Earlier this summer I stood on the rooftop of the McCormick Place convention center along Chicago’s lakefront and looked around. In front of me were vast rectangular trays of a monoculture of low yellow sedum and bare soil.
What I saw in my mind’s eye was bed after garden bed bursting with kale, collards, carrots, radishes, lettuces, peppers, beans, beets, tomatoes, and herbs. For in that space, as part of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s ongoing mission to promote sustainable gardening and to train Chicago residents for jobs in urban agriculture and green industries, we had just launched the largest farm-to-fork rooftop garden in the Midwest.
In partnership with SAVOR…Chicago, the food service provider for McCormick Place, the Garden has created a 20,000-square-foot rooftop enterprise that will likely yield about 4,000 pounds of produce this year—its first—and double or triple that amount in subsequent years. Already, we are well on our way to that first half-season harvest.
Within this enormous rooftop garden we will expand our urban agriculture capabilities, create more hands-on training and job opportunities for our Windy City Harvest participants, and serve as a local source of fresh produce to this major international convention center. Later this summer, we expect the first of what will be many harvests in years to come—and many lives changed for the better.
The McCormick Place rooftop garden was designed and planted by Angela Mason, the Garden’s director of urban agriculture, and staff from our Windy City Harvest program, which offers the state’s first accredited urban agriculture certificate.
Over the past five years, Windy City Harvest has planted and maintained five acres of vegetable gardens at six Chicago locations. This newest rooftop garden, like the other sites, will become one of the program’s living laboratories, offering hands-on experience to Windy City Harvest students.
As I lingered on the rooftop that day, contemplating the garden-to-be in front of me amid the magnificent expanse of Chicago, I felt acutely my place as one of many people, within the Garden and well beyond, committed to the idea of making the world a better place, one step—or one garden bed—at a time.
When you walk through natural wooded areas like McDonald Woods, you may find this plant:
Its scientific name is Impatiens capensis, and jewelweed has some interesting features that make it worth getting to know. Its common names, jewelweed and touch-me-not probably come from the characteristics of the flowers and seeds. The bright orange blossoms have a jewel-like quality and stand out against the green foliage.
You might expect a plant called “touch-me-not” to be toxic or irritating to the skin. This is not the case. The name comes from a little seedpod surprise. When they are ripe, a slight disturbance will cause them to pop open and squirt their seeds out.
We have to assume that someone called it “touch-me-not” after touching a seedpod and having the seeds shoot at him. Maybe it seemed as if the plant was reacting negatively to his touch. Rather than a defense mechanism, shooting seeds is an effective dispersal strategy, as it sends the seeds away from the mother plant where they might have a better chance to sprout and grow.
Finding jewelweed in the forest right now may be a little tricky because there aren’t many flowers remaining. Get to know the leaves—they are oval-shaped with a gently pointed tip, and have slightly toothed edges. The stem is thick and a translucent light green.
Jewelweed has some other interesting qualities. Native Americans squeezed the juice from the stem of jewelweed and applied it to poison ivy rashes and other skin ailments for a very soothing treatment. It is ironic that “touch-me-not” is a cure for “leaves of three—let it be,” don’t you think?
Folklore tells us that wherever you find a toxic plant, you will find its remedy growing nearby. It’s a nice idea, but it may not be true. That said, you will probably find poison ivy growing near jewelweed, so use caution and be careful not to touch when you are searching for this plant.
At the Chicago Botanic Garden, variety is truly the name of the game. After all, the Garden is home to more than 2.6 million plants—both native and exotic—with 26 gardens and four different types of natural areas. But plants aren’t the only aspect of the Garden both numerous and varied: so too are the Garden interns, the young, intelligent, hardworking, and hilarious behind-the-sceners whose hard work is essential to keeping the Garden the world-class, varied, and vast living museum that it is today.
But who, exactly, are these young people who have forgone relaxing, carefree summer days to toil in the soil? Sitting in a room with five of the interns quickly reveals a surprisingly wide variety of interests and personalities. To intern at the Garden, apparently, one does not necessarily have to be a Birkenstock-wearing, granola-chomping nouveau-hippie (though full disclosure: I did not look at their feet nor peer into their breakfast bowls). Instead, each one of these interns is approaching the work from a different place, with different backgrounds, fields of interest, and long-term goals.
For example, there’s Patrick Hogan. Patrick is from Wheeling, Illinois, and is a graduate of SIU in Carbondale. At school he studied landscape design but his real interest, he says, lies in plant propagation, pollination, and crossbreeding. At the Garden, Patrick interns in the production department, which involves all three tasks. “My goal,” he said with a grin, “is to one day have a plant named after me.” Patrick also seems to have an interest in human propagation—his first son was born nine months ago, and he says he looks forward to expanding his family in the future.
Also interning in the production department is recent Colorado College graduate Johanna Hutchins. In school, Johanna studied biology with a focus on plant ecology, and says that her interest in plants has been lifelong. She explained, “Plants are so complex. The way they respond to things, the way they’ve evolved…they’re really fascinating.”
The display garden interns are also a diverse, dynamic bunch. Take Mei-Ling Schmid, for instance. Originally from Thailand, Mei-Ling studies landscape management at Brigham-Young University and sought summer work at the Garden to “see how a larger botanical garden is managed.” Her work at the Garden is all about aesthetic: “You want the Garden to feel a certain way,” she says. “You want to create a mood. It’s about color, combination, composition…like art.” Yet, Mei-Ling attests that she’s learned most about the importance of effectively managing other people. “I see that you have to be smart about how you manage people and time to get things done. People think our work is just about plants, but nothing could be achieved if we weren’t able to work together.”
Iowa State University student Kyle McGreevy also interns in landscape design at the Garden. Kyle originally studied landscape architecture, but switched to landscape design after deciding he wanted to better incorporate his interest in horticulture. Kyle explains that in landscape design, you think about things that require deep knowledge of plant biology, such as placement. He has learned “what types of plants grow best together and which locations work best for them.” Kyle says the best parts of his work here at the Garden are “learning how plants have personality and tie into each other, discovering the character of each garden, and seeing how people interact [with the gardens].”
Mel Jensen, an SIU student majoring in landscape horticulture, would agree. Interning under the expert tutorage of horticulturist Tom Soulsby in the Rose and Heritage Gardens, Mel creates planting designs and then does the planting, along with mulching, weeding, and almost every other aspect of the gardens’ maintenance. Mel says that the Heritage Garden is her favorite to work in because of its variety and the unique methods used to organize the plants. “We’ve planted in evolutionary order, from least to most complex,” she explains. “They’re grouped by region and plant family and are constantly being switched out to make room for new displays. We can do an entire seasonal turnaround in a matter of a few weeks.”
These young people are exploring interests in horticulture, landscape design, production, and just about every aspect of Garden culture and strategy—literally—from the ground up. For the college-age and recent grads interested in biology, or design, or anything in between, an internship at the Chicago Botanic Garden can be an informative, productive, hands-on, and (most importantly) enjoyable way to spend a summer among the plants, and among the plant-minded.
An aside: not all of the internship opportunities at the Garden require hours of hard outdoor labor. Mine, for instance, requires hours of hard indoor labor. I’m only partially joking—I am consistently being challenged. As an intern in the PR department, I’ve been tasked with a little bit of everything the PR team does, from writing press releases and sending media alerts to producing blog posts and videos. Of course, to do all that I’ve had to learn quite a bit about horticulture and the immense amount of behind-the-scenes work necessary to create and run the many community projects, classes, events, and gardens here. So, if you’re interested in nonprofit work or improving your communications know-how but haven’t got a green thumb, don’t rule the Garden out yet. There is a lot of interesting, engaging work to be done here from behind a desk, too.
Everyone one must eat. This basic need creates both common ground and opportunity for Myrna Vazquez and Sophie Krause, Chicago Botanic Garden interns bringing vegetables to market as they prepare for careers in environmental education.
“Food is more than a daily life necessity, it is a link to our cultures, economies, industries, and environments,” said Krause, who recently graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz. “Because of this, I see food as a powerful tool for fostering a more environmentally literate society.”
The Garden’s Windy City Harvest urban agriculture certificate program, an accredited nine-month course offered in partnership with the Richard J. Daley College, is providing Krause and Vazquez a practical, hands-on education in sustainable urban agriculture. Six months of study at the college’s Arturo Velasquez Institute taught the two women such farming techniques as soil testing, prepping raised beds, seeding, and planting. Their knowledge is growing through a three-month internship in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.
“I’m learning to grow beautiful, functional, and educational gardens,” said Vazquez, who worked in an after-school drug-prevention program before enrolling in the certificate program as part of a midlife career change. Vazquez says she’s absorbing all the Garden has to offer, including beekeeping, natural pest control and native plant gardening.
The women gain market-management skills when they sell the produce at the Garden’s bimonthly Farmers’ Markets, offered the first and third Sundays of the month through October 30. “Nothing feels better than working hard to harvest for market, where I get to see the whole system come full circle—from planting a seed to feeding a customer and to helping the Windy City Harvest program grow,” Krause said. “Today’s food system demands a revival, and it feels good to be part of that process.”