Jun 28, 2014

Jeff's Garden in June



                            Petite blue Veronica


Henry is nearby somewhere. Jeff is happy to let them roam about except when they are nibbling on things they know they should not. They graze on some invasive bamboo that grows among milkweeds and daylilies on the slope between the house and the gated vegetable and flower gardens. I bet Jeff wishes they ate mugwort and mint too.

Lots of frogs live here with a pond just behind the flower garden. The pond is almost hidden by masses of petasites.

                      Salvia, Emilia and Agastache

These pots of flowers are magnets to hummingbirds that visit each morning and at the end of the day. Agapanthus will join in soon.


Jun 21, 2014

Pollinator and Eco-Habitat Gardens

Scientist and naturalists are concerned about the drastic decrease in the number of monarch butterflies that arrived in Mexico last winter; numbers that have been slowly declining for years but are now at an all-time low. Deforestation for farming, housing and for beautification of highways and public spaces and the prevalence of pesticides are all working together to weaken the immune systems of monarch butterflies, starve them and destroy habitat and host plants for their young. It takes a whole lot of nectar to nourish butterflies as they fly from Canada to Mexico and they need flower motels and other stop-over areas in which to refuel and plants to start their families on along the way. The same food and accommodations are required on their return trip when temperatures warm up in the north. The disruption in this natural phenomenon is significant because insect pollinators play a huge role in our food production. It is also significant since butterflies are considered the most graceful (and the least feared) insects and provide the awesome spectacle of beauty and wonder as mass numbers take flight each year and their breath-taking congregation in Mexico. However, other less adored species of insects, their food supply and host plants are also being similarly affected along with birds and larger animals. Disruptions in the numbers of monarch butterflies signal disruptions in our entire ecosystem and we all should be very concerned.

As a child growing up in Trinidad I witnessed similar migrations of Urania leilus or the daytime -flying swallowtail moth, which we called 'police butterflies'. There would be hundreds of these blue, black, green and white lovely creatures laying with tattered wings on sidewalks and along country roads as swarms made the journey to and from the mainland. Hardly anyone I speak to today recalls these migrations and no one remembers when they ceased.

This Spring I worked with students at PS188 in Coney Island to create a garden to attract butterflies, birds and bees. Our May classes focused on the anatomy of a flower and how insects and birds are attracted to and pollinate them. We made paper flowers detailing both male and female parts. How marvelous is the natural world and how incredible that every shape, color, line, texture and scent of these enticing floral creations is meant to attract pollinators and distributors, including humans to them. It is a simple fact that the main goal of all species is to survive by constant reproduction, even though it may seem like the sole purpose of survival of one species is to nourish another. Our morphology is meant to attract mates and create offspring. I couldn't help but notice the awkward moments amongst students when I talked about the male and female parts of the flower. Fertilization of flowers, even aided by butterflies birds and bees, is sex talk.

In June we briefly covered the life cycle of the butterfly, their quirky habits, their predators and defense mechanisms. We also discussed how to behave around bees, welcome visitors to the garden and the not-so-welcome visitors, wasps. While many wasps are great pollinators, some prey on butterfly larvae. It is not so easy to love wasps.

Our major task was planting hundreds of native plants from Prairie Nursery. Larger pollinator-attracting plants and shrubs were planted earlier and plants from seed were started indoors. All came together to create our brand new pollinator garden. Students read the descriptions of various plants and enjoyed trying to pronounce the scientific names. Some star plants do double and even triple duty, attracting butterflies, hummingbirds, song birds and bees. Liatris ligulistylis, Asclepias tuberosa, Monarda fistulosa and Echinacea purpurea are star attractors.

              Partial pant installation in early June in the small garden with narrow crisscrossing paths

        South side with guys from the YWCA after school program working in the vegetable garden site

Tubular flowers were designed to accommodate the long beaks of hummingbirds who reach deep within to sip tasty nectar. Hummingbirds love red so we planted flycatcher plants and columbine, both orange-red. We also started cypress climber, which have interesting finely cut leaves and bright red tubular flowers (although the vines were stolen when they were about four feet up the wrought iron fence). Other flowering vines like Mina lobata and hyacinth beans were started from seed. Climbing nasturtiums were started under grow lights on the fifth floor and did just as well as ones started in the garden. Salvias are some of my favorite plants and a major attractor of hummingbirds regardless of the color. We have red, pink, blue and purple salvia. Plants for song birds include switchgrass, prairie dropseed, little bluestem and Mexican sunflowers. Ilex verticillata is in place to provide birds with berries in winter. The showy red berry display is also a good reason to include these shrubs. One large tree, a young honeylocust, stands in the garden. As spring proceeded, it became clear how badly it was damaged by Hurricane Sandy. It may be removed and possibly replaced by a shad bush or another shrub that produces berries that both kids and birds will love.

Bees love purple and blue although the centers of many of the flowers they are drawn to are yellow.
Butterflies are not too picky about flower color and will flit about on many although each species has its favorites. We planted Joe pye weed, tons of Echinachea purpurea, E. pallida, E. parodoxa, sedum, rudbeckia, eupatorium, iron weed, culver's root and several species of asters to provide fuel to monarchs during their fall migration to Mexico; Monarda didyma and M. fistolusa, goldenrods, penstemon, liatris, agastache and of course, lots of three species of milkweed. Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweeds. Rattlesnake master was included for its unique foliage and flowers and for the love of saying the names (both scientific and common).

Many gardeners are caught up in the 'Native Garden Wave'. It makes perfect sense to plant native plants to attract insects and birds since native species of insects and birds have adapted and evolved along with their food and habitat plants. Restoring habitats of native plants to increase the population of monarch butterflies is of major priority. However, like New Yorkers, many birds, bees and butterflies have cosmopolitan diets. The success of their intercontinental flights depend in it. Some have adapted to and often delight in foreign cuisines like Peruvian nasturtium and Mexican sunflower which are welcome immigrants to our almost-all-native pollinator garden and are butterfly and hummingbird magnets. Butterflies love zinnias which are also from Mexico. I noticed bees visiting the tiny flowers on the Ilex crenata, a Japanese native. And what American garden does not include a bit from the Chinese? Buddleia davidii is a native of China but very reliable when it comes to attracting butterflies. Simply put, butterflies consider buddleia the bees' knees. Verbenas are a hit with butterflies and tall, airy Verbena bonariensis is from Brazil. Perovskia atriplicifolia or Russian sage attracts bees, bumblebees and hummingbirds. It too has its place in the garden which, though consisting of mostly true natives, is as diverse as the community in which it sits. Go native please, but be practical.

Habitat gardens that look like a little field or like something from a 'Garden by Numbers' box seem to also be the trend. Maybe it is the influence of native plant catalogs and the notion that butterfly gardens should be wild and weedy. This garden is an outdoor classroom to inspire and entertain but gardens are nothing if they are not beautiful and organized, even in their seemingly random states. That said, I design and plant with beauty, order, structure and form in mind so that children and adults can be drawn into the space and be mesmerized by individual plants, plant combinations, colors, shapes and textures, even as they observe caterpillars devouring leaves and entire plants.

Beautiful foreigner that it is, Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple' stands out in the garden. The burgundy leaves echo the color of the recently constructed school gymnasium which is very modern compared to the main school building. I intended the garden itself to reflect the sensibility of the new building with neatly laid out gray gravel paths bordered by steel edging. However, this is a dream at the moment since the budget did not allow for the required materials. Shredded bark will have to do until some kind contractor with welding and steel-bending skills will do it, gratis. Cotinus acts as a great structural plant amidst wispy fennel, agastache and steel blue panicum. And yes, I included boxwood. Two rows of little boxwood act as barriers and guide visitors to step onto the narrow paths as they enter the garden from the north or south sides. Boxwood and the three very upright and narrow Ilex crenata 'Sky Pencil' are already hiding places for sparrows and would provide welcome shelters in winter. Little boxwood were also included in the vegetable garden constructed a few feet north of the habitat garden. I never forget that I am planting with children in mind and the evergreen spheres that clipped boxwood create and fuzzy lambs ears are a playful contrast to grasses and masses of prairie natives.

The garden space was meant to utilize rain water runoff from part of the school building and there is a rain water collection area in the vegetable garden too, adding sustainability of both gardens. It is very cool that the architects thought of this! Rain water can be used to water vegetables and minimize water use in the pollinator / habitat garden. Water attracts wildlife and the plan is to invite them to make this garden their home or at least visit often. A tiny, shallow pool can easily be created to attract frogs and possibly dragonflies. This will be a great project to do with the kids. A spot is reserved for a simple birdbath and a nectar feeder for hummingbirds will be installed (Donations Please). Enticing butterflies with a shallow drinking spot and mud puddle are quick and easy projects. With these features in place, PS188 will officially be the site of a Coney Island Eco-Habitat garden. There is a sizable compost area in the vegetable garden. With a few changes like the collection of lunchtime vegetable and fruit scraps for composting and replacing Styrofoam lunch trays with bio-degradable cardboard ones PS188 is on its way to becoming an Eco-School.

We are done planting! Asclepias syriaca and Helenium 'Moerheim beauty' from North Creek Nurseries were last to go in the ground. Three small patches of white, pale and dark blue Siberian irises, a light pink monarda and a few common milkweed made it on a bus trip from Jeffrey Farrell's garden in Massachusetts. They overnighted in Harlem and are now residing in Coney Island. Brilliant red hollyhocks, red velarian and two lovely pink dianthus were picked up on that weekend trip in MA too. Rose malva, pink geranium, blue columbine and a small clump of variegated miscanthus were schlepped from the West 148 Street garden in Harlem. A couple bamboo trellises are still to be installed for Clematis virginiana and a honeysuckle that was labeled as rust orange but is really a pale yellow. Ugh! Do you think hummingbirds will care that the flowers are yellow and not orange?

The garden is mostly green still. Three very sturdy and long-flowering allium 'Globemaster' and Baptista australis of a similar shade of blue are now spent. Columbine, salvia, yarrow, malva and lantanas are blooming while buddleia and coneflowers are gearing up for the show. When students return in September, purple coneflowers, monarda, rudbeckia, goldenrods, ironweed, agastache, eupatorium, liatris, salvia and buddleia will be in bloom; a veritable butterfly smorgasbord. Soon after, asters, heleniums and seedheads of panicum will take over until holly berries appear to hold the fort through winter along with coneflower and monarda seedheads.

Butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and songbirds are our special guests. You too are invited to observe the first batch of caterpillars. The little globes found on dill and bronze fennel were butterfly eggs. So on the last days of school before summer we headed to the garden with hand lens and magnifiers and spotted three little caterpillars with a white band across their middle. They may be larvae of the Black Swallowtail butterfly. As they grow larger we will be a better able to identify them and know what butterflies (or moths) they will morph into.

The garden at PS188 is meant to be a learning environment, an oasis and one more stop over spot for many generations of butterflies and hummingbirds. It is to delight curious children in Coney Island (a community that has grown on me) for generations to come, even the ones starting a new phase in their lives by proudly heading off to middle school. I will miss them. I root for those brainy, zany kids on their journey and for the monarchs too. Rah! Rah! Rah! Cheers!

Jun 7, 2014

To Love, To Eat, To Garden

One highlight of 2013 was a visit to North Hill Gardens in Vermont. The garden is a work of art, love and labor spanning decades of collaboration between Joe Eck and his late partner, Wayne Winterrowd. On that day of my visit with Jeffrey Farrell and my then thirteen-year old son, Julian, it was overcast and leaves were still a bit droopy from earlier showers. Apart from the two shaggy dogs that greeted us at the entrance, we were the only ones in the garden. We were delighted with lush hills and valleys of large and small beds divided by winding paths and steps. We trekked over a small stream and under rustic pergolas. Elegant stewartia flowers littered the ground as we descended one path. We could not walk past the masses of peach, coral and orange primula without being stunned at the unreal blend of colors. Julian befriended a frog sitting among the juncus grass in the rain garden. It sat perfectly still while we goofed around with our hands within and inch of its face and only moved when I tried to grab it for a kiss. Goldfish swam in a barrel near potted plants in the little greenhouse supported on one side by a low stone wall that doubled as a rock garden. Potted agapanthus and blue geraniums bordered a garden room as we circled back to the main residence. Very lovely.

A beautifully laid out vegetable garden sat next to a coop of chickens happily scratching away. I made a note of the tall bamboo trellis as I thought of making similar structures in my own vegetable gardens. I informed Joe Eck of my intention to replicate his trellises just moments into my delight and surprise at finding him at home; a home surrounded by the beautiful gardens.

Joe and Wayne lectured on gardening and landscape design and co-authored several books and publications including "Our Lives in Gardens" and "To Eat". Both books are chronicles of the couple's adventures in gardening with experiments and experiences growing various vegetables, fruits, flowers and shrubs in the often harsh Vermont climate, leaning on each other as they learned and grew together. Their books are filled with lessons on cultivation and preparation of individual vegetables and plants while coated with a bit of history and humor, revealing quirky plant habits. Each food or plant become a star that I have now have a greater understanding of and appreciation for. Joe and Wayne were also great examples in subsistence living, producing their own food from the land, even raising cattle and pigs. Theirs was a partnership of hard work and good living and their personal stories make the books a joy to read. How fortunate to have or to have had a partner to share a passion for gardening, teaching, design, good food, travel and a passion for each other. I see other partnerships, like Jeffrey Farrell and Bruno, Leslie Land and Bill and I imagine that one day I too will find a life partner who shares and bolsters my passions and I his.

The visit to North Hill coincided with the design and installation of my very first edible garden. As a child I weeded and harvested pigeon peas, sorrel (Hibiscus sabradiffa) and passion fruits in gardens round my parents' home. The yard was always full of peppers, limes, Spanish thyme and shadow beni (Eryngium foetidum); lots of root crops like dasheen (root of an edible velvet-leafed alocasia, whose leaves are super delicious and rich in iron), casssava (yucca ) and yams. There were almost always avocado and pawpaw trees and bunches of green bananas waiting to be picked one 'hand' at a time, boiled and eaten like potatoes in soups or with salted codfish. Petite bananaquit birds loved pecking before the 'figs' (as we Trinbagonians call bananas) turned yellow. Over the past twenty years I have worked alongside Jeffrey Farrel in his gardens and other vegetable gardens in Massachusetts. Jeff and Bruno, have spoiled me with their simple meals made with vegetables and herbs, often pulled from their garden minutes before reaching the table. So good!

                                             Rhubarb in Jeff's and Bruno's vegetable garden

Yet, growing food from seed and creating a vegetable garden from scratch was truly new territory. With a limited budget and no professional crew to construct and layout the beds, I became a contractor. I instructed three (often reluctant) teens to help with the construction of twenty raised cedar beds for a vegetable garden at P. S. 329 in Coney Island. Leveling the ground and lining up all the beds required patience and lots of elbow grease. Several pairs of hands were needed to haul twenty-six yards of soil from the sidewalk, over the fence and into the planting area to be later added to the beds. It was a tremendous and arduous task and I think my body is still recovering from the rigor of it all.

A clearly delineated lawn area was created between a long shade border against the school building and the vegetable beds. I imagine one day the lawn will be laid out with cloth-covered tables and dozens of children will be serving each other and enjoying their harvest. That border was filled with shrubs and perennials to be used as teaching aids and to add winter interest.  Many of those shrubs, hostas, ferns and Ajuga reptans were schlepped  from the garden near my home in Harlem. Dozens of earthworms were also dug up and relocated on the two-hour trip by train to Coney Island. They were a welcome addition since salt water from Hurricane Sandy wiped out the earthworm population. The kids added them to the soil one at a time, squealing all the while. Garden beds closest to the sidewalk contained native and pollinator-attracting plants like agastache, salvia, rudbeckia, liatris, zinnia, marigolds and nasturtiums and others to be used in basic plant science and Botanical Latin lessons. The plan was to inspire kids to love words along with gardening with plant names like Pulmonaria saccharata, Hydrangea macrophylla and Gleditsia triacanthos (two mature trees grow on each end of the long garden space). Another area was reserved for a three-bin compost, to be built later and surrounded by bark mulch that was to also line the paths between the beds.

                                                                    Pizza-shaped Herb beds

Planting started late, about a month later than I would have liked but it was imperative to have the permanent structures laid out well, an often overlooked or trivial element in many school and community gardens.

                                                        Joe Eck-inspired trellis in far end

It is very gratifying to grow food that can be eaten raw or cooked within minutes after picking; food grown from carefully selected seeds or plugs and in soil that it tilled and modified by your own hand. It is also very rewarding to feed the ones you love using fresh, wholesome ingredients, knowing that you are present and monitoring their growth from seed to the table. I must admit that I become very excited about observing the various stages from seed to fruiting, sniffing, pinching and tasting along the way. As quickly as bean vines scrambled up the bamboo tee pees it became clear why children flourish from observing and participating in growing food. A seed, some soil and sunlight and what unfolds into tasty good things to eat is science and magic. Birds loved the baby spinach, mesclun mixes and munched on the leaves of radishes, Brussels sprouts and beets. Strawberries and blueberries were devoured by wildlife and although I never saw them, I was told that raccoons visited regularly after sunset. It was all alright. There was food for everyone. Just as the lawn seeds began to sprout, pretty yellow flowers covered the zucchini and squash, tomatoes started blushing and eggplants grew long and glossy, I left that garden to start another at a school just a few blocks away.

I recently attended classes in teaching gardening and cooking at the Edible Schoolyard. The programs are models and great examples of what can be achieved when staff and administration work together to improve the quality of education and overall health of children through interaction with nature. There you will find a dedicated group of garden and cooking instructors working in an awesome garden and state-of the-art kitchen. I am a novice and I gather knowledge from the professionals at the Edible Schoolyard to master the art of educating children at P.S.188. Under a couple of four-foot grow lights we started from seed various types of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, zucchini, beets, corn, cucumbers and okra. Oregano, bunching onions and basil were started under lights in my bedroom. We also sowed seeds of hyacinth beans, Mina lobata, marigolds, lots of nasturtiums and the very sensitive sensitive plant. Can't wait to taste our heirloom tomatoes and have kids create salads that include nasturtium and marigold flowers.

             Tomatoes, Corn, Peppers, Okra and Oregano started from seeds under grow lights

                                                                      Jeff in the garden

I am constantly gobbling up information from vegetable garden books, catalogs and vegetable garden bloggers. With zany, brainy children I am planting up a storm, gaining experience as a vegetable gardener and enjoying teaching. Whoohoo! Soon I will plant my very own vegetable garden, one in which I will even tackle growing asparagus and artichokes. I also continue to rely heavily on words of wisdom from garden experts like Jeffrey Farrell, Wayne Winterrowd and Joe Eck. They have given me much to emulate and much to admire. I owe them gratitude and many, many thanks.


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