Thursday, March 31, 2011

What comes next?

Amelanchier by M Viljoen 

Amelanchier and Callery pear, opening in April

Central Park, late March

After some viola planting on the Upper West Side yesterday morning I walked into Central Park near West 81st Street, a familiar route, leading me into The Ramble. 

I was hoping to find some early spring flowers, but the woods were closed for business. Not at home to visitors. Birds hopped in the rustling leaf litter and  hammered the bark of tall trees and called from bare branches. Not a single violet leaf peeped out of the brown quilt thrown over the hills and stream beds of this wild part of the park. This will all change in April, and if you're thirsty for a Northeastern spring visit a previous post about April in the park.

Heading towards the Upper East Side I paralleled the 79th Street cut-through allowing traffic to cross the park. Recently in the Times Sarah Maslin Nir wrote about the snow flurries we received last week, ending by noting that along the walls of the 79th Street transverse  "sprays of perennially overeager pyracantha flounced down the stone walls, branch tips almost mingling with small snow drifts..."

Really? First, it's too early for pyracantha (firethorn) to bloom, and's too early for pyracantha to bloom. I had thought the writer must mean winter honeysuckle, which is at least white in bloom, but now I wonder if she meant forsythia. It's only a little bit different from pyracantha. One is pure white and one is bright yellow, but they are both flowers. Just looking at article now (my last in my monthly allowance - I have discovered The Guardian) I see there is a correction in the piece - something about tulips.

The vestiges of witch hazel flowers hung over the road. These were beautiful old trees, their branches in horizontal layers, and I am sorry I missed them in full bloom.

Near the zoo, a large blue splash of glory-of-the-snow,  Chionodoxa lucilieae [4/1/11 - which earlier I identified as Siberian squill, or Scilla siberica - see Janet's comment]. Here I passed two girls on a bench, wearing sunglasses bigger than their heads and eating icecream,  flanked by eight small dogs, seated four on on either side of the girls, on the bench. Each one clad in a quilted orange coat. Upper East Side doggy daycare? I asked if I may take their picture. NO, said one expressionless girl, licking her icecream.

Flowers are easier.

A woman said, as I was photographing these tête-à-têtes and Siberian squill, Scilla siberica [see, similar but different, the squill nods], I just love that purple with that yellow! I actually looked around, thinking I had missed something else in bloom, but no. That just shows that my blue is not your blue.

These buds belong to a cherry, a beautiful, sprawling specimen growing near the yacht pond (properly known as Conservatory Water). I must go to check on its blossoms, soon.

Every lawn was speckled with robins.

And opposite The Plaza a cardinal posed in grey branches...

...before diving off.

In the end the March park belongs to the Cornelian cherries - Cornus mas. They are everywhere, and wonderful. Perhaps I will be brave enough to pick their berries for jelly in summer.

The forsythia, winter honeysuckle, Cornelian cherries, daffodils, scilla and hellebores will give way to the magnolia, cherry, crabapple, amelanchier, and later to azalea, rhododendron, hawthorn; to the woodland ephemerals - violets, bloodroot, shooting star, trillium, to the bedding tulips, to a dozen flowers I have not thought of. 

Perhaps even some pyracantha.

Sunny side up

Fried bananas by M Viljoen

Eggs and fried bananas. Not pictured is the organic bacon roasting in the oven. The Frenchman remained unconvinced. I grew up with bananas for breakfast as a special treat. Perhaps it is an acquired taste. Is it South African?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Radioactive rain?

Speaking of planting my pea seedlings out, under the sky...

Is anyone else concerned by  the report about RADIOACTIVE RAIN falling on the East Coast?

What does that mean, are our crops safe, or does no one know? When will we know? Should we eat our homegrown  crops? What about commercially cultivated crops?

The Bay Citizen:

"The level of radioactive material detected by the East Coast tests, however, “does exceed the EPA’s maximum contaminant level,” Bandrowski said. Because radioactive material degrades quickly, he said the contamination would likely be short-lived. “It’s all going to decay away in two months or so."

Two months or so. When the peas are ready to eat, you mean?

When to plant peas

They say

- that peas like the cold. That even below freezing is OK. So I planted them.

They are under the Brooklyn sky now, all on their own. The roof farm 2011 has begun.

Make a wish and close your eyes...

Surprise...I walked down Baltic Street, on the way to Smith Street to look for a small gift for Vince's mom, Germaine. She was taken ill yesterday and is in hospital, and Vince is traveling on the Adirondack to Montreal. It is tough being far away.

I stopped at the house with the pretty windowboxes, where last year I took these photos (and wondered out loud who gardened there). I had just turned to notice the pollen-fat pussy willow on the sidewalk, when someone called, You like my pussy willow?

Yes, I smiled, and met Peggy Herron. She's a garden designer. But of course.

We talked about praying mantis sex and bees and Cobble Hill honey and penthouses with petunias, squirrels that bite, climbing raccoons and pussy willow, and she told me to make a knot in one of its branches and make a wish. When the wish comes true, you come and undo the knot, she said, And thank the pussy willow. So my knot is there, on Baltic Street, with my wish. One of Peggy's wishes is in it, too. 

I told her that I have often stopped here and enjoyed her garden. She didn't laugh when I told her the size of mine.

Peggy allowed me to take a picture of her, but through no fault of her own it is not good and I shall ask her if I may try again. She and her garden have given me an idea.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fracking in the Karoo

If you would like to protest Shell's plans to start fracking South Africa's pristine Karoo, please sign this online petition to Stop Fracking in the Karoo.

What is fracking? High-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing. It is a drilling method that accesses subterranean gas. Massive amounts of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, are injected at high pressure to break up rock formations and release the gas. I first learned about the practise from the New York City Garden blog, where Frank wrote about plans to start fracking in New York [earlier I wrote Pennsylvania, in error].

The Karoo lies close to my heart. Every year as a child we hurtled through it on the way to the sea, from the interior. It seemed dry and flat with distinctive koppies in parts and distant mountains in others. In cold winters they are dusted with snow.

As an adult I learned that the dry Karoo rewards close inspection. It is vast, silent, the sky above it a blanket of stars. The air is pure. In spring little violets pop up in dense tussocks. After summer rain green grass furs the roadsides where water has swept off the tar.  Flowers open. At night winged ant lions whirr around the light of your camp fire.

Hundreds of millions of years ago this semi desert was a primeval swamp, populated by dinosaurs.

Now that swamp is a source of profitable gas, trapped below the surface.

To learn more about what fracking can do to the environment, here is a link to a New York Times article on the subject. (Under the new subscription rules I have 2 articles left to read this month. Hopefully you have more!)


I never know what I am going to find when I dig down into one of the big pots on the terrace because I forget. I think that's why I am able to read so many books so many times. I forget. And then I see things there that I never saw before. In the pots and the books.

In breaking down my already cracked terra cotta pot I was stabbed by a sharp shard of the clay, so bled prettily for a bit until I patched it up. Then I saw that I had managed to crush a violet while moving the new pot into place. The first violet of spring on the terrace.

I knew I would find lily bulbs, of course, but was not sure how many. The two huge ones must be Silk Road, the lily that grows over six feet tall. Then the smaller, pale ones, and many babies of the same. Very mixed feelings about the babies (which look delicious, incidentally and are apparently very good to eat).

I do not have the luxury of empty nursery beds up here, and every plant is expected to deliver. Bad enough I waited one year for a hollyhock grown from seed to bloom this year,  only to have it rot come spring. So what to do with immature lilies, offspring of their healthy parents, that will not bloom for another year or two? In the end I planted them in an empty pot, and will decide what to do with them later. Never decide today what can be decided tomorrow.

Then I turned upside down the pot that houses the Dunyazade lilies. Also very happy, but I felt they might want some fresh soil. Gingerly I loosened their roots, and avoided these delicate, juicy shoots. Snap one and there goes your lily for the year.

Confession: I have never really liked these lilies. I keep them because they are utterly reliable, bloom later than everything else and are beautiful if observed close up and in minute detail, rather than 'entier'. Isolate and frame several square inches and you see their stripes of brilliant green, pink and white and every raised stipple on their petals. Pointillism in 3D. At night sweet, clear nectar drips lasciviously from their throats. OK - I've just talked myself back into liking them.

Oh! Maybe one of the big lily bulbs was the yellow one. Heavens. See, I forgot.

Monday, March 28, 2011

On the street

On the Spring Street facade of the Jay Maisel building on the Bowery, where a succession of stick-on and spray-on tableaux marks the change of their own season.

And in DUMBO, this scaffolding made a public service announcement about the portaloo.

Paying to read The Times online

[Update: Hello, from 2018. I pay $145/year for my subscription]

Starting a few minutes ago it will now cost you to read more than 20 articles a month on the New York Times' website. I estimate that I will reach my quota the day after tomorrow, if not sooner. And then?


It is a dilemma. As a sometime freelance writer I know that writing for online or print media is garnering less and less pay, unless you are an established literary heavy hitter. Journalists are being laid off left, right and centre. Many writers on major blogs work for nothing. Link love. The result will be - and is - poorer and poorer articles, inevitably, as little compensation means you can afford to spend as little time writing as possible (unless you are independently wealthy. And New York is still full of trust funds!). Write for six hours or days for less than $200 for over 1,000 words for an established, respected publication. Or 400 words for $25, as some new media lovingly advertises?

That is the new online reality. This is the new sweatshop.

Good writing takes good time. Time is money. It really is.

So a revolution is inevitable.

The Times pays salaries of reporters (1,100) and editors who spend days, weeks, months working on - one hopes - well-told and researched stories all over the planet. How to pay the salaries when the income from print subscriptions has evaporated and advertising does not make enough?

Seeing both sides of the story is awful, because despite my argument in favor of paying for quality, I will not be paying $15 - $65 depending on the type of subscription [this has been corrected - I originally wrote $50, flat fee] a month to read The Times. I do not have health insurance. We live - albeit well - in a matchbox. We have no children to support, but the cat needs kibble. I need a new pair of boots.

I would pay $10. I wonder why they did not make it $10. Or even $5? For the little people? I know. Even the little people want big news.

How many of you are signing up and on, and why?

How I feel after a month might be a world different from how I feel now. We shall see. In the age of the world wide, free Web, I was trained to expect the good stuff for free. Perhaps it's a matter of time before the Internet pendulum swings the other way and we realize that we must pay for  what matters.


I walked to Smith Street to look for a new pot to replace one that has cracked on the terrace - a large one beside the door, that houses my big, big lily, Silk Road, as well as the fennel that has come up three years straight, overwintering in the shelter of the building, plus whatever else seasonal I like; basil, perhaps.

At Tony's Hardware Tony was sitting on a box on the floor studying a catalogue. What pots you need this summer? he asked. He was ordering new stock. I chose my 16" terra cotta from out back, got a sweet discount, and bought two neon orange plastic buckets for $6 each, for the roof farm, a trowel and another pair of gloves. I looked at the seeds but held back. But he has what you need if you'd like to start some...

I lugged the heavy pot home, clasped to my chest, but set it down when I saw this tree. Another Prunus subhirtella, but so much happier than the specimen at Borough Hall. A symphony in the highstrung sunlight under a sky of shattering blue. I photographed it in the fall, too.

When I was little the word blossom meant only the flowers of fruit trees to me. Only fruit tree blossom looks like a blossom, petals light as living tissue paper, each as delicate and temporary as the next breeze. They are not flowers. They are blossoms.

Does Paul Roux Street in Bloemfontein still blossom in the spring, red, white, red white, as the ornamental peach trees were planted when I was small? I have just realized that my terrace is painted the hot pink-red of those impossibly frilled, fat, louche alternately red and white trees.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bat's blood

Jumping Jehosaphat, I got a fright when I poured this wine. I nearly dropped the bottle. I thought I had opened a bottle of prosecco, just bought at the Brooklyn Wine Exchange. Prosecco - clear, straw yellow? The cork popped and everything. And then out came this, the colour of arterial blood. With bubbles!

It is a Lambrusco, an oft-despised (as overly sweet) Italian sparkling wine, this one produced by Medici Ermete. Once I had recovered from the shock we decided we liked it - it was dry, bright, very good with food - and drank it on another two nights.


Scratch dinner. Can of good tuna in olive oil, a leftover tomato, one stray egg, two abandoned scallions, a last, lurking branch of broccoli, (blasphemous in such a salad), blanched; a cold baked potato from dinner the night before, cut into batons and toasted in olive oil. I always add leaves though this practise is variously frowned upon and scoffed at; mine were arugula. Also raw beetroot, because I love it. Bringing it all together a vinaigrette with a little cream or yogurt whisked in. And then this is a very good supper.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Manhattan in Bloom

Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) in Battery Park, beside the Hudson River. Under the Cornelian  cherries were dozens of school kids, just out of the nearby Stuyvesant High School, congregating and trading insults, smoking pot, looking suspiciously at my camera.

We had just come from nearby Tear Drop Park, where I'd wanted to check to see if the Juneberries shadblow amalenchier were in bloom. Not even close. There was still some snow in corners. But what was flowering? Winter hazel.

 Below, farther east, winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima, in the Mfinda Kalunga Community Garden. An inconspicuous flower, conspicuous, audible scent.

And too early for the daffodils of Sara D. Roosevelt Park. I shall return.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Earth Hour 2011

8.30pm on March 26th, wherever you are on the planet, and it is Earth Hour. Turn off the lights.

How does this help long term? I'm not sure. But I like the idea and have been joining in for three years.

Tomorrow, 8.30? Lights off. Candles on. Have a floor picnic.

Prunus subhirtella

The first prunus blossoms. Borough Hall, after crossing many lanes of traffic after emerging from the the Jay Street subway station, the greyness, the downtown-ness, and then you look up and see this delicate pink cherry blossom. Prunus subhirtella (possibly "Autumnalis"), which has the good grace to bloom just before winter, and just after, never in a foaming, Kanzan way, but sparingly, a little painfully, as though it hurts a bit. And maybe it does. It is cold out there.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What's up?

After being sown on the 11th of March, the pea shoots emerged first,  a week ago. They were followed by a couple of cucumbers. By yesterday 80% of peas and 60% of cucumbers had open green leaves. I glared at the empty Charentais, watermelon and eggplant rows. Then, just this morning, they were all up, too.

I bring the trays in every night and must cover them with their domes or the cat nibbles the tempting young greens. Out they go in daylight.

Also up are the reluctant Linaria pupurea from my mother's garden. The tiniest seeds followed by the most minute seedlings I have ever seen. If they mature and bloom I shall have to deadhead them scrupulously, as they are invasive. But they are lovely cut flowers.

And a few of the second edition of the Red Pear cherry tomatoes, that were the last to emerge scantily in my first sowing of February 27th came up, too. I'd say the seed (Seed Savers in this case) was poor stock.

The other seedlings from the February sowing, Red Zebra and Lemon Drop tomatoes, are very healthy; Seneca sunflowers are 6" high, and one of three sown Apios americana (native groundnut), collected in Ellen's Pennsylvania is up and already resembling a twining vine, with a miniature and sharp forked tongue of leaves at the tip.

I may do some guerrilla gardening with the sunflowers when they are tough enough; they will be too tall for round pots on the roof.  I can already hear the crashing as they blow over.  And then I had better steel myself for disappointment if they die, are broken, or are peed on. There's a triangle of earth between lanes of traffic near the tennis walls where I play, that needs plants. It says "Greenstreets"  but ain't nothing green about it.

Last night pellets of ice rattled down on the terrace and the skylights and the next three nights will be below freezing, thwarting my wish to plant the peas on the roof. I shall have to confine my efforts to clearing out a large cracked pot and repotting the lilies, fennel and overwintered hollyhock in a new one. The hollyhock braved the entire winter only to start showing limp green leaves a few days ago. Digging down I found that it had rotted below the soil line, and where I took off the rotted pieces of stem, a magnificent, burgundy-coloured jelly has emerged. Weird. Will I have hollyhock flowers this year?

We shall see.


With freezing temperatures predicted for tonight the next five nights, thunder, lightning, and an ice rain last night, spring is not being ushered in without a fight.  But I kind of like delaying the inevitable.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Black raspberries

Walking in Red Hook, I paused to snap a picture of my new raspberry plant, bought at the last gasp sale at Liberty Sunset. It was labeled "Jewel" and I have now discovered that it is a black raspberry. Deeply exciting.

Until I was stopped in my tracks by dozens of turquoise punnets of the small black berries at a stall at the farmers' market in Sante Fe one summer ten years ago, I had never seen them. I exclaimed brightly to the farmer, who sat hunched and scowling behind the little boxes. A hail storm had wiped out his entire crop and this fruit was what he had salvaged from his fields before the storm hit. The gorgeous purple clouds above the city had destroyed his income for the year.

I now know about the confusing world of raspberry pruning. People on gardening forums bandied about terms like floricane and primocane as if everyone knew what they were. Primocanes are first year canes, which bear no fruit,  while floricanes are second year, fruiting canes." Highest on the list of raspberry pruning complexity is your `Jewel' black raspberries [sic]," said Terry L. Hettinger, whose site I found very helpful.


I expect limited success with my limited space on the roof, but I hope that the pretty, white-dusted red canes I have are last year's primocanes, meaning that they are this year's floricanes. We shall see. As soon as the slush from the sky ends I shall go up and plant them and check on the spicy mesclun mix I sowed last week. The chervil managed to overwinter in a pot, so is remarkably robust. There is hope.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Flowering shrubs and trees for March

The March edition of my year-long list of cold climate flowering shrubs and trees is up at AOL's Shelterpop blog. You will recognize some of my favourites from the hood. It's a hard list to write, as space constraints mean that many don't make the cut. Like winter hazel. Ruthless I must be. It is only going to get worse as the weather warms and more and more flowers open.

Gowanus Nursery

In the great nursery reshuffle, Michele Paladino's Gowanus Nursery has relocated to the corner of Van Brunt and Carroll Streets, still in Red Hook. This will be the third move for the nursery. It is far from its orginal site near the native, fuel-rainbowed swamp for which it is named.

Construction on site means that plant space is limited but already there was a characteristically unusual plant on display outside - an Edgeworthia papyrifera, the fragrant, late-winter-blooming shrub with deceptively plump and tender branches making it look as though it could not possibly survive freezing temperatures. The one in the perennial beds at the BBG must look perfect round about now. It is huge.

The Gowanus Nursery is currently open on Saturdays and Sundays. Maybe a good idea to call ahead: 718-852-3116.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring Sunday

Yesterday: Baltic Street spring b...I mean forsythia.

The best viburnum ever.

Summit Street Community Garden irises.

BLT's (actually BAT's - bacon, arugula, tomato) and Red Hook rose on the pier in Valentino Park, Red Hook.