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Learn step-by-step how to take on gardening projects at home. Garden staff often teach classes through the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden on these topics and others.

Herbal Mixology

Fun summer drink recipes from Herb Garden Weekend

Karen Z. —  August 9, 2014 — Leave a comment

So many great ideas came out of our most recent Herb Garden Weekend (always the fourth weekend in July) in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden! Here are a few to get your taste buds going:

  • Add a bit of mint to a basil pesto (a Chef Series tip)
  • Grow thyme in unexpected flavors: orange, lime, lemon (all are growing in our kitchen herb garden)
  • Dry and mix your own herbes de Provence (check out our recipe here)
  • Infuse lavender blossoms in lemonade (delicious advice from local vendor Three Tarts)

Speaking of infusions, “herb mixologist” Kasey Bersett Eaves had enthusiastic crowds at the demo tent on Saturday and Sunday, as she opened our eyes to the world of herb-infused beverages.

From Garden to Glass

PHOTO: A sprig of basil tops off a mason jar basil lemonade.

Muddled basil adds a refreshing twist to lemonade.

Just about any herb you’d grow in your yard can be used to flavor drinks. Herbs + fresh fruit = a yummy base for all sorts of hot and cold beverages. Grab what’s in season in the yard and experiment. A few fresh ideas: 

Basil + strawberry
Mint + raspberry
Sage + cherry
Rosemary + watermelon
Lemon verbena + honeydew melon
Thyme + cucumber
Lavender + berries
Dill + lime
Oregano + berries
Cilantro + watermelon
Tarragon + peach

Thirsty for more? Let’s move on to muddling.

Muddling 101

Infusion starts with muddling.

Here’s the first rule of muddling: Don’t overmuddle. Muddling is the process of gently—repeat, gently—bruising the leaves of herbs. As Kasey said, “If you hear the leaves tear, you’re overmuddling.” The goal is to release the fresh, green taste and aroma of the leaves, not to break or pulverize them (think Cary Grant, not Iron Man).

PHOTO: The Fountainhead Chicago mixologist Kasey Bersett muddles basil leaves in a Mason jar.

Herb Garden Weekend presenter Kasey Bersett Eaves demonstrates proper muddling technique—check out the natural wood muddler.

Here’s the second rule of muddling: always hold your arm at a 90-degree angle, pressing straight down from the elbow through the wrist through the muddler. (What’s a muddler? Read on.) Press down once, release, and rotate the jar a quarter turn. Repeat five more times. Six presses are about right for a single drink—more if you’re making a pitcher’s worth.

Here’s the third rule of muddling: muddlers are very cool. Essentially a press that reaches to the bottom of a glass or pitcher, muddlers can be found at most kitchenware stores, both in hardwood (walnut, maple) and stainless steel versions. Yes, a wooden spoon works, too. Vintage aficionados: look for stainless steel bar sets from the ’50s and ’60s. That big bump at the end of the long swizzle stick is a muddler.

Infusions

Herbal infusions are a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that idea that’s easy, healthy, and really tasty (hot on the restaurant scene, too). Kasey shared her recipe:

PHOTO: A mash of water, sugar, watermelon, tarragon, and basil steeps to create a flavored syrup.

A muddle of fruit and herbs, destined to become a tasty beverage.

Herbal Water Infusion

  • Fresh herbs (see list above)
  • Fresh fruit (any but bananas; see list)
  • 2-quart jar or pitcher
  • Muddler or wooden spoon
  • Water

Wash fruit and rinse herbs thoroughly. Place enough herbs inside the jar to cover the bottom. Add about a cup of fruit. (Amounts of both will vary according to taste—feel free to experiment!) Bruise fruit and herb leaves with muddler to release some of the juices and flavor. Do not pulverize! Fill jar with ice and water. Cover and refrigerate for two hours. Strain water into glasses. Refrigerated infusions will keep in the refrigerator up to five days.

Icy & Sweet: Herbal Tea

In summer, iced tea is the beverage du jour. Love sweet tea, but don’t like its sugar? Kasey’s tea recipe uses fresh stevia—an herb that’s 30 times sweeter than sugar—plus other herbs from your garden for a greener version of sweet. Just add ice and a tall glass.

PHOTO: Mint infuses in a quart mason jar for 24 hours.

An infusion of mint and stevia makes a refreshing, instant herbal tea— just strain and serve over ice.

Backyard Herb and Stevia Iced Tea Concentrate

  • ¼ cup stevia leaves
  • 2 cups water
  • 1½ cups fresh herb leaves (mint or lemon verbena taste best, but feel free to experiment!)

For concentrate: Rinse and drain herbs. Add all ingredients above to a small, nonreactive pot and bring to a boil on the stove. Let boil for one minute; remove from heat. Allow mixture to steep and cool six hours or overnight. Strain cooled liquid into a glass jar. Store in the refrigerator up to one week, or freeze for later use.

To use: Mix 1 cup of concentrate to 3 cups water, or to taste. 

Simple Syrups Rock

“Simple syrups” are called that for a reason: they’re truly easy to concoct. Added in place of sugar to your favorite lemonade, soda, sweet tea, or cocktail recipe, simple syrup is the secret to a full-flavored summer drink.

PHOTO: Tarragon simple syrup and fresh peaches enliven a sparkling wine cocktail.

A simple syrup drink made with tarragon + peaches + Prosecco = lovely.

Easy Herbal Simple Syrup

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup herb of your choice (whole leaves or lightly chopped, packed into measuring cup)

Rinse and drain herbs. In a small, nonreactive pot, stir water and sugar together over heat until sugar dissolves, bringing the mixture just to a boil. Add herbs in, stir gently for 30 seconds, then remove from heat. Let the mixture cool (approximately 30 minutes). Strain.

Store the syrup in an airtight container in the refrigerator for use within a week to 10 days, or freeze in ice cube trays for convenient later use.

Simple syrups make memorable cocktails. Add a splash of herbal simple syrup to a champagne flute before topping off with Prosecco or dry white wine for a cheers-worthy toast. Or enjoy your herbs on ice—freeze the syrup in ice cube trays (top off each cube divider with a small herb leaf for garnish before freezing) and use as a sweetener for iced tea or cocktails. Imagine a glass of bourbon that slowly becomes a mint julep because you added minty simple syrup ice cubes! 

PHOTO: An array of cocktail mixers and cocktail recipe books.

Stock the hippest minibar in town—yours—with your own herbal elixirs, concentrates, and simple syrups from the Garden Shop.

Interested in dabbling in the cocktail arts yourself? Kasey recommends The Home Distiller’s Handbook as a good starter guide. Find drink enhancers and more at the Garden Shop, including elderflower and rose elixirs, and the mysterious Owl’s Brew tea concentrate—best with bourbons and whiskeys. Cheers!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Berries abound in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden!

What can bramble fruits do for you? Blackberries, raspberries, loganberries, lingonberries, boysenberries, and well, a decidedly non-brambley blueberry are the topic of our latest Today’s Harvest veggiegraphic.

Infographic on berries

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Victory Garden is gaining ground again, 70 years after redefining gardening in America. Check out our infographic to learn more.
 
An infographic about Victory Gardens
 

Named for the countryside herbs growing in the hills of southern France, this Today’s Harvest infographic brings you Herbes de Provence!

The Ultimate Play Date: Kids + Nature

10 fun things to do outside

Karen Z. —  June 23, 2014 — Leave a comment

School’s out. The first official day of summer has come and gone. Time for life to move outdoors.

For some kids (OK, some caregivers, too), heading out to the backyard, the beach, the parks, and the forest preserves can feel daunting—what do you DO once you’re out there?

“Hands in earth, sand, mud: building, digging, sewing, baking—these are what humans DO.”

PHOTO: A strip of astroturf is covered with an excercise course for ants made from twigs, stones, and other natural objects.

Build an ant playground out of sticks! Sue Dombro of the Forest Preserves of Cook County gave us tips for building one, adding this telling comment: “My daughter used to do this all the time, and now she’s a wildlife biologist.”

For fun, interesting, and education-based answers, we turned to a fun, interesting, and education-based crowd: the 190 teachers, home educators, day care providers, park district staff, museum employees, librarians, and just-plain-curious caregivers who came together at the Garden recently for our first Nature Play conference in May (sponsored by the Chicago Botanic Garden, Chicago Wilderness, and the Alliance for Early Childhood).

That morning, opening remarks were short, but sweet. A few thought-provoking highlights are quoted here. Then we did what any group of early childhood-oriented people would do: We all went outside to play.

At our outdoor “playground,” 19 organizations shared their fun, interesting, and education-based ideas for playing outside. You may recognize many from your own childhood.

1. Pick Up a Stick

How cool is this? In 2008, the stick was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame! It’s in great company: the jump rope, dominoes, the Frisbee, Tinkertoys and, yes, the Easy-Bake Oven are co-recipients of the honor. The possibilities of the stick are endless—it’s a musical instrument, a light saber, a wand, a fishing pole, a giant pencil for drawing in the dirt, a conductor’s baton, the first leg of a tepee, and anything else a child says it is.

2. Learn to Lash

If one stick is interesting, a pile of sticks has real 3-D potential. The art of lashing teaches kids to turn something small—two twigs lashed together—into something big: a ladder, a lean-to, a stool, a swing.

3. Find the Art in Nature

Twigs + stones + leaves + “tree cookies” + seeds = a nature “painting,” a sculpture, an imaginary animal, backyard trail markers, or utterly simple, charming drawings like the happy face made out of seeds shown with our headline.

“For children, the most powerful form of learning is with their hands.”

PHOTO: A squirrel made from tree cookies, pine cones, acorns.

Imagination can run wild when kids are outside.

4. Nature as Paintbrush

Sure, you can use a standard brush to paint with, but feathers, pine needles, and arborvitae segments not only expand the creative possibilities but also feel wonderfully different in the hand.

5. Kid-Made Kites

Send the imagination soaring with a simple paper bag and a couple of kitchen skewers—in moments, it’s a kite! And then there’s the process of decorating it with ribbons and streamers…

6. Cricket Bug Box

Catch a cricket (or buy a dozen for $1 at the pet shop). Friendly and chirpy, crickets are many kids’ first experience with the insect world. Even little kids can collect the foliage, food scraps, and water-soaked cotton balls to accessorize a temporary shoe-box habitat.

“Nature is children’s real home.”

PHOTO: A log and magnifying glass.

What’s under that log? Life.

7. Lift a Log

One of the simplest of all outdoor projects: lift up a log that’s been sitting on the ground and be amazed by the tiny wildlife that lives­ underneath it! Don’t forget to bring your magnifying glass.

8. Make a Magic Circle

Tuck a few wooden embroidery rings into a backpack. Placed on the ground in the woods, or the garden, or the sand, they become magical circles for kids to explore. What’s in yours?

9. D.I.Y. Dyeing

Rainy days need projects, too. Natural dyes made from vegetables (beets, onions), fruits (grape juice), or spices (turmeric, chili powder) transform undyed yarn or fabric into a personal style experience.

10. Paint Chip Color Hunt

One quick visit to the paint store can send kids off to hunt for hours, as they try to match nature’s colors to the humble paint chip card. (Handy to keep in the car for unexpected delays, too).

PHOTO: A variety of paint chip cards with flowers that match the colors on the chips.

Simple but engrossing: match the colors in nature to the colors on a paint card.

Looking for fun things to do with the kids this summer? June is Leave No Child Inside month, so Chicago Wilderness/Leave No Child Inside has organized all sorts of ideas for you on Pinterest!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org