The summer of 2020 marked the beginning of our gardening journey when Derek and I grew plants from seed packets on the windowsill of our apartment for the community garden plot. Over the course of the next several months, we learned how to grow organic vegetables, fruits, and lots of sunflowers. So when given the opportunity to visit a new garden, park, or arboretum, we know the amount of work that goes into growing such spectacular places. It is with great respect that we admire the work of the master gardeners who design these spaces and maintain their beauty.
In the spring of 2021, Derek surprised me with a family membership to the Chicago Botanic Garden now that we live in Northwest Indiana. This membership has not only resulted in repeat visits to Chicago, but also adventures to several of the many Midwestern gardens that carry reciprocal membership. The Chicago Botanic Garden is a living museum where no two visits are ever the same. I learn something new every time we visit, absorbing the ever-changing landscape with fresh eyes in each season.
Everything was new! Birding, first flowers, tulips –optimism, stillness, and anticipation for the season that rubs shoulders with the harshest months of the year. No season is more longed for, or dreamed about, than spring. We arrived as soon as the garden opened on a brisk morning with the intentions to see as much of its 385 acres as we could. As we crossed the gateway bridge, all we could see were tulips with their blossoms still tucked away in the early hours before the crowds arrived. We canvassed the grounds of the main loop for a few hours discovering the diverse beauty all around us. Highlights included the Japanese garden, greenhouses, and winding paths of flowers.
By late morning of our visit, the tulips had opened up to wave goodbye. There was still so much more left for us to see next time.
The heat had arrived. Roses and summer annuals brought vibrant colors with fruits and vegetables. We had hoped to bring our family to the gardens but a rainy day changed our plans to visit the Garfield Park Conservatory instead. Our next visit coincided with a business trip in Chicago so Derek dropped me off to explore for the day while at work. I took the tram tour to get an overview of the grounds before strolling the paths to find places to paint on location.
I took my day in the garden as an opportunity to deep dive into its history and operations. I learned that the horticulturalists conduct genetic testing of native plants while removing invasive species by hand and perform controlled burns in their forests. Plants are grown from seeds and staged for each season including the Circle Garden that rotates three times during the summer to display the most colorful blooms at their peak times of the summer season.
Other interesting facts include:
- The Fruit and Vegetable Garden partners with community organizations that deliver produce to nine neighborhoods in downtown Chicago that wouldn’t otherwise have access to organic foods.
- The Beech tree is the oldest tree on the original property at 90 years old with a base that looks like the foot of an elephant.
- Plant harvesters collect algae from the water to be recycled into mulch.
- Spider Island is named in honor of the donor with the nickname of Spider because she loved nature so much that she couldn’t even squash a spider!
Late Summer/Early Fall
The colors were vibrantly changing as summer faded into autumn. It is a very different view of the prairie this time of the year. We returned to the gardens a couple times before the school year started to see the bonsai collection and take a bike trip on the North Branch Trail. The bonsai trees are only on display from May to October and some trees are over 1,000 years old. The collection is so valuable that the trees have wire alarms to protect them. As an owner of a young bonsai tree, I was thrilled to be able to see their collection up close.
The gardens are connected by several surrounding bike trails. We biked a 30 mile round trip on the North Branch trail that was on the outskirts of the Chicago Botanic Garden.
The flower beds were empty and tree skeletons twisted as if stretching to the sky with a dusting of snow-lined branches. If we lived closer, the garden would be a great place to run in evenings during the winter months when there are less visitors and open paths to roam. The membership office sent us free tickets to the orchid show so we made a quick trip for a morning when we were in the area. The greenhouses were overflowing with orchid varieties from around the world in all manner of striped, spotted, and vibrant decorations.
Derek’s favorite plant was the Darwin Orchid, discovered by Charles Darwin in 1862. The Darwin Orchid is a white flower with a long tubular structure that the famous naturalist predicted the orchid’s pollinator to be a “huge moth with a wonderfully long proboscis” (or straw-like tongue) that was confirmed only 130 years later.
It is amazing how one place can transform with such interesting surprises each time we visit. Surrounding ourselves in nature gives us the chance to unwind and appreciate each season for the unexpected beauty that is subtly revealed in its time. The Chicago Botanic Garden has been a source of fascination and adventure for us throughout the year with memories we can breathe in until we return to take it all in again.
“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”—John Steinbeck
“For everything there is a season…a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…” -Ecclesiastes 3:1-8