On Monticello, Thomas Jefferson, and Sharing

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

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.  I taught a fall cornucopia class at the Garden, and 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

Botanical Bill & the Hunt for the Perfect Burrow

When last we saw Botanical Bill, our resident groundhog mascot, he was having a big adventure right before Groundhog Day. Since then, Botanical Bill has had a great summer—he spent it with his Marmota monax family in a burrow at the edge of McDonald Woods. 

Groundhogs (also called woodchucks) usually hibernate from October to March, but Botanical Bill is getting a late start this year, since the mild autumn weather lasted so long. Now he’s got the urge to hibernate—and to look for a winter burrow in which to enjoy a nice long nap.

Turns out it’s not so easy to find a place that’s just right…

PHOTO: Botanical Bill puppet at a large tree trunk.
This looked promising, but it’s just too big.


PHOTO: Botanical Bill at a small tree opening.
Nope, too small


PHOTO: Botanical Bill in a tree.
Too high


PHOTO: Botanical Bill looking over edge of a trunk.
Too open


PHOTO: Botanical Bill looking at a rotted trunk.
Too shallow


PHOTO: Botanical Bill in a tight spot.
Too tiiight!


PHOTO: Botanical Bill wedged in a tree cross section.
Botanical Bill’s idea of whistle pig heaven…


PHOTO: Botanical Bill looking into a tree trunk's hole.
Botanical Bill is reminded of the front door of his burrow…


PHOTO: Botanical Bill "yawning."
Yawwwnnnn…feeling ready to hibernate. Maybe he’ll just head back to the burrow.

Home, sweet home! C U Feb. 2!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Bulbs for Fall and Winter Interest

Just when the hostas, lilies, and other garden perennials are going to bed for the season, these bulbs are waking up. 


PHOTO: Closeup shot of the leaves of Arum italicum 'Jet Black Wonder'
Arum italicum ‘Jet Black Wonder’ has unique black spots and pink- tinged flowers.

Arum first emerge in the late fall. The broad, arrow-shaped leaves of Arum italicum are highly ornamental and sturdy—quickly perking up after hard freezes, providing a welcome spot of green in the winter garden. Throughout the winter, they remain green and full, providing a welcome burst of green in the winter garden. In the late spring, they send up creamy white flowers that resemble calla lilies (Zantedeschia sp).

Soon after flowering, the leaves die for the season, revealing showy, fruiting stalks of bright red, highly ornamental berries. While these berries are quite attractive, do be aware that they’re poisonous and should be planted where they won’t tempt any children or pets to eat them. If located in an ideal site, they will reseed and form a ground cover. There are dozens of varieties, each with its own unique leaf patterns.

PHOTO: Wilted Arum italicum in the Garden.
Arum italicum ‘Mamoratum’ after a cold snap.
PHOTO: Arum leaves look back to normal after warming up following a heavy frost.
This is the same Arum italicum pictured above after recovering from the frost.

Fall cyclamen

PHOTO: Cyclamen leaves emerge from the ground in spring.
Cyclamen hederifolium ssp. crassifolium

There are two primary types of cyclamen that are hardy in Chicagoland. These are the fall-blooming Cyclamen hederifolium and spring-blooming Cyclamen coum. The fall-blooming Cyclamen hederifolium have ivy-shaped leaves with stunning silver patterns and small, windswept-looking flowers. Cyclamen coum blooms in the late winter or early spring, and has heart-shaped leaves with silver patterns.

Both plants grow their leaves in the fall and carry them through the winter before going dormant in the spring. Their flowers range in color from pinks and lavenders to white. Cyclamen prefer a shady spot that doesn’t stay wet; otherwise the bulb will rot.

A great place to plant cyclamen is under deciduous trees, where the leaf canopy will protect the dormant tubers from excess rain. If sited properly, they will reseed and form a ground cover.

PHOTO: Cyclamen bloom through the leaf litter in Home Landscape Garden.
Fall cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) blooming in Farwell Landscape Garden.

Fall allium

Among the latest-blooming bulbs are the often overlooked Allium thunbergii ‘Ozawa’ and A. thunbergii ‘Ozawa Alba’.  These relatives of onions form grassy clumps that look green and fresh all summer long and suddenly burst forth with small clusters of flowers resembling pink-and-purple lollipops in late October, often continuing until mid-November. (As of November 17, these were still going strong in the Farwell Landscape Garden, even after hard rain, several hard freezes, and a light snowfall!) Allium thunbergii prefers to be located in a sunny, well-drained location, where it will continue to grow and thrive for many years. These are great plants for a sunny rock garden, where they provide a welcome shot of color at the end of the season.

PHOTO: Purple fall onions blooming in the Garden.
Allium thunbergii ‘Ozawa’
PHOTO: White fall onions in bloom.
Allium thunbergii ‘Ozawa Alba’

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Parsnips: Patience Pays Off

Some vegetables are more satisfying than others when it comes to harvest. Parsnips are in that category, as we discovered the other day (just three days before it snowed!), when we harvested a crop that’s been quietly growing in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden since April.

PHOTO: A freshly dug parsnip with a long, thin, tap root.
Parsnips have long tap roots that need to be dug gently from the soil.

The sun was out, the air was crisp, and the nights were frosty: parsnip weather. Cold weather is actually a good thing for parsnips—in fact, they need it to convert the starch in their roots to sugar, transforming them from lowly, nose-turned-up roots to gourmet, thumbs-up side dishes. We used a pitchfork to loosen the dirt deeply around each parsnip top—a gentle harvest is required, as parsnips are brittle and can snap if eager hands try to pull the roots by their leaves.

Aren’t they gorgeous? We planted ‘Albion’ this year, a variety that’s creamy white and elegantly long and tapered. Inspired, we’re adding two other varieties to our seed list for next year: ‘Lancer’ and ‘Half-long Guernsey’.

Speaking of seeds, parsnips can be a bit fussy about germination. Knowing that, here’s the strategy we employed for sowing this year:

  • Plant fresh seed. Parsnip seed viability is short, so plant only newly-purchased seed every year.
  • Sow heavily. We’ve found that germination can be spotty in our heavier clay soil. Of course that means we had to…
  • Thin ruthlessly. We thinned four times to guarantee them the wide spacing they need.
  • Mark the rows. A few radish seeds (which germinate in a few days) marked the ends of each parsnip row—which took their sweet time to germinate, in about three weeks.
PHOTO: Freshly dug parsnips.
So satisfying: Some of last week’s parsnip harvest.
Photo by horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg

Once germinated, parsnips are low-maintenance veggies in the garden—as befits a vegetable that takes 120 days, plus a cold spell, to reach maturity.

A gardener’s patience with parsnips really pays off in the kitchen. How can you serve parsnips?

  • A bowl of parsnip soup.
  • In a roasted root vegetable side dish.
  • As a snack of parsnip “fries,” brushed with coconut oil, sprinkled with salt, and baked in the oven.
  • As a secret ingredient in mashed potatoes.

Or as my chef-friend Brad does, make parsnip cakes for a light main meal or delightful side dish. Here’s his recipe as he knows it by heart:

Boil parsnips in salted water for 3 minutes. Grate with a medium fine blade, then add one egg, white onion, flour, salt, pepper, and lots of Italian parsley. Form pancakes about ½-inch thick and 3 inches wide, and fry in oil on medium heat until parsnips are cooked through and cakes are golden brown and caramelized. Yummy with a roast chicken!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org