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No matter where I teach—at the Chicago Botanic Garden or at Edison Elementary in Morton Grove—I see how kids recognize the value of science education.

For each of the last 18 summers, I have been a science teacher at the Garden. My own children grew up attending Camp CBG. It was—and is—a family tradition, and something my kids and I looked forward to each summer.

PHOTO: Jim O'Malley teaching Camp CBG at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Teaching Camp CBG is something I look forward to every summer.

The Garden is an extraordinary science location. At the center of its mission are three core “beliefs.” All are excellent, but one correlates most strongly with my values as a science educator: “The future of life on Earth depends on how well we understand, value, and protect plants, other wildlife, and the natural habitats that sustain our world.” For kids, taking care of the Earth is a no-brainer, it is something we should all be doing, a “given.” It has been a privilege to be a part of the Garden’s mission. 

In 2014, camp director Amy Wells nominated me for the most prestigious award a science or math teacher in our nation can receive: the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). I had the good fortune of being nominated before and achieved recognition as a state level finalist on three previous occasions (2006, 2008 and 2010). As it turned out, Amy’s nomination was the lucky one. Thanks, Amy! After being chosen as a 2014 state level finalist, I was awarded national recognition from the White House in 2015, and got to attend a special ceremony in Washington D.C. this past September with my wife, Tiffany. 

To learn more about Jim and other extraordinary PAEMST teachers, please visit

My twelve-year journey, from my initial nomination to my national award recognition, intertwines with my teaching at the Garden. Although it was challenging to wait 12 years to finally achieve this recognition, I came to realize it was a journey that forced me to grow as an educator. It made me a better teacher, no doubt, and the hands-on experiences at the Garden honed my skill set—benefitting my school kids and my campers at Camp CBG. Win, win, and win for all.

PHOTO: Jim O'Malley posing with his PAESMT Certificate.

Posing with my certificate between John P. Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director, and Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, assistant director, Directorate for Education and Human Resources, National Science Foundation.

The award ceremony in Washington was magnificent. To be evaluated by experts at that level and recognized by the White House was truly humbling. I was able to meet teachers from around the country who also shared a passion for science instruction. So much positive energy. While I was in Washington, and in the past few months since I discovered I won (while I was working with teachers in Kenya), I have reflected on my teaching history. I recognized that the Garden was such an important part of the teacher I have become. I’ve had the good fortune of teaching hundreds of kids here, in all age ranges, in an environment that maximizes science instruction. Here’s to another 18 years.

—Dr. Jim O’Malley

PHOTO: Jim O'Malley under the presidential seal at the door to the Blue Room in the White House.

I got in a quick photo underneath the presidential seal at the entry to the Blue Room during our White House tour.

Fourth grade science teacher Dr. Jim O’Malley, better known as Dr. O to students, has spent the better part of his career engaging kids by offering a mostly hands-on science curriculum where students learn by doing at Edison Elementary School in District 69.

He was a winner well before being honored with the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching by helping students tap into their sense of wonder and curiosity as part of every-day science discovery.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

What’s black and white and spread all over? Zebra mussels—but they’re no joke.

If you noticed more aquatic “weeds” and algae growing in the Garden Lakes this year—or that our beloved Smith Fountain was MIA after mid-summer—read on to find out why.

Invasive plants and the problems they pose have been the topic of frequent postings here on the Chicago Botanic Garden’s blog. Now we have another invasive species to tell you about—and this time, it’s an animal: zebra mussels.

PHOTO: Adult zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha).

Adult zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) are about the size of your thumbnail.

Like many invasive plants and animals, zebra mussels’ native range is a faraway place; in this case, eastern Europe and western Russia. In the past 200 years, they have spread throughout all of Europe and Asia. Here in North America, the first account of an established population was in 1988 in Lake St. Clair (located between Lakes Huron and Erie), likely arriving here as tiny hitchhikers in the ballast water of a single commercial cargo ship traveling from the north shore of the Black Sea.

Somewhat remarkably, over the next two years they had spread throughout the entire Great Lakes. Just a year later in 1991, zebra mussels had escaped the Great Lakes and begun their march across North America’s inland waters. (Watch an animation of their spread). Today they are found in at least 29 states.

A zebra mussel may live up to five years and produce up to one million eggs each year—that’s five million eggs over their lifetime. A freshwater species of mollusk, they prefer to live in lakes and rivers with relatively warm, calcium-rich water (to help support their shell development). They feed by filtering microscopic algae from the surrounding water, with each adult zebra mussel filtering up to one liter of water per day.

Though tiny in size (adults are typically ½ to 2 inches long), their ecological and economic impacts can be enormous. Adult zebra mussels prefer to attach to hard surfaces such as submerged rocks, boat hulls, and pier posts—but they also cling to water intake structures as well as the interior of most any pipe that has flowing water in it (such as drinking water supply and irrigation system piping). From an ecological perspective, zebra mussels’ removal of microscopic algae often causes the afflicted waterway to become much more “clear.” While this clearer water may otherwise seem like a good thing, the now-removed microscopic algae is an important food source for many native aquatic animals. The clearer water also allows sunlight to penetrate deeper into the water, thereby stimulating much more rooted aquatic plant growth.

Nearby, zebra mussels were first identified in 2000 at the Skokie Lagoons, just south of the Garden. In 2013 and again in 2014, just a few zebra mussel shells were found at the Garden on the intake screens for our irrigation system’s South Pumphouse. Since so few mussels were found, we were hoping that the Garden’s lakes were simply not a hospitable place for the zebra mussels to flourish. Unfortunately, that thinking all changed in 2015….

PHOTO: Waterfall Garden label covered in zebra mussels.

These zebra mussels, only a few months old at the time, completely covered this plant label that had inadvertently fallen to the bottom of the Waterfall Garden’s upper pool.

At our Waterfall Garden, 1,000 gallons per minute of lake water are pumped to the top of the garden, after which the water flows down through the garden’s channels and then back into the lake. When Garden staff drained the Waterfall Garden for cleaning in June 2015, there were no apparent zebra mussels present—but by September 2015, the entire bottom of the Waterfall Garden’s upper pool was completely encrusted with attached zebra mussels. Needless to say, we were more than a little alarmed.

Realizing that the Garden’s lakes could indeed support massive growth of zebra mussels, the Garden’s science, horticulture, and maintenance staff quickly came together to devise a remediation strategy that would protect two critical components of the Garden’s infrastructure from “clogging” by zebra mussels: our irrigation system (which utilizes lake water to irrigate nearly all of our outdoor plant collections) and our building cooling systems (three of our public buildings extract lake water to support their air conditioning systems).

PHOTO: One of the Garden's lake water filtration systems.

Automatic backwash filters like the ones pictured here will be added to each of the Garden’s three pumping stations that withdraw lake water to irrigate nearly all of our outdoor plant collections.

The Garden’s zebra mussel remediation team drew upon the best scientific expertise available in North America, which confirmed that there is no scientifically proven approach for removing all zebra mussels from a body of water. The team explored all potential options for eliminating zebra mussel impacts on our infrastructure, and ultimately settled on two approaches: first, the installation of automatic backwash filters to keep even the tiniest of zebra mussels from getting into our irrigation system (the youngest zebra mussels are about 70 microns in size, or about the width of a human hair), and second, the installation of conventional closed-loop “cooling towers” on the three Garden buildings that currently use lake water for air conditioning (thereby discontinuing all withdrawals of the lake water for building cooling). Final design of the backwash filtration systems and the cooling towers is currently underway, and our intent is to have everything installed and operational by spring 2017.

PHOTO: The Garden’s aquatic plant harvester cuts and removes excessive aquatic vegetation and algae from the Garden lakes.

The Garden’s aquatic plant harvester cuts and removes excessive aquatic vegetation and algae from the Garden lakes.

If you visited the Garden in 2016, you probably witnessed some of the zebra mussels’ ecological impacts to our lakes. Mid-summer lake water transparency in our lakes typically is about 3 to 4 feet—but in 2016, this increased dramatically to about 6 feet (likely due to the zebra mussels’ filtering abilities described earlier). This clearer water resulted in much great submerged aquatic plant growth in our lakes, and our aquatic plant harvester struggled to keep up. Many visitors commented that there was much more aquatic “weed” growth in the lakes this year—and they were correct.

In fact, there was so much aquatic plant growth in our lakes this summer that the water intake for Smith Fountain in the North Lake became clogged and the pump burned out. Look for a repaired Smith Fountain (with a more clog-resistant intake) to reappear next spring.

PHOTO: The Smith Fountain (which is illuminated at night) is an acclaimed feature in the North Lake.

The Smith Fountain (which is illuminated at night) is an acclaimed feature in the North Lake.

While there currently is no known way to eliminate zebra mussels from freshwater lakes and streams, Garden researchers intend to utilize the new aquatic research facilities in the emerging Kris Jarantoski Campus to explore experimental approaches, such as biological control agents, to potentially lessen the zebra mussels’ ecological impacts to our 60-acre system of lakes. Stay tuned.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Windy City Harvest, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture education and jobs-training initiative, and its local partners were chosen as one of five finalists in the Food to Market Challenge.

The Food to Market Challenge, conducted collaboratively by Kinship Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, will award $500,000 to the multidisciplinary team that presents innovative solutions on how to bring local food to market. The Farm on Ogden Development (F.O.O.D.) includes distributors (Midwest Foods), farmers (Windy City Harvest, Creciendo Farms, Return to Life Farm, Sweet Pea and Friends, Garfield Produce Company), educators (Windy City Harvest, SAVOR…Chicago, ProStart Culinary Training, South Loop Farmers Market), healthcare and access (Community Economic Development Association, Lawndale Christian Health Center), land access (Brinshore Development, SAVOR…Chicago), and customers (SAVOR…Chicago, South Loop Farmers Market). Watch the video and see how this group of longtime partners is positioned to answer the challenges of the food supply chain in Chicago: food, health, and jobs.

PHOTO: Windy City Harvest is part of a team competing in the Food to Market Challenge.

Windy City Harvest is part of a team competing in the Food to Market Challenge.

The winner of the Food to Market Challenge will be selected at a “Shark Tank”-style event held at the Museum of Contemporary Art on October 26. 

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

As we all know, good soils are the key to growing any type of plant well: annuals, perennials, turf, shrubs, and trees. The Chicago region’s soils are twofold, having positive and negative virtues. On a positive note, our soils tend to be rich in nutrients. But on a negative note, our soils are heavy and do not drain well.

The soils at the Chicago Botanic Garden are very typical urban soils, and we have the same challenges. Over the years we have tried many types of amendments to improve our soils and are about to embark on another trial…biochar.

Biochar has been used for thousands of years in the Amazon Basin of South America to greatly improve poor, unproductive soils for farming. The ancient Amazons used a simple “slash-and-char” process to create biochar. This process involved cutting and burning plant material in an incomplete “smolder” style, rather than complete burn. They worked the charred material back into the soil as a long-lasting amendment. These amended soils in the Amazon have become known as “black earth” or terra preta. Amended terra preta soils created long ago still cover 10 percent of the Amazon Basin. It is important to understand that “slash and char” is different than “slash and burn,” which has many negative environmental implications, like deforestation. “Slash and char” sequesters large amounts of carbon in a stable form, unlike “slash and burn,” which releases the carbon into the atmosphere.

PHOTO: Biochar

Biochar photo by K.salo.85 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In the past decade, the use of biochar has been investigated for modern agricultural use; more recently in arboriculture, as well as general use in ornamental landscape plantings. The Morton Arboretum and Bartlett Tree Experts have conducted several recent research trials on biochar with very positive findings. One study found the root mass of test seedlings (honeylocust) grown with biochar was significantly more compared to their control group. Another study showed improvement in plant disease resistance when biochar was used. 

So what exactly is modern-day biochar?

Biochar is similar to charcoal, except it is formulated specifically for soil enhancement. It is basically organic matter (primarily wood chips) heated in the absence of oxygen, a process called “pyrolysis.” The resulting char is carbon rich and has many long-lasting virtues. Think of it in the simplest of terms as a “sponge”: it has great capacity for holding and releasing nutrients and water.

What are the benefits? 

  • Helps hold soil moisture, and release it in drought
  • Increases soil microbial activity
  • Holds and releases soil nutrients
  • Reduces leaching of nutrients and fertilizer
  • Studies have shown increased plant growth and rooting
  • Studies have shown less plant disease when it is used. (It is thought that the increased microbial activity stimulates specific microorganisms that play a key role in eliciting plant “systemic-induced resistance,” or SIR.)
  • Benefits of one application are long lasting, and it does not take a lot
  • Biochar is made from recycled materials, such as pines killed by bark beetles or trees damaged by fire

This year the Garden has begun to use biochar in some of our more troublesome areas. We don’t look at it as a “silver bullet,” but as another tool to combat problems caused by poor soils. This new tool is being trialed and then possibly integrated into our arsenal for best practice soil management.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Interested in a healthier, happier life? Try connecting with the natural world. A new, technologically advanced body of research shows that spending time in nature can provide protection against cancer, high blood pressure, depression, stress, and more.

Take a walk in nature to improve your mood and your health.

Take a walk in nature to improve your mood and your health.

Earlier this year, a National Geographic article noted that advances in neuroscience and psychology have provided scientists with more tools to look at the way nature affects our brains and bodies. According to the article, “These measurements—of everything from stress hormones to heart rate to brain waves to protein markers—indicate that when we spend time in green space, ‘there is something profound going on,’” said University of Utah cognitive psychologist David Strayer.

University of Illinois environment and behavior researcher Ming Kuo found that nature has the ability to enhance the functioning of the body’s immune system. “Nature doesn’t just have one or two active ingredients,” she told the university’s College News. “It’s more like a multivitamin that provides us with all sorts of the nutrients we need. That’s how nature can protect us from all these different kinds of diseases—cardiovascular, respiratory, mental health, musculoskeletal, etc.—simultaneously.”

Improve learning with time spent in the natural world.

Improve learning with time spent in the natural world.

Other studies show that nature is essential to the well-being of children. Children learn and focus better, and are healthier and more relaxed in green spaces, researchers say. In its national guidelines on encouraging nature play, the National Wildlife Federation says, “Nature play is defined as a learning process, engaging children in working together to develop physical skills, to exercise their imaginations, to stimulate poetic expression, to begin to understand the workings of the world around them.”

Come experience the Chicago Botanic Garden’s new Nature Play Garden, where visitors of all ages and abilities can roll down hills, splash in water, hide in logs, and more.

The Nature Play Garden is part of the new Regenstein Learning Campus. Come to the free Opening Celebration on September 10 and 11.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and