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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.




New Farmer’s Market on 10th

Farmacy 7

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.

Farmacy 3Farmacy 6 people

Farmacy 5Farmacy 8

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 ( 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 ( 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.”



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

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.


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.



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.”


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!)


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.


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:


1 + 2 = Soldier Beetle to the Rescue


Columbine blossom hosting an aphid and its predator.


Soldier beetle on a leaf. These beetles look a little like small fireflies.

Symptom No. 1: The ants told me about the aphids. I watched them climb the columbine stems and travel the extravagant blossoms. The buds and blooms the ants were monitoring were covered in tiny pale-green triangular aphid bodies. Symptom No. 2: Sooty mold appears on leaves. Putting the pieces together, as many of my gardener readers already have, my garden plot, as well as the community garden as whole, has an aphid infestation, carefully cultivated by ants with ranching instincts. Then today help arrived in the shape of a soldier beetle, which I identified using Garden Insects of North America (Whitney Cranshaw), a handy, if hefty, tome. Soldier beetles eat aphids! Sadly, I had already cut down and disposed of many blossoms. The fairy-garden look is now over.



Columbine, globe allium, herb fennel, and yellow iris creating a feathery, fluttery landscape.

Brown, Green, Purple

This is a poignant season, the space between winter and spring, when the landscape appears dull but is not. Death is everywhere in the dry grays and browns of fallen leaves and bare branches, some broken from winter storms, and strawlike remnants of last season’s stems. But so is life, asserting itself with piercing intensity. Without any help from me, fierce little crocus plants push straight up through the leaves, tearing openings, and all at once their pale purple heads have arrived. This is when the gardener is a mere bystander—and happily so. Here are some of my sightings as I stood by.

Bare branches of the community garden’s apple tree


Snowdrop in Jane’s garden.

Turkey tail mushrooms (I think)

Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) mushrooms.



Crocuses emerging

Crocuses emerging, piercing dry leaves.


Witch hazel among skyscrapers.


Blooming on schedule on the playground.

Crocus blooms

Crocus blooms amid the grays and browns of last year’s leaves.



Bin Composting Step by Step

I refer to composting a lot in this blog, but only until recently, prompted by a reader, did I realize that I haven’t yet given any practical information about composting. Now that we’re heading into summer, a composting step-by-step is in order.

Plant food.

Plant food.

First, a little background: Growing up, I knew about composting as the semi-secretive operation that my father carried out on an overgrown strip of land to the side of our driveway. It was possibly an eyesore to the neighbors, but fortunately these were pre-Martha Stewart Living days and they didn’t complain. From time to time, I also leafed through a very ’70s-style book called Mulch that my father thoughtfully kept on a shelf in the bathroom (along with a variety of other garden literature). That was the extent of my knowledge and participation in composting.

About a year ago, I felt it was necessary to confront the old pile. By then, my father the gardener was no longer around to ask, but I’d become a composter in my own right and was curious about what my father’s work had produced. The first part of the journey into the depths of the pile was nightmarish. He had secured a seemingly indestructible plastic enclosure with metal stakes, now rusted. After a trip to the emergency room, so my husband, who was helping me, could receive a tetanus shot, we proceeded to detach a network of vines and tree roots that grew over and around and through the pile. In the end, I did get a little of what I was looking for: rich, crumbly humus that I put to use right away around newly planted shrubs. And the importance of pile placement was brought home to me. Trees and vines are opportunistic. They had been feeding on that pile for several decades. Some vine control earlier on would have left us more of the good stuff.

I bring up this story partly to illustrate that there are many ways to compost and what works best has much to do with the kind of gardening you do, what kind of space—and how much of
it—you have, and what materials you are planning to compost.

The guide that follows is based on the three-bin composting system for food waste that I set up at the Clinton Community Garden. It’s easily adaptable to a backyard garden.

Bin Composting 

Finding a space for your bin or bins: Well-managed compost does not stink, but it’s still better to place it in a low-traffic area, away from patios, windows, and curious kids and pets. Extreme shade, sun, and moisture are not ideal, but there are ways to work around those conditions if necessary. Bare earth, as opposed to pavement, is nice to have, but many urban gardeners, whose backyards are courtyards or balconies or rooftops, don’t have access to the ground. No matter, compost will still happen in the right kind of container (I will report on this soon in another post).

Fresh compost.

Harvesting from a Garden Gourmet.

Preparing the space: Clear away plants from the spot you’ve chosen and smooth out the ground. If you have trouble with rats or mice, you can rodent proof your composting area with hardware cloth, a heavy wire mesh. Use hardware cloth with quarter-inch holes. Lay the cloth on the ground and stake it in place. The bins will sit on top and should also be staked in (I’ll explain further on).

What bins to use and how many: I’ve had good luck with Garden Gourmet composting bins. If you have a little extra space to accommodate a round shape, Earth Machines are lower to the ground and broader at the base, which is helpful both for aeration and turning the compost. At the garden, I placed three bins side by side against a shed wall. A single bin might be enough for one household. The advantage to having two or more is that composting can continue after one bin is closed off for “cooking.”

Securing the bins: Garden Gourmets come with plastic anchor stakes, but I found these didn’t last long. To keep the bins in place, I used long coated metal planting stakes (slightly less than a quarter inch in diameter), which I cut to fit and ran down through each corner of the bins. These stakes also help retain the shape of the bins, which are made of recycled plastic and benefit from some extra structural support over time. To further discourage rodents and weigh down the hardware cloth, I filled in the spaces surrounding the bins with gravel and broken bricks.

worms n bin

Decomposition in progress thanks to billions of visible and invisible creatures.

Now the bins are ready to receive food scraps and garden waste. At my garden, we compost food waste and garden debris in separate bins. We have so much garden waste that it would quickly overwhelm the Garden Gourmets, so vegetation is corralled in a large open bin where it breaks down over the course of a summer. In the enclosed bins, food waste decomposes rapidly and compost can often be harvested a few times over the summer.


What to compost:

Kitchen scraps.

  • fruit & veggie scraps (peels, skins, cobs, pits)*
  • egg shells
  • loose tea and tea bags
  • coffee grounds and paper filters
  • nut shells
  • food-soiled paper napkins

*For best results, chop up food scraps in your kitchen with a sharp knife before adding them to the compost bin.

What not to compost:

  • dairy products
  • meat and bones
  • animal litter
  • bread, cooked and uncooked grains, baked goods
  • liquified, slimy organic matter
  • compostable or biodegradable bags—they turn into a goopy substance
full bin

A full bin soon to be closed off for “cooking.”

Layering is the preferred method for adding material to the compost bin. By alternating layers of “greens” and “browns,” you can balance nitrogen-rich material with carbon-rich material. Food waste and fresh green garden waste, like cut grass, is high in nitrogen and water. Dry leaves, newspaper, cardboard, and saw dust from untreated wood are all good sources of carbon. The recommended carbon to nitrogen ratio is 30:1, which may sound off-puttingly specific. Composters learn to eyeball it. For instance, for every new deposit of kitchen scraps, I add a layer of browns that’s about twice as thick. It also helps to dig into the pile before adding fresh material. I know when my calculations are a little off and the bin is too wet (the most common situation) because it will give off a slightly sour ammonia smell. The fix is to aerate the pile by digging and turning the material and adding more dry ingredients (shredded newspaper and dry leaves are the best for this). You will want to keep a container of browns nearby. Turning the bin once a week will speed along the process and keep all the bin inhabitants (the decomposers, the chewers, the tunnelers, and the diggers) active and happy.


Browns at the ready.

Tools and materials:
Pitchfork, shovel, gloves, sifter, wheelbarrow, compost crank, hardware cloth, and bins

good compost

The results: Nice dark compost. Time to sift it.

Garden Gourmet compost bins:
If you live in NYC, visit the Lower Eastside Ecology Center for discounted bins ( You can order them and then pick them up at the Union Square Farmer’s Market.