Sunday, July 31, 2011

Gardening Q&A: Alex Mitchell

Alex Mitchell in her London Garden. Photo: Paul Debois

British garden writer and urban gardener Alex Mitchell's new book The Edible Balcony-about small spaces and what you can grow in them-will be released by Rodale later this year in the United States. (Full disclosure: this blogger's Brooklyn terrace appears in it.) In the meantime you can get to know Alex at her website, The Edible Gardener.

1. Why do you garden?

I garden for some space from my little kids (though they usually follow me outside within minutes and start shooting each other with water pistols) from London and from work pressures. Mainly though-and it's so hard to express this without sounding pretentious so I'm not even going to try not to-it's for self-expression, to create my own little world that's beautiful to me.

2. Who or what inspired you to garden?

My nursery school was a hut at the end of a long woodland garden in the Kent countryside run by a very eccentric old lady.On the way to the hut you walked down a stepping stone path past perfect little clearings of lawn surrounded by foxgloves and honesty, like magical woodland glades. I thought fairies lived in there. We weren't allowed to step off the path and go into them-she probably wanted to protect her lawns. Maybe that's what made gardening so appealing to me-I can finally walk on the grass.

3. What was the first plant you grew?

A miniature yellow patio rose I planted in the front garden at my shared house in Bristol when I was at university. Looking back, it was quite hideous, but I loved it because it survived a street party that got rather out of hand. The morning after it looked like a dead twig trampled into the mud by the trainered feet of a few hundred students, but a week later it had recovered and was putting out green shoots. How can you not respect something that plucky?

4. How often do you garden?

Whenever I have a spare moment. But also whenever I have a work deadline and that cosmia just suddenly needs deadheading.

5. What is your gardening climate zone?

I was born in Kent which I think is equivalent to your USDA Zone 8. This is only 25 miles away from London where I live now, which is equivalent to your Zone 9, due to the urban heat island effect. Winter temperatures rarely dip below minus 5 Celsius/41' F and summer temperatures often reach 30 Celsius/ 86' F.

6. What size is your garden?

About 50 foot long and 15 foot wide

7. What plant has most disappointed you?

My cocktail kiwi planted with great excitement and expectation of bunches of grape-sized sweet kiwi fruit hardy enough to survive our winter. Apparently. For two years I've watched it put out
fresh green shoots full of promise. And for two years I've watched helplessly as they are munched right back to the base – probably by snails. Never seen a bud, let alone a kiwi.

8. What plant has made you happiest?

There's something about nasturtiums that makes me deliriously happy. They're so uncomplicatedly cheerful. And they cover awkward bare spaces and clamber up ugly fences. Of course, you can also eat them so they're a win-win plant really. Californian poppies come a close second – I must have a thing about orange.

9. What do you love about your garden right now?

Watching the bees buzzing like crazy over the lavender and the thornless blackberry, eating apricots and peaches straight from the tree with the kids, snipping off globe artichokes and throwing them straight into boiling water to be eating with plenty of mayonnaise, and rooting strawberry runners from the plants which had the tastiest fruit. I like making new plants without having to go and buy them.

10. What do you feed your garden?

Garden compost and worm compost as a soil conditioner, diluted liquid seaweed feed and worm tea for growing plants.

11. What would you like to grow, that you can't?

Pomegranates – heaven in a fruit.

12. Food, flowers, native or ornamental?
Ornamental food.

13. Most inspiring garden writer, thinker, blogger, personality?

I love reading anything by Anna Pavord and Monty Don – they make gardening sound vital, exciting, essential, like it's about more than just plants. Which, of course, it is. As a designer, I love everything Andy Sturgeon does.

14. What plants do you dislike?

I don't think there's really ever any excuse for spotted laurel.

15. Would you like more sun or more shade?

I live in London. Of course I want more sun!

16. Where is your favorite public garden?

Sissinghurst in Kent. A cliché I know, but I've never seen such glorious, jumbly, colourful planting as here last summer. A perfect mix of formality and exuberant wildness. And it's fun climbing up the tower and pretending you're Vita for a moment – tweed jacket optional.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dinner and a drink

Tomatoes and cucumber from the roof, basil in the pesto from the terrace and roof, our summer garlic, too.

Somebody else's pine nuts (Spain, not China; Chinese ones give me that horrible two-week bitter mouth syndrome).

Drink, Noilly Prat and splash of St Germain, lemon, ice.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Spot of bother

Why did she pick these tomatoes while green? they ask. Tsk.

That's why! she says, and gnashes her teeth. 

Blossom end rot. *&%%$!!*^%!

Cherry tomatoes are fine. Truth is, I am not an experienced tomato grower. I'm more a perennial, herb, shrub and fruit sort of person. Ahem. Yes, I know. Tomatoes are fruit. Picky, picky fruit.

Fruit bad, so no picky!

Funny thing is, I started this 'farm' last July - very late to start anything, I thought, apologetically.  And I was harvesting produce at about the same time, last year. Except that this year I planted in...April? March (seeds)...Lesson. Not worth it. I understand why I did  it. I couldn't wait! I was itching to start.

The aubergine (eggplant, OK) are very happy. These are growing in my milk crates lined with plastic bags with holes punched  in the bottom. Wonderful containers.

I have four Sugar Baby watermelons and this one is about bowling ball size (I have never been bowling). I do not have a single Charentais melon. I still remember the hope, the pride, the anticipation of sweet melons when planting out those precociously successful seedlings (the watermelons took forever and sickened with cold). I will remove them next week and plant something else. 

'Thing' wrestles with the cucumber. I just want to see how big it can get. They have produced very little and every third one is more bitter than the waters at Marah.

And later we are off to Fire Island for a short weekend. I look forward to seeing what the beach plums and wild cherries are doing in the Sunken Forest. I have been threatened with paddle board lessons. We get to ride on another ferry. I like boats.

Have a good weekend, wherever you are, whatever you do.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Purslane salad

...recipe for, is next door at 66 Square Feet (the Food).

I am learning some interesting things about purslane, lamb's quarters and pigweed. They may be natural anti- depressants, along with lettuce! Amino acids...

No wonder a little zip zaps through me when I eat a spoonful of morog.

Prospect Park Litter Mob, August 2nd

The next Litter Mob will be on August 2nd at 9am, sharp. Please spread the word to concerned citizens and lovers of chipmunks (there are dozens) who fancy a walk in the woods. And let me know if you are able to help.

Directions and the Litter Mob blog...[warning, images there are X-rated. It is what it is.]

Red Fruit

I may have an addiction problem. I can't stop eating the red fruits of July.

(Raspberries, red currants and bourbon cherries are from Wilklow Orchards.)

The currants are now three very big pots of jam (with raspberries).

Cherries. I bottled some with bourbon, and then I made my third cherry clafoutis of summer.




Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Gantry Plaza State Park

A new country. It's called Queens.

If you're from out of town, to orient you, we are looking west, across the East River(which-is-a-strait). The white circle opposite is a satellite dish at the foot of the UN.

We had a fabulous, wild ride back home on a bucking East River Ferry, with a black storm chasing us down the whole way. 

It was too bumpy for good pictures but what a view. Lightning shattered the dark clouds north of us and as we arrived at the Fulton Landing below the Brooklyn Bridge the storm broke above us, whipping trees sideways and the rain around us.

New York keeps some surprises up its sleeve, and this was a good one.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The woman who picnicked too much

The inelegant S shape on the left is a wonderfully fresh herb sauce that I made for our poached chicken breasts for a recent roof picnic, the day the temperatures started to go back down. Basil, parsley, cilantro, mint, lemon juice, a little sugar some salt, lots of pepper, and mayonnaise. The eggs were stuffed with their yolks into which I'd mashed some parmesan, a drop of soy, and a drip of lemon. My version of thousand island dressing for the iceberg - mayonnaise again (I am going to throw the bottle away. It is dangerous stuff), a squirt of ketchup (ditto), Worcestershire sauce, cooked egg yolk, some vinegar, a cornichon in lieu of pickle relish. Interesting. Not bad. But not really my kind of thing.

I had overchilled the prosecco - you get paranoid about cold things when the heat crawls above 100', even once - so we had prosecco and juneberry syrup slushies.

This time the cat remained with us, not panting. He likes picnics.


On a very hot day last week, on a break for lunch from planting a terrace, this beautiful espresso was made for me. The cup had belonged to a grandmother, and the porcelain was of the eggshell kind.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Eating pigweed

It's not going too far to say that this is my favourite cooked green. At the moment. Above, a bowl of morog.  My explanation, story and more pictures at Edible Manhattan.


It's not fair to label this as foraged, because I picked it from the terrace. Cultivate your own, and do not over-fertilize (stock - horses, cows, sheep, etc - can get very sick from eating a lot of amaranth from fertilized fields. The plant converts nitrogen in fertilizer to nitrates, which are poisonous in large doses).

But I could not eat this bowlful fast enough.

The crostini and pigweed bredie recipes are next door at 66 Square Feet (the Food).

In other news: It's raining! A soft pitter patter. The temperature is 73'F. I feel quite giddy, and consequently had to bake another cherry clafoutis...


I left this bowl of Sunday strawberries outside our neighbour's door to say thank you. We share a landing, and we share a roof, and I know from experience that someone padding about on bare feet on the roof sounds like an invasion in the rooms below. So I let him know about the farming activities early in the year and asked him to tell us if they were too noisy. He said no problem. He's a nice, quiet neighbour. We've had some real doozies. Gillian from New Jersey whose dad paid her rent and a voice like a high-pitched saw meeting ground glass. The couple who slammed every door they had and did their laundry at 3am. And she yelped. High sudden yelps that made you jump out of your skin. The girl who talked and talked and talked and showed me all her tattoos. All of them. Everywhere. She rescued feral cats. The student who worked all day and studied law all night whose wife wailed,  I didn't sign up for this, you said you were going to help me dye my hair tonight! He said, in a voice breaking, I'm doing this for you. She cried a lot. Her hair was blond.

But our current neighbour is wonderful. We don't even know he is there. I'm not sure he can say the same of us. We are perfect, of course. But our cat sings.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Artichokes Barigoule and Some Men

Next door at 66 Square Feet (the Food)

Meatopia 2011

Having experienced recently what happens when you arrive at 7.30 for an edible event that runs from 5.30 - 9.30 (Food Runs Out), we arrived at Pier Five pretty promptly at 5.30pm. The so-far-undeveloped pier, part of the Brooklyn Bridge Park, whose Pier One we visit regularly for picnics,  was bare bones concrete and but anticipating a crowd - many barriers and a lot of staff, far outnumbering arrivals at this point.

After an hour it had filled considerably. It was extremely hot. Hat girl came well-equipped.

April Bloomfield (The Breslin) (nice website) had the good sense to have flowers. This minute touch made a huge difference in the massive, undressed space. A handful of other stalls did the same. We made this our first stop. Whole hog, served shredded on sliders, with slaw and beans. Good. Happy.

Our second stop was at the opposite end of the pier, at Tertulia, for Seamus Mullen's (ex-Boqueria) whole sheep, of which we ate a delicious sliver on pita bread, with a garlicky yogurt. I think. It was too good for a picture. Just three days ago there was an open call on Craigslist for line cooks at Tertulia, which has not opened yet. Free WiFi, cider on tap. Sounds good.

Here I practise censorhsip. 

Picture an entire steer on a bier-type platform, grinning teeth and face in front, tail at rear. OK? If you really want to see it I am quite sure it is on the web already. Or I'll email you a copy. I just couldn't.

Instead I show you the innocuous-looking sliders that the steer became, provided by Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, one of the sponsors of the event. All the staff, mostly men, wore these T-shirts. Gee, cute. Sigh. In a way the no-apologies whole roast animal, the stupid T-shirts, kind of reminded us what we were doing. I passed on the beef. I know, fickle. But there was a lot of testosterone around this animal.

Custom-made Meatopia sausages, highlighting Dickson's Farmstand Meats (mislabeled on our maps as Dickson Farmstead Meat)...

Commerce's (irritating website) chicken breast with croutons and "super jus". Super tender chicken breasts. I don't know that there was any foie gras there though we did encounter a liver-like sliver of something. It was really delicious, regardless, with whipped potato to suck up the jus. Slaving over hot burners with no shade...There are either a lot of sunstruck cooks or very well lubricated ones in Brooklyn tonight.

Taking a break near the water.

Ha: Public's (lickable website) blood sausage waffle. Vince said it tasted like chocolate. You can read Michelin-starred chef Brad Farmerie's article on blood here, in Food Arts.

And I had a problem. I was getting full.

But we still made a  bee line for those Ilili (deeply annoying website) lamb ribs. Pretty crispy, with a really good side salad of arugula and little black olives and red onion in lemony dressing...meat and leaves go together perfectly. The ribs were rather sweet, so the sumac and z'atar ('zataar' on the Meatopia website menu) were in there with...pomegranate molasses? Not sure.

When we left, hot and stuffed, there were no lines but perhaps more people arrived later. At home, watering the roof farm (where my tomatoes have blossom end rot, yay), smoke wafted up and over the rooftops.

We lay down and licked lemonade popsickles.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What to eat in a heatwave

Well, the heatwave picnic was a success. As I was slicing the cucumbers I decided that I wanted lightly pickled raw vegetables instead of cucumber sandwiches. On Thursday, when planting  a terrace garden with my nice clients, we took a break for lunch and sat down and ate sushi with pickled vegetables (- and ice cold water with lots of lemon juice and mint), and I craved some more of the vinegary crispness, so I sliced some carrot and radishes thinly and added them to a bath of rice vinegar with salt, sugar and water, very simple, and let them sit for about an hour, in the fridge. The tuna shape, form, mold, mould was perfect! I like such things, smooth and wobbly. It has nothing green or fresh in it. Tuna from a can, mayonnaise, cream cheese, ketchup and soy, and...ah, lemon juice. That's fresh. And I tossed in two gherkins. And some gelatin melted in hot water. I whizzed it all up in the blender, poured it into a bowl ( I need a couple of proper moulds - time to make Le Blob again) and tipped it out two hours later. Creamy, silky, and dangerous We ate it all. I'll have to figure out the measurements I used and post it, but it's not rocket science.

Vince loves his new phone. It read the temperature. For the celsius brigade that is 37'C, at 8.30 at night. Three degrees cooler than the afternoon. Please add the humidity in your heads. The roof was hot beneath our kikois. We had brought the cat up with us, to picnic, but after he lay down he started to pant, so we sent him back into apartment again. He supped on his usual pellets with water plus an ice cube (after I read that the tigers in the Boston zoo had been given frozen  blood lollipops today. Yuck!).

For the humans, seeing the water helped cool us off psychologically. Lights moved across the harbor, layer caked ferries, green and red-masted tugs, belching smoke in a nearby slip as they prepared to move a barge out, strings of fairy lights for tourist cruises.

The pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus)  soup worked. Too terrified to really use the stove, I simmered it for about four minutes with some scallions and olive oil and chicken stock, then turned off the gas and let it steam under a tight lid till tender. Blender, yogurt, whizz. This somehow suggests to me Bulgaria. Anyone? Pigweed, or wild greens, yogurt? Then it, too, was chilled. I love this vegetable, and need some more. Any Brooklyn gardeners need weeding help? I've eaten all mine.

Other pigweed recipes:

Pigweed bredie
Pigweed crostini

Friday, July 22, 2011

Beating the heat

It is 104'F/40'C in New York right now. A slow trip into the world left my skin running freely with perspiration. In the apartment, with airconditioning, under the hot roof, it is a cool 79'.

I picked up the ingredients for a supper worthy of a 50's cocktail party. Why be normal when the weather goes bonkers? Golly! So:

Tuna mould. Or mold. Or form. Or shape.

Good canned tuna (meaning in olive oil, and imported), mayonnaise, lemon,  a little cream cheese, gelatin, perhaps some chopped up cornichons. Perhaps a squirt of ketchup and a drip of soy...

Cucumber sandwiches. Persian cucumber slices quick-pickled with salt and sugar and rice vinegar, on yesterday's cold-buttered white bread, sliced thinly.

In the fridge an iceberg lettuce (yes, it is food) is wrapped in a clean, damp napkin, having been sat upside down, and core removed, under a dripping tap for a few minutes, per recent instructions from Graeme Hardie. He says that this rehydrates the lettuce. Then it must chill. Then it is super crisp. It will be chunked and drizzled with genu-ine Thousand Island Dressing. As soon as I figure out how to make that. I'm a little frightened.

Gee whiz. Jeepers. Well, gosh. I will be singing as my husband climbs up the stairs, home from subways and hellish heat, and I will give him a condensation-cold drink as he steps in the door.

And when he has had a good long draught, I shall tell him that our first course is chilled yogurt and pigweed soup.

Just in case you thought I had lost my edge.

Chris Arnade's photos

I have been looking at Chris Arnade's pictures for a couple of years on Flickr. Back from when he called himself Carnade. He gets better and better. I look forward to the day when we can say, We knew him when... I don't know him, we've never met, and probably never will. But his eye, point of view and ease with his subjects elevate his images to a level whose singularity will win him some serious attention. Quite apart from his talent, I envy his rapport with people.

I am enjoying this particular series of his, but you can see his whole photostream here.

6 February 2012: Here's a more recent post about Chris and some of his subjects.

Red hot

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Something to look forward to?

Could this be Viburnum prunifolium? Blackhaw? A tree about ten feet high, in Prospect Park.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A sound

After 10pm and we sit with the remnants of supper on the terrace, plates cleared, glasses of strawberries and cream scraped clean. I hear a deep note, repeated twice, with long intervals between, then repeated twice again. Vince strains to hear. We spend minutes listening to the night waiting for him to catch it. A fog horn.

After the dishes are cleared I stand on the stone table and see the fog moving in,  low and white over the lights of Brooklyn, rising from the southeast, coming from the sea. High above the night blinks with planes at cruising altitude, the stars in place, and below, here,  the strawberries, which continue to ripen in their small pots, watered at dusk.

Inside we switch on the air conditioning again, water runs in the sink and the cat begs for chicken bones.

Knowing that the fog is there, and coming in, that we are being warned, is a small comfort, a silent nod, telling me that it is not all up to us, that there is still weather, that we need protecting from larger things, that every nuance of our overcommitted lives is shaded by the larger moods of the planet.

The Rockaways

Our trip to the Rockaways recently, soon after Vince's first expedition, was hot hot hot. For car-less New Yorkers, or non cyclists (we need to get bikes), the trip is an almighty schlepp. The 2/3 subway to the last stop in Brooklyn, then a bus. For which you wait, and wait and wait. But the waiting can be interesting. On a jammed thoroughfare in Brooklyn, on a chewing gummed sidewalk with no shade, a perfect cross section of people waits for the bus to the beach. Because the Rockaways means beach.

A barrier island ( I think Frank first explained that to me, in a comment here; it seems years ago), a narrow tongue of sand on the other side of Jamaica Bay (think previous posts: - the Wildlife Refuge and Dead Horse Bay), real surf, real sand. 'A' marks the spot: Fort Tilden, a national park. The red line is home to beach. The point of the A is on the Rockaways (which are part of Queens), the round part pretty much over Dead Horse Bay.

On our last trip, while waiting for the bus, a family of beautiful long-legged black girls with small children debated whether to catch a dollar van to the beach. This part of Brooklyn is ill-served by public transport and the vans are prolific. Four pale white boys with hipster haircuts and beards and similar noses toted cloth bags, a bottle of Pimms and a cooler with ice. People of every shade, shape and age jostled to get aboard the bus when it arrived at last.

We cross a bridge, and we are there. Everyone piles off. A walk down a road, the dry-grassy expanse of Fort Tilden, some kind of raucous cooler party happening, with shade tents and music and people jammed around their coolers, a community garden of vegetable plots (we look for Frank's and I can't find it), a baseball diamond, and then an overgrown tar road heading into the sun. We take that. We've already lost everyone else.

We start to see things. Milkweed pods! I collect them for later trials.

The Queen Anne's lace is just starting.

We climb wooden steps up a sandy hill, swatting buzzing things in the heat, and dodge dozens of giant dragon flies zipping about. A graffiti'd (depressing in this case) outlook deck gives us this view over the Atlantic. Behind us we can see Manhattan. To the right, Coney Island in sepia haze.

We follow a sandy path through the brush (wild cherry, beach plum, bayberry) to the beach.

What surprises me is the sound of surf. The old holiday sound of power and sea and sad.

All of Brooklyn's bicycles are at the beach.

We head back into the greenery, avoiding the crowds. Is this asparagus?

Coreopsis has self seeded.

Some rugosa roses have already set hips. Jelly in my future.

A very, very tame bunny.

Thistley thingies. With Eastern swallowtail.

I saw a lot of Russian olives but few green fruit. Another fruit I want to collect in early fall.

Soapwort. Good for itchy skin, applied externally as weak tea. The whole plant and root in particular, boiled in water, make delicate soap. They say. 

And then we trudged back over the bridge, not taking the bus, to check on Dead Horse Bay. It was still there.

The only thing wrong with the day was this. We did not take a picnic. Big. Mistake. By the last hour-plus my back was barking and I was feeling whiney. A baguette with some ham or cheese, a cold beer, a slurp of Kir kept cool in a nifty cool sleeve thingy, hell, even a Coke, and I am sure I would have lasted longer. 

Sitting at our bus stop with a Russian couple with sand on their feet, we could watch the bikers heading for home. It was good to see, flight after flight like some kind of Brooklyn migration, from the apartments and the small spaces to the big blue sea and long white sands and back again.

We will go back. With provisions. In better light.