Archives For Horticulture & Display Gardens

Learn more about the plants and gardens at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Think about this vegetable fact: In 1903, 544 varieties of cabbage were listed by seed houses across the United States. By 1983, just 28 of those varieties were represented in our national seed bank at the National Seed Storage Laboratory (now the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation).

Hundreds of other varieties have disappeared—not only of cabbages, but also of lettuce and corn and tomatoes and too many other crops to list. And that, in a nutshell, is why it continues to be important to plant heirloom varieties.

Vintage Varieties,
Still in Vogue

PHOTO: Cover of Vaughn's seed catalog, featuring Osage musk melon.

Stunning color illustrations made vintage nursery catalogs hard to resist. A fine selection of them are now on view at Chicago and Its Botanic Garden: The Chicago Horticultural Society at 125 in the Joutras Gallery and its sister exhibition, Keep Growing: The Chicago Horticultural Society’s 125th Anniversary, at the Lenhardt Library. Through August 16, 2015.

Heirlooms have special meaning at the Garden this year, as we celebrate the 125th anniversary of our parent organization, the Chicago Horticultural Society, which was officially established in 1890.

What was growing in Chicago vegetable gardens that year? Two big and beautiful beds at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden honor the tried-and-true midwestern varieties that were the staples of our great- and great-great-grandparents. The cabbages beloved by the immigrants who flocked to the Midwest, like ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ and ‘Mammoth Red Rock’. The beans that could be canned to sustain the family, like ‘Henderson’s Bush’. The root vegetables that could overwinter, like parsnip ‘Mammoth Sandwich Island’ and rutabaga ‘Laurentian’. And the onions and lovage and cutting celery that were the flavor enhancers of the day.

Horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg tracked down the varieties by going to the source: the seed catalogs that nurserymen, farmers, and gardeners ordered from and depended on. In the Rare Book Collection of our Lenhardt Library, she pored over an 1891 Storr’s & Harrison catalog, a Burpee’s from 1901, and numerous Vaughan’s Seed Store catalogs. (Vaughan’s started on the East Coast, then became one of the leading Chicago seed houses.) Recognizing that some varieties from the turn of the twentieth century were still available today (‘Bull Nose’ pepper, ‘Philadelphia White Box’ radish, ‘Wapsipinicon Peach’ tomato), she sought out those seeds from sources like Seed Savers Exchange, the D. Landreth Seed Company, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

As seedlings arrived at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden from the production nursery this spring, Lisa planted them in a classic bed layout inspired by the vegetable gardens at Monticello: 4-foot by 6-foot beds (easy to harvest from either side) separated by mulched paths made with wood chips that would have been straw in earlier centuries. As one crop is harvested, the next crop is planted—a nod to the constant production that was a matter of survival for our forefathers and foremothers.

PHOTO: Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage.

Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage

PHOTO: Mammoth Red Rock cabbage.

Mammoth Red Rock cabbage

PHOTO: A view of the heirloom seed beds in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

As they fill in, the beds create a strikingly beautiful mosaic of color, of texture, and history.

Heirloom fruits and vegetables are more than interesting food ingredients—they represent the voices of each generation informing the next. Think about that as you tour the beds (turn left past the breezeway), and as you plan to grow heirloom varieties in your own vegetable garden this year.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Early summer in the Dwarf Conifer Garden is all about the new growth. Everything is bursting forth with fresh new growth in vivid shades of green, chartreuse, yellow…and blue!  

PHOTO: Dwarf Conifer Garden in spring.

Layers of color draw you into hidden paths throughout the Dwarf Conifer Garden.

Many of the trees feature entirely unexpected colors. For most of the year, Spring Ghost blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Spring Ghost’) looks like your average Colorado spruce. From early spring through midsummer, however, the tips of every branch shine with the palest yellow—nearly white—new growth. Likewise, Taylor’s Sunburst lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta ‘Taylor’s Sunburst’) is a handsome green tree for most of the year—until spring, when radiant yellow new growth bursts forth, bringing a welcome dose of sunshine to the garden.

PHOTO: Picea pungens 'Spring Ghost'.

Picea pungens ‘Spring Ghost’

PHOTO: Pinus contorta 'Taylor's Sunburst'.

Pinus contorta ‘Taylor’s Sunburst’

PHOTO: Pinus cembra 'Blue Mound'.

Pinus cembra ‘Blue Mound’

New needles aren’t the only attraction this time of year. Many conifers have cones that start out in surprising shades! Blue Mound Swiss stone pine (Pinus cembra ‘Blue Mound’) would be a beautiful plant in its own right, with its long, soft, blue-green needles. But when you throw in dusky purple cones, you get a plant that is truly a gem. As the cones age, they’ll slowly turn into the more typical brown of a ripe cone, but right now, they’re as pretty as any flower.

Red can be a difficult color to find in conifers, but Acrocona spruce (Picea abies ‘Acrocona’) has cones that start out a vivid ruby red and slowly fade to a soft tan. The cones start out upward-facing, but slowly begin to droop as they age.

PHOTO: Picea abies 'Acrocona'.

Picea abies ‘Acrocona’ has cones that start ruby red, and slowly fade to tan.

PHOTO: Abies koreana 'Silver Show'.

Abies koreana ‘Silver Show’

Another unique plant is Silver Show dwarf Korean fir (Abies koreana ‘Silver Show’). Unlike other conifers, the firs (Abies sp.) have cones that always face upward. ‘Silver Show’ is beautiful any time of the year, but its purple upward-facing cones really make it special in spring. The cones start out small and green, but as you can see in this picture, they begin to turn purple as they grow until you’re left with dozens of dark purple cones set against perfectly tiered, silvery green foliage. There really is nothing else like it in the Garden.

PHOTO: Male cones on Pinus leucodermis.

Male cones on Pinus leucodermis

On most conifers, it’s the female cones that are most showy and most often noticed, but on Bosnian pine (Pinus leucodermis), it’s the male (pollen-bearing) cones that steal the show. Arranged in groups at the end of every branch, they light up the tree like little Christmas lights. Even on a gloomy day, the bright orangey-tan color stands out against some of the deepest green needles in the garden.

All of these colors are a seasonal show that is best appreciated before things start to heat up for the summer, so now is your best time to come see them!


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A Taste of the Garden

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  May 25, 2015 — 1 Comment

On an early spring day in the offices of the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, Lisa Hilgenberg, Garden horticulturist, is seated at a rustic conference table sorting through pencil drawings of garden beds and photos of vegetable plants. Across the Garden, in the Garden View Café kitchen, chef Peter Pettorossi is considering a cabbage slaw recipe inspired by those same plants.

The concept of serving fresh, seasonal, local food at the Garden was key to café renovations completed one year ago. Produce and fruit from the garden, as well as from Windy City Harvest plots in the area, and other local vendors, is increasingly available in many dishes including salads, calzones, daily soups, and other specials.

PHOTO: The bountiful Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden in 2014.

The bountiful Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden in 2014  ©North Branch Communications

Although the café and the Fruit & Vegetable Garden are physically separate, they come together in the growing season through an intricate network of connections that bring garden to table.

“It’s such a unique opportunity,” said Harriet Resnick, vice president of visitor experience and business development. “It opens people’s eyes to what we offer here.” New signage in the garden indicates which plants are on their way to the café. It also feels right, she explained. “If you are a true gardener, that’s how you live your life—by the plants of the season.” She added that the café has only grown in popularity, seeing about 200,000 unique food purchases last year.

Hilgenberg spent much of her lifetime learning how to match seeds with soil and growing conditions, perfecting each step. She lives with the rhythm of the seasons. “We are moving back in the right direction,” she said. “There’s something exciting about eating freshly grown vegetables seasonally. It’s always new and nutritious.”

Hilgenberg begins planning a year in advance for each growing season, mapping out what she will plant and how it will be arranged for display. Seeds for cool-season plants begin to grow in the Greenhouses in late winter, go into the ground in April, and are harvested in May and June. A similar cycle follows shortly after for warm-season crops.

PHOTO: Chef slicing fresh cabbage.

Fresh cabbage from the Garden is put to use at the Garden Chef Series. Join us on Saturdays and Sundays, May 23 – October 4.

This is Pettorossi’s first spring at the Garden, after beginning in his role in November. He eagerly welcomes the arrivals of produce this spring. “If you can get something at the peak of freshness it always tastes better,” he said. As for the menu, “the season definitely dictates it,” he explained. “The menu features a lot of specials, depending on what we have in house.” No matter the season, he said the menu is always “fresh, mostly organic, local, and garden-inspired.”

Cool-season crops such as heirloom Tennis Ball butterhead lettuce (Lactuca sativa ‘Tennis Ball’) are the first to be ready this year. They will soon be joined by French Breakfast radish (Raphanus sativus ‘French Breakfast’), Hakurei salad turnips (Brassica rapa ‘Hakurei’), beets, and bunching onions. “All of our ingredients are very simple based on what they tell me they can grow,” he said, indicating that the most seasonal foods can be found in daily specials that he plans a day ahead.

PHOTO: Staff and volunteers plant the Fruit & Vegetable Garden terraces with fall season crops.

Staff and volunteers plant the Fruit & Vegetable Garden terraces with fall crops.

The connection from garden to table extends to connect people as well, from garden mentor to student, or from an individual to their culture or family traditions, for example. Hilgenberg loves hearing from garden visitors about their connections to the garden crops. She spent much of her childhood on her Norwegian grandparent’s farm in Iowa, building her own such connections.

Hilgenberg makes a point to grow widely recognized plants in the garden each year, including herbs, edible flowers, and vegetables. She grows annual small fruits such as strawberries, gooseberries, and currants in addition to blueberries and bramble fruit. She also grows less common plants such as Marshall strawberries (Fragaria × ananassa ‘Marshall’), which she and her team propagated from three donated plants. Everything grown in the garden is done so organically. “I think it’s interesting for people to try different local varieties,” she said. Many, she explained, cannot be found in a typical grocery store, especially in organic form.

This year, several beds have been planted in the French potager style, and others laid out to mirror the gardens of Monticello. There are two beds planted with vegetables people may have seen in seed houses in 1890, the same year the Chicago Horticultural Society was founded. In honor of the Society’s 125th anniversary, seeds were made available through seed catalogs, the Seed Savers Exchange, and other sources. Edible flowers, such as Empress of India nasturtium (Nasturtium ‘Empress of India’), artfully border beds of radish, rutabaga, and turnips, for example. In addition, she included carrots, kale, collard, and three varieties of cabbage (Brassica oleracea): ‘Mammoth Red Rock’, ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’, and ‘Perfection Drumhead Savoy’. Each one was selected because it is adapted to our local growing conditions, a process Hilgenberg and her staff, volunteers, and interns have mastered over the years. Last year, they grew and harvested two tons of produce. The year before, that was combined with a bumper apple crop for 6,000 pounds of production.

PHOTO: The Herbs de Provence garden bed in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

The Herbes de Provence garden bed in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden: what is not used fresh can be dried in one batch at the end of the season.

How does the chef manage to find a way to serve even the most unusual varieties with style? “I always try to add a little acid [such as lemon or vinegar] to food because acid makes flavors pop,” he advised. “A lot of lettuces are sweet, but others have a bitterness to them,” he added, “so you would have to find that perfect vinaigrette to go with that bitterness,and maybe add a touch of honey or something sweet.”

In addition to growing and preparing food at the Garden, “we are also this amazing workforce and training program for underserved youth and adults,” said Resnick, who explained that participants in the Windy City Harvest program, with large growing beds off-site, provide a significant amount of produce for the Garden View Café and learn to sell their produce at farmers’ markets. On-site each year, a few Windy City Harvest interns work directly with Hilgenberg.

Anyone walking through the Fruit & Vegetable Garden today may see the beginnings of a dish they can enjoy in the café by early summer. The season will continue to evolve in coming months, with the Garden Grille opening in late May. In June, warm-season crops such as heirloom corn, Japanese Nest Egg summer squash (Cucurbita pepo ‘Japanese Nest Egg’), White Patty Pan squash (Cucurbita pepo var. melopepo ‘White Patty Pan’), Yellow Pear tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum ‘Yellow Pear’), and Blueberry Blend tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum ‘Blueberry Blend’) will replace the spring plantings in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, giving way to new edible discoveries.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Once there was a boy who loved model trains. When the boy grew up, he became the chief engineer of train exhibitions at the Chicago Botanic Garden—and he still plays with trains. “I hardly get to play with my railroad at home because I get to play with this one,” said Dave Rodelius, in the tone of a man who can’t believe his good fortune.

PHOTO: Dave Rodelius shows off one of the stars of the Model Railroad Garden this summer: a steam engine!

Dave Rodelius shows off one of the stars of the Model Railroad Garden this spring: a steam engine!

This year marks Rodelius’s 15th season at the Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America, which opens Saturday, May 9, with a special treat. This season, the Model Railroad Garden will pay tribute to steam engines, in honor of the 125th anniversary of the Chicago Horticultural Society (the Society founded and manages the Chicago Botanic Garden). Models of historic steam engines will chug along 1,600 feet of track, representing the early days of the Society, when steam engines ran commuter coaches along Chicago’s elevated tracks and hauled freight over long distances.

Q. Dave, you have the greatest job title ever! How did you get this job?

A. I was retired, and my wife saw a little blurb in the newspaper that the Chicago Botanic Garden needed tram drivers. So I became a tram driver. One day, I saw that they had torn things up right in the middle of the Garden. I said, “What the Sam Hill are they doing here?” That’s how I found out there was going to be a model railroad out there. Then one of the secretaries, who worked for a vice president, found out that I had been into model railroads all my life. So one day, the vice president of visitor operations at the time called me into her office and asked if I would be interested in managing the railroad. I didn’t get a chance to ask her how much I’d have to pay.

PHOTO: Visitors of all ages enjoy the Model Railroad Garden.

Visitors of all ages enjoy the Model Railroad Garden.

Q. But that was back in 2000—and the railroad exhibition was going to be a five-month exhibition.

A. We had more than 100,000 people come through in five months. The little path out there was constantly packed with people. One thing led to another. In our first year, the trains didn’t make any sounds—no choo-choos or whistles or anything, so we added sound cars. Gradually, the railroad became so darn popular that it became a permanent exhibition.

Q. So you became interested in trains as a kid?

A. When I was 6 or 7, my dad bought me a Lionel train. That train would go around the Christmas tree and in the bedroom. Now I have a model railroad layout of Solothurn, Switzerland, where my daughter got married; it’s in my basement. It has Swiss trains and a ski lift.

Q. It sounds like you were a busy kid.

A. My family had 2.5 acres that we farmed in World War II for vegetables. I sold vegetables in the neighborhood in my little wagon. Then I was in the Boy Scouts and became an Eagle Scout in 1948….I grew up in Evanston and still live in Evanston, and I have lunch with some sixth-grade classmates once a month.

Q. And you’ve had some other interesting jobs before you started running the railroad.

A. I received a bachelor’s degree in animal science at the University of Illinois. I wanted to raise cattle. In college, I was an intern at a purebred cattle farm. The most fascinating thing I did was to help birth calves. You get to see the little rascals trying to get up and stumble around….Eventually, I was drafted into the U.S. Army engineer corps. Two years later, I was discharged and became a manager at a livestock feed manufacturing company. Then my dad bought a photography studio in 1961, and I became a photographer.

Q. What keeps you motivated after all these years?

A. My passion for the railroad is what drives me—I absolutely love this railroad. The same passion goes for everyone. We have 18 engineers and 75 to 80 volunteers. They get along so darn well that I can’t believe it. You cannot keep these people away; they are just so dedicated. They whole thing has kept me young. I get up and down on my hands and knees all the time. I should write to the AARP—if you want to hear about a good job to have, we at the Garden have it.

PHOTO: Model Railroad Garden volunteers.

Left to right: Model Railroad Garden volunteer engineers Ken Press and Mark Rosenblum with George Knuth, staff engineer

Q. What do you do in your spare time?

A. I do some gardening, and some fishing and boating. My wife and I have three daughters and three grandkids. My wife is spectacular, one of the greatest people I’ve ever met.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

World Bonsai Day

Chris Baker —  May 6, 2015 — Leave a comment

Join us for a new program at the Chicago Botanic Garden on Saturday, May 9: World Bonsai Day! 

Observed on the second Saturday in May, this day was established by the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) in 2010 to honor WBFF founder and bonsai master Saburo Kato’s contributions to the world of bonsai, and to bring all bonsai enthusiasts together for a day to promote bonsai and friendship throughout the world.

PHOTO: The late bonsai master Saburo Kato.

The late bonsai master Saburo Kato

The oldest son of bonsai master Tomekichi Kato, Saburo Kato followed in his father’s footsteps cultivating bonsai, and at his father’s death, became the third-generation owner of Mansei-en Bonsai Garden in Japan, one of the most famous bonsai nurseries in the world. As an author, teacher, and poet, Kato inspired countless people throughout the world to learn the art of bonsai cultivation. He believed so strongly that bonsai could bring peace throughout the world that he founded the WBFF.

In 2014, the following organizations celebrated World Bonsai Day: National Bonsai & Penjing Museum (at the United States National Arboretum), the North Carolina Arboretum, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, the Pacific Bonsai Museum, and Rosade Bonsai Studio.

PHOTO: Jack Sustic (left), curator, National Bonsai & Penjing Museum (at the United States National Arboretum), with a volunteer, World Bonsai Day 2014

Jack Sustic (left), curator, National Bonsai & Penjing Museum (at the United States National Arboretum), with a volunteer, World Bonsai Day 2014

PHOTO: Curator Chris Baker of the Chicago Botanic Garden trims a bonsai, under the watchful eyes of Jack Sustic (far left) and bonsai master Harry Hirao (seated).

Curator Chris Baker of the Chicago Botanic Garden trims a bonsai, under the watchful eyes of Jack Sustic (far left) and bonsai master Harry Hirao (seated).

Join me, curator Chris Baker, and some of our bonsai volunteers in the activities below on World Bonsai Day at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The stages of growing bonsai will be featured with specific examples. Explore the tools, pots, wire, etc., used to practice bonsai, and get information on upcoming bonsai classes.

Program Schedule:

  • 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.: Demonstration: Bonsai Tree Styling
    I will demonstrate how major tree shaping is done, with a tree being formed into a bonsai.
  • 1 p.m.: Spring Garden Walk: Bonsai Collection Highlights
    During the scheduled Spring Garden Walk, I’ll be showcasing selections from the Garden’s Bonsai Collection and pointing out special spring highlights. (Note: due to the recent warm weather, the Korean lilac, wisteria, crabapple, or azalea bonsai may be in bloom.)
  • 1 to 4 p.m.: Demonstration: Bonsai Landscape Planting
    I will demonstrate how I create a “landscape planting” with multiple bonsai on a rock slab.

Come back to the Garden May 16 – 17 for the Midwest Bonsai Society Spring Show & Sale.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org