Archives For fall

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

Thursday, November 1, Garden education staff watched a large red-tailed hawk hunting small animals on the Learning Campus.

PHOTO: A red-tailed hawk is perched at the top of the young oak tree in teh Learning Campus Circle.

PHOTO: A large red-tailed hawk is perched on a pine tree branch scanning the landscape for prey.This is a perfect place for these raptors. They can soar over the open lawn searching for small mammals, and when they catch a vole, rabbit, or other creature, they can safely retreat to a high branch of a nearby trees to devour their prey.

We watched it catch two small animals – probably mice or voles – within about ten minutes. It ate one of these unfortunate animals while perched in the pine tree pictured at the left and the second in the oak limb, pictured below.

You may see more hawks now and through winter than you do in spring and summer. According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there is a population of red-tailed hawks that live in our area year-round, but in late fall other hawks from far north fly into the area and join them during the winter. We must have more of the animals they like to eat.

PHOTO: the red-tailed hawk is perched on a large oak tree limb after eating its second rodent.

Come to the Garden this month to see our fall gardens, but remember to look up in the sky, because it’s likely that you’ll also see a hawk!

 

PHOTO: Fall cabbageFall is a great time of year to challenge yourself to compose images that include complementary color relationships. Wet surfaces make colors more vibrant. Stone and masonry take on rich tones and show more color variation than when they are dry. This photo by volunteer Bill Bishoff was taken during a light rain. Notice how the bricks appear with a vibrant rosy surface that otherwise would appear pale.

This image also takes advantage of complementary colors to make the subject pop. Complementary colors appear opposite one another on the color wheel— blue/orange, red/green, and purple/yellow. Together, complementary colors appear brighter. In this image, Bill includes two complementary pairs—purple/yellow and red/green.

PHOTO: Photographer Bill Bishoff, keeping his camera dry.It is important to make sure you and your equipment are protected from the rain. You don’t need anything more complicated than a plastic bag and a handkerchief. Poke a hole in one end of the plastic bag for your lens, and peek in the other side when you are ready to take a picture. The handkerchief helps to dry off any raindrops that fall on your lens. If you use a UV filter on the end of your lens, you can safely wipe it dry it without worry of scratching the lens. If any damage occurs, you need only replace the filter, not the lens. 

Keeping yourself dry is also a good idea. If you are caught without an umbrella, there are plenty of dry vantage points around the Garden. You could appreciate the vistas from the comfort of McGinley Pavilion, or enjoy the solitude of McDonald Woods from the woods shelter.

During fall, sunny days can become scarce, but an overcast or rainy day can also be a great photo opportunity.

Join us on the first Saturday of every month for a photo walk in the Garden. We’ll cover a different subject each month and take some photos together.

 

Enchanted Kale Forest

Kathy J. —  October 4, 2012 — 1 Comment

PHOTO: a variety of kale plants are growing in the raised beds of the Children's Growing Garden.

We’re all adjusting to the recent drop in temperature, but some plants actually thrive in cooler weather. Check out the redbor kale in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden. Forget bonsai, these kale varieties look like a miniature forest. Notice the branching leaf shapes are very similar to the trees in the background.

If you look at the kale from just the right angle, it appears to be part of woods that surround the garden.

PHOTO: The branching pattern of the kale leaves resemble miniature trees.See what I mean?

Kale is a member of a plant group called Brassica, which also includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and mustard. These plants grow well in the cooler months, and so they make excellent spring and fall crops. Since they come in a rich range of colors (dark greens to dusty teals to deep purples), and have an attractive variety of leaves (from smooth to lacy to ruffled), they are a favorite for fall garden displays.

Come to the Garden this month and take your picture near our enchanted kale forest!

Visit chicagobotanic.org/learningcampus/growinggarden for more information on the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden.

An Autumn Surprise

Karen Z. —  October 1, 2012 — Leave a comment
colchicum

Crocus in autumn? No, it’s colchicum, a fall-flowering corm that holds quite a few surprises.

Every garden should hold a few surprises.

In fall, the Landscape Gardens deliver a good one: bright lavender patches of Colchicum, commonly known as autumn crocus or, less commonly, meadow saffron. Popping up suddenly through the groundcover, the flowers can stop visitors—and bloggers—in their tracks. With the current streak of balmy weather, the colchicum seem to be lasting even longer this year, begging a deeper look into the surprises that this bulb (actually a corm) holds up its leaves.

Surprise #1: It’s not a crocus.

Short, goblet-shaped flowers and spring-like color cause the confusion between colchicum and crocus, but there’s an easy way to tell them apart: count the long stamens in the center of the flower. Six stamens? It’s a colchicum. Only three? It’s a crocus. Colchicum’s flowers are much larger, too, and its leaves are long and strappy, rather than short and grassy.

Surprise #2: Spring leaves, fall flowers.

Expectations run high in spring, as colchicum’s wide leaves emerge, flowerless, to do their work, pulling sunlight’s energy into the corm underground. Then the leaves retreat for the summer. Time passes…and then the surprise comes, as clumps of flowers, leafless, emerge from the same spot in fall, a pleasing reminder that gardening is powered by patience.

Surprise #3: It’s not the source of saffron.

Although colchicum’s common name is “meadow saffron,” it doesn’t produce the flavorful red stamens of kitchen/culinary fame—that distinction belongs to Crocus sativus, a true crocus that also blooms in fall (along with its leaves—you can see why it gets so confusing). Unlike that crocus, colchicum has less showy stamens that cannot be eaten because…

Surprise #4: It’s poisonous.

The whole plant is: flowers, leaves, stamens, everything. Site it accordingly in your yard.

This weekend, three beautiful colchicum varieties will be sold at the Fall Bulb Festival—‘Lilac Wonder,’ which you can see in the Home Landscape Garden now; ‘Waterlily,’ a well-named, ruffled variety; and ‘Album,’ the classic white colchicum. Like most bulbs, colchicum corms are planted in late fall so they can settle in before next year’s bloom.

In the meantime, we wonder: what surprises does your garden hold?