Archives For winter

Let it Snow

The often overlooked benefits of snow

Mike Kwiatek —  February 20, 2014 — 1 Comment

If you’ve been around Chicago in the past month, you’ve probably noticed the sort of weather we’ve been having.

Snow covers the grass of the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden in 2013. This protected grass can expect good growth in spring.

Snow covers the grass of the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden in 2013. This protected grass can expect good growth in spring.

You may even be bitterly cursing the snow and hoping winter will end, cheering this week’s thaw and higher temperatures. What you might not know is that all this snow has a number of benefits that will help your garden and landscape later this spring.

PHOTO: Closeup of bright red, raisiny eastern wahoo berries.

The fruit of eastern wahoo (Euonymous atropurpureus) creates a striking contrast against the snow.

Snow is a great insulator!

As winter presses on, the ground freezes deeper and deeper. This prolonged cold soil can damage roots over time. Snow helps create a blanket that reduces freezing of the soil. Warmer soil keeps microbes more active, which helps break down any plant waste that is in the soil, releasing nutrients. As a result of this insulation, your plants will have a much better start in spring!

Snow brings an important nutrient into the soil: nitrogen.

There are not many ways for nitrogen to enter the soil. While planting legumes and adding fertilizer are the most common ways we add nitrogen to soil, the weather provides nitrogen as well! Nitrogen is abundant in the atmosphere and is most easily collected by falling snow. As the snow melts, it deposits the nitrogen into the ground. (Apple trees and other plants benefit greatly from nitrogen deposited by snow.) When the ground is soft, plowing the snow into the soil will give the greatest benefit. Snow is sometimes called the poor man’s fertilizer.

PHOTO: Bare, yellow willow branches against a blue sky.

The yellow whips of this willow make an excellent contrast to the snow in most landscapes.

Don’t forget, snow is water!

When snow melts, it provides moisture for evergreen trees and shrubs. This moisture helps keep these plants happy and healthy throughout the winter. You won’t see damage right away, but a few years of snow-free winters can cause health problems in your trees.

Last but not least, snow can be very attractive in a landscape.

Snow makes plants with ornamental fruit, flowers, and bark stand out in the winter landscape. Plants like holly, ornamental grasses, euonymus, crabapples, roses, birches, ghost bramble, striped maple, dogwoods, willows, hazels, winter hazels, and witch hazels are only a few of many very attractive plants for a winter landscape. Dogwoods and willow varieties often will have young growth that is orange, yellow, or red. These same colors appear in the fruit of euonymus, crabapples, roses, and holly. Look for varieties that will complement your landscape.

If you find that snow is weighing down branches in your landscape and disfiguring the appearance of your shrubs or young trees, brush off the snow regularly and prune in the spring to remove any dead or broken branches.

PHOTO: Boxwood and hemlock trees against a fence in winter.

Evergreen trees and shrubs like boxwoods and hemlock need water through the winter to stay healthy.

PHOTO: Boxwood in winter; its branches weighted down with snow.

Boxwoods are prone to damage from heavy snows. Minimize damage by removing snow as soon as possible from the branches.

When the snow melts, check your trees and shrubs for damage near the trunk of the plant. Rodents, particularly voles, take advantage of winter snow cover and feed more aggressively on tender bark of young trees. If your lawn has developed paths of dead grass from these garden pests, rake affected areas of the lawn, apply a light application of fertilizer and seed the affected areas if damage is severe.

While many of us are hoping for an end to this winter, this abundance of snow is promising us a great spring!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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

Winter photography

Carol Freeman —  February 26, 2013 — 3 Comments

Brrrr, it’s cold outside!

OK, it’s winter. It’s cold. No flowers are blooming. So…is it time to take a break from photography? Heck no! It’s time to get out the warm clothes and get shots that you can get ONLY in winter.

First let’s talk about gear. With nature photography, one spends a lot of time standing still, so you can’t depend on moving around to keep you warm. To get those rare, really special shots, you have to take a LOT of shots…and that takes time. So, it’s important to be comfortable for many hours in the cold.

Suited up and keeping warm for winter photography. © Leif Otto.

Suited up and keeping warm for winter photography. © Leif Otto.

Let’s start at the top and work our way down. Some of these are obvious, some are not, but I’m surprised at how often I see nature photographers who are so anxious to get out of the cold that they miss many good shots.

Head: I like to wear a hat and cover my ears. On a really cold day, I’ll put my hood up as well. A scarf around my neck really helps keep the draft out.

Body: I make sure to have several thin layers. Thin layers work better to keep me warm and also allow for easier movement than one thick, heavy coat. Typically I’ll wear a t-shirt or long underwear, a turtleneck shirt with elastic cuffs, a fleece pullover, a vest, and a windproof coat.

Legs: I wear thick running tights and winter pants. When it’s really cold, I’ll pull out the snow pants to wear over these, too.

Feet: I wear thick wool socks and winter boots. I make sure my boots are loose enough to allow circulation, but not so loose that walking becomes a chore.

And finally…hands: Sadly, this is where I often get cold first. I like to have gloves that allow for easy maneuverability and control of my camera settings, but that are still warm enough for comfort. I wear glove liners and medium-weight gloves with wind blocking. I also put chemical-based, shake-and-heat hand-warmers into my gloves. This works for me for about an hour in sub-20 degree weather, and longer at warmer temperatures. I’ve talked to some photographers who say they like the mittens that flip open. Sometimes I will choose to sacrifice dexterity for warmth and put on thicker gloves. On those days, I may opt to have my camera on autofocus instead of on manual focus, which I prefer. There are some choices and compromises that you will have to make for comfort.

Magical, ephemeral, frost formations, only seen on the perfect winter morning. © Carol Freeman.

Magical, ephemeral, frost formations, only seen on the perfect winter morning. © Carol Freeman.

One of the most important things you can do to keep warm is to be vigilant about having as little skin exposed as possible by closing all the gaps. Make sure your socks cover the gap to your pants, and that your coat sleeves cover your wrists. I have a coat that has adjustable wrist openings so I can cinch them tight to my gloves.

Lovely, otherworldly landscapes appear when bubbles are frozen in ice.© Carol Freeman.

Lovely, otherworldly landscapes appear when bubbles are frozen in ice.© Carol Freeman.

Now, you are suited up and ready to go. So, now what? One amazing thing to photograph is early-morning frost. When freezing nights are cloudless and wind-free, you can often find beautiful frost gracing trees and grass the next morning. These formations are magical, and are only around for a short time until the sun melts them. Also, when the streams or lakes freeze up, often you can find leaves and bubbles suspended in the ice, creating lovely frozen compositions.

An unusual irruption of this cute little red breasted nuthatch this winter at the Garden! © Carol Freeman.

An unusual irruption of this cute little red breasted nuthatch this winter at the Garden! © Carol Freeman.

Another treat is seeing the rare birds that come to the Garden only in winter. One fun winter visitor that has invaded the Garden this year is the cute, red-breasted nuthatch. They are bold little birds, and you can sometimes see them by the feeders in the Enabling Garden.

You can fight winter, or you can embrace the season, and photograph those rare moments only seen on the coldest of days…made all the more rewarding for the bit of extra effort it takes to get them.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Stories in the Snow

Kathy J. —  February 8, 2013 — Leave a comment

After the recent snowfall, I took my camera out for a walk to find evidence of wildlife around the Learning Campus. The first animal tracks I found were those of at least one coyote running across the snow.

The individual track was not a clear footprint, but it was the right general shape and size to be a coyote.

PHOTO: the single track of a coyote is seen in the snow.

The coyote track looks like that of a medium-sized dog, with padded feet making toe impressions in the snow.

The tracks formed a few paths across the campus.

PHOTO: two coyote trails are seen very clearly running through the snow, close to the treeline.

A coyote ran through the snow toward the right of the picture, then ran back and rejoined its original trail.

The tracks did not follow the paths that people walk, but tended to run closer to trees. This makes sense for an animal that is trying to stay hidden from other animals. I also found a spot where the coyote seemed to run up, do a little turnaround, and take off in another direction.

PHOTO: The tracks in the snow look like the coyote ran and make a circle in the snow.

The tracks look like a coyote circled around after running out of the woods.

This isn’t the clearest picture, but you can still see that the coyote came from the wooded area toward the front of the picture, then it turned around and sank its front paws in the snow where you see two clear side-by-side holes in the snow. It turned and ran to the right of the picture frame. You can imagine a spirted puppy running excitedly as it plays in the new snow, and leaving tracks like these.

I was hoping to find evidence of animals interacting. The closest thing I found was this set of rabbit tracks.

PHOTO: a set of rabbit tracks appears from behind the corner of the building, turns around and goes back in the direction it came from.

The rabbit who left these tracks decided to turn around and go back instead of coming around the corner of the building.

Here the rabbit hopped to the corner of the building, stopped, and then turned around and went back the way it came. Did it possilby see or smell the coyotes that were running around and decide to go back to hiding?

On my walk I found squirrel, bird, and mouse tracks. And then I found these strange marks in the snow.

PHOTO: a nice layer of snow on top of a hedge row has long parallel lines from students dragging their fingers along the hedge as they walked past.

Fingerprints in the snow?

What could these strange lines be? “It’s elementary, Mr. Watson!” These “fingerprints” were left by elementary school students as they dragged their hands along the snow at the Learning Center this morning.

If you want to find animal tracks in the snow and figure out what stories they tell, here are some tips:

  • Go out and look when the snow is fresh.
  • Think about which animals you have actually seen around, and where you have seen them. Look there.
  • Search around trees and shrubs, especially if there are places a small animal might crawl into for shelter.
  • Be alert for sources of food; the snackers and nappers may be out looking for a meal, and they will leave their marks.

Good luck, and remember not to eat yellow snow.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Willow Pruning in the Malott Japanese Garden

Walking on Water

Mike Kwiatek —  February 8, 2013 — 2 Comments

If you took advantage of the warm weather last Tuesday and decided to visit the Chicago Botanic Garden, you may have noticed something unusual, especially if you wandered over to the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden.

IMG_8860

The Zigzag Bridge was closed for public safety until we could finish pruning.

The sight of horticulturists walking on water was not a hallucination.
In spite of the 60-degree weather, the lake was still frozen and we took advantage of the situation to finish some winter pruning.

IMG_8868

The arborists, equipped with the proper safety equipment, are busy pruning the small willow branches.

 Though this willow pruning appears very intense, even harsh, it provides airflow into the tree and gives young branches more room to grow. Some of the large, more upright branches are left to provide height. From an aesthetic point of view, this pruning gives the tree significantly more texture, creating clumps that flow into thin weeping branches. As willows can become quite large, pruning also prevents the tree from becoming disproportionately so.

IMG_8845

Benjamin Carroll stands on the ice to prune and provide direction to the arborists.

For the past four years, Benjamin Carroll, the senior horticulturist who maintains the Japanese Garden, has been working with arborists from the area to shape up his trees to give them a more traditional appearance. This style first emerged in Japan.

Seba on the Kisokaido by Utagawa Hiroshige shows the style we are trying to emulate.

Before this style of pruning was implemented, the willows were pruned to appear mounded. For the first three years of this pruning style, many large branches were cut to drastically change the appearance of the trees. This past year we were able to focus on smaller branches.

A willow prior to pruning this year.

A willow looks different before it was pruned this year.

January is the best time for us to do this because the trees are dormant and the sheet of ice on the lake is fairly thick. Tree dormancy is very important when pruning because nutrient flow is minimal and the wounds made by winter pruning will heal quickly in the spring.

Cleanliness is very important to us, it looks good and reduces debris that could promote disease.

While the arborists cut branches with pole saws and chainsaws, I moved branches off the ice.

 The thickness of the ice is also helpful to us because it simplifies cleanup.

IMG_8858

After the branches are moved to shore, they’re loaded onto a club car and taken to the mulch pile.

Cleanliness is very important to us because it not only keeps the Garden looking its best but it also reduces debris that could cause disease problems in the future.

Though we look fairly confident walking on the ice, it is important to remember that ice is always dangerous. We always have seasoned professionals and the proper safety equipment nearby.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org