Raising a “green” family, one step at a time

Saving the planet can seem like a daunting task, and raising our children to join in the effort can feel overwhelming. Give children a focus. Rather than trying to solve all problems at once, families can do a world of good for the planet by concentrating on one thing at a time.

This summer, we suggest focusing on water. The availability of fresh, clean drinking water is a big problem in some places. In Chicago, we tend to forget this because we live near a plentiful supply—Lake Michigan. Just because we have this resource does not mean we can waste it!

Blue heron in flight
Blue heron in flight

Think of ways your family can reduce the amount of water you use: don’t run water while brushing teeth, put a timer in the bathroom to limit showers to five minutes, or let the grass go dormant and not water it during a dry spell. Make it a family project to find ways to conserve this precious resource. This is all about training yourselves to be aware of waste and think of new ways to conserve.

 You can engage your family in calculating the amount of water you conserve. Make a list of all the ways you are going to try to conserve water, and then keep track of how much water you save. For instance, if you use water only when you’re ready to rinse after brushing your teeth, credit yourselves with saving 15 cups of water each time anyone brushes teeth. At the end of the month, add up the total amount of water you saved and celebrate your achievement.

Will you see a significant difference or get any instant reward for your efforts? No, but you will develop a sensibility that translates to reducing waste in other parts of your life. If we all do this, the effect will be cumulative, but everyone has to contribute. This is how kids can play an essential part in making a difference.

Long-term learning is not a “lightbulb” moment.

Learning that you can make a difference may not be a “light-bulb-going-off” experience for most people, especially children. That may be why the idea that kids can make a difference might be considered a myth—but it’s only a myth to people who expect instant gratification and immediate rewards. More often, we discover our power to have a positive influence on the environment over a period of time.

PHOTO: Green Youth Farm participants.
Green Youth Farm participants.

One of our Chicago Botanic Garden programs, Green Youth Farm, teaches students to grow their own vegetables—another way a family could learn to make a difference. Growing your own food is not only healthy, it also cuts down on energy consumption and pollution caused by shipping produce from farm to market to home. Students in this program experience the satisfaction of seeing what happens when they work with the environment—the sun, soil, water, and air—to feed themselves and help their communities.

It takes months to plant and tend a garden before you get to taste the produce. Likewise, it takes time to see the benefits of positive changes we make and their results on the environment. We have seen children discover the impact they can have on their communities and homes most obviously in these kinds of programs. There is no instant payoff. Making change permanently takes patience, and commitment—and not just for one summer.

What can the Chicago Botanic Garden teach my children?

PHOTO: Nature Nights on the prairie
Learning about prairie ecosystems at the Garden.

We encourage children to discover wonderful things in nature. We help them understand why plants have flowers and how those flowers attract bees. We teach them what plants need to grow and how people need plants. Understanding these things helps children understand why we all need to take care of the environment, and how they are part of the environment, too. The wonderful feelings children get from experiencing gardens and nature help to instill a love of the natural world—an essential component of wanting to make a difference.

Join us for World Environment Day on June 1, a fun family event where kids and their parents can learn about water conservation and other critical environmental issues. Kids will get to help plant the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden and learn a little about growing a garden. They will also discover the myriad of creatures that live in a healthy lake, and they’ll be challenged to think about water conservation to protect these delicate habitats.

PHOTO: Camp CBG boys study lake water.
Studying lake ecosystems at Camp CBG.

Free drop-in programs are held every weekend at the Children’s Growing Garden and Kleinman Family Cove. Topics vary throughout the summer, but all will engage children with fun activities to learn more about plants and healthy ecosystems.

Summer camps offer week-long sessions for a variety of interests for children ages 2 to 15.

Nature Nights and Family Tent Campouts are a different way to experience the Garden. These programs introduce families to what happens at the Garden as the sun sets.

PHOTO: gathered around the fire pit
Nature Nights participants end the evening with s’mores.

Grow a “green” family in your home and at the Garden this summer.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Photographing Beautiful Butterflies

Butterflies are beautiful, magical, and mysterious creatures.

PHOTO: Sara Longwing
Sara Longwing
©Carol Freeman

They have to be one of nature’s greatest achievements. Their transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly is truly mind-boggling when you really think about it. Seeing one is a joy. Seeing hundreds at one time is truly amazing! I had the pleasure of photographing butterflies at Butterflies & Blooms last summer. I had a wonderful time, and was just thrilled with the variety of butterflies and the quality of the plantings.

When photographing butterflies, I like to look for fresh specimens on pretty perches in a well-lighted area. Even though there are a lot of butterflies there, finding one you like sitting still on an attractive surface might take some time. One approach is to find a flower that you like and position yourself ahead of time. First, set up your camera. Then, make sure there is nothing distracting in the background, and wait. Usually within just a few minutes, a butterfly or two will land in the area. Another option is to look for the kind of butterfly you like already perched on a flower or leaf. Most newly hatched butterflies will stay still on flowers or foliage while they dry, giving you an excellent opportunity to photograph them.

PHOTO: Paper Kite Butterfly
Rice Paper Butterfly
©Carol Freeman

Since this is an indoor exhibit, the structure of the building and the people walking around can often complicate shots. My favorite lenses for photographing butterflies in this situation are my 105mm and 200mm macro lenses. They allow me to be a comfortable distance away from the butterflies, get excellent details, and also keep the background soft.

As with all wildlife, I always focus on the eyes. It is human nature to look at the eyes first. If they are in focus, then the whole photograph will have a more satisfying feel. If you are photographing the side of a butterfly, get parallel to the wings to keep your plane of focus aligned with entire length of the butterfly. That way you can get more of the wing details in focus without having to increase your depth of field (aperture) which would mean a slower shutter speed and possibly a soft photo. While there is plenty of light, the screen mesh does cut down the available light, and shaded areas cut the light even further. It will take some experimenting to find settings that work for you when balancing your shutter speed, ISO, and aperture to get sharp, interesting photos.

PHOTO: Hecale Longwing
Hecale Longwing
©Carol Freeman

To keep from getting in the way of other guests, I leave the tripod at home and handhold my camera. This means that I search for butterflies on flowers in the sun, so that I have a fast enough shutter speed for sharp photos. My most successful images come from observing the butterflies for a while and seeing what flowers seem to be the ones that get a lot of attention. There always seem to be a few plants that have more activity than others. If I’m lucky, one or two of those plants will have some nice light on them. Then I wait, enjoying the butterflies that land on me instead, eventually being graced by a few that choose to stop by and allow me to photograph them.

PHOTO: Detail of Owl Butterfly
Owl Butterfly
©Carol Freeman
PHOTO: Friar Butterfly
Friar Butterfly
©Carol Freeman

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Home Stretch

Traveling along a quiet, dusty road in the western United States, Shannon Still, Ph.D., is on the lookout for an evasive plant. He hopes to find it before it disappears to another location, or just disappears altogether.

A postdoctoral research associate at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Dr. Still is investigating nearly 500 plant species living in parts of 11 western states from Washington and Montana south to Arizona and New Mexico.

Dr. Still identifies rare plants in California.
Dr. Still identifies rare plants in California.

“Between now and 2080, most of these species are predicted to lose suitable habitat,” said Still. By acting now, his hope is that he can help direct future research and conservation resources toward preserving species in greatest need.

Rolling in the Dust
On this trip, he was hunting for the federally endangered Siler pincushion cactus (Pediocactus sileri). Similar to most others on Still’s list, Siler pincushion is a rare species, meaning few plants exist, or those that do are loosely spread over a large area. 

Like most rare species, it is also very particular about its living conditions — surviving only where elements like the type of soil and pollinator match its preferences.

The Garden research vehicle awaits Dr. Still in Utah’s San Raphael Swell.
The Garden research vehicle awaits Dr. Still in Utah’s San Raphael Swell.

The cactus only grows on gypsum, an uncommon soil type. So, Still hopped into a Garden research vehicle and drove to where gypsum can be found, in the Arizona Strip — a range of desert located just north of the Grand Canyon in southern Utah.

He was glad to find populations of Siler pincushion continuing to exist where they had been previously documented.

But, he was elated to discover another 500 individuals, or an additional 5 percent of the total number of individual plants.

His excitement was short-lived. Back at the Garden, he compared the plants’ precise locations to expected habitat changes in those areas as a result of climate change — temperature increases, changes in rainfall, or other shifts.

Siler pincushion cactus is slightly larger than Dr. Still’s notebook, shown here in Arizona southeast of Colorado City.
Siler pincushion cactus is slightly larger than Dr. Still’s notebook, which is shown here in Arizona southeast of Colorado City.

Although Siler pincushion has a firm grip today, its future is on shaky ground.

Sadly, this is the case for many rare plants.

Where the Pollen Goes
If their current habitat changes as significantly as is predicted, these species could drop off the map. Unless, that is, with the help of pollinators they are able to move to new locations, which may become more livable as a result of climate change. If they do, he wants a forwarding address.

Joining Still in front of his computer, I was amazed to see the number of charts and graphs he had created for this purpose.

A plant scientist with computer-programming expertise, he has written code to build evaluation tools and populated them with data he collected in the field and elsewhere.

“We’re making models for the current predictions which helps us then look ahead decades to the 2020s, 2050s, and 2080s,” he said. “Instead of using several different programs, I can write everything through one interface.”

Unlike common plants, which are expected to migrate north as temperatures warm, Still has found that there is no such norm for his study plants. “What we’re seeing for the rare species is that there is no given direction. It is much more complicated,” he said.

One graph he showed me was covered with arrows of varying lengths and directions. There, he had plotted the anticipated direction and distance of movement of hundreds of species.

“I really enjoy working with people to solve problems and find different ways to do things,” said Still. Learn more about his work.

A Course for Expansion
A small number of rare plants are expected to remain in relatively unchanged habitat areas, he found. In fact, climate change may actually expand the number of places where they can thrive. The San Joaquin woollythread (Monolopia congdonii) is one of those. Still’s chart showed that this federally endangered herb is likely to grow in population by 20 percent and expand to new areas that will become more desirable.

Himalayan blue poppy is now grown and displayed in gardens across the country.
Himalayan blue poppy is now grown and displayed in gardens across the country.

Which Road to Travel?
This three-year research project is well on its way to mapping the species and habitat areas to receive extra attention in the near future.

However, it seems even more challenging to predict how far Still could go in coming years. His master’s thesis on the Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis) paved the way for the dazzling flower to be grown and displayed at public gardens around the United States.

This includes the Chicago Botanic Garden, where the poppies were recently displayed in the Greenhouses and the Regenstein Center.


Learn more about this story in the fall issue of the Garden’s member magazine, Keep Growing. Join the Garden now to receive your copy!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Growing a Bean in a Bag

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

Kids Get Crafty

My 3-year-old son and I have enjoyed many seasons of Little Diggers. We have learned new things together and have had a lot of fun with the projects—one of our favorite projects was with insects. We got up close and personal with ants, butterflies, grasshoppers, and ladybugs. The instructor set up habitats in mesh containers where we could look at each group of insects with magnifying glasses and two-way viewers—the same tools real scientists use every day.

A friend investigating grasshoppers.
A friend investigating grasshoppers.

After looking at all the insects up close, we talked about all the different body parts an insect has, and why that makes an insect an insect and not a spider or another bug (even though they have a lot of the same body parts). All insects have three body parts (head, thorax, and abdomen), six legs, antennae, eyes—and sometimes wings! We remembered what the body parts were and where they go by building our own model insect. It was really easy—a fun and funny way to teach our kids about the different parts.

You can build your own model insect at home, too. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • An egg carton—Cut into strips of three eggs-worth. You can get four insect bodies out of one egg carton, so you can explore and make more than one kind of insect.
  • Coffee filters—Cut these each into six pieces for wings. You can see how to cut them from the photo of our completed insect below.
  • Pipe cleaners—Cut these into 3-inch pieces for legs.
  • Craft supplies to decorate and color your insect—Use feathers, googly eyes, crayons, gems, and tacky glue. Insects come in all shapes and sizes from simple black ants to very colorful, shimmery beetles. Have fun creating!
PHOTO: egg carton, crayons, googly eyes, coffee filters, feathers, pipe cleaners and glue.
Use these materials to build your own insect.

As we built our insect and decided what it should look like, we talked about the different parts of our particular insect. We put antennae and one eye on the head, a feather and another eye on the thorax, and wings on the abdomen—and this was fine by me! While he was hesitant to put parts where they should go, he said “head,” “thorax,” and “abdomen” out loud as we built and talked about our insect. He was very proud of this final specimen.

Every class we go to uses different activities to explore a different theme. We’ve used play dough, enjoyed circle time with great books, gone on Garden walks, and let’s not forget our favorite activity, planting! (This time we planted some Mexican heather as part of the insect theme. Butterflies and bees love the nectar from the flowers of this plant.) 

PHOTO: a small boy potting up a plant.
A friend plants some Mexican heather to take home.
The finished egg carton insect.
Our finished project!

We can’t wait until the fall season of Little Diggers, but if you don’t want to wait, you can sign up for My First Camp for 3-year-olds, and enjoy more hands-on science, art, food, and gardening.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org