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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.

Getting That Tropical Look

Tom Weaver —  September 6, 2017 — 1 Comment

This season’s Brazil in the Garden exhibition features a bold tropical look at the Chicago Botanic Garden—you can get that same vibrant feel in your home garden, using perennial plants.

Surprisingly, there are a number of plants that thrive in the Chicago area in spite of their tropical looks. With attributes ranging from huge leaves, delicious fruits, or potent fragrances, these trees and shrubs will add a tropical splash to your backyard year after year.

Magnolia ashei is one of the most tropical-looking plants at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It features huge leaves, huge flowers, and huge fruits. The leaves can grow up to 36 inches long, the flowers can be more than a foot across, and the fruits are up to 5 inches long and turn bright red. Magnolia ashei has an irregular growth habit and makes a bold specimen. Look for this one in the Native Plant Garden (however, this plant is not an Illinois native).

PHOTO: Magnolia ashei

Magnolia ashei has beautiful leaves and intriguing fruit.

Another large leaf magolia, Magnolia tripetala x obovata, is similar in most respects; however, it features a broad, round form and is a bit more formal in the landscape. This magnolia can be found in the Waterfall Garden.

PHOTO: Magnolia tripetala x obovata

The blooms of Magnolia tripetala × obovata can be up to a foot across.

Campsis radicans is a native vine with large, orange-red, trumpet-shaped flowers all summer long. The flowers are a hummingbird magnet, which just adds to the tropical allure, and are available in numerous colors, including red, orange, and yellow. This is a large, growing vine so give it room to grow. It does tolerate pruning but blooms best when allowed to grow uninterrupted. Even the seed pods are ornamental, looking almost like green bananas hanging from the flower clusters. Look for it in the Waterfall Garden, and the fence surrounding the Graham Bulb Garden, where we have red and yellow varieties mixed together.

PHOTO: Campsis radicans

Campsis radicans grows in the Waterfall Garden.

PHOTO: Asimina triloba

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) fruits hang high in the tree.

Another native plant that wouldn’t look out of place in the rain forest is the pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba). This native tree has green leaves that can reach a foot long. It’s a beautiful understory tree that will grow well in dappled shade with ample moisture (but never standing water). However, the real reward with pawpaws are the fruit. These large fruits have an incredibly tropical flavor, like a mix of mango, pineapple, and bananas. The fruit are among the last to ripen in the late summer and well worth the wait. To get a good crop of fruit, make sure to plant two varieties.

Pawpaws also get beautiful golden fall color, which only adds to their appeal. One note of caution however: the trees can sucker, so make sure to plant your pawpaw somewhere where this isn’t a problem, or make sure to remove the suckers as they sprout. Look for pawpaws in the Bulb Garden, Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, and Native Plant Garden.

And finally, what is a tropical garden without lush fragrances? Clethra alnifolia is a hardy shrub that thrives in partial shade and boasts intensely fragrant blooms in late summer.

PHOTO: Clethra alnifolia 'Rosea'

Clethra alnifolia ‘Rosea’ has cheerful pink flowers that hummingbirds love.

PHOTO: Clethra alnifolia 'September Beauty'

Clethra alnifolia ‘September Beauty’ is one of the latest-blooming summer-sweet cultivars.

Clethra flowers have a rich smell similar to gardenia, but with spicy undertones. The flowers are tall spikes of white or pink and are a magnet for pollinators such as honeybees and hummingbirds. With careful planning, you can mix varieties of clethra and have blooms that last from mid-July through late August. Several varieties of clethra can be found in the Sensory Garden.

See Brazil in the Garden through October 15, 2017.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Towering palms, bold swaths of color, and tropical plants have transformed the Chicago Botanic Garden into an exotic paradise this year for Brazil in the Garden.

To create the “Brazil effect,” floriculturist Tim Pollak and Andrew Bunting, the Garden’s assistant director and director of plant collections, drew from designs by renowned Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, who was known for his bold, modernist style.

We talked with Pollak and Bunting to learn how you can grow a Brazil-inspired tropical garden.

Aechmea 'Blue Tango'

Aechmea ‘Blue Tango’

1. Find color in foliage

Burle Marx used bold, bright colors such as purple, orange, and green in his gardens. When planting your garden, Pollak recommended choosing foliage plants with various shades of green. Foliage tones are endless: silvers, blues, bronze, and burgundy. Foliage plants can also bring out the colors of flowers, and vice versa. For instance, if your garden’s foliage is silver, blue, and purple, pops of white flowers will enhance the foliage colors. “Remember,” Pollak said, “there are no rules when it comes to color.” Complementary or monochromatic schemes are subject to taste. But gardens can still be attractive without flowers. Instead, think of flowers as icing on the cake.

Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum 'Pie Crust'

The bright, speckled foliage of Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum ‘Pie Crust’ provides a host of contrasting color all in one plant.

2. Use contrasting textures and shapes

Burle Marx was known for using large swaths of contrasting textures and forms in his landscape designs. Get the Burle Marx effect by choosing plants with various surfaces and shapes. For instance, Pollak said to think about the foliage of your plant—is it shiny or muted? Waxy or fuzzy? Is the venation (patterns of veins on the leaf) netted or in parallel lines? Are the shapes of the leaves long and thin, or short and wide? When shopping at your local garden center or nursery, follow Pollak’s trick: Lay your plants next to each other on your cart or on the floor. You’ll see which plants have different styles, which create a lush, biodiverse mood in your garden.

Calathea burlemarmii 'Burle Marx' and Heuchera 'Dark Mystery'

This Burle Marx peacock plant (Calathea burlemarmii ‘Burle Marx’) surrounded by the dark purple leaves of Dark Mystery coral bells (Heuchera ‘Dark Mystery’)

3. Think: thrillers, fillers, and spillers

Pollak and Bunting often advise gardeners to think “thrillers, fillers, and spillers” when planning their garden design. By using a combination of these kinds of plants, you can easily create a varied garden design. Here’s a breakdown of the three types:

  • Thrillers: Tall plants are your “wow factors.” They’re dramatic, and stand out in your garden. Think of these plants as conversation starters. Pollak and Bunting recommend palms (Arecaceae), elephant ears (Colocasia), and cannas (Canna generalis) for Brazil-themed “thrillers.”
  • Fillers: Medium-sized plants fill space in your garden. They can be interesting foliage plants or flowers, or flowers with interesting foliage. Pollak and Bunting recommend Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus) and firecracker plants (Cuphea ignea) for Brazil-themed “fillers.”
  • Spillers: Low plants spill out of a container, or trail along the foot of your garden bed. Pollak and Bunting recommend sweet potato plants (Ipomoea batata) and purple spiderwort (Tradescantia pallida) for Brazil-themed “spillers.”
"Thrillers," "spillers," and "fillers" in the Crescent Garden.

In the Crescent Garden, Bismarck fan palms (Bismarckia nobilis) and canna (Canna × generalis ‘Orange Punch’) create “thrillers.” The spectacular foliage of Grecian urn plant (Quesnalia marmota) and bromeliad Neoregelia ‘Sunkiss’ fill in the planting (“fillers”). Mexican bluebell (Ruellia brittoniana ‘Purple Showers’) and Purple Heart spiderwort (Tradescantia pallida ‘Purple Heart’) create the “spillers” in the grouping.

4. Create repetition for effect

When arriving at the Garden’s Visitor Center, you might imagine you’ve landed in Miami. Rows of swaying coconut palms, towers of bromeliads, and beds of elephant ears greet visitors as they walk through the Garden. The tropical illusion is deliberate: We repeated similar plants in our beds to broaden the Garden’s designs, making small spaces look larger. In your own garden, you can use swaths of similar plants in rows or curving shapes. The result may transport you to the tropics.

Repetition for effect: planting areas with a single plant create an effect of making an area seem larger.

Repetition for effect: planting areas with a single plant create an effect of making an area seem larger. Golden yellow Duranta erecta ‘Aurea’ is planted around a Buccaneer palm (Pseudophoenix sargentii). Dark Neoregelia ‘Royal Burgundy’ is planted at the front of the bed alongside a grouping of fine-textured Stipa tenuissima feather grass. Behind the palm, a grouping of spiky-leafed Naranjilla contrasts with the fuzzy-leaves of Tibouchina grandifolia.

5. Add a touch of tropics

Planting a tropical-themed garden doesn’t require you to use 100 percent tropical plants, said Bunting, but a few plants can have an impact. To create a Brazil-themed garden, do as Burle Marx did: Find plants within your reach. That is, at your local garden center or nursery, find palms or other tropical plants that can be brought inside for the winter. To care for tropical plants, keep in mind they thrive in heat and humidity, and need plenty of moisture. Use supplementary fertilizer to keep them healthy and thriving. And remember, if you want the tropical effect without tropical plants, there are plenty of ways to think creatively by using bold houseplants, annuals, and perennials.

Aechmea 'Yellow Berries'

Vase plant (Aechmea ‘Yellow Berries’) adds a perfect touch of the tropics to your summer displays.

Learn more about the flora and fauna of Brazil in our upcoming conservation talks, held on the following Thursdays from 2 to 3 p.m. in the Linnaeus Room, Regenstein Center.

AUG
10
Birds of Brazil
Doug Stotz, senior conservation ecologist, The Field Museum
AUG
17
A Butterfly Adventure in the Amazon Basin
Doug Taron, chief curator of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
SEP
28
Plant Diversity and Conservation in Brazil
Pat Herendeen, senior director, Systematics and Evolutionary Biology, Chicago Botanic Garden
OCT
12
Mycological Adventures in Brazil
Greg Mueller, chief scientist and Negaunee Foundation Vice President of Science, Chicago Botanic Garden

Photos by Tia Mitchell Photography
©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Using peonies as a cut flower for floral design is easy, with a few tricks to preserve the health of your plants and flowers.

Peonies are the queen of the garden during their blooming season. From late spring through early summer, there is a beautiful abundance of color and shapes blooming, depending on the variety. Finding a variety that is also fragrant adds to the reward of growing this exquisite flower.

Storing peony stems allows you to use early and mid-season blossoms together in an arrangement.

Storing peony stems allows you to use early and mid-season blossoms together in an arrangement.

Here are few tips to extend the bloom of cut peonies indoors.

When cutting flowers from your plants, be sure to leave at least two sets of leaves on the stem so that the plant can continue to thrive.

You can select flowers that are as open as you like, but for the best vase life, select buds that have just begun to open and feel similar to a marshmallow. 

Cut stems can be stored in the refrigerator for two to three weeks, butno fruit—such as apples—can be in the refrigerator with your peonies. The ethylene gas emitted by ripening fruit will cause petals to drop, and buds to wilt and fail to open. I store peony stems so that I can use early- and mid-season blossoms together in the same arrangement. (This is also a good safety net if you are hoping to use peonies for an event, but Mother Nature decided to allow the peonies to bloom early.)

I have success in storing blooms two ways. One is by placing cut stems in a clean vase of cool water in the refrigerator, making sure that low foliage is not in the water. This can be challenging because the height of the stems don’t always fit in the fridge very well. The other method is to cut the stems and place them lying down in a plastic bag with a dry paper towel to absorb moisture. Both methods require daily checks to replace the water in the vase or the paper towels. If any of the blossoms in the plastic bag grow moldy, the infected flowers should be discarded, and the remaining flowers placed in a clean plastic bag. If the buds droop, don’t worry—often they can be revived in a vase of warm water.

Got ants? Ants love the sweet nectar of peonies as they begin to open. I dunk the blossom end of the stem in cool, clean water for 30 seconds to rid the ants from the flower before bringing the flowers into the house.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

DIY Living Plant Wall

Kathy J. —  May 15, 2017 — 1 Comment

This year, the Living Wall in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden needed to be replanted. The metal cells that hold the plants to the wall were removed and taken to the Garden’s greenhouse nursery to grow new plants before placement outside for the summer.

This left us with four empty walls at the entrance to the Growing Garden. So we decided to get creative. We made an “alternative” living wall. 

PHOTO: sixteen cone-shaped pockets containing small plants are displayed on the brown walls.

The south-facing wall is now covered with burlap pocket planters containing alyssum, lettuce seedings, grass, and coriander.

Our carpenters covered foam boards with brown burlap and installed these panels on the living wall frame where the plant cells had been removed. Students from the Garden’s Nature Preschool planted seeds and transplanted seedlings into small pots. We placed the plants into colored burlap planters and pinned them to the foam walls, and voila! We have a vertical garden again.

You can do this at home. Making planting pockets is simple and fun.

  1. Plant seeds or transplant small plants and let them sprout. We used biodegradable Fertilpots, but you could also start seeds in egg cartons, newspaper pots, or plastic pots.

2. Cut the burlap into squares that are twice as long and wide as the pots.

PHOTO: The picture shows the size of the burlap square next to the pot that was used.

Our Fertilpots were 4″ tall, so I cut the fabric roughly into 8″-x-8″ squares. This does not need to be exact.

3. Fold the square in half diagonally and sew a seam along the side. You can use a heavy duty needle with a sewing machine or do this by hand with a darning needle. It might be possible to use a hot glue gun to make the seam, but I did not try this.

PHOTO: This shows what the burlap looks like after it is sewed in half.

I used a sewing machine because I made more than 100 of these. They could be sewn by hand.

4. Turn the triangle inside out to form the pocket. Slip the planted pot into the pocket and get ready to hang it on a wall.

PHOTO: This shows the pocket with a pot inside.

The seam side of the pocket is the back, and the pointed front top can either be folded down or cut off.

5. To hang on the wall, pinch the extra fabric so the burlap fits snugly around the pot. Fold down the point in front or cut it off—your choice. Push a long pin through the pot and the fabric and pin the pocket to the wall. (I had pins used by our horticulturists to propagate cuttings; you could use T-pins or other pins with large heads.) You could also lace a ribbon around the top of the pocket and cinch the fabric, then hang the planter by the ribbon.

PHOTO: The picture shows a hand holding the fabric to make the pocket fit around the pot.

Gathering the extra fabric will help hold the pot better, and it will look neater on the wall.

Students in our Nature Preschool enjoyed helping to grow the plants and pin them to the Living Wall. Each child wanted to place his or her planter next to a friend’s planter so they could grow close together.

wall KJ with girl

Just for fun, we experimented with some other kinds of planters, including plastic bottles and shoes.

PHOTO: a 2 liter plastic bottle turned sideways and filled with soil and oregano plants is pinned to the wall.

If you want to try growing a plant in a 2-liter bottle, cut a rectangular opening in the side of the bottle, poke six to eight holes on the opposite side for drainage, fill with soil, plant, and hang it up.

The preschoolers are fascinated by the soda bottle planter. They like to look in the round opening on the side. The toddler shoe makes everyone smile. We may add more surprising planters over the next few weeks, just to keep it interesting.

PHOTO: a toddler shoe with alyssum growing in it is laced with twine and hanging on the wall,

An old shoe can become a whimsical planter that sparks imagination.

If you decide to try something like this at home, be advised that the small pots need to be watered frequently (ours need watering daily) because they tend to dry out faster than larger containers. It’s a good project for young children because they will get to do a lot of watering without harming the plants.

Our “alternative living wall” is only temporary. Stop by the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden between now and June 12 to see how it’s growing. After that, the real living wall will be installed for the rest of the year.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

For many people, lilacs are a sentimental flower. My mother planted many lilacs on our farm in Kansas. The scent carried across the yard as I played. When my husband and I started our family, planting a lilac in our garden was a priority so our children will have the same heavenly memory of the fragrance and flower.

Over the years I have tried to bring the bounty of this flower into my home and have often failed. The flowers would droop within an hour of bringing them inside, even though I had them in a clean vase full of fresh water. Through trial and error I found the trick to help the blooms last as long as possible:

Fill a bucket half full of fresh, cool water, and have it at hand as you cut blooms. Pick flowers in the cool of the morning or evening. Lilacs open very little after harvest, so choose stems that have at least three-quarters of the flowers open. Next, remove all of the leaves so the plant isn’t putting its effort into keeping the leaves hydrated. Place stems in the water. Leave the bucket in a cool, dark place and allow the flowers to take up water for at least an hour.

Pick flowers in the cool of morning or evening.

Pick flowers in the cool of morning or evening.

Remove all of the leaves from each stem.

Remove all of the leaves from each stem.

Next, using heavy clippers, recut the stem ends, then slice vertically up the stem 1-2 inches. Grasp one side of the sliced stem and twist backward. Immediately place the cut stems back into the bucket of water.  Allow the stems to take up more water in a cool, dark place for another one to two hours. The lilacs will then be ready for arranging, and will last three to four days.

Recut the stem ends, then slice vertically up the stem 1-2 inches.

Recut the stem ends, then slice vertically up the stem 1-2 inches.

Grasp one side of the sliced stem and twist backward.

Grasp one side of the sliced stem and twist backward.

An arrangement of fragrant Evangeline hyacinth lilac (Syringa xhyacinthiflora 'Evangeline')

Our finished bouquet: an arrangement of fragrant Evangeline hyacinth lilac (Syringa ×hyacinthiflora ‘Evangeline’)


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org