Monday, August 10, 2020

Not drowning, but waving


Our evening supper table on the terrace, with zinnias from the farmer's market. 

My Saturday visits to the market are a highlight of my week. The produce is glorious and delicious, and it all grows within a few hours' reach of the city. Organized by the not-for-profit Grow NYC, entry to the market is controlled strictly to avoid crowding, and every farm stand has fresh chalk marks and boxes drawn on the ground where customers must stand to wait their turn. Marketers choose your produce while you point - and everyone is masked and gloved. It is hot work. The one farm that now allows you to choose your own produce wipes down every basket handle and requires you to hand sanitize from a giant dispenser before you pick one up. 

If the whole country was being run this way we'd be in good shape.

When I focus on these good things (fennel and balloon plant - native to southern Africa - above) it's easy to forget what we have missed, this year. A trip to the south of France (our tickets were refunded, at last). Chanterelle hunts (the state park that is home to "our" patch is closed). And late this month I would have traveled to Vermont to be the late summer Culinary Artist in Residence (isn't that a wonderful title?) at the Marble House Project. A kitchen to play in, and complete freedom to forage the land and choose from their kitchen garden anything I liked, to channel the seasons through food, to chart and document and compile. We would have ended with a wild-inspired forage-to-table community dinner. The residency will carry over to next year, but, as we are all learning, the more we know the less we know. Next year may as well be in another galaxy.

Finding - and recognizing - the good things under our noses remains inspiring, and I may be fortunate, that way. Lockdown inflicts boredom on some people but it's not something I have ever suffered from. Sometimes adventure lives in a windowbox. Or in a collection of summer vegetables from a farmer who grows them upstate. 

Or in a ripe peach.

Sometimes it's the new fruit on the fingerlime. Or a freshly-dug piece of galangal rhizome in a green curry.

So while I have space to grow plants, I still have the opportunity to experiment, to observe, to learn, to play, to create. Every meal is an evolving piece of the season, and a source of pleasure. Every changing month brings new things to fruit, to seed, to flower. It is all noted, edited, filed, and this tiny garden (and my local rambles) continue to fuel both work and imagination. 

In that sense, as my dad would say, we lead a privileged life. And I am thankful for it. 

(But I really would like to go and find some chanterelles!)


Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Storm in, storm out

Yesterday's temporary citrus grove, brought inside to prevent toppling in Isaias's winds (you can see them in my Instagram Stories).

The terrace, strapped down before the storm. This morning I sipped my coffee there, all calm, and thought about Beirut. The coffee is Najjar and Beirut is its home. The destruction is unimaginable.

In the late afternoon I walked in Prospect Park a little earlier than I should have. Two-days of cabin fever, and a curiosity to see the familiar place after a changing storm, sent me picking my way over fallen branches while the departing gusts of Isaias occasionally convulsed the branches of tall trees. Sycamores left a litter of small branches and leaves. 

Familiar paths were impassable. Admiring and exploring the fallen foliage were some families, and parent-child exploratory teams, moms with babies strapped to them, a father glued to his live-streaming phone to share storm pictures while his toddler grabbed his dad's pants asking to be noticed. 

I was wondering about late-falling branches, weakened by the intense winds, and all those leaning trunks, propped by their neighbors, but called widowmakers for a reason (yes, it's sexist, but it's dated - widower makers, orphan makers?). If you hear that sickening splitting sound - unhelpfully directionless -  how do you get your flock of small children out of the way in a hurry?

Why do we feel compelled to walk out and see the fallen trees? See, this fallen tree, it was up, now it is down. It was big and it broke. 

The storm flattened indiscriminately. While I am sure that streets flanked by the infamously weak-crotched callery pears (the Frenchman calls them calamity pears) are choked by their broken boughs, the casualties I saw in the park included black cherry, linden, mulberry, maples, oak, and sycamore. Some were sick, weakened and eaten from the inside out by pathogens like the delicious hen of the woods (maitake) mushroom, or chicken of the woods, or honey mushrooms. Good for our dinner, bad for the trees.

Others may have been weakened by humans. People who barbecue in the park sometimes tip their hot coals out on the lawn at the base of trees when they leave. I think this linden may have been serially scorched. 

What do you think? So odd that it was absolutely flush with the ground.

This mulberry looked like a giant gardener's hand had pulled it from the earth. 

En route home. 

I haven't been to Green-Wood, yet, and wonder how their huge, beautiful trees fared. They are very well looked-after so it is possible that Prospect Park's suffered more. The historic cemetery is well funded privately, while the shame of the park is that while everyone uses it, the (equally historic) public space is allocated a pittance by the city and state. 

The sun is shining, and humidity is back. All quiet till the next one.


Sunday, August 2, 2020

WNYC gardening Q and A

Windowbox herbs - marie viljoen

On WNYC's All of It, with Alison Stewart, I'll be taking caller-questions about urban gardening on Monday, August 3rd. The segment begins at 12pm. Tune in and ask. 

Do you have a burning garden question? (No, I don't mean your garden is on fire - that's a tough one) - rather, a garden or plant-issue that has been irking you. Or maybe you just are curious about growing....something. Herbs? Vegetables or fruit for a small space? You'd like some V-for-Victory edibles but you've heard they need full sun: What is full sun? And what is that leaf cutter bee doing, anyway? And is that huge wasp-y thing the murder hornet!? (Not it's not, it's a well-behaved but focused cicada killer and they deserve it). Oops, answered that one. 

That kind of question. It'll be fun. 

I hope!

Friday, July 31, 2020

A lime's life (and near death)

marie viljoen terrace brooklyn

Can you spot the blue tape on the Thai lime (Citrus hystrix), middle left? That lime (one of two) has had a rough year. Who hasn't? And July was an especially eventful month. 

On July 5th I repotted. For the second time this year. Post possible fungal infection of roots, post root-pruning way back in January (that was to keep it down to size in the same pot that has to move indoors every winter). The tape was part of my follow up micromanagement of a persistent scale infestation, dating back to winter. So, yeah. It's a survivor. And I won't say post again.

The lime tree is stable, now. I can say it out loud. It's been nearly four weeks and no more dieback. New leaves formed and are maturing.

After the tree was repotted and the scale had gone to meet their maker ("Did he who made the Lamb [really] make thee?"- with apologies to William Blake) I had to think about ants. They returned, scurrying up and down the branches and triggering in me a severe case of OCD. Ants tend scale lovingly: they feed on the scales' honeydew (I've tasted it, it's straight up sweet), moving the little armored insects about and protecting them. So I had to prevent the ants from coming aboard to look after any tiny scale I had missed. 

tanglefoot on tape by marie viljoen

Enter Tanglefoot. It comes in a tub and is an outrageously sticky paste that you smear on tape wrapped around the trunk of trees affected by insect pests. Ants can't pass it to farm their scale flock. And it actually worked. The tip came from Nancy Lingnan, who offers - very good - advice at I turn to her via email when I have run out of ideas. 

In our incredible heat - weeks over 90'F, in direct sun, I found that the Tanglefoot melted and ran down onto the exposed trunk, so I repeated the initial operation, smearing just a little around the top of the tape this time, and bending a moat at the bottom to catch run off. Once it's on the trunk itself it's almost impossible to get off (or your fingers, or anything it touches - use mineral oil).

gin with lime leaf by marie viljoen

We won't enjoy the bumper crop of limes we did last December, but luckily the Thai lime marmalade I made is still going strong. And the beauty of these trees - and please call them makrut, or Thai lime, not the k-word - is that their leaves are famously fragrant and useful. They perfume water, and gin, and salad dressings featuring Asian terrace herbs and spicy pickled vegetables. And then there is curry.

terrace garden in summer by marie viljoen

The chimney swifts' point of view, all of our garden lives exposed below. In this image the tree is left-of-center, bottom, all fluffed out. Its sibling is far right, camouflaged in a subtropical thicket of galangal and myoga ginger. 

And no, no drone was involved in this shot - just a climb up the fire escape and a wide angle setting. 

This is the end of the lime's story, but it's also not the end of the lime. And it's one of those timeless reminders that we learn far more when things go wrong than we do when they go right.

So fail on. In the end, it's more interesting.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Summer's wildness

Some high summer forages, in season when the air turns sticky:

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) - fragrant like orange peel and a little like fresh black pepper (in aroma, not taste). The leaves, twigs and fruit are all useful and flavorful and I deploy them in different ways (see that chapter in Forage, Harvest, Feast). Thus is a wonderful eastern North American native shrub-slash-small-tree for you to grow at home, too.

Wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) - an invasive wild raspberry originally from Asia and imported to serve as a rootstock for domestic cultivars. Easily identified in any season by its very furry and prickly canes.

Below the fruit, native wild mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) and an escaped wild pineapple mint. The mountain mint is a wonderful perennial for a sunny garden and pollinators love it. The leaves are intensely, well...pepperminty.

And to the right, the misunderstood and underappreciated native American burnweed. Erechtites hieraciifolius. It is very pungent, slightly bitter, and I love it. The chapter on it in Forage, Harvest, Feast explains much more, but I equate it with cilantro, in terms of love-it or hate-it. This is the time of year when I make a charred chicken stew (the chicken is first fire-seared), a wild riff on a Kenyan classic, that also features spicebush, sumac, coconut milk, and peanut butter! It's incredible. My mouth is watering as I type (it's on page 23 of the book).

Forage on.


(always in season)

Tuesday, July 7, 2020


New York in July is a sauna. And we know what it's like to live in a top-floor walkup with no central air conditioning (that was in the tiny apartment attached to the original 66 square feet; it was a hotbox with an overworked and roaring air conditioning unit). Happily, that is no longer the case. At least the central air part. We still have two flights of stairs but that's nothing. Maybe you think having a yacht is a real luxury. Or a holiday house. To me, it's cool air on tap.

But we still sit outside of an evening. Outside is better than TV.

The echinacea and hyssop (Agastache) on the western side of the terrace are very happy.

The stone table has traveled with us since that first garden. To Harlem. To Carrol Gardens, and now here. The single, very heavy slab of fieldstone that is the tabletop for a sidewalk-found iron table frame was a gift from a long-ago boyfriend who is now quite dead (I didn't kill him. Alcohol and unhappiness did.) But his stone slab lives on. It is perhaps the heart of every garden I have made. Even when we had that amazingly long wooden table at 1st Place, the stone table was off to the side, working quietly, as it always has. 

The regal lilies have bloomed. Their scent at night is glorious.

And the fireworks that have shaken our nights are tapering off. But I climbed the fire escape to see them recently, and snapped this picture.


Sunday, July 5, 2020

Fund raiser for Net-Maker Angie

[Update: Thanks to extraordinary support, this fundraiser is closed. I am deep in admin mode and will be contacting everyone who donated and ordered nets. Thank you!]

Dear Friends,

I know everyone has donation fatigue, and many are struggling themselves. But I am raising funds so that I can wire a financial support package to Angie, the woman in Cape Town whose beaded nets I buy whenever I am in South Africa.

She and her husband and new baby live in a shanty town and have been hit hard by the pandemic and South Africa's stringent lockdown measures (now easing). They are officially jobless, and are not legal immigrants, having fled to South Africa from a country that is crushed by corruption and a valueless currency.

So here is my idea for a Netraiser:

If you would like one of Angie's nets, and live in the US, Canada, or Cape Town*, please use the donate button at the end of the post. The suggested donation is $10 or R170 per net. State, "One [insert your number] net, please," when PayPal gives you the option to add a message.

*I will pick up nets when I am allowed to travel to Cape Town, again (so you will also need to be very patient), and deliver or mail them to you.

If you prefer to donate, but don't need a net, or live somewhere other than the above-mentioned countries, please state, "No net!"

Aside from a small amount to cover mailing expenses, every penny raised will be sent to her, and I will have the records to reflect that.

How do I use the nets? To cover food. And ferments. Little fruit flies love our outdoor meals and are just drawn to anything acidic, so the nets are used every evening. They are also helpful for covering edible plants or fruits that I am drying on trays. They wash easily (warm, sudsy water, by hand).