The Jora composter on the Harlem terrace
Before 2016 dawns - or dooms - on us, a tying up of unspoken loose ends. Old, new, confessional, revelatory, mundane, evangelical, edible, or just plain horticultural.
1. First up:
I gave the fancy Swedish composter away.
When I returned to the Harlem terrace from a four week trip in March and April, the vegetable scraps that I had been feeding to the bin daily for six weeks prior had turned into a sewage-like sludge whose stench was eye popping. Despite being fed the prescribed wood pellets and being turned daily by the increasingly alarmed and incredulous Frenchman, the compost could not be saved.
The fault was mine: not enough brown matter added initially (we had no leaves, hence the purchase of wood pellets, but still not enough). But also, we should not have begun a batch in winter, especially not that winter, despite the manufacturer's assurances.
You knew this wasn't going to work, didn't you?
The chopped salads of vegetable and fruit trimmings simply stayed frozen, not generating enough heat to break down gradually until they did so en masse in spring, and with microbial ill effect. And for me the daily prescribed shredding of vegetable bits for the very small compost return became a form of tyranny which I felt relieved to end.
So the composter was cleaned thoroughly and donated to the Urban Garden Center in Harlem for their educational programs. For me, it was The Flop of 2015. I am not proud.
But I am free.
The brown bins
In October, in Carroll Gardens, these brown bins appeared like magic, at our doors. Part of a pilot project for a zero waste future (in addition to New York City's established paper, metal, plastic and glass recycling), Mayor De Blasio's administration, carrying on part of Bloomberg's legacy, provided these organic waste collection bins to every residential building in our neighborhood, along with small kitchen bins. I tip our little kitchen bin into the big one every couple of days. The brown bin is then emptied twice a week by the Department of Sanitation when they collect regular trash. It will be turned into compost.
It is the best thing, ever.
Fava bean bruschetta
3. When Anne Raver wrote a story for the New York Times about our Harlem terrace in June, she asked me for some fava bean recipes. So I made this bruschetta for fava beans and garlic scapes. There was no space to run it with the article, so there it is (Southern Hemispherians can make this now...).
Winged euonymous, Woodstock
4. Invasive plants. I have not mentioned just how much I would like all eastern seaboard gardeners to dig out their Euonymous alatus - commonly known as winged euonymous (it has those wings on the stems), or burning bush (which sounds like a porn star name and an STD): Stop admiring it and yank it out.
Euonymous alatus fruit
While it turns famously scarlet in the fall, this shrub's seeds (above) leave your garden via birds and are then spread into woods and thickets where the plant crowds out natives and alters the ecology of your local wild areas. Grow an alternative, like North American native blueberries (which turn red and orange in full sun), or fothergilla (orange and yellow and handles shade). Both will appeal to pollinators, both have flowers, and of course, with the blueberries, you get...
Alliums and Camassia bulbs
5. There are 60 Allium bulbs buried in the garden. Lots of small (and cheap) Allium sphaerocephalon, quite a few A. aflatunense 'Purple Sensation,' and a handful (expensive!) of white 'Mount Everest.' All from Brent and Becky's. I think the bees will like them.
Also buried, Camassia leichtlinii 'Semiplena.' This is new, to me - an American bulb of the plains, and a Native American edible going way back. While I planted them for their flowers, I have a growing collection of forageables in the garden, a living lab.
6. In late fall I carefully dig up my containerized lily bulbs and store them with some peat moss in unsealed plastic baggies (per the recommendation of Judith Freeman, of The Lily Garden) in the crisper drawer in the fridge. I have found that my lilies rot in very snowy winters (the snow in the pots melts while the water is unable to drain, as the pot bottom stays frozen).
But when I dug up the last lilies yesterday (their leaves had still been green, and feeding the bulbs), I discovered that they have already made new green shoots! Great confusion, all over. In late March, or early April, I will plant them out again. I hope they last in the fridge.
Great northern flicker. Photo: Julia Miller
7. Somewhere in these back gardens there is a great northern flicker - the ground-feeding woodpecker that I first encountered in a large migratory flock in Green-Wood Cemetery. Julia Miller told me that her garden two blocks over attracts one, where there are a lot of back yard trees (our back gardens have few). But the other day I realized that the unfamiliar, penetrating bird call I have been hearing nearby belongs to the flicker (it's the "kyeer" call in this Cornell link).
Maybe I'll see it one day.
Arugula, mâche, red mustard
8. The results of the soil sample I sent to Cornell came back just before Christmas: Happy Christmas, you have lead! 560mg/kg, while the acceptable level is 400mg/kg.
We also have low pH (acidic soil), and too much phosphorus (the middle number on fertilizer bags - probably from previous fertilizing, affecting runoff, and the environment, not us directly).
Naturally, the lead result provoked flat panic and a firing off of uninformed questions, followed by days of calmer reading and learning.
The takeaway: the solubility of heavy metals is pH dependent. Low pH allows lead to be taken up by plants. Raising the pH to about 6.5 prevents that from happening. I really had not appreciated the role of pH in soil processes before, despite knowing what relative pH specific plants liked.
That said, I still want as little as possible sucked into my leaves. I have ordered crushed oyster shell to add to the soil to raise pH. I am not choosing lime, because our magnesium levels are fine, and lime would raise them, too. I did not know that either.
This 2013 research paper based on work done at Cornell was very helpful to me. And yes, it could be worse. We could have a lot of arsenic, instead.
If you garden in-ground, I recommend a soil test. It is money well spent. My soil health assessment plus additional heavy metals screening was $80, and comes with pages of results as well as management recommendations for your situation. If nothing else, it provides an intense learning curve.
Daffodils, Christmas Day9. There are daffodils poking up in Prospect Park and in our garden, and the smallest Alliums have made wiry leaves. In keeping with our crazy non winter, and in response to a Cornell suggestion to use green manure cover crops to improve our soil condition, I have ordered crimson clover and more fava beans to plant in our central vegetable plot.
Yes, I will plant them in December. No, they might not make it, but at this stage anything goes; two days ago the two rows of garlic I planted broke the surface.