Archives For Visiting the Garden

The secret is out; visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden have unprecedented access to plant information, guides, and tours through a groundbreaking smartphone app, called GardenGuide, launched last year. Garden staff and volunteers used their skills and savvy to squeeze interactive maps, audio guides, points of interest, and botanic details on more than 10,000 plants into an application that sits in the palm of your hand. How did they do it, and what keeps the wheels turning?

Dorothy Peck, volunteer team leader at work.

Dorothy Peck, volunteer and team leader, at work

The ability to access this information in real time during a Garden visit is what makes the app so special, according to Boyce Tankersley, the Garden’s director of living plant documentation. He said that people “look down at the app, they see what they need to see, and then they are back to experiencing the Garden, just as we had hoped.” In addition, photos and plant information are frequently being added, so there is always something new to discover.  

Before new data and photos were added to the plant collections database, Tankersley and his team upgraded their long-time plant collection’s database to include 37 new information fields that would work well with the app, from soil type to bloom time to sun requirements. Many of the fields were added as check boxes, to make them easier to sort through with the app. It was then that he recruited another 80 volunteers to help gather and enter all of that new information.

As the project progressed, a new team of highly specialized volunteers came together to help build the data that is shared via the app. A group of 20 volunteer photographers captured digital images to accompany each species listed, under the direction of their team leader, Dorothy Peck. A group of 12 volunteers, led by team leader Glenn Kohlmeyer, scanned plant information slides researched by Richard Hawke, the Garden’s plant evaluation manager. Under Tankerley’s watchful eye, another 20 volunteers researched and input key facts about the plants. Perhaps furthest under the radar, was the smallest group of volunteers who handled the intricacies of GIS mapping with guidance from Veronica Harry-Jackson, a Garden GIS specialist. “We wouldn’t be able to pull off a project like this without a lot of dedicated staff and volunteers,” said Tankersley.

“It was a Garden-wide project which was fantastic,”
said Van Deraa

The process to create the app began more than two years ago, when project manager Cheri Van Deraa, the Garden’s director of online marketing, assembled a team including representatives from different areas within the Garden. She led the initial step of researching similar products on the market and incorporating possible features. The list began with the Garden’s plant collections, and grew from there. The planning team considered a growing list of needs that visitors have when they come to the Garden, and included functions to address them. “The visitor needs we documented over time are now being met in this app,” said Tankersley.

John Moore

John Moore, volunteer photographer

Veronica Harry Jackson

Veronica Harry-Jackson with GIS equipment

“We wouldn’t be able to pull off a project like this without a lot of dedicated volunteers.”

“The basis of the app was the plant collections database, but we realized that people like to find other things at the Garden, so we created a new second database for the app. It has points of interest at the Garden, like water fountains, classrooms, sculpture, the location of the Japanese Garden, and more,” said Van Deraa. Once the two databases were polished, they were worked into the architecture and mapping system for the app software.

The GIS, or interactive mapping function, was also a critical component. Both Tankersley and Van Deraa saw tremendous value in offering the ability for a user to go from their Garden location to their desired destination. “We have a large campus and much to see,” said Van Deraa, who uses the app herself. “I just get a thrill every time I want to find a plant,” she said. “There was an iris I wanted to see in the spring, I dialed it in, and I could just walk right up to it. That was so cool.”

Crested iris on the GardenGuide

For those who are not sure what to look for, there is a feature called What’s in Bloom Highlights. The feature highlights plants in bloom twice each week, with a map that shows the visitor how to walk to them.

Additional functions that were built in include audio tours, walking tours, and Van Deraa’s, favorite—maps leading to ‘secret spots’ such as the quiet bench atop the Waterfall Garden where birds visit early in the morning. “The GardenGuide app was designed to deepen the visitor experience with the Garden,” said Van Deraa. 

Gabriela Rocha and Sil Argentin

Gabriela Rocha and volunteer Sil Argentin

GardenGuide has been in use for nearly a year now, and updates are ongoing. In 2014, the app was awarded a Gold Trumpet by the Publicity Club of Chicago for distinguished achievement. Not resting on her laurels, though, Van Deraa has been focused on updating the software necessary to work with a new Android operating system, KitKat, which is now complete. The next version of the GardenGuide 2.0 is in the works.

Volunteers continue to take and add new photos, and research and input new pieces of information. “Because the Garden is constantly adding new plants to the collection, we are always adding new plants to the app,” said Tankersley. “In the long term, in effect this becomes a digital encyclopedia of plants.” Tankersley hopes to eventually add data on another 46,000 plants that have previously lived at the Garden and may one day return.

Users of the GardenGuide app can be assured that the information in the app has been updated with care by a remarkable team of volunteers and professionals working together.

It’s all there, in the palm of your hand, just waiting to be tapped.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (grant #MA-04-11-0101-11).


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Tree-O-Caching in Fall

Kathy J. —  October 24, 2013 — 1 Comment
PHOTO: Fall leaves in the Sensory Garden.

Fall leaves in the Sensory Garden

This is a treasure hunt to find trees.
Follow the clues to find them with ease.

Each clue has a hint to the tree’s location,
And a few facts for identification.

The numbers provided are GPS* clues,
Just in case our rhyming stumps you.

When you get to each tree you’re meant to find,
Read the message on the large brown sign.

*GPS coordinates give the general area and my not be exact. Use them to get in the vicinity, then look for a tree that fits the clues. (All trees can be found in adjacent gardens on the west side of the main island.) Don’t have a GPS device? You can use your iPhone or Android phone’s compass utility to follow the clues. Remember: leave any seeds you find for the critters that need food for winter!

 


PHOTO: This shows the end of a branch with green pointed leaves and black berries.

Tree #1

1.

Enter a Garden of native flowers and grasses;
Walk ’round the fence and try not to pass this.

It’s tall and stately, and rough is its bark;
Look up to see woody, small berries, which are dark.

If you go past the fliers, frozen midflight,
“backtrack” your footsteps to the tree that is “right.”

GPS: N 42˚08.899′, W 087˚47.510′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’54″  W 87˚ 47’31″


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Tree #2

2.

If these trees were shorter, this clue’d be a hard one.
Follow the path through the Landscape Garden.

An evergreen trio are loaded with seeds;
They form narrow cones—look up high to see.

You may cross a stream discover these gems, 
Enjoying the moisture, to the water they bend.

GPS: N 42˚08.879′, W087˚47.499′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’53″  W 87˚ 47’31″


PHOTO: close up of a yellow, star-shaped leaf

Tree #3

3.

For those who love fall color it’s plain to see,
Edna Kanaley Graham would have loved this next tree.

Come into the garden, where spring bulbs sleep.
Look right in the entrance and take a quick peep.

This tree’s fruits (now all fallen) are small prickly balls,
Star-shaped leaves are what’s left now—orange and yellow in fall.

GPS: N 42˚08.890′, W 087˚47.566′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’53″, W 087˚ 47’34″


PHOTO: This is a pair of leaves with some type of nuts.

Tree #4

4.

Near the Circle Garden and the whistling of trains,
A group of large trees makes nuts from sun, air, and rain.

Squirrels and critters think that these nuts are great;
It’s also a favorite of Ohio State!

Can’t find our trees on your wander? Look down:
This time of year, fruit and husks litter the ground.

GPS: N 42˚ 08.849′, W 087˚47.465′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’50″, W 087˚47’34″


PHOTO: Long seedpods hang between heart-shaped leaves

Tree #5

5.

From here, it’s off to the Enabling Garden you go;
Where a smattering of these trees you’ll find in a row.

This specimen grows very large heart-shaped leaves;
Long, narrow seed pods hang from its eaves.

Either side of the path they drip like fresh wax;
We hope from these clues you discover the facts.

GPS: N 42˚08.810′, W 087˚47.416′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’49″, W 087˚ 47’25″
 


Our ephemeral signs have now been removed from each site, but here are the answers:

  1. Hackberry (Celtis Occidentalis)
  2. Norway spruce (Picea abies ‘Acrocona’)
  3. Moraine sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Moraine’)
  4. Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)
  5. Northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Heritage Garden Viola Pyramids

A 500-hour behind-the-scenes look at our 2013 fall display

Tom Soulsby —  September 26, 2013 — 8 Comments

My summer intern, Melanie Jensen (now a senior studying horticulture at Southern Illinois University), has always wondered how botanic gardens put together their impressive seasonal displays. In fact, she was so intrigued by them that she did her final presentation—a graduation requirement for the Garden’s horticulture internship program—on the complexities and challenges of preparing these displays.

To say the work is complex and challenging is almost an understatement. Sometimes our work here seems like magic. Overnight, the Garden can transform from spring to summer or summer to fall. Yesterday there were spring troughs, summer palm trees, or fall mum towers in the Garden. Today, there is something completely different. Yes, it does seem like it happens just like that, perhaps with the snap of a finger. But behind the scenes, for months or even years before most visitors get to see a display, a team is already hard at work making it happen.

The Viola Pyramids are currently on display in the Heritage Garden

The Viola pyramids are currently on display in the Heritage Garden.

Melanie and more than 50 other staff and volunteers had a front row seat this summer to help me create this fall’s signature display in the Heritage Garden—the Viola pyramids, which are now on display. The pyramids themselves are really just a set of simple flowers presented in a very unique way. The story could end right there, but what I think makes this display fascinating to people like me and Melanie (and hopefully to you, too) is the astonishing amount of work it takes to get the pyramids from concept to finished product.

The Garden began working on this project more than a year ago, when outdoor floriculturist Tim Pollak and I were brainstorming on how we could use the pyramids in another display. Last used about five years ago, the pyramids have traditionally been used as a summer display component, planted with two cultivars of Alternanthera. Pressed to take a fresh approach to the pyramids, we settled on the idea that they would make a great fall display. We considered using mums (too fragile, and many growing challenges) and Verbena (not frost-tolerant enough for fall), and concluded that Viola were our best option. Others agreed.

Saying we are creating Viola pyramids is the easy part. Actually doing it is a completely different story, and it’s a testament to great project planning and teamwork at the Garden.

Here’s what it took:

1. Our production team grew 6,400 Viola plants, half orange and half purple, so they were ready for planting into the pyramid structure by early August. The pyramids are 9 feet wide at the base, and 10 feet tall at the apex. 

Panels lined with landscape fabric

Panels lined with landscape fabric

2. In the meantime, Melanie and I led the team to prepare the pyramid frames. Working in the nursery, our first step was to attach landscape fabric to the front face of the pyramids using hundreds of zip ties. Landscape fabric helps hold the soil and the plants in the frame. We had to be very careful that the fabric covered every nook and cranny of the frame. If not, soil would leak from the frame, and it would undermine the integrity of the entire planting space.

Filling the panels with custon blended planting media

Filling the panels with custom-blended planting media

3. Next we custom-blended special planting media, using lightweight potting soil and perlite. The pyramids retain water differently at their tops versus their bottoms, so we changed the composition of the media throughout the frame to accommodate this variance. Near the top of the pyramid we used a heavier, more water-retentive blend of about 70 percent soil and 30 percent perlite. At the bottom, where there is a risk that the pyramid could become waterlogged, we created a lightweight mix that was about 30 percent soil and 70 percent perlite. You can see in the picture how the soil/perlite composition changes from top to bottom.

panel with hose

Soaker hoses weave throughout the frame

4. Most of the time we will water the pyramids with a hose and water nozzle, but sometimes we need to give them a deeper soaking, especially on hot and sunny days. To help with that, we weaved soaker hoses throughout the frame so that we could water from the inside out.

Intern Melanie Jensen prepping the panels

Intern Melanie Jensen prepping the panels

5. To make the pyramids lighter (each individual panel weighs about 500 pounds—meaning each pyramid weighs 2,000 pounds), and to reduce the amount of soil and perlite needed, we stuffed sheets of foam insulation into the bottom of the frame. A mesh screen secured all of these materials inside the frame.

Deadheading the viola panels

Deadheading the Viola panels

6. Time to plant! We cut tiny holes into the landscape fabric and inserted a Viola plant. As we planted, we also pinched and deadheaded each and every Viola. During the critical first few weeks of growing in the pyramids, the Viola plants need to spend their energy developing roots and spreading foliage to cover the entire frame, rather than producing flowers. Removing all of the flowers is a hard thing to swallow, but it’s really for the best long-term interest of the display.

(Incidentally, the cut flowers were put to good use, donated to our Roadside Flower Sale team. Pressed flowers are sold at their annual sale, with proceeds supporting Garden initiatives, including generous funding for the horticulture department.)

PHOTO: Giant planted triangles of blooming violas in the nursery.

The Violas doing what they do best: blooming again

7. The original plan was to leave the Viola plants simply to grow as-is under the care of our great production team until they were display-ready in mid-September. However, Mother Nature had other plans. The weather caused the Viola to grow faster than expected, and by late August it became clear that we would need to do another round of deadheading. Staff and volunteers again converged in the nursery for two days of meticulous work removing every flower head and seedpod from the display. It was a lot of work, and a little disconcerting to again make a beautifully colorful pyramid all green and flowerless, but it was an important task so the Viola could flower prolifically later into the season.

PHOTO: A team of 12 people (and a forklift driver) place a panel in the Heritage Garden.

Lifting a panel into place in the Heritage Garden

8. Time to move to the Heritage Garden! It took 15 strong groundskeepers, some extra machinery and ropes, a lot of creative thinking, and 1½ days of hard work to move the pyramids from the Nursery to the Heritage Garden. Come by and take a look!

I often like to break down the numbers for a project, because it articulates the scope of work in a way that words cannot. So, here are some numbers for this project: Over one year of planning, more than 50 people involved, 6,400 plants used, and more than 500 hours of labor to get the job done. Yes, 500 hours!

It seems like a lot of work—and it is—but I hope that everyone who sees the display takes away something uniquely personal to them. Perhaps it sparks your creativity on how to use simple plants in unique ways. Maybe seeing something new and special triggers your passion for plants and horticulture, either as a hobby or as a career. Sometimes the display will draw your attention to a part of the Garden that you never explored before now. Or maybe you like it just because it looks pretty cool. It’s even O.K. if this display just isn’t your thing: artistic choices are very personal. Whatever your take-away is, however, my hope is that we can use this display and others like it to engage you in a conversation about plants and to help you connect to the Garden in an exciting new way. That makes 500 hours of work worth it for me.

Enjoy!


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Botanical Bill’s Big Adventure

It's a Groundhog Day Scavenger Hunt!

Karen Z. —  January 31, 2013 — 2 Comments

“Rise and shine, campers, and don’t forget your booties, ‘cuz it’s coooold out there today!”

If you love Groundhog Day the movie, or just the idea that there’s a Groundhog Day at all, then visit the Garden on Saturday as our own groundhog mascot, Botanical Bill, goes on an adventure. Download a PDF of the scavenger hunt here.

Bring your smartphone and hunt around the Regenstein Center for the answers to the questions below — get five of the ten correct and you’ve earned a cup of hot cocoa at the Garden Café, plus a d.i.y. photo op with Botanical Bill at the Visitor Center Information Desk where he’s hanging out all week! 

PHOTO: Botanical Bill at the entrance of the Woodcut exhibit.
1. An exhibition called Woodcut would sound good to a woodchuck — which, along with “whistle pig,” is another common name for a groundhog. Botanical Bill brought his name tag along on his adventure, which starts at the Woodcut exhibition. What material makes up the exhibit’s title?

 

PHOTO: Botanical Bill checks out the rings on a tree slice.
2. Groundhogs have good eyesight — their eyes are placed high up on their heads, the better to peek out of their burrows while staying mostly hidden. Nonetheless, Botanical Bill used the magnifying glass to get a good look at this tree’s cross section in Woodcut. What kind of tree was it?

 

PHOTO: Botanical Bill visits Paradise.
3. Groundhogs like to stay close to home—they rarely travel more than ½ mile from their burrow in their entire lives. Botanical Bill sure liked the look of this garden, though, from the In Search of Paradise exhibition in Krehbiel Gallery. Where would he have to travel to visit the real thing?

 

PHOTO: Botanical Bill catches up on his reading in the library.
4. Groundhogs are rarely seen at the Garden. Much like British royalty and nobility. What collection of books is Botanical Bill admiring in the Lenhardt Library? (Hint: the collection was put together for fans of a popular television show.)

 

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5. Groundhogs eat plants — lots of plants — including up to 1½ pounds per day in the summer. Botanical Bill isn’t so sure about these plants in the case in the Arid Greenhouse — they look like rocks! What kind of plants are they?

 

PHOTO: Botanical Bill hangs out with an armadillo in the greenhouse.
6. Groundhogs dig burrows that are 2 to 5 feet deep and extend up to 30 feet long! Foxes, snakes, raccoons, and rabbits often reuse old groundhog burrows. Botanical Bill met this fellow burrow maker in the Arid Greenhouse. What kind of topiary animal is it?

 

PHOTO: Botanical Bill gets a banana snack.
7. Groundhogs graze on grasses and clovers — but what they really love are vegetables and fruit growing in gardens! Botanical Bill gazes longingly at the just-out-of-reach bananas ripening in the Tropical Greenhouse. Walk down to the base of the banana plant — what name is on its plant label?

 

PHOTO: Botanical Bill enjoys some pitcher plants.
8. Groundhogs are “edge” creatures that like to live in brushy areas on the edges of forests, in farm fields, or even in landscaped neighborhoods. Botanical Bill is admiring the “meat-eating” plants like Venus fly-traps and sundews in the Semitropical Greenhouse. What plant is hanging in the basket above him?

 

PHOTO: Botanical Bill poses with The Sower.
9. Groundhogs like to sun themselves on rocks, along branches, or on stone walls. Botanical Bill found a sweet spot to catch some sun at The Sower. What year was it installed here? (Hint: Look down for the memorial plaque.)

 

PHOTO: Botanical Bill grabing a drink at the cafe.
10. Groundhogs aren’t big water drinkers — they get their water from rain and dew on the plants and fruit they eat, instead. While Botanical Bill’s relaxing with a mug of water in the Garden Café, answer this question: What was the name of Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day?

 

Now scamper over to the Visitor Center Information Desk with your answers. It’s Groundhog Day! Don’t forget to take your picture with Botanical Bill and post it on our Facebook Page!


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Winter sunrise across the Great Basin by digital photo contest entrant John Kerr. Enter your photo here.

Photo copyright ©2013 John D. Kerr