Category Archives: pollinators in the garden

July Garden


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.)



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.



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


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.





Golden Butterflies

On walks along the Hudson, I’ve come across lots of interesting plants, some intentionally placed, most not. There is a certain section just past the former sanitation building where Riverside Park South starts. This little stretch is for some reason woebegone in contrast to the more well-cared-for trees, grasses, and seasonal garden beds a few steps away. The stone pavers are always popping up and half broken here. The river washes up the rocks, splashing the thin soil with a brine that many plants would find intolerable. The weedy things that tend to grow here are chickory, mullein, lamb’s quarters, golden rod, dandelions, and wild asters, but a few days ago none of these plants were yet visible. I did, however, spot some shrubbery that took my breath away.

Against the gray backdrop of the river and sky, golden butterflies fluttered. There is plenty of official outdoor artwork in the park, some of which I am very fond. This, however, was the work of a mystery artist—or sprite. Someone had to do this careful wiring after dark or in the very early morning. And the butterflies themselves were made of trimmed feathers, skillfully joined and spray painted with gold paint. A flock of tourists came by just as I was taking one last picture. “Shhh,” I said, “don’t scare them away.” They immediately took out their smartphones.






HK Gardener Goes Downtown

Follow the Hudson River bike path all the way south through the series of parks and gardens that make up the Battery Park City Parks and the reward is a small circular garden rich in plant and animal life. I found myself there one recent morning and couldn’t leave. I’d almost forgotten that I had my camera in my backpack and was grateful for the chance to capture a little of this stunning array of foliage and flowers filtered through the soft morning atmosphere. These days I really want to know how a garden bed is put together in a way that works aesthetically and environmentally. Here’s a garden that to my mind succeeds in both.

Circular garden

Datura and nicotiana flowers.


Foliage and flowers, highs and lows, shade to full sun, spills and spills…


Drifts of Japanese anemone intermixed with Russian sage against a blue-green-gray cloud of variegated ornamental grass.


The wildlife.


The other side of anemone patch has a completely different look to offer.


White hibiscus and nicotiana—beautifully timed blooms.


The pond at the center of the circular garden.


More wildlife.


The sunny side of the circle.


A Pollinator Garden

I have a vitex growing in my garden plot, and it’s just starting to bloom. This morning the clusters of tiny purple flowers were waving up and down with the shifting weights of bees and other visitors.

Bees at work.

A honey bee and a bumble bee share the vitex.

Nearby the yellow fennel and rue flowers were mobbed, and a Painted Lady was flirting with the Queen Anne’s Lace.

Lady and Queen.

Painted Lady visits Queen Anne’s Lace.

“Ah, a pollinator garden,” I announced to my buzzing, whirring companions. Without giving it too much thought, I had cultivated landing pads and tube-shaped flowers and the corresponding creatures had arrived. And the tomatoes were producing.

Last year my perfectly healthy plants grew lots of dark green leaves, a few blossoms, and about three tomatoes. At the preschool garden we grew six or so leafy tomato plants and harvested one little tomato. So what was going on? It wasn’t until late winter, when I had started to think about new plants, that it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen many bumble bees last summer at the community garden and none at the preschool garden. Bumble bees, it turns out, are the key to pollinating tomatoes. That hum of theirs vibrates the flowers, loosening the pollen which is hidden inside the flowers’ anthers instead of being more freely available in sticky clumps outside the anthers that pollinators can easily bump into. The pollen in this case is the bee treat (well, more than a treat: protein) since the flowers of tomatoes, eggplants, and blueberries, among others, don’t contain nectar.

Tomatoes growing.

Tomatoes on the way.

Gardeners in the know have been sonicating their tomato plants with electric toothbrushes and other devices when bumble bees haven’t been available (if that sounds risqué just remember we are talking about pollination after all). I’ll try that when I face this problem again. But of course, I’d rather have a garden full of bumble bees. Last year’s lack of pollinators in my particular garden spaces could have been due to lots of location-specific disruptions, the biggest being the nonstop construction in Hell’s Kitchen. Still there’s no denying that pollinators of all kinds are under siege everywhere from the direct and indirect impacts of global warming/climate change. Scientific literature talks about bees maturing too early for the plants they pollinate and parasites getting the upper hand because of higher temperatures.

We got lucky this year. (Did it have to do with the very cold snowy winter here in the New York City area?) But last year was a warning that trickled down to the gardeners of the tiniest garden plots.