Picking Up the Branches

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.

Downed branches from street trees filled the Children’s Garden.

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.

Branches cleared from the garden.

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.

Broken branches pruned.

A dangler hanging directly over the brick path. We got help from the local fire department. A crew came through the block with chainsaws, attending to street trees, but they needed our pole saws to reach the higher branches. In return, they brought in their 35-foot ladder to take down this branch.

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.

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An Afternoon in the Garden, Late January

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:

De-thatching the grass, above, and aerating, below. The screens are ready to be stretched over the re-seeded areas. In the future, I hope to replace the screening step with a covering of hay.

Above, de-thatched, aerated, and ready for planting.

New grass sprouting (above and below) in some tricky areas. Both get a fair amount of foot traffic and are shaded by large trees and shrubs.

First snow.

 

 

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.