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Diggin' It

A swale idea

By Craig Summers Black / September 23, 2009

The new Rice Plant Conservation Science Center opens in Chicago on September 23.

Photo courtesy of Craig Summers Black

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Remember when you used to watch the pizza makers behind the glass at Shakey’s Pizza? Well, the new Plant Conservation Science Center at the Chicago Botanic Garden works much the same way. With only the clear panes for separation, you can watch 31 scientists and researchers clean seeds, analyze soil, add to their seed bank,  and smile and wave as you stroll through this sleek, sophisticated green building. Unlike Shakey’s Pizza, however, there's no Dixieland band.

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The focus of the $40 million building is to save plants and thus, well, the planet.

“One-third of the world’s plants could become extinct in the next 50 years,” says Sophia Siskel, president and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden. “This is more than a building: It represents the garden’s commitment to solving plant conservation challenges through research and education.”

And why should you and I care?

“We depend on plants,” Ms. Siskel says, “for food, clothing, shelter, fuel, medicine, and oxygen.”

Oxygen – a good thing to have.

Also, a little more down to earth, the building is cool in the extreme – like walking through one of those nifty homebuilders show projects for plant geeks and greenies.

Cottonwood trees on site were milled for ceiling and trim work. A seamless floor is made of recycled tires. Two hundred and eighty-eight solar panels line the roof overhang, providing 5 percent of the building’s power (doesn’t sound like much, but in a research center this is huge). And a green roof (a living lab) filters rain through a rainwater glen under the building, which is built on piers.

Please don’t roll your eyes at the mention of yet another rain garden. Yes, I know: Most of the ones I’ve seen were either 1) too small to be effective or 2) just plain ugly. This one, rest assured, is gorgeous in a way that other kinds of gardens can be gorgeous. And it is large enough to direct and absorb overflow when the nearby Skokie River rises out of its banks. And the design of this swale is so integral to the building site that a handsome footbridge over it provides the main access to the building.

Want to learn more about rainwater glens? Click here.

Want to see more of the building and its garden? Click here.

Now you can transplant these ideas to your garden.

If you go...

The Chicago Botanic Garden is a 385-acre living-plant museum featuring 24 distinct display gardens surrounded by lakes, woodlands, and a prairie. The garden is open every
day of the year, except Dec. 25. Admission is free. Parking is $20 per car, free for garden members. The garden is located at 1000 Lake Cook Road in Glencoe, Ill. Visit www.chicagobotanic.org, or call (847) 835-5440 for seasonal hours.

Editor’s note: This afternoon, Craig Summers Black will tell readers about other things they can see at the garden. Look for more blog posts by The Transplanted Gardener, Craig Summers Black, at our blog archive. For more Monitor gardening, see our main gardening page and our RSS feed.

You may also want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest. We’ll be looking for photographs of fruits. So find your best shots of summer’s blueberries, peaches, plums, etc., and get out your camera to take some stunning shots of early fall apples. Post them before Sept. 30, 2009, and you could be the next winner.

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