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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, but…no 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just for fun, we experimented with some other kinds of planters, including plastic bottles and shoes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The arrival of seed catalogs in mailboxes ranks as one of the most hopeful times in a gardener’s year, as it provides us with a welcome link to spring.
One of the first considerations is deciding what to grow. This can be answered by simply listing the veggies or asking your family to name the veggies they like to eat. There are a few other considerations before placing your order for next year’s garden—such as deciding if you should plant seeds or transplant vegetable starts. Seeds of many vegetables can be sown directly in the garden, including root vegetables like carrots, radish, and beets. Peas, beans, and squash are also best directly sown. Cabbage, tomatoes, and peppers are better given a head start inside first, and then transplanted into the garden as small plants, because they need a long, warm growing season.
Timing is important in the vegetable garden, and knowing that our growing season has approximately 170 frost-free days helps guide decisions on which plants to plant and when to plant. Our risk of frost is generally from October 15 through April 27, but can vary two weeks in either direction. Understanding that vegetable varieties have varying tolerances to frost helps you plan your planting calendar. For example, those very hardy plants like collards, kohlrabi, kale, spring onions, pea, spinach, turnip, and cabbage can be planted out four to six weeks before our last frost date. Those called “half hardy” or “frost tolerant”—such as beets, Swiss chard, carrots, cauliflower, and mustard—must be planted a bit later; two to three weeks before the last frost date.
The best seed catalogs will help decipher a gardener’s questions, and help plot, measure, and sort out the seed math needed to get started on a vegetable garden. Most seed is available in organic and non-organic options, with the latter usually the least expensive. Good catalogs provide keys to help decipher the icons (vegetable resistance codes) in plant descriptions. After all, a seed company’s success is based on a gardener’s success with their products.
As our nutritional consciousness rises, the taste and the health benefits of growing your own organic produce is a pursuit worthy of winter afternoons spent planning.
Here are a few of my favorite seed companies: (Consider going paperless; all of these catalogs are available online.)
Johnny’s Selected Seed is a 43-year-old, employee-owned company in Maine, recognizing that “good food is the basis of our well-being.” Widely used by home gardeners and small market farmers, the seed selection includes hundreds of vegetable, flower, and herb varieties in organic and non-organic (options) seeds. The catalog provides grower’s information for the novice to advanced gardener—it’s a virtual garden education. Johnny’s provides well-tested tools for garden tasks from bed prep to trellising, to season extension, and cover cropping. Comparison charts like the one on leaf lettuce help gardeners select seeds based on their specific growing conditions. Charts and photos compare length, width of mature veggies, and harvest windows.
High Mowing Organic Seeds simply provides 100 percent certified organic, non-GMO Project Verified vegetable and flower seed to organic growers. Seed definitions of open pollinated (OP), heirloom, and hybrid seeds are aptly explained and marked throughout. Crop types are headed by general cultural information or the “how to” grow beans for example. Then each listing is complete with the days to maturity (based on conditions in Vermont where HMO is located), disease resistance and any special attributes of the plant including breeder credit. High Mowing Organic Seeds is an excellent resource for passionate organic growers.
Burpee acquired The Cook’s Garden more than ten years ago, and it has helped nurture America’s love affair with healthy, delicious food by offering the best gourmet veggies, greens, and herbs from around the world. The catalog offers seeds and plants for gourmet gardeners, with vegetables and fruits often pictured in recipes alongside culinary tips. Offering well-curated collections of helpful horticultural gadgets, you’ll find ash-handled tools, trellising supplies, rain gauges, and garden hods (flat, wood-handled basket) to make harvesting a snap. The Cook’s Garden catalog offers a wide range of quality products to indulge your inner gardener-chef when produce arrives in the kitchen. They’ve got canning, preserving, and dehydrating supplies covered. If the ultimate luxury is having the right tool for the job, check out the herb snips, the strawberry huller, and my current obsession, the new pickle slicer.
Seed Savers Exchange helped start the heirloom seed movement by locating and preserving almost 20,000 varieties by growing them and seed banking at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa. The not-for-profit’s mission is to conserve and protect America’s culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing open pollinated seeds and plants—check the website for availability updates. The catalog contains an anthology of stories and fascinating anecdotes connecting the reader to plant history, and has a comprehensive roster of vegetable seed many of which are certified organic. Be sure to check out the heirloom flower seed, garlic, and seed potatoes. It’s a great resource for seed saving supplies and helpful guides to get started planting and seed saving.
Pinetree has been a year-round source for the home gardener for more than three decades. Their product lines go well beyond a fairly complete line of gardening gear, including soil kits and amendments, and animal deterrents. Also offered are natural bath and hair products, kitchen gadgets (I want the tortilla press), and bee, bat, and bird products. If you’d like fragrant oils and herbal teas to go along with your vegetable seeds, look no further than Pinetree. There is a comprehensive compendium of some of the best gardening books that I’ve seen.
Baker Creek offers 1,800 vegetable, flower and herb varieties claimed to be the largest in our country. A focus on preservation, it not surprising they have one of the largest selections of seeds from the nineteenth century. The fittingly named Rare Seed Catalog is like the Vogue magazine of the vegetable world. It wins the prize for the most beautiful photographs of the most avant-garde produce collection, complete with nutritional factoids and culinary inspiration. Stories from seed collecting expeditions around the world—recently Thailand, Myanmar, and India—are in the Heirloom Gardener, an associated and nationally distributed magazine written as a tool to not only promote and preserve our rich agricultural history but as explanation of why we need to care about it. The Rare Seed Catalog provides a selection of 78 varieties of melon and 20 types of okra. Baker Creek has a limited but diverse availability of live plants to ship. If goji berries, ginger root, and dragon fruit tickle your fancy (and you either live in the subtropics or have a greenhouse available) look no further, they’re in the Rare Seed Catalog. Baker Creek encourages political activism, and the catalog is written with an underlying ripple that we’re reaching the tipping point in the struggle against GMOs.
Vermont Bean Seed Company www.vermontbean.com Bush or pole? Round, broad, or flat-podded? Shellers or runners? Golden, purple, filet, or lima—Vermont Bean Seed Company’s catalog for home gardens has them all.
Filaree Garlic Farm www.filareefarm.com Garlic immersion is made possible by paging through the Filaree Garlic Farm catalog. A certified organic garlic grower in Washington State, Filaree encourages placing early orders of favorite rocaboles, porcelains, and purple stripe garlic.
Totally Tomatoes www.totallytomato.com Whether you are growing tried-and-true tomato varieties or venturing on to new releases and heirlooms, Totally Tomatoes offers hundreds of tomato varieties to the avid tomato grower. Categorized by size, shape, and color, Totally Tomatoes is a veritable rainbow for the tomato connoisseur. Focusing on Solanaceous crops, dozens of pepper varieties are included, too.
Varieties/cultivars and tips for direct seeding into spring gardens
It’s hard to resist a list of a few of my favorite varieties to directly sow into the spring garden. Knowing how much seed will sow a 10-foot row and the days to maturity (when the harvest can be expected) is the type of garden math that tangles up many a gardener, but quality catalogs will provide vegetable grower’s guides to help to sort out how much seed you’ll need.
Radish: Direct-sow spring radish as soon as the ground can be worked, or four to six weeks before the last frost. Radish is best grown quickly in cool, damp conditions. It’s easy to grow, and requires only 28 days from planting to harvest. Try these spring radish cultivars: ‘Early Scarlet Globe’, ‘Rudolf’, and ‘Crunchy Royale’.
Beets: Nothing says spring like tender, freshly harvested baby beets. Sow about two weeks before our last frost date and thin to 3 inches between seedlings. Fertilize with liquid seaweed. Beets have great culinary versatility, so plant a combination of gold and red. ‘Detroit Dark Red’, ‘Bull’s Blood’, and ‘Burpee’s Golden’ are great choices.
Swiss chard: We love ‘Rhubarb’ and ‘Five colored Silverbeet’. These greens can grow through the entire gardening season. By harvesting just the outer leaves with a harvest knife, the plant stays in place and the integrity of your design stays intact.
Carrots: The sweetest, juiciest, and most flavorful carrots are the French heirlooms. Sow two weeks before the last frost date. Carrot is slow to germinate, so have patience. Our favorite varieties for Chicago growers: ‘St. Valery’, ‘Paris Market’, and ‘Scarlet Nantes’.
Spinach: One of the earliest-germinating cool season vegetables, spinach can be direct sown in 2-inch bands or rows four to six weeks before the last frost. Plant ‘Corvair’, ‘Tyee’, or ‘Donkey’ for the most reliable spring crops.
Lettuce: We love ‘Tennis Ball’, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’, ‘Rouge d ’Hiver’, and ‘Winter Density’. One gram of seed will sow a 15-foot row.
Spring greens: Try mache, arugula, or mizuna; 30 to 50 seeds will seed one foot of row when sown as a cut-and-come-again salad mix.