Summer won’t be over for a while in my book—not as long as there are dragonflies around. I think I’ve seen more dragonflies this year at the Chicago Botanic Garden than I have in the past ten years combined. The quick, strong fliers seem to be everywhere.
Some of the dragonflies migrate south toward the Gulf Coast through September and maybe beyond. With the help of citizen observers, scientists are studying the migration patterns of this fascinating insect, which has a near 360-degree field of vision that helps it avoid predators.
The most abundant dragonfly I’ve seen this year is the Eastern pondhawk, with blue dasher dragonflies coming in a close second. I’m also seeing quite a few damselflies, which are generally smaller and more thin-bodied than dragonflies and tend to hold their wings above their bodies. (See my blogpost Damselflies 101 for more information.)
Dragonflies and damselflies, both in the order Odonata, can spend several years as aquatic nymphs before they emerge into the beautiful winged insects we see on land, which is why you will often see them around water. They are fierce hunters in both stages. They don’t bite or sting humans, though.
Dragonflies can be found here from March through the first hard freeze in the fall. Right now, you might even be lucky to find yourself in the middle of a migrating swarm of green darners, black saddlebags, or wandering gliders as they head south. About 90 different odonates can be found in the Chicago area. Each one is a delight to behold.
Dragonflies are territorial and will often chase off other dragonflies, only to return to their favorite perch. A favorite place to find them at the Garden is around the waterlilies and lotus blossoms, but you can spot them throughout the 385-acre grounds. Drop by and keep an eye out for the dragonflies near the late-summer blooms.
Are your summer container gardens in need of a fall makeover? Good news! There are many fall-flavored plants that will provide you with texture, form, and long-lasting colors in both flowers and foliage.
I love the combination of purple or blue asters (Symphyotrichum) with ornamental kale as the colors play off each other nicely for a long-lasting fall container. Using other lesser-known plants, such as some of the fall-blooming Salvias or sage can add height and lend to very interesting combinations in your container gardens. Try using cold-hardy vegetables and adding herbs to create interest and texture to any combination. I like using Swiss chard, broccoli, Asian greens, parsley, and onions (Allium) for interesting and colorful effects.
Here are a few tips for planning your fall containers:
To achieve a fuller effect, use more plants than you would in the spring or summer. As the days begin to get shorter and the nights get cooler, plant growth is slowing down or ceasing. By planting a fuller container, you will see immediate results that can last for the remainder of the fall season.
Try to plant by early September to give your plants a chance to kick in with some growth before the cooler temperatures and shorter days slow things down. Remember, many plants available for fall container gardens can take temperatures in the 20s Fahrenheit without being damaged, while many plants actually begin to show better foliage colors with cooler temperatures. These include ornamental kale and cabbage, Heuchera, and many ornamental grasses as well.
Select plants that have a variety of tones that contrast and set off each other. Think about using colorful cultivars of Heuchera for their many foliage colors, and colorful grasses or grass-like plants, such as Pennisetum, Carex, Juncus, or the black foliage of Ophiopogon. See the list below of other fall plants to consider for your containers.
Remember, a pot of mums looks fresh for three to four weeks at most, and then the show is over. Showy foliage from grasses or kale and cabbage will carry the display much longer.
The fall foliage on evergreen succulents (Sempervivum ‘Hens and chicks’), and many of the stonecrop (Sedum) cultivars changes and develops more dramatic color once the temperatures stay cool.
If you must have flower power, consider long- and late-blooming Salvia, Cuphea, or fall pansies or violas.
When nighttime temperatures drop below freezing, have light blankets, large pots, or even an empty trash barrel handy to cover your container and protect the plantings from frost.
As November passes, the time will come to disassemble your planter. Carefully place your hardy plants in a nursery bed or empty space in your vegetable garden plot to hold them over until next spring, when you can plant them in a permanent home to enjoy for another season.
Here are a few fall plants and items that can be added to your fall container gardens:
Capsicum, ornamental peppers
Dianthus cultivars, ‘Sweet William’ and other Pinks
Brassica varieties, ornamental kale and cabbage
Pansies and violas
Perennials, trees, shrubs:
Chrysanthemum, hardy fall mums
Helianthus and Helianthoides, perennial sunflowers
Sedum and Sempervivum, and other succulents
Fall foliage color with trees and shrubs; maples, cornus, viburnum, spirea, and others
Pennisetum cultivars, including ornamental millet
Muhlenbergia, Muhly grass
Stipatenuissima, Mexican feather grass
Schizachyrium scoparium, little bluestem
Other fall items:
Gourds and squash
Fall decorative items; scarecrows, Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations
Did you know that pin oaks hold their anthocyanin-rich leaves through the fall? Or that the oldest oak at the Chicago Botanic Garden is a white oak that lives near the Lake Cook entrance? Download our infographic below to learn more about the popular and beautiful native oak trees we are celebrating this October and beyond.
Fall is the season to spend outdoor time with the family. With school occupying the weekdays and thoughts of the busy holidays ahead, every autumn weekend counts!
For some families, “Let’s go look at the leaves” works as an autumn weekend rallying cry year after year (Welcome back!). But other families need a little more than color for motivation. Here are our suggestions for some fun fall things to do together at the Chicago Botanic Garden—and what to say to get the kids interested:
“Let’s go meet the beekeepers.”
Harvest Weekend is September 19 to 20. The whole family can head out to the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden for a day full of fun and interesting topics: talk face-to-hood with the beekeepers; sample the apple expert’s varieties and discuss how to plant an apple tree in your yard; learn how to pickle, can, and preserve and how to keep growing veggies into winter; and join in on a honey tasting! There’s fun stuff for little kids, of course, and for foodies there’s a cookbook swap—bring a gently used cookbook and take a “new” one home!
Also that weekend: It’s the final Malott Japanese Garden Family Sunday of the season, a good day for exploring more about Japanese culture (creative kids will dig the gyotaku, or fish prints).
“Let’s go for a bike ride.”
Rent a bikeon site at the Garden or BYO (bike your own) here via the spiffy new Green Bay Trail linkup and North Branch Trail addition along Lake Cook Road. Park your bike at the Visitor Center or Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, and hike around to see the mums, the first fall color in the McDonald Woods, and the taller-than-your-head grasses in the Dixon Prairie.
Every weekend in September: free, fun activities for your toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary school kids! Bring them to Family Drop-ins under the arbor at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. Hands-on activities for fall include making pumpkin prints and playing sniff & guess!
“Let’s go see Gourd Mountain.”
Fall Bulb Festival is October 2 to 4. Everybody loves Gourd Mountain, the giant pile of picture-perfect gourds on the Esplanade (holiday photo, anyone?). It’s the centerpiece of Fall Bulb Festival, which combines the always-anticipated indoor Bulb Sale with an outdoor harvest marketplace. Sip a cider while you munch on cinnamon-roasted almonds, or enjoy a glass of wine or beer while you browse the booths. The straw-bale maze is a giggling playground for kids or all ages. Add live music, and brilliant fall color and enjoy the Garden in its full fall glory.
Also that weekend: Take advantage of the October 4 Farmers’ Market to buy freshly harvested fruits, vegetables, and fall crops, with an eye toward canning and preserving. (Did you get your recipes from Harvest Weekend’s cookbook swap?)
“Let’s go trick-or-treating.”
We have three weekends to show off your costumes at the Garden this year!
Come in costume to Trains, Tricks & Treats (October 17 to 18) and HallowFest (October 24 to 25), and bring the dog in costume, too, for Spooky Pooch (read more below)! The Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America hosts Trains, Tricks & Treats especially for toddlers and preschool train enthusiasts, with spooky-friendly decorations and the garden’s famous miniature landmarks decked out in Halloween style. We’ll be handing out small treats and treasures, too—and a Halloween plant to take home! (Admission applies.)
“Things” get a little creepier at HallowFest, as night falls at the Garden: start with scar-y face painting, then check out the bat cave, the haunted forest, the awesome carved pumpkin gallery, and the ghost train at the Model Railroad Garden. Then…dance party! Excellent family photos, right?
“Let’s dress the dog up!”
Spooky Pooch Parade is on Halloween this year—Saturday, October 31! If you haven’t been to Spooky Pooch Parade yet, you’re in for a “treat!” For two hours only (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.), the Garden throws open its doors to human’s best friends (on leashes) for a truly zany costume contest and pet parade, and one of the most fun and popular days of the year. The competition is stiff—last year’s overall winner was the entire cast of The Wizard of Oz!
Also that weekend: the Roadside Flower Sale is the best resource in town for the beautifully crafted dried flower arrangements, cornucopia, wreaths, bouquets and decorations you crave for the holidays. Dried flowers, grasses, and pods are collected all year long by a dedicated group of volunteers, who spend months designing and crafting the 300-plus items for sale; it’s been a Garden tradition since 1980.
If you carve a pumpkin for Halloween or make pumpkin pie from scratch, you’re going to have a lot of pumpkin seeds. You can put them to good use by turning them into “dice” and playing math games this fall.
First, you’ll need to remove, clean, and dry the seeds. After scooping the pulp from your pumpkin, place it in a bowl of water and gently rub the stringy pulp off the seeds. Rinse them in a colander and let them drain. Prepare a baking sheet with a layer of parchment paper. Do not add any oil. Spread seeds in a single layer on the paper. Bake in an oven preheated to 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 30-40 minutes to dry them. Store them in a plastic bag or airtight container.
The kind of dice you make will depend on the game you want to play, but for all games the basic idea is the same. Players will toss the seeds and the side that lands face up is the number they will work with. You’ll want to select seeds that are more flat than rounded. Remove any transparent skin that remains on the seeds, so it won’t dissolve in the marker ink and make a mess. Use a regular fine Sharpie or other permanent marker. I find that the extra fine markers tend to dry out while writing on the seed. You can use any color, but for some games the color matters. You’ll also want to establish a top and bottom of the seed. I write all the numbers with the point of the seed on the bottom so 6s and 9s don’t get confused.
Here are some games you can make:
Count the Dots
This works well for young children learning to count. Take six pumpkin seeds. On one side of each seed draw dots like those on a die. Leave the other side blank. To play, toss the seeds and let them land. Count all the dots facing up. The person with the most dots wins!
Add the Numbers
Older children who are learning to add can play with numbers instead of dots. You can vary this depending on the skills of the children. For early learners, make two each of 1, 2, and 3. For children practicing higher number adding, make a range from 1 to 9. To practice adding higher numbers, make a set with all 6s, 7s, 8s, and 9s. Those are scary numbers to add until you get the hang of it, which is the whole point of this game.
To play, toss the seeds, then move the blanks out of the way. Line up the numbers so they are easier to see and add up.
Addition and Subtraction
Working on subtraction? Write the number on one side of the seed in black and write the same number on the opposite side in a different color such as red. Now when you toss the seeds, add all the black numbers and subtract the red numbers. The result could be a negative number!
This game works with dots or numbers, but requires a set with writing on one side only. Players take turns predicting the outcome of the toss adding up to an odd or even number. The first player calls “odds” or “evens,” tosses, checks the results. S/he gets a point if s/he is right, a point goes to his or her opponent if s/he guessed wrong.
Numbers and Symbols
You can have more than numbers on your dice. Make a set of seeds that include numbers and function symbols: + , -, ×, and ÷. Each player should have her own identical set of seed dice. All players toss at the same time and the person who can make the number sequence with the highest answer wins. In this game, players are allowed to combine numbers to make a larger number. For example, a 1 and a 2 can become 21, as long as all the exposed numbers and symbols are used. The simplest rules for this game will be to take the order of operations from left to right, but players who want to stick to the “PEMDAS” order of operations (parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction), can certainly work that into the game.
To make the game more cooperative, play the same game above, only this time the two players try to make their two number statements equal each other, or get as close as possible. This is more difficult to accomplish. so it’s all right to be a little flexible with the rules, since the players are not competing and you won’t have to settle disputes.
Players can make up their own games. They can also work in more complicated operations like exponents, or they can arrange the placement seeds above and below a line to represent division (this may require paper and pencil). Chances are, if they have reached this level of sophistication with mathematical operations, they would prefer eating the seeds to playing with them, but it’s still a fun challenge.
Whatever their level, when players have exhausted their interest in the seeds, be sure to take a break and enjoy some pumpkin “pi.” Sorry, I had to include that, because let’s face it, if you’re playing math games for fun, you’re a person who appreciates this humor!