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.