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Field Museum takes organic approach to gardening exhibit

Marybeth Brewer unpacks plants for Edible Treasures exhibit west side Field Museum  which showcases organic gardening techniques heirloom varieties

Marybeth Brewer unpacks plants for the Edible Treasures exhibit, on the west side of the Field Museum, which showcases organic gardening techniques and heirloom varieties of plants. Friday, June 1, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: July 7, 2012 8:03AM

‘I always say, ‘Have a sculpture in your garden.’ But this is something else,” said Diane Ott Whealy, as she pointed up at the Field Museum’s iconic 40-foot tall Brachiosaurus.

That herbivore has some new plants to keep him company. The Field Museum has teamed up with Seed Savers Exchange and the Peterson Garden Project to create an outdoor exhibit featuring organic gardening.

The space, called the Edible Treasures Garden, is free and open to the public. It is maintained by Field Museum staff, and showcases organic techniques and heirloom varieties of plants. Visitors can walk between the high cedar garden beds (or roll; the garden is ADA compliant), learn about gardening and watch the staff maintain the wide variety of plants.

Some are themed to the location: lacinato kale (called dinosaur kale because of its texture), dinosaur gourds and wooly thyme, meant to evoke the mammoths in the museum’s collection. Others are heirlooms from Seed Savers (see related story). Outhouse hollyhocks, five-color silverbeet, Amish snap peas and lavender will share space with colorful varieties of tomatoes and peppers. Visitors inspired to plant at home will find informational signs and Seed Savers seeds for sale in the museum’s gift shop.

The Edible Treasures garden has been years in the making. As the Field Museum developed the new Abbott Hall of Conservation, there was talk about ways to do things outdoors to link to the exhibit’s content indoors. “As we investigated more and more, what got people really excited was the idea of a garden,” explained Carter O’Brien, chair of the Museum’s Green Team. “Landscaping is passive, but how great would it be to have something active that could be linked into the exhibit!” The staff was excited too; 50 people signed on to help maintain the garden.

LaManda Joy, founder of the Peterson Garden project, was the right woman for the job. Two years ago, she founded her first community garden and it was a huge success. The same organization now runs five gardens with hundreds of participants. Getting into the Field Museum was a dream for a long time. “Our mission is to recruit, educate and inspire people to grow their own food,” said Joy. “This is a very big audience to be able to reach.” The garden is sponsored by Jewell Events Catering (which hopes to use produce from the garden for events at the Museum) and the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County.

Diane Ott Whealy, the designer of the garden, is the co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit in Decorah, Iowa, committed to the preservation of heirloom seeds and plants. Seed Savers provided all of the seeds and plants for the exhibit. Whealy had never designed a garden outside of the organization’s Heritage Farm headquarters, but she is very excited to get in front of the huge audiences that the Field provides. “You can talk about genetic diversity all you want,” explained Whealy, “but seeing it makes it real.”

Seed Savers mission is to prevent heirloom varieties from going extinct. The organization “started from just a handful of seeds” according to Whealy, but they now preserve more than 25,000 rare varieties of plants, trees, fruits and vegetables. While some objects are best preserved in climate-controlled vaults, plants are preserved best by growing and eating them, to make sure they remain viable and in production. These heirloom varieties also have become popular because of their unique appearance and great taste, and you can often find heirlooms in grocery stores, at farmers markets and on restaurant menus.

This first year, the garden will be a bit of an experiment. The space presents some unique challenges, both for the museum and the garden designer. “It’s windy and very hot, and the soil is new,” Whealy pointed out. At Heritage Farm, she’s spent 20 years building up the soil with compost. However, that can’t happen at the Museum. “It turns out to be incredibly complicated to do anything outdoors,” Carter explained. “It falls into an administrative gray area.” Since the preservation of the museum’s collections is the primary concern, the garden cannot attract pests — that means no compost. Whealy and Joy spent months in consultation with each department at the museum to make sure that the project wouldn’t cause any harm, but the space has never contained anything more complicated than a few picnic tables.

Despite the difficulties, hopes are high. If the project succeeds, it may expand to more of the Museum’s outdoor space. Signage will get more elaborate, eventually incorporating bar codes visitors can scan with their smart phones to learn more about individual plant varieties. Home gardeners will be educated on organic methods and companion planting — the use of multiple types of plants, grouped together, to encourage growth and discourage pests. The Field Museum has antique seed collections dating back to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and the growing exhibit garden might be used to connect the living heirlooms with jars of antique seeds.

At the official planting back in March, a group of Field Museum employees gathered around Whealy as she prepared to start the garden. She was surrounded by potted plants and packets of seeds, and as she handed out spades, someone asked, “What is the connection between gardening and the Field Museum?” “People have always had to eat and grow food,” Whealy replied.

You wouldn’t guess it from looking at the concrete of Lake Shore Drive in the distance, but a small hint of nature’s bounty to come was already taking up residence. As Whealy gave her lesson, bees already had begun to gather around the lavender seedlings.

Anthony Todd is a local free-lance writer.

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