Saturday, November 28, 2020

Saffron in the house?

What's going on here? Confined crocus? 

It's just me, gardening by the seat of my pants. 

I planted saffron crocus corms in the last week of September. Unlike their cousins, the sweet harbingers of spring, saffron crocuses bloom in late fall slash early winter (when exactly does winter begin, anyway?). 

I last grew them at 1st Place, in-ground, in the last row of the vegetable plot, where I hoped they'd suck up the last inch of diminishing autumn sunlight. Those crocuses flowered (in early December), even though they lost the sun altogether. And I harvested their lady-parts. The famous red saffron is the pistil and style of Crocus sativus

But these pots are an experiment, like so much in my gardening life. More of a what-if than an I-know, although it often turns into an ah-ha. 

At first, the pots lived on the terrace all day and night, covered with some wire against the dastardly, digging squirrel. Then the leaves filled out and the squirrel gave up. Wire came off. Then the sun dipped, as it does, and swung south of its eastern summer rising, as it also does, and the terrace now sees only an hour of post-dawn sunshine. And the squirrel returned. 

So first the wire enclosure happened, and then the carrying indoors during the day to bask in the bedroom's sunlight. At night out they go to get a good nip of cold. Since Sq. Irrel wakes up earlier than I do I did not want him/they/her digging before the pots could be moved. Angry start to day.

So! I have no idea if this will work. Warm, bright days, dark, cold nights. Just like their Eurasian homeland, I keep telling them.

We shall see. 


Thursday, November 12, 2020

Just leave (s)...

The leaves all fell overnight. I had a funny feeling they might. But I have never noticed this phenomenon, before. Is that what they do, after an initial, exploratory flutter? 

Look at those oak leaves, up there. I wear a size 11 boot (if I didn't, the nearly six feet of me would fall over). Those are 14-inch leaves.

I may be walking more than before, too. Every day. So you see every little, interesting change. Your neighborhood is overflowing with surprises. The more you see, the more often you see, the more you...well, see.

If we thought the week before the votes were counted was bad. If we thought the last four years were bad. How about these days? 

So we walk.

These - above - are cherry leaves. The native Prunus serotina.

Ginkgo biloba. Ancient tree of the dinosaurs.

Japanese cutleaf maple. Acer palmatum var. dissectum, and probably a cultivar called 'Something' in single, inverted commas, as cultivars are. Cutleaf maple was one of the first trees whose botanical I name I learned, long ago, working at a Manhattan nursery while I recovered from whooping cough. It is a knee-jerk nursery staple. The trees at Green-Wood are mature and gorgeous, and have won me over. 

Sweetgum leaves. Liquidamber styraciflua. Native to North America.

                            Magnolia leaves. But I don't know what kind.

And more oak. Quercus. Pointy tips, so in the red oak group (white oaks have rounded lobes). Dozens of oaks are native to North America and I still have a lot to learn about them.

I am planning  a picnic menu for a very rare forage walk this Saturday. It's the first picnic since March. And before we are locked down again. We will walk in shoreline dunes with fresh breezes. The walk sold out in hours. Everyone wants out.

It looks like this:

Quails eggs with fresh field garlic salt


Persimmon and mugwort focaccia

Field garlic goat cheese spread 

Beach plum and autumn olive drizzles


Ginkgo sticks


Roasted carrot hand pies with pine honey, juniper, elderflower vinegar, and sweet white clover


Pine honey madeleines


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Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Forage Walk this Saturday

Forage On - Fort Tilden
14 November 2020, 
11.30am - 2pm

It's the one - it's the only - forage walk of the season. Thank you, virus. But here on the breezy beaches and backroads the sea air will blow it away.

"Forage on" has become something of a battle cry for me, this year. It means persist. Keep going. Keep paying attention. And find the foraging fun wherever it may be. 

This late in the season we will be meeting and identifying the weedy (like autumn olives and mugwort) and native (like bayberry and juniper and pine) edibles in their late autumn clothes. Knowing what plants look like at every phase of their growth and death is key to knowing where to find them when they are in their prime.

There will be some nice surprises, too. And there will be a picnic, with hot toddies! 

Masks are mandatory and please bring your own hand sanitizer to use before we lift a hot toddy to toast the good things and dispel the bad.


Saturday, November 7, 2020

This day

On Saturday near midday I cycled to the market at Grand Army Plaza. I needed fish. I rode fast, feet flying. Sky was blue. Sun shone. The lockdown pots and pans were rattling and banging again (see my Instagram @66squarefeet to hear) and car and truck and horns were honking. Bus drivers waved out their windows. Strangers whooped at each other. Everyone was laughing. You couldn't see them smile, because...masks. 

My bicycle bell rang all the way.

I needed to cross to the middle for the fish. But it was partiness all the way. Pure joy. 

My bicycle was dressed with flags I found at a dollar store. The proprietor had to fetch them from the basement. He asked why I wanted so many. It's a good day, I said. This is everybody's flag.

 I rode home in the autumn light. My third historic election witnessed and voted in. Mandela, Obama, and Not-Trump. Yes, I am old. Very old. 

And very happy.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

The tourist

On the day after the election, while the votes were being counted, I played hooky, escaping in the afternoon to see the Battery Conservancy Garden at the southern tip of Manhattan. I wanted to visit the gardens, salute the Statue of Liberty, and sit in the sun under a perfect blue sky.

Then I walked. North, and then east across the island from the Hudson, tracking Google maps on my phone to Eataly, determined on a whim to buy an escapist dinner. At the foot of the soaring One World Trade Center a new building's skeleton was being pieced together. It seemed beautiful. I took a photo. Google maps buzzed and told me to walk south. So I did.

                                          When I looked up again I saw this. 

One World Trade Center Station. A rail hub, essentially. 

I knew about it. I had read about it. But I hadn't seen it in person. I drive on the nearby West Side Highway quite often, but this is nestled at the foot of the new bright glass buildings that are scattered like fresh glitter at the feet of the shattered towers of 9-11. I avoid the place. It is usually jammed with tourists, like sightseers at a battlefield.

In the middle of the empty street I stood and stared, the only tourist in New York.

The grace of it. The lines. The light. 

Whalebone, backbone, shell. 

Earthbound, free. 

Such a thing. An immense presence. The Oculus, by Santiago Calatrava. It is exquisite.

On this day, in this light, at this time, it was the most beautiful thing I have seen.

I could hardly bear to leave.


Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Blewit feast

In the last wet weeks I have been lucky to find huge fairy rings of blewit mushrooms. Their wide circles in the grass are quite perfect. 

These beautiful and edible mushrooms are violet when young and slowly turn cream as they widen and grow. 

Many of their caps are cinched by a root of grass. 

They have come up in response to weeks of foggy nights and days, and a lot of rain. They are very good to eat.

My basket overflows fast.

After spore printing every mushroom overnight (their spore pints are a very pale creamy-pink), I cook. 

And the first thing to make is mushrooms-on-toast. Good bread, good butter, salt.

So that even when the world is falling apart, lunch seems certain.


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Kahili ginger - botanical mugger in disguise

Late fireworks on the terrace. This beautiful flowering ginger-cousin is a species of Hedychium, and was a very kind and unexpected gift earlier this year from a garden design client, who knew how excited I was to hear that his ginger relative had actually bloomed.

When the giant plant was delivered to our door in early September, beautifully wrapped in burlap, I hefted it up and out to the terrace and then did some reading. 

Don't judge a plant by its spectacular cover. Hedychiums, native to Asia, are known collectively as flowering gingers. They are apparently popular in the nursery trade. (I had no idea.) Bought and planted by loving plant owners the gingers have escaped, and this has led their becoming some of the most invasive plants on the planet. In mild parts of the world where they are not native they take over. Even in Cape Town I have seen a similar ginger clogging a stream near my mother's house. In Hawaii Kahili ginger - as this species (H. gardenerianum) is known, there - has a price on its head. In Florida it is running rampant. 

In New York's cold winter climate it doesn't stand much chance of becoming a thug, of course. If left out doors it would succumb. But in Hawaii my friend Sunny Savage is devising ways of dealing with the habitat-altering invasive creatively: by eating it. (You can download her Savage Kitchen app to learn more.)

We will talk more about native and invasive edible plants this Saturday, October 31st, at the New York Botanical Garden; and there are now some tickets available! Click on the date links to book. My second fall class was shifted from Thursday because of predicted torrential rain, and not every student could make the rain date. (Apologies if you are one of them.)


NYBG Class, 31 October 2020

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Fingerlime and Foraging with a Difference

Fat fingerlimes, very close to being fully ripe. On the same branches there are dozens of tiny fruit that will be ripe only in many months' time. 

Looking at the weather ahead, next week is when all the citrus (and the bay tree!) will come indoors: overnight temperatures will be below 50'F and then in the low 40's consistently. I try to leave the subtropicals out for as long as possible, and while they can survive much colder temperatures, the outdoor-indoor change should not be too extreme. 

In other news: We will be gathering for the Trash Forage in Prospect Park on Saturday at 10.30am at the Wellhouse. Please reserve your ticket to help us via the PayPal button below (it's $25 and will be refunded in full after the forage, unless you prefer to donate it to the Prospect Park Alliance - it's your place holder for the wild-inspired cake I will be offering, post-trash collection. You could also just show up, and please do, but without knowing numbers I can't guarantee a slice).

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Apples from Maine, in Brooklyn

While we were in Maine I collected apples. 

Apples from the lichen-hung trees near the house. 

Those were yellow with a blushing cheek. The muskrats who lived in the pond behind our cottage liked them (and we liked the muskrats, never having been able to watch them, before). So I call those apples Muskrat.

Red apples from the field above the cottage. 

Pink apples from a shed on our friend Kirstin's family-land, where she and her husband David had been collecting them. 

And so back in Brooklyn I made three ferments. One for each apple. If all goes well with the wild yeasts (I don't add commercial yeast), the result will be three different vinegars. Today I strained them.

The murky brown jars? Well. We'll see. Cider. As in hard cider. Made from all the leftover apples mushed together. Ideally, you'd have a press. Or even a juicer. I have a food processor. I have my doubts. So let's not focus on the cider.


Today I strained Muskrat, Red, and Pink. They will be covered loosely (because they need air), and in some weeks acetobacter will have converted the sugars into acetic acid. That's vinegar.  

And I use it a lot. Wild vinegars, made from flowers, or fruit, or aromatic twigs for that matter, have a depth that is instructive for anyone who has never tasted them. My feral vinegars become drinks, sauces, cooking liquids, the brine for quick-pickled raw vegetables, and yes, vinaigrettes. 

And when we taste them, we remember a time, and a place. Far away, too short, and very special.


Come and help us clean the park, October 24th

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Unmentionables

Another happy surprise on the terrace this late summer has been the Gomphocarpus - a plant I used to know as Asclepias, a milkweed. It is African, and I met it only twice in southern Africa. Once in Botswana, when I was teenager, visiting the mind-blowingly beautiful Okavango Delta for the first (and maybe only) time; and later with the Frenchman, driving through the little town of Rhodes, in South Africa's eastern Cape. Very different habitats. 

And here it is, growing as an annual in a pot in Brooklyn, New York. It was an impulse-buy at the always-pleasing Gowanus Nursery.

It is known colloquially as hairy balls. Or bishops balls (I mean...?). And more politely as balloon plant. In warmer North American climates it is very invasive and has earned noxious weed status. 

In Brooklyn its beautiful flowers were Snack No. 1 with the various wasps and hornets that visited the terrace this summer. I think they might be strong enough to break free of its milkweed-entrapment-sneakiness - the flowers actually snag the legs of visiting insects, making them struggle, and in struggling they toss pollen around. OK for robust hornets, not so much for smaller honeybees. Milkweeds are mean. 

But yes, very compelling, late in the season. 


Trash Forage, 24 October, Prospect Park

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Goodnight, Moon (flower)

The fragrant white moonflowers (Ipomea alba) have given us more pleasure than I could have expected.

When I garden, half of me is an ecological observer, delivering constant - and constantly evolving - criticism: don't plant this, do plant that, this is awful, that is...well, grey-zone. The other half is hungry, and a hedonist, gardening for the necessary pleasure of it. 

And I wanted a fast vine to cover the trellis to shield our eyes from the spotlights that shine on us from a nearby lot.

The moonflower draws my inner critic's fire. It can be highly invasive. In my hometown of Cape Town, South Africa, where freezing temperatures are very rare, closely-related morning glories (Ipomea) run (glory-iously?) rampant, strangling everything they can even slightly lean on, or bend over, or clasp onto. They alter habitats. Back in the Northern Hemisphere in our previous,  in-ground garden at 1st Place, where freezing winters at least kept things in check, morning glories planted by Someone Else bloomed and seeded and germinated again relentlessly. Every early summer dozens of little vines lassoed and constricted everything, anything. I loathed them for the weeding-work they gave me, for the way they tilted tall plants and bent the Solomon's seal to their persistent will.

Up here, on the Windsor Terrace, in their single large pot, against their birch pole trellis, the wide moonflowers open their scented satellite dishes and fold them again within twelve hours. Their seed (hallucinogenic, if you are so inclined ) has nowhere fertile to fall. The roofs below are barren. The pot itself is easy enough to weed. The birds will not eat them and spread them. Birds are high, already. 

And so it's OK to like them. 

We watch these delicate blossoms open, and close. They tilt and lean like they are listening. There is so much to hear. They mark the passage of the International Space Station as it passes overhead. They see the birds, the rare bats. Maybe they watch us. 

Ice shelves are bursting. Whales are giving up. Loved ones are losing those they love. Friends are fighting genetic landmines and sneak attacks from rogue cells.

We plant seeds, thinking how they will be, in another season.


Trash Forage - 24 October

Monday, October 12, 2020

Trash Forage - Prospect Park

I am organizing a different kind of walk for October 24th in Prospect Park: A Trash Forage. Instead of learning about edible plants, we will be helping the park by collecting the different kinds of trash people leave behind their sorry selves.

Please join me at 10.30am at the Wellhouse for two hours of trash grabbing-and-bagging, followed by a reward of cake. 

Tickets to reserve your spot are $25 and will be refunded to you in full after the walk, assuming you attended. 

We will be supported by the Prospect Park Alliance, the NGO whose unenviable job it is to take care of a vast public park that has seen unprecedented number of visitors during the pandemic. People have sought solace (and sometimes shelter) in the green space. At the same time the park has suffered unprecedented budget cuts by the City of New York. Even in normal times City funding of our public parks is shamefully minimal. 

"Although City parks make up 14% of NYC’s land, the Parks Department receives only 0.6% of the City’s total budget," writes Molly Fraser, on the website for the NYLCV (The New League of Conservation Voters). That is not a typo. Zero point six percent.

She continues: "Urban forests support the City’s environmental health, filtering out harmful pollutants, cooling temperatures, and supporting wildlife. In NYC, trees filter out an estimated 1,300 tons of pollutants, save nearly $94 million in health costs, capture 2 billion gallons of stormwater runoff, and store 1.2 million tons of carbon annually."

And how do you quantify the therapy, mental and physical, that the park has provided during the COVID crisis? 

The park has become everything to all people. Living room, bedroom, kitchen, work out area and yes, toilet. It needs help.

On our Trash Forage on Saturday the 24th we will meet to sign in, receive trash grabbers, bags and gloves. There will be cleaning supplies on hand but bring your own pocket sanitiser. Masks and social distancing are mandatory. 

After we have filled our bags we will clean our hands (again!) and gather for the freshly-baked cake in a nice kumbaya circle. 


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