellness and using nature to heal.

To date, more than 2.7 million people have served our country during the most recent conflicts. Approximately 1 million of these veterans have accessed the VA healthcare system for war-related injuries. Many of the injuries sustained on these missions are unique in that they are “invisible” wounds of war—traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are difficult to diagnose, yet have large impacts on a veteran’s life. Symptoms range from mild to severe and include anxiety, hypervigilance, insomnia, irritability, and physical pain. Other common injuries sustained from these missions include musculoskeletal and missing limbs. For some, reintegration into civilian life, family, society, and employment may be difficult. In fact, even vets who were not technically injured in war often experience anxiety, hypervigilance, insomnia, and other stresses that inhibit their readjustment.

PHOTO: Vets gather in the garden, discussing plans.

Growing more than plants in the garden; friendships and individuals flourished this summer.

Veterans who have not had success with traditional medicine often begin to seek out alternative ways to heal. That is where the Garden comes into play. We believe beautiful gardens and natural environments are fundamentally important to the mental and physical well-being of all people. We also believe people live better, healthier lives when they can create, care for, and enjoy gardens. I witnessed the amazing effects interacting with nature has on people this summer as veterans—some on the verge of homelessness—planted the Buehler Enabling Garden with summer annuals, overjoyed to return and observe the garden flourishing throughout the season. I witnessed veterans—some participating in in-patient psychology programs—get a pass from the hospital to come to the Garden and learn to rake a dry garden in the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. I witnessed veterans—some clinically depressed—smile and laugh, as they dug potatoes from the ground in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

PHOTO: Vets digging with pitchforks.

Veterans dig deep for potatoes and for well-being.

Each of our six retreats was filled with creativity, education, companionship, and joy. As the summer progressed, so did the veterans, each of them growing stronger and more healthy in their special way, each of them changing and striving to be well. Our group started to call the Enabling Garden “our garden,” and the plantings we planted became “our plants.” Participants would tell me that this day (the day they came to the Garden) was the day they looked forward to the most. They would tell me how amazing the Garden is, and how safe they felt here. It was music to my ears, and I felt so proud of them.

It was easy to draw comparisons about healing, being well, and growing to gardens this summer. Gardens start small and respond to weather and temperature. They grow and change with the season. Sometimes they start to fail or get crowded out, or overgrown; sometimes they need to be watered or groomed to flush out new growth and blooms. With care and attention, however, they grow, and flourish, and bloom. They are like us. We are small sometimes. We are big sometimes. We respond to things that happen to us or things we do. But with love and care and attention, we can grow, we can bloom, we can be well. Gardens start over and each year is a new year. We can start over, too, and each day is a new day.

PHOTO: Veterans planting in the rain.

Vets plant rain or shine in Operation Summer Change-Out.

I saw this summer how powerful gardens can be in helping people to heal and maintain wellness. Our program was effective because it created a sense of belonging and comradery, and fostered a feeling of continuing to serve, which is an important value to many vets.

As Veterans Day approaches, remember the people who have served, put their lives on the line, and are still fighting today. Thank them, salute them, and honor them.

I was honored to work with this amazing group of veterans, who became an inspiration in my own life. And I am so grateful to have the opportunity to deliver such a wonderful program.

You can help valuable Chicago Botanic Garden programs make a difference in people’s lives. Click here to donate to the Annual Fund.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Wearable Indian Corn

Kathy J. —  November 9, 2014 — Leave a comment

I always look forward to seeing Indian corn in the market and finding it in autumn decorations. Indian corn—in its range of hues from blue to deep maroon to oranges, golds, and yellows—extends the colors of the season long after the tree leaves have faded and been raked away. It is one of November’s icons, reminding us of the cultural and botanical history of the continent.

“You call it corn; we call it maize.”

Or so the 1970s TV ad for Mazola margarine told us.

Long ago, “corn” used to be the term for any grain seed, including barley, wheat, and rye, so naturally the new world plant “maize”—botanically known as Zea mays—was labeled as another kind of corn when it was introduced in Europe. For some reason, the name stuck, and we all think of the sweet yellow stuff on our dinner plates (and its close relatives) as the one and only “corn.”

ILLUSTRATION: A comparison of teosinte vs. modern corn, Zea mays.

This drawing shows the similarities between modern corn and its ancestor, teosinte, after 10,000 years of cultivation. Illustration by Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

There are actually many varieties of maize-corn. Archaeologists are pretty sure that all of them resulted from the domestication and selective cultivation of the grass teosinte (pronounced tay-oh-SIN-tee), around 10,000 years ago by the people living in what is now Mexico. Over time, maize became a staple crop, yielding different varieties of nutritious and versatile grains throughout the American continent.

PHOTO: Three ears of Indian corn leaning against a pumpkin.

The farmers in my neighborhood sell Indian corn in bundles of three alongside gourds, pumpkins, and bundles of straw.

Indian corn is related to popcorn. These kinds of maize differ from other kinds in that they have a harder outer coating and a starchy interior with a bit of water inside the seed, or kernel. Popcorn pops when the kernel is heated quickly at a high temperature, causing the water inside the seed to suddenly turn into steam, inflating the starch. The sweet corn we love to eat and the dent corn used for tortilla chips and livestock feed will not produce a fluffy white snack when heated.

We can exploit these properties of Indian corn and turn the kernels into necklace beads to wear during the season. 

How to make an Indian corn necklace

You will need the following:

  • Indian corn (one average-size cob will make two necklaces)
  • a sharp embroidery needle, long, with a large eye
  • string; you can use ordinary sewing thread, but a little heavier is better
  • a pot of water to cook and soften the corn
PHOTO: Indian corn.

My daughter chose this bundle of Indian corn because she liked both the deep red of cob on the left and the pinkish seeds of the one in the middle—but not for the same necklace.

First, remove all the kernels from the cob. You can wedge a butter knife between the rows of kernels and twist to pop out the seeds. Once you get some of the cob stripped, you can rub the kernels loose with your thumb.

PHOTO: a bowl full of colored corn seeds, or kernels.

These seeds have been removed from the cob and are ready for boiling to soften them.

Place the corn kernels in a pot of water and boil for 30 minutes. (This isn’t hot enough for the corn to pop.) Test for doneness by removing three  kernels. If you can push a needle through each of them easily, they are ready. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool. You can add cold water to cool them faster, but be sure to leave them soaking so they do not dry out, even when you are stringing them. (Pushing the needle through dry kernels can be a painful experience.)

While the corn is cooling, cut a string about three times as long as you would like your necklace to be. (You can work in shorter sections and tie them together, but it won’t look as nice.) Thread the needle and double the string; then knot the ends.

Now, select kernels in the colors you like, or pick them up randomly so the string resembles the color pattern of the corn cob. Try to pick softer pieces. Hold each kernel by the sides, and push the needle through the middle of the kernel so that the needle is not pointing toward your finger. Then slide it down the string. Leave a few inches of string below the first piece so you have some string to tie when you’re finished.  

PHOTO: This image shows how holding the seed by the sides puts fingers out of the way of the sharp end of the needle.

It is very important to hold the kernel by its sides as you poke the needle through the middle of the seed.

If the kernel is too hard and resists piercing, do not force it! Try to push the needle through at another angle, or discard that piece and select a softer one. This is important because you will prick yourself with the sharp needle if you are not careful. In fact, you’ll probably stab yourself at least once even if you are careful, so this is not a project for very young children. 

Pack the moist seeds close together on the string. As they dry, they will shrink in size. You may want to slide them together a little tighter so the string doesn’t show, but you’ll also want to leave enough wiggle room so the necklace has flexibility. When your string of corn is long enough, allow the seeds to dry completely. Then tie the ends together and you will have an attractive necklace to wear to Thanksgiving dinner or other festive gatherings!

PHOTO: Indian corn necklaces.

The finished necklaces look great layered in different lengths and colors.

One final note: when I made a corn necklace in third grade as part of a unit on Native American culture, I was under the impression that indigenous people of long ago made and wore necklaces like this. No way. All corn was grown for food, and it  was needed to sustain the population, so it would not have been turned into jewelry. This season, we can be thankful for the plentiful food we have to eat, and we can appreciate the beautiful colors of the corn as decoration during the feast.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Parents! Here’s a kid-friendly, fun-to-make idea from Kasey Bersett Eaves, who “talked squash” with fall-minded visitors at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden on a gorgeous fall weekend.

With winter squash and pumpkins readily available at grocery stores and farmers’ markets, a nicely spiced fruit leather is a great way to use a post-Halloween pumpkin (uncarved) or extra can of purée—and to get kids to eat their vegetables in a new and tasty way. Super simple to assemble, it’s a whole lot healthier than candy!

Kids AND adults love the cinnamon-y pumpkin flavor.

Kids and adults love the cinnamon-y pumpkin flavor.

Pumpkin-spiced Snack Leather

  • 1 can of plain pumpkin or 3½ cups of cooked pumpkin pulp*
  • 1 cup of unsweetened applesauce
  • Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and honey according to taste

Purée all ingredients together by hand or in a blender or food processor.

Spread purée on a foil-lined or greased cookie sheet, and smooth until just a little more than ¼-inch thick. Bake on your oven’s lowest setting (around 150 degrees) until no longer sticky to the touch (this takes close to eight hours).

Remove and cool until you can lift the edges and corners of the pumpkin leather off the foil or cookie sheet. Peel off and cut into strips. Roll each strip into plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to eat.

If you have a food dehydrator, it’s even simpler. Spread the purée on the plastic sheeting provided with your dehydrator—or wax paper—and dehydrate until no longer sticky. Roll, refrigerate, and snack away!

It's a kid-friendly process: first, blend puree with applesauce and spices to taste.

It’s a kid-friendly process: first, blend purée with applesauce and spices to taste.

A tin foil base rolls up easily.

A tin foil lining makes cleanup easy.

*Basic Technique for Cooked Squash

Fresh-cut pumpkin (which is actually a squash) has a much higher water content than canned pumpkin. You will need to cook your pumpkin first, and use more fresh pulp. Cut your squash in half and remove the seeds. Place the squash skinside down on a baking dish, and bake at 350 degrees until the flesh is tender and the cut edges have caramelized. Remove the squash from the oven and let it rest until cool. Scoop out the pulp and discard the cooked skins.

See Kasey’s summer post, too — “Herbal Mixology


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Pumpkin Seed Math Games

Kathy J. —  October 20, 2014 — Leave a comment

If you carve a pumpkin for Halloween or make pumpkin pie from scratch, you’re going to have a lot of pumpkin seeds. You can put them to good use by turning them into “dice” and playing math games this fall.

First, you’ll need to remove, clean, and dry the seeds. After scooping the pulp from your pumpkin, place it in a bowl of water and gently rub the stringy pulp off the seeds. Rinse them in a colander and let them drain. Prepare a baking sheet with a layer of parchment paper. Do not add any oil. Spread seeds in a single layer on the paper. Bake in an oven preheated to 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 30-40 minutes to dry them. Store them in a plastic bag or airtight container.

PHOTO: Pumpkin seeds on baking tray.

These seeds were baked for just over 30 minutes at 300 degrees. After they have cooled, they will be ready to become instruments of learning.

The kind of dice you make will depend on the game you want to play, but for all games the basic idea is the same. Players will toss the seeds and the side that lands face up is the number they will work with. You’ll want to select seeds that are more flat than rounded. Remove any transparent skin that remains on the seeds, so it won’t dissolve in the marker ink and make a mess. Use a regular fine Sharpie or other permanent marker. I find that the extra fine markers tend to dry out while writing on the seed. You can use any color, but for some games the color matters. You’ll also want to establish a top and bottom of the seed. I write all the numbers with the point of the seed on the bottom so 6s and 9s don’t get confused. 

Here are some games you can make:

PHOTO: Pumpkin seeds painted like dominoes.

To make a game of “Count the Dots,” draw dots on one side of each seed as shown.

Count the Dots

This works well for young children learning to count. Take six pumpkin seeds. On one side of each seed draw dots like those on a die. Leave the other side blank. To play, toss the seeds and let them land. Count all the dots facing up. The person with the most dots wins!

Add the Numbers

Older children who are learning to add can play with numbers instead of dots. You can vary this depending on the skills of the children. For early learners, make two each of 1, 2, and 3. For children practicing higher number adding, make a range from 1 to 9. To practice adding higher numbers, make a set with all 6s, 7s, 8s, and 9s. Those are scary numbers to add until you get the hang of it, which is the whole point of this game.

To play, toss the seeds, then move the blanks out of the way. Line up the numbers so they are easier to see and add up.

Addition and Subtraction

Working on subtraction? Write the number on one side of the seed in black and write the same number on the opposite side in a different color such as red. Now when you toss the seeds, add all the black numbers and subtract the red numbers. The result could be a negative number!

PHOTO: Numbered pumpkin seeds.

Playing with addition-subtraction rules where black numbers are added and red numbers are subtracted, this toss would be 1 – 7 – 2 + 4 + 8 – 6 – 9 + 3 + 5 = -3.

Evens/odds

This game works with dots or numbers, but requires a set with writing on one side only. Players take turns predicting the outcome of the toss adding up to an odd or even number. The first player calls “odds” or “evens,” tosses, checks the results. S/he gets a point if s/he is right, a point goes to his or her opponent if s/he guessed wrong. 

Numbers and Symbols

You can have more than numbers on your dice. Make a set of seeds that include numbers and function symbols: + , -, ×, and ÷. Each player should have her own identical set of seed dice. All players toss at the same time and the person who can make the number sequence with the highest answer wins. In this game, players are allowed to combine numbers to make a larger number. For example, a 1 and a 2 can become 21, as long as all the exposed numbers and symbols are used. The simplest rules for this game will be to take the order of operations from left to right, but players who want to stick to the “PEMDAS” order of operations (parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction), can certainly work that into the game. 

PHOTO: Numbered pumpkin seeds and some with math symbols.

Working with numbers and symbols gives a score of 413 for this toss.

Matching Equations

To make the game more cooperative, play the same game above, only this time the two players try to make their two number statements equal each other, or get as close as possible. This is more difficult to accomplish. so it’s all right to be a little flexible with the rules, since the players are not competing and you won’t have to settle disputes.

Players can make up their own games. They can also work in more complicated operations like exponents, or they can arrange the placement seeds above and below a line to represent division (this may require paper and pencil). Chances are, if they have reached this level of sophistication with mathematical operations, they would prefer eating the seeds to playing with them, but it’s still a fun challenge.

Whatever their level, when players have exhausted their interest in the seeds, be sure to take a break and enjoy some pumpkin “pi.” Sorry, I had to include that, because let’s face it, if you’re playing math games for fun, you’re a person who appreciates this humor!

PHOTO: Pumpkin with carved numbers for facial features.

“Pascal Pumpkinhead” gave the seedy contents of its head for mathematics.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fall Harvest Activities for Horticultural Therapy

How best to utilize the resources of your therapeutic garden before closing down for the winter.

Clare Johnson —  October 8, 2014 — Leave a comment

I make no secret about the fact that fall is my absolute favorite season. Between the pumpkin-spiced treats, falling leaves, warm-toned landscape, and endless fall activities, I simply can’t get enough of the many opportunities that fall brings. 

Fall also happens to be my favorite season for horticultural therapy. This exciting time of year is when all the off-site therapy gardens are reaping the benefits from their summer of hard work. The fall programs begin after a brief hiatus upon the completion of the summer program, and many enthusiastic gardeners return to plentiful crops and beautiful blooms just waiting to be enjoyed. 

Today I’m describing three of my favorite fall activities and their therapeutic benefits: fall planters, mum pumpkins, and harvest herb dip. 


Fall planters

PHOTO: Students at Christopher School work to transition their school garden from summer to fall.

Students at Christopher School work to transition their school garden from summer to fall.

Creating fall planters—either in a personal, tabletop container or raised garden bed—is a great way to prepare your garden for the fall while adding seasonal interest. This activity works well for a group of any size or ability. 

During this activity, our groups begin to remove overgrown summer crops for composting while replacing them with edible fall crops and autumn blooms. For our off-site therapy gardens, we typically plant cabbage, kale, onions, pansies, and mums. This allows the group one more opportunity to work in their outdoor garden before the impending first frost.  

Therapeutic benefits

This activity brings a cyclical close to the gardening season. In the beginning of spring, we discuss seed germination and the life cycle of a plant. It is important to relate this activity back to the spring to highlight how far the garden has come during the harvest season. The theme and symbolic nature of this activity—events coming to a close or new beginnings—is useful in horticultural therapy groups. Take time to think about how you can relate this to your specific audience and how the message can resonate with them—either as a group or individually. 


Mum pumpkins

The mum pumpkin activity is always a big hit in horticultural therapy. The supplies needed for this activity are as follows: one small pumpkin (I use pie pumpkins), a spoon for scraping, cut flowers, and floral foam. This activity can also be done using soil and cell-pack flowers such as mums or pansies. 

The mum pumpkin activity has two large components to it: the carving out of the pumpkin and the planting or arranging of the flowers. It typically takes a full 60 minutes for a large group of horticultural therapy participants to complete this activity as well as a decent amount of space. 

PHOTO: A pumpkin planted with a selection of fall mums.

Beautiful mum pumpkins created in an off-site horticultural therapy facility.

The first step is carving out the pumpkins. For many of the contracts, we like to wash and save the seeds for future baking enjoyment. Often, hand-over-hand assistance is needed in order to help our participants scrape out the pumpkin innards. This creates a wonderful opportunity for fine motor and rudimentary skill exercise. Once the pumpkins are clear, the floral foam can be inserted for the mum arrangement. (If you choose to fill your pumpkin with a planted flower, I would recommend using 1-2 cell-pack pansies per pumpkin.)

Therapeutic benefits:  

One of my favorite aspects of this activity is the sheer joy that radiates from our participants after they create a beautiful, seasonal centerpiece. This activity allows participants to create something that is their own, something with their favorite colors, and plant material that will bring them joy every time they see it. It’s important to insert activities such as these to encourage self-expression and promote joy. That, after all, is one of the greatest benefits to gardening. 


Harvest herb dip 

Our simple and delicious harvest herb dip has been a late summer and fall favorite for many, many years. Why is that? It involves a beloved activity for all individuals—eating! For our harvest herb dip, we collect fresh herbs from our garden as well as cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and other goodies to create a delicious snack. 

PHOTO: Pepper plants.

Baby sweet peppers grow in the Christopher School Enabling Garden.

For our groups, we supply each participant with a paper bag and encourage them to pick items that they’d enjoy in their dip. We commonly collect chives, parsley, peppers, and cucumbers. Once each participant has collected their desired items, we head inside to wash and prep the ingredients. While the participants are chopping their various herbs and vegetables, the horticultural therapist and/or aides mix the two store-bought ingredients: whipped cream cheese and sour cream. We use roughly one 8-ounce container of cream cheese with 4 ounces of sour cream. (This recipe can also be made with greek yogurt in place of the sour cream. )  

With the base of the dip mixed, each participant gets a personal bowl of dip in which they can pour and mix their ingredients. Then, with some sliced cucumbers, peppers and crackers, the participants dig in! 

PHOTO: Student eating herb dip.

A student enjoys his homemade herb dip with garden cucumbers and peppers for dipping.

Therapeutic benefits:  

Inserting activities involving edible garden items is always rewarding. In my first year, I discovered that many horticultural therapy participants (namely students) had never seen a tomato, pepper, or cucumber grow on a plant—let alone one they tended to and cared for themselves. The therapeutic benefits for this activity relate to educational opportunities. We often take time to discuss what other food items can be made from our delicious garden harvest to get participants excited about healthy and sustainable foods. It never ceases to amaze me how much fun students have picking and eating delicious vegetables! 

There are many more activities that one can do with a group or individual in a therapy garden during the fall season. Simple and inexpensive garden-maintenance activities provide wonderful opportunities for socialization and conversation regarding healthy practices for living things.

Fall is a beloved season by all of our garden groups, and it’s important to squeeze in as much time as possible in our outdoor therapy gardens before the midwestern winter knocks at our door. With the beautiful fall colors, plentiful harvest, and mildly cool weather—it hard to imagine a more desirable place to be than a garden.

Happy harvest! 


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org