Archives For Behind the Scenes

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

Checking the Weather? So Are We.

It's how you connect to the Garden every day.

Karen Z. —  November 17, 2014 — 2 Comments

It’s the humblest patch of green at the Garden, yet the information gathered there has national implications—and, though you may not realize it, it’s part of your daily prep for work, school, and play.

Although dealing with the weather is part of everyone’s job here, there is no meteorologist on staff at the Garden. Got questions about weather specifics or cooperative weather stations?

In a small, sunny, grassy, flat, fenced-in plot (there’s a reason for that), located on the outer road that encircles the Garden, stands an official National Weather Service Cooperative Station—a collection of instruments that measures the atmospheric conditions of the day. And every morning at 8 a.m., rain (or snow) or shine, a dedicated Garden staff member steps into the plot to read the instruments and record the results, then heads back indoors to transfer the information to the National Weather Service (NWS).

I got to tag along with Celeste VanderMey, Plant Records supervisor, on a recent fall morning for the daily readings.

PHOTO: Celeste at the weather station temperature booth.

Celeste VanderMey explains that its beehive appearance might deter curious critters from poking around inside the weather shelter.

Reading #1: Temperature

Though it looks vaguely like a beehive, the little white structure is a weather shelter that houses two temperature gauges. The maximum temperature thermometer’s mercury rises to the high temperature mark of each day, then stays at the setting until it’s read the next morning. To reset it, Celeste just gives it a spin and the mercury drops.

An alcohol thermometer records the low temperature of each day: pure alcohol molecules move closer together as the temperature drops, shifting a tiny bar that marks the number.

Why no digital thermometers? “Not considered as reliably accurate,” Celeste says.

PHOTO: The weather station rain gauge.

A long metal cylinder like a tiny rocket ship turns out to be a rain gauge. Celeste removes the lid and takes a reading.

Reading #2: Dew

Admittedly the least scientific of the daily measurements, dewfall is indicated as low, moderate, or heavy, simply by examining a surface: the top of the weather shelter, or the grass itself.

Reading #3: Rain

The National Weather Service provided us with the rain canister, which can hold up to 10 inches of precipitation (not that we’ve ever had that amount—see records below). Inside is a plastic funnel that directs rainwater into a smaller brass tin. A measuring stick—like a car’s oil dipstick—is inserted, then pulled out and read for rain depth—one-tenth inch of rain equals one inch on the stick.

Reading #4: Soil Temperature

A soil thermometer is as handy for home gardeners as it is for us—especially in spring, when it tells gardeners if it’s warm enough to put seeds in the ground. We measure the high and low temperatures of both bare soil and soil under sod/grass (that’s why the plot is flat, sunny, and grassy). An interesting fact: no matter what the air temperature in winter, the soil seldom drops below 26 degrees (it’s measured at 4-inch depth). 

PHOTO: Weather station soil temperature gauge.

This gauge takes a reading of bare soil temperatures. Five feet over, another gauge measures the temperature under grass. It’s important information for farmers germinating seed.

Reading #5: Snowfall

It’s low tech, but it works: a white plastic board catches a winter day’s snowfall, which is measured with a yardstick to the tenth of an inch. Two or more inches of snow? Then a core sampling is taken down to the ground, and the core is brought indoors to melt for a water equivalency reading. As mentioned below, the NWS uses this information to predict flooding.

Reading #6: Evaporation

Next we moved to the 4-foot in diameter evaporation pan. Its three readings tell forecasters how much water has been absorbed into the atmosphere at this location.

An instrument with an intriguing name, a six’s thermometer, measures both high and low daily temperature of the water in the pan. An anemometer (wind meter) tells how many miles’ worth of wind has passed this spot. And a hook gauge in a stilling well measures the amount of water lost to evaporation (or added by rain).

PHOTO: An anemometer measures wind speed.

The anemometer attached to the evaporation pan measures the wind speed at an exact height. All weather station gear must meet siting requirements, so that data are measured consistently from station to station.

PHOTO: The hook gauge which usually rests in a container inside the evaporation pan.

The hook gauge rests in a standard-size stilling well inside the evaporation pan—the structure the anemometer is attached to in the previous photo.

Reading #7: River and Lake Levels

Finally, we take a short walk across the road to the South Bridge, and the weir (dam) beneath, where the waters of the Garden Lakes meet the Skokie River. Along the banks on each side of the bridge are measurement markers that are read (bring the binoculars!) and recorded daily, although they’re for the Garden’s own record keeping rather than the NWS.

Why track the lake and river levels? Flooding is always a threat in our lake system, says Bob Kirschner, director of Restoration Ecology. “We look at the levels every day,” he explains, “and we can adjust the lake level in anticipation of excessively wet or dry weather forecasts.” All of the Garden’s property is irrigated with water drawn from our lakes. Water levels matter to the half-million lakeshore plants that line the lakes, too—all installed with our normal lake level (623.95 feet above mean sea level) in mind.

PHOTO: Fall in the Great Basin

Fall in the Great Basin

It takes just a few minutes’ time to record the morning’s numbers. Indoors, Celeste logs on to the NWS site and inputs the results, adding noteworthy conditions as needed: fog…haze…ice…thunderstorms.

Staff has been keeping records since 1982. That’s the year that then-Garden president Dr. Roy Mecklenburg, who was keenly interested in meteorology, arranged for the Garden to become a weather station. Stations existed at the time at Midway Airport and in Antioch, with none in between. A few notable numbers since then (again, note that all are since 1982, when our record keeping began):

  • January 2014 holds our record for snowiest January with 28.7 inches (1967 snowfall was higher).
  • February 2014 holds the record for coldest February: 26.6 degrees average high, usually 35.6 degrees.
  • 1993 holds the record for shortest growing season (number of days between last frost and first frost) at only 123 days. The average? 163 days.
  • August 14, 1987, holds the record for most rainfall in one day: 5.54 inches.

It’s fascinating to think that the Garden contributes daily to the national weather picture and that there’s always an eye on the weather here (thanks to Celeste, Veronica, Gabriella, Therese, and Lauren). Next time you check on the weather and hear a forecaster say, “and the Chicago Botanic Garden reported “x” inches of rain yesterday,” you’ll know where the information came from: a humble patch of green.

A Bit of Weather-Station History

Although it dates back to 1989, the preface of the official National Weather Service Observing Handbook (No. 2) is so wonderfully interesting that it’s blog-worthy on its own. Here’s the text, from page ii, with thanks to the unknown writer:

John Companius Holm’s weather records, taken without the benefit of instruments in 1644 and 1645, were the earliest known observations in the United States. Subsequently such famous personages as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin maintained weather records spanning many years.

The first extensive network of cooperative stations was set up in the 1890s as the result of an act of Congress in 1890 that established the Weather Bureau. Today, there are over 11,000 volunteer cooperative observers scattered over the 50 states, taking observations seven days a week throughout the year.

The above observers regularly and conscientiously contribute their time so that their observations can provide the vital information needed to define the climate in their areas. The records are also used constantly to answer questions and guide the actions of public agencies, agricultural and commercial organizations, and individuals. Their records also form a basis for preparedness for national and local emergencies, such as flooding.

PHOTO: apples.

Our most frequently asked question this summer at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden: why no apples?

Turns out the weather played a major role.

Last winter’s long, deep cold meant very few flower buds. Then, in spring, when pollinators should have been out to feast on apple flower nectar, the weather was chilly. Since bees don’t fly when it’s less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, little pollination took place. No pollination means no fruit.

Add to that a second factor: apples typically have a two-year boom-bust cycle for fruit bearing. After a bumper crop in 2013, we expected a smaller harvest this year—made even less by the weather conditions above.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Chrysanthemums

Flower of Happiness and Mourning

Mike Kwiatek —  September 18, 2014 — Leave a comment

You’re in a small suburban downtown in early autumn. The sun hangs low in the twilight sky. The crisp, cold air carries the rich perfume of straw, touched with pumpkin spice and apples.You pull your arms close to your body and cradle a warm drink between your hands. Polyester witches hover over pumpkin-laden lamp posts. Planters overflow with chrysanthemums in assorted colors of bronze, gold, white, and red. 

Chrysanthemums, also called “mums” or “chrysanths” have always felt to me like old American flowers. This was the kind of plant that grandmothers flocked to the nursery for, just before the leaves began to turn, as if there were some prehistoric trigger deep in the mind. As traditionally American as they may seem, the chrysanthemum is actually a Chinese immigrant.

PHOTO: A mum cultivar.

Modern varieties of mums are much improved, but some of the original Chinese versions could have had flowers like these.

Cultivated as an herb in China for more than 3,500 years, the chrysanthemum represents nobility and is considered one of the four gentlemen: the pure and defiant recluse that represents fall. For a long time, the flowers were only permitted to be grown by nobility, later becoming the badge for the old Chinese army.

Chrysanthemum seeds passed through Korea and arrived in Japan sometime around the fourth century. In 910 C.E., Japan held its first Imperial Chrysanthemum Show and soon after, this became the national flower and the imperial seal of Japan, or “mon” of the imperial family. At the Festival of Happiness and Nihonmatsu Chrysanthemum Dolls Exhibition celebrations in Japan, plants are sculpted to cascade, form trees, and even form outfits for life-sized dolls.

PHOTO: Life-size manikins dressing in traditional clothing made of chrysanthemums sit in temple.

The Nihonmatsu Chrysanthemum Dolls Exhibition is truly astonishing. By User:Harisenbon (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1688, chrysanthemums crept into Europe. The reception was not warm. It wasn’t until 1843 when Robert Fortune, funded by the Royal Horticultural Society, set out in search of hardy chrysanthemums from China. Within a few years, the plant experienced a popularity boom, especially in France. In contemporary Europe, countries such as France, Poland, and Spain regard certain types of chrysanthemum as a symbol of death and mourning. It is a cultural taboo in some of these areas to provide them as a gift.

Though chrysanthemums arrived in the United States more than 100 years after their arrival in Europe, their popularity exploded at about the same time. In 1900, the Chrysanthemum Society of America formed and the first exhibition appeared at the Art Institute of Chicago in November of 1902. It has since become a fall classic in America.

Classification and Breeding

The very first mums to be classified were yellow to gold in color (the name comes from the greek words “khrusos” for gold and “anthemon” for flower). Thirteen classes of chrysanthemum in nearly every color (except blue and black) make up the thousands of chrysanthemums that have been bred over the years. Chrysanthemums are classified as irregular incurve, reflex, regular incurve, decorative, intermediate incurve, pompon, single and semi-double, anemone, spoon, quill, spider, brush or thistle, and unclassified or exotic. For a full list with descriptions and pictures, visit www.mums.org/chrysanthemum-classes/.

PHOTO: Chrysanthemum 'Wisp of Pink'.

Chrysanthemum ‘Wisp of Pink’ is a stunning brush mum. Photo by Tom Weaver.

Chrysanthemums at the Chicago Botanic Garden

As gardeners know, the emergence of flower buds is an exciting event. At the Garden, we drum up the same excitement by using dark cloth to omit light and simulate short day conditions, which triggers the flowering of chrysanthemums. If the summer is typical and you time it right, you will have flowers right when you want them. With an atypically cool summer this year, they received just the encouragement they needed to flower early. That means that if you’ve been to the Garden in the past few days you’ve likely seen the more than 1,600 mums that we planted in the Crescent and the cascading mums descending from the hayracks over the visitor center bridge!

This year, our wonderful production staff grew 50 cultivars of mums, starting in February, to produce more than 12,000 mums for fall displays! Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist, oversees the growing, training, and care of the mums from February until they enter the gardens in September.

Did you ever wonder how we get our mums to look the way they do? Good watering practices, fertilizer, disease management, pinching and…nuts?

PHOTO: Hex nuts dangle from wires fastened to mum branches.

Hex nuts hang off chrysanthemum branches like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

PHOTO: Garden mums in bloom.

This year there are four different mums planted in The Crescent.

To train our cascading mums, we attach hex nuts that act as weights to hold down the stems as they grow and harden. This is done weekly by two staff members from February until late August, amounting to more than 400 person-hours from this activity alone! 

The mum ball containers you’ll find in the Crescent are the result of the four other techniques used to make our mums look good. Each container contains 18 to 60 plants that are pinched twice a year to obtain those enormous colorful balls!

When you visit, make sure to visit the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden to see the cascading mums, a tradition that has endured for more than twenty-five years!

Also, keep an eye out for mums in the Circle, Sensory, and English Walled Gardens, as well as a new fall feature in the Heritage Garden.

Grow Your Own

Fall planted mums rarely survive winter because their root systems aren’t well developed. Start with healthy, hardy mums in spring, after danger of frost has passed. Plant them somewhere that they’ll get at least three hours of sun. If you want bushier mums, pinch once in early June and later in mid-July. The later you pinch mums, the later they flower, so if you have a cool summer and want later mums, give an extra pinch in the beginning to middle of August. If you wish to fertilize, one to three times throughout the season will be enough for most mums. As for which mum to plant? Tim Pollak suggests the Igloo series.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I am a July 2014 graduate of the National School of Landscape Architecture of Versailles in France, where I studied landscape architecture for seven years. I like this field because each project is different, and we can work on different kinds of spaces and scales; park and garden projects, or public space (square, street, district) studies for cities or larger territories. For my diploma, I worked on a landscape project for salt marshes in a huge area in the south of France.

PHOTO: Maxime Soens with the Fruit & Vegetable Garden terraces.

Standing on the bridge to the Fruit & Vegetable Garden; terraces and apple trees as a backdrop

I chose to do an internship here in the United States to learn more about plants and the American garden culture. This internship was initiated by the French Heritage Society, which has organized student exchanges between France and the United States for the past 30 years. I am here through a partnership with the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Ragdale Foundation, an artists’ community in Lake Forest.

I spent four weeks at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden working under that garden’s horticulturist, Lisa Hilgenberg. The team was great, and it was a really interesting experience to discover new vegetable species or new ways of maintenance. I have done similar internships before, like in the kitchen garden of the King in Versailles, or at Potager du Roi, but those were not educational vegetable gardens like the one here in Glencoe. The Chicago Botanic Garden is wonderful, and I appreciate particularly the quality and variety of its vegetal compositions. Generally, I’m very impressed by the work of American gardeners and landscape architects. They are perfectionists. 

PHOTO: The Grand Square of Potager du Roi.

The Grand Square of Potager du Roi. This three-hectare garden is composed of 16 squares bordered by espalier pear trees that are grown upon support frameworks. The majority of the garden’s vegetable plants is located within this area. « Potager du Roi » par Paris HistoireTravail personnel. Sous licence CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

When I was not at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I worked at the Ragdale House to help with the volunteer gardeners. It’s a historic garden designed by the famous architect Howard Van Doren Shaw at the end of the nineteenth century. Uses of the garden have changed since then, and there are different kinds of challenges for the maintenance today. I was asked to design a project for the garden as part of my internship. During this process, the prairie was a source of inspiration for me, as it is a typical landscape of Illinois. My main goal was to find a new link between the house, the garden, and the prairie, and I chose prairie native plants for a lower maintenance in the flower beds.

PHOTO: Maxine's presentation for Ragdale.

The finished project/proposal for Ragdale is displayed at its Benefactors’ Garden Party. Low-maintenance native plants create a link between the house, the garden, and the prairie.

My stay at Lake Forest and Glencoe was an enriching exchange with the gardeners and the artists, and I hope that it will be the beginning of a new relationship in the coming years.

Maxime Soens
Paysagiste DPLG


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The secret is out; visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden have unprecedented access to plant information, guides, and tours through a groundbreaking smartphone app, called GardenGuide, launched last year. Garden staff and volunteers used their skills and savvy to squeeze interactive maps, audio guides, points of interest, and botanic details on more than 10,000 plants into an application that sits in the palm of your hand. How did they do it, and what keeps the wheels turning?

Dorothy Peck, volunteer team leader at work.

Dorothy Peck, volunteer and team leader, at work

The ability to access this information in real time during a Garden visit is what makes the app so special, according to Boyce Tankersley, the Garden’s director of living plant documentation. He said that people “look down at the app, they see what they need to see, and then they are back to experiencing the Garden, just as we had hoped.” In addition, photos and plant information are frequently being added, so there is always something new to discover.  

Before new data and photos were added to the plant collections database, Tankersley and his team upgraded their long-time plant collection’s database to include 37 new information fields that would work well with the app, from soil type to bloom time to sun requirements. Many of the fields were added as check boxes, to make them easier to sort through with the app. It was then that he recruited another 80 volunteers to help gather and enter all of that new information.

As the project progressed, a new team of highly specialized volunteers came together to help build the data that is shared via the app. A group of 20 volunteer photographers captured digital images to accompany each species listed, under the direction of their team leader, Dorothy Peck. A group of 12 volunteers, led by team leader Glenn Kohlmeyer, scanned plant information slides researched by Richard Hawke, the Garden’s plant evaluation manager. Under Tankerley’s watchful eye, another 20 volunteers researched and input key facts about the plants. Perhaps furthest under the radar, was the smallest group of volunteers who handled the intricacies of GIS mapping with guidance from Veronica Harry-Jackson, a Garden GIS specialist. “We wouldn’t be able to pull off a project like this without a lot of dedicated staff and volunteers,” said Tankersley.

“It was a Garden-wide project which was fantastic,”
said Van Deraa

The process to create the app began more than two years ago, when project manager Cheri Van Deraa, the Garden’s director of online marketing, assembled a team including representatives from different areas within the Garden. She led the initial step of researching similar products on the market and incorporating possible features. The list began with the Garden’s plant collections, and grew from there. The planning team considered a growing list of needs that visitors have when they come to the Garden, and included functions to address them. “The visitor needs we documented over time are now being met in this app,” said Tankersley.

John Moore

John Moore, volunteer photographer

Veronica Harry Jackson

Veronica Harry-Jackson with GIS equipment

“We wouldn’t be able to pull off a project like this without a lot of dedicated volunteers.”

“The basis of the app was the plant collections database, but we realized that people like to find other things at the Garden, so we created a new second database for the app. It has points of interest at the Garden, like water fountains, classrooms, sculpture, the location of the Japanese Garden, and more,” said Van Deraa. Once the two databases were polished, they were worked into the architecture and mapping system for the app software.

The GIS, or interactive mapping function, was also a critical component. Both Tankersley and Van Deraa saw tremendous value in offering the ability for a user to go from their Garden location to their desired destination. “We have a large campus and much to see,” said Van Deraa, who uses the app herself. “I just get a thrill every time I want to find a plant,” she said. “There was an iris I wanted to see in the spring, I dialed it in, and I could just walk right up to it. That was so cool.”

Crested iris on the GardenGuide

For those who are not sure what to look for, there is a feature called What’s in Bloom Highlights. The feature highlights plants in bloom twice each week, with a map that shows the visitor how to walk to them.

Additional functions that were built in include audio tours, walking tours, and Van Deraa’s, favorite—maps leading to ‘secret spots’ such as the quiet bench atop the Waterfall Garden where birds visit early in the morning. “The GardenGuide app was designed to deepen the visitor experience with the Garden,” said Van Deraa. 

Gabriela Rocha and Sil Argentin

Gabriela Rocha and volunteer Sil Argentin

GardenGuide has been in use for nearly a year now, and updates are ongoing. In 2014, the app was awarded a Gold Trumpet by the Publicity Club of Chicago for distinguished achievement. Not resting on her laurels, though, Van Deraa has been focused on updating the software necessary to work with a new Android operating system, KitKat, which is now complete. The next version of the GardenGuide 2.0 is in the works.

Volunteers continue to take and add new photos, and research and input new pieces of information. “Because the Garden is constantly adding new plants to the collection, we are always adding new plants to the app,” said Tankersley. “In the long term, in effect this becomes a digital encyclopedia of plants.” Tankersley hopes to eventually add data on another 46,000 plants that have previously lived at the Garden and may one day return.

Users of the GardenGuide app can be assured that the information in the app has been updated with care by a remarkable team of volunteers and professionals working together.

It’s all there, in the palm of your hand, just waiting to be tapped.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (grant #MA-04-11-0101-11).


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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