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

It’s that time of year in schools again: time for science fair projects!
tomato project

As I’ve stated before, we in the education department of the Chicago Botanic Garden are committed to helping parents and teachers find great projects that teach students how plants sustain and enrich life. Last year we talked about using radish seeds; this year, it’s tomato seeds. And like last year, this project can be done by an individual student, a small group or ecology club, or an entire class.

Let’s begin by thinking about tomato seeds. Cut open a tomato and try to pick out a single seed. Go ahead and try it, I’ll wait.

PHOTO: This close up of a tomato seed shows the transparent coating that surrounds the tomato seed.

These tomato seeds glisten and mock me when I attempt to pick them up with my fingertips. The little brats also resist sliding off the cutting board.

 
As you will discover (if you didn’t already know) the seeds are coated in a gelatinous substance that makes them slippery and difficult to handle. So the first question is, what purpose does the slimy coating serve?

This is not the kind of blog post where I give you all the answers. That would not be good science teaching. I will tell you that tomato seeds can pass through the digestive tract of an animal and still germinate. Not all seeds can do that. It is possible that in nature, the coating protects the seeds on their journey from the mother plant through the hostile environment of a hungry animal’s gut and on to wherever that animal relieves itself.

Another theory is that the coating prevents premature germination of the seeds while they are inside the warm, moist, ripening fruit. Whatever the true reason—and there may be several—seed savers find it’s better to remove that coating after the seeds are harvested, because they become easier to handle and store.

The natural way to remove the coating is to ferment the seeds in a jar or bowl. It’s a simple procedure.

1. Scoop or squeeze the seedy pulp out of the tomatoes and put it into a bowl. (I prefer glass, but some people use plastic.) Add water equal to the volume of tomato pulp. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and poke a few holes in the top.

PHOTO: glass bowl about a third full of tomato pulp, covered with plastic wrap, sitting on the windowsill.

Here are the seeds from three medium sized tomatoes, sitting by the window on the back porch, waiting to ferment.

2. Place the bowl in a warm location such as a sunny window. It is going to smell bad, so don’t put it in your dining room, unless you’re trying to reduce your appetite. You will also want to avoid fermenting your seeds next to bananas and other fruit ripening in your kitchen, because it can attract fruit flies. Leave it there for 3 to 5 days, depending on the conditions. Natural “beasties” in the air (yeast) will settle on the sugary goodness of the tomato. They will gorge themselves and reproduce, resulting in a yucky mess floating on top of the mixture. This is exactly what you want.

PHOTO: the bowl of tomato seeds is covered in white stuff.

In four days, my tomato seeds were ready, with a thin layer of white scum floating on top. Be very glad odors are not transmitted over the internet.

3. After you have grown a nice head of gunk on your seeds, remove that film and throw it away. (Unless you’d like to keep it for some reason.)  If you can’t skim all of it, no worries, the remaining goo will rinse off in the next step. Remove any floating seeds, too—they are not viable.

4. Pour the mixture into a sieve or wire strainer with fine mesh and rinse well, shaking the seeds gently to remove any remaining pulp and seed coatings.

PHOTO: The tomato seeds are spread out on a wax paper so they do not touch.

The most tedious part of the process is spreading out the seeds so they do not touch each other.

5. Dump the seeds onto wax paper. Poke at the seeds with a toothpick or other clean utensil to separate them. Remove any dark seeds that don’t look right. They are not viable. Let the seeds air dry on the wax paper in a protected place for about a week.

6. Store the completely dried seeds in an envelope until you are ready to use them.

PHOTO: close up of several tomato seeds - you can see the fuzzy outer layer of the seeds.

The cleaned and dried seeds are coated with tiny white hairs. These hairs were holding the gooey coating on the fresh seeds and now they will help the seeds soak up moisture when they are planted.

Now comes the science question: Do tomato seeds really need this kind of abuse to germinate?

The only way to find out is to experiment. Collect seeds from some ripe tomatoes—2 or 3 tomatoes will do. Ferment half of the batch using the directions above. Rinse the remaining half with water in a sieve (to remove any attached tomato pulp), and then dry them on wax paper without any other treatment. When you have all the seeds dried, use the same procedure from Eleven Experiments with Radish Seeds to measure and compare germination rates.

PHOTO: Ten tomato seeds are arranged on a paper towel in three rows; the towel is on a plate.

These ten fermented and dried tomato seeds are ready for germination testing.

Since you’re curious and kind of into this now, see if you can figure out if there are other ways to remove the seed coating that result in equal or better germination success. Some seed savers skip the fermentation and instead clean their tomato seeds with a solution of Oxi Clean. You can add this treatment to your experiment by dividing your batch of tomato seeds into three parts for: untreated, fermented, and Oxi Clean treatments.

The Oxi Clean method goes like this:

  1. Put the tomato seeds in a measuring cup and add water to make 1 cup of liquid.
  2. Add 1 tablespoon Oxi Clean power to the mixture and stir to dissolve.
  3. Let the seeds soak for 30 minutes.
  4. Rinse thoroughly in a sieve and dry on wax paper, just as you would with the other treatments.

As you will see, the Oxi Clean method is faster and there is no offensive odor, but is it better for germination?

PHOTO: A 16 ounce container of Oxi Clean Versatile Stain Remover

This product contains sodium percarbonate and sodium carbonate, no bleach, and will work for your experiment.

Note: if you Google information about this, you will find articles that discuss Oxiclean (one word) vs. Oxi Clean (two words). The two commercial products are made of different chemicals. The former is a liquid that contains sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach), the latter, promoted by Billy Mays, does not. For the purposes of this experiment, the less caustic, powdered Oxi Clean pictured in this blog post works perfectly well. Students should report the actual chemical names in the materials list, not just the product name. It’s just like using the scientific name of a plant instead of the common name—it’s more accurate and less confusing for someone who wants to replicate the experiment.

If you are ambitious, try a treatment of your own. After all, three tomatoes are going to give you a lot of seeds to test. My daughter tried soaking some of her seeds in vinegar. Perhaps regular dish soap or ordinary laundry detergent will remove the seed coating. Or you could try a cleaner that contains chlorine bleach. It’s up to you. Please remember to wear goggles and plastic or latex gloves while handling any chemicals because, like the tomato seeds, your eyes and hands may need a protective coating to escape harm.

I’d like to tell you what is going to happen, but then I would totally lose street cred and face ridicule from my science teacher peeps. One hint, though: be sure to measure the timing of germination as well as the number of seeds that germinate in each condition. If you want to know what happens, you’ll just have to cut open some tomatoes and try it yourself.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Meet Melyssa Guzman. She is one of 20 College First students who spent eight weeks learning about environmental science and doing a research project at the Chicago Botanic Garden. 

2014 PHOTO: College First student Mely G.

College First student Mely G. would like people to plant butterfly gardens in their yards.

Mely, as she likes to be called, is a junior in the Chicago Public Schools district. She’s kind of a “girlie” young woman who wears a lot of pink, and likes flowery, feminine things. Mely also loves science. Each student had a staff mentor; I was Mely’s. Her project was teaching the public about butterfly-attracting flowers.

Although drop-in programs and exhibitions may be considered more “education” than “science,” understanding how people learn is an area of social science research that can challenge a smart student like Mely. This summer, Mely learned that museums and public gardens often test exhibitions and learning activities, using methods similar to those practiced by conservation scientists, to see how visitors will respond.

Mely began by researching butterflies and the flowers they prefer. Then she decided to set up a display at the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition, where she would teach visitors what flowers to grow in their yards to attract butterflies. The display would have different kinds of flowers—real flowers and pictures—and she would stand and talk with people who were interested.

PHOTO: Mely G. taking notes.

After each group of visitors, Mely recorded notes about how long they stayed at her table, and how interested they seemed.

As kids today would say, her first try was an “epic fail.” Most visitors looked at her display with curiosity, but they seemed perplexed and did not stop to learn more. The display was lovely, with fresh flowers and pictures of native butterflies, but it lacked a clear focus. It needed something else to draw visitors in. The display board kept blowing over, which was another big problem.

PHOTO: Mely G. prepares a display.

Back to the drawing board: Mely made a new display— one that would stand up better and entice visitors with a title that asks: “What Is a Butterfly Flower?”

Mely brought the exhibit inside and modified the whole thing. Instead of using a folding display board, she mounted a poster board on a cardboard box so it would be more stable when taped to the table. She added a title, “What Is a Butterfly Flower?” as well as some facts about butterfly flowers. Then she tested the display again. After each group of visitors, she recorded the time they spent at her table, and gave them a score of 1 to 4 to rate how interested they were, the kinds of questions they asked, and things they talked about while looking at the display.

Museum exhibit developers call this process “rapid prototyping.” Inexpensive mock-ups of exhibits are tested to ensure they work—that visitors enjoy them and get the intended messages—before the museum invests a lot of money on a permanent display.

PHOTO: 2014 College First student Mely G. gives a demonstration.

A mother and daughter listen as Mely explains what colors, scents, and shapes attract butterflies to a flower.

Mely made a few more minor changes to her display. Then she tested a hypothesis. She observed that adults with children seemed more distracted than those without children; that they did not seem to talk to her as much as the childless groups. She hypothesized that adults without children would spend more time, ask more questions, and talk more about butterflies than mixed-generation groups. She used the data she gathered during prototyping the display, analyzing who stopped by her table, how long they spent, and how engaged they were.

Surprisingly, she discovered that families with children actually spent a little more time on average than adults alone. She thought this may be true because adults who brought children to her display spent their time explaining things to them instead of talking to her. In other words, the adults were not distracted, but were directing attention on their children to help them also learn from the display.

Mely does not fully realize that she has stumbled upon a very significant principle of learning: that learning is social. Educational research has shown that interaction between family members has a positive influence on learning in museums and in other environments. I’m very proud of Melyssa’s accomplishment this summer, and I look forward to seeing her expand her research next summer—because we both learned something!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

One of our favorite insects at the Chicago Botanic Garden is the praying mantis. So we were very excited to obtain an egg case earlier this spring. We decided to keep it indoors so we could watch it hatch, and then release the newly hatched insects into the Garden.

PHOTO: Preying mantid egg case on a twig.

About 100 praying mantises emerged from this ootheca and were released into the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden.

A praying mantis egg case is called an ootheca (pronouned oh-uh-THEE-kuh). The plural is oothecae (oh-uh-THEE-see). The ootheca was produced by a female praying mantis last fall. She laid her eggs in this foam of protein that hardened around a stick and protected the eggs through the winter. The eggs usually hatch in mid-June to early July. The half-inch-long immature praying mantis nymphs resemble the adult, but they do not have wings. 

PHOTO: Hundreds of baby mantids pour out of an egg case.

Colorless praying mantis nymphs emerge from the ootheca all at one time. During their first hour, they darken in color to blend in with their surroundings.

After our praying mantises hatched inside an insect cage, I discovered that a bed of false sunflower plants (Heliopsis helianthoides) in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden was infested with red aphids. I released the praying mantises, and the hungry babies immediately began to feed.

PHOTO: Mantis nymphs on the head of a Rudbeckia flower covered with aphids.

At first, the praying mantis babies seemed a little bewildered by their new surroundings, but they quickly acclimated.

PHOTO: Mantis nymph on a flower stem eyes aphids—a tasty meal.

This mantis held very still as it eyed its prey.

PHOTO: A row of mantis nymphs on a leaf face a stem covered with red aphids.

These four little mantises lined up and stared at the aphids that would certainly become lunch soon.

It wasn’t exactly aphid carnage—much to the disappointment of our eighth grade Camp CBG helper, Joshua, who assisted me with the release—but the young predators did appear to enjoy their first meal.  

PHOTO: Preying mantis on liatris bloom in August.

By the end of August, some of our little friends will be as big as this praying mantis (and just as hungry)!

It may surprise you to know that although it looked like a bad infestation, aphids are not really a big problem for the plants. When they are very abundant, it does not take long for natural predators like praying mantises and ladybugs to find them and move in for a feast. Predatory insects will take care of the problem if you are patient and let nature take its course. If aphids show up in your garden and they bother you, we recommend hosing them off with water rather than using an insecticide, because chances are pretty good that there are beneficial insects on your plants, too. Hosing with a strong jet of water will knock off all the bugs and kill most of the aphids, but it won’t be as devastating to the mantises or other beneficial insects as poison.

We have placed praying mantis oothecae in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden and Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden, as well as in the Children’s Growing Garden, to ensure that there will be a population of our favorite insect for you to find. Many of them will survive on aphids and other insects they capture and devour on our flowers, and they will grow up over the summer. The next time you visit, stop by and see if you can find them helping our plants remain healthy and less bothered by pests.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

If you’re reading this article, you’re likely familiar with some of the challenges facing older folks: your muscles may get weaker and ache more readily. Falls can do more damage. Your energy and endurance may wane, and your skin may get thinner. Your eyesight and memory many not be as sharp, and your fine motor skills may become less coordinated.

What can the estimated 85 million U.S. gardeners do to continue gardening as they age? Gardening provides so many physical and emotional benefits that it’s well worth pursuing. The activity may even improve problems associated with aging, such as depression, osteoporosis, diabetes, and poor sleep.

PHOTO: Garden volunteer Lauren waters lettuce seedlings in the greenhouses.

Keeping active in the garden is what our volunteers love best.

So let’s explore some ideas that might help you continue gardening despite these challenges. I’ve found that prevention, preparation, positioning, and partners—the four “P’s,” if you will—enable many older gardeners to carry on.

There is no better place to start than prevention. Since recovery takes longer as we age, let’s make sure we have less to recover from. Make a solemn oath not to go out to the garden until you are wearing proper footwear! Even if you plan to just survey the yard while barefoot with your first cup of coffee, danger lurks! Without shoes, you are more likely to fall or sprain an ankle. The damp grass can be slippery, and uneven surfaces can lead to a twisted ankle. Falls can lead to serious complications and are best avoided. 

Take a few minutes to limber up your joints, especially your back and legs, before you start working in the garden. You will be much more comfortable if your muscles are warmed up. Surprising them by pulling a stubborn weed can cause pain and injury that could have been avoided. 

Remember to protect your skin. That means sunscreen, a hat, gloves, and loose, light clothing. Invest in a pair of really good gloves that you will keep on no matter what the task. Cuts and abrasions in the skin of the hands are an invitation to infection. Likewise, protect your eyes from extreme brightness with sunglasses. 

Prevention even applies to the end of a day in a garden. Make sure to put away all tools and to coil all hoses away from walkways. Painting the handles of tools with bright colors make them easier to spot in the garden or lawn. 

Preparation is the next area where the time spent will be repaid handsomely.

PHOTO: A container box planting of rosemary, sage, eggplant, and smaller blooms.

Containers along a path are an elegant solution to reducing overall garden space, and making seasonal plantings easier to maintain.

Begin with a critical appraisal of the areas you tend. Note what you enjoy most as well as what you dread doing. Look at quantities of plant material, and consider the age and condition of your trees and shrubs. This is an opportunity to make some well-considered decisions and create your ideal garden. Whether you implement changes all at once or gradually, your ideal should include your favorite plants and tasks in manageable proportions. 

If you do a lot of pruning regularly, decide if that is pleasurable to you. If not, hunt for some woody plants that maintain their shape naturally. If your perennials have grown into huge beds, decide if you would be just as happy with less. If so, remove your extra perennials and offer to friends or garden clubs. 

If you have been forceful and unsentimental with your removal decisions, you are likely left with some empty areas that need to be filled. This is a critical juncture. In order to avoid swapping one huge garden for another, see if you can cluster your remaining plants into smaller beds. Absorb some of the newfound space with trees or shrubs that provide structural interest, but are low in their demands. Of course, you can always plant more grass, but groundcovers do a nice job with less chemicals and mowing. Another possibility is to begin raising your garden to an easy-to-reach height. Use containers or create raised beds so that you can tend the plants without getting down to ground level. Perhaps all that space where plants have been removed can be re-envisioned as walking paths among containers and beds. 

Positioning is the third area to think about.

As you revise your garden, keep in mind that reaching down to ground level and up over your head are positions that demand a lot of energy. You will tire quickly unless you can work more in the midrange of your reach. Containers and raised beds bring the soil level up nicely. A raised bed that allows a comfortable approach with a knee space for sitting while facing the bed is ideal. A ledge for side sitting works for short periods of gardening. Try using a pulley system to bring hanging containers down to a workable level and then raise them back up again. 

Finally, let’s think about partners.

PHOTO: Two scoop-shaped grip-handled trowels with serrated edges combine two gardening tools into one.

These scoop-shaped, grip-handled trowels with serrated edges combine two gardening tools into one.

Partners in gardening can be human—perhaps hired help for the most demanding or onerous tasks, such as removing weak trees. Partners can also be the wonderful tools that bolster your body’s ability. A tool that has good leverage, sharpened edges, and smooth operation of moving parts is a joy to work with. An increasing number of ergonomic tools are on the market. Look for larger, nonslip grip surfaces, handles that allow for two-handed manipulation, tool holders that distribute the workload over more than one joint, and carriers that keep tools safe and handy. 

Prevention, preparation, positioning, and partners can have you gardening for a lifetime. Such a healthy hobby is worth the time and effort it takes to keep it enjoyable.  

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Ultimate Play Date: Kids + Nature

10 fun things to do outside

Karen Z. —  June 23, 2014 — Leave a comment

School’s out. The first official day of summer has come and gone. Time for life to move outdoors.

For some kids (OK, some caregivers, too), heading out to the backyard, the beach, the parks, and the forest preserves can feel daunting—what do you DO once you’re out there?

“Hands in earth, sand, mud: building, digging, sewing, baking—these are what humans DO.”

PHOTO: A strip of astroturf is covered with an excercise course for ants made from twigs, stones, and other natural objects.

Build an ant playground out of sticks! Sue Dombro of the Forest Preserves of Cook County gave us tips for building one, adding this telling comment: “My daughter used to do this all the time, and now she’s a wildlife biologist.”

For fun, interesting, and education-based answers, we turned to a fun, interesting, and education-based crowd: the 190 teachers, home educators, day care providers, park district staff, museum employees, librarians, and just-plain-curious caregivers who came together at the Garden recently for our first Nature Play conference in May (sponsored by the Chicago Botanic Garden, Chicago Wilderness, and the Alliance for Early Childhood).

That morning, opening remarks were short, but sweet. A few thought-provoking highlights are quoted here. Then we did what any group of early childhood-oriented people would do: We all went outside to play.

At our outdoor “playground,” 19 organizations shared their fun, interesting, and education-based ideas for playing outside. You may recognize many from your own childhood.

1. Pick Up a Stick

How cool is this? In 2008, the stick was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame! It’s in great company: the jump rope, dominoes, the Frisbee, Tinkertoys and, yes, the Easy-Bake Oven are co-recipients of the honor. The possibilities of the stick are endless—it’s a musical instrument, a light saber, a wand, a fishing pole, a giant pencil for drawing in the dirt, a conductor’s baton, the first leg of a tepee, and anything else a child says it is.

2. Learn to Lash

If one stick is interesting, a pile of sticks has real 3-D potential. The art of lashing teaches kids to turn something small—two twigs lashed together—into something big: a ladder, a lean-to, a stool, a swing.

3. Find the Art in Nature

Twigs + stones + leaves + “tree cookies” + seeds = a nature “painting,” a sculpture, an imaginary animal, backyard trail markers, or utterly simple, charming drawings like the happy face made out of seeds shown with our headline.

“For children, the most powerful form of learning is with their hands.”

PHOTO: A squirrel made from tree cookies, pine cones, acorns.

Imagination can run wild when kids are outside.

4. Nature as Paintbrush

Sure, you can use a standard brush to paint with, but feathers, pine needles, and arborvitae segments not only expand the creative possibilities but also feel wonderfully different in the hand.

5. Kid-Made Kites

Send the imagination soaring with a simple paper bag and a couple of kitchen skewers—in moments, it’s a kite! And then there’s the process of decorating it with ribbons and streamers…

6. Cricket Bug Box

Catch a cricket (or buy a dozen for $1 at the pet shop). Friendly and chirpy, crickets are many kids’ first experience with the insect world. Even little kids can collect the foliage, food scraps, and water-soaked cotton balls to accessorize a temporary shoe-box habitat.

“Nature is children’s real home.”

PHOTO: A log and magnifying glass.

What’s under that log? Life.

7. Lift a Log

One of the simplest of all outdoor projects: lift up a log that’s been sitting on the ground and be amazed by the tiny wildlife that lives­ underneath it! Don’t forget to bring your magnifying glass.

8. Make a Magic Circle

Tuck a few wooden embroidery rings into a backpack. Placed on the ground in the woods, or the garden, or the sand, they become magical circles for kids to explore. What’s in yours?

9. D.I.Y. Dyeing

Rainy days need projects, too. Natural dyes made from vegetables (beets, onions), fruits (grape juice), or spices (turmeric, chili powder) transform undyed yarn or fabric into a personal style experience.

10. Paint Chip Color Hunt

One quick visit to the paint store can send kids off to hunt for hours, as they try to match nature’s colors to the humble paint chip card. (Handy to keep in the car for unexpected delays, too).

PHOTO: A variety of paint chip cards with flowers that match the colors on the chips.

Simple but engrossing: match the colors in nature to the colors on a paint card.

Looking for fun things to do with the kids this summer? June is Leave No Child Inside month, so Chicago Wilderness/Leave No Child Inside has organized all sorts of ideas for you on Pinterest!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org