It always starts with the place. The garden, the park, the stairwell, the commuter train station—wherever the artwork will be sited, Michael Szabo starts out by spending time in it. Szabo, a maker of sculpture, waterworks, and tabletop vessels, is one of the artists who will be featured in the American Craft Exposition (ACE), held at the Chicago Botanic Garden this weekend, September 23 through 25.
At this juried exposition and sale of fine crafts, visitors can see and buy one-of-a-kind works in metal, ceramics, fiber, jewelry, glass, leather, and other media. The show, which features some of the top crafts artists in the country, will help support pharmacogenomics at NorthShore University HealthSystem.
Attending the show is a chance not just to see and buy art, but to talk to the artists about their creative process. Szabo’s begins with the site.
“I’ll come and look at a space, and it’s the space that really inspires the concept and the work, as well as the goals of the project,” he said from his studio in San Francisco.
He considers the landscape, the architecture, the feeling. He thinks about the spot’s history, its place in people’s daily lives, its meaning to a community. Then he puts his hands to work.
He builds a small model, experimenting with various materials and exploring how they move and behave. Ideas begin to take shape.
“The way the material acts is the starting point for defining the form,” he said. “I’m not trying to force anything to do anything it doesn’t naturally want to do.”
Take water. Szabo has learned by experience that you can’t force water to do anything.
“I’ve come up with a lot of my concepts about water by observing it, seeing how it falls, and trying to build the piece kind of around that,” he said. “I’ll design the sculpture around the water rather than the other way around. Water does what it wants.”
“Metal is a very forgiving and versatile material,” he said. “You get some beautiful curves out of it.”
As he builds the model, the exploration and creativity flow.
“It’s almost like I’m using this solitary, really exploratory process of building a small structure by myself and seeing what the material wants to do, creating these curves based on the material, gravity, stress, and pressure,” he said.
Then Szabo and his assistants turn his model into a full-size artwork. They fabricate support structures and shining curves of steel, assemble them in the studio and make the model into large-scale art—a wall of rugged metal panels covered by sheets of falling water, a sculpture formed of intertwining tendrils of steel, another that arcs and curves like a huge, silvery snake.
But his work isn’t all large-scale; he has never stopped making the small, sleek, steel vessels that marked his first explorations into making art with metal. He’ll be bringing some of his elegant tabletop sculptures to ACE, along with larger pieces and water features. And while visitors to the show will get to talk with outstanding artists about their work, the artists will also be able to talk to the public. It’s an interaction Szabo appreciates.
“It’s a really great opportunity to show what I can do and talk to people about what I do,” he said. “I really like getting the feedback and reactions of people to my work. It helps me understand how it’s engaging people.”
He is deeply involved in his current project, a commission from the town of Wylie, Texas, to create sculptures marking the start and finish of a walking path. He plans to evoke both the site’s past as a Texas blackland prairie and its future as part of the bustling Dallas metroplex. He’ll be glad to talk to you about it.
As we all know, good soils are the key to growing any type of plant well: annuals, perennials, turf, shrubs, and trees. The Chicago region’s soils are twofold, having positive and negative virtues. On a positive note, our soils tend to be rich in nutrients. But on a negative note, our soils are heavy and do not drain well.
The soils at the Chicago Botanic Garden are very typical urban soils, and we have the same challenges. Over the years we have tried many types of amendments to improve our soils and are about to embark on another trial…biochar.
Biochar has been used for thousands of years in the Amazon Basin of South America to greatly improve poor, unproductive soils for farming. The ancient Amazons used a simple “slash-and-char” process to create biochar. This process involved cutting and burning plant material in an incomplete “smolder” style, rather than complete burn. They worked the charred material back into the soil as a long-lasting amendment. These amended soils in the Amazon have become known as “black earth” or terra preta. Amended terra preta soils created long ago still cover 10 percent of the Amazon Basin. It is important to understand that “slash and char” is different than “slash and burn,” which has many negative environmental implications, like deforestation. “Slash and char”sequesters large amounts of carbon in a stable form, unlike “slash and burn,” which releases the carbon into the atmosphere.
In the past decade, the use of biochar has been investigated for modern agricultural use; more recently in arboriculture, as well as general use in ornamental landscape plantings. The Morton Arboretum and Bartlett Tree Experts have conducted several recent research trials on biochar with very positive findings. One study found the root mass of test seedlings (honeylocust) grown with biochar was significantly more compared to their control group. Another study showed improvement in plant disease resistance when biochar was used.
So what exactly is modern-day biochar?
Biochar is similar to charcoal, except it is formulated specifically for soil enhancement. It is basically organic matter (primarily wood chips) heated in the absence of oxygen, a process called “pyrolysis.” The resulting char is carbon rich and has many long-lasting virtues. Think of it in the simplest of terms as a “sponge”: it has great capacity for holding and releasing nutrients and water.
What are the benefits?
Helps hold soil moisture, and release it in drought
Increases soil microbial activity
Holds and releases soil nutrients
Reduces leaching of nutrients and fertilizer
Studies have shown increased plant growth and rooting
Studies have shown less plant disease when it is used. (It is thought that the increased microbial activity stimulates specific microorganisms that play a key role in eliciting plant “systemic-induced resistance,” or SIR.)
Benefits of one application are long lasting, and it does not take a lot
Biochar is made from recycled materials, such as pines killed by bark beetles or trees damaged by fire
This year the Garden has begun to use biochar in some of our more troublesome areas. We don’t look at it as a “silver bullet,” but as another tool to combat problems caused by poor soils. This new tool is being trialed and then possibly integrated into our arsenal for best practice soil management.
Last year, with great anticipation, I became a plant sleuth. Tired of my relative ignorance of plants, I wanted to learn more about them and become more productive while being outdoors, which I am—a lot. So I joined Plants of Concern as a volunteer.
Based at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Plants of Concern (POC) was launched in 2001 by the Garden and Audubon–Chicago Region, supported by Chicago Wilderness funding. The program brings together trained volunteers, public and private land managers, and scientists, with the support of federal, state, and local agencies. For more than 15 years, the POC volunteers—a generally mild-mannered but formidable force of citizen scientists—have monitored rare, threatened, and endangered plant populations in our region to assess long-term trends.
Broadly speaking, the data we plant detectives collect provides valuable information. Land managers and owners can use it to thoughtfully and effectively manage land, protecting ecosystems that have helped to support us humans. Scientists and students can use the data to help them understand rare-species ecology, population genetics, and restoration dynamics. The implications are significant, with climate change an important factor to consider in altered or shifting plant populations.
I quickly discovered that many POC volunteers are way more plant savvy than I am. Fortunately for me, the organization welcomes people of all knowledge levels. Our goal is to gather information about specific plant populations, ultimately to protect them against the forces of invasive plant species and encroaching urbanization. And our work is paying off. Some POC-monitored plant populations are expanding—reflected in the removal of those species from state lists of threatened and endangered species.
We are (mostly) unfazed
Yes, we POC volunteers are a hardy lot. Stinking hot, humid days on the sand dunes near Lake Michigan or the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie? We drink some water and slap on sunscreen. Steep ravines with loose soil and little to hang onto? Bring it on! An obstacle course of spider webs? No prob—well actually, those are a real drag. Last time I wiped a web from my sweaty face I muttered, “There ought to be a word for the sounds people make when this happens.” (Oh, right, there is: swearing!) But webs slow us down for just a few seconds before we resume the business at hand.
That business is hunting down and noting targeted plants, and continuing to monitor them over time. Our tools are notebooks, cameras, and GPS mapping equipment. In northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana, we volunteers, along with Garden scientists and staff from partner agencies, have monitored 288 species across 1,170 plant populations at more than 300 sites, from moist flatwoods to dry gravel prairies to lakefront beaches and sand savannahs. Collectively, since Plants of Concern began, we have contributed 23,000 hours of our time in both the field and office.
“Northeastern Illinois is incredibly biodiverse, and some people are surprised to learn that,” says Rachel Goad, who became manager of the program in 2014, after earning a master’s degree in plant biology from Southern Illinois University–Carbondale. “There are so many interesting plant communities and lots of really neat plants. For people who want to learn more about them and contribute to their conservation, Plants of Concern is a great way to do that. We rely on interested and passionate volunteers—we would not at all be able to cover the area of the Chicago Wilderness region without them.”
From the minute I met up with a POC group during my first foray last October at Illinois Beach State Park, I was hooked. Though I often feel like a dunderhead as I bumble around hunting for my assigned plants, wondering why so many plants look so much like other plants, I love it. One reason is the other, more experienced volunteers and staff leaders, who generously help me as I ask question after question after question.
Some of us volunteers are walking plant encyclopedias, while others (that would be me) have been known to call out, “Here’s a dwarf honeysuckle!” only to have foray leader Jason Miller, patience personified, respond gently, “Actually, that’s an ash seedling.”
“Hey Jason,” I say a couple of weeks later, trying to look unconcerned. “Do you guys ever fire volunteers?”
“Yes, but it’s rare,” he replies. “Of more than 800 volunteers over all the years, maybe five at most—and not recently—were dropped from the program.” He indicates that it’s more a mismatch of interests than a few flubbed newbie I.D.s that can lead to that very rare parting of ways. Miller also acknowledges that some plants are especially tricky, such as sedges (Carex spp.) and dwarf honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera). “Some species are straightforward,” he says, “and others are harder to monitor.”
I’m not hopeless—I’m just growing
I decide to interpret my POC foibles as “opportunities for growth,” since slowly but surely, I am starting to catch on. The information sheets distributed as we gather before a foray are making more sense to me. I am getting better at noticing the tiny serrated edges of a leaf, or compound rather than simple umbels, or any number of other subtle ways plants may distinguish themselves from others.
That gradual but steady learning curve fits with what Goad describes as “the most critical characteristic we look for in volunteers: someone who really wants to learn.” She adds that diversity among POC volunteers strengthens the program as a whole, helping to build a “constituency for conservation” among people not traditionally associated with environmental activism.
Goad and her staff, which includes research assistants Miller, Kimberly Elsenbroek, and Morgan Conley, work to match volunteers with something that fits their level of expertise. This “hyper-individualized” approach to training POC volunteers can limit the number of participants per year, currently about 150 (a year-end tally firms up that number). “We tend to fill up our new volunteer training workshops, which means that our staff is always working at capacity to get those folks up and running,” says Goad. “I encourage people to sign up early if they know they are interested.”
Another challenge for managing the volunteer program, Goad adds, is that “any time you have a whole bunch of different people collecting and sending in data, there has to be a really good process for checking it and cleaning it and making it useful.” Over the years, the program has improved its volunteer training and data processing so that errors are minimized.
Get ready, get set—learn!
Miller was majoring in environmental studies at McKendree University when he came to POC in 2013 as an intern. Now, among other things, he’s in charge of volunteers at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve. Like Goad, he says the main requirement in a volunteer is a willingness to learn. “We want someone who is interested in plants and their habitats,” he said. “If so, whenever you can help us out, great! We realize you’re giving your time to do this.”
Goad hopes to expand POC into other parts of Illinois over the next decade. “There are populations across the state that should be visited more regularly,” she says. “We do a lot with the resources we have, but it would be great to expand, and to do so, we need to continue to be creative about funding.” With partners that include forest preserve districts, county conservation districts, many land trusts, and nonprofit agencies that own land—and with its knowledge about challenged plant populations—POC is uniquely positioned to help facilitate collaboration.
Whatever the time frame, wherever Plants of Concern volunteers are found, the hunt is on. Some days are glorious for us plant sleuths, such as my first foray last fall. We hiked over the dunes, Lake Michigan sparkling beside us, the cloudless sky brilliant blue. A light breeze kept us cool as we spread out, flagging the targeted plant—the endangered dune willow (Salix syrticola)—which was readily apparent and accessible. Then there are days like one this past June, when the sun beat down over a hazy Lake Michigan, humidity and temperatures soared, and my assignment was a steep, prolonged scramble over ravines to find and flag my elusive target, the common juniper (Juniperus communis). By the end of it I was, to coin a phrase, literally a hot mess—but a happy and triumphant one, for I had indeed been able to plant a few flags.
Perhaps it’s time for you to sleuth around and plant a few flags, too! Visit Plants of Concern and find out how to join.
Plants of Concern is made possible with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Openlands, Nature Conservancy Volunteer Stewardship Network, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Chicago Park District.
Most people recognize that familiar call of the black-capped chickadee. It’s often heard in late summer and fall as chickadees gather in family groups and small feeding flocks to prepare for the winter.
The chickadee’s song—translated as “Hey, sweetie,” (though you can’t often hear the third syllable)—is reserved for late winter, spring, and summer, when the bird is courting and nesting. Nothing brightens a mid-February day more than when a chickadee sings because to those who hear it, the song signals spring’s arrival.
The black-capped chickadee is considered a non-migratory species—it can survive the harsh winters of northern Illinois. These birds can lower their body temperature when sleeping at night, which protects them from freezing.
While some birds need to leave the region in fall because insects and other food will soon become difficult to find, chickadees know how to find insect larvae overwintering in tree bark (although flocks of chickadees do make small geographic movements, depending on food availability in colder months).
They also stash seeds to eat later, and unlike squirrels, they remember where they put them. Chickadees eat berries and animal fat in winter, and they readily come to feeders feasting on seeds and suet. Supplemental food, especially sunflower seed from feeders has been shown to help these little balls of feather and hollow bones survive when it gets really cold and wet outside. Those who feed birds can observe an interesting behavior in chickadees—they form a hierarchy, meaning the top chickadee gets to eat at the feeder first—it snatches a seed and leaves, then the second in command gets its turn.
In February, chickadees begin singing and looking for a cavity hole in which to nest—and there’s a wide variety of homes they’ll find suitable. They’ll choose abandoned woodpecker cavities and man-made nest boxes, or excavate their own small, natural cavities. Chickadees will nest in rotted, old wooden fence posts and abandoned mailboxes, and a pair once built a nest in an old shoe hanging from a line.
The female builds a cup-shaped nest with moss for the foundation, lining it with rabbit fur or other soft material. She has one brood each year, laying an average of seven to eight eggs. After 12 days of incubation, the young hatch, then remain in the nest for another 16 days. When they fledge, they continue to follow their parents, calling and begging for food. Come winter, they travel in small feeding groups, often with nuthatches, titmice, and other small songbirds.
West Nile, which came to the U.S. about 17 years ago, likely may not have affected black-capped chickadees as much as some thought, according to a recent study.
Though people were seeing fewer chickadees in their backyards and in woodlands when the virus came to the region, a 2015 study showed that overall black-capped chickadee numbers have not been affected by the mosquito-borne disease, especially compared with other species. Studies will continue on how the virus is affecting bird populations—but one thing is for certain—when the virus struck, it reminded humans not to take for granted the common birds they enjoy. And the black-capped chickadee is certainly a species that humans enjoy watching and hearing.
The opening celebration of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Regenstein Learning Campus on September 10 and 11 is just the beginning of the fun at the Nature Play Garden. How about splashing in the runnel or running up and down the rolling hills?
Beyond those charms, the Nature Play Garden has another wonderful element: plants that were chosen specifically for this garden. There are plants that appeal to all five senses, and plants with funny names or those that exhibit extreme contrasts. One of the best ways to explore the new Learning Campus and its Nature Play Garden is through plants.
In the Garden’s 26 other gardens, plants are chosen, tended, and laid out to enhance the visitor experience. In this, the Garden’s 27th garden, plants are meant to be touched, smelled, and examined up close.
Plants that appeal to the senses:
Sensory plants like lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina ‘Big Ears’) feel soft to the touch.
Obedient plant(Physostegia virginiana ‘Miss Manners’) has tubular flowers that remain in place if you move them.
Heaven Scent Jacob’s ladder(Polemonium reptans ‘Heaven Scent’) was chosen for its fragrance. Enjoy its bright bloom in the spring.
Pigsqueak(Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut’) has big, fleshy leaves that squeak when rubbing fingers over them.
Moraine American sweetgum(Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Moraine’) has star-shaped leaves and seedpods that are spiky; when dry, the seedpods are a great percussion instrument when shaken.
Plants that look cool:
Autumn stonecrop(Sedum ‘T Rex’) was a cultivar we didn’t yet have in the Garden. The education staff likes these leaves because they can be filled with air.
Columbus Strain redbud(Cercis Canadensis ‘Columbus Strain’) promise to put on a glorious color show each fall. You won’t have to look far to find these: more than 60 surround the McCormick Entry Plaza.
Johnson’s Select American hornbeam(Carpinus caroliniana ‘JN Select’), a cultivar of hornbeam that is recognized for its unusually smaller and upright stature, is ideal for smaller urban gardens with red and orange fall color. These create the Hornbeam Room in the Nature Play Garden.
Tiny Tortuga turtlehead(Chelone obliqua ‘Tiny Tortuga’) has flower heads that look like turtles.
Lady’s mantle(Alchemilla mollis ‘Thriller’) is best when it rains because the raindrops stay on the leaves.
And a few bonus plants with fun names:
Milk and Cookies common boneset(Eupatorium perfoliatum ‘Milk and Cookies’) is unusually dark-leafed.
There’s also a mythical hero — Hercules coral bells(Heuchera ‘Hercules’) — and a princess — Cinderella anemone (Anemone × hybrida ‘Cinderella’).
The team of horticulturists and landscape designers who worked to choose and plant the elements of the Nature Play Garden looked for four-season interest and plants that would appeal to visitors of all ages and abilities. Our heavy clay soil didn’t work for everything, but the range of options was still enormous. Come to the Nature Play Garden and discover your own favorite plants.