Teaching the Next Generation at the Chicago Botanic Garden


Last month while attending the Garden2Blog event, I had the great pleasure of spending our last morning in Arkansas with three of my closest friends and fellow garden bloggers — Shawna Coronado, Michael Nolan and Carolyn Binder. As we walked around the streets of Little Rock fully enjoying each other’s company, we brainstormed ways we could collaborate online since geography makes it difficult for us to see each other on a regular basis (with Michael in Georgia, Carolyn in Florida, and Shawna and me in Illinois — three hours apart). Before we parted ways in the Little Rock airport, we agreed that our first project together would be joint botanic garden visits. Shawna and I would visit the Chicago Botanic Garden and Michael and Carolyn would visit the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. On June 1 and 2, the idea we hatched in Little Rock came to life. This is my first post about the experience.

Shawna and I were enthusiastically welcomed to the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG) by Julie McCaffrey, Media Relations Manager at CBG. After a lunch filled with good food and great conversation, Julie asked us what we were interested in seeing. I knew what my answer would be. As we drove into CBG, I saw a sign promoting the grand opening of the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden scheduled for the next day (June 2). Of course, I wanted a first glimpse of the newest attraction at CBG a day before it was open to the public. Shawna agreed, and off we motored in a golf cart.

The Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden was built in place of an overflow parking lot on the far southern end of the 385-acre gardens.

The pathway into the garden is lined with an artistically-designed living wall. I can just imagine the throngs of children that will line past the way marveling at this living masterpiece, invited by both color and texture. I hope the plants can hold up to a lot of little fingers.

From the moment Shawna and I entered the garden, we were like two pollinators, flitting and buzzing from feature to feature — occasionally checking with Julie for details. I’ve always loved visiting gardens with other plant-crazy friends. We share a passion for gardening, but each have our own way of seeing the garden. I often learn more by watching my friends explore a garden than I do through my own eyes.

The container designs in the main courtyard were bright and bold, perfect for grabbing the attention of kids as they emerge from the living wall path. While the gardens overall didn’t use a great deal of bright color, I found these containers to be the perfect touch.

The outdoor classroom is made up of raised beds where students can learn about planting and growing a variety of vegetables and ornamental plants. The beds with the shallow planting pans are designed so that students in wheelchairs can participate in the activities. Julie explained that the beds were fully planted for the grand opening, but would be used as hands-on learning and planting for those students who participate in the CBG children’s programs.

The gardens are equipped to handle a large number of students at once, from the accessible beds on one end to ground-level beds on the other.

Handwritten signs (what Julie called CBG’s ephemeral signs) dot the gardens, providing easily-digestible snippets of learning. The social media addict in me thought of these as real life tweets throughout the garden.

When I first saw this water pump at one end of the garden, I thought it might be ornamental. Far from it. The garden is built on top of an extensive rainwater collection system, and this is a working cistern pump for providing water to the planting beds.

Sustainability efforts are obvious throughout CBG, but the Grunsfeld garden brings the idea of recycling and reuse to the forefront. Compost bins and rainwater collection systems are integrated into the design. I was attracted to the well-designed enclosures, as many systems that make a garden more sustainable often make them less attractive. I’ve resisted installing rain barrels in my home garden because I consider them unsightly. The wooden enclosures at CBG certainly weren’t inexpensive solutions, but did show me that I could achieve greater sustainability without sacrificing aesthetics.

Chicago Botanic Garden prides itself on being more than just a collection of gardens. It is an educational institution in its own right. For years, it has provided learning opportunities — primarily for adults. With the addition and opening of the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden, CBG hopes to teach the next generation the benefits of growing, the importance of sustainability, and the fragile intricacy of our ecosystems.

For more information about the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden, please see the Chicago Botanic Garden website at http://www.chicagobotanic.org/learningcampus/growinggarden .

Many thanks to Julie McCaffrey and Chicago Botanic Garden for the hospitality during our visit. I will be sharing more of the trip to Chicago Botanic Garden in subsequent posts, but please be sure to read Shawna, Michael and Carolyn’s botanic garden posts at:

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