Saturday, July 24, 2010

Chicago Done Naturally (Post 3 of 10) - Chicago Botanic Garden

Screwiest admissions system ever. Going to the garden is free. Good deal, right? It’ll cost you $20 to park your car there. Not so bad if you bring three or four others with you, but if you go on your own (and personally, if I’m going to shoot, I prefer not to be worried about if someone else is bored while I shoot the same poppy for half an hour or whatever), it’s a $20 ticket. The website does give public transportation directions, but I’m a veteran of Chicago’s public transit system and it looked a bit daunting to me. I’d lose an insane amount of time in transport and I’d be dragging my gear all over creation… so.. *shrug*.

This is a great place to spend some time learning your camera or a new lens. Obviously what you can see in a huge flower garden will change pretty much monthly. Tulips come in early, but then go out again, roses and peonies come in later, vegetables and fruits flower in the spring and have fruit in the fall…

You’ll run into tons of other photographers out here and relatively few school groups. This place is really big. This place ended up being a big old object lesson for me in Tip #3 - bring your own food. There’s a café attached to the visitor’s center but it’s a little on the pricey side. I normally bring a PB&J, but since I forgot mine, I ended up buying one from them… it was $3 and slightly stale. On the good news side, I’ll remember my own sandwich next time! They do let you fill your reusable water bottle from their tap for free, in fact they don’t even sell bottled water (bottled everything else, sure, but not water) so bring a jug. If you forget, you can get a little recyclable cup, but you can’t exactly troop around with that all day.

The website for the CBG also has a photography section, but it’s a little confusing. The bit that got me was whether or not I needed a permit – for $125. I did not. Unless you’re doing prom or wedding photos or something, you’re good without one. I have not figured out why they list “no alcohol in the garden” as a photography rule. Do we have a rep I don’t know about?

Watch the week’s weather and plan for a bright but calm day if you have a little flexibility. I know Chicago doesn’t get its “Windy City” nickname for its weather, but we can get some good breezes going. Which can really muck with your focus.

For me, at least, this was a huge exercise in shoot the signs. I had no idea how many kinds of tulips there were. Or even that some of the things I was looking at were tulips. (And while I don’t know a LOT of plants, I thought I had tulips surrounded. Not so much.) To the good, they do have a current list of all the plants in a given garden online. ( so if you at least know where you saw it, you can start narrowing it down. (of course, I’m trying to use it in reverse to tell you all where I found my favorite new flower, and I can’t find it. Gr.)

Also, check the website for their once monthly photo walks. They actually have a professional photographer take you around the garden and teach you the best ways to shoot the plants and landscapes. You bring your camera and learn as you shoot.

If you have one, bring your macro lens. There’s some amazing stuff up close. I found a butterfly in the Circle Garden right at the beginning and a bee the size of my thumb was checking out the Bleeding Hearts the same time I was. Not to mention being able to get photographs of grains of pollen.

Don’t be afraid to go off the paths and onto the grass (unless there’s a sign saying, you know, not to, like by the Japanese Gardens) to get up close and personal to things. When I was there the apple trees were in bloom and there were staff people encouraging you to go walk through the orchard.

To hit:
I’m definitely planning to go back in like September when the trees and vegetables and berry bushes will all be bearing fruit. But even now, late April, the flowers on the trees were awesome (OMG, did the apple orchard SMELL good).

The bulb garden was amazing, but already some of the stems were starting to wither. So check the website to see how tulips, daffodils and such are doing.

But I have to say, my favorite part was the English Walled Garden and the Mr. Fokker’s Poppies. Not just because I’m 12 years old some days and the name amused me (they’re also called Anemone coronaria Mr. Fokker), but because they are gorgeous flowers that photographed quite well.

I thought I covered at least 2/3 of the Garden when I was out there last week, but looking at the map I’m finding a lot of areas I didn’t see. Again, you may want to check out the interactive map on the website and make a plan. Big place, lots of flowers. You’ll probably need lots of time.

BTW, please don’t ask me why the one section is called “The Enabling Garden”. I have no idea who or what they’re enabling. :p 

The waterfall garden. There are three bridges that cross the waterfall, which let you set up your tripod and play with that ‘make water move in your picture’ long-shutter thing everyone (that I’ve talked to) has to try at least once.

You know the ones, the ones that go from this...                                   

To this...

To Miss:
They said there’s a greenhouse of tropical plants in the Regenstein Center, but I couldn’t find it. I suspect it’s there, but personally, since I got such great weather I wanted to spend my time outside.

This is very much a YMMV thing, but I didn’t find the Japanese Garden all the fascinating when I went. Not much color or anything wildly unusal.

And like I said, bring food, the café is pretty pricey, even for a place like this.

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