Archives For How-To

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.

Summer is in the air. As the nights heat up, it’s a perfect time to get outdoors and entertain in your garden. Chicago Botanic Garden floriculturist Tim Pollak shares how you can bring the party to your garden with a few simple tricks for evening entertaining.

Plant light-colored flowers
Enhance the darkness of evenings by planting white or cream-colored foliage and flowers. White flowers and plants create brightness in your garden by reflecting moonlight, candlelight, and firelight. Some flowers even “glow” in the moonlight, including white and yellow lilies. Pollak recommends flowering shrubs such as hydrangea, roses, and hibiscus.

hibiscus moscheutos 'Blue River II'

Hibiscus moscheutos

rosa 'Dicjana'

Rosa ‘Dicjana’

hydrangea arborescens

Hydrangea arborescens

Add fragrant, evening-blooming flowers
In areas where you can sit and entertain, use plants that emit mood-setting fragrance. Scent in a garden carries farther and longer in the evenings than in daytime, said Pollak. Plus, evening blooming plants often give off strong fragrance that attracts night-flying pollinators (additional guests for your party). Some examples of especially fragrant plants include heliotropium, nicotiana, and ipomoea alba.

outdoor garden lightingInstall night accent lighting
Lure guests down the garden path with purposefully placed outdoor lighting. You can shine focal points on specimen plants, and create wonderful shadows and backlighting effects that will enhance the setting of your evening party.

Keep warm with fire pits
People are drawn to fire pits, which create a campfire-like atmosphere, said Pollak. Fire pits also serve as focal points in your garden, providing warmth, light, and a cooking source. Stay warm on cooler nights, and enjoy the light and ambience that make fire pits a natural gathering spot for entertaining. Many fire pit options are available, including natural or electric, modern or traditional, in-ground or portable. Be sure to consider the placement of seating as well, with flexible options in case of wind and smoke.

evening outdoor entertaining - sculpture

Enhance the mood with garden structures and sounds
Nighttime atmosphere can make for a magical evening. A few sensory features such as white or gray painted structures or statues, wind chimes or fountains will add the perfect finishing touched to your evening ambience.

Keep out pesky party crashers
Mosquitos are never a welcome guest at a nighttime gathering. Keep them at bay by eliminating all standing water. You can also use citronella (including the actual citronella plant, or candles, lamps, and tiki torches) to help keep them away.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Pollinators are crucial to the health of the planet, helping with everything from the food we eat to the cycle of life. At the free Unearth Science festival this weekend, the Chicago Botanic Garden will celebrate pollinators with activities including a workshop on making native bee homes. We’ve got a sneak peek for you below.

Did you know that native bees are better and more efficient pollinators than honeybees when it comes to fruit trees? Honeybees carry pollen in sacks on their hind legs, which doesn’t always make it to the stigma of the flowers they visit (anthers are where the pollen grains are picked up; stigma is where they are deposited for successful pollination). Mason bees (Osmia lignaria) carry pollen all over their bodies, which means that the pollen has a greater chance of reaching the stigma for proper pollination. One mason bee can pollinate as many flowers as 100 honeybees. 

PHOTO: Mason bee (Osmia lignaria)

Mason bee (Osmia lignaria)

Mason bees pollinate a wide variety of flowers, in addition to fruit trees, with a particular emphasis on the rose family. They are generalists though, so they pollinate many types of vegetables too. If you are interested in growing fruit trees and vegetables in your yard, you may want to attract and support more mason bees.

Are you avoiding bees because they sting? Another reason to invite mason bees into your yard is that they are nonaggressive. Honeybees and bumblebees may defend their nests if disturbed, so bee skeps—or domed hives—are usually located on larger plots of land, not in typical backyards. Male mason bees do not have stingers, and the females only sting if they are trapped, so there is little reason to fear them.

We asked horticulture program specialist Nancy Clifton for a preview of her workshop at the Unearth Science festival with Northwestern University graduate student Marie Faust. The workshop, Native Bee Homes, is a free event that requires registration. You’ll find instructions for how to make a mason bee home below. Bring your questions about pollinators and other science-related topics to the festival, where dozens of scientists and horticulturists will be happy to answer them.

How to Make a Mason Bee Home

DIY native bee house

DIY native bee house

Supplies you’ll need:

  • Clean, 15-ounce metal can
  • Phragmite reed tubes
    (6 inches long)
  • 2¼-inch-wide bark ribbon
  • Cling floral adhesive (or similar putty tape)
  • Duct tape
    (camouflage blends in well)
  • Scissors
  • Rubber bands

Instructions:

Step 1: placing the reeds. They will stick out of the can quite a bit, so you can extend the lip of the can with duct tape around the reed bundle.

Step 1

Fill the metal can with as many reeds as you can tightly pack inside. Ensure the open ends of the reeds are facing out. Use duct tape to encircle the parts of the reeds that are sticking out of the can.

Wrap 3 strips of bark ribbon around the can and extension.

Step 2

Cut three strips of bark ribbon to wrap around the can and the duct-taped extension. Use bits of Cling adhesive to adhere the bark ribbon to the can in three sections, so it is completely covered.

Make a roof with bark ribbon and duct tape.

Step 3

Cut two 8-inch-long pieces of bark ribbon and duct tape them together along the long edge. Place this over the top of your can as a roof. You want to create a small gable that overlaps ½ inch over the end of the tube to keep the reeds dry when it rains.

Place the bee house against a flat surface in a protected area, with a southwest exposure.

Step 4

Use bits of Cling to adhere the roof to the house. If needed, further secure the roof with two rubber bands. Place the completed bee house fairly in a protected area, against a flat surface with a southwest exposure. Placing the house fairly high up ensures that bees will not mingle with people when entering and exiting their new home.

Leave your house out all summer and you should find mason bees filling the tubes with larvae. For information about storing and incubating mason bees for next year, visit seedsavers.org.

Sign up for the free workshop on making native bee homes with horticultural specialist Nancy Clifton and Northwestern University graduate student Marie Faust at the Unearth Science festival, April 20–22, 2018. You’ll make your own native bee home just as described above.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

There are things I look forward to seeing every season.

In spring, I watch for “mighty plants” that emerge from the ground with enough force to heave the soil above ground. These botanical weightlifters—the bulbs, grasses, and other emergent plants—pushing up soil that was compressed by a blanket of snow never fail to impress me. I am in awe of the strength of plants. 

PHOTO: Daffodil leaves have pushed through the mulch, lifting it off the ground.

Daffodil leaves erupted from the ground in March and lifted the mulch in the beds around the Regenstein Learning Campus.

Seeing bulbs coming up all around me inspires lots of questions. I want to understand how this is possible and I want to test their strength. So I spent a few weeks playing around with this phenomenon in the Learning Center’s Boeing Nature Laboratory. 

To begin, I wanted to demonstrate that seeds will lift soil in a pot. I soaked bunch of wheat seeds overnight and planted them in a pot. I covered them with a generous amount of potting soil (about a 1/2-inch layer) and I tamped the soil down gently so that it would be compressed—like the topsoil might be after a winter of snow cover. Three days later, I had results! I sprayed the soil disk to give it a little adhesion, so I could see how long it would hold together as the grass lifted it up.

PHOTO: A few days after planting the soaked wheat seeds, they are already sprouting and pushing up the soil.

Day 3 after planting the seeds: They are pushing up the compressed layer of soil.

PHOTO: The wheat leaves have grown to an inch over the pot and are holding up a disk of soil.

Day 4: The leaves have pushed the soil up a little more.

PHOTO: The wheat is 2-3 inches above the pot and still suspending the disk of soil.

Day 5: The soil is light and there are a lot of wheat plants, so they continue to lift the soil.

PHOTO: The grass is now 4-5 inches tall and the disk of soil is on top, but leaning to the side, about to fall off.

Day 6: “Get off me, Soil! – Umph!”

PHOTO: The disk of soil that was lifted by the grass has fallen to the side of the pot.

Day 7: Phew!

That was so much fun, I tried the same thing with a bunch of bean seeds.

PHOTO: the top of the soil is rising about a half inch out of the pot.

Bean sprouts pushing…

PHOTO: the sprouting beans can be seen pushing up the top of the soil, now 1-2 inches over the top of the pot.

…pushing…

PHOTO: a dozen bean plants are growing out of the pot and pushing the top soil disk to the side.

…and bursting from inside the pot.

This demonstration was pretty easy and impressive. It is a simple activity to illustrate how plants and other living things change their environment to suit their needs (which is a disciplinary core idea in Next Generation Science Standards for kindergarten). I recommend doing it in the classroom or at home, just for fun.

This is just the beginning. I will be sharing the results in a future blog post. But before I do, I would like to make a few points about the nature of science and how scientists work. 

  1. Science is a collection of established facts and ideas about the world, gathered over hundreds of years. It is also the process by which these facts are learned. Science is both “knowing” and “doing.”
  2. Discoveries start when you watch nature and ask questions, as I did in watching spring bulbs come up. Before beginning an experiment, scientists play. They mess around with materials and concoct crazy ideas. They are constantly asking, “I wonder what will happen if I do ___ ?” That is when discoveries actually happen.
  3. Scientists do formal experiments with purpose, hypothesis, procedures, results, and conclusions after they think they have made a discovery. They use the experiment to test their discovery and provide convincing evidence to support it. In some cases, the experiment disproves a fact or idea, which is a different kind of new understanding about the world. 

I have to agree with Boyce Tankersley, the Garden’s director of Living Plant Documentation, who recently wrote “The SciFi Rant.” Those of us who lean toward botany instead of horticulture are more interested in growing plants to yield ideas rather than meals. In my continuing investigation, I have two goals, and neither is to produce anything to eat.

First, I want to determine the strength of sprouting seeds and see how far I can push them. For example, how many bean sprouts will it take to lift a coconut? I want to find a standard way to measure seed strength.

Second, I want to establish a reliable method for experimenting with seed strength so teachers and students can replicate the procedure, modify it as needed, and use it for their own investigations without going through the awkward phase of figuring out the best way to do this.

PHOTO: a 6 inch square pot is topped with a round plastic lid and a coconut.

Will the mighty beans sprouting under this menacing coconut have the power to lift it off the top edge of a pot? Stay tuned…

I invite you on my journey.
(To be continued.)


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Welcome to winter, one of the best seasons for gardeners. You have time to plan, prune, and enjoy those houseplants that don’t get much love during the outdoor growing season. Make the most of your winter gardening with these dos and don’ts from Chicago Botanic Garden experts.

DO prune your deciduous trees. From mid-November to mid-March, it’s much easier to prune because you’ll be able to better see a tree’s branching structure and there is less chance of transmitting diseases from one plant to another.

Winter is the perfect time to prune deciduous trees or remove nuisance buckthorn.

Winter is the perfect time to prune deciduous trees or remove nuisance buckthorn.

DON’T prune conifers. Needled evergreens can be pruned in late winter or early spring, before growth begins. Arborvitae should be pruned during spring and early summer.

DO water newly planted trees and shrubs that might be in the path of salt spray from salted roads during periods of winter thaw. Consider wrapping vulnerable trees to prevent damage from salt and extreme temperatures.

DON’T overwater houseplants. Because of shorter days and reduced humidity, most houseplants aren’t in an active growth phase, so they’ll require less water and fertilizer.

DO keep houseplants away from cold drafts, radiators, hot air vents, and cold windows. Plants growing in sunny east- or north-facing windows may benefit from being moved to a southern or western exposure for winter.

DON’T try to remove ice or snow that has frozen onto your outdoor plants. You might inadvertently damage them. Let it melt off on its own.

DO start to plan your garden for the new year. Order seeds and bulbs during the winter so you’ll be ready to plant in the spring. Need some help? Come to Super Seed Weekend on January 27 and 28 to talk to experts, attend a workshop, and find seeds and bulbs for your garden.

Ornithogalum 'Chesapeake Snowflake'

Ornithogalum ‘Chesapeake Snowflake’

Get more indoor and outdoor plant care tips with our monthly plant care checklists.

Plan for spring with a class in Front Yard Design, Backyard DesignGrowing Salads Indoors, or Small Space Food Gardens


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Full bellies and full hearts. It’s what great Thanksgivings are made of. This year, add a special touch to your holiday table with harvest-inspired centerpieces that bring the whole family together.

We asked Nancy Clifton, program specialist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, to share some easy, crafty ideas that would fit a variety of party styles. Here are three centerpieces you can create (and mix-and-match) to impress your guests.

A Festive Friendsgiving

Friends are family you choose, as the saying goes. For these cozy gatherings, pick your own flowers, too. Here’s how you can make Thanksgiving-themed floral centerpieces like a pro:

Thanksgiving Flower Arrangements

Thanksgiving Flower Arrangements

Pick flowers in autumn colors. Buy a few bunches of flowers in different fall colors and textures at your local grocery store. Nancy chose red roses, yellow mums, red-yellow mums, and hypericum berries to give the arrangements some variety.

Paint Thanksgiving mason jars. If you want to up your Thanksgiving game, paint your vases in holiday colors such as brown, orange, and ivory. Nancy used craft paint on mason jars, and sanded the lettering on the jars to give them a vintage look.

Save time by measuring flowers. Nancy’s time-saving hack is to trim one flower with pruners and remove foliage at the bottom of the stem. Place that flower in the mason jar vase. If you’re happy with the height, remove the flower and use it as a measuring tool to trim the rest of your flowers. Make sure you trim the flowers low enough so you can see your friends’ faces!

Impress-the-in-laws Pumpkin Planters

If you’ve got some serious entertaining to do (or at least want more excuses to use your hot-glue gun), wow your crowd with pumpkin succulent centerpieces. The best part? You can repurpose and eat parts of them when you’re done.

See the demo video on YouTube here.

Thanksgiving Centerpiece

The finished succulent and squash centerpiece

Gather the basic tools and ingredients. Grab a hot-glue gun, reindeer moss, and floral picks from the craft store. At your local grocery store, find small- and medium-sized pumpkins (you will want several), a succulent container, bunches of kale, and cabbages.

Assemble the planters. Cut the ends off of your succulents so they have a flat base, and set them aside. Adhere moss to the top of your medium-sized pumpkins with your hot-glue gun. Once the glue is dried, add the succulents on top of the moss, and adhere with hot glue or floral picks.

Arrange your centerpiece. When the pumpkins are dried, place them in the center of a large decorative tray. Add smaller pumpkins, bunches of kale, and cabbages to tray, arranging them in a bountiful display. You can even paint the stems of your small pumpkins with glitter-paint to give them extra-fancy glitz.

Give Thanks Table Runner

One of our favorite Thanksgiving traditions is sharing what we’re grateful for. A fun way to involve the whole family in this tradition is to have everyone write their “thanks”on a centerpiece mural.

Buy a roll of Kraft paper. Think of this as your table runner. You may want to lay this on top of a tablecloth to protect your table from stray doodles.

Decorate with thanks. Place markers around the table for guests to write their thanks on the runner.

Add an intimate glow. Nancy added pumpkin planters, candles, and string lights to the centerpiece to bring a warm, enchanting feeling to your party.

We hope you enjoy creating these centerpieces, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

Find more of Nancy’s ideas, check out her 101 on creating Thanksgiving cornucopias.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org