July Garden

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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.)

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Springtime alliums and columbines have given way to summer coneflowers.

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.

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The July garden on a plate: A tender mustard green leaf cradles rice and beans with fresh-picked oak-leaf lettuce (above, right).

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Taking advantage of the range of shade to bright sun offered by a balcony corner. The wall offers protection to bean seedlings. Elephant’s ear and caladium below.

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New Farmer’s Market on 10th

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The peaches were indeed fresh. We tasted them at breakfast this morning. They tasted and smelled like peaches and that is something exquisite. According to Harold Delucia, owner of The Farmacy, the new farmers market on 10th between 43rd and 44th streets, the peaches and other produce are local (with the few exceptions of mangos and lemons) or as local as you can get on the far west side of Manhattan: from family farms across the river in Monroe Township, Princeton, and Chesterfield, New Jersey. Delucia grew up on a family farm himself and has a background in physical education and coaching rugby, which inspired the healthful sound of the market’s name. Among the delightful staff is Japhet, who was coached by Delucia and is now studying holistic medicine. Honey and farm-grown flowers are also sold here. Next week a freezer will be arriving to stock free-range meat.

I had to ask if there might be plants for sale at some point. Maybe. And maybe garden supplies. That sounds good to a gardener missing the Chelsea Garden Center, now obliterated by giant buildings on 11th Avenue.

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Of Columbines and Fennel

The garden is in what I call “second spring”—after the crocuses, daffodils, muscari, and tulips, there is the explosion of globe alliums, columbines, and fennel. I never exactly planned this and sometimes in darkest  January all I want is to be able to plan a vegetable garden without having to make allowances for flowering perennials. This year I came close to taking everything out and square-footing it, but I ran out of time. Here are some results of my letting it all stay:

Feathery fennel sets off pink columbine.

Kiwi vine twining around columbine flowerhead.

Aquilegia (columbine) and alliums.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hell’s Kitchen Gardener Recommends: Books for Gardeners

This is the first entry in a new book corner for gardeners. img_3299

Life in the Soil
A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners
By James B. Nardi
The University of Chicago Press, 2007

Part guidebook, part natural history of the soil, Life in the Soil is an especially gratifying read for a composter-gardener and an excellent antidote for the tendency to view the plant world as existing primarily aboveground and the soil as material of use merely to hold plants in place. That tendency, in fact, could not be further from the truth. The author, a biologist and illustrator, characterizes the story of soil as “a marriage of the mineral world and the organic world.” “It is a good marriage; and as in all good marriages, the two partners work together in harmony. Each partner’s attributes are often enhanced in the other’s company.” From there, the reader moves through the breakdown of rock by weathering and acids to the work of the “pioneers” of rock, the algae, lichens, mosses, bacteria, and fungi, which make way for the plant roots that will eventually crack open rocks, creating more space for rock minerals and organic detritus to combine into the powerful and still-mysterious matter we call soil.

The last of three parts, “Working in Partnership With Creatures of the Soil” not only guides the reader in setting up and maintaining a compost pile but explores the science (cation exchange explained) and braids together the concerns that thread throughout the book: climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction.

There are diagrams and photographic plates, but Nardi’s illustrations of creatures, ranging from the microscopic to tiny to macro, are deliciously engaging. One of my favorites is the drawing of a daddy longlegs with hitchhiking mites. (Daddy longlegs take their passengers to new places they would never be able to visit on their own. While their long legs that serve as antennae lift their travelers above the fray, their ability to produce a noxious fluid when attacked keeps predators away.)

I often carry my copy with me to the garden or on nature walks and sometimes to the preschool classroom to help my young gardening students recognize what’s going on in our compost bin. This sturdy paperback edition puts up with all that travel and still looks pretty good albeit bristling with bookmarks and post-its and tinged with, well, soil.

A Post-TG Treat: Compostables

Sometimes compost awareness goes out the window with holidays. Under pressure to prepare lots of food, people forget to separate organic scraps and toss them in the garbage can or visiting cooking helpers might be confused about what to do and discard it all.

It doesn’t have to be that way. A nice thing about even the most traditional of Thanksgiving dinners is that, apart from the turkey centerpiece, much of the fixings are vegetable based. That means lots of good, fresh food scraps for the compost bin. So why not proceed as you normally would? The extra load of scraps may mean adding more dry leaves and other carbon-based materials. Fortunately, there are lots of dry leaves to be had right now. If you’re saying, I haven’t started a compost bin yet, then use this holiday feast time to motivate you to start.

Start this weekend. You have a day and a half left. For a step-by-step guide to setting up an outdoor bin, read my June 2015 post (https://hkgardener.wordpress.com/2015/06/) and send questions if you’ve got them. For those with limited space, I recommend a worm bin, which I have on my balcony (they are also designed for indoor use). You can find instructions for setting up a worm bin at NYCzerowaste (http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/dsny/docs/indoor-worm-bin-composting-brochure-06340-f.pdf). At that same site, New Yorkers can find a listing of compost drop-off stations. The city has made a lot of progress in organizing compost collection in just the last year. For Hell’s Kitchenites, West 57th Street and 9th on Saturdays and West 23rd and 8th on Tuesday and Thursday mornings are probably the closest. Check the hours and seasons. The West 57th Street location usually stops some time in December. Finally, if you’re a community gardener, but your garden doesn’t yet compost, now is a very good time to establish a bin before winter sets in and while you have plenty of leaves to supply “browns.”

 

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Fruit and veggie scraps ready for a trip to the Clinton Community Garden food-scrap compost bin.

Labor Day for Gardeners

Storm Hermine gave us perfect gardening weather: soft, cool, fall-ish, and the garden, free of humidity and intense heat, and almost lacking in mosquitoes, was also free of the strife that can often be the background noise there. At the garden debris compost bin, I was overjoyed (really, truly) to find two gardeners cutting up plant waste and putting it in the bin and not in the trash. I was so moved to see this that I walked up to them and thanked them. They happen to be two very nice guys I’ve run into off and on at the garden but don’t know all that well. They told me that they were a little afraid of composting, afraid of not doing the right thing and so—having been yelled at—tended to err on the side of caution and the garbage can. This day, they had decided to go for it. They were being careful not to put in invasive weeds. I was consoling, telling them I know it could be difficult to tell what was what sometimes.* This led to questions about composting in general and how food-scrap composting works at the garden. I organize this side of our composting efforts and require gardeners who want to do it to participate fully in the project, not just drop off their food scraps (the how and why of this I’ll get into in an upcoming post on composting). The starting place is a lesson on how to do something that seems kind of simple but can go so wrong, especially when it involves ten or more people. The timing was right, I was there, and one of the gardeners was actually interested in getting a lesson. And now I have a new food-scrap composter/gardener. Some good labor was had by all.

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The food-scrap compost intake bin at the Clinton Community Garden. I use a garden fork to first dig food scraps in and later turn the material. After each addition of food scraps, I add a layer of leaves two to three times as thick as the food-scrap layer. These scraps are nicely chopped and have been eye-balled for bad stuff, like dairy, bones, rubber bands, and plastic bits.

 

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Here’s what I don’t like to see. Yes, these items are all compostable, they might even be organic, but what are they doing here? They weren’t spoiled or even wrinkled. A family of four could have gotten breakfast out of this compost bin. I chalk this up to a rogue “composter” who seemed to joy in dropping perfectly edible food in the bin once a week and not even attempting to cover it up. All my regular composters know to chop up their peels and rinds and that wasting food is pretty uncool.

*As a side note, I tend to take a broader view of what plant matter can and can’t go in than our particular setup allows. I will never, ever compost morning glory—though the flowers are endearing, the plant is deadly in its ability to self-replicate and strangle a garden—but I am comfortable with most roots and even some seed heads that come out of garden beds going into the compost as long as they are broken down and treated to a good smothering layer of leaves. If there’s space, I will sometimes dry out borderline weedy plants by hanging them up or laying them out on a hard surface in the sun.

 

 

 

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A Visit to the Corpse Flower: Hell’s Kitchen Gardener Goes Uptown

I wasn’t really trying that hard to see the corpse flower, but fate had me traveling up to the Bronx for a class at the New York Botanical Garden on the same day that this giant was scheduled to bloom. That was a week ago and I’ve been thinking about this extraordinary plant and its effect on its human observers ever since.

It was a sticky day that between threats of rain offered blindingly bright cloud cover. This combination could have challenged my willingness to wait in line, but I was already in too deep, having promised my daughter to make this visit, and then there was the line, which itself drew me in. People had dressed up to see a flower! They wore flowered shirts and dresses and jewelry and jaunty summer hats. And the profusion of parasols… a symptom no doubt of the uncertain weather, but the effect was beyond utilitarian, the pinks, pale yellows, and blues contrasting delicately with the white spidery structure of the conservatory building.

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Conversations around us were fixated on the flower. A mother and son were anxious: What if it turns out not to be as big as everyone says? Would the smell drive them away before they could get pictures? People departed the building as if in a dream state. Was it the odor or the flower itself? There was an unspoken understanding, it seemed, that it would be wrong to give anything away to those still waiting.

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Stepping inside, I understood the dreamy looks of the visitors before me: Here was a hybrid of Jurassic Park and the Enchanted Forest. Amid the graceful backdrop of the other outsize frilly and ferny plantings, the Amorphophallus titanum—for that is its calling-it-like-it-is scientific name—stood on a pedestal in the conservatory pond, peacefully and regally undergoing the changes that all flowers must. The flower had opened earlier in the day, releasing its scent, which had now completely dissipated. The spathe—the skirt-like bract surrounding the flower spike—had started to close back up, revealing just a glimpse of its lush red interior. A security guard kindly shared his cell-phone photos of the fully opened blossom and his own experience of what he respectfully called “the fragrance.”

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Amorphophallus titanum closing up but still a sight to behold. Behind it and to the left (green stalk with white speckles) is the vegetative version of the plant. Though it looks like a small tree, that’s actually a compound leaf at the top. The plant sends up leaves periodically to capture the sun’s rays through photosynthesis. This energy is stored in the plant’s enormous corm (up to 200 pounds), until there is enough to produce a flower.

I was disappointed not to have smelled the corpse flower’s scent for myself and couldn’t help feeling that I was cheating, but I did seem to enter the dream state I had imagined seeing on the faces of preceding viewers. Of course, I tried to document this fantastical being with my camera.

Here in the northeast, we are accustomed to tropical plants potted up in our homes and serving as summer annuals in our garden beds. They offer a faint nod to greenery in doctor’s offices and workplaces and therefore, through no fault of their own, have become boring. The A. titanum, native to Sumatra, is no houseplant. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen here.

Or is it?

The corpse flower is a member of the Araceae, or more commonly, arum, family, and somewhat like finding vestiges of dinosaurs in present-day birds, arums abound in native and non-native forms here in the New York City area. As I write, my golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) drapes its viney self over the table. I rescued it years ago from the street. Horribly invasive in tropical forests, it grows eagerly in a pot on my balcony during the summer, requiring only a little water now and then. (I’ve seen these selling for $10 apiece in supermarkets. Crazy!)

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My little arum.

Arum italicum grows beautifully in a woodsy bed at my community garden. It too is invasive, from Europe as the name suggests, but under control in this particular spot. Like the corpse flower, on a comparatively tiny scale, it has a flower spike surrounded by a showy spathe. The spathe dies back and the flower spike produces glistening red-orange berries. These remind me of the corpse flower’s red berries, which are eaten by hornbills, who spread their seeds.

Our native eastern skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, has both odor and thermogenesis in common with A. titanum. The corpse flower ensures the spreading of its scent by heating itself up close to the temperature of the human body. The stench attracts carrion flies and dung beetles. Growing in an entirely different environment in wet woods and bogs from Minnesota to the east coast of the U.S. and Canada, the eastern skunk cabbage heats up in early spring, melting through ice and snow. The heat in this case broadcasts its scent to the few early spring pollinators in the woods. These gnats, flies, and beetles find warmth and shelter in the skunk cabbage spathe, which induces them to stay awhile and get more covered in pollen.

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Eastern skunk cabbage—hot  and stinky like its relative from Sumatra.

All members of the Araceae family have in common crystals of calcium oxalate in parts, usually leaves and flowers, or all of the plant. These needle-like crystals are toxic to many animals although some, including humans, have found ways of getting around that problem, depending on the plant. Apparently hornbills don’t mind, which is a good thing for our rare titan.

For more about the corpse flower, check out this blog by Marc Hachadourian, director of the New York Botanical Garden’s Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections. NYBG’s website also diagrams the plant’s life cycle, which helps account for why this blooming happens only once a decade:

http://blogs.nybg.org/plant-talk/2016/07/horticulture-2/the-corpse-flower-a-decade-in-the-making/