I just got the news that the New York Department of Sanitation will be suspending its compost collection program. Many drop-off collections have already ceased and people without pickup at their apartment buildings have been asking me about alternatives. People with backyards can start their own bins outside, of course. If you live in an apartment building, though, that’s not usually an option. But you can try indoor composting in a worm bin. Check out the nicely illustrated brochure below from the NYC Compost Project (scroll down to see the entire brochure). It does require a bit of patience at the outset, but the good news is that most kids love learning about worm bins and helping to feed and care for the worms. If you’ve got some kids at home, this could be the project they’ve been waiting for. I’ve made many a worm bin and am happy to answer questions as they come up.
Spring comes anyway, full of assertions that this is a season of ferocity and vigor. It is not delicate. It pushes and pierces. It unfurls. These are actions that take energy and strength. I record what’s going on almost every day, most often taking photos with my phone but also with drawings and brief notes. Sometimes I make myself stop—stop shooting, stop describing—just look, I say, and in looking more and more deeply, I feel I am absorbing something of these intensely alive springtime lives.
With spring two weeks away, I’m thinking about all the winter gardens I’ve wandered through this season. Although many of the houseplants tend to have a tough time of it during this period of dry indoor heat, my orchid always puts on a show on the kitchen windowsill. Elsewhere, oregano and rosemary carry on through a mild winter. Mosses create a lush garden among sheltering rocks. I had just started reading Gathering Moss by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer around the time I spotted the moss world pictured below. Her essays caused me to look much more closely at this tiny world and notice not just the carpet and fine upholstery but the organisms that form it.
Digging through photos recently, I came across these two of a children’s garden I started at the Clinton Community Garden years ago. The space I had to work with was odd-shaped and a bit inhospitable at first glance. What looks like an iron fence in the top photo, for instance, is actually a double gate. Though no longer used by the time I was making the garden, the possibility always hung in the air that maybe one day we would need to open it, so, just in case, my fellow gardeners urged me not to put anything too permanent there. Since most of the spot was already shaded by a spruce tree, the sunny area against the gate was really the best place to grow the flowers, herbs, and veggies that would create an inviting garden bed for young gardeners.
I was frustrated. It had taken a long time for gardeners to agree to allocate space for a children’s garden. Now we had it but what to do with it? With the help of my then young kids and their friends, I started to picture how it might work: little gardens within a garden with pathways for small feet to navigate and a rock garden that might be inhabited by little toy animals we would make out of clay or shells or pinecones.
My son was in third grade and had the mixed blessing of going to school a block away from the garden. Walking home from school, we ended up stopping in the garden much more often than he would have liked, but he was fairly forgiving of me if we didn’t stay too long. To my surprise, he agreed to build the rock garden with me. It was what I’d hoped—that the idea of a miniature landscape would catch a child’s eye. What we made together is in the box in the photo below. The mountainous rock came from our plot in the back of the garden. I think I had to roll it across the lawn to get it there. The silver mounding artemisia “tree” and the dragon’s blood sedum came from a neighborhood nursery, long gone, replaced by luxury high-rises.
Time went on and at some point I had to redesign the bed. The spruce, which I have grown to love, spread tall and wide, and it and a new street tree gobbled up most of the sunshine. I accepted that I had to plant a shade garden. Now I think of it as the children’s forest garden. The current crop of child visitors seems okay with that, but I’m always trying to think of ways to add a little of the old garden back in.
The day started with three raspberries for breakfast. It’s exciting to outsmart the birds and the ants and get a few berries at the moment of perfect ripeness. These canes are from a neighboring garden plot, and I don’t know anything about their provenance except that they make delicious berries—good-sized, sweet, and complete, that is to say, not crumbly, as many a garden berry can be. It was because I’d tasted them some years ago that I allowed them into my garden and decided not to be annoyed at my neighbor for letting them run wild. Thanks to their superb taste I’ve now planted them in a lot of places he’ll never know about.
Raspberries run in my family. My mother loved them, my father planted them, and we ate them, but before eating them, there was the misery of picking them in an unruly patch from which my sister and I emerged mercilessly scratched and mosquito bitten. We pretended we liked it. It was an old-fashioned thing to do with our ribbon-handled berry baskets. Our friends could see us from the street and be amazed—until we invited them to help us pick.
What I like about my adopted raspberries as plants is their thick canes, softish prickles, graceful arching form, and green leaves that stay mostly green through fall instead of browning and crinkling. Because I don’t have a separate raspberry patch, I appreciate the early green leaf-out these plants contribute to my spring garden and how they happily submit to the partial shade my garden offers.
Tomatoes also happened to me today. Having eaten my raspberries, I took one last look at my lone tomato plant, thinking it was time to cut it down. I lifted a sunken vine and found it full of ripe tomatoes. I cut off the branch and realized it was a convenient way to carry the tomatoes home without risking their getting squished in my bag. A visit to the compost bin revealed three almost perfectly ripe Italian tomatoes also on a vine. I took these gifts home along with some tender leaves of kale and had lunch.
“It’s like when your shoes feel too small because your feet are growing and it’s time to get new shoes,” I explain to my young gardening students. They look at me with complete understanding, which makes me want to hug them but I restrain myself. We are talking about a problem in our preschool garden.
Set on the second floor deck of a large apartment building overlooking West 42nd Street, our garden is grown entirely in containers, a mixture of raised beds and large pots and planters. Some years ago, I brought the preschool some tiny maple saplings that had sprouted in my own in-ground garden. They were more for show and tell than anything else, but the kids wanted to plant them in the school garden. We did and they grew like nobody’s business under less-than-perfect conditions. (The kids who planted the original saplings with me are now more than halfway through elementary school.) But a couple of weeks before the holiday break, the school’s director pointed out what could no longer be ignored: The poor tree’s roots were growing out of the pot in any direction they could and had fastened themselves to the spongy playground surface. The easiest thing to do would have been to break the pot, but no one could bear doing that to the gracefully shaped (and annoyingly curved) Mediterranean-blue ceramic vessel, so we opted for the more arduous plan B.
Plan B would require some pre-class prep and some tools I didn’t want to take out with 2- to 5-year-olds playing nearby, but I built a little barrier with big wooden blocks—to the kids’ amusement—and got to work alternating unspooling and trimming roots with gently digging in with my spading fork. Director Nancy and I pulled, stopped to dig some more, and then pulled again. We revisited breaking the pot, tried another pull, and out came the tree.
The perfectness of having an entire tree from tip to root to show the preschoolers the next class had been dawning on me, but now I had to protect the tree until then. I lay it on its side on top of the mulched surface of a raised bed and packed the root ball with compost.
We did indeed get a chance to examine the tree from tip to root, but it was brief due to a sudden wintry drop in temperature and icy rain. Just in time, we repotted our tree in its new home, a broader container with much better drainage, and ran back inside to draw a poster of our tree. The kids liked my story of how hard it was for two grownups to pull the tree out of its tight “shoe,” so on the poster it went.
There was a little bit more detective work left to do in understanding our tree. What kind of a tree was it anyway? We knew it was a maple, but which one? Not a sugar maple (much disappointment on the faces of the kids) but still something very interesting. We remembered its leaves which we had tried to trace and draw back in the fall—spread out like fingers of a hand and deeply toothed, the very top looking like the turrets of a castle. The big clue was in the fact that the tree was stuck in the too-small pot with a too-small drainage hole for a long time and didn’t seem to mind when the water built up around its base. There is a native maple that likes water a lot: Acer saccharinum, most often called silver maple, but sometimes swamp maple. It’s a tree that will break the sidewalk and grow into pipes in its hunt for water and in the wild will grow in and around creek beds. Likewise, our tree had found its way out of that tiny drainage hole and was feeling its way into the cracks and crevices of the playground. Its love for water makes it hospitable to two rather spectacular moisture-happy creatures both of which we witnessed on our tree, Rhytisma acerinum, the tar spot fungus, and eriophyid mites, which surprised us last spring with the coral-colored leaf galls they made the leaves develop. To celebrate everything we now knew about our tree, along with relief that it was now upright in a new container, we decorated it, of course. More on that project next time.
Turning the food-scrap compost. It had to be done, but first came the rain, then holiday shopping, then more rain, and a quick trip to Maine. I found myself out of sync with the compost pile. Still, I couldn’t ignore it any longer. Members of my compost team were emailing me to ask if I’d opened up a new bin yet. They were anxious to get back to composting at our garden after I’d closed up our full intake bin and sent them temporarily elsewhere. That is a good thing. Compost made in the garden stays in the garden. Gardeners dedicated to composting keep the practice strong and draw more people in. So when the Sunday before Christmas brought drier air and some sun, I set about harvesting our crumbly black compost. Our beautiful compost.
It was not a quiet day on the garden block. Santas drove by blasting music and delivery trucks sat in traffic honking endlessly, but in the garden I was mostly alone with birds, squirrels, and mice, and the millions of minute creatures of the compost. Making their bed in the new bin soothed me, the Gulliver in their midst, oblivious to the feverish activity they were soon to be engaged in.
Post-Christmas, the larger, less forgiving compost project loomed in the garden-debris pile. I clomped to the garden in my work boots mid-morning on the 26th to conquer a stringy, weedy, twiggy, chunky intake bin. Some readers might be wondering why we have two separate composting areas. There are, of course, many different ways of handling compost and some systems combine both plant material and food scraps. At this garden, space has always topped the list of compost-management concerns and with it, time, on both micro and macro scales. In our food scrap–only area, four enclosed Garden Gourmet bins of black recycled plastic fit neatly into a 5′ x 7′ spot and make quick work of chopped high-nitrogen fruit, veggie, coffee, and tea remains layered with carbon-rich autumn leaves. (Catch it at the right time and you could almost cook a meal on top of the bin while yesterday’s remnants simmer below.)
Our three-bin (used to be four but that’s another story) wooden structure with removable slats is a hefty item built for dealing with plant debris from 100-plus garden plots and ornamental beds, shrubs, and trees. As such, it presents a different challenge, requiring more time, more patience, and more labor. More time because the bins are larger, more open, and so cooler; more patience because the range of plant matter breaks down at different rates and more labor because of the vines, twigs, branches, bulbs, rose canes, whole plants that must be cut and chopped and invasive weeds that need to be separated out along with the various non-organic oddities that show up in every batch. When I face the plant-debris bin, my allies are pruners little and big, a saw, steel-toed boots, gloves, a sturdy garden fork, and a blunt shovel for scooping.
By combing, raking, digging, poking, and cutting through the pile, I manage to turn it from bottom to top before the sun starts to sink. I find the pile’s hot core and it see that it is very alive indeed. I bag up the roughest and toughest stuff to give it a chance to soften before I return it to the bin. I rescue a few discarded plants and give them a home in my garden plot. I work in a couple of bags of leaves and salvage a few treasures: shells, sea glass, and some chimes that might be just right for the children’s garden bed. And suddenly there’s no more to do but sweep and close up before it’s too dark to see my way out.
On my way home, my head is full of what do with the compost when it’s done. I’m hoping for some snow cover—mid-January would be just right—so I can sift a mix of the plant debris and veggie composts over the lawn and my garden beds and let the melting snow gently deliver the goods to the soil.
Wishing a Happy 2019 to my gardening friends. If you haven’t started composting yet, I hope you make this the year you do. Send me your questions and concerns and I’ll do my best to talk you through.
The storm left the garden with piles of branches. The worst mess happened to crash right on top of the Children’s Garden bed, which I care for. I had just put in some new woodland perennials and was hoping the snow that had done so much damage to the trees had provided a protective blanket for the young plants.
It turned out that the snow did its job on the ground for my plants and the spruce tree did its job above. Yes, there was a tree that withstood yesterday’s early heavy, wet snow, giving no complaint, and it makes so much sense. What trees suffered most in the storm? Those that hold onto their leaves late into the season. In and around the garden that meant the honey locusts, the Chinese scholar tree (Sophora japonica), and the devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa)—all weighed down by leaf-trapped snow. The spruce, on the other hand, with its evergreen needle-leaves and conical structure is built for snow. It blocked the branches from the nearby deciduous trees and sheltered plants and birds. The one branch I had to release sprang easily back into place.
I was sorry to see the damage to the crown of the Chinese scholar tree that had tossed so many of its branches into my garden bed. I remember when it was planted on the street side of the garden. I watered it in its early days and mulched it with compost from the garden. One of my compost volunteers, Ellis, had been volunteering elsewhere as a street-tree steward, and when she told me that her tree had been knocked down, I suggested she start taking care of this one. She threw herself into the project, babying the tree with a tree gaiter and regularly cleaning away litter. She even put up a little sign at the tree’s base, identifying it as a Chinese scholar tree and requesting neighbors to keep dogs out of the tree pit (a perpetual battle that she boldly took on). Ellis turned 80 during this time and suddenly lost confidence in her ability to care for the tree and the compost, to which she had also been devoted. She wrote me a long note explaining this. She couldn’t bear to come to the garden if she couldn’t take care of her tree.
The melancholy of downed trees was tempered by the sheer giddiness of the early snow, the cold, brilliantly blue-sky day, the exertion of clearing and pruning broken branches, and camaraderie. Two fellow gardeners met me at the garden and kept the job moving steadily. When we parted, I felt my feet take me toward Amy’s Bread. Ah.
The last Saturday in January. Close to 50°, gray but not dreary. There’s that little bite that lets you know that even though this is some strangely warm weather we’re having, it is still winter. I arrive at the garden, birdseed in hand. After filling the bird feeder, I’ll check on the compost and loop around to see how the fledgeling grass is doing.
But first a hello to Jenny, warmly done up in a drapey winter coat, knit cap, and mittens. She looks up from the third volume of a series of six books she’s been compulsively reading, she tells me, and then begins to tell me about it, how it is about nothing and everything. I’ve just come from the library and we joke that if I hadn’t just picked up a book I’d be competing with her to read hers. I fill our milk-carton bird feeder (a project of my preschool gardening class) and move on to the back where I see Dave knee deep in compost.
Dave and I embark on an intense conversation about the pros and cons of frequent turning of the compost. He is one of the few people I know with whom I can have such a discussion. We go from there to talking about the book he is writing, which happens to have—in a very roundabout way—a connection to composting.
On the way to my garden plot (which I know will look exactly the same as it has since late November but I have to see it anyway), I talk to Jane who is working in her garden. We’ve been sharing ideas about propagation and exchange a few thoughts on a propagation book we both admire.
From there, a tour of the lawn, which I started working on this past fall with another gardener. The young grass is holding steady. I can’t help smiling at the cheerful green sprigs.
Here’s a brief history of the lawn’s progress from fall into the dark of winter:
July can surely make or break a small garden. Because it’s July I have mustard greens, Swiss chard, rue, apple mint, begonias, a kiwi vine/tree, and black-eyed Susan all bursting out of a 2-foot by 2-foot section of garden. It’s a potential tangle that somehow works with something akin to forestry practiced on a tiny scale. The edibles can all be gradually harvested, and the big leaves of the Swiss chard and mustard greens keep the soil cool and shade the begonias. The pink and fuchsia begonia blooms peek out ever so sweetly among the reddish and purplish veins of the mustard and chard leaves. The mustard greens are starting to flower, and I let some of them go to attract pollinators. Not a typical sprawling garden mint, this apple mint grows fairly upright on thick stems and responds to being cut back by continuing to produce attractively woolly, rounded leaves that taste subtly fruity deep into the season. More slow-growing rue spreads its blue-green, delicate-looking foliage throughout. (I say “delicate-looking” because rue, Ruta graveolens, is one tough plant, tolerant of hot and dry conditions and harsh winters. Quite toxic when consumed in large doses, it has been used medicinally in a variety of ways. I first planted it to make a tincture for treating my cat’s ear mites. It can also cause skin blisters when touched. I’ve never experienced that in the many years I’ve grown it, but I try to touch it as lightly as possible.)
On the other side of the plot, wild asters and purple coneflowers have lured painted lady butterflies and bees of all kinds into the garden. I leave the dried allium flower heads up as long as their stalks can stand. I like how their spiky globes contrast with the spiky disks and petals of the echinacea. The brilliant color of their spring is gone, inherited by the coneflowers.
Cleaning up July’s overgrowth has its drawbacks, as I was reminded this morning. Last week, I cut back aggressive plants, took some out, and tied others back, all in the name of offering more space, light, and air to half-hidden plants. But with more ground exposed, the garden was suddenly much drier. In its jungly state, the garden had resisted our streak of 90° days handily. I came back to wilting herbs in my opened-up garden. Luckily, I caught them in time to give them a good soaking, and we got a good two inches of rain over the last two days.
July is also having its way with the balcony garden, where things can get hot, dry, windy, and sometimes irresistible to pigeons. So, of course, I try to plant what likes these conditions—or doesn’t mind them. They all need extra water on 90° days, but as with the garden plot, placement helps retain moisture. The tropicals are good at shading the more delicate plants and the soil they’re in. The tough leaves of many of my current plants seem to have discouraged the pigeons for now.
Succulents, cacti, coleus, begonias, caladium, elephant’s ear, scented geranium, Dracaena marginata, and a saucer of mosses all do fairly well here, and I even have some seedlings going, an attempt at succession planting. I have no idea why the pigeons are leaving the seedlings alone. Maybe they taste better in the spring? With any luck, the bean plants will be producing in a couple of weeks, and some tender nasturtium leaves will add a bite of pepper to our salads.
The July garden is about eating for many gardeners, and for me though it’s not a standard vegetable garden, my plot and balcony do provide edibles that are usually ridiculously expensive or plain not available in the supermarket. These are things you don’t need in great quantities and taste best when picked fresh: greens, herbs, and ripe raspberries. Not a bad trade off.