With just a bit of effort, you can make your holiday table warm and inviting—and a worthy backdrop for your meal.
Nancy Clifton, former program specialist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, shared some easy, crafty ideas harvest-inspired centerpieces.
A Festive Look
Here’s how you can make Thanksgiving-themed floral centerpieces like a pro:
Pick flowers in autumn colors. Buy a few bunches of flowers in different fall colors and textures. Nancy chose red roses, yellow mums, red-yellow mums, and hypericum berries to give the arrangements some variety.
Paint Thanksgiving mason jars. If you want to up your Thanksgiving game, paint your vases in holiday colors such as brown, orange, and ivory. Nancy used craft paint on mason jars, and sanded the lettering on the jars to give them a vintage look.
Save time by measuring flowers. Nancy’s time-saving hack is to trim one flower with pruners and remove foliage at the bottom of the stem. Place that flower in the mason jar vase. If you’re happy with the height, remove the flower and use it as a measuring tool to trim the rest of your flowers.
Fancy Pumpkin Planters
Add a natural look to your table with pumpkin succulent centerpieces. The best part? You can repurpose and eat parts of them when you’re done.
Gather the basic tools and ingredients. Grab a hot-glue gun, reindeer moss, and floral picks. Gather small- and medium-sized pumpkins (you will want several), a succulent container, bunches of kale, and cabbages.
Assemble the planters. Cut the ends off of your succulents so they have a flat base, and set them aside. Adhere moss to the top of your medium-sized pumpkins with your hot-glue gun. Once the glue is dried, add the succulents on top of the moss, and adhere with hot glue or floral picks.
Arrange your centerpiece. When the pumpkins are dried, place them in the center of a large decorative tray. Add smaller pumpkins, bunches of kale, and cabbages to tray, arranging them in a bountiful display. You can even paint the stems of your small pumpkins with glitter-paint to give them extra-fancy glitz.
Add an intimate glow
Improvise! Try adding pumpkin planters, candles, and string lights to the centerpiece to bring a warm, enchanting feel.
There are in the neighborhood of 1,400 volunteers working, helping, contributing, and giving their time and energies to the Chicago Botanic Garden. This fact about the Garden amazes me every time I hear it.
Isn’t that astounding?
I began at the Garden as a volunteer, too, so this Thanksgiving, I wanted to talk to a few others to find out when, where, how, and why they volunteer.
Suffice to say that I met some awesome people. It’s a pleasure to tell their stories—and to honor them in this season of giving thanks.
Volunteers Can Connect
Five years ago, Jack Kreitinger bought his first ticket to Wonderland Express—and promptly fell in love with the show. An architect by trade, “I wanted to build those little houses out of bark,” he laughs. Instead, he attended that year’s Volunteer Fair and signed up to become a guide for the walking tour program. (Mark your calendar: our next Volunteer Fair is Sunday and Monday, March 1 and 2, from 1 to 3 p.m. in the Regenstein Center.)
Jack’s Favorite Getaway
For Jack, volunteering is about making connections with other people. “Gardeners are the coolest people on earth,” he says. “I’ve met such interesting people from all over the world and, as a tour guide, I can convey how much I love the Garden and why they should love it, too.” Jack’s natural communication and leadership skills have transformed the Walking Tour Guides team as well: he’s a volunteer team leader.
A committed time slot works well for Jack: Thursday mornings find him leading a 45-minute tour from the Crescent Garden through the Heritage Garden, Bonsai Collection, Circle Garden, Buehler Enabling Garden, English Walled Garden, and Krasberg Rose Garden; a second tour lasts a little longer since it’s open-ended.
“It grounds me in nature,” Jack explains, “since I get to see the changes in the gardens week by week, spring through fall.” Between his regular schedule, VIP tours, and special events (he takes special request tours!), Jack estimates that he’s hosted 1,500 people on tour in his five years as a volunteer.
“I get more out of it than I give,” he says. We respectfully and thankfully disagree.
Volunteers Can Specialize
Eight years ago, Ann Stevens took her first course in beekeeping. Seven years ago, the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden purchased eight new beehives and needed a beekeeper. It was a perfect match.
Ann’s Favorite View
Six years of volunteer beekeeping later, Ann does the math:
50,000 bees at the end of each summer
x eight beehives
x six years
= 2,400,000 bees
That’s a lot of beekeeping. And Ann’s work is a great example of the specialized roles of some volunteers at the Garden.
“I love the freedom of it,” Ann says. “It’s a job I can go to when the weather’s right for the bees. I love the seasonality of it: starting new hives, getting them settled, working through the seasons.”
Ann speaks eloquently about working with bees. “I learn new things from them every year. Even if hives are side by side, the results in each are different. You have to adjust, nurture, and give them your best, but you can’t control it all. There are things that are bigger than us, and I get to experience that through the bees.”
Like every volunteer that I had the pleasure of interviewing, Ann also spoke glowingly about the visitors she interacts with at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden. “It’s so beautiful to see so many different people: different ages, different languages being spoken, young couples, families teaching kids to be respectful of the garden. There’s an international feeling at the Garden, and I get to be part of that. I’m so grateful.”
We’re grateful, too, Ann.
Volunteers Can Contribute
First things first: Eileen Sirkin already had a Ph.D. in microbiology and a long-time family membership at the Garden before she became a volunteer.
Eileen’s Favorite Place
Ten years ago, she was ready to volunteer and to return to the field of science. Initially, she volunteered as a Plants of Concern citizen scientist (check it out here). When Dr. Jeremie Fant arrived at the Garden as a conservation scientist, she became a volunteer technician in the Molecular Ecology Lab—and has been there ever since.
“It’s like CSI for plants,” Eileen explains when asked about her lab work. Her assignments are wildly interesting (like most science!): her early work with Dr. Fant involved the selection of seagrass species to repopulate a section of Chicago’s Rainbow Beach; her current project involves the Jerusalem Botanic Garden and examines the DNA of Iris vartanii, a rare native that grows only in Israel.
Coworkers and volunteers are important to Eileen. “These are down-to-earth types of people, who love the natural world,” Eileen says. “There’s a lot of fellowship here.”
Also important is the sense of giving back and contributing to a larger cause. “The Garden saw something in me and gave me the opportunity to reactivate what was dormant—I’m grateful for the chance to return to science,” Eileen says at the end of our conversation. “I can’t leave this place. I love it.”
We’re so grateful for your contribution, Eileen.
Volunteers Can Influence
Carmen’s Favorite Spot
After 40 years as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools—teaching Spanish to kids little and big—Carmen Reyes had earned her retirement.
But after just six months, she missed the kids. And she missed teaching. So she turned to the Garden—a place that she already knew well from many summer visits—and she signed up as a greeter. When Judy Cashen, the ever-alert director, volunteer administration and engagement, asked her to help out in the education area, she jumped at the chance.
As an assistant for the school field trip programs, Carmen sets up for the classes that arrive, assists the team leaders, and does some presentations herself (her engaging approach to the subject of companion plants is always popular).
Carmen especially likes working with kids grades K through 8. “They’re wide-eyed, and they want more information,” she says. “Any bit of information that you offer is new to them.” Her bilingual skills are constantly in demand, and she often finds herself welcoming kids on field trips from her former employer, the Chicago Public Schools.
The Garden itself is a powerful draw. “You can’t beat the setting,” Carmen remarks. “And regardless of the time of year, there’s always something beautiful to see, something good for the soul. I’m thankful for the people who make it so beautiful and welcoming. It makes me feel like part of the family at the Garden.”
Thank you for investing in the next generation, Carmen.
Volunteers Have Fun
Carolyn’s Favorite Walk
Carolyn and Ed Hazan are the volunteer’s volunteer: they give of their time separately and together. Between the two of them, they’ve worked in nearly every garden, and the list of events that they’ve volunteered for reads like the year’s schedule at the Garden: Wonderland Express, the Orchid Show, World Environment Day, Kite Festival, Chef Series, and the Antiques & Garden Fair…and more
In 2001, when Ed decided that he wanted to learn how to grow vegetables, long-time volunteer Sam Darin suggested that he give volunteering a try. Both Ed and Carolyn began by volunteering two times per month—today they’re up to three or four days per week.
“It’s the people,” Carolyn says without hesitation when asked what drives them to volunteer. “We love it because we know everybody, and there’s always somebody new to talk to—you can never have too many friends!”
The photo of the couple says it all: they’re vibrant, intrepid, can-do people who have found their tribe at the Garden. And, yes, they’re washing the birch trees (every five years or so, the trees get a brightening scrub).
Thank you both for giving so much.
Three Cheers for Your Fellow Volunteers
Read about five award-winning volunteers in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing magazine (page 18). Ready to join us as a volunteer and make your mark at the Garden? Volunteering starts here.
If you’re ready to start a new tradition (enough already with the pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, and pumpkin cookies), consider this recipe for bourbon pumpkin-pecan fudge. The bourbon gives the fudge a bit of a kick (and who doesn’t need a little jump-start during the holidays?).
The recipe is simple enough to get the whole family involved. Think butter…pumpkin…toasted pecans—what’s not to like? And what better way to celebrate the season than to spend time together, break fudge together, and give thanks that you’re able to do so?
Pull out your candy thermometer, 4-quart sauce pan, wooden spoon, measuring cups and spoons, 13-by-9-inch pan, aluminum foil, nonstick cooking spray, and seasonal cookie cutters (and get the camera ready—not that anyone is going to lick the spoon…). This is going to be delicious.
Bourbon Pumpkin-Pecan Fudge
1¾ cups sugar
1¼ cups brown sugar
¾ cup unsalted butter
2/3 cup evaporated milk (5-ounce can)
½ cup canned pumpkin purée (no added sugar)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon allspice
2¼ cups white chocolate chips
7 ounces marshmallow fluff (any brand)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon bourbon (optional, but worth it!)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
Start by covering a 13-by-9-inch pan with aluminum foil. Spray the covered pan with cooking spray. Sprinkle the chopped pecans evenly over the bottom of the pan. (They do not have to completely cover it.) Set aside.
Combine the sugar, brown sugar, butter, evaporated milk, pumpkin purée, spices, and salt in a pan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and continue to boil until the temperature reaches 236 degrees Fahrenheit on your candy thermometer. Remove from heat.
Working quickly, add the white chocolate chips, marshmallow fluff, bourbon, and vanilla to the pan. Be careful, as this may spatter and will be very hot! Fold ingredients in until completely incorporated. Pour the hot fudge mixture over the chopped pecans and quickly spread evenly; it will immediately start to set up as it cools.
Place the pan uncovered in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours. Your mouth is probably watering already, but unfortunately, it will take this long to set up completely.
After cooling the pan completely for 3 hours, remove the pan from the refrigerator, and turn it upside down on a cutting board. The fudge should pop right out. Peel off the aluminum foil and discard. Want to make your treats extra special? Use cookie cutters to cut your fudge into festive autumn shapes—or maybe dinosaurs if you’re that kind of person—and enjoy!
Note: If you have it in your spice rack, you can substitute 3½ teaspoons of “pumpkin pie spice” for the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice.
I always look forward to seeing Indian corn in the market and finding it in autumn decorations. Indian corn—in its range of hues from blue to deep maroon to oranges, golds, and yellows—extends the colors of the season long after the tree leaves have faded and been raked away. It is one of November’s icons, reminding us of the cultural and botanical history of the continent.
“You call it corn; we call it maize.”
Or so the 1970s TV ad for Mazola margarine told us.
Long ago, “corn” used to be the term for any grain seed, including barley, wheat, and rye, so naturally the new world plant “maize”—botanically known as Zea mays—was labeled as another kind of corn when it was introduced in Europe. For some reason, the name stuck, and we all think of the sweet yellow stuff on our dinner plates (and its close relatives) as the one and only “corn.”
There are actually many varieties of maize-corn. Archaeologists are pretty sure that all of them resulted from the domestication and selective cultivation of the grass teosinte (pronounced tay-oh-SIN-tee), around 10,000 years ago by the people living in what is now Mexico. Over time, maize became a staple crop, yielding different varieties of nutritious and versatile grains throughout the American continent.
Indian corn is related to popcorn. These kinds of maize differ from other kinds in that they have a harder outer coating and a starchy interior with a bit of water inside the seed, or kernel. Popcorn pops when the kernel is heated quickly at a high temperature, causing the water inside the seed to suddenly turn into steam, inflating the starch. The sweet corn we love to eat and the dent corn used for tortilla chips and livestock feed will not produce a fluffy white snack when heated.
We can exploit these properties of Indian corn and turn the kernels into necklace beads to wear during the season.
How to make an Indian corn necklace
You will need the following:
Indian corn (one average-size cob will make two necklaces)
a sharp embroidery needle, long, with a large eye
string; you can use ordinary sewing thread, but a little heavier is better
a pot of water to cook and soften the corn
First, remove all the kernels from the cob. You can wedge a butter knife between the rows of kernels and twist to pop out the seeds. Once you get some of the cob stripped, you can rub the kernels loose with your thumb.
Place the corn kernels in a pot of water and boil for 30 minutes. (This isn’t hot enough for the corn to pop.) Test for doneness by removing three kernels. If you can push a needle through each of them easily, they are ready. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool. You can add cold water to cool them faster, but be sure to leave them soaking so they do not dry out, even when you are stringing them. (Pushing the needle through dry kernels can be a painful experience.)
While the corn is cooling, cut a string about three times as long as you would like your necklace to be. (You can work in shorter sections and tie them together, but it won’t look as nice.) Thread the needle and double the string; then knot the ends.
Now, select kernels in the colors you like, or pick them up randomly so the string resembles the color pattern of the corn cob. Try to pick softer pieces. Hold each kernel by the sides, and push the needle through the middle of the kernel so that the needle is not pointing toward your finger. Then slide it down the string. Leave a few inches of string below the first piece so you have some string to tie when you’re finished.
If the kernel is too hard and resists piercing, do not force it! Try to push the needle through at another angle, or discard that piece and select a softer one. This is important because you will prick yourself with the sharp needle if you are not careful. In fact, you’ll probably stab yourself at least once even if you are careful, so this is not a project for very young children.
Pack the moist seeds close together on the string. As they dry, they will shrink in size. You may want to slide them together a little tighter so the string doesn’t show, but you’ll also want to leave enough wiggle room so the necklace has flexibility. When your string of corn is long enough, allow the seeds to dry completely. Then tie the ends together and you will have an attractive necklace to wear to Thanksgiving dinner or other festive gatherings!
One final note: when I made a corn necklace in third grade as part of a unit on Native American culture, I was under the impression that indigenous people of long ago made and wore necklaces like this. No way. All corn was grown for food, and it was needed to sustain the population, so it would not have been turned into jewelry. This season, we can be thankful for the plentiful food we have to eat, and we can appreciate the beautiful colors of the corn as decoration during the feast.
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.
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.
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.