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My daughters love fresh grapefruit, and winter is the season when this fruit is at its best. Instead of throwing away the rind, we decided to make a bird feeder. This is a great winter project for the family.

PHOTO: The supplies needed for the project.

The grapefruit sections have been cut and eaten; the rind is ready to become our bird feeder.

To make a grapefruit bird feeder you will need:

  • Half a grapefruit rind (you can also use an orange)
  • Three pieces of yarn, each cut about 18 inches long
  • A knife, skewer, pointed scissors, or other sharp tool
  • Birdseed

First, eat the grapefruit and drain the remaining liquid. Then, use the skewer or knife to poke three holes in the grapefruit. They should be about half an inch from the top edge and spaced evenly around the circumference. (Some people do this with four strings, but I find that using three strings makes it easier to balance the fruit.)

Push a piece of yarn through each hole and tie it off.

PHOTO: Skewering the grapefruit rind.

Hold the grapefruit firmly with one hand while you poke the skewer through the rind. Be careful not to poke your finger!

PHOTO: Tying yarn to the grapefruit to hang it.

Pull 2-3 inches through the rind and tie the short end to the longer strand.

Hold the grapefruit up by all three strings and adjust the length of the strands so the fruit is not tipping. When it is balanced, knot the strings together about 4 or 5 inches from the top. (The ends will probably be uneven, and that is all right.) Make a loop knot with those top ends, so you will be able to hang it from a branch. 

PHOTO: The final product.

Our grapefruit bird feeder is balanced, full of seed, and ready to hang outside.

Finally, fill the fruit with birdseed and hang it outside for your feathered friends to enjoy. If you like, you can add a little suet, but you may find it doesn’t stick well to the wet fruit. Here in the Chicago area, you’ll probably find that most of your winter guests are black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos, common redpolls, and downy or hoary woodpeckers, who balance their primary diet of insects and grubs with bit of suet and sunflower seeds.

One more thing: Make sure it’s tied to the branch firmly so that your local (determined) squirrels — who will also find this bird feeder appealing — don’t knock it down.

Don’t worry if you don’t have any visitors the first few days after you’ve placed your feeder. It can take up to two weeks for birds to discover their new food source, but once they do, they tell all their friends in the neighborhood.

PHOTO: Grapefruit birdfeeder hung from a snow-covered fir.

The final product is ready for visitors.

What is birdseed?

You probably know that if you plant birdseed, you won’t grow a bird. And there is no such thing as a birdseed plant. So what plants make birdseed? What we call “birdseed” most commonly comes from two sources: millet, which is a grass, and sunflower. Other seeds used to feed birds include thistle, safflower, cracked corn, and sorghum seed, which is also called milo. Some birds have a preference for certain kinds of seeds, so bird lovers stock their feeders with seeds to attract their favorite birds and keep them visiting the feeder.

After you hang your bird feeder, take some of the seed and plant it to see what grows. Maybe you can grow your own food for the birds this year!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Meet Naranjilla

(Solanum quitoense)

Kathy J. —  July 23, 2013 — Leave a comment

We get a lot of questions about one particular plant in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden: Naranjilla (pronounced nahr-ahn-HEE-yah). It’s easy to see why.

PHOTO: The naranjilla plant has thick green leaves that are about 10-12 inches long, 8-10 inches wide, with deeply serrated edges. Leaves have dark purple hairs on the veins and petioles.

You can find this naranjilla (Solanum quitoense) in Bed #10 in the Growing Garden.

This attractive plant has large, thick, green leaves, is about 10–12 inches long and 8–10 inches wide, with deeply serrated edges, and is completely covered in tiny, purple hairs (which are not really hairs—in the botanical world they are called “tricomes”). It is native to Ecuador and other South American countries.

There is more to notice about this intriguing plant than its gorgeous coloring, interesting texture, and striking presence. First, the naranjillas in this small garden bed, number 10, were put there for a reason. All but one of the plants in this bed are in the nightshade family, Solanaceae. This family includes tomato, eggplant, potato, and petunia. Naranjilla is cousin to these more familiar plants.

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Upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see how these plants are related.

When you’re in the garden, take a look at the flowers on these plants. You will see the similarities that characterize plants in the nightshade family. Notice that they all have five petals that are fused so that they look like a funnel with five lobes. You’ll easily be able to pick out the one plant that does not belong in the family.

PHOTO: close-up of a bright pink petunia.

See how this ‘Pink Dreams Fuseable’ petunia (Petunia x hybrida ‘Pink Dreams Fuseable’) has five petals fused together, so it is like one continuous petal? You’ll find the same bloom design on tomato and other nightshade flowers.

The naranjilla won’t bloom until much later in the summer, and when it does you’ll recognize the similar flower shape. Naranjilla means “little orange” in Spanish, because the fruits are small, yellow, and spherical like little oranges. Unfortunately, our growing season in Chicago is not long enough for naranjilla plants to produce the sweet fruits, which are juiced for beverages in Ecuador.

Another interesting thing about the naranjilla—a detail that separates it from other members of the family—is that the leaves look soft and fuzzy, but they can grow sharp thorns along the veins. As you might expect, the thorns discourage large animals from eating the leaves. They are not as sharp and menacing as rose thorns, but you wouldn’t want to stroke a naranjilla leaf that bears thorns.

PHOTO: this close up of a naranjillo leaf shows sharp thorns sticking up from the veins of the leaf.

This naranjilla leaf, which is growing in a container on the Learning Center deck, is covered in thorns. There are no thorns on the plants in the Growing Garden. (The white things on this leaf are stamens fallen from the nearby “bunny tail” grass.)

Stop by the Growing Garden at the Learning Campus from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends this summer to see our naranjilla plants and enjoy free family drop-in activities.

Please note: the Growing Garden is closed on weekday mornings while Camp CBG is in session.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Growing a Bean in a Bag

Or, How to Train Your Plant Part 2 1/2

Kathy J. —  May 26, 2013 — Leave a comment

Garden blog followers may remember that in “How to Train Your Plant” I demonstrated a way to grow a bean seed in a plastic bag to test geotropism. I started working on that project around Thanksgiving week last year. At that time, I started a few bean bags just to see what would happen. I kept one seed growing in the bag all winter, adding water as needed.

PHOTO: A ziptop bag was used as a container to grow a bean plant. Roots, stem, leaves, and the remains of the original seed are visible.

The bean plant grew for five months, leaning toward the window in my office.

The plant produced a white flower about a month ago. I should have taken a picture. Now this week I discovered a seedpod growing where the flower had been! In the picture, you can see the wilted flower petals still hanging from the tip of the reddish colored pod. Botanically speaking, this is the fruit of the plant, even though you might not think of beans as fruit in your diet.

PHOTO: a red bean pod, about 2 and a half inches long is attached to the stem of the plant.

The red fruit was hidden under the leaves.

So if you try this activity, and you stick with it for six months, you, too, may be rewarded with a little treasure!


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Have you heard the sounds coming from nearby lakes, ponds, and puddles this month? The American toads are singing!

PHOTO: female toad looking directly at the camera

This female American toad may be listening for the enchanting song from a handsome male toad.

Every spring, the toads emerge from hibernation in wooded areas and hop to the nearest standing water to breed. The sound you hear comes from the males, who are singing to attract a mate. You’ll hear the sound of hundreds of toads at the Kleinman Family Cove for the next week or so, maybe longer.

The toads will pair up and lay a string of eggs in shallow water where it is warmest and rich in food for their offspring. After laying eggs, the adults will return to the woods or shady gardens to look for food, leaving their babies to fend for themselves.

PHOTO: the toad pair are together in the water with a string of black eggs she has laid around the algae.

The black lines of dots in the water are strings of eggs that were laid by the toad on the right.

The black embryo inside each egg will grow into tiny tadpoles and hatch in about a week. They will grow and develop into half-inch toadlets over the next few weeks. Then they will leave the water and join their parents in the shady gardens and woods. With any luck, some of them will survive the next two years, developing to full maturity, and return to the Cove to breed.

This is the only time of year to hear the toads singing, so visit the Cove this month. If you visit over the next four weeks, maybe you’ll see some little black tadpoles swimming in the water.

Please resist the urge to collect them to take home. You won’t be able to provide enough of the right kind of food for a growing tadpole or toadlet, and they will die. Watch them grow up successfully in their natural habitat at the Cove throughout the month of May and early June instead!


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Beets = Purple

A dozen all-natural Easter egg dyes

Karen Z. —  March 18, 2013 — 1 Comment

Go greener at the holidays this year! With Easter just a couple of weekends away, forgo the food coloring and kits, and go for naturally safe, naturally kid-friendly, and naturally beautiful “homemade” egg dyes instead. Dyes can be used on hardboiled or fancy blown out eggs. Most of what you need is probably already in your own kitchen and pantry.

PHOTO: The vegetables we use, and their accomanying egg colors.

What colors will you get? Beets = purple, yellow onions = yellow, red cabbage = pale blue.

PHOTO: the tools you'll need to create your own egg dyes

The tools you’ll need to create your own egg dyes.

Step 1: Gather your supplies.

Stainless steel utensils and glass containers won’t stain; always rinse utensils as you go from color to color, so there’s no contamination.

  • Pint and half-pint Ball jars or heat-safe glass bowls (the better to watch stuff happen!)
  • Non-reactive stainless steel or enamel saucepans
  • Strainer
  • Tongs

Step 2: Gather your ingredients.

Vegetables, fruits, and spices can all create lovely, earthy colors. Vegetables, fruits, and spices can all create lovely, earthy colors. We hardboiled large white eggs and used plain white vinegar, which helps to set the color. Here are the dozen dyes and “recipes” we tried, in order of color intensity (after about 20 minutes of steeping):

Chopped and simmered fresh carrot tops create a pale yellow dye.

Chopped and simmered fresh carrot tops create a pale yellow dye.



We used a straightened paperclip to poke holes in an egg for blowing.

We used a straightened paperclip to poke holes in an egg for blowing.



Rinse blown-out eggs thoroughly inside and out.

Rinse blown-out eggs thoroughly inside and out.

  • Beets = Purple. 1 large beet (cut into chunks) + 4 cups boiling water + 2 Tbs. vinegar. Cool and strain.
  • Yellow onions = Yellow-orange. Skins only of 6 medium yellow onions + 2 cups water; simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and add 2 tsp. vinegar.
  • Grape juice = Magenta. 1 cup all-natural grape juice + 1 Tb. Vinegar.
  • Coffee = Gold. ½ cup ground coffee + 2 cups boiling water. Steep, strain and add 1 Tb. vinegar.
  • Red onions = Blue. Skins only of 6 red onions + 2 cups water; simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and add 3 tsp. vinegar.
  • Green tea = Light green. 6 green tea bags + 1 cup boiling water. Steep 5 minutes and strain.
  • Red cabbage = Pale blue. ½ head red cabbage (cut into chunks) + 4 cups boiling water + 2 Tbs. vinegar. Cool and strain.
  • Turmeric = Yellow. 2 Tbs. turmeric + 1 cup boiling water + 2 tsp. vinegar.
  • Paprika = Orange. 2 Tbs. paprika + 1 cup boiling water + 2 tsp. vinegar.
  • Blueberries = Blue/Gray. 1 cup frozen blueberries + 1 cup water. Let stand ‘til room temperature and strain.
  • Carrot tops = Pale yellow. 2 cups chopped carrot greens + 1½ cups water; simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and add 2 tsp. vinegar.
  • Orange peels = Palest yellow. Peels of 6 oranges + 1 ½ cups water; simmer for 20 minutes. Strain and add 2 tsp. vinegar.

Step 3: Gather your family.

Kids love to color eggs. Guided by the recipes above, experiment with veggie/spice quantities and steep times. The longer you steep, the deeper the color—steeping eggs can even be left overnight in the refrigerator. Hardboil eggs or blow them out:

Beets, green tea bags, and orange peels all make gorgeous natural dyes.

Beets, green tea bags, and orange peels all make gorgeous natural dyes.

  • Use a heavy needle or bent paperclip to poke holes in each end of a fresh egg.
  • Wiggle the needle around inside to pierce the yoke.
  • Blow strongly through one hole, collecting the contents from the other in a small bowl.
  • Rinse eggs thoroughly inside and out.
  • Don’t waste your egg contents—scramble them or use in baking.

Kids with the urge to decorate can:

  • Wrap rubber bands around eggs before dyeing for striped designs.
  • Wrap onion skins around eggs and secure with rubber bands for marbled looks after coloring.
  • Write names, etc. in wax crayon on eggs before dyeing: magic!

Step 4: Embrace the imperfect!

Naturally dyed eggs sometimes splotch or dye unevenly—we had great success with beets and green tea, but our paprika-dyed egg looked marbled and our orange peel dye gave up just a tinge of color. Nonetheless, all look beautiful in an Easter basket!

The finished product: gorgeous colors, all "homemade."

The finished product: gorgeous colors, all “homemade.”

We loved the look of natural-colored, shredded kraft paper with white baskets. Tell us below: How did you display your naturally dyed eggs? 

Enjoy brunch and an Easter egg hunt at the Garden and spend the rest of the day viewing all that spring has to offer.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org