The Lakeside Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden Credit: Courtesy Chicago Botanic Garden

It’s tulip time. Between now and Mother’s Day, masses of these heralds of spring will burst into bloom at the Chicago Botanic Garden, which counts 750,000 bulbs among the treasures on its Glencoe campus. To see them in fields of dazzling color is to begin to understand the mania that seized Holland in the 17th century, driving the price of a single bulb to many times the annual earnings of ordinary Dutchmen.  

We are not seeing them, however. Like most everything else during the pandemic, the Botanic Garden is closed, and has been since March 17. The originally announced closure through April 30 has been extended; the current target for reopening is July 1. A garden spokesperson says they’re following federal, state, and local recommendations and, if they’re able to safely reopen earlier, they will.

I went there anyway last weekend, tulips on the brain. The main entrance (on Lake Cook Road) and both bicycle entrances are blocked, and the entire property is fenced. But there’s a gap under the main gate; it looked like an invitation to slide under and I considered it (Would they spot me, making my way to the bulb garden?) before giving up and heading to the adjacent Skokie Lagoons, which, so far at least, remain open. On Saturday, Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle closed parking lots at many of the forest preserves on weekends (including Fridays), but the lagoons aren’t among them. The parking there has always been limited, but it’s still open, as is the bicycle path. You can hike, bike, fish, or launch a kayak or canoe.

The lagoons are all water and woods, more nature than the carefully plotted nurture of the Garden’s display areas, though they’re also man-made, thanks to a massive Civilian Conservation Corps flood-control project in the 1930s. There are seven of them, spread over 894 acres of former marshland just east of the Edens Expressway, between Willow and Dundee roads. On Sunday, with the trees still devoid of leaves and many of them felled, the scene was stark and skeletal, like some ghostly gray battleground. Near the shoreline, I stumbled on something startling: parts of a carcass, stripped bare—all empty eye sockets and rib cage. A deer, I’m guessing, and a gruesome reality check. Seeking tulips in a pandemic, I’d found death.

Like the Chicago Botanic Garden, most of the nation’s famous gardens are closed. But a New York Times editorial last weekend urged that gardens and parks find ways to remain open—the public benefit outweighing the risks. The Botanic Garden was able to limit visitors during its ticketed winter light show; maybe they could use a similar reservation system to allow a manageable number of visitors to return? In the meantime—no public hours and no media visits. 

How is the garden faring? Here’s an edited version of responses to questions about that from Executive Vice President Fred Spicer, via e-mail.

What financial effect is the shutdown having on the garden? 

The closure hit us right at the beginning of the Garden’s busy season. Due to not generating planned earned revenue, we have had to reduce operating costs across the board. Reductions in personnel operating costs include wage reductions, reduced hours, and layoffs for Garden employees. We were able to keep 86 percent of our staff employed and have implemented a wage reduction for less than half of the Garden’s employees.

You’re also operating without any of your regular force of about 1,400 volunteers; how has the work been affected?

Many of the Garden’s staff are working remotely and we’re bringing the Garden to the public through our website ( and social media channels. We are continuing to care for our treasured 385-acre living museum, 2.6 million plants in our permanent collection, and production greenhouse operations. Behind the locked gates, a critical operations staff is in place, taking the same preventive measures as in any other public space.

What about programming?

We are encouraging people to join us for a #nature moment every Wednesday on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to share images of spring blooms. [Also] we are sharing ways one can quiet the mind and connect with nature, such as information on forest bathing. Although all classes scheduled through June 30 have been canceled, we are starting to make online classes available; [so far] yoga and photography.

How has the shutdown changed what the public will see when the Garden reopens?

Reductions include fully eliminating our spring displays, downsizing our plant orders for summer and fall displays, and cancellation of all travel including our international plant collection expeditions. When the Garden reopens, it will look different, as we have had to prioritize tasks. For example, we have eliminated tasks that require more than one person such as moving large containers. Large planting projects have been postponed.

What’s it like without visitors?

We have moved ahead with planned projects that include construction on the new Shida Evaluation Garden and Shoreline Restoration and converting crushed stone to brick on the path by the English Walled Garden. During the temporary closure we have seen some efficiencies in completing projects, as we haven’t had to schedule around our visitors.

What about off-site programs?

The Chicago Botanic Garden manages the Farm on Ogden and 17 Windy City Harvest urban farms, which are also closed to the public. We are still operating and growing produce at those locations. We are currently maintaining the same level of production with aquaponics, harvesting approximately 2,500 heads of lettuce a week, and also other crops. As we retool our distribution model to support emergency food needs for the community, we are adjusting the types of crops we grow [in part for longer storage]. For VeggieRx, which supports patients with diet-related diseases who are also food insecure, we’re creating 100 VeggieRx bags a week [for delivery or pickup]. For Corps, our transitional jobs programming for justice-involved individuals, we are bringing on three small cohorts (3 participants per cohort) who will help with continued produce production.

Are the tulips in bloom?

We are sharing a live feed of the Circle Garden where tulips were planted last fall and their colorful blooms are beginning to pop.  v