Interns Harvest More Than Veggies

A summer spent at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden is full of little joys and big surprises.

Interning at Windy City Harvest, we (Lesley and Rachel) started our time with grand plans to become farmers, urban agriculture pioneers, business owners, and horticulturists. We thought a summer at the parent organization—the Chicago Botanic Garden—learning about a vast collection of fruit and vegetable plant varieties would be a good way to jump-start our careers in the field.

But the weather and the Garden had a much different education for us in mind.

PHOTO: Fruit and Veg interns Leslie and Rachel
Fruit & Vegetable interns Leslie and Rachel weeding the beds

The summer’s weather has been very cool and wet: this is not ideal for some of the fruiting crops that most people prize. Cucumbers and squash are everywhere and right on schedule, but the bright red, heavy tomatoes we love to harvest this time of year are taking a bit longer to ripen in the cooler weather. And yet, the cooler weather has brought visitors to the Garden in friendly droves. These visitors (avid gardeners, young children, families, and globetrotters) have encouraged us to keep the garden in good shape throughout the season, and shared their own sense of wonder about fruits and vegetables.

Although the Chicago Botanic Garden has a separate garden—the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden—dedicated to working with children, many families bring their children to visit the Fruit & Vegetable Garden while they are here because of the broad range of fruit and vegetables we have on display. They can also learn about bees or growing watermelons. They may even spot toads here and there, if they have a quick eye.

PHOTO: Potato flower (Solanum tuberosum 'Kennebec')
Can you identify this gorgeous bloom? Its tubers are a staple food crop.

Both of us have enjoyed showing children how carrots and potatoes grow, since those plants, specifically, look very different when they are growing than when they are on a plate. Getting the chance to talk to children about food and farming has affirmed our commitment to the work that lies ahead. Sharing our knowledge about growing healthy, sustainable food is one of the most important skills that we can develop as future farmers.

One warm July day, a group of 7- and 8-year-olds walked into the garden, where we happened to be cultivating “the three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash). They stopped in their tracks, entranced by the long ears of corn. “Do you know where popcorn comes from?” Rachel asked. The curious kids looked at one another, shrugged, and all eyes turned to the apprentice farmer. She asked the children to look around and spot the plant that might be responsible for the delicious snack. Suddenly, it dawned on a few of them, and they jumped and pointed, “It’s the corn! It’s the corn!” The corn plants took on a new significance when we were able to put them into context.

PHOTO: Popcorn cob
The discovery of how favorite foods grow brings delight in the garden.

The diversity of plant life in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden attracts some of the most inquisitive, passionate, and skilled gardeners from around the globe. Patrons are constantly asking us questions about plant varieties, weather patterns, soil amendments, and why our eggplants don’t look like their eggplants. They want to know what cardoons taste like, or where we sell the gigantic Zephyr squash.

PHOTO: Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)
A highlight of the vast collection displayed at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, the cardoon. Is it a thistle or an artichoke? A little bit of both—and edible!

On a particularly lovely early morning, a couple from England pulled us aside and shared what they’ve been growing in their allotment garden across the pond. They were inspired by the fruits and vegetables they saw in the garden and wanted to share and compare notes about their own bounty at home.

“Have you ever made beetroot chutney?” they inquired. We looked at each other and shook our heads, but we wanted to know more. We had never heard of the recipe but were certainly intrigued by the sound of it. The couple explained that it was a savory dish consisting of sautéed beets, onions, herbs, and vinegar—lovely as a condiment or side dish. We were both inspired to call beets “beetroot” and make beetroot chutney after that conversation.

Herein lies one of the greatest gifts of our internship: we have been able to learn from experts, share knowledge with visitors, and get a lot of hands-on experience. We thought we might have a difficult time adjusting to the early morning hours and manual labor, but the joy we have experienced has definitely made it worthwhile. Our paths have crossed with so many interesting and amazing people—all in the name of fruits and vegetables.

Both of us are former educators who value the gifts of teaching and learning. Our previous classrooms had four walls that bound us to a specific space. We continue to teach and to learn. But our classroom looks a little different—no walls, open space, tons of possibilities—the Garden.

PHOTO: Girls gather in the vegetables on a field trip to Fruit & Veg.
There is much knowledge to share about growing fruits and vegetables—for experienced pros and newcomers alike.

These experiences are not only for Windy City Harvest interns. Hop on your bike, take a walk, and plan a visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden or your local farm and talk to your gardener!


Lesley Grill
Rachel Schipull

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The Team Behind the GardenGuide App

The secret is out; visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden have unprecedented access to plant information, guides, and tours through a groundbreaking smartphone app, called GardenGuide, launched last year. Garden staff and volunteers used their skills and savvy to squeeze interactive maps, audio guides, points of interest, and botanic details on more than 10,000 plants into an application that sits in the palm of your hand. How did they do it, and what keeps the wheels turning?

Dorothy Peck, volunteer team leader at work.
Dorothy Peck, volunteer and team leader, at work

The ability to access this information in real time during a Garden visit is what makes the app so special, according to Boyce Tankersley, the Garden’s director of living plant documentation. He said that people “look down at the app, they see what they need to see, and then they are back to experiencing the Garden, just as we had hoped.” In addition, photos and plant information are frequently being added, so there is always something new to discover.  

Before new data and photos were added to the plant collections database, Tankersley and his team upgraded their long-time plant collection’s database to include 37 new information fields that would work well with the app, from soil type to bloom time to sun requirements. Many of the fields were added as check boxes, to make them easier to sort through with the app. It was then that he recruited another 80 volunteers to help gather and enter all of that new information.

As the project progressed, a new team of highly specialized volunteers came together to help build the data that is shared via the app. A group of 20 volunteer photographers captured digital images to accompany each species listed, under the direction of their team leader, Dorothy Peck. A group of 12 volunteers, led by team leader Glenn Kohlmeyer, scanned plant information slides researched by Richard Hawke, the Garden’s plant evaluation manager. Under Tankerley’s watchful eye, another 20 volunteers researched and input key facts about the plants. Perhaps furthest under the radar, was the smallest group of volunteers who handled the intricacies of GIS mapping with guidance from Veronica Harry-Jackson, a Garden GIS specialist. “We wouldn’t be able to pull off a project like this without a lot of dedicated staff and volunteers,” said Tankersley.

“It was a Garden-wide project which was fantastic,”
said Van Deraa

The process to create the app began more than two years ago, when project manager Cheri Van Deraa, the Garden’s director of online marketing, assembled a team including representatives from different areas within the Garden. She led the initial step of researching similar products on the market and incorporating possible features. The list began with the Garden’s plant collections, and grew from there. The planning team considered a growing list of needs that visitors have when they come to the Garden, and included functions to address them. “The visitor needs we documented over time are now being met in this app,” said Tankersley.

John Moore
John Moore, volunteer photographer
Veronica Harry Jackson
Veronica Harry-Jackson with GIS equipment

“We wouldn’t be able to pull off a project like this without a lot of dedicated volunteers.”

“The basis of the app was the plant collections database, but we realized that people like to find other things at the Garden, so we created a new second database for the app. It has points of interest at the Garden, like water fountains, classrooms, sculpture, the location of the Japanese Garden, and more,” said Van Deraa. Once the two databases were polished, they were worked into the architecture and mapping system for the app software.

The GIS, or interactive mapping function, was also a critical component. Both Tankersley and Van Deraa saw tremendous value in offering the ability for a user to go from their Garden location to their desired destination. “We have a large campus and much to see,” said Van Deraa, who uses the app herself. “I just get a thrill every time I want to find a plant,” she said. “There was an iris I wanted to see in the spring, I dialed it in, and I could just walk right up to it. That was so cool.”

Crested iris on the GardenGuide

For those who are not sure what to look for, there is a feature called What’s in Bloom Highlights. The feature highlights plants in bloom twice each week, with a map that shows the visitor how to walk to them.

Additional functions that were built in include audio tours, walking tours, and Van Deraa’s, favorite—maps leading to ‘secret spots’ such as the quiet bench atop the Waterfall Garden where birds visit early in the morning. “The GardenGuide app was designed to deepen the visitor experience with the Garden,” said Van Deraa. 

Gabriela Rocha and Sil Argentin
Gabriela Rocha and volunteer Sil Argentin

GardenGuide has been in use for nearly a year now, and updates are ongoing. In 2014, the app was awarded a Gold Trumpet by the Publicity Club of Chicago for distinguished achievement. Not resting on her laurels, though, Van Deraa has been focused on updating the software necessary to work with a new Android operating system, KitKat, which is now complete. The next version of the GardenGuide 2.0 is in the works.

Volunteers continue to take and add new photos, and research and input new pieces of information. “Because the Garden is constantly adding new plants to the collection, we are always adding new plants to the app,” said Tankersley. “In the long term, in effect this becomes a digital encyclopedia of plants.” Tankersley hopes to eventually add data on another 46,000 plants that have previously lived at the Garden and may one day return.

Users of the GardenGuide app can be assured that the information in the app has been updated with care by a remarkable team of volunteers and professionals working together.

It’s all there, in the palm of your hand, just waiting to be tapped.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (grant #MA-04-11-0101-11).

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Meet the Interns!

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.

PHOTO: Patrick Hogan, 2013 Production Intern
Patrick Hogan, 2013 production intern

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.”

PHOTO: Kyle McGreevy, 2013 Landscape Design Intern
Kyle McGreevy, 2013 landscape design intern

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].”

PHOTO: Mel Jensen, 2013 Horticulture Intern
Mel Jensen, 2013 horticulture intern

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. 

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and