Archives For Behind the Scenes

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

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

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