Archives For how-to

Handmade greeting cards make people feel loved. Here is a fun and festive way to show friends and relatives that you care about them. It’s a great project for kids who need something to do during Thanksgiving break. (It’s also a way to use up some of those 20-year-old spices that are languishing in your kitchen cabinet!)

PHOTO: Spice holiday cards.

Finished spicy holiday cards smell absolutely fantastic.


  • White glue in a squeeze bottle
  • Construction paper 
  • Dried herbs and spices, whole or ground 
  • Salt and water in a small dish, with a paint brush
  • Markers, crayons, or colored pencils

Work over a large paper towel or mat, because this project is messy!

Fold a piece of stiff paper (construction paper or card stock) in half. Draw a design with glue on the front of the card. Try to use glue sparingly, because the paper will warp if the glue is too thick or wet. Sprinkle the herbs or spices of your choice on the wet glue.

You can apply the spices by gently tapping them out of the jar onto the page, or take small pinches and apply them where you want them to go. If you want more control, fold a small piece of paper in half, put some spices in the crease, and gently tap the paper to slide the spices down the crease to apply them to your picture. 

It helps if you make the glue design for one spice at a time, and let each spice dry before putting a new one on. When each spice has dried, shake the card to remove excess, and apply glue for the next spice. This reduces blending.

PHOTO: Spice holiday card: snowman.

Cream of tartar dries white to make this snowman. Other dried spices were used for hat and arms, and whole cloves make the face and buttons.

PHOTO: Spice holiday card: wreath.

One of my daughters combined different herbs to make this wreath, and decorated it with dots of cinnamon, whole cloves, and a bay leaf and paprika bow.

Dried herbs are all slightly different shades of green. Tarragon leaves are a lighter green, and a little brighter than oregano. For yellow, try ground turmeric or curry. Paprika, cinnamon, chili powder, and crushed red pepper flakes deliver warm reds. Pink and green peppercorns make nice accents. Cream of tartar and alum powder dry white, but require special handling or they will flake off. Everything sticks better if you gently press the herbs into the glue.

You can also glue whole spices such as bay leaves, cloves, fennel seed, or pieces of cinnamon bark to the card. Keep in mind that whole spices will make the card bulkier and may make it difficult to fit the card into the envelope. 

PHOTO: Spice holiday card: birds.

Turmeric, paprika, and bay leaves were used to create this scene of birds perched on a branch.

PHOTO: Spice holiday card: snowflakes.

It’s too bad your screen is not “scratch and sniff,” because this card smells of cinnamon, cardamom, paprika, oregano, and tarragon.

Want to add some sparkle? Glue salt crystals in some areas or paint salt water on the paper with a fine paintbrush or cotton swab. Like glue, you’ll want to use a light touch so the paper does not become too wet and wrinkled.

My daughters are teenagers, so they made an effort to make a picture of something recognizable. If you have younger children, they will probably make a picture that resembles abstract art. It doesn’t matter, because it will still smell wonderful! What’s important is that they make it themselves and have fun doing it.

PHOTO: Spice holiday card: Christmas tree.

My daughter used tarragon for the tree, crushed red pepper for the trunk and garland, whole cloves for ornaments, and turmeric to make the star.

After the glue is completely dry, gently shake the card over a bowl one final time to remove the loose spices. When you are finished working on this project, you can place all of the leftover spices from your work area into a bowl and place them in a room to make the air fragrant. 

One final step: don’t forget to write your message on the inside! You might say something clever like, “Seasoning’s Greetings,” “Merry Christmas Thyme,” “Have a Scent-sational Hanukkah,” or “Wishing You a Spicy New Year.” Don’t forget to sign your name!

A card like this does not fit into an envelope easily and is best hand-delivered. If you must mail it, cover the front with a piece of paper to protect it. Carefully pack the card with a stiff piece of cardboard in a padded envelope to reduce bending and crushing while it’s in transit. If you are delivering a small bundle to the post office, ask them to hand-cancel your cards (they’ll appreciate the tip).

I hope your special creations brighten someone’s day and fill them with memories of good times with family and friends!

Want more fun, craft projects for kids over the holidays? Check out our blogs on making Fruit and Veggie Prints, Wearable Indian Corn necklaces, and Bottle Cap Bouquets.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

I am often asked, “What can kids do to help the Earth?”

There is a standard litany of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” suggestions that almost everyone can tell you: recycle your garbage, turn the lights off when you leave a room, turn the water off while brushing your teeth, and so forth. 

EarthWe’ve been saying these same things for decades. And while they’re great ideas, they’re things we should all be doing. It’s time to give kids a chance to do something bigger. During Climate Week this year, I am offering a different suggestion: Watch dandelions grow and participate in Project BudBurst.

PHOTO: Dandelions.

These happy dandelions could contribute valuable information to the science of climate change.

Project BudBurst is a citizen science program in which ordinary people (including kids 10 years old and up) contribute information about plant bloom times to a national database online. The extensive list of plants that kids can watch includes the common dandelion, which any 10-year-old can find and watch over time.

Why is this an important action project?

Scientists are monitoring plants as a way to detect and measure changes in the climate. Recording bloom times of dandelions and other plants over time across the country enables them to compare how plants are growing in different places at different times and in different years. These scientists can’t be everywhere watching every plant all the time, so your observations may be critical in helping them understand the effects of climate change on plants.

What to Do:

1. Open the Project Budburst website at and register as a member. It’s free and easy. Click around the website and read the information that interests you.

2. Go to the “Observing Plants” tab and print a Wildflower Regular Report form. Use this form to gather and record information about your dandelion. 

3. Find a dandelion in your neighborhood, preferably one growing in a protected area, not likely to be mowed down or treated with weed killers, because you will want to watch this plant all year. It’s also best if you can learn to recognize it without any flowers, and that you start with a plant that has not bloomed yet.

4. Fill in the Wildflower Regular Report with information about the dandelion and its habitat.

Common Plant Name: Common dandelion

Scientific Name: Taraxacum officinale

Site Name: Give the area a name like “Green Family Backyard” or “Smart Elementary School Playground”

Latitude and Longitude: Use a GPS device to find the exact location of your dandelion. (Smartphones have free apps that can do this. Ask an adult for help if you need it.) Record the letters, numbers, and symbols exactly as shown on the GPS device. This is important because it will enable the website database to put your plant on a national map.

Answer the questions about the area around your plant. If you don’t understand a question, ask an adult to help you.

PHOTO: This is a printout from the Project BudBurst Website, that asks about the location of the plant and provides places to record bloom times, as well as other comments.

The BudBurst Wildflower Regular Report is easy to use and will guide you through the process.

girl with data sheet

After you find a dandelion you want to watch, record information about the location of the plant.

5. Now you’re ready to watch your dandelion. Visit it every day that you can. On the right side of the form, record information as you observe it.

budburst notebook

  • In the “First Flower” box, write the date you see the very first, fully open yellow flower on your dandelion.
  • As the plant grows more flowers, record the date when it has three or more fully open flowers.
  • Where it says “First Ripe Fruit,” it means the first time a fluffy, white ball of seeds is open. Resist the temptation to pick it and blow it. Remember, you are doing science for the planet now!
  • For “Full Fruiting” record the date when there are three seedheads on this plant. It’s all right if the seeds have blown away. It may have new flowers at the same time.
  • In the space at the bottom, you can write comments about things you notice. For example, you may see an insect on the flower, or notice how many days the puffball of seeds lasts. This is optional.
  • Keep watching, and record the date that the plant looks like it is all finished for the year—no more flowers or puffballs, and the leaves look dead.
  • When your plant has completed its life cycle, or it is covered in snow, log onto the BudBurst website and follow directions to add your information to the database.

Other Plants to Watch

You don’t have to watch dandelions. You can watch any of the other plants on the list, such as sunflower (Helianthus annuus) or Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica). You can also watch a tree or grass—but you will need to use a different form to record the information. Apple (Malus pumila), red maple (Acer rubrum), and eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) trees are easy to identify and interesting to watch. If you are an over-achiever, you can observe the butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) bloom times and do citizen science research for monarchs at the same time! (The USDA Forest Service website provides information about that; click here for more information.) 

PHOTO: Two girls are looking closely at a milkweed plant that has about eight green seed pods.

These students are observing a milkweed that is in the “First Ripe Fruit” stage.

For the past two springs, educators at the Chicago Botanic Garden have taught the fifth graders at Highcrest Middle School in nearby Wilmette how to do Project BudBurst in their school’s Prairie Garden. The students are now watching spiderwort, red columbine, yellow coneflower, and other native plants grow at their school. Some of these prairie plants may be more difficult to identify, but they provide even more valuable information about climate.

So while you are spending less time in the shower and you’re riding your bike instead of asking mom for a ride to your friend’s house, go watch some plants and help save the planet even more!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Insta-improved Photos!

Robin C. —  June 29, 2015 — Leave a comment

Simplicity is critical in creating a striking Instagram photo. Here are some tips to help you reduce distractions and bring focus to your pictures.

Red White and Blue contestShow us your reds, whites, and blues on Instagram June 29 through July 7! Go outside and snap a pic of any red, white, or blue flower or plant for a chance to be featured on our feed and website. Tag @chicagobotanic in your post and use #CBGcontest15.

The most important thing to keep in mind when photographing for Instagram, is that your photo will be viewed at a relatively small scale. Your composition needs to grab the viewers’ attention as they scroll through their feed. Nature is full of beautiful detail, intricate patterns, and delicate textures. However, keep in mind that once a picture is posted, the subtlety and tiny details of the subject matter may be lost.

Consider placing subject matter that has very small details in a context. A close-up of these penstemon flowers alone makes for a very chaotic image, but when the surrounding landscape is included, the flowers form a shape that mirrors the line of trees above.

PHOTO: Closeup of Penstemon.

Penstemon blooms make a chaotic closeup.

PHOTO: Penstemon in the landscape.

Framing the shot gives these blooms context.

The opposite is also true. Removing context by getting closer to your subject usually simplifies your composition. In the case, of these penstemon flowers, most phones will not focus close enough to capture just one.

PHOTO: Roses in dappled sunlight.

Dappled sunlight draws attention away from these blooms.

PHOTO: Roses photographed in even shade.

Even shade brings out the color of the roses.

Avoid dappled sunlight to allow viewers to focus their attention on your subject matter. Try finding shade if you are photographing on a sunny day, or take pictures during the morning and evening when the light is softer.

Choose a point of view for your subject where light falls on the subject but not the background. This will emphasize the shape of your subject and increase contrast between it and the background. Keep your eye out for this lighting situation at the edge of large shadows cast by buildings where tall flowers pop out into the light.

PHOTO: Echinacea with path in background.

The background in soft focus detracts from our highlighted subject.

PHOTO: Echinacea isolated on dark background.

Isolating the bloom makes this echinacea the star of the photo.

These two photos are of the same flower but taken from different perspectives. You can see the edge of the shadow cast by a building in the first photo. The second photo was taken after stepping to the right and facing toward the building.

Instagram is a great place to get and share ideas; don’t hesitate to experiment and try new things.

Most importantly, have fun!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

World Bonsai Day

Chris Baker —  May 6, 2015 — Leave a comment

Join us for a new program at the Chicago Botanic Garden on Saturday, May 9: World Bonsai Day! 

Observed on the second Saturday in May, this day was established by the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) in 2010 to honor WBFF founder and bonsai master Saburo Kato’s contributions to the world of bonsai, and to bring all bonsai enthusiasts together for a day to promote bonsai and friendship throughout the world.

PHOTO: The late bonsai master Saburo Kato.

The late bonsai master Saburo Kato

The oldest son of bonsai master Tomekichi Kato, Saburo Kato followed in his father’s footsteps cultivating bonsai, and at his father’s death, became the third-generation owner of Mansei-en Bonsai Garden in Japan, one of the most famous bonsai nurseries in the world. As an author, teacher, and poet, Kato inspired countless people throughout the world to learn the art of bonsai cultivation. He believed so strongly that bonsai could bring peace throughout the world that he founded the WBFF.

In 2014, the following organizations celebrated World Bonsai Day: National Bonsai & Penjing Museum (at the United States National Arboretum), the North Carolina Arboretum, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, the Pacific Bonsai Museum, and Rosade Bonsai Studio.

PHOTO: Jack Sustic (left), curator, National Bonsai & Penjing Museum (at the United States National Arboretum), with a volunteer, World Bonsai Day 2014

Jack Sustic (left), curator, National Bonsai & Penjing Museum (at the United States National Arboretum), with a volunteer, World Bonsai Day 2014

PHOTO: Curator Chris Baker of the Chicago Botanic Garden trims a bonsai, under the watchful eyes of Jack Sustic (far left) and bonsai master Harry Hirao (seated).

Curator Chris Baker of the Chicago Botanic Garden trims a bonsai, under the watchful eyes of Jack Sustic (far left) and bonsai master Harry Hirao (seated).

Join me, curator Chris Baker, and some of our bonsai volunteers in the activities below on World Bonsai Day at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The stages of growing bonsai will be featured with specific examples. Explore the tools, pots, wire, etc., used to practice bonsai, and get information on upcoming bonsai classes.

Program Schedule:

  • 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.: Demonstration: Bonsai Tree Styling
    I will demonstrate how major tree shaping is done, with a tree being formed into a bonsai.
  • 1 p.m.: Spring Garden Walk: Bonsai Collection Highlights
    During the scheduled Spring Garden Walk, I’ll be showcasing selections from the Garden’s Bonsai Collection and pointing out special spring highlights. (Note: due to the recent warm weather, the Korean lilac, wisteria, crabapple, or azalea bonsai may be in bloom.)
  • 1 to 4 p.m.: Demonstration: Bonsai Landscape Planting
    I will demonstrate how I create a “landscape planting” with multiple bonsai on a rock slab.

Come back to the Garden May 16 – 17 for the Midwest Bonsai Society Spring Show & Sale.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Leave Room for Blooms

Five fresh ways to serve edible flowers

Karen Z. —  May 5, 2015 — Leave a comment

Have you eaten a flower today?

Americans are getting comfortable with the idea of edible flowers. But how—aside from sugar-candied flowers for bakers—do you use them?

We asked horticulturist Nancy Clifton, who brought five really fresh ideas to the table.

PHOTO: Today’s blue plate special: flavorful greens finished with blue flower petals.

Today’s blue plate special: flavorful greens finished with blue flower petals.

1. A modern salad: greens + color

Gone are the days of a plain side salad on a white plate: today, even a tiny saladette is vibrant with color and flavors. Start with a blue (or green) plate. Add a piquant mix of salad greens (and reds), including baby chards and chois, and leafy herbs like parsley and cilantro. Then finish with flower petals: snip blue bachelor button petals to highlight that plate, dot white sweet alyssum among the greens, and trade the traditional sprig of parsley for blooming sage and rosemary.

PHOTO: Nasturtium or chive flowers make a lovely pink vinegar. For a fruitier flavor, pour white vinegar over one cup of gently washed fresh raspberries.

Nasturtium or chive flowers make a lovely pink vinegar. For a fruitier flavor, pour white vinegar over one cup of gently washed fresh raspberries.

2. Flowers are the new dressing

You’ll need a dressing for that salad above: Nancy’s flower-based vinegar recipe couldn’t be easier:

  1. Wash one cup of nasturtium or chive flowers and let dry.
  2. Gently add flowers to a sterile quart jar. Pour in plain white or white wine vinegar to cover.
  3. Let steep for two weeks in a cool, dark spot.
  4. Strain vinegar into a fresh jar to use. Note how flowers have lost their color to the vinegar.

Such beautiful pink color! Sprinkle as is onto leafy greens, or mix with oil and season to taste.

PHOTO: Blue bachelor buttons, red cranberries, and white apples: a red/white/blue salad for the Fourth of July!

Blue bachelor buttons, red cranberries, and white apples: a red/white/blue salad for the Fourth of July!

3. Hello, Farro!

Also called wheatberry, farro makes a delicious base for a “superfood” salad chock full of fruits and nuts and topped with flowers. Nancy notes that all amounts can be adjusted to your preference.

To begin, cook one cup of farro according to directions (Nancy suggests substituting apple cider vinegar for part of the cooking liquid). While the farro is cooling (about 3 cups cooked), make the dressing:

  1. Toast ½ cup pecans in an oven or fry pan until fragrant. Set aside to cool, then chop.
  2. Sauté one small (or ½ large), chopped red or yellow onion in olive oil until translucent.
  3. Add one medium, unpeeled, chopped Granny Smith or gala apple to pan. Continue to sauté for 3 to 4 minutes.
  4. Remove from heat. Stir in fresh thyme (leaves of 2 sprigs) and ½ cup dried cranberries.
  5. Dress with a mix of 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar and 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, seasoned to taste.
  6. Combine farro with the sautéed mix.
  7. Snip bachelor button or calendula petals and sprinkle over the top.

PHOTO: Summer weddings, showers, and graduations call for a flower-spiked punch.

Summer weddings, showers, and graduations call for a flower-spiked punch.

PHOTO: Nancy likes the look of fresh ginger ale studded with a flower that floats.

Nancy likes the look of fresh ginger ale studded with a flower that floats.

4. Flower floats

In the 1950s and ’60s, no punch bowl was presented without an ice ring. Nancy charmingly updates the idea for a homemade lemonade or champagne brunch punch, using fresh flowers. Try pansies or violets, or a mix of flowers and fruits, such as calendula petals with strawberries or bachelor buttons with blueberries.

A crazy good ice tip: to make clear ice cubes (rather than cloudy) or ice rings, use distilled water or filtered bottled water—or boil and cool the water twice before adding to ice mold or trays.

  1. Line a bundt pan or jello mold ring with gently washed and dried pansies.
  2. Gently fill with water. The pansies will float to the top.
  3. Freeze.
  4. When ready to use, dip the mold into a larger bowl holding an inch or two of hot water, which will loosen the ice ring.
  5. Invert and set ice ring into punch bowl. (Right side up or upside down? Either works.) Pour in punch or beverage of choice.

Floral ice cubes are great for summer parties, too: adjust the above directions for your ice cube trays.

PHOTO: How do they taste? “Like mushrooms,” Nancy says. Dandelions are great as a conversation-sparking finger food!

How do they taste? “Like mushrooms,” Nancy says. Dandelions are great as a conversation-sparking finger food!

5. Deep-fried dandelions

We didn’t believe it, either, but Nancy’s how-to-fry-a-dandelion demo changed our minds forever about everyone’s formerly least-favorite flower.

  1. Pick freshly-bloomed dandelions (just the blossom, no stem) from a trusted, chemical-free site.
  2. Gently wash the blossoms. While moist, lightly flour each flower (shake with ½ cup seasoned flour in a zip-lock bag).
  3. Heat ¼-inch of olive oil in a small fry pan.
  4. Gently fry flowers, turning delicately, until golden brown.
  5. Drain on a paper towel. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Fry fresh sage leaves alongside dandelions, then crumble both on salads.

Next time you’re out at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, check out the spring edible flower bed in the Small Space area, where sweet alyssum, calendula, and dianthus are set off by towers of climbing peas for pea shoots—the new foodie rage!

Use common sense before eating flowers.

Know your flowers! Grow your own chemical-free flowers; don’t use unfamiliar flowers or those from non-organic sources. Our Plant Information staff has a good write-up about the difference between edible/inedible, plus a list of flower suggestions. More questions about what’s edible and what’s not? Call our Plant Information Service at (847) 835-0972.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and