Archives For Adult Education

The Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden offers a variety of classes for the adult learner in the areas of horticulture, garden design, nature studies and botanical arts for all levels of interest. For more information or to register visit or call (847) 835-8261.

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 | [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

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

Did you know that one in every three bites of food you take required a pollinator visit? Pollination is essential for many of our favorite foods—from almonds to vanilla, and so many fruits and vegetables in between.

The decline of pollinators around the world is threatening not only our food supply but also the function of plant communities and ecosystems. Multiple factors play a role in pollinator decline, including land-use changes, pesticide use, climate change, and the spread of invasive species and diseases.

The well-documented plight of the iconic monarch butterfly has become emblematic of widespread pollinator decline. Perhaps many of you, like me, have childhood memories of setting out with a butterfly net and a jar with nail holes in the lid. I recall with pleasure catching and admiring monarchs up close until it was time to set them free. I worry that children may not have that simple pleasure much longer. After their previous all-time low population count in 2012–13, monarch numbers dwindled even lower this past winter (2013–14), when monitored in their overwintering location in Mexico.

PHOTO: A cluster of monarch butterflies rests on a plant, entirely covering it.

Now a much less common sight: a monarch butterfly cluster. Image by Christian Mehlführer (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

PHOTO: A monarch sips nectar from common milkweed on the Dixon Prairie.

A monarch sips nectar from common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) on the Dixon Prairie.

In the case of the monarch, several factors are likely contributing to its rapid decline. Loss of forested wintering grounds; loss of the milkweeds, which are their larval host plants; severe weather events; and a reduction of nectar plants along their migration routes due to drought have probably all contributed. Three leading monarch experts, Dr. Lincoln Brower, Dr. Chip Taylor, and Dr. Karen Oberhauser, have all cited GMO (genetically modified) crops as a leading factor in the decline. Milkweed (Asclepias sp.) once thrived on the edges of farm fields throughout the Midwest. Modern farming techniques use herbicide-resistant crops coupled with an increased use of herbicides; the native milkweeds are disappearing, and as they go, so do the monarchs.

Make Way for Monarchs

Click here for registration and schedule information.

On Friday, June 6, the Chicago Botanic Garden will host a symposium by Make Way for Monarchs: Alliance for Milkweed and Butterfly Recovery ( Members of this group conduct research on monarch butterfly recovery and promote positive, science-based actions to avert collapse of the milkweed community and the further demise of the monarch migration to Mexico. They aim to promote social engagement in implementing solutions in midwestern landscapes through collaborative conservation. Speakers include Gary Nabhan, Lincoln Brower, Chip Taylor, Karen Oberhauser, Laura Jackson, Doug Taron, and Scott Hoffman Black. They will discuss monarch decline and tangible solutions we all can help implement. Mr. Black will also present a lecture on monarchs at World Environment Day, Saturday, June 7.

PHOTO: Closeup of a single, tiny butterfly egg on the underside of a leaf.

Monarch egg on a milkweed leaf by Forehand.jay (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

There are things all of us can do: from planting milkweeds and other native plant species that provide nectar throughout the growing season, to minimizing pesticide use, and to supporting organic farmers. We can also become citizen scientists, reporting monarch observations to programs like Monarch Watch and Journey North, or working with the Monarch Joint Venture.

Perhaps, with our help, new generations of children will continue to know the joy of admiring the beautiful monarch butterfly, and then letting it go to continue its amazing migratory journey.

Learn more about pollinators at World Environment Day at the Garden on June 7, 2014.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Slow Flowers

Drawing from nature at the Chicago Botanic Garden

Sophia Shaw —  March 12, 2013 — Leave a comment

Recently, I enjoyed a lecture at the Garden by Debra Prinzing, the author of Slow Flowers:  Four Seasons of Locally Grown Bouquets from the Garden, Meadow, and Farm.

PHOTO: color chart by sophia siskel

While Debra helped us discover how to use the best locally grown cut flowers all year long, I’ve been on a “slow flower” journey of my own this winter, taking Botanical Drawing with Colored Pencil with instructor Derek Norman and 13 other Garden members in the Design Studio at our Regenstein Center. Slow processes (cooking, springtime, gardening, travel, motherhood) always demand patience, and constantly toe the line between joy and frustration. Drawing is no exception!

Derek brought in fresh flowers or leaves weekly and led us in studying their forms and showing us how to render them—in our own ways—on different kinds of paper with colored pencils, which we got to know by number, not color name.

During some class sessions, when I could work without self-consciousness and distraction, I felt freedom and joy—a pure relaxation I rarely experience. And I was proud of my work:

ILLUSTRATION: Apples by Sophia Siskel

ILLUSTRATION: Ivy Leaf by Sophia Siskel

Some sessions proved challenging and exhausting, especially those that followed my visit to the wonderful Picasso exhibition at the Art Institute or a weekend examining the exquisite botanical drawings by Ellsworth Kelly. I was full of doubt and frustration, and the drawing experience and images suffered.

ILLUSTRATION: Narcissus sketches by Sophia Siskel    ILLUSTRATION: Tulip sketch by Sophia Siskel

I am not an experienced artist. (The last time I took a drawing course was as a student at Wellesley.) And since I’ve been working at the Garden I have seen (and been intimidated by) so many remarkable botanical illustrations, like those produced by the members of the American Society of Botanical Artists or shown at the Garden’s Annual Student Botanical Arts Exhibition.

ILLUSTRATION: Waterfall by Marian Scafidi

Waterfall by Marian Scafidi (©2012)

ILLUSTRATION: Shitake Mushrooms by Christina Lovering

Shiitake Mushrooms by Christina Lovering (©2012)

ILLUSTRATION: Tulip by Sophia SiskelBut last summer, my sister-in-law, nephew, and I spent an afternoon in Wisconsin drawing pansies and wild geranium. What alternating feelings of joy and frustration! I’d make progress on my petals only to look up and see that my sketch looked nothing like the plant on the picnic table before me. But my 7-year-old nephew gave me the encouragement I needed. He told me enthusiastically, “Just go for it, add some watercolor, don’t worry!” His sweet voice cut through my filters of, “I can’t, I won’t, I’m scared,” and I added some purple paint…and eventually felt inspired to sign up for the Garden class.

I am glad I did. I learned new skills, used new tools, and got to know myself—and the Garden—better. I made new friends, whose works of art I so admire. I’ll be back—sketching at the Garden and signing up for another class (maybe even watercolors!) as soon as possible. 

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

I made that?!

Prairie plant wall tile looks artistic, even though I’m not

Amy Spungen —  February 19, 2013 — 4 Comments

One of the advantages to working as an editor here is being among the first to read about new classes offered by the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Last summer, after proofing a description of a prairie plant wall tile class led by artist Janet Austin, I immediately registered for it, as did my web-design colleague Christina. I was a bit dubious, having last taken an art class in sixth grade, but this workshop sounded too intriguing to pass up.

When that Sunday rolled around, Christina and I joined a group of other adults eager to make art using plants. After we had gathered in our Garden classroom, Janet introduced herself and explained that we would be choosing among the prairie flowers and grasses collected in several vases and pressing them into clay. After that, we were to use tiny dried pasta letters to spell out the plants’ names—or anything else we wanted to “write.“ The pasta would be incinerated in the kiln, leaving only the imprinted letters. Clever!

We both chose bold purple coneflower. I thought it had a shape that would translate readily onto clay, unlike (I thought) the spindly looking Queen Anne’s lace next to it. I resumed my seat and looked down at my slab of clay, fighting a kidlike impulse to begin squishing it around madly. My mature adult nature asserting itself, I carefully pressed my coneflower into the slab, then lifted it up and took a look. Hmm. Not much there. I pressed harder. This time, I could see the contours of the leaf, the stem, and an array of pinprick dots left by the stiff cone.

Next came the letters. I shook the box of alphabet pasta over my desk, then began searching for the correct letters to spell out “purple coneflower” while Christina used the plant’s Latin name, Echinacea purpurea. Then we students wandered around, admiring what the others were doing. Best of all was picking  up our tiles a few weeks later, after Janet had applied verdigris glaze and fired the pieces. Amazing! Beautiful! Artistic! I made that?!

PHOTO: Prairie plant wall tile from Janet Austin's workshop at the Garden.

I gave my tile away as a holiday gift, but Christina still has hers, pictured here. As it turned out, one of the most beautiful tiles of all featured Queen Anne’s lace. Who knew its delicate beauty would translate to clay so well? The grasses were gorgeous, too.

Janet is offering another wonderful prairie plant tile class on Thursday, March 14 — the Garden Marker Tile Workshop — creating the same style of tile, but in a set of hanging row markers for your garden’s bounty. Don’t miss out on the fun!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and