Thursday, March 31, 2016

Grow Journey seeds are up first!

If spring is a race in the vegetable garden then Grow Journey's Spinach 'Verdil' is the winner, here at Chez Mosquito in Brooklyn. I'm pretty sure the germination rate is about 100%.

I would not have planted spinach this year, because I had back luck with it some years ago on our Cobble Hill rooftop, probably because the plastic troughs were in full sun (and I mean all-day full, sunrise to sunset) and got too hot; plastic makes for poor insulation, and spinach loves cool soil and air. But the welcome surprise element in every Seeds of the Month envelope that arrives in the mail is that some selections nudge me, as I have written before, out of my comfort zone.

Today I started to thin the seedlings, which is a bit heartbreaking: you live! you die! But I washed the rejects all off and ate them. I signed into my Grow Journey account to jog my memory about the 'Verdil' cultivar - one of the valuable features of membership is that your whole seed history is saved - if you forget something or need to learn more about seed you received months before, it is all there for you. 

And what I was looking for was this: "‘Verdil’ was bred by Kultursaat, a German non-profit that uses biodynamic growing techniques. Medium to large arrow-shaped semi-savoy leaves (“semi-savoy” means the leaves have a more upright growth habit to prevent mud splashes and grit, “savoy” types hug the ground more closely to make them more winter hardy)." 

Since grit (rather than absorption) is the real issue in my leaded garden, this is a good thing. Cleaning upright-growing leaves will be so much easier.

Beets! I consider myself too impatient for many root crops, especially where space is at a premium. BUT. I have been doing a lot of reading and writing recently about morogo (the South African edible weed stew), and beet leaves are mentioned often, as a substitute for - ironically - the edible 'weeds' that are also known as morogo. I am hungry for this delicious bowlful. And when I make borscht, I always include the leaves and stems of the beetroot because they are very succulent and have a wonderful flavour. I don't know why they are not sold more often as leafy greens. So the beets in my March envelope were planted this week:'Early Wonder Tall Top.'

Rewind to early February, when I had itchy gardening fingers and could not plant anything outdoors. I sowed my December package of 'Golden Frills' mustard along with some leftover brassicas from last year in a sunny windowsill tray, and ate them a couple of weeks later. This small forest satisfied my garden longings, which are at their worst in late winter, when we all start warm-weather seeds like tomatoes indoors, way earlier than we should.

Peppery. home-grown organic microgreens, cheese, home made sourdough. Very simple, and very good.

Grow Journey offers a free 30-day trial for all US states. You'll also have site-access to read and learn about garden bed preparation techniques for March, including advice about no-till methods, and what mulches and cover crops really mean.)

Garden on!


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Painted weeds

This large first-and-last-edition book arrived in a padded envelope the other day. 

My friend Don had mentioned it: Weeds of Crops and Gardens in Southern Africa, published in 1985. I remember 1985. My braces were off, my contacts were in, and I had my first modeling contract.

I bought it with a click of a mouse. You know me. I like weeds. And I love this book. The illustrations are beautiful - the artist is Barbara Jeppe. I'd love to own some of her prints. I wonder where her originals live? If they live.

Each entry tells you what the weed is, what pestilential effects it has, and how to kill it.

And, occasionally, which bits of it are edible.


Sunday, March 27, 2016

Between the woods and the water

We stopped in at Floyd Bennett Field and its deserted runways. A man was fly fishing in the waters of Jamaica Bay. Other men were flying model airplanes. One crashed.

I walked around to see if anything was growing. Northern bayberries had barely broken bud, but even these nubs were resinously aromatic.

Above, an evening primrose's basal rosette. 

Back in the car and a windy beach hike later, above the high water line at Fort Tilden these tiny seedlings were crowded in the sand. I tasted one - sea rocket. An indigenous shoreline plant with wasabi flavour.  How many will survive on these fragile post-Sandy beaches to reach summer maturity?

We drove through the other-worldly beach community of the Rockaways and turned sharp north again over the bay, crossed Broad Channel, and stopped at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

Pussy willows had broken cover.

The Frenchman spotted this late winter ephemeral carpet before I stomped over it. From our heights of six feet-plus their masses of white flowers were barely visible. The plants are tiny, no more than two inches high, and the flowers are miniature. Draba verna, spring whitlow, introduced, not native. A group on Facebook identified them for me - I was unfamiliar with the plant. Draba belongs to the Brassicaceae family, so is probably edible, though would make for slim pickin's. If you live holed up in the Unabomber woods and are sick of a winter diet of beans and salt pork...maybe. I used a telephoto for these pictures and only saw the seed capsules later, on my computer screen - I bet they taste peppery.

Otherwise it was cold and very little was astir. Our earlier beach picnic was so chilly that I tied a linen napkin over my ears to prevent them from breaking off.

And then it was home again, after a detour though the neighborhood of Manhattan Beach. Lots of Russians, huge houses, and swans.

From the BQE, the Brooklyn skyline, changing fast. The raised subway line in the middle is my ride to Prospect park, from home.

That will be another day.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

Prospect Park Forage Walk


Prospect Park
10 April 2016 (changed from 9 April on account of weather)
12pm - 2pm

Prospect Park is home to a diverse collection of plants, with the orderly fields giving way to wilder sections where invasive edibles flourish. (The route of this walk is the same as last October's in the park, and this is a good opportunity to experience the transformation that a new season brings to a landscape.)

Edible plants we will encounter will include field garlic (the wild answer to garlic, chives and scallions), garlic mustard (like broccoli rabe crossed with garlic), dead nettle (totally edible but terribly boring unless you spike it with soy and chiles), young and tender mugwort (one of my favorite wild herbs), and dandelions, plus many more - every walk is a surprise. Our walk snack will probably feature field garlic in some way...

Garlic mustard

We will identify indigenous plants along  the way, such as serviceberry and pokeweed, and perhaps even May apples, if we get that far.

This walk begins at Prospect Park's western corner (the park is shaped somewhat like a diamond standing on its point) and works east across the Olmsted-designed landscape's midriff. Please note that the end point is not where we begin.

Japanese knotweed

We meet at 12pm sharp at the park entrance at Prospect Park West and Prospect Park Southwest. The F and G stop there at the Prospect Park subway stop. At the other end, the Prospect Park Q stop is close by (and so is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, if you have energy to spare). Details will be emailed to confirmed walkers in the week before the walk.


Monday, March 21, 2016

Growing wild foods at home

In the brown March garden, there are small and exciting signs of wild botanical life. In Harlem last summer I was thrilled to discover a nettle plant growing in a blueberry bush's pot. I don't know how it got there; perhaps the seed was in the soil when the blueberry was field dug by its growers, in New Jersey. Perhaps nettles I collected shed seed, but don't think so. But there it was, and I allowed it to grow fat in the pot.

When we moved to Carroll Gardens I planted it at the back of our new garden, near a stand of existing Solomon's seal (Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum 'Variegatum' - such a mouthful). And now it is up. They are delicious, and full of flavor.  Also hard to find, locally. I only know of one nettle patch in Manhattan. Now two. If you grow nettles snip the mature stalks before or when they set seed, to control  their spread. And you can harvest the spring leaves repeatedly. Blanch in boiling water to de-sting them.

Ha! Also hard to find (if you are a city forager): indigenous sweet fern, Comptonia peregrina. Not a fern at all. It has a very strong scent which I love, and I cook with it as often as I can. I have two shrubs, now, both developing catkins, having made it through winter as well.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

The springing of the year*

I have not been out walking as much as I would have liked, this month. My first park-venture in weeks was to Prospect Park, to see what is happening in this very strange early spring. Above, Lonicera fragrantissima (which it is) - winter honeysuckle. A gorgeous shrub now, non-descript in summer, and very invasive in general. The flowers would be exceptional, caught in an overnight or fermented infusion.

Catkins that I do not recognize, above. A picture of the bark would help, of course. Sorry.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) flowers! This means that the woods in Inwood are alight, right now. I do miss that about living in Harlem - a quick subway ride up to Inwood Hill Park, or a 15 minute walk to Central Park's North Woods. Now, Inwood is 50 minutes way, at least.

Close, but different. Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), a dogwood from eastern Europe. Warmer yellow, with small flowers in umbels.

Ugh, nasty man. Says something, then speeds off. Where's the pepper spray when you need it? 

Invasive and yummy field garlic - no, I didn't collect any. 

A surprise (right after a second nasty man encounter - this one elderly and lurking in the woods we cleaned for that year; a voyeur, hoping for juiciness; I'll spare you the details). But I looked down, and there were these tiny bloodroot flowers. Sanguinaria canadensis. They will be at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, too, easier to see, in the Native Garden.

I walked some more, meeting early chipmunks and returned robins rooting in the leaf litter, and spotting the first tender leaves of elderberry bushes. Lots of litter. And emerging at last in the north, in time for my camera battery to die and my phone to take over:

I cut west and walked home down the streets of Park Slope, past the earliest of cherries, choosing Union to take me home, over the Gowanus ("It doesn't look so bad," said a woman to her friend, watching the water where beige foam spewed from a pipe, to be kept contained behind a floating boom).

* The Springing of the Year - the title of this post is also the title of a uniquely interesting and beautiful book by Gillian Rattray, who kept a water colour-illustrated journal of her observations of plant and animal life on a family farm in then Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), South Africa. I read it as a teenager (it still lives in my Cape Town bedroom). Tragedy later visited the family - her grown son was murdered in the land she loved, not foreshadowed in her botanical illustrations and records of country life.

Friday, March 18, 2016


Yesterday's skies looked like they belonged to the turbulent weather systems of late summer. And this Sunday, snow is expected.

After shopping at Whole Foods (now their daffodils are the cheapest in the hood, two bunches for $5, and their Florida organic strawberries, $3.99 per box, cost less than at Key Food, so the crunch is on - but I digress), I stopped beside the Gowanus Canal.

This sign is very funny. I think they don't want you to smoke because you might set the canal on fire. The greenest supermarket in NY state is beside the most poisonous body of water.

Very healthy bayberries are planted in the new little park that edges the carpark.

And the red chokeberry (Aronia) is still loaded with last year's fruit. Excellent spot for a mini wild foods walk.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Lead remediation in soil

October arugula

Late last year, our soil test results from Cornell University came back. The good: no cadmium, super-low arsenic (that is to say well below the minimum levels that send up red flags). The bad: high lead levels. The lead did not surprise me very much - we live in a highly urban environment, but my heart did sink: I grow plants you can eat. And we had been eating bushelsful of arugula up to that point. Nom-nom, nice lead for dinner. Or so I thought, as I freaked out.

The test also revealed a low soil pH of 5.4 - acidic (pH is short for power of hydrogen, if you've ever wondered). 7 is neutral. Above that the soil is alkaline.

As it turned out, pH is one key to lead remediation:

Low pH makes lead available for absorption by plants, although even then, most plants do not absorb much, if any: root crops the most, leaves next, and fruit - seed bearing parts of the plant - minimal, or none; this 2013 Cornell study was extremely helpful. All my leafy greens? "For lettuce, Pb [lead] levels remained well below the recommended limit even at a soil total Pb concentration of 915mg/kg." That is a lot of lead (we have 560mg/kg. The 'safe' level in NY state is 400mg/kg.)

Still, the lower the pH and the higher the lead levels, the more can be absorbed.

I clung to an early sentence in a less technical article: "Plants generally do not absorb or accumulate lead in quantities that would be of concern." The main risk of having lead in the soil comes in fact not from inside the plant, but from residue on the outside of plants that have not been rinsed very well - dust and grit. Small children crawling or playing in garden dust or soil high in lead, and gardeners who do not wash their hands are also at risk of ingesting lead. 

Thank goodness I wash my leaves well (in a large basin of water, rinse, and repeat)

November fenugreek

After my initial meltdown (when in doubt, panic -it's a great motivator), I read extensively and relaxed a lot. It took some time for me to come down from the very high branches of my panic tree, but now I'm leaning against its trunk, reading a book and sipping a cocktail. No firepersons required. 

Because there is a solution: raising the pH to make it more neutral (7 is neutral) makes lead unavailable to plants. I learned that garden lime was not what I wanted, because it also contains magnesium, and the soil test said the magnesium levels were fine. Excess magnesium stunts and even kills vegetables. So I chose crushed oyster shells, pure calcium, sent over from California by Grow Organic, a company that has the best packing practises I have seen (no plastic, no styrofoam - but they ship slowly, be prepared). 

December arugula and mustard

In November last year I applied 6lbs of crushed oyster shells (it looks like white dust) to our 100 square foot central plot in the garden, which I will be using for edible crops. I dug it in to about six inches. This application rate I gleaned from Steve Masley's Grow it Organically, an unusually helpful gardening site. 

What I do not know is how many points it will raise my soil's pH, which is key. Grow it Organically gives a points-rating for garden lime, but not shells. If my pH was 5.4 before 6lbs of oyster shells, what is it after? Stay tuned. The quality of the soil affects the change: the more organic matter in the soil, the smaller the change, because its acts as a buffer. We have lots of organic matter, says the soil test.

Dry egg shells

Over the winter I also collected egg shells, another excellent source of calcium (after they were dry I stored them in a large mason jar and stomped them down with a wooden spoon handle to make room for more).  

After handcrushing, into the food processor

I pulverized the dry shells in the food processor, and several months' worth yielded 1.5lbs of white powder. It takes several minutes to get the fine powder you want - and open the container outdoors, as there is dust, post whizzing.

Ground eggshells

 Recently I applied those to the sunniest end of the vegetable plot, where planting will begin. 

Eggshells applied, before digging in

Yes, I will have the soil tested again. And I advise anyone curious about what is actually in their soil to do so, too, because the results can be surprising. 

Raised beds are the ideal answer in a heavy metal situation, but that is not an option here, as the cubic feet of potting soil we'd bring in would cost a fortune, which cannot be justified in a rental situation. I could use phytoremediation - using very specific plants like ferns to suck up lead, before disposing (where do you toss them?). I could grow mushrooms - mycoremediation; very effective at removing heavy metals from soil. But I want shorter term results. Hence the sweetening of the soil.

I am immensely relieved to have learned more about soil science, and humbled by how much I still do not know. One could devote a lifetime to it.

Our seeds are arriving, monthly from Grow Journey and a small batch from Botanical Interests. Fava beans and spinach have already been planted in the double-calciumed rows. I am waiting on a fresh batch of oyster shells before planting the rest.

The adventure continues. The show ain't over till the fat possum sings.


Saturday, March 12, 2016

The writing on the wall

The changeable giant wall ads beside the 3rd Street Bridge spanning the Gowanus Canal are painted by hand. We have often wondered, the Frenchman insisting theywere painted, but me swearing they were stuck on, in sheets (if I'd visited Colossal Media's website earlier that would have settled the argument).

We see them when we walk back and forth on our way to Whole Foods, where we shop every week or two (mostly for a limited palette of: affordable organic chicken, local greens and those New Jersey tulips - on sale today, three bunches in tight bud for $12).

The picture above was taken with my new phone, a very generous gift from the Frenchman who gives presents on his birthday. I am very happy with it - an Android again, the super-smart Samsung Galaxy S7. There is now minimal difference between it and its iPhone peers (which I always lusted after, but no longer), and now the Samsung's camera is arguably better - so it won the coin toss.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

What month is it?

The perils of not posting in a timely manner: I took this photograph one week ago, Friday. March 4th. A dusting of snow that melted by the next morning. Now no one will believe me.

Because we sat at that table outside for supper last night. 25'C/74'F. I had ordered 12lbs of boerwors as birthday present for the Frenchman and we ate it (no, not all of it!) under the stars and the incongruous buzz of our neighbors' air conditioner. Beeskwee (Biscuit), our other neighours' dog, kept us company, leaning against her fence at the back (top of picture), and sniffing our sausage smoke appreciatively.

Strange times at Chez Mosquito.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Signs and portents

I sat outside to drink my morning coffee, for the first time this year. Inbetween sips I checked the lily bulbs that overwintered in open baggies (closed are too moist) in the crisper drawer in the fridge. 85% success rate. These were in pots and will go back into pots - the others are in-ground, and the next month will tell how they fared. The soil does not drain very well, here. Sunlight has returned to the last six feet of the garden, and increases every day.

In the front gardens of the Italian houses here, crocuses and Roman Catholicism thrive.

In Bay Ridge, which we visited over the weekend, early cherries are breaking bud.

Manhattan from a pier.

In Owls Head Park the beech trees are enormous, and filigreed with buds.

Two ladies foraged, but would not speak English to me. Field garlic, I think.

In Bay Ridge's suburban streets giant plane trees stand over the sidewalks, swallowing dog signs.

And: above the poisoned Gowanus (our Brooklyn Venice), opposite Whole Foods with its rooftop-grown Gotham Greens, beside a cement factory, kale thrives

While above Carroll Gardens geese are heading north, their calls high above the city. Do they know that February was the hottest month on record, on the planet? And that before that January was the hottest month on record, on the planet? And that before that December was the hottest month on record? On the planet?

Or that today's temperature - 74'F/24'C - is setting a new record high for March? In New York?