Archives For Behind the Scenes

An uncommon look at how the Chicago Botanic Garden’s beauty is created and cultivated.

This summer, when you stop by for ice cream at the Rose Terrace Café, be sure to look UP—and marvel at the incredible trees above you. These 28 GREENSPIRE™ linden trees (Tilia cordata ‘PNI 6025′), a cultivar of littleleaf linden, are actually pruned into a 270-foot-long hedge! 

PHOTO: Cindy Baker and Guillermo Patino

Couldn’t resist a selfie with Guillermo in the lift!

Littleleaf lindens are native to Europe, central Russia, and western Asia. They are relatively disease-resistant and low-maintenance trees. Their dense canopy provides ample shade for a hot summer day, and the heart-shaped leaves turn an outstanding gold color in the fall. They have a very symmetrical conical shape, strong central leader, and can reach a height of over 50 feet when mature—a great landscape tree for the Chicagoland region!

Twice a year, working carefully, twig by twig, a crew of four to five staff members from the Grounds Department prunes all 28 trees in the Linden Allée to precise measurements—once in the winter for shaping, and once in the summer for detail grooming. The design is very uniform and creates a formal allée of trees. The sides are pruned at a slight, almost imperceptible angle, and are 4 inches narrower at the top than at the bottom. This allows sunlight to reach all of the leaves, while still visually appearing to be straight, not slanted. The undersides of the trees are pruned level, and even the tops of the trees are pruned into a perfectly flat hedge shape.

PHOTO: Traffic jam in the Linden Alleé—lift versus tram.

Here comes the tram! Time to back the lift out of the Allée again.

PHOTO: Taking a break with a view of the Japanese Garden: the right side (and back left of the Alleé) after pruning—still more to do!

Taking a break with a view of the Malott Japanese Garden: the right side (and back left of the Allée) after pruning—still more to do!

Guillermo Patino, who has been with the Garden for more than 20 years, is the crew leader for this project. He is an expert at maneuvering the large aerial lift in and around all of the trees, as even the back sides of each tree must be pruned. And then, once every hour, he hears over the radio, “The tram is coming!” He moves his giant machine out of the way, allows the tram and visitors to pass, and then at the blazing speed of 2 miles per hour, drives back down to his work area to continue his pruning.

An interesting and unique characteristic of linden trees is that they are very tolerant of heavy pruning, making them the perfect candidate for hedging, espalier, and bonsai.

This work takes the staff more than 500 hours to complete over a period of two full weeks. A big project at the Chicago Botanic Garden, but the finished product is well worth the effort!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Have you been to the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden lately? If you have, you probably saw some of the garden staff perching in the branches of the niwaki. We’re not building nests or hiding out; we’re candling.

PHOTO: Niwaki near the Japanese Garden bridge.

In early spring, a niwaki near the bridge stands in need of candling.

Niwaki

Niwaki, literally translated, means “garden tree.” Some people think of niwaki as big bonsai, but that relationship isn’t exactly right. Bonsai translates to “tray (or pot) planting.” While we may think of niwaki as big bonsai, we should try to think of bonsai as niwaki in a pot. The purpose of the two arts are the same; they represent the essence of the tree.

If you consider how bonsai and niwaki are styled, they give the impression of age. The trees may be windswept or upright, often with gnarled bark and wide trunks. We achieve these effects by holding branches vertically with string tied to the ground, with fall pruning, and with candling in both spring and summer.

What’s candling?

In spring, we all know things start to grow again: seeds sprout, perennials push out growth from the roots, and trees break dormancy. In pine trees, these shoots of new growth are called “candles.” When we candle, we break off part of the new growth to stimulate growth from lower nodes. (In other plants, we often refer to this as “pinching.”)

PHOTO: Closeup of the tip of a pine branch, showing new growth.

A closeup of this Pinus sylvestris shows where the candle was broken last year and where you expect the new growth to emerge.

The result of breaking these candles is that the new growth spreads more horizontally than vertically, and the density of the pads increase, which makes them appear more lush and healthy over time. We never purposely take off an entire candle, because it removes the most actively growing point and takes longer to recover.

Why candle?

The pine shoots that emerge in spring are called candles for a reason: they tend to be very tall, skinny cylinders like taper or dinner candles. If we let this growth continue, the growth from one pad would grow into the next pad within a few short years. By the time this would happen, much, if not all the original pad would be woody, old, and almost impossible to repair. So in order to maintain the appearance of these trees, we need to candle every year. 

PHOTO: Uncandled new growth on the Japanese Garden pine trees.

If allowed to grow, these new shoots would quickly take over.

How long does it take?

There are 180 trees in the Malott Japanese Garden trained in this style. Each tree can take anywhere from eight hours to multiple days, depending on the size and on the person who is working on it. Most of the trees at the entrance to the garden will take eight hours for some of our speedier employees. Most days, during our regular hours, you can expect to see between two to five employees in the trees.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Traveling Thatcher

Karen Z. —  June 22, 2014 — Leave a comment

The arbor house in the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden was re-thatched recently by William Cahill, a professional thatcher, who gave us a short interview on the process, and how he learned to thatch.

A few things that thatcher William Cahill doesn’t tell you in this video:

  • He is one of only two thatchers in the entire United States.
  • He has his own forge and makes some of his own tools.
  • In the video, he wields a leggett and a Dutch mallet.
  • The water reed used for the roof is so sharp that it can cut your hand.
  • He has thatched with heather, bamboo, willow, water reed, and eucalyptus.
  • While Ireland and Japan are best known for thatched roofs, Africa thatches the most, with more than two million thatched structures.
  • His roofing résumé is fascinating: structures at Winterthur, Grey Gardens, and Lotusland; plus flower shops, sheep houses, potting sheds, museums, wigwams, churches, faerie houses, zoo pavilions…and William Butler Yeats’ home in Galway, Ireland. Check out Cahill’s amazing work at roofthatch.com.

We could listen to his beautiful Irish accent all day.

Video not working? Watch the video at http://youtu.be/gqyFXZJpdWI.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Eating Weeds

A guide to some common—and tasty—weeds

Mike Kwiatek —  June 10, 2014 — 6 Comments

If you ever find yourself grumbling over the dandelions that make their home in your lawn, or staring angrily at the purslane popping up in your vegetable garden, I have a suggestion for you: make a salad.

You may be familiar with the concept of foraging for weeds. I first became interested in the subject in college, when I realized that free food was everywhere once you knew where to look. (The reality soon set in that most of this “free” food was actually growing on lawns and private property.) Whenever you forage weeds and wild plants you have to be careful that what you take isn’t getting sprayed with herbicides—which is why I recommend only harvesting weeds from your own yard, or places you know have uncontaminated soil (and aren’t sprayed). It’s also very important to know exactly what you’re eating. Sometimes weeds have look-alikes that can be upsetting to the stomach or downright deadly. Others, of course, you can easily recognize from a distance, like yellow wood sorrel.

PHOTO: Yellow wood sorrel in bloom.

Great as a snack or a garnish, Oxalis is a tasty edible weed.

Oxalis stricta

Oxalis stricta, also known as yellow wood sorrel or lemon clover, is an annual weed that you can find anywhere…and everywhere. It spreads aggressively from its seedpods—which can explode on contact!

It only takes a brief sampling of the leaf to figure out why this weed is also called sour grass. The plants are full of oxalic acid, which is dangerous to humans in large amounts, but relatively harmless in small doses. The oxalic acid in the plant gives it a wonderful sour taste that makes for an excellent addition to salads. Oxalis grows commonly in lightly to heavily shaded garden areas. Look for them under plants like hostas.

PHOTO: Dandelion blooming in the lawn.

The long, lion-toothed leaves help identify suburban lawn villain Taraxacum officinale, but if you ever have a doubt, look for the aster-esqe yellow blooms.

Taraxacum officinale

Taraxacum officinale, or dandelions, are bothersome weeds, but they are truly “gourmet.” Dandelions get their name from their toothed leaves which are reminiscent of lion’s teeth, or as the French would say, “dent de lion.”

In its long botanical history, the dandelion has been used medicinally, but also as food. Dandelion roots, leaves, and flowers are entirely edible. Roasted, the roots can make for a caffeine-free coffee substitute. The young leaves make for bitter but interesting additions to salads. The plants can also be deprived of sunlight until the leaves become pale, which will change the flavor of the leaves to make them more palatable. The flower buds can be fried and eaten, while the open blooms can be used to make dandelion wine!

PHOTO: Purslane poking up through garden mulch.

Keep an eye out for the  fairly drought resistant  Portulaca oleracea in areas where the ground tends to crack.

 

Portulaca oleracea

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a weed that you can find in sunny garden areas. They have succulent, red to green, low-spreading stems with flat, paddle-shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers. Purslane actually has an ornamental relative called moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), which have leaves that are more pointed than flat, and much larger flowers. Though they are also edible, why bother when you have purslane growing naturally? Look for purslane in sunny areas, particularly where the ground can get dry. Harvest purslane any time before the flowers appear, because they can become quite bitter after flowering. Purslane is also incredibly nutritious, rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, and high in Vitamins A, C, and E, as well as magnesium, potassium, and iron, just to name a few. Try it raw, or in a stir-fry!

PHOTO: Lamb's quarters in the garden bed.

Chenopodium is an easy weed to scarf up while working in the garden.

Chenopodium album

Another common edible weed is Chenopodium album, also called lambs’ quarters, or goosefoot. It will grow in sunny to partly shady areas and is high in Vitamins A and C. Like Oxalis, it also has high amounts of oxalic acid, so remember to enjoy it in moderation. I prefer to eat the young seedlings which only have 2-3 sets of leaves. This makes for an easy snack while you’re in the garden. 

Steer clear of Chenopodium’s southern cousin, epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides or Dysphania ambrosioides). Native to Central America, South America, and southern Mexico, this weed can now be found on roadsides in North America as well. While epazote—whose long skinny leaves do not resemble a goosefoot—is used medicinally for a number of purposes, high doses can can cause severe dermatitis or allergic reactions. 

PHOTO: Spiderwort in bloom.

Tradescantia is more of a beautiful garden edible than a weed.

Tradescantia

As our final edible weed, I debated including Tradescantia, or spiderwort, in this list. Though it can spread in the garden, it is not anywhere as aggressive as the other weeds in this list. It is also commonly grown for ornamental purposes. In fact, I’m planning to order some of Chicagoland Grows’ Tradescantia ‘Tough Love’ —a reddish-purple-flowered cultivar—for my garden next year when it is released!

The wild plants vary a great deal in size from 1 foot to 4-5 feet tall, depending on species. The small, three-petaled flowers are often blue, but also come in purple, pink, and white. The name spiderwort may come from the fuzzy, webbing-like stamens of the flower, or from the way the mucilaginous substance in the stems will form thin, web-like strands when broken. If you’re planning on eating this one, peel the leaves off the stem and cook them like asparagus. You can also chop up the stems (or leaves) and fry them. But don’t stop there—the flowers are also tasty when raw. Since they usually last for just one day, you don’t have to feel guilty about eating them either! Plus, since they’re native plants used to grazing animals, they can take the abuse!

Interested in learning about more weedy cuisine in your yard? Join environmentalist, author, and forager Melany Vorass Herrera for The Front Yard Forager Workshop on Friday, June 20, from 6 to 8 p.m.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spring isn’t progressing very quickly outside, so we stopped by the production greenhouses to find out how spring is growing behind the scenes. Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist, was excited to show us what it takes to grow thousands of the spring annuals and vegetables that will soon be planted outdoors.

Tim told us we are growing 73,000 spring annuals and vegetables this year to be planted outside in the gardens in April. If you like pansies and violas, you are in for a treat, as we’ve planted almost 30,000 of them! A lot of planning goes into scheduling when to start seeds, thin them, transplant them, and harden them off to be ready when each horticulturist needs them. The production team of more than 50 staff members and volunteers makes it all look easy, but I’m guessing with this harsh winter, it hasn’t been easy.

Just one of the wows visitors will see this spring are the hayracks that hang over the bridge from the Visitor Center to the main island. Staff members and volunteers just recently spent 12 hours planting them with 1,200 plants. They will grow safely in the greenhouses until the weather gets warm enough to bring them outside. Can’t wait!

Click on the video link above or watch on YouTube to learn all about getting ready for spring!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org