Saturday, July 4, 2020

Terrace life and an unhappy lime

Summer is here. And it is warm. Also wet (well, not in this morning picture). July has been as stormy as June was dry.

This weekend's project is to re-pot - again (it was root-pruned in January) -  one of the Thai limes: just to the left of the frame. Something is wrong. Some die-back on twigs. And it has failed to thrive, after putting out a burst of blossoms some weeks ago. Not a good sign at all. 

My only theory is possible root rot. That's when soil remains wet and unoxygenated, and a fungus attacks the roots. Usually fatal unless addressed fast, although I did rescue the Meyer lemon from a similar fate earlier this year. It involves removing all damaged roots (when they disintegrate in your hands you know your root rot diagnosis was correct), washing them off and repotting in a clean pot with fresh potting mix. You water it once and then allow it dry. Out. Completely. Citrus really hate being damp. 

I have been so careful with watering but possibly our storms with straight-down rain, plus a combination of a possible drainage issue in the lime's pot, have complicated things. So, time for intervention.

I have ordered some Organic Cactus Mix from Espoma - it is designed to drain well. I did try a nursery for it, first, but Mr. Billionaire Bezos does deliver the goods. It will arrive today, at the door.  Yesterday it was ladybugs. That's another story.

But now I am telling you all my troubles and that wasn't my intention. Growing citrus never gets boring. 


Sunday, June 28, 2020

The great windowbox makeover

27 June 2020

On the first steamy weekend of late June the windowboxes on the Windsor Terrace are looking good. To the north of us cumulus clouds gather like folds of dangerous whipped cream. We feel like we are in the eye of the pavlova. (Stay with me, we're about to make sense.) It is definitely summer.

14 March 2020

The windowboxes weren't that happy in March. After a year's service their coir linings were disintegrating and looked like rats' nests (I have never actually seen a rat's nest; am I being unfair?). I would never buy anything with coir again. But these were the most reasonable planters I could find, and live with, in spring 2019. There are seven of them. Their black iron cages matched the black railing, and I faced the coir outwards, so it wouldn't offend us. But maybe it offended the neighbors? The other thing I hated was how fast water poured through the coir. No retention at all. I always emphasize how important good drainage is for plants, but, as my father would say if he were around to say it: Not that goddamn good.

14 March 2020

So in cold March this year I removed: the soil, the single layer of black landscape fabric I had lined the coir with (to help prevent soil washing through to the neighbor's ground-floor garden), and the coir. It was a painstaking process. Result, empty boxes. I then searched fruitlessly for every kind of liner to insert into the frames. I looked even for cheap plastic windowboxes to slip in. Nothing. But in my search I did find mention of burlap. An idea.

18 March 2020

It was a layer cake approach (I never crave sweet things but that's twice now in one post). I used one-inch chicken wire and folded it into forms to fit the frames. Prickly business, especially with cold hands. 

18 March 2020

Then an outer layer of double-folded burlap (and in two cases, sheet moss gathered from a friend's log, upstate, followed by the burlap), and finally an inner layer of a thicker, double-folded landscape fabric. Its visible edges would be hidden by growing plants, I hoped. Pansies, arugula seeds and a mesclun salad mix - a bonus packet from a Botanical Interests order. And some more chicken wire against the squirrel/s, to whom fresh soil is irresistible (it has been very effective - removed once plants fill out). The double layer of fabric has proved much more effective at holding moisture longer in a dry planter. 

23 May 2020

The mesclun came up, the pansies settled in (slowly - it was an exceptionally cool and cloudy May), and I added some strawberry plants. This terrace receives far more sun than I had estimated when we first moved here, and it's always only in Year Two that you really begin to figure things out. This is our second summer. So I wanted strawberries again - the ones in our first Cobble terrace (the original 66 square feet), were incredibly productive (although I can't find that cultivar anymore; it was called 'Fern' and it seems to have been discontinued).

2 June 2020

We began to eat little lettuce leaves.

21 June 2020

In June the lettuces leaves grew big enough to become wraps. 

27 June 2020

At the end of May I had swapped the pansies for summer fillers, choosing as a theme deeply predictable but very dainty white petunias. I wanted a change from last summer. And flowers that would be luminous as well as scented in the evenings, when we spend the most time on the terrace.  

I added a warm yellow portulaca - I grew it last year (vivid orange) - low-fuss, hardy, and popping with flowers. In the boxes nearer the windier, western edge of the terrace I tucked small lavender plants, and transplanted summer savory from last year's saved seed. Chamomile I had forgotten about germinated.

The strawberries are making strawberries. In fact, today some are ripe (too sunny for a good picture - I must wait for evening).

The portulaca began to spill, as intended.

And now the boxes seem svelte, at last. 

It is a pleasure to reach out a hand to crush some lavender, or summer savory, to smell their strong fresh scent. 

The salad up there has leaves from the terrace only: two kinds of shiso, three kinds of basil, mint, and the windowbox lettuces. It was a foil for the soy-bathed skirt steak grilling on the braai, out of the frame, stage left.

At supper now, the fireflies are beginning to light up in the gardens below. Mosquitoes have appeared down there too, and they keep people indoors at night. Not a bad thing. Very few make the climb to our level. Two American kestrels living nearby keep us entertained, and we watch for a lone black skimmer who sails past to the west every evening. Once, an osprey flew right over us. Heading home from the lake in Prospect Park.

And that is the windowbox story, three months in the making, to the backdrop of lockdown jitters, new nightly fireworks, and the extraordinary ferment (as opposed to foment, which has negative connotations) of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Things are happening. 

But garden on.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Summer Greens

It is June and amaranth is in season in New York. You can buy it now by the bunch at farmers markets, sold as amaranth or callaloo (callaloo is a Caribbean catch-all that could also refer to taro leaves). 

Or you can collect the tender tips, leaves and unripe green seedheads - source of the pseudo-grain seeds - in your garden and or in wild places where it is known much less properly as pigweed. 

Regardless, it is a delicious cooked green.

This recipe is from the amaranth chapter of Forage, Harvest, Feast, and it makes the most of the first farmers market tomatoes, ripe and unripe, and soft, creamy fresh mozzarella. Read a bit more about amaranth in the intro to that chapter, because there is lots to know. 

Other recipes there include Amaranth Breakfast Tacos, Amaranth Greens with Sumac Schwarma Spice, Preserved lemon and Pigweed Pesto, Amaranth and Caramelized Onions on Toast, Amaranth Callaloo, Amaranth and Sheep Sorrel Chicken Bredie (for South Africans), and Amaranth and Spiced Lamb Stew.

Now I'm hungry...   


Saturday, June 20, 2020

Once upon a rhododendron

I nearly gave the rhododendron away.

And I was a bad friend. And a bad wife.

Will you adopt it? I asked my friend Hannah earlier in early May. She has a beautiful and semi-shady garden in nearby Park Slope, with room for plants to spread. Yes! she said. We started talking about drop-off dates.

The rhododendron is substantial and lives in a huge pot, one of only three plastic pots on the terrace. That was supposed to be temporary, and only for our move from 1st Place to this apartment (October 2018); the huge, tall terra cotta pot (which had moved with us from Harlem!) that had been the rhodi 's home in that big backyard garden was too heavy - around 90 lbs - to haul up two flights of stairs. I wasn't going to do that to the Frenchman (I don't trust movers with plants).

But then it stayed in the plastic moving pot. Sitting there. Not really doing anything. Big and wide. On a tiny terrace. And too near the braai's heat to make sense.

So this year, thinking acquisitive citrus tree thoughts (I think I have a citrus habit), I asked Hannah if she might like it. And only then told the Frenchman that it would be leaving.

But I love the rhododendron! he said.

This was news to me. Why? I asked, reasonably.

Because it's the only plant I never have to worry about when you go away!

He takes over watering duty and it stresses him. He worries they will die.

The rhododendron never stressed him.

But now he was stressed.

So I had to tell Hannah. She took it with grace I did not deserve. 

I shifted things around on the terrace, moving the rhodi far away from the braai's occasional but radiant heat. Taking photos of the terrace from above, I noticed suddenly how the solid shape of the rhododendron (lower left) anchored things. It looked rich and green. It had life in the thin seasons.

As a reward I hauled it from its pot and gave it a foundation of fresh potting soil (Black Gold). It was still in very shallow soil, from the move, and had survived two winters like this. Not dropping a single leaf.

And then it bloomed.

That only happened once before, when I impulse-bought it from the Gowanus Nursery. 

And it put out a foot of new growth all round.

So now it lives happily with its friends the Thai basil, the fern, and the begonia, shading the water dish for the birds (atop a log we foraged from the side of the road in the Catskills last spring).


Friday, June 19, 2020

Cake Walk - a recipe and a cautionary tale


Here is the lusciously moist chocolate cake with serviceberries that we shared on the first lockdown forage picnic this week. The recipe for it is over on 66 Square Feet (the Food). And some appropriate and sobering backstory: When I posted about that walk on Instagram I made a flippant pun. I said it would be a cake walk. Cos, cake, plus people walking...

Something made me Google the term the next night. I had never thought about the origin of "cake walk" - to me it was an easy tune I learned from my first piano book. As I read my eyes bugged. It was a dance first performed by slaves on plantations, and judged by plantation owners. The prize was a cake. It went on to become a staple of minstrel shows.

And could be interpreted on several levels. I copied this from Wikipedia's entry (NPR also has an interesting story):

'Amiri Baraka in Blues People explained the strangeness of a slave dance covertly mocking white slaveholders that later was adopted by whites unaware of the mockery: "If the cakewalk is a Negro dance caricaturing certain white customs, what is that dance, when, say, a white theater company attempts to satirize it as a Negro dance? I find the idea of white minstrels in blackface satirizing a dance satirizing a dance satirizing themselves a remarkable kind of irony--which, I suppose, is the whole point of minstrel shows..."

Did you know the history of cake walk?

Friday, June 12, 2020

Have your roses and eat them, too

On my drawing table (where I design gardens), roses have been keeping me company.

It has been a lush three weeks for the Abraham Darby.

I move the vase so I can smell the roses wherever I go. And at night they stay beside the bed.

There have even been enough for me to use their very fragrant petals in the kitchen, fermenting them in two stages: first, until sweetly effervescent - a rose-scented drink in its own right; and then straining and continuing the ferment until it is transformed from sugary to fruitily acidic. The process can take anywhere from a few months to a couple of weeks (for instance yesterday I bottled a wisteria vinegar that was ready in two weeks, while I have a couple from late winter that are not quite there, yet). The method is in the Elderflower and Common Milkweed chapters of Forage, Harvest, Feast.

I cook with vinegar a lot - it is very aromatic and not at all mouth puckeringly sour. And of course it is wonderful for quick-pickling everything from cherries to carrots. It is even good as a drink, in a shrub or with a spritz of sparkling water.

And now the windowbox pansies and lettuces are switching out with drought-tolerant portulaca, experimental lavender, tough petunias (but scented) and summer savory.

Summer is on its way.


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Thai lime, makrut - just not the k-word

[This post was originally published on October 2nd, 2016 - the Thai limes have since moved with us and live on the Windsor Terrace where they are flourishing. I only bring them indoors when the temperatures are below 50'F at night - I am a more relaxed citrus parent, now!]

I moved the makruts (Thai limes) to our bright bedroom windows about a week ago, as overnight temperatures started falling below 60'F. Former citizens of Georgia, this will be their first New York winter.

They look very healthy and will have to be transplanted to deep pots, next spring, and later I will be pruning them to stay small. I use the leaves, of course, but fruit would be a wonderful bonus. If you've never smelled the bumpy-textured, green, fresh limes you're in for a treat when you do: intensely aromatic and very different from the grocery store Persian limes that we buy day in, day out.

"Kaffir" is a chilling word for South Africans; in South Africa it is a racist slur (still) used by racist people to refer to black and brown people. The US has the n-word. South Africa has the k-word. Its history is bloodily painful.

Still known as k-limes in many homes and listed as such by most growers, food stores and on menus, the enlightened and informed - the woke - call Citrus hystrix either Thai lime, or makrut; both are appropriate and time-honored names.

The Oxford Companion to Food agrees, and lists the fruit under M for makrut, with full explanation under the letter K. Modern Farmer published a good essay on the subject, too.

Above: to open a box that says this is startling.

Not one of my attempted reviews - 5-star for plant quality, packaging, speed of delivery, but with this one criticism - was published on Amazon, where I bought the trees. So I left a question about their name on Amazon: "Are you aware..." blablabla. The same night the grower called me, to my surprise. I felt he responded positively then, as well as in a later follow-up email, from [the company has since changed ownership].

I directed him for reference to the useful Missouri Botanical Garden's Plant Finder website, which is up-to-date in terms of this information.

But after four weeks neither the Amazon listing nor the grower's own website, Lemon Citrus Tree, reflects any changes at all, which is disappointing.

From a seller's point of view there is an economic issue: potential customers searching for the better-known k-lime will not land up on a site selling Thai lime or makrut. And a sale will be lost. But the marketing gods are in the details, and there are ways around this. The least I expect is a short explanatory paragraph. That would be the right - and very easy - thing to do.

If you find a lime sold as "kaffir," anywhere, carry the torch, and speak up.


Thursday, May 21, 2020

The long view

A scamper up the fire escape while supper was grilling gave me a dove's eye view of the terrace. I don't go to the roof often - maybe we should. For a drink or a picnic. Lockdown is very much roof time. We see lone figures on faraway rooftops, sipping drinks where people never sat or sipped drinks, before.

I like our view of neighbor's gardens, each one very much a reflection of a personality. And I love the Boston ivy covering most of the wall of the laundry building that all the gardens back onto. Life would be very different, aesthetically, without it. Its rich, textured green. There is a real fear of ivy on buildings in this country. It's beautiful, it's cooling in summer, it catches air pollution, softens noise pollution, and only damages a building if you really decide to rip an old vine off its support.

Supper was grilled lamb kebabs, molded onto fierce swords and flavored with terrace-grown rosemary and marjoram. Also a Waldorf salad (what can I say, I had a craving), and a potato salad with lots of dill, shallot, and sliced radishes, dressed with a vintage common milkweed vinegar.

A fighter jet tore past over the harbor behind me while I was up here - the sound always chills me. Earlier there was an unusual sighting of an AWACS. And, just as I was wondering aloud whether we might see it, the space station sailed north in the blue-black night.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Close encounters

A pair of very young doves has made the terrace home. They are unafraid and like to perch on the railing in the sun or on top of the anti-squirrel wire in the windowboxes.

One of two Thai limes is very happy. Both trees were pruned hard - branches and roots - in January (while still in the bedroom!). They were incredibly lush but I had to be ruthless: I am not giving them bigger pots. They have to be portable. And so I downsized them. The other tree got scale in April, as they both normally do, and it has been much slower to recover. In the mornings I sit outside with my coffee and hunt scale. I'm a little obsessed.

Oak leaf lettuce is growing in the windowbox. Ready for small salads.

The bay tree also moved out with the limes about a week ago. It grows very fast, and has already been root pruned once, late last summer. I bought it last spring at the Union Square Farmers market.

I love fresh bay - it has a penetratingly aromatic flavor that we don't use often enough; a dry bay leaf always seems an afterthought. Try tucking four fresh leaves under the skin of your next roast chicken, and a handful more in the cavity, and more underneath the bird. Salt, pepper, lemon juice, and a splash of water in the roasting dish. An hour and fifteen at 450'F. A nice rest, then carve, spooning the juices over the meat.

This is a close view of the pot where the little prickly ash tree lives (I ordered it from an Alabama nursery years ago to experiment with growing this very interesting wild edible). You can't see the prickly ash trunk, but you can see a couple of the arugula plants and native foam flowers that share the pot. The darker leaf belongs to bugbane (black cohosh, black snakeroot). It also came from our last garden, at 1st Place. Loves water, and prefers some shade on this hotter-than-I-expected terrace. The dark foliage is very beautiful.

And the all-arugula pot. Time for a big salad. The best dressing for perfect and peppery arugula is one where you toss in a handful of microplaned parmesan at the last moment.

It was how I lured the Frenchman to eat leaves when I first met him. He is a changed man.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Garden design, remotely

It has been interesting designing gardens by proxy over the last couple of months. I mean, yes, I design the garden. But obviously there can be no in-person meetings, no site visits, no measurements by my own hand. No poking my fingers in the soil or sniffing the breeze or pondering the sun. Instead, video calls and pictures, and sketches from clients. Good, careful sketches, with rough layouts and measurements, accompanied by thorough observations of sunlight.  Most of the gardens are in New York City but the one I was working on above is in Seattle.

I am very happy that people are thinking about gardens and growing, and the benefits of living with plants.

Other things? The picture above the desk is by the Frenchman, taken while flying high over the Sahara, en route to Cape Town from a European layover. And, hm, well, yes, the cooler, in hiding. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Call me Born to Camp. It's now filled with a stash of wine. The wooden box on top is handy for carrying things to forage picnics, or a whole side of salmon gravlax to a party. Picnics. Parties. What are those, again?

The hat in the box is from Babylonstoren, and beside it the silver things like spoons are a pair of my fastidious father's shoe horns. He was a man who wore good shoes, and he took care of them. I just like having them around.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Kale gnudi

Ever wondered what do with lots of kale?

We receive a big bag of frilly kale leaves in our weekly farmbox from Norwich Meadows. And these pillowy gnudi are the answer. They use a whole poundful.

I adapted a lambs quarter gnudi recipe from Forage, Harvest, Feast for these delicious morsels and the result is wonderful. It received the Frenchman’s damn-that-was-good seal of approval.

What are gnudi? Not gnocchi. They contain ricotta rather than flour (although I add Panko crumbs) and this makes them very tender and soft, not bouncy. Not that bouncy is necessarily a bad thing.

This long, cool, COVID-19 spring I have made batches of gnudi with blanched garlic mustard (delicious) and spinach, and then, wanting a kale version, I accidentally let those leaves char a bit in their pot*. Disaster? No. Delicious! Eye opening, in fact. They turn nuttily sweet. Who knew?

*Don't use an enameled pot for this, or you'll struggle to clean it later. Stainless steel is the way to go.

The recipe for the Kale Gnudi with Mugwort Brown Butter is over at 66 Square Feet (the Food). As usual, daily food news (and now lockdown video) is @66squarefeet on Instagram.

Friday, May 1, 2020

April's end

In a tearing, rain-flurried wind I went for a walk in nearby Green-Wood Cemetery on the last day of April. They have opened all their side gates - usually firmly locked - to allow people easier access to the calming space of hills and green hollows. Led by George Washington, civilian troops suffered a major loss here against the English in the Revolutionary War. He retreated to Manhattan.

We haven't seen Manhattan in months.

The side gate nearest us is just a couple of blocks away and this has given me an unprecedented appreciation of the park-like grounds. I knew them well, but now I see changes in micro-seasonal increments. And it has been a long, cool spring.

The wind was knocking fluffy 'Kanzan' flowers from their heavy branches.

And these peonies were so fragrant I could smell them right through my mask.

I have a new and improved mask: My friend Kirstin kindly gifted us two that she had sewn expertly. We have been trading. Her husband David gave us a very generous tip about morels. We searched and found them. Or, the Frenchman did. So many that we split them with David. He fetched them and we got masks in return. All at a suitable, face-covered remove from one another. He is the first friend I have seen in six weeks.

Preceded by crabapples, the redbuds are entering their peak of bloom.

And at lawnlevel ground ivy (Glechoma hedera) is gorgeous. It is usually unwanted but I wish people would recognize its beauty and stop spraying it. It makes lawns lovely. It's the ultimate steppable groundcover.

And you can eat it, too. Crush the leaves and add them to drinks and green herb sauces: they are intensely minty. or make ice cubes filled with the flowers.


Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Betty Scholtz, 1921 - 2020

Betty Scholtz, 29 April 2011

[Update, 5/7/20: Obituary by Penelope Green in The New York Times]

Betty Scholtz has died. A tree crashing in the spring woods.

Director Emeritus of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Dear Betty.

Tomorrow would have been her 99th birthday. Nine years ago I sat with her at her birthday lunch in the beautiful New Jersey garden of her good friends Graeme Hardie and Silas Mountsier. I wrote about her then for The Cape Argus, a Cape Town newspaper (Betty was South African).

Betty was a mighty woman. In spirit and in stature. Taller than I am (that's five eleven and a bit) and always dressed in tropical brightness, like a butterfly. A stoic and private butterfly, often amused, generous, and interested in other people. And stubborn. She always called me Mah-ree, refusing to believe that someone with a name as Afrikaans as mine could possibly pronounce the name differently. You didn't argue with Betty.

Lekker slaap, Betty. Maybe you are playing cards with Leipoldt again. I like to think so.

In case that is hard to read:

“I ate lion with Leipoldt,” Betty Scholtz told me last summer, as we ate lunch at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

 “What did it taste like?” I asked.

“Gamey,” she said. “He told us the best thing he’d ever eaten was baby doormouse, dipped in honey...” And then she added, “He made me cry.”

Elizabeth Scholtz is the director emeritus of New York City’s Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG). On April 29th, she celebrated her 90th birthday.

The recent addition of a walking stick to her movements irks the independent woman - Miss Scholtz still goes to work every day. She deals with the symptoms of age impatiently and with audible frustration, and is quick to remind one that her oldest friend - literally - Esther “Faity” Tuttle, turns 100 this year. Mrs Tuttle was recently featured in Shape Magazine, wearing a leotard. The bar, Miss Scholtz feels, has been set rather high.

Elizabeth Scholtz was born in Pretoria in 1921. Describing her South African childhood, and considering her current attitude to life, she says that whenever she presented herself to her physician father with an ache or a pain, he made her repeat, three times, “Hell, I am well!” and that after she and her brothers were born, all at home, friends visiting their new mother with “invalid port” would be surprised to find the invalid outside playing tennis, or busy gardening.

Dr Scholtz died suddenly in 1932 of septicemia. “My mother gave us loving care, but not tender loving care. She was a widow, and had to be tough.”

Miss Scholtz’s mother remarried and holidays were later spent at her stepfather’s bush camp on the edge of the Kruger National Park, where Leipoldt would become a guest. Sixteen years old and precociously enrolled at Wits, Miss Scholtz majored in botany and zoology, writing her thesis on the bushveld trees she had grown to love over tented weekends. Her dream to pursue post graduate studies was nixed by her mother, for whom the vagaries of war and the cost of her sons’ education made it impossible. Betty went to work at 20, becoming a medical technician specializing in haematology.  She moved to Cape Town and lived and worked there for nearly 20 “very social” years. Weekends were spent botanizing with doctor friends and their wives in Dutoitskloof and Betty’s Bay.

After a stint at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston in 1957, Miss Scholtz moved to New York in 1960 to take up a post in the Adult Education Department of the BBG. Twelve years later she was appointed director of the garden, becoming the first female director of a major American botanic garden. She served as director until 1980 and retired officially in 1987. She continued to serve as director emeritus and to lead the BBG’s international garden tours - amassing 100 tours in 46 countries. In 1988 a grandiflora rose was named after her. She has received numerous awards to honour her contribution to horticulture, including American horticulture’s highest award, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Medal from the American Horticulture Society and the United Kingdom’s Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society. She has been a mentor to what the BBG describes as “generations of North American public garden professionals.” She is a living resource of botanical and horticultural knowledge and a font of anecdotes told in an unchanged and beautifully modulated South African accent, with a ready laugh. A stream of visitors to the BBG makes its way to her book-lined office, which is how I met her, two years ago.

At a lunch in honour of her 90th birthday, given by her friends Silas Mountsier and Graeme Hardie in Mr Mountsier’s leafy spring garden in Nutley, New Jersey, Betty protested at gifts, exclaimed over packets of honey bush tea, and worried about keeping the driver who had brought her out from New York, waiting.  But Mr Hardie, a former Capetonian, who had prepared and served the meal, was still passing around local cheese and green fig preserve brought back from a recent trip to Cape Town. “Green figs!” Miss Scholtz’s eyes lit up. Dressed in mandarin red, her socially charged day was still young. This long lunch would be followed by celebratory drinks at Mrs Tuttle’s, and then a Broadway play. She may have preferred a quieter day, but the strength of her personality and humour, her interest in the lives of others and her commitment to gardens near and far, have created many admirers whose understandable wish is to celebrate a life that seems to burn more brightly than most.

“Why did Leipoldt make you cry? “ I asked last summer, thinking of the pink doormice sliding down the knowledgeable throat of the poet, writer, raconteur, gourmand, cook, and medical doctor.

“I beat him at bridge,” she said, “and I don’t think he liked that very much.”


Friday, April 24, 2020

The camera turns

An accidental selfie. I hate selfies. And if you'd told me just a few weeks ago that I'd be making homespun videos in our kitchen this week I'd have laughed, and rolled my eyes.

But lockdown is waking up all kinds of slumbering beasts in all of us.

It began with an Instagram invitation to share a wild foods story and then I decided I didn't hate it as much as I expected to. So I may even graduate to teaching from home. I just need to practise some more and sort out some kinks.

What new things have you been trying?


Friday, April 17, 2020


Cherries are pretty. But crabapples are luscious.

Crabapples also smell wonderful. Like storms coming. Like hail on the ground. Like snow on the Alps.

It was hard to smell them through my mask.

These are at Green-Wood Cemetery, which has opened its usually locked pedestrian side gates in a humane gesture to the neighborhoods surrounding it.


Saturday, April 11, 2020

Native spring

The trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) are beginning to open in the woods on Staten Island. Ephemeral, native, best appreciated up close.


Friday, April 10, 2020

Looking out, looking in

The callery pear tree across the street is in peak bloom and its notoriously weak branches bend down heavily with white blossom. We avoid parking under it, in case: crack! But it is a frothy pleasure for the housebound.

The overwintering bedroom citrus trees stare out at it with envy, but shiver a little, too. Theirs has been a comfortable winter, and most will only venture out onto the terrace when evening temperatures stay above 50'F.  They are tough enough to handle some chilly nights, but it's really the shock that I try to avoid, the sudden difference between indoor and out.

The bay tree in the foreground has been trouble-free all winter.  Not a pest, not a peep. And fresh bay leaves are such a treat. I do think it will outgrow its pot fast, though. The finger lime (Citrus australasica) on the sill is doing exceptionally well and is covered in tiny, perfectly round buds. Long, skinny fruit to come, filled with sour cells.

The Meyer lemon to the left? It made wonderful fruit that I harvested in January. Preserved lemons, lemon syrup, lemon cocktails, and bitters from the fragrant flowers. And then...something went wrong. Very wrong.

I suspect root rot, which is serious and hard to recover from. It's caused by overwatering. And I am the only culprit. I may have given more water than necessary when the fruit was fat and ripe. I removed the tree from its pot in late January after its leaves kept dropping and yellowing, and its roots just fell apart, many of them just disintegrating. I sterilized the pot with boiling water, gave it fresh soil, one watering, and then kept it as dry as possible. We'll see. It is no worse, so perhaps it has a chance.

The Thai limes are well, although I have been battling scale on one tree (the picture above was taken in late November). After exceptional fruit production (over 100 fruits - the best marmalade, ever) early this year I root pruned and branch pruned both trees. They are more than a third shorter and less wide. Gulp. Why? They have to stay in their current pots to remain portable, and they also have to live outdoors on the small terrace with limited wiggle room for humans. They were top heavy and lush. Post-pruning they have put out no new growth and minimal flowers (this time last year they were dripping with blossoms). But their famous leaves are very healthy. I am curious to see what they will do outside, in a few weeks' time.

As I write this post a wild, mean wind is whipping around the corner of the building, blasting and blackening my two terrace roses' new shoots. Magnolia and cherry petals scatter across backyards. But this evening new neighbors came out to bang pots at 7pm.

And tomorrow they say the sun will shine.