Saturday, March 31, 2012


Saturday, and the real weather of March has returned, chilly, wet, the terrace sounding like a ship at sea, creaking and rattling and yielding at the edges to gusts that sweep the silvertop. But these blossoms and this blue were yesterday, on my long, long circumference of the neighborhood in search of organic potting soil. At Tony's on Smith the little bags were $16.99. I turned tail. At Bruno's on Court (the smaller of two Bruno's - why are there two?), the big bags were $8.99. I had a pleasant conversation about organic soil needs with the pleasant counterperson and he waived the delivery fee. An hour later a big bag plus three small terra cotta pots were delivered by a puffing guy with a hand truck, and my planting could begin afresh.

The catch is: It's Whitney Farms. Still a nice soil. Still owned by Scott's. The deli had run out of Organic Mechanics. Big fat, "Baaaap!". Striiiike ooooooout. Greedy gardener, I settled.

The blossoms made me feel better. Washed my compromised soul.

This is the little park around the corner in which I have never sat. It's hard to explain. It's always quite full, and I like walking through it. Something to do with listening to the Cobble Hill stroller mothers converse. Me me me me my my my my. Zzzzzz. It make my teeth itch. So I keep moving.

And here is the crabapple right outside our front door. Only a week early, by my records. I grew up with a huge crabapple, just this colour, in Bloemfontein. My first little garden (apart from the vegetable patch out back) was underneath it. I learned deep shade early. Violets, white; elephant ears...and that is all I remember. I love my elephant ears. I loved the violets. I also used to make little fires there, after scratching a hole at the edge of the lawn in the soil where grass could no longer grow in that dark shade. Dry willow twigs, matches, and cheese toasted smokily on a stick. My mother said she knew about the fires. A streak of fire bugness in the family. One of my brothers burned the bamboo forest down, and before that my father's study. I managed to set the laundry alight, in my wax-dripping passions. Old wine bottles, wax stalactites around the edges. But we survived.

Today, wet, cold, 8,000 miles away from all that, the terrace pots are tucked up. The new clematis, tiarella, geranium and thalictrum are planted. Still waiting on some lilies. And I have trays and trays of seeds snuggled inside.

Time to turn to inward pursuits, which gardening so often keeps healthily at bay...

Friday, March 30, 2012

Bare root roses

I realize now that if I make myself a cup of tea while I am gardening there is serious business to be accomplished, and a commitment made: to stay out there until it is done. It's like taking a deep breath. To whit: my beloved, loyal, gorgeous Abraham Darby had to be ripped from its pot. 

It has overcome disease (die back, above) for years and I have not been able to bring myself to discard it. Even as I prepared to cut its roots I saw these brand new buds. Like a sunny face concealing deep, deep trouble. Same plant. In the end, once I had wrestled it from the urnshaped terra cotta and been speared by three thorns which broke off in me (sip of tea), I caved in and repotted it, watered it, apologized to it. I will move it to the roof. Technically roses are edible, right? Right. Only edibles are  allowed on the roof. And I need the terrace to be extra pretty this year. More about that, later.

The reason for the move - my bare root roses had arrived from David Austin, via Texas.  A replacement Abraham Darby, and deep red Munstead Wood. Their shipping box was deeply dented but the roses looked alright, if alien, and were still wet. 

I soaked them for two hours and potted them up. I would have paid extra for instant gratification - buying planted roses, in bloom - but of course it is too early in the season, and neither variety is available potted. I'm a little nervous about how the bare root roses will perform. Hold thumbs.

Munstead Wood, above, is now near the fig, on the right of the terrace, and Abraham Darby II is on the left.

Bloom on.

Here's a retrospective of the original Abraham Darby:


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Organic Mechanics

I am having some potting mix issues.

After my anti Miracle Gro rant I have been testing some different mixes. One of them is Organic Mechanics, made in Pennsylvania. It has an impressive organic pedigree.

It has mulch-like chunks of bark in it (above, with cucumber seed), which I find myself picking out. Whether or not the chunks affect a seed's ability to push through to the light is perhaps debatable - plants do it in the wild all the time. But seed starting mix suggests, to me, smooth friability. I had the same to say after last year's experiment with the awful Miracle Gro organic mix (in which my seedlings later turned yellow). The organic product I have liked best so far, is still Whitney Farms. Owned guessed it: Big Blue Brother. Oy. And I have also used some Fafard Complete Planting Mix, which I love. But it contains peat.

I like the Lower East Side Ecology Center's worm compost, but I aint' going to hop on the subway every time I need some. It would be wonderful if it was stocked by local stores. I have already begged two hardware stores to have organic options available and we'll see. Now I'm off to GRDN to see what they have in stock (and I need another clematis, a boxwood and extras). I asked about grow bags there recently and the sales girl told me that grow bags didn't "go with the aesthetic of GRDN". Really? I wonder if she knew what they are. But I didn't feel like pursuing it. I am increasingly drawn to them, for lightweight edible growing, and as a plastic-alternative.


Taco night

I have developed a taco habit. And I like flour tortillas, rather than corn; pan-toasted, then kept warm in a linen napkin. I had a Mexican boyfriend a long time ago, and his mother sent flour tortillas up from Monterrey. They were flaky and rich, delicious even for breakfast, with honey.

The filling for these tacos could be pork or chicken, but it has to be cooked with orange, tomato (some spoons of spicy jam in this case, made by this blogger who mailed it from Germany, in thanks for strawberry plants, mailed the other way), onion, garlic and dried poblanos. I added cinnamon sticks and fresh oregano to the pot. Cooked long and slow, till the sauce has reduced. The toppings are vegetables cut into matchsticks and pickled fast, in half an hour or so. This time some sunchokes in lime and salt and sugar, and carrots and celery in vinegar. Sour cream (Cabot Creamery's is smooth as silk) and cilantro.

Fold, eat, drip. Sip (some cold beer).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Forager's test kitchen

Well, now, that makes me think about creating a forager's pin up calendar. A manly arm. A handful of field garlic. Riaow!

Our haul: field garlic (Allium vineale), day lilies (Hemerocallis fulva) and garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

Day lily tubers, post rinsing. Many foragers eat the cooked shoots and I remain a little hesitant after hearing more than one story about upset stomachs. The tubers had no ill effect on us whatsoever, raw or cooked, nor do the flower buds, come early summer.

Cooked (boiled, then sauteed in butter) the tubers are a cross between young potatoes and sunchokes - more glassy than mealy potatoes. The wilted and olive oil-sauteed garlic mustard was on the good side of bitter, like intense broccoli rabe. Its flowers were not out yet and the buds are milder.

Baby back ribs roasted with lemon on a bed of field garlic greens and bulbs.

Beef short ribs roasted with soy and field garlic. 

Then a momentous curry made with the leftover short ribs. This was killer. I used dried lime - my first time using this wonderful spice - and the meat cooked in coconut milk spiked with cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and chile. With field garlic, of course! The recipe will go next door when I've retrieved it from my note book.

And the all-important, now staple pickles. 

And it's only March...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Inwood Hill Park

We go up to this big park at Manhattan's northern tip a couple of times a year, beginning in early spring, for field garlic foraging. The woods are often empty and field garlic grows in huge clumps under the trees. In previous years the branches overhead have been laced in pale green - on Saturday they were still bare, despite our early spring.

I had never seen all the spicebush flowers, and had no idea how concentrated the small trees are, up here. Lindera benzoin has those bright red berries that I picked last year on Staten Island. They have a strong, citrusy flavour and are good  for baking and macerating.

A couple walking their dog pointed up and showed us a great horned owl roosting on a broken branch (you can see her or him better, here). 

Clearly this was its usual roost as the forest below was littered with droppings and owl pellets - the upchucked wads of feather and fur that constitute the indigestible bits of its dinner and lunch. We assume that the owl is the reason that the "widow maker" - the large, hanging branch - has not been removed. There was much evidence, elsewhere of the sawing of downed limbs, probably from the wet snow we had last October. Many trees down, and woodchips in drifts. 

I was delighted to find many of these pretty early wildflowers, a bleeding heart relative known as Dutchman's breeches: Dicentra cucullaria. In a park where invasives such as ivy, periwinkle, day lilies, field garlic and garlic mustard are going strong it was surprising to see this pristine swathe of ephemeral native flowers.

And a little farther I was stopped by a swirling forest floor.

A man sitting on a log looked up as I stared at the patterns and smiled, so I knew he must have made them. I'll post some more of his work, later.

On top of the hill the Hudson was visible at last. Usually we walk a different route, but on my day lily hunt we ventured deeper into the park, instead of sticking to its watery edges.

A plague of periwinkle choked much of the forest up here.

Day lilies. Hemerocallis fulva. Many. A bonanza of buds in June. I collected some tubers.

And the best looking field garlic, from a new patch. It was easy to pull up, so that we could aim for the fattest leaves and tug, so much simpler to sort, later, when cleaning them for pickling and cooking. Pickled, they are Vince's garnish of choice, now, in his martinis. He never drank martinis before he met me. What have I done? They're not really martinis, with the onion element, so I'll call them field gibsons. Are cocktails proper nouns? Field Gibsons?

What to do with your bag while foraging. Find a branch, of course. It contained our lunch. And paper bags. And more cameras.

These old lamps line many paths. All shattered, inviting one to contemplate a time when the park was valued by the city it served and the lamps were intact.

An altar! Clearly. At first Vince was drawn to this rock thinking a raptor perched high above had fouled it. Another owl? But closer inspection revealed white feathers, wax, coins, a piece of candy and what I am certain was dried streams of dried blood. A sacrifice in the woods. I have seen something similar in Prospect Park, left behind by the only woman I have ever seen in that forest, who left cowrie shells and coins in her wake (cowrie shells - that's another story: How I evicted the beaded lizard from my life, which promptly changed course). Possibly evidence of a Santeria ceremony. The earth around the rock was scuffed clean in the otherwise leaf-cracking forest, so some traffic was involved. Inwood has a significant Dominican population - Santeria  hails from the Caribbean by way of West Africa.

With bags filled with reeking garlic and garlic mustard and lily bulbs we swung back around towards the way we had come, following the Harlem River back east. The bridge connects Manhattan to the mainland (otherwise known as The Bronx).

Above, serviceberry in flower.

And back in civilization, near the ballfields, a decidedly more domestic weeping cherry.

Baguettes and pate and pickles and Chenin blanc.

Two sentinel cherries on either side of the wide baseball diamonds, where bats and balls met and Saturday was in full recreational swing, with Spanish the lingua franca.

We'll be back in June.

Clear yellow

While there are daffodils, I shall have daffodils. 

A hard freeze last night. Poor buds. Frozen slugs.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Class on edible gardening

Strawberry "Fern"

A reminder that in April and May I'll be giving a class at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden: Edibles on the Edge.

As the blurb says:

From pea shoots to strawberries, get tips on growing, harvesting, and eating four seasons of staple and unusual herbs, vegetables, and fruit in a small urban space. Learn intensive edible gardening methods that work on even the tiniest terrace.

Classes: April 15th and 22nd, from 2pm - 5pm. May 20th, 1pm - 4pm.

Register on the BBG's website. Fill the room! I fear the Void. I'll bring cookies?

Monday, the last in March

Happy Monday.

We spent Saturday in Inwood Hill Park, eschewing our usual route to the river and walking on paths new to us. We met friendly strangers who showed us an owl perched sleepily on a high, hanging limb (a "widow maker" in forestry parlance), and another who draws geometry on the forest floor. We found flowers and field garlic amongst the dry winter leaves and daylily bulbs and garlic mustard, too. Low branches meeting above our heads were bowers of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) in pale yellow bloom. The park, where broken wrought iron lamp poles seemed post apocalyptic along the crumbling paths, was empty in its wooded depths and filled with baseball players on its lawned fringes.

Sunday, and much gardening. Funny, for such a small place. Horticultural and practical issues were addressed. Then field garlic was cleaned, supper cooked and eaten, with some hilarity and backtalk from the cat.

Now it is Monday, and we must be serious again.

Hopefully, in the pauses, Ill be able to post some pictures from the forest at Manhattan's northern tip. Come back and visit again tomorrow...

(And protect your seedlings, if you have any, locally. A freeze is coming.)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

How to protect buds against a freeze?

 Chilly Sunday gardening...

The blueberry has been moved to the roof, to join the currant (in bloom) and black raspberry. This involves a black bag and a Frenchman and some hauling. The blueberry was heavy. An ailing rose has been taken from its pot, to await my David Austin shipment. In a fit of remorse I moved the rose to the roof, too. I fed the two climbing roses, and placed a pot in a new and exciting spot for another clematis: My New Dawn is not very happy - it needs to be in the ground - and the clematis will climb up the bare lower canes and fluff things out a little. Lilies and a fall anemone from the big, cracked terra cotta pot have been repotted, and I have moved the resented pink hardy begonia to the steps of the building. We just never clicked. I'd still like a white one. The remaining plants are now in a new terra cotta pot, slightly larger. Yes, I know. It may also crack. Roll with the punches.

The shoots of the Silk Road lilies are huge and fat, and I was nervous about snapping them off during the transplanting. I set out slug traps last night because I had seen a tell-tale nibble on a smaller emerging lily. It would be devastating to lose these so early in the year: Several seasons of growth have made them tall and increasingly floriferous. Despite hating them that first year - a bonus bulb from The Lily Garden, and I thought them very brash - they are now a flower I love very much. One hungry slug and kaput. My traps were five, the bait was beer, and guess how many slugs I caught in 66 square feet? 46!!!


I'll repeat tonight. Vince is very worried about his beer. But the slugs impress him.

Speaking of nights. Have you seen what temperatures are going to do tomorrow night in this neck of the woods? 27'F predicted. Quite a problem. It's actually normal for this time of year but we've had weeks of warm, late April, even late May, in March. So now I have rose buds! I have embryonic figs, for goodness' sake. I really think I must haul the fig down off the side of the terrace and keep it on the sheltered gravel floor. Perhaps cover it with a kikoi. Then again, the first, breba fig crop usually drops off the tree, anyway, so perhaps I should relax.

I thought how Florida citrus and, I think, strawberry farmers spray their crops with water before an untimely freeze. Perversely the ice protects the plants. They spray water at 34'F and repeat all night, so that the ice builds up in layers. Should I try this with my roses? Or are they too tender? I'm really worried that I will lose all these tiny Iceberg buds. This will be their big flush. What about my currant blossoms? The seed trays will come inside. Sea rocket, tomatoes, ground cherries and cucumbers have begun to germinate.

And what about the rest of New York's spring streets?

Tense times for the green fingered and botanically sensitive.

And now I have a few hundred field garlic bulbs to prepare for pickling.Whoo hoo. The downside of yesterday's foraging. Cleaning. Maybe I can watch a movie while I work. And have a drink.

Things are looking up.

The Edible Balcony

A new book.

I don't lap up a gardening book that often. But British garden writer Alex Mitchell's The Edible Balcony was an unexpectedly satisfying find (you can read my interview with her  - last summer - here). I stumbled upon it in my local book shop when I was looking for another book, and pounced. Why? Because there's a picture of my terrace in it (Squee!), and while I had seen a pdf of the layout I was very curious to see how it looked like in print. Verdict? Luscious. Because all the images are beautifully printed. And that's not always the case.

The photos - of balconies, mini farms, fruit and vegetable crops - are very well curated, alongside ideas that make you itch to get digging. Whether you are a veteran or a novice gardener, Alex's book has gardening alchemy. I know this stuff, but sometimes you just want to see it spread beautifully on the page. The Edible Garden is published in the US by Rodale and Kyle Cathie in the UK. Stunning book.

Oh, the drink above? Aged tequila whizzed up with Haagen Dazs lemon sorbet and a squeeze of lime. Trashy goes deluxe. She has drinks in her book, too. They gave me ideas.