Archives For Home Gardening

Planting a fire escape herb container

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  July 18, 2018 — 1 Comment

I love coming home to my quiet, tree-lined Chicago neighborhood, but one thing I miss about urban living is ample outdoor space.

The back door of my apartment leads to a wooden fire escape—built after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 as a second means of exit from the building. The landing is wide enough to finagle furniture during moves, but doesn’t invite much summertime lounging or late-night stargazing. Still, I find myself dreaming of an herb garden growing in the little patch of morning sun that filters through the stairs.

Fire escape inspiration at the Fruit and Vegetable Garden.

Fire escape inspiration at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden

Growing an herb container doesn’t require a whole lot of space, luckily. To find the best inspiration, I turned to Lisa Hilgenberg, horticulturist for the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. She recently planted an herb container tower in the garden, so ideas were fresh on her mind when I talked with her. Here are her tips for starting an herb container, no matter where you live.

  1. Find the right container: Drainage is key for healthy herbs, says Hilgenberg, so make sure to find a pot with holes at the bottom. “I like to use terra cotta pots because they’re porous and absorb water. Otherwise, you could certainly use copper planters. A hanging basket might work if that’s allowed on your porch, or a strawberry jar with a dozen holes in it. You can get really creative.”
  2. Consider the light: Most herbs like at least four to six hours of bright, direct light, but there are a few that can handle fewer hours of full sun. If your outdoor space is covered, or east-facing like mine, choose herbs that can take some shade, such as chives, thyme, or parsley, says Hilgenberg.
Lisa Hilgenberg's towering herb container.

Lisa Hilgenberg’s towering herb container.

  1. Plan your herbs with recipes in mind: What herbs do you use most in your cooking? Are you always buying basil? Do you like to use mint? The fun of planting herb gardens is to use them in cooking, so take some time to think about what herbs could be homegrown. “When I teach veggie classes, I reference Ina Garten’s potato salad. It calls for two types of potatoes, and four or five different herbs. If you go to the store and buy these ingredients, it could cost eight bucks apiece. To grow scallions, dill, basil, and parsley together yourself is a really cool thing to do,” says Hilgenberg. For French cooking enthusiasts, she recommends growing herbs de provence (marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and savory).

Lisa’s ultimate herb container: Sweet marjoram, thyme, sage, parsley, and chives.

  1. Use high quality potting soil: Low fertility potting mix is preferable for herbs, says Hilgenberg. You won’t have to feed or fertilize these soils. “Just make sure to water regularly, and check that the soil drains completely between waterings,” she said.
  2. Give some herbs room to breathe: Herbs don’t mind being planted in close quarters, says Hilgenberg. You can plant several in one container. An exception, however, is basil: “For healthy basil production, always put one plant per pot in 12-inch containers.”
  3. Harvest herbs before they flower: “Right before plants look like they’re going to flower is when they’re fully matured and ready to harvest,” says Hilgenberg. “Use herb snips to harvest two leaf nodes down. If you harvest by the leaf you’ll get a leggy, tall plant.” Always remove flowers, especially on basil. This encourages new growth. “The rule of thumb is to harvest about three times per season,” she says.

If you’re wondering whether July is too late to plant an herb container, Hilgenberg says it’s perfectly fine. And with that, I’m off to the garden center to pick out my herbs. I can smell the sage tucked under the skin of a buttery roast chicken already. Yum.

Come learn more about herb gardening with how-to demonstrations and family activities at Herb Garden Weekend, July 28–29, from 11 a.m.– 4 p.m.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Time to Take Your Urban Houseplants Outside

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  May 27, 2018 — 5 Comments

Hey, Chicago. It finally feels better outside. Everyone breathe a sigh of relief with me. Sigh. We made it.

Now that it’s officially patio season, it’s time to get out and enjoy the sun. Which has me wondering…should my houseplants join me outside? Can they?

Spider plant

The spider plant catching some rays.

The process of moving indoor plants outside, called “hardening off,” typically happens around when nighttime temperatures stay above 42 degrees Fahrenheit. By now, pots are popping up all along back wooden porches across the city. But if you have little to no outdoor space—like me—it can be a challenge to give your houseplants a much needed breath of fresh air.

I turned to Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, who lives in Chicago. She has an open lot next to her apartment, but also has some restrictions like me. Her lot gets 100 percent shade, so she can’t even grow vegetables. My apartment has an eastern exposure back stairwell, with mostly shade and some indirect morning light. 

Here’s what she says about putting my plants outside:

  • Be careful about sunburn. Sunburn isn’t a concern just for us humans. Plants can get scorched, too. Don’t put them in blazing sunlight. Porches with shade are prime locations for orchids and birds of paradise plants.
  • The outdoors makes your plants happy. A lot of plants really enjoy the strong swing in temperature that only the outdoors can provide, said Sherwood. If you have the space for it, and moderate sunlight, your indoor houseplants would love to feel the extended daylight.
  • Keep a watchful eye. You’ll need to water outdoor plants more often, said Sherwood. Plants dry out much quicker in the sun, so check them daily. Also be aware of the weather forecast; if it’s predicting wind and rain, you may want to bring your plant babies back inside until it blows over.

Of my plant collection, Sherwood said my spider plant would probably do best outside. She also recommended elephant ears as a new outdoor option. I don’t have room in my apartment for a large plant, but I’ll keep that idea in my back pocket.

I’m going to bring my spider plant outside and see how it fares over the next few weeks. Who knows, maybe I’ll even start a vegetable container. Stay tuned!

Plant Family Check-ups

Aloe (Aloe hybrid)

Aloe (Aloe hybrid)

I’m not sure whether it’s OK, because the tips of its leaves are a little brown and soggy. I don’t think it’s dead, though. I think. I hope.

Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura)

Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura)

Seems to be doing all right, but I’m a little disappointed by its lack of movement. I bought the prayer plant partly because I wanted to see its leaves bend up and down. From what I can tell, it doesn’t move. It’s still pretty, though!

ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

Honestly, I forget it’s there half the time. Which is great! It’s my lowest maintenance plant, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

Flamingo flower (Anthurium andraeanum)

Flamingo flower (Anthurium andraeanum)

New growth! I spotted a few red blooms shooting up from the soil, and it’s made me so happy. This is my favorite plant. Shhh…don’t tell the others.

Mexican firecracker succulent (Echeveria setosa)

Mexican firecracker succulent (Echeveria setosa)

This one is the most worrisome of the crew. It hasn’t lost any more leaves, but it still doesn’t seem too happy. I moved it out of direct sunlight, and have been resisting watering it, but the leaves still feel a little soft and squishy. Keeping an eye on this one.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)

Loving its new home outside!


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It’s finally spring (and practically summer) weather these days at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and we’re bursting to get outside, and get growing.

In just a few weeks, we’ll have the perfect chance to do just that. At Get Growing Weekend on May 18 to 20, gardeners will gather for gardening demonstrations, a spring marketplace, and a one-of-a-kind plant sale to celebrate the much-anticipated arrival of spring.

Get Growing Weekend
Learn more about Get Growing Weekend

Part of the weekend’s festivities include a specialty plant sale hosted by The Woman’s Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society. On Friday, members of the Garden will enjoy early access to the plant sale from noon to 4 p.m.; the plant sale will open to the public on Saturday and Sunday. A highlight of the sale is the “potted paradise” selection, which features composed planters grown on-site and designed by horticultural celebrities, as well as our own staff and Woman’s Board members.

We couldn’t wait to get a sneak peek, so we talked with celebrated designer Bunny Williams of Bunny Williams Interior Design about her potted paradise design.

Q: Describe your process for designing your container this year. What makes a good container?

A: One of the things I’m always thinking about when I’m doing a container is height. When you first plant a container, all of the plants are very small. But a month later when they’ve grown in, they’re at their full profusion. They look quite different. You have to think in advance about plants growing to varying heights. For instance, I always like to have something that hangs over the sides of the container, like the Silver Falls dichondra (Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’) that I’ve included in my Potted Paradise container. And then something that stands tall, like the Mystic Spires Improved salvia (Salvia ‘Balsamispim’).

Q: What colors work well in a container?

A: I always like to use a simple color palette in containers. For this one, it’s all about shades of purple, black, and green. It makes for a more effective container than if you try to put too many colors in it. In your garden, you often mix containers together, so if you have containers with their own color schemes situated next to each other, you can have a more controlled color scheme overall.

Q: How do you use texture in your containers?

A: You don’t want every leaf to be exactly the same. In my Potted Paradise container, there are six plants, each with different leaf textures. I chose Mystic Spires Improved salvia (Salvia ‘Balsamispim’), Pinball™ globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa ‘Pinball Purple’), Primo™ Black Pearl coral bells (Heuchera ‘Black Pearl’), Solar Power™ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas ‘Black Improved’), Silver Falls dichondra (Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’), and Kent Beauty oregano (Origanum rotundifolium ‘Kent Beauty’). The different textures set the plants off when you see the relationship between the different foliage. It makes the container more interesting if something is not in bloom.

Mystic Spires Blue Improved salvia

Salvia ‘Balsamispim’ Mystic Spires Blue™ Improved

Silver Falls dichondra

Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’

Container featuring Kent Beauty oregano

Origanum ‘Kent Beauty’; photo by Paul S. Drobot

Q: What’s the best thing about planting containers?

A: What’s interesting and fun about containers is you have to know a little bit about what each plant is going to do. The salvia is tall, and so I know that will be the centerpiece of my container. When you go to the nursery, I enjoy making a grouping right there in the store. You can see the textures together, and choose what makes sense based on a few basic principles: leaf texture, differentiation, and colors of the same family.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It’s that time of year when the sun finally comes out and temperatures go up, allowing you to get some outdoor planting done. But beware the fickle Chicago spring.

Spring planters are out all around the Garden.

Don’t let frost take out all of your plants (and hard work). Cover less hardy plantings or move them into sheltered areas this weekend when temperatures dip below freezing.

Perfect gardening days are sometimes followed by colder temperatures that can wreak havoc on your newly installed containers. Here at the Garden, we’ve just begun installing our spring annual displays, but we have to protect them from colder days on the horizon. Horticulturist Heather Sherwood shared some of the things she’s doing to protect plants that the home gardener may want to do as well.

  • Move containers inside. Sherwood’s team recently planted large containers with a mix of flowers, including foxglove and Persian buttercup. They’re just outside the English Walled Garden now, but they’ll be moved into McGinley Pavilion, which currently has plastic draping down to keep the cold out. If you’ve started to create containers for your back porch or balcony, bring them inside. Even an uninsulated shed offers more protection than none. 
  • Not all containers are easy to relocate indoors. Some of our spring annual display containers weigh more than 200 pounds, and will stay where they are through the cold. Sherwood will cover the ones that can’t be moved with plastic, including used soil bags. If you were planning on just disposing of your empty soil bags, reuse them this way to protect your containers instead. Sherwood also recommends covering plants with old bedding, especially fitted sheets. They fit snugly around the bottom of the containers and keep out the cold air.
  • If you do cover your containers, it may be helpful to prop up the covering with bamboo poles. The covering shouldn’t touch the plants, because it can weigh down and crush any leaves or fresh blooms. And if the temperatures drop too low, the covering can freeze to the plant and damage it. Circulation is always good, so give your plants “breathing room” if you cover them.
  • Leave some plants alone. Some flowers don’t need your fretting. Pansies will likely withstand colder temperatures. Daffodils and tulips, some of which haven’t even emerged yet, will probably also be fine. Focus your efforts on protecting the more vulnerable flowers and let the hardy ones tough out the cold.
  • Protect the containers. Your plants won’t stand a chance if you don’t also protect the containers you’ve planted them in. If you use terra cotta pots, keep them dry in cold temperatures. If they’re wet and then freeze, cracks can form. Containers made from fiberglass and plastic will degrade over time if they’re in direct sunlight, so check these for damage and move inside if you’re unsure of their durability. Your reused containers will last much longer if you have stored them out of the elements over winter. (Make a mental note for next winter.)
Container plantings in the English Walled Garden are covered lightly with soil bags.

Container plantings in the English Walled Garden are covered lightly with soil bags.

Heavier frost blankets are stapled around tree trunks to protect displays around the Regenstein Center.

Heavier frost blankets are stapled around tree trunks to protect displays around the Regenstein Center.

Still not sure what to do with your containers? Contact Plant Information here at the Garden at (847) 835-0972 or plantinfo@chicagobotanic.org with any questions. The master gardeners and horticulture specialists who run this service can help you figure out what’s best for your plants.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

When Watering Your Succulents is Overkill

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  March 27, 2018 — 5 Comments

When I was a kid, one of my chores was to water all of the houseplants. Each day, I filled up the plastic watering can and padded around the house, filling each pot until it was almost overflowing. I loved listening for the faint trickle of water as it soaked through the soil. I sensed the plants were thirsty, and I liked knowing I was giving them a much-needed drink.

Cut to my adult apartment, one week after I brought home my first plant family, and two of my babies look frazzled. When I first set them on the kitchen windowsill they were healthy and strong, but now they’re, well…you be the judge.

aloe-hybrid

Aloe hybrid (before)

aloe-hybrid

Aloe hybrid (after)

echeveria-setosa

Echeveria setosa (before)

echeveria-setosa

Echeveria setosa (after)

I think water is the culprit.

Aloes and succulents are deceivingly tricky houseplants to care for. The others in my home—the prayer plant, spider plant, zz plant, and flamingo flower—look fine, by the way. But these two prefer drier soil; daily watering would be their worst nightmare. I was a new plant-mom, though, and wanted to give them a nice warm welcome.

So when I first got home, I drenched them both with water.

Maybe not the best idea.

Within a week, the aloe’s beautiful coral flowers had shriveled up and fallen off. In a panic, I wrote to Chicago Botanic Garden horticulturist Wade Wheatley and asked if I’d overdone it with my watering. He suggested it may just be the end of the aloe’s bloom cycle (their flowers bloom from winter to spring), and that it is completely natural for the blooms to fall. Phew!

The succulent, on the other hand, doesn’t seem normal. The bottom half of the leaves have dropped (some even fell off with the slightest touch), and what’s left of the leaves seem to be wilting and smushy. I remembered Wheatley saying that if a succulent’s leaves are soggy, it could mean they’re overwatered.

For a thorough diagnosis, I turned to Kathie Hayden, manager of the Garden’s Plant Information Service, the help center for all things plant-related.

Hayden fields all kinds of questions from visitors about diagnosing and treating their plants. After looking at my plant photos, here’s what she said:

“The only thing that I notice about the aloe is that the flowering has finished and the stem has turned brown. You can safely prune back the stem.”

“Echeveria plants (a large genus of succulents) appreciate average warmth from spring to autumn but cooler temperatures in winter. Try to place the plant in a cooler location for the winter, if possible. Echeveria require regular watering from spring to fall so you should water when the soil begins to dry out. You don’t want to use the same amount of water in the winter. Watering the plant every one to two months should suffice. If you’ve been watering more frequently, this may be the reason for fewer leaves that are lighter in color. Let the soil dry out a little and hopefully the plant will begin to develop new growth. A south-facing window is good location to keep the plant, but you may want to provide some shade during the summer months. There is no need for additional humidity. It will also benefit from a little fresh air in the summer.”

The verdict? The succulent is probably overwatered. I’ll prune back my aloe, leave the succulent alone for a month, and move it to a shadier window.  

Remember, there are no hard and fast watering rules. But with a few simple guidelines, you can keep your plants alive and healthy. To sort out the facts, contact Plant Information Service at (847) 835-0972 or plantinfo@chicagobotanic.org.

Watering Lessons 101

  • Not all plants are created equal. Some houseplants need constant moisture, and some survive on drought. Research the specific care instructions for your plant and give it the amount and frequency of water it needs.
  • Make sure your container has drainage holes. If it doesn’t, moisture can get trapped in the soil and prevent oxygen from reaching the roots, leading to root rot.
  • Soak the entire root ball. When watering, make sure you do so until it leaks out of the drainage holes. This ensures the entire root system has been watered. (Note: “Usually, plants that are root-bound have problems because water rolls off and down the sides of the pot and doesn’t penetrate the root ball. If roots have dried up, you are probably looking at dead roots,” said Hayden.)

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org