Thursday, July 30, 2015

Harlem Alpines

The Alpine strawberries keep strawberrying. Luckily, the squirrels are not interested in them, despite their strong and delicious perfume (the strawberries', not the squirrels'). If you have the space for a long row, plant them, and gather more than my twice-weekly breakfast handful from three small, six-inch pots.

Two of these tough little plants survived our last winter, and one grew from seed, from last year's dropped fruit. They were puny in April and are now plush and prolific (p-p-p-p!).

Off topic: Tomorrow is the last day to enter the giveaway of my book on Amazon (call it a goodbye Harlem, hello Brooklyn gesture). There will be two winners. If you are a US resident, head over there if you'd like to try your luck.

[Update: whoops, both prizes have been claimed - that was quick. Hopefully I can do another in the fall.]

Monday, July 27, 2015

No plant left behind

One of the herbs planted in the built-in wooden boxes on the edge of the Harlem terrace is Calamintha nepeta.  It has been planted in my city gardens ever since I learned how long-blooming it is: few perennials will flower from June till frost.

Honey bees and other insects love the tiny white flowers.

The leaves are intensely minty, and the cut stems last well in water. The plant tolerates some drought, and loathes to have wet feet. Here, it receives only four hours of direct sun, and it has grown huge. The specimen above traveled with us from Brooklyn in late 2013, and it is now going...all the way back (we just signed a lease on a garden apartment in Carroll Gardens). I have transplanted it and another into a galvanized bucket. Calamintha, on the move.

So - there is the same wooden planter, empty of perennials ( we are still eating the parsley), and there are the two calaminthas on the deck, waiting for moving day. The bees do not mind the change in elevation. But in a week or two they will be buzzing hungrily.

How we move those tall Nicotiana mutabilis without snapping them is another story. Tears before bedtime.

The buckets. Why? They are quite cheap, and they are light. And I find them inoffensive aesthetically, once the stickers are off. Much better than plastic, and lighter and cheaper than terra cotta. I am worried about moving-weight for the big terra cotta pots. In our new place we may want to house plants for a while in their containers while we settle in, and I won't mind looking at galvanized metal.

There's a hole in my bucket, dear... All the buckets need to keep plants happy is a drainage hole. Easily achieved with a hammer and a pointy thing. This unscrewable hammer with smaller screwdriver heads within the handle is the kind of tool that makes real craftspeople wince. But I've used this one for about 15 years and I refuse to be shamed. The smallest screwdriver head makes the hole and the larger ones wiggle it wider.

I'd have made an excellent caveperson. As long as people let me stay in my cave until I was ready to leave.

Friday, July 24, 2015


I did not know, in May, when I ordered statuesque annuals whose growth peaks in late summer, that we would have to move in August. Lock, stock, and smoking terra cotta.

After last winter killed off all our boxwoods and a blueberry I decided to fill their big pots with annuals, this year. Less expensive. But I wanted height, a presence. Last year's purchased (Seedman) Nicotiana mutabilis seed's enjoyed a 100% germination failure rate, and this year I found these, from Annie's Annuals. A garden design client had asked about ordering plants online and I - a devotee of local garden shops and growers - was disparaging about quality, before I thought I should investigate further. So I guinea pigged myself.

These four inch pots arrived in early May, their soil still damp with Bay Area water, and held in place with ingenious covers and elastic bands and cardboard separators. 

A few of the large, fragile leaves were broken, but I repotted the plants right away, watered them well, and within a couple of weeks they had doubled in size. Their lowest leaves are now over two feet in length, and the most advanced plant is taller than I am. Internet plants get the green light. At least, these do.

The buds open white.

A pale blush begins in the flower.

...and after another day there is rose. 

I had fallen in love with this nicotiana after seeing a clump of them in my mother's Cape Town garden, backlit in the dawn light of a jetlagged morning and subsequently at the BBG.

The subsidiary flower stems grow longer, and cantilever over the broad leaves below.

At night they are lightly scented.

Apart from their vertical interest and fat tropical stricture on the Harlem terrace they are also meant to lure hummingbirds. Like the jewelweed, the agastache, the blablabla.

The smaller, green Nicotiana langsdorfii seeded freely from last year's planting, but - curiously - not a single N. sylvestris came up. Many seeds must have been shed last summer, despite my deadheading.

For now, the tall tobacco plants behave as they did in my spring dreams.

Tall, delicate. Magnets for large bees.

Subject to change.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Lilium superbum, North Woods

If you hustle, you will catch a glimpse of this stand of Lilium superbum in a southern, meadowy fringe of Central Park's North Woods.

It has been a privilege, during our nearly two-year sojourn in Harlem, to be close to Central Park, whose northern edge is a 15 minute walk south from home.  I have spent a lot of time in the North Woods, on my own, or leading wild plant walks. If we leave Harlem in our imminent move, I will miss this proximity to our urban wildness.

Grow these brilliant American tiger lilies/swamp lily/turks-caps in full sun or high shade, with dappled sunlight. They prefer damp ground. Once established they top six feet in height and are good paired with ironweed (Vernonia novaboracensis) and blue vervain (Verbena hastata).

Monday, July 20, 2015

Greenmarket therapy

On Saturday, after a thunderstorm interrupted my edible wild plant walk for the Peninsula Hotel, I decided to play hooky. I fled our relentless apartment hunt, bug-eyed from square footage, poor lighting, 10 square feet of outdoor space, and real estate double speak. I headed south to Union Square for the best sort of distraction: good food shopping.

I always scout the whole market first, for pictures and a pre-shop calculation, then circle back to the beginning to buy. I knew what I wanted: It is currant season, and my gin jars are empty.

Gorgeous new potatoes. We think of them as winter vegetables, but summer is when they are dug, when their leaves turn mottled and ratty.

Tiny aubergines/eggplant went into my bag and we grilled them for supper.

Fat garlic. Ajo blanco season is upon us ( if you have my book the recipe is in the July chapter).

Hills of beans.

And the last of the sour cherries, as the first plums come in. Pluots, far right.

Real peaches.

I pounced on the pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea). I have been wanting to infuse some for my Northeastern-flavored vermouth. And now I am... It will be the third vermouth batch and there is plenty of experimenting to do, with about 20 botanicals involved.

I had to buy one box of chanterelles for the Frenchman. He remembers hunting them in France as a child.

At the same stand I squeaked when I saw the day lily buds. At last! Word is spreading about these vegetable treats and I am happy about my small part in it. But: If you have never eaten them before, sample only a few and wait a day. Some people experience an upset stomach if they eat a lot. It may be an allergic reaction. I have never had a problem, and neither do most people. Eat them raw in salad, pickle them, cook them. Raw, they taste a little like slightly peppery, oniony cucumbers. But mostly like day lilies.

Photogenic sunflowers.

Forty minutes after arriving I squeezed from a sauna-like subway platform onto a packed 6 local train and rode it all the way home to Harlem, a heavy bag over one shoulder and a wide tray of black currants clutched under my other arm. Perspiring in a discrete trickle down my spine.

Half the black currants are now in gin - when they have made it purple and wonderful I will strain it and turn them into my favourite chutney. The rest will become jam. The mushrooms were eaten on toast, the tomatoes with basil from the terrace and most of the other fruit wolfed straight up after a rinsing.

Otherwise, it's business as usual. Looking for  a new place with private outdoor space for our outdoor dining selves and my plant proclivities. Some of the best leads have come from friends and readers, Facebookers and Instagrammers; and there have been several generous offers of temporary accommodation for ourselves and for our plants. We appreciate each of them. Thank you.

Keep the suggestions coming, and keep your fingers crossed.

Saturday, July 18, 2015


Leaning out and extending an arm I can take a side view picture of the bean screen.  The gloriosa lilies (Gloriosa superbum) planted in late spring at the base of the birch poles rocketed straight up and over the top, and have been in bloom for three long weeks. They are natural ramblers, indigenous to the understoreys of the southeastern coast of South Africa and parts farther north.

Above: this was how it looked in May, with emerging seedlings and shoots hidden under pots from the digging squirrel.

In previous years I lost the long gloriosa tubers to the rot caused by the freeze-thaw cycle. So late last fall I dug them up and they overwintered with some forbidden peatmoss in unzipped ziplock bags in our cold (c-c-c-c-cold) bedroom, near a leaky window (extra c-c-c-cold). (The real lilies - Lilium formosanum, and 'Silk Road' overwintered in the crisper drawer in the fridge.)

The gloriosas must be unearthed soon, in their prime, for our move. I will have to repot them in something portable, and very awkwardly, given their size. They need to keep growing for the leaves to feed the tubers for next season's performance. The frustrating thing is that they will be making new tubers, too, and I think the upheaval will mean that all this activity turns to toast.

The beans are doomed. Unplanting and saving them for a yet-to-be-found garden space would be Sisyphean. They were planted in May:

The scarlet runners have made flowers but no beans yet, and the lablabs we will not see. But we have enjoyed several crops of the purple pole beans ('Trionfo Violetto,' from Botanical Interests). And I am leaving some very fat pods to save seeds for a future I can't imagine, from where I sit right now.

Below,  a quick-pickled beet Caprese with buffalo mozzarella, Persian cucumbers and straight-up pole beans.

Our upstairs neighbor, Wolfgang, will take pictures of the terrace with us on it next week, and I will ask for another one when it is empty. The contrast will be interesting. He works in black and white only, which is how I feel.  He too, has not had his lease renewed.  It has been good to share space with him. My sourdough baking was inspired by feeding his starter while he traveled, and we have lapped up a few bottles of his own olive oil, pressed in Italy from his own olive trees (they are sick, this year, and their future, too, is uncertain).

So that's the bean screen scene.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

No tigers in the rain

At least the plants have no idea what's coming. They liked the sudden rain.

I am not a tropical plant person. Does anyone know what these are? They have been living indoors but I put them out for the shower.

[Thank you, Kath (comments): Maranta leuconeura, prayer plant - and they do hold their leaves upright at night. From Brazil.]

Monday, July 13, 2015

To move a garden

This morning's crops. The nasturtiums have just begun to bloom - they are growing in the built-in wooden planters, with the beans. Neither will make the move with us. The three Alpine strawberry plants are in pots, and are portable. Two came up from self-sown seed, and one survived the last, hard winter.

Soon, I must cut down the three beans (scarlet runner, lablab and purple pole - about 10 plants), planted in May, so that I can take down the birch pole screen. The lablabs have not begun to bloom yet - their peak is from late August.

This snail vine, grown from seed my mom sent from her vine, was growing in the wooden planters but I transplanted it and its friends as soon as I heard we had lost our lease. No snail vine left behind.

The gloriosa lilies will have to be unplanted very carefully. Their tubers are about 10" long and breakable, and they are at their peak of bloom. Not a good time to disturb them.

The annual jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), which has just begun to flower, and planted to attract hummingbirds, as it did last year, will not move with us. I will cut it down, soon. It is very tall now - 4', and will move poorly: the pots are very big, so I may empty the soil for easier carrying.

The lilies that share space with the jewelweed will have to be planted temporarily in smaller pots, so that their leaves can continue to feed the bulbs for next year.

The cardinal vines grown from seed will only bloom in late September and I'd like to bring one or two, so I managed to untrain them and this Roguchi clematis from their wire screen over the skylight and re-train them onto a bamboo teepee in a pot. The cardinal vines were also planted for hummingbirds (maybe we should leave a forwarding GPS coordinate for them?).

News will come in sporadic bursts. I am not brimming over with warm, fuzzy feelings.