A girl named Nina started it. There was a tree outside her window that she looked at every day. The tree was nice but the hollow in its trunk was what she really looked at. She looked at it and looked in it. She had seen a bird go in it and disappear. Nina is one of the first-graders in an after-school gardening class that I teach. As part of an introduction to trees, I had asked each of the kids to tell the class about a tree they had seen that day.
Luckily everyone had seen a tree that day. Some gave very simple descriptions—leaves, no leaves, a brown trunk—but Nina’s story was like a magic wand. Soon kids were describing birds they’d seen, squirrels chasing each other around trunks, early spring flowers. One boy, Nina’s counterpart in storytelling, described in infinite detail a tree in the snow, seen during winter vacation, and carefully identified all the tree parts. Another boy told a version of Nina’s story that somehow ended with a bird falling out of a hollow in a tree and having to go to the bird hospital.
Nina’s story inspired me, too. Shortly before our next gardening class, I came across a tree in Union Square with all the gnarled, bumpy grace of a mysterious elder residing deep in a forest, and it had a hollow. Nina’s tree. I drew an outline based on this tree and made copies for the class. Their assignment was to add to the tree in any way they wished—color, textured bark, leaves, birds and nests, other animals, plants and animals at the foot of the tree… They drew butterflies coming out of the hollow and bats hanging from branches, blue skies, dark skies, snow.
The tree story, the appeal of drawing, and the hollow itself proved a kind of passageway for me with this group of kids. We had begun gardening classes together in February and I had been doing all my tried-and-true indoor planting activities, but the constraints of the classroom were getting to me and—I could tell—the kids. I missed a previous teaching setup where the garden outside was just a door away and could be seen from inside the classroom. We could easily step outside to look for early spring plants and then come back in to talk about what we’d seen and do our version of a weather report. But on this particular gray day in Hell’s Kitchen, filling in what was missing in a sketch of a tree started us on a wilderness journey while sitting on the floor of a classroom a few blocks from Times Square.
I went away for a week and returned to a changed garden. For one thing, this jack-in-the-pulpit made a flower. I found it in the compost pile a year ago, entangled in some weeds, and planted it in my miniature woodland garden bed. Compost bins are pretty reliable nurseries.
And then there was this bee scene on the lacecap hydrangeas. I grew these plants from cuttings taken from Jane’s collection four years ago. Last year they started to grow a little taller and produced some flowers. This year the shrubs have formed the backbone of my garden plot—their broad, flat “caps” a rich mix of dark and light pink—and a major snacking station for the garden’s honeybees and bumblebees.
The berries are here, about a month away from eating time, and grapes are hanging from the arbor.
And the apple mint was ready for a shearing. I like to make it into a pesto (it’s got a touch of nuttiness) and frozen mint tea.
It’s spring and the winter compost I’ve been working on is just about ready. The city halted its curbside organics collection and suspended other programs during the pandemic, so I experimented with composting food scraps I wouldn’t ordinarily include in my balcony bin and definitely not in the community garden system. The most significant crossover has been incorporating bones. We made a lot of chicken soup this winter and the chicken bones went into the bin. As did moldy bread and old cooked rice. Twelve stories above the street, these things didn’t seem too likely to attract mice and rats. I also made sure to break down and mash these food scraps before adding them and then to mix them thoroughly with the contents of the bin. Adding finished compost helps jumpstart the process too.
My bin is pretty simple. I used a cardboard box (we had a lot), poking holes in the sides and bottom and seating it inside a large garden bag meant for collecting weeds. I insulated the box with cardboard and paper packaging material. When the box starts to fall apart, it can be composted along with the contents.
Crocuses and Dutch iris on the first day of spring…
Last year I went backpacking in British Columbia. I’ve checked my calendar a few times to remind myself that it really was the summer of 2019 when I did this trek because of course it now seems so much longer ago. The trip started with scenes in my mind of rocks, icy waters, forests, hills, mountains, wind-swept grassy realms. My first thoughts went to Iceland. When that proved a little too impractical, I moved on to Olympic National Park in Washington State and finally, Canada.
Through REI Adventures, I found a trip on Whistler Mountain, just north of Vancouver, and then started getting myself ready with hikes in and around NYC—Van Cortlandt Park, Inwood Park, Central Park, and Riverside Park all helped me build up my mileage. When rocky terrain wasn’t available, I counted on stairs—my building has 46 flights of them. I ran, I biked, I resistance-trained, and when I got my backpack and gear together, I started doing my hikes and regular walks with it, adding books to make up the weight of the gear I’d be carrying in the mountains.
I was seeking a different landscape and it announced itself as my flight approached Vancouver with the sight of a glacial peak rising out of mist and water.
I stayed the first night in a small European-style hotel in what turned out to be a garden district. Gardens flowed out of balconies, tiny front yards, street islands, window boxes, all leading the way to Stanley Park, an urban forest, bounded by beaches. This was an unexpected pleasure, so I headed out at dusk to prowl around the edges of the park, finding, among other things, a daycare center set up like a tree house and community garden plots running up against tennis courts.
Daycare in the trees.
The Buchan Hotel
The next day I headed off to Whistler, a ski resort where the nordic, luge, and bobsledding events of the 2010 Winter Olympics took place. It looked like a shopping mall dressed up as a Swiss village. Overpriced and impossible to navigate—every shop and cafe looked exactly the same—it felt like vacation purgatory. Fortunately, I spent only one brief night nearby at an airbnb and was soon on my way up Whistler Mountain with a small group of fellow hikers.
We took a gondola partway, leaving tourist attractions behind. It was indeed another world up there.
At first we hiked a blustery rocky zone, almost desertlike in color, which gave way to terrain that was both rugged and lush.
Winding up the narrowing trails, we backpackers started to get to know each other. The going was tough the last quarter of the way, inspiring the term “stairmaster of stone” and references to The Game of Thrones. It was an interesting group—teachers, writers, tech people for a nonprofit, and professional outdoors folks (our guides). I was the only one from the East Coast. Toronto and Montreal were the extent of my Canadian travels. We reminded each other to drink more water. We started to distinguish between the whistling of marmots, source of the mountain’s name, and that of humans. I discovered that carrying my water bottles on my hips was a painful arrangement when walking nearly vertically. Downward pressure on bones—ouch!
It’s easy to lose a sense of scale among clouds and mist, massive mountains, glaciers, rocks of all sizes, and water, running smooth here jagged there. Everything is at once a part of something huge and very small. Even at its most still, the scene thrills with animation. Tiny alpine plants tucked in among piles of stone point to a landscape in a state of constant re-creation. One day, with enough of these scattered breakthroughs, they may form another alpine meadow, upstaging the glamorous but shrinking glacier.
Our first night an unexpected storm blew through, dropping rain and snow. We had all taken extra precautions in securing our tents since there was this very slight chance of bad weather. I had enjoyed these preparations, coming up with just the right rocks with which to moor my little sleep ship. I was not enjoying anything a couple of hours later when I was wearing everything I had and was still freezing with no hope of sleep. I was, however, dry and rooted to the ground. The storm ended early in the morning and I slipped out for a trip to the outhouse. The sky was clear and the stars were out. It was magnificent.
The next night was clear and milder. By the end of the next day, I’d gathered a list of warming strategies offered by the rest of the hikers. I stayed warm and did sleep until the apparently magic hour of 4 am when I woke up and stepped outside to find this mountain silhouette below a bright crescent storybook moon.
The journey back through the woods felt in some ways like stepping through a mirror. Forest plants I knew from the East Coast were reflected in these Pacific Northwest natives but there were some striking differences in size and color. Despite noticeable ravages by logging, this was also an incredibly green world, blanketed with mosses. Could it be more green than where I come from? Hard to say, but there was something about the light. It made it look like spring in July.
Next: Down from the mountain, the Hell’s Kitchen Gardener visits a community garden in B.C.
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.
In late January an orchid blooms in Hell’s Kitchen against a backdrop of high-rises and the blare of 42nd Street traffic. Its pot sits inside a Wedgwood pitcher, given to me by a neighbor who was moving back to England. “Very English,” she said to me. “You must have it.”
Hamamelis decked out in Battery Park City.
Our community garden honeybees didn’t make it through January. A fly on the outside of the bee box made me take a closer look: dead bees at the entrance.
Mosses and lichens thrive on rocks along the Hudson River.
My friend Jane’s snow drops (Galanthus nivalis) and winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) in bloom at the Hell’s Kitchen Playground garden.
Stalwart rosemary overwintering in the preschool herb planter. Behind it is our experiment in winter sowing in a mini greenhouse.
A tenant herb planter overlooking 42nd Street. My friend Liz worked out a way to keep our prolific oregano growing over the cold months. She made a greenhouse out of a large baggie and inside tucked a small sealed baggie filled with water. The idea is that the small baggie of water captures the sun’s warmth during the daytime and slowly releases it at night..
A closer look at Galanthus nivalis beside a hellebore. Now the hellebores are fully in flower and living up to their common name of Lenten rose.
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.
Top: A mini rock garden within a garden. Next to it is a sign that reads “Garden of Touch and Scent.” Bottom: Herbs and a young blueberry bush. Thanks to Jane Greenlaw for these photos.
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.
Fast-growing maple in the too-small blue pot (next to the fence).
“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.
The lovely blue pot that had gotten too tight for our tree.
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.
Out of one pot…
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.