Archives For thanksgiving

On Sharing

Karen Z. —  November 28, 2013 — 4 Comments

Gardeners share.

They share seeds. They share plants. They share tips.

They share the knowledge accumulated during a lifetime of gardening.

And of course they share the harvest.

This fall I had the opportunity to share in a celebration of the harvest. I traveled to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s great Virginia estate (in the fine company of Chicago Botanic Garden horticulturists Lisa Hilgenberg and Nancy Clifton) for the annual Heritage Harvest Festival there. It was my first visit to the garden on the mountaintop, and in a whirlwind weekend of seminars, tours, and tastings, it changed the way that I think about growing food.

The vegetable garden at Monticello has a simple layout and a world-class view.

The vegetable garden at Monticello has a simple layout and a world-class view.

Architecture, history, and nature come together in a powerful narrative at Monticello, and the Harvest Festival brought the story of the place to life. But it was in the vegetable garden—carved into the side of the hill, with a simple layout and a world-class view—that I learned some important things about how Thomas Jefferson gardened.

#1: He shared seeds and plants.

In our still-young country, folks foraged for food—there weren’t a lot of native crops being grown. So Jefferson swapped seedlings with other farmers and gardeners. He asked embassies from around the world to send him seeds. He grew out plants and tested them to see what would grow on the mountain at Monticello. And he shared what he learned by keeping amazing records—check out his Garden Book at the Massachusetts Historical Society website.

#2: He experimented constantly.

Jefferson was our first “foodie,” who grew his own produce for the food that he wanted to eat and serve. He experimented with crops that sound unusual even today: he tried raising sesame for its oil (he liked the taste) and he grew artichokes, still rare in American gardens. He decided to grow hot-weather vegetables (tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers) at a time when cold-weather gardening (cabbages, onions, greens) prevailed. His experiments proved that it could be done…the practice caught on…and today we consider tomatoes a basic garden crop.

#3: He wasn’t afraid to fail.

One of Jefferson’s great desires was to grow grapes for wine. Although he later came to be called the “Father of American wines,” Jefferson failed many times with grapes. But he kept at it, took notes, tried again. And eventually he succeeded with 23 different grape varieties.

Same with fruit trees. Jefferson tried peach, apricot, pear, cherry, plum, nectarine, quince, and 18 varieties of apple trees at Monticello. Plus figs, which, it turned out, grow fabulously along a protected site in the orchard. (Best Monticello moment: the orchardist telling us all to pick a fresh fig and eat it on the spot.) Many trees succumbed to the weather or to lack of water, but Jefferson persevered. The orchards bear fruit to this day.

Grapes in the orchards at Monticello.

Grapes in the orchards at Monticello. Thank you, Lisa, for the photos.

As this harvest season comes to a close, and as we gather ‘round the table to celebrate, I am profoundly grateful for all that my garden and gardening friends have shared with me. I’m thinking differently about next year: I want to experiment with new crops…try growing a couple of fruit trees…order some really unusual seeds…and fail spectacularly at a thing or two. And, of course, share the harvest.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Cornucopia 101

Nancy Clifton —  November 25, 2013 — Leave a comment

It’s a big week for cooking, for getting out the china, crystal, and silver, and for setting a holiday-worthy table…but have you thought about a centerpiece yet?

A cornucopia, or horn of plenty, is a classically beautiful, easy, and crowd-pleasing way to pull together a centerpiece without a lot of fuss or expense. Last year I taught a fall cornucopia class, and last week I had the pleasure of appearing on WGN-TV with tips for making an edible fruit-and-vegetable cornucopia. This week, I thought I’d share a few tips that both cornucopias have in common.

Whether you’re using flowers or fruit or vegetables, the process of assembling a cornucopia is basically the same. Once your supplies are gathered, it should take less than an hour to put together.


Essential tools include pruners, floral foam, and a hot glue gun.

Essential tools include pruners, floral foam, and a hot-glue gun.

Gather the basic tools.

Horn-shaped cornucopia baskets are readily available at craft and hobby stores. In addition to a basket, you’ll need pruners, floral picks, a hot-glue gun, a small plastic liner tray that fits into the front of the basket, and a chunk of floral foam that fits into the tray. If you’re using fresh flowers, prepare the floral foam by soaking it in water.


Ingredients for a fall cornucopia include apples, leaves on branches, gourds, and fall flowers.

Ingredients for a fall cornucopia include apples, leaves on branches, gourds, and fall flowers.

Gather the bountiful ingredients.

No two cornucopias are the same; the ingredients will vary, of course, according to availability and personal taste.

For a fall cornucopia, your ingredient list might be: millet, wheat, gourds or mini-pumpkins, flowering kale, dried artichoke, green apples, stems of hypericum, a small bunch of long-stemmed mums, sunflowers with long stems, baby corn, dried yarrow, sweetgum leaves on a twig with seedpods, and a variety of nuts.

For an edible cornucopia, your ingredient list might be: an assortment of apples and nuts, Indian corn, pumpkins and squash in various shapes and sizes, and a bunch of fall flowers (widely available at grocery stores).


To begin, position the largest items by inserting floral picks into each and anchoring it in the foam.

To begin, position the largest items by inserting floral picks into each and anchoring them in the foam.

Assemble the base.

Set the floral foam (dry for fruits/vegetables, wet for fresh flowers) into the small tray and into the forward portion of the cornucopia basket. Anchor the foam on a prong if desired.

Starting with the largest material—pumpkins, gourds, large corncobs, and large sunflowers. Insert floral picks and position them in the foam. Heavy, rounded items should be at the bottom, toward the front.


Build up the layers with smaller items and flower clusters filling in the gaps.

Build up the layers, with smaller items and flower clusters filling in the gaps.

Layer in the smaller items.

Add picks to apples, dried artichokes, and small gourds. Layer them singly at angles to the heavy items. Try to cover the corners of the floral foam.

Next, layer in fresh or dried flowers, using them in small bunches rather than individual stems. Insert some leaning high and toward the back of the basket, and others leaning low and toward the front, creating extension and depth.


Notice how heavier items like pumpkins, cabbage, and apples are forward and low.

Notice how heavier items like pumpkins, cabbage, and apples are forward and low.

Fill in the gaps.

Add hypericum or mums in clusters to hide empty spots. Then add single flowers as needed to help pull all the elements together. A finished cornucopia has height, balance, and both forward and backward movement.

Finish with millet for “line,” plus foliage and nuts. (The glue gun comes in handy for attaching nuts to floral picks.) The overall effect should be one of spilling bounty.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The story has been passed down through generations of Native American cultures:

There are three sister spirits who dwell among the fields and protect the crops.

Sister Corn, with hair of gold, stands tall as the guardian of the crop.

Sister Bean feeds the shallow roots of Sister Corn (beans draw nitrogen from the air into the soil), then reaches for the sun as she twines in a spiral up her sister’s sturdy stalk.

Sister Squash, the eldest of the three, stays close to the Earth, encircling her sisters protectively with her large, prickly leaves that shade the soil and hold in moisture. Planted together on a mound of Mother Earth’s nurturing soil, the sisters receive water from Father Sky, who arches above them.

Close-up of green corn still on stalk.

Beans growing in a Three Sisters garden.

squash_DSC2600

The Iroquois called the Sisters “De-o-ha-ko,” which translates to “life support,” not only because the plants rely on each other as they grow, but also because, eaten together, they provide a healthy, life-sustaining diet for humans. Corn is rich in carbohydrates and amino acids, beans are rich in lysine (an amino acid that corn doesn’t supply), and squash seeds provide protein and vitamins essential for growth and development. “De-o-ha-ko” recognizes that humans are one and the same with the plants they eat.

Resolve to plant the Three Sisters in your vegetable garden in 2013…and Happy Thanksgiving!


©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org