Mar 18, 2012

Early Spring

Feeling unprepared. This weird winter has made me uncertain about how much pruning to do and when. I started work in the garden near my building fearing that a major freeze would come at any moment and traumatize the already confused plants. I pruned the rosebushes, (which had so much new growth on them that it seems that there was no winter at all), cut back Miscanthus and Hakonechola grasses, pruned older stems from Hydrangea macrophylla and cut back Buddleia davidii (butterfly bush) to about ten inches.

There are about twenty varieties of narcissus in the garden and a few are displaying their starched collars, some ruffled petticoats and swirling wings. Crocus are also blooming. They are not loving the heat. Some are floppy or already wilting.

No blue of Scilla siberica yet but there is evidence of many tulips and alliums. I spied the red new growth of Dicentra spectabilis (bleeding heart) creeping up and the fuzzy buds on Magnolia stellata are bursting open. There is so much to do in this garden this year and so many changes to be made. Springing ahead but with unsure steps, a bit of trepidation and faith. Gotta have faith.

Mar 8, 2012

Fougères et Jardins Verticaux (Ferns + Vertical Gardens)

Last Saturday I headed to the New York Botanical Garden for the monthly Fern Society meeting. It had been a while since I last met with the group and as always, it was fun to sit among very knowledgeable and passionate fern enthusiasts and learn about these prehistoric treasures while snickering at the little plant jokes that an outsider would rarely get. We are a bunch of fern geeks and I sometimes forget that I am one of them, although I am far less knowledgeable.

Oliver Sacks' Oaxaca Journal was recently republished and was presented to the group with its new cover. It is also now published in Spanish, Portuguese and in at least one other language. Robbin Moran, botanist, author of many fern publications and one of two main leaders of the group, (John Mickel is the other fern expert) showed slides of sporangium in the process of violently hurling spores and gave a little lesson on fern reproduction from spores to young plants. At the end of the class we observed green gobs of mosses and gametophytes under microscopes and tired our hands at sowing spores of two fern species on moistened peat moss, which we took home. With some patience, suitable light, humidity and luck gametophytes will appear in three or four months and hopefully new sporophytes will survive to repopulate my now empty terrarium.

After the meeting I stumbled upon a lecture presented by the French botanist who designed the plantings for this year's annual Orchid Show which opened the day before at the conservatory. His name is Patrick Blanc. Immediately upon speaking he began pacing the stage and frequently ran his hand through his green hair. Yes, his hair was green as were his shirt and shoes, (although you had to look closely to discern the color of his shoes). Blanc described his childhood experiences of keeping fish in a small aquarium and creating a filtration system with plants to control nitrogen, absorb gasses and provide an ecosystem that his fish found suitable enough to procreate in. His experiments with creating a sustainable environment lead to a desire for greater knowledge of plants, bio-diversity and larger ecosystems, all resulting in the study of botany and his career as the staggeringly successful figure he is today as a plant genius and innovator.

Throughout the lecture the audience was presented with multiple slides of incredibly well photographed plants growing in their natural habitats in rock crevices and rainforest all around the world. The images produced many oohs and aahs. We were mesmerized by installations of his work on the interiors and exteriors of prominent buildings around the world making them a natural part of the cityscape. He talked about geohydrology, substrate, magma, rock porosity and permeability.  Listening to his talk about bio-luminescence, plant adaptability to various tropical rainforest terrains with multiple layers of micro climates and evolutionary diversity, I could not help but feel like a cretin. There was this green man speaking with a heavy French accent and comfortably and constantly gushing about plant structure, habitats and technology with an enormous scientific vocabulary, making his passion nothing but very obvious and all in a language foreign to his own. He spoke better English and more clearly than most of us. I was thoroughly inspired and impressed. Blanc is the right combination of scientist, artist and a bit of madman. Brilliant and very, very cool!

As an abstract painter, designer and plant lover, I found it fascinating how Blanc's designs are made to resemble natural plant-covered rock formations with their many groves and ridges. He does this by juxtaposing plants with contrasting foliage textures and lighter or darker leaf colouring in a diagonal flow, thus creating what appears to be peaks and gulleys, emulating the three-dimensional quality of natural topography. The results are rich tapestries of texture and shades of green, often with only limited color from flowers. I get how he sees in scales and how one small part of his design can house myriad micro climates that repeat themselves in different dimensions. His designs are partly controlled chaos, if there is even such a thing, and it works.

I was honored to meet with Blanc after the lecture before heading over to the Orcihid Show at the conservatory. There have been many such exhibits over the years and after a while they all tend to look similar. Not so with this show. The conservatory offers limited vertical space but walls were erected to showcase Blanc's intricate plant combinations and although the medium of orchids is fairly new in his designs, his genius is present. His plant combinations, highlighting iridescent blue foliage are truly beautiful. You don't want to miss this exhibit.

I got back to the lobby of the lecture hall just in time to meet with Blanc again as he was completing his last autograph in his book titled The Vertical Garden. He signed my copy of a book titled Gardening Vertically by Noemie Villard which had a photo of Blanc's home in Paris on the cover. Since he was scheduled to head to Miami the following day I do not know if he had had time to roam our beautiful city with his sights on making it even more beautiful by adding one of his lovely vertical creations. I wondered if he knew of the Flowerbox Building on East 7th Street. With the help of the New York Fern Society I think Time Square can be turned into a hardy fern gully, or the Meat Packing District, with its cobbled streets and uneven open spaces, nicely transformed with Blanc's towering walls of cascading greenery........ We'll see.

Mar 6, 2012

The High Line "Spring Cutback"

In her book The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, Tracy DiSabato-Aust advocates the practice of leaving many herbaceous plants uncut to overwinter, thus providing structure and dimension in the garden during winter. The old and often dead growth provides canopies to trap snow which is a valuable insulator and protects plants from desiccating winter winds and extremes of fluctuating temperatures. Old growth adds interest to what may otherwise be bare scenery and provides shelter and food for birds and other wildlife. These plants also house the eggs or pupae of many species of insects including butterflies and praying mantis, whose offspring would all be lost if their homes were removed in the fall.

No place exemplifies the ideas behind this garden practice better than the High Line. Plants are not pruned at the onset of the cold weather in fall or winter. Instead they linger on throughout the cold months adding texture in shades of gold, burnt umber, sienna and ochre and with the many grass species, provide movement and drama as this mile-long meadow meanders above street traffic and between and below towering buildings. The un-manicured winter landscape reminds us that the  plantings were inspired by the original wild, field-like plants that seeded themselves naturally among the rusted steel many years ago, which is the very essence of the High Line. Left uncut, dried grasses keep our interest all winter long with their feathery or fluffy seed heads and plumes. Flowering plants display their umbels, spikes, dehiscent pods and empty sepals which are often sculpturally magnificent as they trap dew and frost and balance individual towers of snow. Notice the starlings and sparrows darting above and through the brush, with fluffy chicks waiting to join in.

The High Line "Spring Cutback" began today and with this year's warm winter, there may be an unusual amount of visible new growth already. To make way for spring growth, about 100,000 grasses perennials and shrubs are to be cut back over the next few weeks with the help of volunteer gardeners, students and neighbors. It is a huge endeavor that goes on well into April. Much of the dried cutback materials will be made into compost which will later be used on the High Line and other public parks. Some will be used as mulch. Find out what you can do to be part of this cutback effort. Become a Friend of the High Line or just stop by to ogle the emerging greenery and peeks of color from early spring-flowering bulbs and shrubs or to say farewell to the attractive sepia growth. Regardless of the time of year and whether it is covered in the old growth or the new, the High Line is always a delightful place to visit.

Mar 2, 2012


Mention the word "compost" and some people instantly develop a rash, especially city folks. "Won't that encourage rats?" Stray dogs will get in there!" and "That will smell!" Really? When was the last time you saw packs of dogs roaming the streets of New York? I've tried on numerous occasions to explain that the materials to be composted are kitchen and garden scraps, excluding meat, meat products and greasy foods that any stray dogs or cats may be tempted to investigate and as far as I know, rats do not particularly consider coffee grounds and pistachio shells gourmet food. I have found that if I am a bit patient I could educate some people and alleviate their concerns with a few sentences. However, some are just bent on being and remaining as anti-progressive as possible. Their energies would be better spent on trying to decrease the amount of  sidewalk litter and fried chicken bones that are a dog walker's nightmare.

I first learned about composting from my friends in Massachusetts, about twenty years ago. Jeff and Bruno tend a beautiful vegetable garden and lush flower beds around their lovely home in Ashield. Over the years they have kept a couple sheep, speckled chickens, some with feather-covered legs and a donkey. I noticed that they saved all biodegradable kitchen waste and also burnt most cardboard and paper waste as kindling in the wood stove. Many years ago my ex-husband and I gave them a present of a stainless steel compost pail with we found in a catalog from Lee Valley and it is still what they use today to transport kitchen waste to the back of the house to be added to the pile including waste from the animals and garden cuttings. The compost created is later used to naturally fertilize the garden beds, resulting in plump, chemical-free produce which is used to make delicious meals. I always end up eating much of the tomatoes, raspberries and blueberries before they reach the house.

In May of 2004 I began gardening in the garden next to my apartment building as the movers unpacked my furniture to move in. However, it is just recently that I began to compost in earnest. Many previous attempts at heaping garden debris in a secluded corner of the garden to decompose have been a fiasco. Just when I thought it was safe, a maintenance guy always cleared the pile away. Last November, after years of waiting for the management company to give written permission for a grant to build a large bin, I embarked on a project to build one. Ideally I would have liked a three-bin cedar container. Three years ago the cost of materials was over $300 and since I also seem to be getting nowhere with permissions from the management company to allow Greenthumb to assist with signs and overall garden materials, I went with a cheaper option.

For a few days my tiny kitchen was turned into a workshop as I designed and constructed a single-bin container out of pine and half-inch chicken wire. One of the four sides is made up of two removable frames to allow for easy access. It is painted bright red and I may never completely remove the paw prints that a curious cat creatively spread all over my floors, rugs and sofa. The color has the effect that the bin appears to be a piece of sculpture in its almost entirely green environment, and stands out nicely in the snow and winter months. 

A few weeks ago I bought my first kitchen composting pail. Yes, that same one from from Lee Valley. I line it with a plastic grocery bag (that I collect for cat litter) and add a full pail to the compost bin on my way to the subway. I cook a lot so peels, seeds, roots and other inedible pieces of food can really pile up. It is amazing how relieved I am to know that I never have to dispose of any of this stuff again, ever.  I think I had subconsciously felt a bit of guilt each time I threw out any biodegradable kitchen matter. Now I don't even feel bad about throwing out houseplants like Christmas poinsettias or the seasonal potted plants like ones the boys recently got me on my birthday. They are added to the pail then to the compost bin to begin a second life along with garden cuttings, weeds, spent plants and dried leaves. The scraps create a smorgasbord for earthworms which digest them and speed up the process of creating nutrient-rich soil to best fertilize and nourish plants in the garden. I am still wary of fearful neighbors and so I exclude eggshells and cooked, perishable foods like bread, and pasta and stick with fruit and vegetable waste, for the time being.

There are community composting programs around the city that accept kitchen scraps and offer instruction on starting indoor worm composting bins. But it is rare that anyone without a means (or desire) to garden, like most apartment dwellers, is willing to schlep their kitchen waste around town, especially if there is no immediate or useful reward. It is my hope to get funding to create a three-bin composter made out of cedar or teak and invite others on the block to recycle their kitchen waste too.  I also hope that maybe this bin and overall composting area will help to convince the clean-up and maintenance guys that lawn cuttings and fall leaves should be recycled and not bagged up and placed on the sidewalk along with the hoards of non-perishable waste. Soon. Another day, another battle.


Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze ...