Transform Your Garden for Evening Outdoor Entertaining

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

A Garden Fit for Royalty

Can’t make the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle? Visit the Helen and Richard Thomas English Walled Garden instead.

If you’re in Chicago this weekend, that means—like most of us—you didn’t get an invite to the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, a graduate of Northwestern University. Get in the spirit of the occasion anyway by visiting the English Walled Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This garden has enough connections to the British royal family to satisfy your royal appetite, and you won’t have to be up at 5 a.m. to start watching the wedding and feel part of the experience.

Here are just some of the connections to British royalty that can be found in the English Walled Garden:

The garden was dedicated by a member of the British Royal Family. The English Walled Garden was dedicated in 1991 by none other than Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, who was Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister. The occasion was fit for royalty, with a performance from a bagpiper, and an official dedication by the princess, who sported a lovely royal blue coat. You can find a plaque commemorating the dedication just outside the entrance to the garden.

Princess Margaret visits the opening of the English Walled Garden in 1991.
Princess Margaret visits the opening of the English Walled Garden in 1991. Designed by John Brookes, the English Walled Garden contains six “rooms” that demonstrate traditional English gardening styles: Vista Garden, Cottage Garden, Pergola Garden, Daisy Garden, Courtyard Garden, and Checkerboard Garden.

A legendary designer created this garden. When the English Walled Garden was just an idea, the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Botanic Garden looked to legendary garden designer John Brookes for his vision. Known more for being a modernist, Brookes agreed to design our English Walled Garden in a more traditional style. In 2004, he was made a Member of the British Empire, an order of chivalry bestowed by the Queen for outstanding contributions to society. Brookes died in March 2018, but leaves behind a footprint that includes, along with the English Walled Garden here, many gardens on private estates and in town squares around the world. A quote from his last published book describes his legacy: “I have sired no heir, but I have given birth to perhaps a thousand gardens.”

English Walled Garden (at Chicago Botanic Garden) in May
The English Walled Garden in May

The garden is divided into six “rooms,” and one was made as a nod to the working class. The least formal of the six different spaces in the English Walled Garden is the Cottage Garden room. It’s modeled after the type of garden a rural homeowner would create, and serves to be more functional than ornamental. You’ll see fruits, vegetables, and herbs growing together, filling every space possible. If you’re someone who’s not altogether fond of the concept of royalty, the Cottage Garden is a place to visit and ruminate on how the common folk get by.

Charles and Diana are there—but not together. The garden features two varieties of clematis with familiar royal names. Clematis ‘Prince Charles’ and Clematis ‘Princess Diana’ are both located in the same garden bed, but planted at opposite ends. You can find them next to the ramp exit leading to the adjacent Dwarf Conifer Garden.

Clematis 'Prince Charles'
Clematis ‘Prince Charles’
Clematis 'Princess Diana'
Clematis ‘Princess Diana’

The floral emblem of Scotland is there, but England’s is not. Planted as an annual this year along the west perennial border of the garden is Onopordum acanthium, more commonly known as Scotch thistle. The flower is so named because it’s similar to the thistle used as the national emblem of Scotland (which is technically Cirsium vulgare). If you’re looking for the national emblem of England, that would be the Tudor rose, a combination of the red and white roses of the Houses of Lancaster and York. But you’ll have to go outside the English Walled Garden to get a good view of roses. Peek through the terra-cotta tiles next to the Linden Allée or venture to the Krasberg Rose Garden next door. There’s a variety of rose named for Prince Harry’s grandmother and Meghan Markle’s future grandmother-in-law: Rosa ‘Queen Elizabeth’.

Guardian by Simon Verity
Guardian by Simon Verity

The Guardian has royal connections. If you enter the English Walled Garden from the main entrance on the west side, you can’t miss the Guardian. The sculpture was carved by Simon Verity, an English sculptor who has created pieces that stand in many English gardens, including one owned by Prince Harry’s father Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, as well as Elton John (who is definitely music royalty). Constructed of semiprecious stones and minerals, the sculpture represents air, earth, fire and water, the ancient elements of earth.

Delphinium elatum 'Royal Aspirations'
Delphinium elatum ‘Royal Aspirations’

Surround yourself in purple and feel like royalty. Now that spring has arrived (finally), there are plenty of blooms to be found in the traditional color of royalty. Blues and purples were a key part of Brookes’ design for the garden. You can find that color family prominently in the Pergola Garden room. Another can’t miss purple flower in the English Walled Garden is delphinium, a stately and regal bloom newly planted in two urns close to the Linden Allée.

Say hello to the lion. The lion has long been the symbol of England. The Barbary lion is the country’s national animal and also adorns a number of national symbols, from the coat of arms of the royal family to the England national football team’s logo. Naturally, there’s a lion in the English Walled Garden as well. Named Cuddly Lion, the sculpture was donated by Brookes and is located at the entrance.

Wander away from the English Walled Garden to find the plants and flowers of the royal wedding. While the English Walled Garden is full of botanical references and nods to English history and culture, you’ll have to trek to the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden to find plants and flowers that are part of Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding celebration. Traditionally, lemon myrtle from Queen Victoria’s holiday home on the Isle of Wight has been featured in the bride’s bouquet of royal weddings since Victoria’s daughter (also named Victoria) was married in 1858. The flowering plant is expected to make an appearance in Meghan’s bouquet. There’s lemon myrtle located inside the greenhouse, at the center of the garden. One tradition Prince Harry and Meghan are not following is with their choice of cake. Instead of the traditional fruit cake, their wedding will instead have a cake made of lemon and elderflower. Cross the bridge to the Fruit & Vegetable Garden and veer left. You’ll find several elder trees (Sambucus nigra) along the shoreline. Looking for a reason to head back to the English Walled Garden? Finish up your homage trip in honor of the royal wedding by seeking out lemon thyme, planted in several different spots in the English Walled Garden. Take a sniff and, with the right bit of imagination, it’ll be like you’re in London with the royals after all.

Cuddly Lion sculputure outside the English Walled Garden
Cuddly Lion is a favorite of young visitors to the English Walled Garden.

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spring Containers Are Here!

Show of hands: Who’s ready for spring?

We are, too.

Thankfully, the bright, blooming containers in the Heritage Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden were planted this week, welcoming spring and warm fuzzies along with them. Just standing near these spring annuals makes us happy, and for horticulturist Tom Soulsby—who’s been planting these signature troughs for the past 15 years—it’s one of his favorite things to do each spring.

The bright, colorful troughs in the Heritage Garden welcome visitors every Spring.
The bright, colorful troughs in the Heritage Garden welcome visitors every spring.

“After a long, drawn-out winter, it’s nice to have something that cheers people up,” said Soulsby. “It cheers us up, too, to see visitors smiling.”

spring-container
Horticulturist Tom Soulsby uses small, visually interesting plants that would otherwise get lost in a mass planting in the Garden.

People look forward to these 41 containers each spring, which is something Soulsby keeps in mind when he’s planting them. By the time April rolls around, people are craving lush, overflowing color after months of dreary gray, so he “overplants” the troughs to make them look full from the get-go.

Poking through the red, orange, and yellow flowers this year is an unusual, edible treat: some Lactuca sativa ‘Australian Yellowleaf’ lettuce. “I’ve never used lettuce before in a container, but it’s a fun alternative for foliage accents, and can tolerate cooler weather,” said Soulsby.

lettuce-trough
Lactuca sativa ‘Australian Yellowleaf’ lettuce is a fun foliage accent for a container, and a tasty snack.

That’s another trick: all of the plants Soulsby picked for these troughs can handle cold and a light frost (but we’re hoping they won’t have to). Some—like the Narcissus ‘Fruit Cup’ daffodils and Tulipa praestans ‘Shogun’ tulips in this year’s troughs—will bloom later. It’s all about balance, Soulsby said—finding a mix of plants that will bloom at varying times.

spring-trough
We’re loving the bright, sunny color of Primula vulgaris ‘Kerbelnec’ Belarina® Nectarine in these troughs.

Here’s hoping Mother Nature takes a cue from these troughs.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Build a DIY Native Bee Home

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

The Power of Plants: Botanical Weightlifters

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