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Just a Little More Winter

It snowed again on Thursday, as many of you know. It was that downy kind of snow that settles on your head like baby bird feathers. Underneath was solid ice. We on the garden snow crew got out there and started trying to find cracks in what seemed to be the world’s hardest peanut brittle. Getting under that surface and lifting up plates of ice is extremely satisfying, but it was not happening nearly enough to justify all the energy that a couple of shovelers was putting in.

We waylaid a city sanitation truck piled high with salt. The driver came back after making his rounds and filled our buckets. We applied it and suddenly the impenetrable coating began to crackle.

Tipping the balance.

Tipping the balance.

Reinforcements came in the form of more gardeners and moms and kids on the way home from school. It was still very cold out but the neighborhood felt a little warmer.


De-plating the ice.





Snow Days in the Garden

The spruce: A tree for all seasons and many birds.

The spruce: A tree for all seasons.

Gardening changes in the winter, of course, but it doesn’t stop. For community gardeners living in the heart of a big city, there is the pleasure—bound up with responsibility—of being connected with a piece of land year round. So when it snows, shoveling the sidewalk in front of the garden is our job.


Looking north at the Clinton Community Garden.

It’s been snowing lately, and working side by side with other gardeners reminds me that the street side of the garden is one of the ways in which community gardening is different from the usually more solitary experience of backyard gardening. Community gardening offers solitude in an urban environment, but it also demands participation, which is not so simple a thing as it may sound, especially in the dead of winter.


Snow crew at work.

Snow crew at work.

Enter the snow crew. No winter-prone community garden should be without one. Without one, our community garden would be the bane of the neighborhood, forcing pedestrians to hobble through ice and slush. Instead, our flawlessly scraped sidewalk earns compliments from passersby, most of whom know we’re volunteers, and it gives us an excuse to be gardeners in January and February.


Cutting a back path for gardeners. Only sand is used here for traction. Salt harms plants and soil.


Stark beauty of a honey locust in winter.

Stark beauty of a honey locust in winter.

Marching for Everything We Love

Cyndi&TessamysignI’m borrowing from a beautiful hand-painted cloth sign carried by a neighbor and fellow gardener (right, with her daughter) at the march yesterday. Everyone who was marching knows that there is no part of life on Earth that is or will be untouched by climate change. The creativity used to express this throughout the march was remarkable, as was the atmosphere of peace and goodwill. 400,000 people walking together, helping each other carry signs and placards, and leaving barely any litter behind! If we can do that, surely we can share and conserve our resources equitably, recycle, compost, and switch to clean renewable energy. Below is a sampling of the march.


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Message in a White Bag (Containing Compost)

I’m not normally overjoyed to see a bag of compost hanging from the garden fence. (Contributions are collected on specific days.) This one, however, was a neat white gift bag containing some scraps to be composted, a small packet of squash seeds, and a note that needs to be shared with my fellow gardeners. The note reads: “Your garden is beautiful. If you are ever in New Orleans please come to CRISP Farms.” It was signed by Zach.

I have to agree that our garden is beautiful even at the end of summer when many things are overgrown and ragged, so thank you to Zach for visiting and noticing on behalf of all of us.

I looked up CRISP Farms and found this video: and a CRISP Farms Facebook page. What I found was not just a farm but a movement:  neighbors rebuilding the 9th Ward, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, with gardens and farms. Amen to that.


One of the pleasures of working with little kids is seeing how they react to the things that are familiar to me but brand new to them. When I dropped a heap of corn in the middle of a table of preschool summer campers, there was a little stir. Some of the kids knew what this was about having done this project with me during the school year; others, especially the youngest, were kind of stunned by these alien-looking objects. Everybody had eaten corn before, but husking it was another matter.

Making corn husk dolls

Husking the corn. Photo by Yolanda Colon-Espinal.


It isn’t that easy for small hands to peel off the husk of a fresh ear of corn, so I’ve learned to loosen it ahead of time. As the kids get to work, they notice the smell. The fresh, green husks on the outside smell almost sweet; inside is the scent of hay. As we’re husking, we talk about the parts we’re looking at. The husks are like leaves and act as a shell, protecting the corn inside. And why is this package called an ear? Well, it makes more sense seen growing from the side of a stalk. (Pause for all of us to stand up tall and hold ears of corn off the sides of our heads.) Then there’s the silk. It’s tempting to yank it out right away, but then we would miss seeing something surprising:

corn silk and kernels

Each thread of “silk” is attached to a kernel of corn.










See how each strand of the silk is attached to a kernel? These strands transport pollen dropped from the corn’s tassel (the tiny flowers that grow at the top of the plant) to the eggs, which when fertilized grow into kernels. All of that said, the silk is instantly recognizable as Rapunzel hair.


Last year’s corn.













Which leads us into our project of making corn husk dolls. We use only the husks and silks from the corn at our disposal—no string, yarn, or pipe cleaner. It’s helpful to make a pile of strips from the toughest and longest husk leaves for use as ties and arms. Arms can be made by twisting or braiding the tough strips. I try to make some ahead of time, so that the kids can concentrate on putting together their dolls. Depending on their age and dexterity, they can tie off necks and waists and stuff in the hair. Help from an adult or older child is necessary.

A finished doll.

A finished doll. Photo by Y.C-E.

Doll-making materials.

Doll-making materials.









The more I do this project, the more I find in it. Making one’s own simple doll opens up all sorts of possibilities. Doll stereotypes are quickly dispensed with. Some boys asked for dolls wearing skirts and some girls wanted theirs to have pants. One boy said that he wanted his boy doll to wear a beautiful dress. Some kids wanted their dolls to have faces and some didn’t, echoing the  traditional style of Native American corn husk dolls without faces.

I usually can’t resist making my own doll. Here she is:

Mother-and-child corn husk doll.

Mother-and-child corn husk doll.





























And the Answer Is

In my last post, I put up a challenge that was accepted by two worthy gardeners. Readers were asked to figure out this puzzle:
What is this plant and what happened to it?

Nancy hit it on the head with columbine and leaf-miner damage.
Coming in second, Marcia makes a good case for gingko leaves, noting that many gingkoes have been planted in New York City (I have stepped on their very smelly fruits on city sidewalks).

I see leaf mining every year in columbine plants at the Clinton Community Garden. The only other plants in the garden that I’ve seen with this kind of tunneling are hollyhocks. The columbines seem strangely unperturbed by this summer-long attack on their leaves, but the hollyhocks that are invaded are often decimated. Could it be partly because columbine plants have so many leaves? Hollyhocks put out fewer, though much bigger, leaves.

The creature doing the mining is something I haven’t really paid much attention to. By the time I notice what’s happened, the adult insect has emerged and moved on. Now I know that a kind of fly is responsible for columbine damage, but there are other types of flies, moths, beetles, and wasps that also attack specific plants this way. It’s pretty ingenious on the part of the insect: She injects her eggs inside the leaf. When they hatch, they begin eating their way through, protected above and below by leaf tissue, and emerging as an adult at the end of the tunnel. You can chart the growth of the insect by the widening of the tunnel as it reaches the end of the leaf. Columbines are known for surviving this parasitism quite well and are used as traps to protect more vulnerable plants (in greenhouses, for instance). Another reason to love my columbines.

Some side notes to leaf mining: To minimize infestation, don’t compost the damaged leaves. Hairy-leaved plants discourage leaf miners.

The Brutality of the Gardener

My community garden plot is at times enormous and others minute. Enormous is when I’m waiting for things to come up—how can I have all this space and not be filling it? Minute happens fairly quickly afterwards when I in combination with nature have filled it and I begin to realize that if I don’t do something soon, nature will keep filling it to bursting. That’s when I become a brute, cutting back luxuriant foliage, digging up plants and demanding they live elsewhere in a spot that pleases me, tying up floppy leaves and stems that prefer lying down, pulling up plants and sending them off to the compost heap. Inevitably during these activities of beautification, I injure something beautiful. This morning for instance, I backed into and broke off a sprig of columbine that I had just finished photographing. It sounds silly, maybe, I did get a picture after all, but it pained me: the delicate, searching tendril had held a perfect pale green bud that hung over the stepping stones so trustingly.

Purple columbine.

Elegant, wild columbine.

After that and some other acts of destruction, I took myself out of the garden and stretched out on the sun-warmed brick path. No other human was around. I looked up to top branches of a large beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) where a catbird sang mightily, his beak opened wide. It’s a good thing there are trees and birds, I thought. They take your mind off the ground.

Catbird in beauty bush.

In the catbird seat.

A little bit of the sky helped me get back to earth, remembering I still hadn’t watered and there were potted plants that were still waiting to go in the ground.


Vitex with columbine, lavender, and iris.

So back to the garden I go to put problem solving above plant bullying. The eternal issue is, of course, space. In a small garden plot (6′ by 5′, maybe)  surrounded by other small plots, it is perhaps the height of vanity to attempt to grow food “crops” and domesticated herbs together with wildflowers and ornamental plants. I would like to say I’ve been practicing companion planting, but this is just something that has happened in the last 20 years. Plants have come my way—through other people and of their own accord (those columbines). Very, very slowly I have begun to understand them better partly by making all the mistakes of the brutal kind described above and partly by looking at this little space as a complete thing and wondering what’s happening there from way below to just below the surface to high up in the leaves and stems. Much as I sometimes long for the chance to start over with straight rows of tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, and lettuce, I think I would have missed seeing what my wild-ish garden has given me, beauty of the aesthetic kind as well as of the food-for-thought, puzzle-solving kind.

And with that, I offer this puzzle to be discussed next time:


What’s this? Send in your thoughts.