Archives For EcoTips

These posts highlight what the Garden is doing to further its efforts to be ecologically sound and offer suggestions for what you can do at home to protect the environment as well.

It’s been a fairly cold and snowy winter in the Chicago area (though some of us longer-term residents might call it rather normal!). But the temperatures now are moderating, and signs of spring are popping up all over. The daffodils are quickly breaking the ground surface, and bits of green are reappearing at the crowns of our native plants.

After last summer’s record-breaking heat and drought, our first thoughts this spring may not be about rain or flooding. But heavy rains are sure to return at some point, and how we manage that water runoff can have a big impact on flooding, on groundwater levels, on water quality, and on the health and beauty of our garden landscapes.

A remarkably simple and effective approach to capture excess rain water is rapidly gaining popularity, especially in residential settings. Rain gardens are aptly named, nifty landscape features that capture rain water traveling across a lawn before it reaches a waterway or storm sewer, allowing much of that water to percolate down into the soil. Rain gardens truly are a win-win-win trifecta: 1) they help reduce flooding (and recharge ground water) by allowing more rainfall to soak into the ground; 2) they improve the quality of water reaching our streams and lakes by slowing the runoff and allowing soil particles and related contaminants to settle out; and 3) with a little thoughtful design, they become a spectacular native plant garden that’s rich in seasonal color and texture—as well as an important habitat for butterflies, dragonflies, and insects that songbirds love to eat.

Around homes and apartments, a rain garden often is situated downslope of a roof downspout so that it can capture the roof’s runoff water before it reaches the street or storm sewer. Think of a rain garden as a shallow “bowl” depression in the ground, with the downslope lip of the bowl just a bit higher than the surrounding land so that water is trapped behind it. A modestly sized rain garden often can be easily installed as a weekend project: a few shovels, a rototiller to loosen the soil, about 100 native plants, and some mulch are all that’s needed to create a 10-foot by 10-foot rain garden.

Rain Water Glen

Rainwater Glen at the Garden’s Plant Science Center

The Chicago Botanic Garden advocates the use of native plants in rain gardens including sedges, rushes, grasses, and various forbs (flowering species). Native plants recommended for rain gardens are particularly well-suited for both submerged conditions that occur right after it rains, as well as the dry conditions that develop between rainfall events. These native plants also help support our native populations of wildlife. Chicago Wilderness has great information about using native plants in the landscape. 

You can assure yourself (and your neighbors) that there’s no need to worry about your rain garden becoming a breeding site for mosquitos. When installed in soils that drain reasonably well, a rain garden’s standing water will disappear within a day or so (and that’s far shorter than the seven to 12 days needed for mosquitos to lay and hatch eggs).

There are many guides available on how to design, install, and maintain a rain garden, including quite a few on the Internet. One particularly well-written resource was prepared by experts in Wisconsin and is titled “Rain Gardens: A How-to Manual for Homeowners.”  This manual provides excellent information about how to site a rain garden in your yard, and suggests good native plants to use for both sun and shade conditions.

You can learn more about rain gardens at the Chicago Botanic Garden on Saturday, June 1, 2013, as we celebrate World Environment Day. A how-to rain garden station will be set up alongside the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society Rainwater Glen at the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center.

On a related note: Perhaps you’ve heard recently in the news about the dire situation for monarch butterflies this spring (for example, see this National Geographic bulletin). If you’ve thought in the past about planting milkweed to help the monarchs but still haven’t, 2013 could be an especially important year for you to add some to your garden. The native swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) can be a great rain garden plant!


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Updated: Snow Drought!

How to protect your trees and garden

Karen Z. —  January 14, 2013 — 3 Comments

There’s no doubt: it’s a snow drought, and records are falling like…well, like snowflakes should be falling.

  • Wednesday we broke the record number of days without a 1-inch snowfall (319).
  • Last weekend we broke the 1940 record of 313 straight days with less than 1 inch of snow on the ground.
  • Just 1.3 inches of snow (more near the lake) has fallen to date, compared to the norm of 11 inches.

It made us wonder: what does a snow drought mean for your garden?

To find out, we talked with Boyce Tankersley, our director of living plant documentation.

What Snow Drought Can Do to Your Garden

It’s easy to give snow drought the brush-off  (no shoveling! no scraping! no wet feet!), but it can damage your plants and affect the soil in your garden. The following can happen in a drought:

1. Moisture loss accelerates. “It’s the combination of no snow cover plus cold winter wind that does the damage,” Tankersley explains. “When there’s no snow, plants act like a wick in the soil, so the wind not only dries out the trees and shrubs, but also the soil they’re planted in.”  

2. Soil compacts. In a normal year, it rains in November, so the moist ground freezes as temperatures drop. Ice crystals form in the soil. As winter progresses, snow piles up, preventing wind from reaching the frozen moisture in the ground. With spring thaws, ground ice melts, creating air pockets and naturally looser soil. In short, Tankersley says, “winter is good for gardens.” Without that rain/freeze/thaw cycle, air spaces can’t form in the soil, so it collapses and compacts, requiring mechanical tilling to loosen it up again.

3. Plants get stressed beyond capacity. In 2012, plants endured an early spring with a late frost, followed by summer and fall drought, and now, snow drought. There’s a real risk of winterkill—the term used when plants succumb to winter conditions. “Check trees and shrubs for buds in early May,” Tankersley suggests, “especially non-natives like Magnolia soulangeana, which is particularly susceptible to winterkill.” Even well-established, old trees can succumb—forever changing yards and neighborhoods.

What You Can Do to Help Your Garden

On mild days when temperatures are above freezing, Tankersley’s strategies for home gardeners include the following:

mulched tree

1. Mulch. Like a thick blanket, mulch holds in moisture and creates a layer of insulation for soil. Tankersley’s choice in his own yard? Oak leaf mulch. Why? “The leaves decay slowly, so they release nutrients into the soil over time.” Other options: chopped up plant material from your yard (non-diseased, please), or scattered straw. 

2. Add native plants in spring. Natives are already naturally adapted to outside-of-the-bell-curve extremes, with some sporting roots 15 to 20 feet deep. Compare that to a typical landscape plant with roots just 6 inches deep.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Happy New Year, Everyone!

Karen Z. —  January 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

2013 Resolutions finished

 

Ecologically friendly gardening isn’t as tough a commitment as you might think. In fact, you won’t just be saving the planet, you’ll be saving time and money. Watch Eliza Fournier’s video for tips on how easy it can be or read on for the highlights.

  1. Repurpose packing materials by filling the bottoms of large pots with leftover styrofoam and packing peanuts. You’ll reduce the amount of potting soil needed, and make your pots lighter and easier to move around. 
  2. Replace chemical herbicides with a natural mix. Boil 1 gallon of white vinegar with 1 cup of table salt, then cool. Add 2 or 3 drops of liquid dish detergent and pour into a sprayer.
  3. Reuse! Instead of buying cheap tools every year, consider investing in quality tools and maintaining them properly. Your tool-sharpening kit should include WD-40, a rasp, coarse sandpaper, and a clamp.
  4. Recycle garden pots at garden centers or at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s World Environment Day on June 4, 2011.
  5. Reinvent your garden to include native plants and organic vegetables. Native plants attract pollinators to make your veggies more productive. Natives are also low-maintenance.

Visit www.chicagobotanic.org for more information.

Tell us what you do at home to save energy, reduce waste and chemicals and save the natural resources we need for our survival. We’ll post your comments here to give others ideas for what they can do at home for the environment. Then celebrate World Environment Day with us on June 5 for free demonstrations on a variety of topics as well as plant giveaways and plant pot recycling.