Category Archives: urban environmentalism

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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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.

Labor Day for Gardeners

Storm Hermine gave us perfect gardening weather: soft, cool, fall-ish, and the garden, free of humidity and intense heat, and almost lacking in mosquitoes, was also free of the strife that can often be the background noise there. At the garden debris compost bin, I was overjoyed (really, truly) to find two gardeners cutting up plant waste and putting it in the bin and not in the trash. I was so moved to see this that I walked up to them and thanked them. They happen to be two very nice guys I’ve run into off and on at the garden but don’t know all that well. They told me that they were a little afraid of composting, afraid of not doing the right thing and so—having been yelled at—tended to err on the side of caution and the garbage can. This day, they had decided to go for it. They were being careful not to put in invasive weeds. I was consoling, telling them I know it could be difficult to tell what was what sometimes.* This led to questions about composting in general and how food-scrap composting works at the garden. I organize this side of our composting efforts and require gardeners who want to do it to participate fully in the project, not just drop off their food scraps (the how and why of this I’ll get into in an upcoming post on composting). The starting place is a lesson on how to do something that seems kind of simple but can go so wrong, especially when it involves ten or more people. The timing was right, I was there, and one of the gardeners was actually interested in getting a lesson. And now I have a new food-scrap composter/gardener. Some good labor was had by all.

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The food-scrap compost intake bin at the Clinton Community Garden. I use a garden fork to first dig food scraps in and later turn the material. After each addition of food scraps, I add a layer of leaves two to three times as thick as the food-scrap layer. These scraps are nicely chopped and have been eye-balled for bad stuff, like dairy, bones, rubber bands, and plastic bits.

 

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Here’s what I don’t like to see. Yes, these items are all compostable, they might even be organic, but what are they doing here? They weren’t spoiled or even wrinkled. A family of four could have gotten breakfast out of this compost bin. I chalk this up to a rogue “composter” who seemed to joy in dropping perfectly edible food in the bin once a week and not even attempting to cover it up. All my regular composters know to chop up their peels and rinds and that wasting food is pretty uncool.

*As a side note, I tend to take a broader view of what plant matter can and can’t go in than our particular setup allows. I will never, ever compost morning glory—though the flowers are endearing, the plant is deadly in its ability to self-replicate and strangle a garden—but I am comfortable with most roots and even some seed heads that come out of garden beds going into the compost as long as they are broken down and treated to a good smothering layer of leaves. If there’s space, I will sometimes dry out borderline weedy plants by hanging them up or laying them out on a hard surface in the sun.

 

 

 

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On Not Blowing or Why I Rake

 

The fallen.

The fallen.

In the 1970s suburb I grew up in, no one I knew blew their leaves. Across the continent in California, though, the leaf blower was starting to be commercially available. Adapted from a portable agricultural machine used to spray chemicals on orchards and crops, the leaf blower was variously hailed as a labor-saving replacement of the yard rake and, somewhat bizarrely, as a water-saving device (instead of washing sidewalks in drought-stricken places, blow them clear). Almost immediately people objected to the very loud and obnoxious racket that these gas-powered machines made. By 1975, Carmel, California, had banned leaf blowers. Other towns followed. But despite the work of citizen’s organizations and success in banning, here we are today with lawn crews and homeowners blasting leaves and anything else deemed messy on any given day, sunrise to sunset, year round. Even in towns and cities that have restrictions and bans, it turns out, enforcement is lax.

The leaf blower was invented to sanitize the landscape. And that is very strange because this is a very dirty tool. How dirty? According to the manual of the Stihl company that makes them:

“As soon as the engine is running, this product generates toxic exhaust fumes containing chemicals, such as unburned hydrocarbons (including benzene) and carbon monoxide [emphasis mine], that are known to cause respiratory problems, cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. Some of the gases (e.g. carbon monoxide) may be colorless and odorless.”

The Stihl manual further warns:

“Inhalation of certain dusts, especially organic dusts such as mold or pollen, can cause susceptible persons to have an allergic or asthmatic reaction. Substantial or repeated inhalation of dust and other airborne contaminants, in particular those with a smaller particle size, may cause respiratory or other illnesses. This includes wood dust, especially from hardwoods, but also from some softwoods such as Western Red Cedar. Control dust at the source where possible. Use good work practices, such as operating the unit so that the wind or operating process directs any dust raised by the power tool away from the operator. Follow the recommendations of EPA/OSHA/NIOSH and occupational and trade associations with respect to “particulate matter”). When the inhalation of dust cannot be substantially controlled, i.e., kept at or near the ambient (background) level, the operator and any bystanders should wear a respirator approved by NIOSH/MSHA for the type of dust encountered.”

Another warning statement tells operators to beware silica dust, a component of concrete and masonry products. Such dust “may contain crystalline silica,” which is known to cause cancer. But extensive landscaping takes place around newly built homes and buildings, and that landscaping work usually includes leaf blowers among the cleanup tools.

Here’s another tidbit that wasn’t even on my list of worries; again, a direct quote from the operator’s manual:

“Prolonged use of a power tool (or other machines) exposing the operator to vibrations may produce white finger disease (Raynaud’s phenomenon) or carpal tunnel syndrome. These conditions reduce the hand’s ability to feel and regulate temperature, produce numbness and burning sensations and may cause nerve and circulation damage and tissue necrosis.”

Hearing loss is almost inevitable if one uses a gas-powered leaf blower on a regular basis. The EPA considers exposure to noise levels at 85 decibels to be harmful to human hearing. Leaf blowers expose operators to 115 decibels. The Stihl manual again: “Power tool noise may damage your hearing. Wear sound barriers (ear plugs or ear mufflers) to protect your hearing. Continual and regular users should have their hearing checked regularly. Be particularly alert and cautious when wearing hearing protection because your ability to hear warnings (shouts, alarms, etc.) is restricted.”

These are published facts, but I rarely see landscape workers wearing hearing protection, dust masks, and goggles, all required for proper use, according to the manual. The manual does not address how it is that bystanders or next-door neighbors can manage to place themselves 50 feet away (the magic number) from their neighbor’s blowing activities when houses might be only 10 feet apart. Forget the absurdity, of course, of having to guess and prepare for when a neighbor might be having his or her yard “dusted.”

Okay, the manual spells out the potential (I would say inevitable) cost to the human body of using leaf blowers. Let’s look at it from the point of view of the garden and the natural world the garden lives in. What might a 200-mile-per-hour blast of air do to the land and the plants and creatures living on it? It can blow away the organic top layer of the soil. This is the part of the soil that is slowly decomposing, providing food to a host of invertebrates and micoorganisms that in turn carry nutrients below ground where they become accessible to plant roots. This layer keeps the ground cooler and retains water. Blowing that away in heat of summer, or worse, during a drought, is a double whammy of plant stress.

Studies in recent years have also shown that noise pollution is a contributor to habitat loss for wildlife. It has been shown to interfere with bird communication, even causing male birds to raise the pitch of their songs, which affects mating. Imagine you’ve just finished your nest, it seems like a cozy place to raise your young and an hour later there’s this noise-, wind-, and heat-blasting thing at the foot of the tree you call home.

So, I rake because it never occurred to me not to. I grew into gardening in a community garden where it isn’t practical, economical, or possible to have power tools. The garden is a quiet place in a loud city, and it’s a place where we gardeners can engage directly with nature instead of being passive onlookers in parks and playgrounds. I find raking to be a soothing chore, almost graceful, that works the whole body, kind of like a waltz. Since taking gardening courses, I’ve also gained some practical tips for deploying garden tools. The tip for raking sounds simple but makes a big difference: Stand up straight and keep your raking motions within a couple of feet of your body. Bending over and reaching the rake out as far as it can go may seem like it accomplishes more, but it actually reduces control over the rake and tires the body much faster.

That does, however, bring me to fact that people buy these things to save labor or they hire landscape workers to clean up leaves and nobody in the business uses a rake anymore. That puts people who can’t rake because of age, disabilities, or time constraints in a particularly bad position, especially if they are environmentally conscious gardeners. On the other side of the coin are lawn workers trying to earn a living who can only remain competitive if they can speed through each job, frequently using more than one leaf blower per property (another no-no, according to the manual, apparently not a well-read document).

A way out of this dilemma is already happening with the rethinking of the American yard through native plantings, lawn reduction, mulching mowers, and composting. At the same time, electric blowers are now available. I think they still pose environmental problems, and I don’t think lawn companies will trade in their gas-powered blowers unless they are forced to. But we can resist the current highly marketed aesthetic that demands a spotless lawn and garden. Do we really want to fund landscape companies that put their workers at risk, raise the asthma levels in neighborhoods, threaten wildlife, and assist in the overall burning up of our planet? Fellow gardeners, let us rake.

Turning a new leaf.

Turning a new leaf.

 

May

It’s a rainy, chilly patch of spring and I don’t mind. It reminds me of Irish weather—the bit of it I experienced in person last summer and the rest that I’ve been reading about for most of my life. As a gardener and a gazer-upon-gardens, I’m drawn to the beautiful depth of a moody landscape. The colors of plant life as well as of rocks and water reveal themselves endlessly against the gray skies and mists of a rainy spring. There is so much that is missed in the straight-up light of unfiltered sunshine: so many different shades of green, for instance, and the pinks, purples, and gray-blues of early flowers that have a richness quite apart from the stereotypical candy colors that advertisers would have us accept as emblematic of spring.

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Rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme, dianthus… 

This week a friend invited me to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s plant sale. I’d never been but almost turned her down, thinking mainly in terms of crowds and traffic and boring things I had on my to-do list. I went and discovered that what friends had been telling me for years was true. Picture a lawn bordered by BBG’s famous cherry trees, their blossoms floating down on a wealth of non-Home Depot plants: native plants, herbs, small trees, annuals. In a large tent were garden vegetable plants, cacti, succulents, and small potted herbs. It was crowded, bordering on chaotic but somehow in a gentle way. People were pausing to look closely and read detailed descriptions of care and planting instructions. Gardeners from the very old to the very young, from every walk of life and ethnicity wandered about in half-dream states. The lines were long but everyone waited their turn. It rained off and on and nobody cared. I had come thinking I’d just look and came home with a comfortable armload that includes two different kinds of lavender and three different kinds of dianthus from tiny flowers on up.

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The look of May moodiness: Lady’s mantle at BP City Park.