Gardening at the Field Museum: SUST Major Laura Miller Hill Reports on Her Summer Sustainability Internship

During the summer of 2015, several Roosevelt University students majoring in Sustainability Studies did internships or pursued study abroad opportunities in various locales around the world, from Chicago to Hawaii and from Schaumburg to Scandinavia. We’re posting their reports from the field on their activities, adventures, and advocacy work in the service of environmental conservation, sustainable development, and social justice.

Here’s the final post from Laura Miller Hill, a senior SUST major who interned at Chicago’s world-renowned Field Museum along beautiful Lake Michigan.

Native gardens outside the Field Museum (photo: L. Miller Hill)

Native gardens outside the Field Museum (photo: L. Miller Hill)

Stormwater runoff is a major cause of water pollution in urban areas. Green infrastructure (using vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage water) can mitigate stormwater runoff and increase plant and animal biodiversity, while the use of native plants, instead of non-native perennials and annuals, can reduce water use and create healthy ecosystems. Once deep-rooted native gardens are established, they open up the soil which helps retain rainwater, thereby reducing chemical runoff into nearby lakes, rivers, and streams. Planting native gardens instead of non-native perennials and annuals also mitigates the urban heat island effect, as tallgrass prairie and wet swale ecosystems allow for temperature reduction through hairy and light-colored stems and increased shading from tall grasses and plants.

Beehives outside the Shedd Aquarium. (photo: L. Miller Hill)

Beehives outside the Shedd Aquarium. (photo: L. Miller Hill)

By utilizing green infrastructure practices and working to increase biodiversity, both the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium have created more sustainable and diverse environments in the green spaces adjacent to the museums. The Shedd’s Green Gardens include organic vegetable, migratory bird, native plant, and rain gardens, and are managed using sustainable practices. They have become a living example of the Shedd’s conservation ethic, while providing inspiration for staff and visitors.

The Field Museum has also made a commitment to using sustainable practices in their gardens, and in 2013 adopted a Strategic Plan that included the planting of native gardens around the Museum. This Plan was implemented to create more biodiversity on the Museum Campus, and provide an area outside the Museum where Field Museum staff can engage the public in lessons related to conservation, sustainability, and climate change. Both the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium gardens are part of the Burnham Corridor Green Infrastructure Plan, an area stretching from the Museum Campus to the Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore.

The Field Museum’s Edible Treasures community garden. (photo: L. Miller Hill)

The Field Museum’s Edible Treasures community garden.
(photo: L. Miller Hill)

Sustainably or responsibly managed food gardens can play the same role as native gardens by increasing biodiversity, but have the added benefit of building stronger communities and providing locally grown healthy food. The Field Museum has gone to great effort in building and maintaining its own community-based food system on the Museum’s sunny west terrace. The raised beds of the Edible Treasures Garden produce an abundance of organic vegetables and fruits from April to early October and provide a refuge for staff, volunteers, and interns. Those who choose to volunteer once a week for a lunch hour of urban farming can connect with their food and their workplace community—and bring home a bag of local produce grown and harvested by their own hands.

The name “Edible Treasures” was inspired by two separate elements of the project: the contrast between the edible treasures growing in the gardens and the non-edible treasures in the Museum, and the fact that all the plants grown in the garden are heirloom fruits and vegetables started from seeds provided by the Seed Savers Exchange. As opposed to the common agricultural practices of monoculture and the use of genetically modified seeds, heirloom seeds are “edible treasures” that need to be preserved and utilized for future generations to create a more genetically diverse and stable food system. The Edible Treasures Garden also serves as a demonstration garden to show visitors how urban gardening can be accomplished anywhere—even within the confines of one of the most respected natural history museums in the world, and only steps away from the shores of Lake Michigan.

The Field Museum’s Katie Baltensperger and basil from the Edible Treasures Garden. (photo: L. Miller Hill)

The Field Museum’s Katie Baltensperger and basil from the Edible Treasures Garden. (photo: L. Miller Hill)

The partnership between The Field Museum and the Peterson Garden Project is one of the reasons the Edible Treasures Garden is so successful. Throughout the growing season, Peterson Garden Project’s Gardens & Education Program Manager, Breanne Heath, (with help from Museum employees and garden leaders Erin King and Melissa Anderson) manages the garden with off-site organization and weekly visits throughout the growing season.  Breanne begins the season by communicating with garden volunteers, transporting seedlings started at other locations, and, as the season progresses, visits the garden once a week to teach volunteers how to prepare, maintain, and harvest a garden in hopes that those gardeners will start gardens in their own neighborhoods.

During my summer internship, I volunteered in the garden and was able to talk to both Breanne Heath and Peterson Garden Project Founder and Executive Director LaManda Joy. While enjoying the summer sun, pulling weeds, and harvesting organic food, I learned about the history of the Peterson Garden Project and how LaManda Joy researched the importance of Chicago Victory Gardens, and is now on a mission to teach people “How Community Gardens Can Save America.”  Including the Edible Treasures Garden, the Peterson Garden Project operates eight community gardens in Chicago. The non-profit organization, with the motto “We don’t grow gardens, we grow gardeners,” is dedicated to helping people garden together by creating Pop-up Victory Gardens, greater food security, and supporting culture through growing and cooking food.

For an educational institution like the Field Museum, extending museum space to the outdoors is a rare opportunity to further enhance the Museum visitor’s experience. The native gardens provide visitors with a look at the native flora and fauna of the Chicago region, and the Edible Treasures Garden provides Museum visitors with an example of how healthy and organic food can be grown anywhere, allowing them to have greater food security and a healthier lifestyle. Both of these gardens increase the visitor’s enjoyment of the Museum Campus for its beauty and place in Chicago’s landscape, as well as connecting the Museum to the surrounding communities.

The Edible Treasure Garden on the west terrace of the Field Museum. (photo: L. Miller Hill)

The Edible Treasure Garden on the west terrace of the Field Museum. (photo: L. Miller Hill)

 

Laura Miller Hill M15Laura Miller Hill is a returning adult undergraduate student at Roosevelt University, where she is a senior Sustainability Studies major. She spent her 2015 summer working as a Keller Science Action Center intern at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago under the supervision of Sustainability Manager Carter O’Brien. Miller Hill’s primary job was to take facts, stories and general information regarding sustainability initiatives throughout the museum and consolidate them into webpages that are both educational and easily understood by people who visit the Museum’s A Greener Field website. In a previous RU course, SUST 240 Waste, she authored this waste and environmental justice essay about Town of Pines, Indiana, for the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.

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