The Chicken and the Veg

People who raise backyard chickens say there’s one potential pitfall — getting too attached. It’s too late for Chicago Botanic Garden horticulturist Ayse Pogue. Cradling a black-and-white hen with a bright-red comb, she says, “I love my chickens.”

Breeders describe chickens as either single purpose — raised for their eggs, or dual purpose — raised for both eggs and meat. Pogue sees a third purpose for her hens. “I grow vegetables,” she says. “I think the chickens add another dimension of having fresh food from your yard.”

The clucking of hens blends into the sounds of summer in Pogue’s suburban backyard; which contains a patio, lawn, perennial garden, vegetable patch, and chicken enclosure. Pogue cleans the coop and run once a week and adds the used straw and wood chips to a compost pile in the corner of her yard. The mixture makes good winter mulch for her organic vegetable garden. Omnivores, the hens also eat up kitchen scraps, insects, and mice.

Chickens became part of Pogue’s life last year when, inspired by the growing backyard-chicken movement and a related lecture at the Garden, she decided to order three chicks. “I was just hearing about it, hearing about it everywhere,” she said. “I told my husband. He said, ‘Oh no, I don’t think that’s going to happen.’ I said, ‘Too late. It’s happening.’”

PHOTO: chicken coop
A ramp provides access to the elevated coop.

Three days-old chicks — now known as Henrietta, Misty, and Fistik — arrived at the post office last July in a small cardboard box with breathing holes. They sheltered in Pogue’s garage until September when they were big enough to go outside in the small compound hand-built by a colleague, Garden horticulturist Dale Whiting.

Whiting built the coop, ramp, and run for about $300 (spent mainly on hardware). He kept costs low by using wood scraps, slightly damaged lumber sold at deep discounts, and shingles leftover from a neighbor’s roofing project. The roughly five-by-five foot coop, and eight-by-seven-by-six foot run can shelter three to five cold-hardy hens through Chicago’s sweltering summers and bitter winters. A heated dispenser prevents the chicken’s water supply from freezing, and on the very coldest days, Pogue uses a small heating element to warm the coop.

PHOTO: eggs
A sampling of colorful eggs laid by Easter Egger hens
(Photo by Will Merydith)

Pogue was sure to select breeds that can tolerate freezing weather. Henrietta is an Easter Egger, a chicken named for its beautiful blue and green eggs. Misty and Fistik are Barred Rock chickens, which do need an occasional application of Vaseline to keep their prominent combs from freezing in the worst of winter. The three are in their peak laying year and provide Pogue’s family with one to two eggs a day. “Every time I pick up an egg I’m amazed at how perfect they are,” she says.

The many rewards of backyard chickens have inspired Pogue to expand her flock with three new chicks — Cody, another Easter Egger, and Pearl and Olive, hardy blue laced red Wyandottes. The days-old chicks are bright-eyed and fluffy, small enough to hold in one hand and cute enough to steal anyone’s heart.

PHOTO: chicks
New arrivals, Cody, Pearl, and Olive.

Before getting too involved, it’s wise to check with your local officials. Not all municipalities allow residents to raise chickens. Those that do often ban roosters and limit flock size.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Food for Thought from Garden Interns

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.”

From left, Sophie Krause and Myrna Vazquez, sell Windy City Harvest produce at the Chicago Botanic Garden Farmer's Market.
Sophie Krause (left) and Myrna Vazquez sell Windy City Harvest produce at the Chicago Botanic Garden Farmers’  Market.

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.

PHOTO: Sophie Krause
Sophie Krause gets vegetables ready for market.

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.”

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

An All-American Salute to Our “Founding Gardeners”

Our “founding gardeners”— author Andrea Wulf’s depiction of early U.S. presidents who passionately promoted farming as a means to independence — would be tickled to see the American Seed Saver bed in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. There, visitors will find varieties of heirloom fruits and vegetables grown by our third president, Thomas Jefferson, in his country estate at Monticello, just outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Many of these varieties are also grown in Michelle Obama’s organic vegetable garden on the White House grounds.

PHOTO: tomatoes and marigolds
Grown together in a companion planting, marigolds deter pests from tomato plants in the garden.

The American Seed Saver bed also honors everyday gardeners who help safeguard the genetic diversity of plants, according to Garden horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg, who oversees the Fruit & Vegetable Garden. “Because of the work of home gardeners and seed-saving organizations, an increasing number of heirloom varieties are now available to the public,” she said.  

Learn about saving your own seeds!

Heirloom vegetable varieties are open-pollinated plants that reproduce themselves, staying “true to their parents,” according to Hilgenberg. They’ve been handed down through generations, a practice that helps maintain the food crop gene pool for future generations.

PHOTO: Beans in flower
Flowering beans
Photo: H. Zell CC-BY-SA-3.0

PHOTO: Harvested rattlesnake beans
Harvested beans

The Abraham Lincoln tomato (Solanum lycopersicum ‘Abraham Lincoln’) was planted in our American Seed Saver bed as a tribute to our 16th president, who established the United States Department of Agriculture more than 150 years ago. The big, sweet, and juicy tomato is a good slicer and also makes great ketchup. “What could be more American than that?” Hilgenberg said. “Other cultures dry their tomatoes or make paste. We’re going to put them on our burgers.”

Visitors to the American Seed Saver bed can also see the rattlesnake bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), said to originate from the Cherokee people. The variety is also known as the preacher bean because its abundant yield of purple-streaked green pods gives cause for thanks and praise. The nearby Painted Lady bean (Phaseolus vulgaris ‘Painted Lady’), native to Mexico, was popular in England by the 1850s and a favorite in America by the early 1880s.

The sweet and spicy Alma Paprika pepper (Capsicum annuum ‘Alma Paprika’), of Hungarian origin, can be dried and ground into paprika and is cited in one of the earliest American cookbooks, according to Hilgenberg. In the American Seed Saver bed, the plant also serves as a symbol of America as a melting pot of cultures and traditions. “We’re such a nation of immigrants and now we have gardens with plants from all over the world,” Hilgenberg said. “We’ve made them our own.”

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Elevating the Prairie

Early to mid-June is the greenest and lushest time in our experimental and ever-changing Green Roof Garden, one of the few rooftop landscapes in the area that invites the public in for a visit.

The Green Roof Garden is at is lushest in mid-June.
Native plants create a prairie-like effect atop the Plant Science Center.

Now in its fourth growing season, the 16,000-square-foot garden creates an oasis atop the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. The green expanse helps reduce rainwater runoff and insulate the building from heat and cold. The garden also serves as living laboratory under the stewardship of Richard Hawke, plant evaluation manager.

“This is so new to us. We didn’t know what to expect. It’s been a complete learning process,” said Hawke, who has evaluated nearly 230 types of plants each year since the fall of 2009.  “We want to keep testing and trying and increasing the palette each year.”

Hawke has watched nature take a hand in creating a pleasing meadow effect across the less formal Ellis Goodman Family Foundation Green Roof Garden South. “More people are drawn to this than ever,” Hawke said. “It’s just become a true landscape.”

The skyblue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense) is “finally established and starting to do its own thing,” he said, and flowering for the first time are the dwarf false indigo (Amorpha nana) and largeleaf wild indigo (Baptisia alba var. alba). The latter takes its time in a landscape, first putting down a taproot—hard to do in eight inches of growing medium! Once established, it sends up a tall spike of showy, white flowers that bloom for several weeks. Like other members of the bean or legume family, wild indigo improves the soil by increasing its nitrogen levels.

aquilegia canadensis
Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

The deep coral native columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is beginning to spread, blending into the lavender and white blooms of the hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus) and foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) growing nearby. Bright yellow lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) and the silvery, feathery foliage of field sagewort (Artemisia campestris ssp. Caudate) add to the prairie aesthetic with their layered colors and textures.

Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)

The more formally planted Josephine P. & John J. Louis Foundation Green Roof Garden North features wavy patches of sedums, a popular rooftop variety, alternating with familiar cultivars of plants. Flowering bulbs bring the garden into color in early spring. Mourning doves, robins, swallows, mallards, Baltimore orioles, and purple finches count among its bird visitors.

Evaluations of perennial plants typically take four years, but Hawke is sensing that it may take more time than that to tease out the “best that can be grown on a rooftop.” Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) has proved to be the top-performing grass, providing an elegant fine texture and remaining dark green even in the worst of last summer’s drought. Some plants have thrived, others have merely survived, and others have all but disappeared from the landscape over the evaluation period. Hawke has learned, for example, that the pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) is doing better than the more commonly known purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Yarrow is not doing as well as he expected, but prostrate junipers show promise. “Our goal was to learn everything we possibly could about growing plants on a green roof,” he said. “I still think there’s a lot more to learn.”

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and