Text and photographs are © by Ellen Spector Platt & Ellen Zachos, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Gantry Plaza State Park

How many of you have been to Gantry Plaza State Park?
How many of you know where Gantry Plaza State Park is?

I've lived in NYC for 23 years (should I be admitting that?) and if it hadn't been for Rick Darke (from the hinterlands of Pennsylvania) I wouldn't know there was a 4 acre park on the Queens waterfront, with spectacular views of Manhattan and great sweeps of native grasses set against 2 monolithic Long Island Railroad gantries.

There's something about the juxtaposition of industrial, metal structures with the water of the east river and bright red viburnum berries that I find irresistible. It's alive and not alive. It's rivets and maple samaras. It's big city skyline surrounded by lawn.

In summer the park's four piers offer concerts and an amazing view of the 4th of July fireworks. There are basketball courts, handball courts and a dedicated fish cleaning table for city anglers. Off season you may have the park to yourself and that's how I like it best. Where else in the five boroughs can you listen to the soughing of ornamental grasses and the slap of the east river against a pier?

Take the 7 train (either the first or last stop in Queens, depending on where you're coming from!). Get off at Vernon-Jackson Avenue and walk down 48th Avenue to the river. The park is in front of the City Lights Building. Clear an afternoon and bring a picnic, a book, a football, a friend...whatever suits your fancy.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Oh Those Osage Oranges

Ellen Zachos forages for food like Ginkgo nuts: I forage for natural materials to decorate my home. This time of year some of my favorite finds are baseball-sized chartreuse ‘brains’, the fruit of the Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera). They fall to the ground, sometimes cracking, exposing the milky flesh and seeds to squirrels. But often they remain whole and are perfect for me.

I have no Osage orange trees in my neighborhood but my friend Lois scouts the crop in Riverside Park where she walks daily, and favors me with regular reports. When the time is ripe I go early in the morning before the efficient park employees have raked up the debris, and look around for whole, unblemished fruit hiding in the grass, then schlep them home. After rinsing and drying I store in the fridge until I get enough for a nice display.

Creating the Design: How To

Start with a clear glass or wire bowl and start piling up the Osage oranges, biggest on the bottom and any black spots hiding toward the inside. Work up toward a pyramid shape. Intersperse with other foraged seedpods, cones, or nuts: here sweet gum balls, horse chestnuts. Locust pods rest on the table. If you have extra fruit, place them on shot glasses around the central bowl.
You can save the oranges in a cool place to mix with other materials for Thanksgiving or Christmas displays. I often slice the fruit and dehydrate in the oven to make beautiful decorations for a holiday bird feeder tree, but more about that in December.

The Search

Not typically used as street trees in New York City since a falling fruit might literally ‘brain’ you, Osage orange trees find a home in many of the larger city parks. I’m not going to pinpoint my favorite trees, because I’m selfish. But search in parks near you from mid October through late November and ask a park employee. Even if the worker doesn’t know the tree by name, there’s no missing that messy fruit.

More About the Tree

It’s an American native, sometimes called hedge apple and can reach 60’ tall. The bark has a dark orangey tinge and I find that easier to spot than identifying the leaves when I’m on the prowl. The wood is tough, not prone to rot and excellent for making bows. They used to be planted in hedgerows on farms in the mid west. The tree bible by Michael A. Dirr (Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs) says that the tree withstands “wetness, dryness, wind, extreme heat and will grow where few other plants will”, just don’t think of it for your garden.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Stinko Ginkgo

Come here.


Can you smell the ginkgo? No? Consider yourself lucky!

Actually, despite the putrid smell of ripe ginkgo fruit, many (myself included) anticipate their arrival every fall. Come October I stuff my pockets full of latex gloves and plastic grocery bags and wander the streets and parks of New York City breathing deeply, searching for female ginkgo trees.

The ripe fruit really DO smell like cheesy vomit (I don't mince words) but the nut inside the fruit is an under-appreciated delicacy in the US of A. If you get a whiff of something putrescent as you're walking down the street, look up.

Perhaps you'll see branches laden with cantaloupe colored fruit above your head, or even better...perhaps the fruit will have started to fall, indicating it's ripe and ready to collect.
Put on those latex gloves and pinch the fruit to squeeze out the kernel inside. This is what you'll be taking home with you. (The first time I foraged for ginkgo I made the mistake of bringing the whole fruit home. That stench fills up a studio apartment mighty fast, let me tell you!) When you get your harvest back to the kitchen, run the nuts under water to get off the last shreds of smelly flesh. Then, spread them on a cookie sheet and roast for an hour at 350 degrees.

Once the nuts have been roasted, place them between two dish towels and tap with a hammer. After destroying a few, you’ll get a feel for how hard to hit without shattering the nuts.

For pure ginkgo enjoyment, fry the shelled nuts in a little oil and toss with coarse salt. This is an excellent autumn snack with cold beer, cider, or a glass of wine. They’re also a tasty addition to stir fries and soups, adding unexpected texture. Or, try making a pesto from ginkgo nuts and basil; this takes perfect advantage of the cheesy nuttiness of the ginkgo seed.

Ginkgo pesto
In a food processor, combine 1 cup roasted, shelled gingko nuts with 1 Tbs. olive oil and 1 cup fresh basil leaves. (Yes, the end of basil season overlaps with ginkgo season.) Pulse until the mixture is a coarse paste (adding more oil if necessary), then season with salt and pepper to taste. You won’t need cheese; the ginkgo nuts do double duty in this recipe. The pesto keeps in the refrigerator for up to a month. At room temperature the oil may separate, so be sure to stir well before using.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Free Trees, Really!
If you want a free tree for your backyard, terrace, community garden, apartment house, or business and you live in one of the five boroughs, go get a free tree. These are not houseplants; these are the real deal, 5-10 feet tall, meant to go out in the garden. Choose a tree for its foliage and/or flowers, and your sun /shade conditions. Some on offer this past weekend in a terrific selection were Redbud, Magnolia, Scarlet Oak, Plum, Black Tupelo, Hawthorn, Pear, Cherry, Sweet Gum and Linden. Through the good works of the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) and the City of New York Dept. of Parks and Recreation, you still have an opportunity to adopt and plant this fall. Experts will give you free tips.
Your Promise
Before you pick up your tree and wheel it away, you must sign an agreement to plant it on your own property or a place where you have permission; give it TLC; water once a week; and promise to weed, mulch, prevent and remove waste and litter. Part of the adoption procedure calls for registration after you plant, so NYRP can keep track of the number planted and growing. They hope to reach 1,000,000 new trees planted in the city by 2017 with the city planting 600,000 in parks, on streets and other public places, and individuals, businesses and other non-profits like churches, synagogues and mosques planting 400,000. So you’d better get busy.

Sunday, October 2
Atlas Greenmarket, Cooper Ave. & 80th St. Queens, 9am-2pm
Crotona Park, Fulton Ave. & Crotona Park North, Bronx, 10am-3pm.
Saturday, November 8
All five boroughs, volunteer to help plant trees.
More information about the Million Trees program, tips on planting, volunteer for the planting day, register your adopted tree or one you bought elsewhere since 2007, go to:

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Summer Annuals or Mums?

I take care of four tree pits in front of my building (as well as the roof top) and change the plantings as seasons and my mood strikes. Other Ellen hates to rip out summer annuals that haven't met their fated frost date and so do I (See her post of 10/14/08) yet I keep hoping to have an opportunity to plant mums, or purple-tinged kale that will shine until mid winter. The coleus just refuse to exit gracefully. If an annual has contributed loyally to a garden for 4 1/2 months, hasn't it earned it's right to remain?
My solution: in mid October pull out anything that looks disreputable and fill the spaces with pumpkins. If not interfered with they'll add color through January snows when they start to rot and must be discarded. This year, I bought nine smallish pumpkins to fill the bare spots. As I set them in place a passer-by stopped to ask if I was the Pumpkin Fairy? I've been called worse in my day.
Will they get smashed or stolen? Stay tuned for city street updates.

Last year in January, 3/4 of the
pumpkins remained and looked quite intriguing with the berries and boughs 'planted' in late November. Look hard; two pumpkins are
partially buried under the snow.
Double click on the image to enlarge it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Bronx is Blooming

The Bronx is Blooming, and Moore
The Henry Moore Show has just been extended from its original closing date of Nov.2 but still you have no time to lose! On January 11,2009 with a crane and a few flat bed trucks this exhibit is scheduled to move out of the Bronx forever. There’s no better place to see sculpture than in a garden, and no better match-up than the sculpture of Henry Moore (1898-1986) and the landscape of the NY Botanical Garden. Among the gently rolling hills, dramatic rock outcroppings, native forest, rose garden, ornamental conifers and reflecting pool, are twenty massive abstract pieces by the British sculptor. He said “Landscape has been for me one of the sources of my energy… all natural forms are a source of unending interest” and here his chickens have come home to roost.

After seeing the Dale Chihuly glass exhibit at the NY Botanical garden two years ago, I had a fervent wish to see sculpture only in garden settings and the Garden graciously obliged with it’s current display.

The leaves in the NYBG landscape get more magnificent by the day and their colors are a perfect foil for the mostly dark sculptures. Late blooming monk’s hood, dahlias, asters, grasses anemone, and chrysanthemums still grace the borders. The sculpture enhances the garden as the garden adds to the sculptures. Although signs everywhere say ‘keep off the grass’ the three-dimensional pieces are obviously meant to be seen from all angles, even stroked, even the most law-abiding viewers like me were blithely ignoring the warnings. This exhibit will travel to the Atlanta Botanical garden in 2009.

Instead of the Children’s Garden
If you bring kids along, after dragging them through the art, go on a treasure hunt for the black cotton (Gossypium herba-
cium ‘Nigra’) now bursting with fluffiness near the Enid Haupt Conservatory. Look on the flower border to the right side of the magnificent structure as you face it. The leaves of cotton are black (well, really maroon), but the cotton is pure white. Most Northerners have never seen cotton growing and you may have to convince the kids that it’s the real deal.

If you go: Visit www.nybg.org for train, bus and driving directions, hours and fees. There is a tram and you can ride to most of the Moore sites, but walking is easy and you get an added sense of discovery. If you don’t mind using your cell minutes, dial in to hear commentary from the curators at many sites. The all- inclusive ticket to the grounds, all of the Moore show, and the tram is a hefty $20 for adults. If you’re willing to forego seeing three of the pieces, opt for the main grounds only ticket, $6 for adults, $5 adult Bronx residents, free on Wednesdays and Sat mornings.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Chrysanthemum Conflict

Yes, I know that TECHNICALLY, it's fall. But when you're working on the roof, in the sun...it feels like summer. I don't care if the calendar says October; I'm working up a sweat.

Most people love Indian Summer but not me; I'm tormented by my Annual Chrysanthemum Conflict. Mums are the quintessential fall flower. Clients clamor for yellow and orange mums, purple asters, and ornamental peppers. I'd understand if we were in northern New England, but in NYC we often don't get a frost till Thanksgiving, which means our summer annuals could look good for at least another month.

Don't get me wrong. I think the fall color combos are terrific, but somehow it seems wrong (ethically, morally, horticulturally) to pull the annuals out of the ground when they still look so good. And let's face it, mums bloom for 3-4 weeks...tops. If temperatures are warm the flowers can finish in 2 weeks, meaning they'll be done blooming long before the annuals would have given up the ghost. Oh the (lack of) humanity.

What would you do? Rip out those hard-working, long-blooming annuals that never did anyone any harm? Or let them stay a little longer, pushing back the arrival of fall as far as horticulturally possible?

That's what I did last year. Big mistake. By the time I got around to pulling the annuals there were no more mums to be had. That's right. All gone. No more mums on the market. My clients were mum-less. Sans mums. All because I had a soft heart and wanted to eke a few more weeks out of the Angelonia and Lantana.

This year I will not be seduced by 70 degree temperatures and sunny afternoons. I don't care if the heliotrope is happy and the Diascia looks dandy. Take one last look because they all have to go! After all...it's October.

My Stars

My Stars
I tend the 18th story roof garden as a volunteer for my building in NYC. I call it ‘my’ garden, even though the other 99 condo owners might disagree, because I do all the work. Never mind. I plant for three seasons because in winter’s cold and intense winds, only the smokers want to stay and sit for a while.
Every plant is containerized, trees, shrubs, vines, and cooking herbs. At last count there were 94 containers, big and small, including two hay bales that I’ve planted with succulents, in a miniaturized green-roof experiment. I rescued the bales from the building Halloween party last year. They were at curbside, waiting to be swallowed into the maw of the trash truck. I knew I could mulch or compost the materials, rather than pay to have them hauled away. They quickly found their way by elevator to the 18th floor garden.

Here’s what’s thrilling me in my garden now:
Coral bark Japanese maple, above, (Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’) If the Mayor can have one, so can I. I pass his house on the cross-town bus about six times a week experiencing acute Acer envy. As a former Psychologist I knew the cure. Bought one, plunked it in a pot. Just look at it now! As the weather gets more frigid, the bark gets more crimson, perfect in the snow. In spring the foliage is chartreuse with pink edges.

October onion (Allium thunbergii ‘Ozawa’), a decorative red/purple flower from bulbs that need little care, multiply, and are the last thing to burst into bloom on my roof before snow. Reason enough to love them.

Blue mist shrub
(Caryopteris ‘Sunshine Blue’). When it leafs out in the spring the foliage is pure gold, darkens slightly as the season progresses, then displays clouds of pale blue flowers starting in mid-September.
Lavender re-bloom (Lavandula species). The main lavender show is June through July but if I fight back against indolence and deadhead assiduously, I get a miniscule re-bloom in late fall, quite enough to flavor any recipe or decorate a dessert. Double click on photo to the right to see both flowers.

Firethorn (Pyracantha) that I keep well trimmed,
if not formally espaliered, so the thorns don’t attack children at play. The flame-colored berries hang around long enough to use for holiday d├ęcor.

Montauk daisy (Nipponanthemum nipponicum)
Tough, bright, cheery and rapidly growing, first
given to me by my friend Ann, then given by me to Bill, a chorus buddy of my husband Ben. There’s always some to dig and divide. The flower stems are shorter this year than last so I’ll have to seek out more friends to dump divisions on.

Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) is a tender shrub with bright purple calices and white
flowers, perennial in zones 8-10. I took stem cuttings of the one I bought in ’07, wintered them
over on my office windowsill and set out in spring’08. Although the shrub is too puny to show you without intense embarrassment, I’m entirely pleased with my success in getting bloom under less than ideal conditions.

Chokeberry (Aronia). Other Ellen claims the berries are edible but I think it’s an acquired taste for all but the songbirds that come to call. The foliage will eventually turn almost as bright as the berries.

And The Annuals
Zinnia ‘Profusion’ self-seeded in the pot from last year and I am always thrilled to have such
colorful and easy volunteers.
Zinnia ‘Apricot Blush’ is a dazzling introduction from www.reneesgarden.com. I was sent a pack to try and I am shameless in both my love of zinnias and this variety in particular. Can it be because zinnias were the first flower I raised from seed as a girl, and my mother often had a copper bowlful of them on a table where the mail was piled?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

About Us

We are Ellen Spector Platt & Ellen Zachos, two expert gardeners living and working in NYC. Between us we've written thirteen books, two magazines, taught more than fifty certificate classes in gardening and floral design, written hundreds of articles, spoken at eight major flower shows, appeared on TV and radio almost 100 times, and won nine awards and ribbons. In Garden Bytes from the Big Apple we share city gardening tips and visit every imaginable kind of public and private city garden: green roofs, tree pits, vertical gardens, rooftops, backyards, community gardens, and city parks. We'll explore everything from foraging to formal gardens. If it's growing and it's in NYC...you'll find it here.

Should you want to contact us outside the Comments section, please email ESP at esp@ellenspectorplatt.com and EZ at acmeplant@gmail.com.

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