Saturday, May 19, 2018

Gone, almost forgotten

In the middle of May, here is a quick look at April. Otherwise I will forget.

Above, 7 April - Bush Terminal, Brooklyn. Where urban nature and old industry meet beside the water in Brooklyn. It is a New York City-designated park, now, and is an interesting mixture of old buildings, feral cats, private security, weeds, new ballfields, a pristine public bathroom, waterside paths, and utter neglect. As always, with the Parks' Department in the city, there is money for capital improvement but never any for maintenance.

The secret in life is maintenance (which is really just paying attention). Gardens. Parks. Engines. Marriages. Friendships. Cuticles...

Quick digression: One of the many new things that 2018 brought into our lives - and by far the best - has been our first car. Really the Frenchman's car, because he bought it. We had resisted for good reasons: the obvious expense, and then the real New York hassle: parked cars must be moved twice a week for street cleaning, and there is the relentless traffic generated by a massive population. Plus the real worry about leaving such a shiny new thing on the street (undercover, off-street parking would cost as much as our rent), vulnerable to humans, weather, and bad drivers.

But. Flipside? Freedom. In our own clean machine. No more sticky and grubby ZipCars and Car2Go's, no more worry about how long we'd be, and spending $100 just for a day's outing. No more knowing we can't sleep over somewhere because of the heinous cost involved in hiring a car for so long. So we have a car. We are finally real Americans. (Don't worry. There will never be guns.) To make us feel better about car payments we figured out where to cut costs and the easy answer was our daily wine quota with dinner. So instead of sharing a bottle a night we share a bottle every two nights. Healthier, too. And oddly, we don't miss it.

So we have been exercising our car wings. And the Frenchman is beaming. She has a name, in our household tradition (see Mogashagasha): Ntiniwe (n-TEE-nee-weh). Diminutive of the word "otter", in Xhosa and Zulu. We love her. We have been Going Places.

8 April, Breezy Point, Queens

This gloriously empty beach is at the tip of the Rockaway peninsula. Still very much part of the city, it is empty.

The beach is adjacent to what has been described as the whitest neighborhood in New York City. That part is plain weird, and, from the outside, slightly sinister. Breezy Point (flattened by Hurricane Sandy and still being rebuilt) is a gated community with its own security force, and you are not allowed in at all unless you are an approved visitor. You are not allowed to buy unless you have three letters of reference from existing home owners. But you are allowed on the beach, if you park at the end and walk. One of Vince's first excursions in Ntiniwe was to drive out, park, and run here for miles on the deserted beach, inhaling the sea air and uninterrupted sky and water, a tonic for a man who works longer and harder than anyone I know (can you tell I like him?).

He loved it. And on one of his runs he saw and filmed dozens of sand pipers and American oyster catchers, more than either of us had ever seen; spring migration for the sand pipers, and a regular breeding ground for the oyster catchers. Because of this dogs are not allowed on the beach (although we saw one romping in the distance). So we came out together one bright cold day, and walked for miles.

Walking back again in the familiar dunes behind Fort Tilden (previously reached by a combination of subway and bus), an early shoreline spring was visible only in the pussy willows.

On our way home we stopped at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, hoping for a glimpse of a late-season snowy owl. No owls, but we did see snow geese and warblers, as well as a bumper crop of juniper pollen from the eastern red cedars (Juniperus virgiana). Atchoo. But an interesting ingredient if you have the patience to collect it. I included the fine dust in a batch of madeleines.

16 April, Prospect Park, Brooklyn

Fifteen minutes from home, this time on my bicycle, and the Cornelian cherries, one of the first trees to flower, were in full bloom. Thanks to them I have been exploring the food of Georgia and Eastern Europe - specifically via the books of Darra Goldstein's The Georgian Feast and Olia Hercules's Kaukasis and Mamushka. Cornus mas is native to that region and is used in local recipes. While it may be the first to flower it is also among the last to fruit: you will spot the crimson, plum-like (but cherry-sized) fruits in late summer. They begin tart and crisp, and turn sourly plummy as they darken.

Spotted in the woods, my friend the white throated sparrow, whose call is painfully sweet, is often scratching about in the leaf litter of woodlands and gardens from winter through May.

14 April, Caumsett State Park, Long Island

Formerly the estate of Marshall Field III, on the North Shore of Long Island, this park was new to us. Near the small town of Oyster Bay (where I could live very happily), it has wide vistas, serious trees, and a long empty shoreline. While hundreds of cars waited to be admitted to the vast parking areas around deserted former milking barns, we were able to escape the crowds. They made for the main manor house. As usual, we headed in the opposite direction.

And there we found clean water and a pebbly beach that reminded us a lot of the North Fork. It was very chilly, but the blue sky and water breathed relief into us at a time when we were both stressed to breaking point. For a few hours we shut everything out, and listened, and watched, and absorbed.

Along the shore I found healthy colonies of periwinkles, and collected some in our now-empty lunch box. I cooked them very simply, later - boiled, and then dipped into an aioli - it brought back memories of expensive shellfish platters at the Café du Centre in Geneva, in my singing days, and at Balthazar in SoHo, where I have not eaten in many years. The seaweed is bladder wrack (on account of its built in bladders) and I dried it - it made a wonderful, chip-like snack, and is also a very good seed cracker ingredient. As we turn to eating fewer carbohydrates (a new thing) I have been making a lot of seed crackers. Everyone wants the recipe.

20 April, Prospect Parks Woods

Dead logs are a good place to look for mushrooms like wood ears and pheasant backs, and on this trip my bag was filled with the former. A month later that nascent green carpet of goutweed/ground elder is 18 inches tall, a sea of invasive green.

26 April, Prospect Park

The magnolias were in full bloom on this trip, and a sign that spring, after a very bumpy start, had arrived.

No going back.

28 April, Pelham Bay's Hunter Island, Bronx

It is a real mission to reach by public transport, but at least half the group of intrepid walkers who joined me on a plant identification and invasive species forage managed, despite the MTA testing them to breaking point. I have known this large park on the Long Island Sound in every season, and love returning.

The skunk cabbages that we had seen in March were now lush and the frozen ground their buds had broken through in March (the plants are thermogenic) thoroughly thawed.

So there it was. Not shown, the oodles of forages collected, sorted and preserved (mostly). The meals cooked, the seeds planted. The plants changing daily in the garden. The gardens designed. And it is already beyond the middle of May, the busiest month for foragers and gardeners.

I have some mushrooms to pickle...

My next walk is in the early evening of May 30th - we have lots of light, and the largesse of late spring. See the link below for booking.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

The technician

When I moved the two Thai limes back outdoors in early May after their seven months (SEVEN!) indoors, I discovered that the scale I had been treating in the last couple of months with Neem oil was much worse than I had thought. Ugh. These leaves were on the side of the trees nearest the tall windows of our bedroom - hard to see or reach, and so my Neem efforts were ineffective. Anyway, the best method I've found so far for scale is removal by hand. Squish, squish, squish. 

But couldn't see em. So didn't squish em. And so this happened. Ick.

I hate scale.

I was just pondering a systemic treatment (a hard core and radical option for me - I never use poison in the garden), when Critter Control showed up:

He wears a mask to remain anonymous.

Ma'am, you rang?

Yes, ma'am, I can see the problem!

He was tiny, cute, and a vicious hunter.

He hunted up and down the trees, carrying out beakfuls of scale.

He is a common yellowthroat, but to me he is a hero.

He is on his way north. 

I wish he would stay.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Spring Fling Cocktails

Garden Spring Fling (sold out)
16 May 2018
5PM - 6.30PM

By mid May spring is racing through the city like a green flood, and in our Brooklyn backyard the in-ground vegetable plot and perennials are growing lush. Pots are slower. Aren't they always?

Come and enjoy botanical cocktails (with or without alcohol), like the Grounded Bishop, above (what did he do???). It is one of dozens of cocktails featured in my upcoming Forage, Harvest, Feast cookbook. Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria - also called bishopweed and goutweed) is still sold as a garden ornamental despite being very invasive - but delicious. The snacks we share will also feature May's foraged bounty.

In a very casual and relaxed meet up we will talk about what unusual edibles, city- and pollinator-friendly plants can be grown in ordinary gardens, and what comes next in the foraging year.

Space is limited to 10 guests. A confirmation email will be sent to you on sign up.


Monday, April 30, 2018

Spring in six blocks

Welcome to spring in our hood. It began with the callery pears (notoriously weak-crotched - they split and fall on you without provocation - but welcome, nonetheless because spring took its sweet time arriving).

It is now the time for the cherries. The earlier, more delicate cherry blossoms are almost over, and the sturdy, ultra-bred and famous 'Kanzan's are almost in peak bloom. I took these pictures today, when I escaped proofreading to run some local errands (I needed mushrooms, shallots, carrots, and pea seedlings - the starlings ate my peas!).

New York in spring is not a bad place to be.

The vivid chartreuse blossoms belong to Norway maples.

This has got to be the redbud cultivar 'Appalachian Red.' Hard to miss. (If you are interested you can find my article about how to grow redbuds on Gardenista.)

I have not seen this garden, before. Just a block away and nice use of woodland phlox.

I had to keep parking my bike to take pictures. I think this is is an apricot tree. It is gorgeous. There were primroses planted at its feet.

Back home, in a misting rain, I planted the peas in the vegetable plot. My own garden is waking up. I think it snowed in Vermont. I started a boeuf bourgignon, in sympathy. It is our last chilly night for a while - late in the week it will be downright hot.

Careful what you wish for.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The garden as antidote

The Gowanus Garden. Unofficial name. I have admired it for very many of my Brooklyn years. Nearly ten years ago Anne Raver wrote a wonderful piece about this tenacious garden on Union Street and she quoted me - I used big words: insurrection! Juxtaposition! I had been smitten by the riot of recent flowers. It was my first conversation with The New York Times. Later she wrote about our Harlem garden, and inbetween there was - notoriously - the Litter Mob article (remember the Litter Mob?) and also the flattering and lovely Cobble Hill terrace (and really the Frenchman-and-Marie) story, by Penelope Green.

The wheels turn. Some of them squeak. A lot.

Kirstin, the garden's creatrix, and I, became friends. I wrote another story about the Gowanus Garden, for Gardenista (visit the link for very nice pictures through the seasons). She and her husband David live just a few blocks from us. David is the source of unexpected and inspiring edible gifts. He'll arrive at the door with some acorn flour. Or a brace of grouse. Plucked woodcock.

Today, I began my day with a garden design - also for a neighborhood garden, and later a break in my afternoon laundry chore (the washing machines were churning and I had 25 minutes to spare), I charged to Whole Foods on my bicycle. I chose Union Street. The Gowanus Canal was misty, the tide high, and the bubbling white water spewing out anonymously at one poisoned end very sudsy, like our clothes. And just after the drawbridge, Kirstin's garden made me late. I stopped, and had a good look. Its edges were newly and neatly roped off, perennials cut back, daffodils in bloom, dianthus in bud.

The two lilacs are just thinking about opening.

The night's rain had cleaned the clever wine bottle retaining walls.

The daffodils are perhaps Mt. Hood. I must ask.

There is so much bad stuff going on; in the big world, in the world of family and friends' lives, in our own personal lives, that these small pauses in the ugliness are like a counter measure. A not-insignificant wall being held up to the evils of illness, or malice, or toxic indifference. These acts of beauty are the eloquent and botanical fuck you to the behavior or circumstances that can make life feel unbearable.

Inhale them while you can. Then pedal on.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Bowl of sunshine

I spent some hours in the woods of Brooklyn. Trees, buds, birds. Forest bathing is a new term for an old thing: immersing yourself in nature to heal.

In New York, with all its steel and concrete, it is always possible to find a quiet and wild spot where you see few humans, more birds, and lots of plants. The trees are thinking about leafing out, but are still bare. Buds are breaking. Early cherries are in bloom. So are lovely Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). And lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) is rioting across woodland floors. It is very pretty but destructively invasive, making life impossible for less aggressive native plants. So I picked a huge bunch with a conveniently clear conscience.

The presence of hermit thrushes and flycatchers, warblers and robins, and ever-present chattering blue jays and cardinals was constant and companionable.

I cycled home much happier than I had left.

Some of the lesser celandine flowers will become bright ice cubes for our Backyard Cocktails gathering this Tuesday, and others will help fill rice wrappered summer rolls for this Sunday's fully booked walk in Inwood, which I am looking forward to very much. There will be new people to meet, as well as returning friends, and we will all share a green New York adventure.

Thank you spring, for arriving. You took your time.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The sound of spring - a song of life and death

March 2018

Eeeeeeeeeeeee, wheeeeeee, whrrrrrrrrrr, vvvvvvvvvv, ghghghgh, merde!

Ah, the sound of a metal drill bit meeting heart of oak. Performance by Frenchman. Along with the song of the American robin, newly returned and caroling from the rooftops well past dusk, it is a true sign of spring.

This is the late winter, early spring garden. It is drab. It looks sad. Without distracting foliage the poured concrete slab dominates. And the legs of the townhouse's fire escape always get in the way of pictures from the kitchen door. But that is a year-round problem.

July 2017

Our garden table is used often in nice weather - mid spring to late fall. We eat outside every night. It's hard to remember that, after months of winter, when we live indoors with the warm light of lamps.

I bought the table on Etsy soon after we moved into our new apartment, two-and-a-half years ago. It was made to order from reclaimed oak and shipped from the hinterland. I had fallen in love with the advertised pictures, but when a progress-picture of the new table was sent it revealed six legs. Six legs! Not four. Apparently the advertised table also had six but they were successfully hidden by surrounding chairs. I hated it. The proportions were all wrong. It looked like a long low animal, or an amputated centipede. I squeaked. The very responsive Etsy vendor replied at once that it could be fixed and the offending middle legs were removed and the middle reinforced. He said it would be fine as long as I did not stand on it. I have not stood on it. And actually that aspect has held up fairly well. What has not done well is the planks on top, which have been warping and lifting up, the wood levitating from the slender nails.

March 2018

The table is out in all weathers, of course - sun, rain, snow. But that was made clear before I placed my order. The same vendor sent us replacement planks at no cost. I am sure this table cost them more than they made, in the end. But I also think this might have been a work in progress for them and a costly lesson in...something. Don't deal with New Yorkers? I absolutely cannot fault their customer service. Their tables would be best protected from weather.

Anyway. So it was time to replace the middle two planks, and this the Frenchman did, killing a drill bit in the process. The wood is truly hard. He has been using screws that hold the wood better than nails.

So, spring. On its way. Even though it snowed on April 2nd and will snow again on April 7th!

Also on their way to our door are a finger lime from California and myoga (Zingiber mioga - Japanese ginger) I ordered from Oregon. I have loved growing ginger as an annual crop and am hopeful that myoga will be winter hardy in a large pot. I am after its flower buds, a delicacy. A person can dream... But a girl who came on one of my foraging walks told me she grows myoga on a Manhattan terrace. So.

Last year's edible Asian experiment (also from Oregon, maybe that should tell me something) crashed and burned, or sank and sogged: my wasabi plants are toast (mush). I decided to leave them in their pot outdoors, covered by mulch and protected near the house. But they succumbed. I knew the risk was very high but had to take it for the sake of accurate reporting. Oh, dear.

RIP - August 2017

Also toast-mush? My pineapple lilies (Eucomis) that I left in pots, mulched and covered with clear plastic to stop snow from slowly rotting them. They rotted anyway. Allegedly hardy to USDA Zone 7. That's us. But they are not hardy for me in pots. Would they have fared better in-ground? We had killer low temperatures (below 0'F) in January. Fortunately I lifted some and they are fine in the fridge's crisper drawer. Another lesson learned. Call me your Horticultural Guinea Pig.

Along with the robin, yesterday I spotted a wood thrush in the garden - very exciting. First time. Rooting around near a pile of brush I have created to attract insects. It's a backpackers' version of an insect hotel (has anyone ever seen an insect in an insect hotel?). And after a brief return, Gordita the eastern towhee has disappeared again. Damn. She was funny - fat and unafraid, unlike the stupid sparrows who still fly away as though I was an axe murderer. I feed you, you idiots. Untrainable.

What is the sound of your spring?


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