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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

Like you, the staff at the Chicago Botanic Garden has been tracking the recent rains. We know many of you are anxious to get planting done—it is spring, right? But we encourage caution and patience.

If it squishes, wait. Working with wet soil and turf damages it.

If it squishes, wait. Working with wet soil and turf damages it.

Here are tips to help gardeners navigate Chicago’s spring:

  1. Wait until the soil dries out to get back in your garden. If the soil can form a sticky ball when you squeeze a handful, it is still too wet for planting. Soil will take longer to dry after periods of cool weather. Sandy soils can be worked much sooner after a rain event. Clay soil holds more moisture and requires a longer waiting time.
  2. Avoid excessive walking in garden beds and on lawns. It can compact and damage your soil.
  3. Soil is ready for planting when it crumbles in your hand. Working the soil when it is too wet can increase compaction and break down the structure of the soil, leaving you with hard crusts or clumps when it dries out.
  4. Don’t mow a lawn that is excessively wet. A lawn is too wet when you see standing water, or water comes up from the ground as you step on the lawn. In these conditions, the mower tires will leave muddy tracks that will damage your lawn.
  5. Now is the time to get in some really satisfying weeding!

    Now is the time to get in some really satisfying weeding!

    Do pull weeds once your soil has dried a bit. Weeds are more easily pulled when the ground is moist (but not wet). Work from the edges of the beds to pull weeds without compacting soil or damaging other plantings.
  6. Mulch beds once the soil has dried out. Be sure the beds are sufficiently dry.
  7. Drainage issues? If you can, collect water that has pooled. In order to correct a drainage problem, you will first have to move the excess surface water that is pooling in low areas. Then you can consider the different options to improve drainage, taking into account soil type and natural changes in grade.

tomatoes on the vineThe Garden recommends waiting to plant warm-season flowering annuals, vines, herbs, and vegetables until after the Chicago area’s average last frost date of May 15. Cautious gardeners often wait until Memorial Day before setting out cold-sensitive plants such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and squash.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Epic Echium

Tim Pollak —  May 2, 2017 — 5 Comments

An exotic, tall-dark-and-handsome visitor has returned to the Chicago Botanic Garden this spring. Its bold blooms draw pollinators in as well as Garden visitors. What is it, you ask?

Some of the most unusual plants our Production Greenhouse team grow for our display gardens are six species of Echium, a biennial plant that produces giant spikes of flowers—but not right away. Echium take two years of growth to become the epic plants you see throughout the Garden. You won’t find these Dr. Seussian plants in many other gardens in the Midwest (if you do, please let us know).

Echium are native to the Canary Islands, regions of the west coast of Africa, and southern Spain/Portugal. They are not hardy plants in Chicago, meaning they cannot withstand our winters outdoors. Growing them requires strict cultural practices to ensure their successful flowering.

Echium fastuosum (Pride of Madeira)

Echium fastuosum, or Pride of Madeira

Echium pininana 'Blue Steeple'

Echium pininana ‘Blue Steeple’

The team starts the plants from seed in November, transplanting seedlings into smaller pots to establish healthy root systems, before placing them in a cool greenhouse for the winter.

The following spring, they are transplanted into their final growing container and moved outside. They are grown in a semi-shaded location and fertilized regularly all summer.

Echium 'Red Rocket'

Echium ‘Red Rocket’

In fall, they are moved into a protected nursery quonset, with temperatures of 42-45 degrees Fahrenheit all winter long. (It is called vernalization, and it is a process by which keeping a plant in colder winter temperatures induces a bloom cycle.) The Echium‘s second spring—about 20 months after sowing the seed—is usually mid-to-late March; they begin to set flower buds and elongate their flower spikes.

An assortment of colors of Echium fastuosum, or Pride of Madeira, is a focal point of the Heritage Garden this spring.

An assortment of colors of Echium fastuosum, or Pride of Madeira, is a focal point of the Heritage Garden this spring.

You will find Echium growing in beds and containers outside the Visitor Center, in the Heritage Garden, and the English Walled Garden. These stars of the show are hard to miss! As you come across them, we hope you, like us, think of the team of skilled horticulturists who cultivate these “wows” each year—as well as nearly 70,000 spring annuals and vegetables.

Learn more about these Echium on display in our Plantfinder.


©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

I put together my top five picks for all-around Best Midwest plants after being contacted by editors at Midwest Living magazine.

Polling a number of experts in the Midwest, the editors asked for recommendations of award-worthy plants and then came up with a list of great plants that gardeners can count on. (I was happy to note some of the winners are proven perennials from the Chicago Botanic Garden’s trials, as well as plants I’ve grown and loved for a long time.)

Here’s my shortlist—including one with crazy beautiful flowers and one that’s so easy to grow that you basically just plant it in the right spot and water it.

See the plants that made it on to the Midwest Living list.

Best for Sun

‘Joanna Reed’ catmint (Nepeta ‘Joanna Reed’) is one of the tidiest catmints I’ve ever grown, an attribute that cinched a top rating in our trial. The strong stems never flopped and new shoots grow quickly to conceal the declining flowers stems, thus eliminating the need for deadheading. Compact, wide spreading plants (24 inches tall and 48 inches wide) are covered with a continuous display of violet-blue flowers from spring into fall; if you’re thinking that means loads of pollinators, you’d be right! The aromatic, dusty green leaves are not only attractive but also unpalatable to deer—a bragging point shared by many catmints.

Lamb's ears (Stachys byzantia) and catmint (Nepeta) in the Garden.

Fuzzy lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) pair well with catmint (Nepeta—in the background).

To me, lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) is an essential perennial for sunny gardens and ‘Big Ears’ is my favorite. Its large, pale silvery-green leaves are velvety soft and the perfect color and textural foil for other perennials—it looks good with both hot- and cool-colored flowers. ‘Big Ears’ is a shy flowerer; in fact, it is touted as non-flowering. Occasionally, a fuzzy flower stem or two pops up with tiny purple flowers hidden in woolly clusters. Low growing and spreading (14 inches tall and 30 inches wide), ‘Big Ears’ is a great groundcover or massing plant. Both of these sun-loving perennials like well-drained soils and are tolerant of hot, dry conditions.

Best Native Plant

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) makes my list of best native plants because its flowers are crazy beautiful, and it might just be one of the most important plants of the day. Honestly, the eye-catching bright orange flowers are reason enough to love this plant, but the fact that they attract a myriad of butterflies, including the beloved monarch, makes them invaluable. The survival and success of the monarch butterfly is tied directly to butterfly weed—the caterpillar feeds on the leaves and the adult butterfly on the nectar. Butterfly weed is a great garden perennial in formal and naturalistic plantings, and because it is commonly seed-grown, flower color varies from orange to yellow to nearly red. The Perennial Plant Association named Asclepias tuberosa the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year.

Best Annual

Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue')

Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’)

I haven’t evaluated annuals in more than 20 years, and I don’t personally grow many annuals. However, I’m a huge fan of tender sages—so much so that we started a trial of 105 different nonhardy sages last year. Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ has been around for a while and has proven to be a phenomenal plant for seasonal displays in containers and garden borders. The combination of cobalt blue flowers and near-black calyces and stems is stunning. It blooms from midsummer to frost and attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees aplenty. ‘Black and Blue’ is a rapid grower, reaching 2 to 4 feet tall and 1 to 3 feet wide in a summer, and is best suited to sunny locations.

Best Plant-It-and-Forget-It

Hosta sieboldiana 'Elegans'

Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’

Hostas are quintessential plant-it-and-forget-it perennials. Long-lived and easy-care, hostas come in a wide variety of colors, forms, and sizes. Success is as simple as providing them with adequate water and planting them in partial to dappled shade. Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ features thick, corrugated blue-green leaves and near-white funnel-shaped flowers in early summer. ‘Elegans’ is robust at 30 inches tall and 48 inches wide, with heart-shaped leaves more than a foot long. Hostas rarely, if ever, need division—I have a big planting of ‘Elegans’ in my home garden that has been in place for more than 20 years with no care beyond removing the old leaves in the spring.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org