Green Gardens

From the ground up

Organic garden care is the foundation of our sustainable horticulture practices. In the spring, as we clean up the landscape and prepare for planting, we add compost to the gardens wherever it’s needed.

What’s compost? Compost is the result of natural processes that turn plant, animal and food waste into nutrient-rich loam that is ideal for gardening. Many conventional fertilizers and pesticides contain chemicals that can harm people, animals and the environment. Rain washes these chemicals off lawns and gardens, into storm sewers and out to lakes and rivers. At home, pets and people track these chemicals onto carpets. To protect the Great Lakes and the people and ecosystems they support, Shedd avoids using chemicals. Instead, we build healthy soil with compost that provides nutrients and beneficial microorganisms for our plants; these stay in the soil and won’t be washed away like many chemical fertilizers.

Why use expensive, toxic chemicals when you have the ingredients for naturally healthy soil in your own backyard? At Shedd, our high-quality organic compost starts with our own garden trimmings—weeds, grass, leaves—and leftovers from our kitchen that are mixed with cow manure, bark, straw, woodchips, sawdust and chipped brush at a composting facility. A balanced mixture of these materials, along with the presence of naturally occurring microorganisms that digest the dead matter, creates dark, odorless, light and fluffy soil-like compost. In the spring, we add compost to the gardens wherever it’s needed.

How much compost you need depends on what you plant. In areas that need more nutrients, such as vegetable gardens, spread a 1- to 2-inch layer of compost over the tops of beds, where it will slowly filter into the soil. Spreading a layer on top prevents tilling your garden, which can damage soil structure (the size of soil’s particles and the space between those particles). Structure matters because it helps hold moisture and deliver air and nutrients to the plants’ roots. Good compost actually improves soil structure: Its hard-working microorganisms break down dead plant matter and increase the soil’s ability to retain water. Compost is also great for new plants and trouble spots. The Museum Campus was built on landfill that includes rubble from the 1871 Chicago Fire, so our soil isn’t perfect. Compost adds nutrients and improves soil health and structure in areas that are heavy with clay. Since we’ve been working to build healthy soil for many years, we’ve reached the point where we don’t need to apply compost to the entire garden each year.

Good bugs

Think all bugs are bad? Not so! Good, or “beneficial,” insects are as important to soil health as the microorganisms in our compost. Some beneficial insects eat harmful garden pests, while others pollinate our plants in their quest for nectar. Without pollinators, many plants could not produce fruits, vegetables, or seeds. Pollinators are not only important to our own vegetable and flower gardens but also to farms that supply the food we eat.
So how can you attract the good guys? Plant flowers! Every pollinator species is attracted to a different type of flower, drawn to its color, scent, shape, or markings. A variety of garden flowers that bloom at different seasons will create a regular food source for pollinators and beneficial insects. You can also provide a clean water source, using a shallow container with gently sloping sides that lets bugs access the water without drowning. Finally, good bugs are another reason to keep your garden chemical-free: An organic garden supports their presence, which helps reduce pests naturally.

The right plant for the right place

Choosing the right flowers and other plants is important to maintaining balance in the garden. By choosing native plants for landscaping, we provide our native beneficial insects, birds and other wildlife with the food and shelter to which they have evolved. Native plants also require less water and maintenance because they are adapted to the local climate.

A native plant is one that has occurred within an ecosystem or habitat historically and without human influence. Native species have adapted over thousands of years to thrive in a specific habitat that can be defined by temperature, soil conditions and moisture levels, as well as the presence of other native plants, animals and pests. Native habitats are held in balance by the diversity of their organisms, which have evolved together.

As part of Shedd’s sustainable gardening practices, we use our landscapes to create native habitats for wildlife. In 2008, we renovated our Lake Michigan dune habitat, removing ornamental grasses and replacing them with Midwest native plants that provide year-round flowers for pollinators and good bugs. Why did we remove the grasses? We found that they had become invasive. An invasive plant is a non-native species that establishes itself in a habitat where it does not naturally occur, reproduces vigorously without human aid and threatens native plants by dominating the available water, light, nutrients and space.

Many non-native plants came to the United States for ornamental use, as in the case of our dune grass, or for livestock feed and erosion control. Not all non-native plants become invasive, but ones that do eventually can replace most native vegetation, which reduces plant and wildlife diversity throughout the area, whether it’s an entire ecosystem or your backyard garden. You can’t use a fence, a road, or a property line to contain invasive species: Birds, wind and water carry seeds far from the original plants. It’s best to avoid planting them and work instead with native species.

Gardens for all creatures

Birds are a prominent part of the wildlife at Shedd Aquarium. Our Lake Michigan location positions us along a migratory bird route that stretches from North to South America. Along this route, our backyards, parks and shorelines have become important areas for migratory birds to rest and refuel along their journey. Gardens with native trees, shrubs and perennials help restore migratory and wildlife habitat that has been replaced by urban development.

In 2009, Shedd installed an outdoor terrace and needed to redesign the surrounding landscape. Rather than replace the original lawn, gardeners installed a diverse population of plants that provide food and shelter for many types of native wildlife. The new migratory bird garden is situated along the lake; strong winds and low light challenged our staff to find native plants that could tolerate the conditions. We installed a community of native trees, shrubs and perennials to provide continuous flowering throughout the season as well as variations in texture and color.

In nature, plants occur in communities, or small groups, within a natural setting like a prairie or woodland. Creating distinct plant communities within your garden creates a strong visual impact and keeps the garden from looking messy or poorly designed. One or two coneflowers in a garden bed have much less visual impact than 15 or 20 together. Moreover, a large group of bright flowers tells birds and bugs that this is a good place to find food.

Habitat creation starts from the ground up. Using compost to create healthy soil helps plants thrive. These healthy plants provide places for beneficial insects such as ladybugs and praying mantis to live and hunt. In turn, beneficial insects help control pests so plants can grow and produce flowers. It is these flowers that provide nectar for pollinators, which help many plants produce fruit and seeds—and a garden bursting with flowers, fruits, seeds, nuts and insects is sure to draw many birds.

In addition to food and shelter, water is an important factor in creating habitat. Anything from a simple puddle to an elaborate water fountain can be a water source. To make the water accessible and safe for wildlife, use shallow containers with gently sloping sides. 

Be water wise

In Shedd’s migratory bird garden, native plants minimize the amount of water required. Because the garden is next to a large stone terrace, we installed rain barrels to collect runoff rainwater that can be used for supplemental watering during droughts.

In addition to rain barrels and native plants, Shedd employs other methods to decrease water consumption. Some garden areas feature annuals that demand much more water than our drought-tolerant natives. For these areas, which require summer irrigation, Shedd times its sprinkler systems to operate very early in the morning.  Morning irrigation prevents losing moisture to evaporation from the sun’s hot rays.

Shedd also uses drip irrigation or soaker hoses whenever possible. This type of irrigation is not only simple to install but also the most efficient way to water: water drips directly into the soil instead of being sprayed into the air, where it’s lost to evaporation. We like to use this system in Shedd’s food garden because many fruit and vegetable plants need year-round moisture yet perform better when watered at the roots. Soaker hoses also give us the flexibility to redesign our garden’s layout from year to year. A simple timer can turn on your soaker hoses early in the morning for a set period. This allows the soil to soak up moisture before the hot afternoon sun arrives—and you won’t forget to turn off the hose!

Mulch applications also help Shedd conserve by helping the soil retain moisture, which results in fewer supplemental waterings. Plus, a 1- to 2-inch layer of mulch helps keep weeds at bay. We like to lay out our mulch once we’ve completed a large planting project, usually in the spring and fall. Any mulch left over the winter will decompose into the soil for next season. Our favorite mulch is cocoa shells from Chicago’s own Blommer’s Chocolates. The shells are a natural byproduct from the chocolate-making process and do not require extra resources to produce. You’ll know when we’ve laid down a layer of mulch by the dark chocolate color and smell!  

We design gardens that are best suited to our landscape’s growing conditions, which change from very hot and dry in some places to wet and shady in others. Our south terrace gardens feature a xeriscape (pronounced ZAIR-eh-scayp) garden planted with native and drought-tolerant plants. Once established, xeriscapes require almost no water and very little maintenance. Plants grow snugly into one another, leaving little space for weeds. The garden produces flowers throughout the season, making it a great place to watch the bees and butterflies at work. The range of colors and textures in the xeriscape garden changes with each season, so be sure to visit it throughout the year.

On the opposite side of the building, our rain garden uses native plants in a different way. Instead of tolerating very little water, our rain garden loves every drop sent its way! A downspout from the stone terrace above directs rainwater into a shallow depression filled with deep-rooted, water-loving plants. These plants slowly filter water into the ground, reducing the debris-filled runoff generated by heavy rains. Rain gardens filter polluted water that would otherwise flow through sewer systems into rivers and lakes. 

Edible landscaping

Edible plants flourish at Shedd. Our restaurant visitors as well as our employees and animals enjoy the bounty of our organic fruits, vegetables and herbs. Look carefully at the gardens, and you’ll see hot and sweet peppers tucked between Swiss chard, sunflowers and pansies. Curly parsley and leafy greens overflow from self-watered containers. Culinary herbs, such as basil, oregano and rosemary, grow in flower boxes on our lakeside terrace.

Our edible plants are grown organically and don’t have to travel far—a quick snip and they’re inside the aquarium being fed to lizards and tortoises, or staff! Large or small, organic food gardens help offset the fertilizers and fuels used in the production and delivery of conventional produce. Imagine how much energy and resources you can save simply by growing tomatoes at home! Growing your own food can be rewarding to you and kind to the environment—and save you money.

The original Shedd vegetable garden is a traditional row garden tucked into the main terrace on a warm southwest corner. In February, we grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and herbs from seed in a greenhouse. A second vegetable garden sits on the north side of our main terrace. This “square-foot garden” is divided into six 4-by-4-foot squares with paths that provide access to each bed’s center. This is a great design for anyone with limited space. Each square foot contains a different type of vegetable or fruit, maximizing the food produced in a very small area. One 4-by-4-foot square can feed one vegetarian or two omnivores all summer.

Natural lawn care

Shedd Aquarium’s two acres of lawn along Lake Michigan aren’t exempted from sustainable gardening practices. The lawn is treated with compost and other organic nutrients, and we fight dandelions with regular hand pulling and corn gluten applications in early spring and late fall. Healthy lawns with deep roots can better fight weeds for soil, space, water and nutrients; to strengthen our root system, Shedd keeps our lawn around 3 inches tall. The taller the grass reaches, the deeper the roots grow. Deep roots require less supplemental watering in summer, while taller grass shades out germinating weed seeds.

Shedd uses a mulching mower that allows the clippings to fall back into the grass. It is important to mow frequently, removing an inch or less of the lawn’s height, as the smaller grass clippings decompose quickly on the soil’s surface contributing important nutrients the lawn needs to remain healthy. Well-maintained, sharp blades make clean cuts that are better able to retain moisture and color.

Lawns generally need 1 inch of water per week including rainfall, so we avoid overwatering and use a rain gauge to track how much water our gardens receive during storms. Make an at-home rain gauge by using a small container, marking off each inch starting from the bottom and attaching a stake to hold it upright to catch rain as it falls. Overwatering is not only wasteful but causes more work in the end: It can contribute to lawn disease, eventually requiring the grass to be replaced or reseeded.

The next time you visit Shedd, take a few moments to stroll through the gardens where you can witness conservation practices in action. Maybe you’ll be inspired to plant a garden in your home that uses native species and organic management to create beautiful, wildlife friendly places.

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