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.

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

Learn to love the leaf!
Home-grown garden lettuce beats grocery store lettuce for taste, nutrition, and freshness. Planting seeds 2 weeks apart in spring ensures you can enjoy fresh greens all summer long. More tips follow in our Today’s Harvest veggiegraphic: lettuce!

Infographic on cultivating and harvesting lettuce.

Having three daughters in middle school means trying to find a nice way to show my appreciation to all of their teachers. When I say “all” for the middle grades, that is not just three teachers any more, because they have separate teachers for each subject, as well as “special” teachers for art, gym, music, and library. And then there is the office staff members who were really nice and helpful during the year.

Do I need to give everyone something? Certainly not. But I would like to end the year on a pleasant note and say “Thanks!” for serving my three children—without spending too much money, that is. The answer is plants (which is what you expected from a Chicago Botanic Garden blogger, right?). 

PHOTO: A flat of 3-inch lavender pots.

This flat of lavender came in pots with care labels. All we need to do is add thank-you notes.

Every year, I go to a local nursery and buy a few flats of herbs or flowers. I prefer going to a local, small nursery or greenhouse rather than a large franchise store that sell other products. The plants tend to be in better condition, and supporting local businesses is good for the community. And it’s fun meeting and getting to know small business owners.

My daughters help choose the plants, which means we usually get purple flowers of some kind. If the plants come in cell packs, we transplant them to inexpensive containers. Otherwise, we give them as they come from the nursery. It does not have to be fancy to make everyone happy.

We make a thank-you note on the computer. It includes information about how to care for that plant. Then we use use bamboo skewers (left over from making rock candy!) or plastic forks to hold them in place.

PHOTO: An oregano plant with a thank-you note attached.

We used a bamboo skewer to attach a thank-you note and oregano care instructions.

PHOTO: Lily of the valley plant, with thank you not held in the pot through the tines of a fork.

One teacher requested a plant for a shady yard, so we included some lily of the valley in the selection, and used a fork to attach a thank-you note.

I set aside one plant for each daughter to personally present to her homeroom teacher. I bring the rest of the plants to the school office during the last week. After years of doing this, the office staff now anticipates the delivery as if it’s Christmas. (I also bring a package of paper lunch bags so teachers have a clean way to carry their plants home.)

The principal makes an announcement during the school day that any teacher who would like a plant can pick one up in the office—first come, first served. Even if a teacher doesn’t want to take a plant (I’m pretty sure the computer lab instructor at our school is not interested), he or she can enjoy looking at them and smelling them in the office. That takes care of everyone I want to thank. All plants are claimed by the end of the day.

PHOTO: Seed packed with a label saying, "Thanks for planting the seeds of knowledge."

Creative wording makes writing the notes fun.

If this works for me, it can work for you, too. If plants are too much of a hassle or expense, consider giving seeds instead. Attach a ribbon with a note to let the teacher know your gratitude. You can say something cute such as “Thanks for helping me grow!”

Or use a clever rhyme:

Just like the year I spent in your room, I hope these seeds germinate, grow up, and bloom.

Looking for another idea? There’s always Bottle Cap Bouquets, which delight teachers and mothers alike. Cheap and cheerful!

I wasn’t sure how much the teachers appreciated the plants until one teacher asked my daughter if I would be bringing plants again, and what kind they might be. She was looking forward to the end of school, but she was also looking forward to taking home a plant to start the summer.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Strawberries

Mike Kwiatek —  May 26, 2014 — Leave a comment

When I was 8 years old, I traveled with my family to Przysietnica, Poland, to spend the summer with relatives. My grandparents’ farm was the home base for my adventures with cousins and siblings. We spent hours in the breezy northern hills, picking the sweetest strawberries I ever had. They grew wild and tasted like candy. We often brought some back to share with the family, but there is nothing quite like a strawberry fresh off the plant.

PHOTO: Blooming strawberry plant in the garden.

First described by the ancient Romans, strawberries were first cultivated in gardens in the 1300s.

The Cultivated Strawberry

The garden strawberry is the strawberry we most often think of when we think of strawberries. This is the strawberry from the clear plastic boxes you find at the grocery store. This strawberry is Fragaria × ananassa, which has only been around for about 260 years, and has undergone a lot of breeding in that time.

Fragaria × ananassa is actually a cross of the Chilean and Virginia (or wild) strawberry, which arrived in Europe in 1712 and 1624, respectively. The hybrid plant was discovered in the 1750s and recorded in 1759 by Philip Miller, a famous English horticulturist. He referred to it as the “pine strawberry” for its taste, which was similar to pineapple.

If you’re taken aback by this assessment of flavor, you’re not alone—the modern garden strawberry has undergone a great deal of breeding, which improved firmness but did little for its taste. Some of the modern breeding programs are working to fix this problem.

Fragaria × ananassa is not the only cultivated strawberry on the market. There are more than 20 species of strawberries worldwide, with only a small portion of those being grown in gardens for eating. Some of the popular species include the musk strawberry (F. moschata), the alpine strawberry (F. vesca), the Chilean strawberry (F. chiloensis), the Virginia strawberry (F. virginiana), Fragaria nipponica, and Fragaria viridis. Most of these strawberries originate in Europe (Fragaria nipponica is Japanese in origin); the Chilean and Virginia strawberries are the only cultivated New World species. While there are many edible strawberries, these tend to be the most popular.

PHOTO: Rows of strawberry plants mulched with (what else?) straw.

Strawberries planted in rows and left to their own devices will spread wildly within a few years.

Biology

Do you know how the strawberry got its name? The popular theory is that strawberries are so named because they are cultivated on straw. The truth is, strawberries were named before straw was ever cultivated. Have you ever seen strawberries growing? They spread by stolons, or above-ground roots. These stolons reach out, find a good moist spot away from the parent, and put out roots, producing a new clone of the mother plant. In this way, a single cultivar of strawberry can reproduce itself dozens of times and still be identical or nearly identical to the mother plant. The stolons that give rise to new strawberries are called “runners.” This habit of growing is what gave it its name; strawberries tend to be strewn (spread) about.

It’s generally accepted that strawberries will either produce runners or flowers. Though sometimes producing both simultaneously, the energy is usually dedicated to one task over the other. This is why there are three main types of garden strawberries: ever-bearing, day-neutral, and June-bearing. Strawberries tend to be June-bearing by nature, which means you’ll harvest your fruit in late spring to early summer. Though you sometimes end up with a second crop in fall, the June-bearing strawberry will produce runners for the rest of the year. Ever-bearing strawberries prefer to put their energy toward making fruit, so you’ll end up with few runners and strawberries several times per season. Day-neutral will produce strawberries continually throughout the year, and create the fewest runners.

The white tissue under the pistils is what swells into a red juicy strawberry

The white tissue under the pistils swells into the sweet edible “fruit”

“Fruit”

Did you know that a strawberry isn’t a fruit? It’s an “aggregate of achenes on a swollen receptacle.” Achenes are those little specks on the surface of the strawberry; these are the true fruit of the strawberry. The achenes break apart much the way that sunflower seeds do. An aggregate refers to a cluster or grouping, and the receptacle is the part of a flower that bears the sexual organs.

Seems complicated? Try this: cut a strawberry flower in half and look inside.

The female parts of the flower (pistils) are near the top center of the flower with the male parts (stamens) forming a ring around the outside. When the flowers are pollinated, the area under each pistil swells and turns red. When the whole flower is pollinated, you end up with a perfectly red strawberry.

VIDEO: Time lapse of strawberry fruiting process.

Time lapse of a strawberry, flower-to-fruit, by Tomas ‘Frooxius’ Mariancik.

Humans have known about strawberries for hundreds of years, but strawberries only became commercially common within the past century, thanks to refrigerated trucks and breeding programs that gave strawberries their firmness. Ever since, they have been one of the top ten favorite “fruits” in the United States.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org