Archives For Horticulture & Display Gardens

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

Are you staring at the glorious color wheel of peppers at your local grocer or farmers’ market and salivating over your peppers growing at home?

If so, you are a pepper lover, and while you hold yourself back from buying every type you see on the shelf, you also know that this feeling is fleeting.

PHOTO: pickled peppers.

Savor the flavor—pickling lets your harvest last longer and tastes amazing.

Those beautiful colors and unusual varieties are in their prime now, when the hot summer days and good strong rains are perfect support for a fruiting pepper plant. In just a month or two, the number of varieties will start to dwindle and your hot spicy recipes will taste bland again.

Fear not! You can preserve that color and flavor easily with pickled peppers! But even Peter Piper couldn’t pick a peck of them. You have to pickle them yourself. Luckily, pickling peppers is perfectly painless.

PHOTO: Use gloves when seeding hot peppers.

Play it smart! Wear gloves when seeding hot peppers.

Note: Be careful when handling hot peppers; don’t rub your eyes as the capsaicin will migrate and can really irritate them (and be detrimental to contact lenses). One way to avoid this is to use disposable gloves. Wash your hands thoroughly after removing the gloves as well.

Hot or not:

Just how spicy do you want your peppers? Go ahead and take a bite. If it’s too hot, it’s not too late. Before you pickle, core your peppers (removing the seeds and inner ribs). This removes some of its spiciest elements. You can also run them under water once they are cored to lessen the heat.

PHOTO: Coring peppers removes some of their "heat."

Coring and removing the ribs and seeds takes a lot of the heat out of the pepper. Like the pepper hot? Leave them in.

If you like it hot, leave your peppers whole. Just poke or slit holes in the side of the pepper to expose the inside to the pickling liquid.

Be sure your pickles are tender, firm, crisp and not showing any spots, wrinkled skin, or decay. Also, wash them well before pickling.

Skin off:

Pickled pepper skin can be unpleasant and rubbery. If you are thinly slicing your peppers (or your peppers are very thin-skinned), you may choose to leave the skin on. However, if you are pickling your peppers whole, remove the skin now by blistering the outside of the pepper on the grill, in the oven, or with the broiler. Once the skin is blistered on all sides, let the pepper cool and the skin will slide right off.

If you don’t want to heat up the kitchen on a summer day, use a vegetable peeler to remove the skin (preserve as much of the flesh as possible).

PHOTO: peppers on a roasting rack.

A brief roast will blister the skins of your peppers, making them slide right off when cool.

PHOTO: skinning peppers with a vegetable peeler.

You can also skin peppers with a peeler.

Sterilize your jars and make pickling liquid.

Use glass jars that can vacuum seal (Mason® or Ball® jars work great). Wash them well, then heat them in the dishwasher or fill with boiling water until the glass is hot. Pour out water just before you fill them with peppers and brine.

A basic brine for a 1 pint jar contains the following:

  • 2 cups vinegar (white distilled vinegar preserves the pepper colors best)
  • 1¼ teaspoons canning or pickling salt
  • ½ tablespoon of sugar or honey (*may be left out if you prefer)

PHOTO: Ingredients for pickled peppers.

Dill, onions, garlic, and peppers: this is going to be awesome.

What to add?

Onion, garlic cloves, peppercorns, mustard seeds, dill seeds, sesame seeds, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and many other spices can add flavor to the brine. For a true Chicago hot dog, add two garlic cloves and a pinch of mustard seed. For a sweet approach, add 2 tablespoons of honey and some chopped onion. For Thai Chilies, add sesame seed for richer tasting pickles.

TIME OUT TO TASTE TEST!

Take a sliver of your pepper and a bit of your pickling liquid and set to the side. Let the liquid cool and then taste them together. Hold your nose—the vinegar will be strong! This is not exact, but gives you can idea to the flavors you’ve mixed. Adjust your spices as you may need.

PHOTO: packed jars ready for pickle brine.

Leave space to pour the brine in, and for the jars to seal properly.

Pack your jars:

Bring the brine to a boil; reduce heat and cook just long enough for the salt to dissolve in the vinegar (about 2 minutes). Pack your garlic cloves, extra dill, or other ingredients with your peppers into the hot jars, leaving 1 inch of air (called headspace) in the top of the jar. Then, ladle the hot pickling brine over the peppers until the brine is ½ inch from the top of the jar.

Put on your lids and rings and close gently. Don’t turn as tight as you can—you want the lid to be easy to loosen later.

Store:

If you plan to use your peppers right away, put the jars into the fridge for two days and start eating!

If you want to hold on to you peppers longer, you will want to can them. Place your newly packed jars into a canning pot filled with boiling water. The water should sit 1 inch above the jars. Keep the water boiling for 10 minutes. Then lift the jars out of the water and let them cool on a towel (not touching each other). After they have cooled overnight, press the center of the lid down with your finger. If the lid doesn’t move, it has sealed and your peppers will keep for up to a year! If the lid pops up and down, the jar didn’t seal and should go into the fridge for quick eating.

Don’t forget to have fun! Play with different color and flavor combos or chop the peppers for something spreadable. As long as you use the right amount of vinegar and salt, the sky is the limit!

Already perfected pepper pickling? Then make giardiniera!

Use half the recipe above and add carrot, celery, onion, cauliflower, green olives, and garlic to the jars. Also add 2 tablespoons oregano, 1 teaspoon celery seed, 1 teaspoon ground pepper, and 3 cups of olive oil to the pickling liquid. Rather than canning, let the jars ferment in your fridge for at least two days before eating for the best flavor.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I am an enthusiast of space design.

After a two-year technical degree at École Boulle (a school of fine arts and crafts and applied arts in Paris, France), I decided to study for my master’s degree at the National School of Landscape Architecture of Versailles.

PHOTO: French summer intern Lisa Ho.

I spent most of my time working and learning in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

For me, work in landscape architecture is the best way to unite many different and interesting fields, such as art, sociology, and ecology. Designing spaces where people will live and have an emotional connection to their surroundings is my way of creating happiness.

I chose to do an internship in the United States to broaden my understanding of how cities here developed over time in comparison with France, which has had many hundreds of years to develop. In Chicago, I saw that the gardens were designed like the links of the city, and learned one of the reasons for this is Chicago’s motto, Urbs in horto, which means “city in a garden.”

Through my internship at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I also wanted to learn practical horticulture skills, like plant identification, choosing the right plants for certain spaces, and techniques for good plant health. For example, to improve air circulation and the growth of some vegetables, I learned to stake up tomatillos, and use trellises for beans.

PHOTO: Lisa Ho's sketchbook illustrations and notes on plantings in the vegetable beds.

My sketchbook illustrations and notes on plantings in the vegetable beds. Three Sisters is a trio of vegetables planted together for their mutual benefit. Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the overall fertility of the soil. Squash vines shade emerging weeds and keep the soil moist.

I spent a total of four weeks at the Chicago Botanic Garden, working mainly in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden under that garden’s horticulturist, Lisa Hilgenberg. During Pepper Sundays, I learned that one of the special plants in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden is the bull-nose pepper—a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, who was an ambassador to France and a great plant enthusiast. He made many plant exchanges with people around the world, especially France. It goes to show that plants everywhere bring people together, no matter the country or culture.

PHOTO: Lisa Hilgenberg, and Lisa Ho pose with Christine Moore from the United States National Landscape Arboretum in Washington DC.

Lisa Hilgenberg and Lisa Ho pose with Christine Moore from the United States National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Moore is the curator of the National Herb Collection, and we were able to work together for several days.

Gardens are always changing, so there were always new things to see and learn each day—not just with the plants, but also with understanding how people use the gardens at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Visitors come to learn about plants, to enjoy their day in a beautiful place, and to be inspired. I saw how important green spaces are to people. My internship has encouraged me to share knowledge with the visitors, the interns, the staff, and volunteers. It is a true collaboration and exchange between people. For example, when I worked in the nursery, the staff and the interns showed me the breadth of the production and how the Garden is constantly trying to help people experience the Garden in a new way.

For me, the Chicago Botanic Garden, in addition to being a beautiful garden, is an amazing, open-air encyclopedia of plants and garden design, as well as a wonderful space for public enjoyment.

I am grateful to the French Heritage Society, which partners with the Garden on a collaborative internship exchange, to the Ragdale Foundation, which has hosted me, and to the Chicago Botanic Garden and Lisa Hilgenberg for giving me this extraordinary opportunity. And finally, I hope that this will be the beginning of new friendships for me.


This is the fifth year of our wonderful intern exchange with the French Heritage Society. As Lisa Ho spent her summer in Chicago, Chicago Botanic Garden employee Eileen Brucato went over to France to gain experience in three chateau gardens: Château de Brécy, Château d’Acquigny in Normandy, and Château de la Bourdaisière in Tours.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It’s officially summer in Chicago, and you’ll start to notice a plethora of begonias, impatiens, marigolds, cannas, dahlias, and elephant ears, all planted for a temporary taste of the tropics.

If you’ve dreamed about creating an exotic vacation look at home, but wanted to reduce your yearly investment in annuals, consider pairing them with tropical-looking hardy perennials that come back yearly. The following additions will help give your garden that south Florida feel.

PHOTO: Hibiscus 'Midnight Marvel'

Hibiscus ‘Midnight Marvel’

Midnight Marvel hibiscus

You don’t have to live in Hawaii to grow hibiscus. There are actually two species native to Illinois. Several others occur in the southeastern states. These hardy plants emerge late in the spring, get quite large and shrubby, bloom their hearts out in late summer, and then retreat underground when winters comes along.

Midnight Marvel is a spectacular hybrid with very deep wine-colored foliage and dinner-plate-sized crimson flowers. Each flower lasts just a day a two, but are so plentiful that the show lasts for weeks, and hummingbirds love it. After each flower passes, the light green calyx tubes look pretty set against the dark leaves. Midnight Marvel reaches 4 to 5 feet tall, so is best placed at the back of the bed in a site with full sun.

PHOTO: Belamcanda chinensis 'Freckle Face'

Belamcanda chinensis ‘Freckle Face’

Freckle Face blackberry lily

Orange is a hot color, perfect for a tropical garden. The flowers of Freckle Face blackberry lily (Iris domestica ‘Freckle Face’) are a gorgeous carroty shade with many vivid red spots covering each petal. The blackberry portion of the name refers to shiny black seed clusters that pop out of the split open pods. Sprays of flowers bloom for several weeks in late summer on these 2-foot-tall plants.

Despite its name, this plant isn’t actually a lily at all, but resides in the iris family. The blue-green spiky leaves even resemble bearded iris foliage. Taxonomists very recently changed the name, so when searching online, you will most likely find it under Belamcanda chinensis ‘Freckle Face’.

PHOTO: Aralia cordata 'Sun King'

Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’

Sun King udo

Here’s a statuesque perennial for the part-sun area of your tropical garden. An enormous specimen, reaching 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide, Sun King udo is mistaken for a shrub, but is completely herbaceous. This is definitely a shade plant, but providing it with just a few hours of sun will really enhance the gold color of its foliage.

In summer, Sun King udo’s many umbels of greenish-white flowers are total bee magnets. By autumn, the spent flowers have changed into densely fruited clusters of wine red berries. The fruits are attractive, but best left for the birds, since they are not remotely tasty.

Shieldleaf rodgersflower

If you’ve got shade, consider mixing bold and tropical-looking foliage for a jungle effect. The perfect non-invasive perennial for this is shieldleaf rodgersflower. Formerly in the genus Rodgersia, Astilboides tabularis produces gigantic 2 to 3-foot-wide parasol-like leaves.

PHOTO: Astilboides tabularis

Astilboides tabularis

While the leaves are the most striking part, creamy-white astilbe-like flowers do sprout up through the dome of foliage in late June. With enough moisture, the foliage remains light green and attractive until autumn. This is not a plant for dry shade or windy spots, but perfect for moist, rich soil. For additional large leaves in the shade, try Ligularia dentata ‘Othello’, Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’, and Rodgersia.

PHOTO: Dryopteris goldiana

Dryopteris goldiana

Goldie’s fern

Tropical gardens are meant to invoke a relaxing vacation, and what is more cool and calm than ferns? Many gardeners grow ostrich fern, which is one of the largest and most tropical-looking spore producers in the Northern Hemisphere. However, ostrich fern can be a bit of a thug if space does not permit. Instead, try growing Goldie’s fern, which is a slow spreader and the largest species of Dryopteris in the United States. Under the best conditions, it will reach 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide. The fronds are a soothing shade of dark green and not golden as the name implies. (It is actually named after Scottish botanist John Goldie.)

The trick to getting the tropical look to work in your garden is to create a framework of dramatic, large-leaved perennials, and lacy, soothing ferns, then surround those with some hot red, orange, and yellow annuals. Top it off with some tiki torches, bamboo fencing, and a few lawn flamingos and you’ll have the perfect paradise for a hammock and mai tais!


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

We’ve officially reached planting season, and it is now safe to put in warm-season flowering annuals, vines, herbs, and vegetables. Horticulturists at the Chicago Botanic Garden do recommend waiting until Memorial Day for cold-sensitive plants such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and squash. Happy planting!

Summer plantings await in the Production Greenhouses.

Summer plantings await in the production greenhouses.


Looking for a challenge? Try these techniques from our blog and the Smart Gardener:

Diascia Barberae 'Flirtation Pink'.

Diascia barberae ‘Flirtation Pink’

Get the best performance from your plants with these tips from the Garden’s Plant Information Service:

  • Pinch back one-third of new growth to encourage stocky habit (except vines).
  • Be sure newly purchased annuals have been hardened off properly before planting them outside. That means moving plants outdoors for a portion of the day to gradually introduce them to the direct sunlight, dry air, and cold nights.
  • Avoid fertilizing newly planted annuals for two weeks.
  • Continue to plant new perennials, ornamental grasses, and roses in containers. If plant roots are root-bound (encircling the pot), make four cuts into the bottom of the root ball with a sharp tool, and flare the sections outward when planting.
  • Stake tall perennials before they reach 6 inches. Begin to regularly pinch back fall-blooming perennials such as chrysanthemums, asters, and tall sedums. Pinch once a week until the middle of July. This promotes stocky growth.
  • Continue to direct the growth of perennial vines on their supports. Climbing roses should be encouraged to develop lateral, flower-bearing canes.
  • Let spring bulb foliage yellow and wither before removing it. The leaves manufacture food that is stored in the bulb for next year’s growth. Even braiding the foliage of daffodils can reduce the food production of the leaves.

Our monthly checklists and Plant Information Service have a host of other gardening tips—including care for lawns, shrubs, and roses.


Photos by Bill Bishoff
©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Attention orchid fans: our vanilla orchid is blooming in the Tropical Greenhouse at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It’s a rare occurrence in the wild—and in a greenhouse. Wade Wheatley, assistant horticulturist, seized the moment to hand-pollinate the flower. 

Vanilla planifolia before pollination

Vanilla planifolia before pollination

Why hand pollinate? In hopes of producing a vanilla bean. Yes, the fruit of a vanilla orchid is used to make pure vanilla extract, which flavors many foods we enjoy.

Vanilla vines typically begin to flower at five years or older. Flowers are produced in clusters, with one flower opening each day in the morning. Stop by the Tropical Greenhouse soon to see what’s in bloom. 


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org