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

Monday, December 29, 2008


A few amaryllis bulbs transform my living room into a plant conservatory for at least six weeks in winter. I buy and plant them in mid-November, leaving their shoulders and necks exposed. When they hit daylight and drink some water the flower buds shoot up.
It’s not too late to get amaryllis started in January. Those you buy now have gone through a dormancy period at the bulb company and are ready to spring into flower.
Since flower stalks usually appear before foliage, I sometimes display amaryllis with houseplants and other winter experiments. Here from left , pineapple top rooting in a dish, hyacinth bulbs forcing in water, my aged
succulent carrion flower
(Stapelia gigantea)
in bud, and a cutting
from Ming Aralia rooting
in a vase.

The Stapelia bud soon
blooms like a giant
starfish, and
compliments the
amaryllis flower.

For the coffee table,
I stake the bare
amaryllis stems
with a few branches
trimmed from my
rooftop bayberry bush .
The branches help
support the green
stems, smell delicious,
and add visual interest.
Or I place an amaryllis
next to a few paper-
whites that have foliage
to spare.

If I’m fed up with an ungainly amaryllis that shoots too tall, I whack off the stem and treat it as a short cut flower. In water it will last at least two weeks.

When I lived in my
1850’s farmhouse,
the kitchen had a
walk-in fireplace
with no damper
on the flue. Cool
air poured down
in fall and winter.
Original pine folding
doors cut off the draft
from the rest of the
house. It was the per-
fect place to give
amaryllis bulbs the
cool, dark, and dry
they need to go
dormant before they
could re-bloom.In my
NYC condo it’s always
hot, with storage
space more precious
than diamonds. In a
gesture of extrava-
gance I consign bulbs
to the compost bin
after they finish
showing off each
winter. So sue me!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Phalaenopses are in bloom again...

I'm up in NH for the holidays and there's 2 feet of pristine, white-white-white snow on the ground. It could not possibly be more wintery. Yet indoors, the Phalaenopses are in bloom, blissfully unaware that outside it's 5 degrees.

Many Phalaenopses (singular = Phalaenopsis, common name = moth orchid) bloom in winter, so now is the perfect time to pick yourself out a winner. It's also the perfect time because tropical beauty is accentuated by juxtaposition with snow and cold. Entertaining for the holidays? Make a Phalaenopsis your centerpiece. People will think you have mad plant skills when all you did was shell out a few bucks for a long lasting, low maintenance houseplant.

A few basics:

1) Keep your Phal out of drafts. Although the plant can take temps down to about 55 degrees, when it's in bloom don't let it get colder than 65 or buds may blast (turn yellow and fall off).

2) Don't overwater! Most Phals are potted in long grain sphagnum moss. It's great for commercial growers because it stays in place when the plants are shipped. But it's not so great for beginning indoor gardeners because it holds moisture SO long. The top feels dry, but if you poke your finger into the moss an inch or two, it's still plenty wet. A Phal potted in sphagnum won't need water more than once every 7-10 days, depending on the temp of your home. If the orchid is potted in a bark mix, check it every 5-7 days.

3) Remove spent flowers. Phals can bloom for up to 6 months (no joke), although 2-3 is more normal. Flowers open from the bottom of the stem upwards, so remove each flower as it wilts and fades. This keeps the stem looking fresh and new.

4) Extend your bloom season. When all the flowers have passed and the stem of your Phal is still green, cut the stem just above a node. About 60% of the time the orchid will produce a new bloom spike from the node. When the stem turns brown, cut it off at its base.

5) Be reasonable. Phals bloom once a year. I get so many calls from people complaining about dead orchids because the flowering has stopped. As the pet shop owner on Monty Python said, "It's not dead! It's just resting!" As long as the foliage is healthy, your orchid is alive and there's no reason to think it won't put on another glorious show next year at about the same time.

Where to buy? We're lucky in NYC, because in addition to big box stores, botanical gardens, and neighborhood florists, we have the plant district! It's smaller than it used to be, but there's still a block of stores on 28th Street, between 6th and 7th. They used to be wholesale only, but most will sell to anyone these days. Some of my favorites are Holiday Foliage (116 W 28), Foliage Garden (120 W 28), Fischer & Page (150 W 28) and Noble Planta (106-A W 28).

Saturday, December 20, 2008


I’ve gotten spoiled by having fresh herbs available all summer, just an elevator ride away. When I took over gardening chores on the rooftop a few years ago I planted an assortment of herbs in big and small pots and announced to one and all that they could come “pinch-an-inch”. I needn’t have worried that with 100 apartments in the building the three parsley plants, two rosemarys, four basils etc. would be denuded instantaneously. In fact there were only about five of us who were avid herb pickers.

Perennial herbs like mint, thyme, chives and tarragon will winter over here in New York City quite well in 12” pots or bigger, but the leaves die back after hard frost. I replant tender herbs like dill, fennel, basil and cilantro every year, though I often find self-sown seedlings in surrounding pots in the spring, a big thrill for me and I nurture them wherever they pop up.

This fall for Ben’s special daily mocktail dubbed the Plattonic by friend Dan T, I took the entire pot of mint and placed it in a south-facing window where it will produce leaves all winter. The Plattonic is composed of one part tonic water for reducing muscle cramps, one part pineapple juice for masking the bitterness of the tonic, and six crushed fresh mint leaves for flavor, over ice. The pot will be returned to the roof in spring.For a small evening gathering in mid- December we prepared a buffet of tasty food. Ben baked the bread; I made the rest, including roast turkey which when piled up on the platter looked exceedingly WHITE. I ran up to the roof garden and found the rosemary still very happy despite three periods of 20-degree temperatures. I cut lots of stems, rinsed and shook them off, surrounded the turkey with the rosemary. That made it look better instantly and infused a marvelous flavor into the meat. The rest I allowed to dry and sealed in a freezer bag to use all winter as needed. Frozen herbs are far tastier than dried.

Coming soon: growing windowsill herbs in a New York apartment.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Enter to win big prizes!

I'm taking a poll. And I'd sincerely appreciate your input. In fact, I'm prepared to bribe you for your participation.

Some background: My first plant crush was a peace lily. While I've moved beyond the Spathiphyllum, I still love indoor plants and wouldn't be without them. Couldn't be without them. I realize many gardeners take an extended break in winter, putting aside their pruners and gloves till spring comes 'round again, but not me. Now is when I focus on my indoor landscape, and over the next few months you'll be getting your fill of houseplant posts.

But back to my poll. I'm a houseplant expert. There, I admit it. I'm working on a book proposal for a houseplant book. A very big houseplant book. A houseplant book that includes everything anyone could ever want to know about every possible houseplant. What I want to know is: What are YOU looking for in a houseplant book?

Send me your ideas and inspirations, and if I haven't already thought of them (you'll have to trust me on this), I'll give you a prize. In exchange for your suggestion, I'll send you a copy of my CD: Green Up Time: A Botanical Look at Broadway. It's a collection of show tunes about flowers and plants; a project that combines my first career (on B'way) with my second (in horticulture). If you want to listen to a few excerpts to see if it's worth your while, go here.

If you already have a copy of my CD (what are the chances?!) let me know and I'll come up with some other swell thank you gift. I look forward to hearing from you. Really, I do.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Wreaths at Home, New York City Style

photo© Alan & Linda Detrick, Ellen Spector Platt design
I never shear my boxwood but keep it shapely and in proportion by pruning when I need some stems for design work. Above I paired boxwood with fresh babies breath and fresh berried eucalyptus (from a florist) to make two delicate wreaths on wire bases. All three materials dry readily in place. For the wreath on the door I added dried lotus pods that I've had for years and keep repurposing. (double click on image to see more detail)
Wire fresh stems of Southern magnolia leaves (every florist sells these) to a straw wreath base. Buy small pomegranates, poke a wire through and tie each wire tightly to the wreath. Or poke a florist wood pick through the bottom of the fruit and the other end securely into the wreath. Wipe up dripping juice before you hang on your nice white wall. Use only classy ribbon like silk or satin if you choose to add a bow.

To the right a similar
magnolia leaf base. Add
pine cones, dried lotus
pods, and small arti-
chokes sprayed to com-
pliment the underside
of the leaves. I find food
markets to be invaluable
sources of decorative
materials any time of
year. In this season, I
also favor bright orange
kumquats, lady apples,
small lemons, and turnips.

The Arsenal Gallery of the New York City Parks Dept. 5thAve. and 64th St. sponsors a holiday wreath show every year with a display of imaginative work. Here designer Freddie Piscina presents 'HD Power Wreath 2008' made of Harley pistons, connecting rods, sprockets, and chains. The exhibit is on until 1/7/09. For more information go to www.nycparks.org

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Just say no!

If you're a poinsettia lover, I'll give you a second or two to navigate away from this page, because I'm going on a rant. An anti-poinsettia rant.

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) was attractive before people got their hands on it. It's native to Mexico where it can grow up to 10 feet tall. Its flowers are orangey-red and it's not a bad looking shrub. Alas, that's not the plant you're going to find at your local florist this holiday season.

Today's poinsettia is a fussy, bloated, short-lived plant, prone to whitefly and bract drop, highly unlikely to bloom again in your home. Yet it accounts for 85% of holiday potted plant sales in the U.S. Why? Because someone is a marketing genius. Pushed as the perfect living holiday decoration/ hostess present, you can pick one up in any corner deli, on your way to the party.

But take a minute to think. This is a plant that is almost certainly never going to bloom again. Unless you can give it COMPLETE darkness from 5 pm to 8 am starting on about October 1st. And I mean COMPLETE. Walking into the dark room and turning on the light to look for something in the closet, even if it's only for a minute, can ruin the whole thing. Nighttime temps above 70 degrees can also impede flowering.

If you want to give a plant as a holiday gift there are several alternatives that allow you to maintain the traditional color scheme. All of them re-flower reliably indoors and will live for years without forcing you (or your hostess) to tiptoe around in a dark house.

Coralberry (Ardisia crenata) is a wonderful plant that produces a long-lasting crop of red berries. (Seriously, these berries can last an entire year.) It flourishes in an east or west facing window and its leaves are a glossy dark green with crenellated margins. It develops a woody stem over time and will probably get to be about 3-4 feet tall as a potted specimen.

Crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii) is a relative of the
poinsettia but much less temperamental. It blooms year-round in an eastern or western window and has no special temperature requirements. Yes, it has a few thorns. Don't poke them and they won't poke you.

Scarlet plume (Euphorbia fulgens) is another poinsettia relative, easy to grow in southern, eastern, or western light, and not fussy about temperature.

If you're determined to fuss a little, try a holiday cactii (Schlumbergia and Zygocactus species). You can either give them a cool treatment (keeping them at about 50-55 degrees) OR keep them dark (from 8 pm-8am) from mid-October until you notice buds forming. Unlike with the poinsettia, a stray beam of light here and there isn't going to ruin your chances of bloom.

These plants can bring you joy for years (not weeks!). All of them are less prone to insect predation than the poinsettia, and at least two (crown of thorns and holiday cactus) are easy to find, in neighborhood florists and big box stores. So just say no to the ubiquitous poinsettia and choose a holiday plant that is truly a worthy gift.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Time to Prune Your Evergreens

wreath photos©Alan & Linda Detrick, design Ellen Spector Platt, cookies Judy Benson

Advice is pretty unanimous among experts at University Extension Services in colder regions. “Prune in late March or early April before new growth begins. Light pruning may also be done in late June or early July. Avoid pruning evergreen shrubs in the fall. Fall pruned evergreens are more susceptible to winter injury.” (Iowa State Extension Service)

I’m not trained as a horticulturalist but as a farmer who learned the hard way. I sold distinctive evergreen wreaths at my
Meadow Lark Flower &
Herb Farm, all greens
coming from judicious
pruning in mid to late
November. We pruned
more if we sold more.
Even in zone 5 in NE
Pennsylvania, I never
had shrub damage.
Here in New York City, I
still prune as I need the
materials. This year it’s
for a few centerpieces
and the tree pits in
front of my building.

1. Trim some ever-
greens,and some ivy.
Try for a variety of
greens and golds,
some needle and broad leaf branches and some ivy. Cut each stem from an inconspicuous spot, shaping the shrub as you harvest the materials you need. Buy to fill in where necessary.
2. Stand materials in a bucket of tepid water overnight.
3. Stand short branches in tree pits. They’ll look as if you planted dwarf evergreens.
4. To make a long-lasting wreath for a centerpiece, buy a ring of flower foam like Oasis. It comes with a plastic bottom that protects your table. Soak in a sink filled with water for fifteen minutes, drain carefully and dry the bottom. Add greens around the exterior first, then the top, and don’t forget smaller pieces on the interior so no foam is visible.
5. Here master
baker Judy
Benson con-
tributes ginger-
bread cookies
baked on lolly-
pop sticks to
add extra in-
terest to the
6. Depending
on the temperature of the room, the wreath will look great for a month or more if you take it to the sink, and carefully add water every three or four days, wiping the bottom each time. If you choose to hang the wreath, hold upright over the sink first, as more water will drain out.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Gorilla Gardening

New York building superintendents don't like it when you make holes in their buildings. They are SUPER-sensitive that way.

So what do you do when you want to train a vine up a wall? Pergolas and trellises need to be attached to the facade (requiring the dreaded "piercing of the building membrane"), and free-standing trellises (their bases planted in containers) aren't sturdy enough for woody perennial vines.

I'm going to share my ingenious solution with you here. It's an excellent way to attach vines like Hydrangea petiolaris (climbing hydrangea) to buildings WITHOUT making holes in the facade or damaging the vine's stems. Can you say "Gorilla Glue"?

Actually you need both Gorilla Glue AND Gorilla Tape. First, prep a bunch of tape strips, 3 inches long and 1/4 inch wide. You can tear Gorilla Tape pretty easily with your fingers.

Next, apply glue to the portion of stem you want to attach to the building, about 1-2" long.

Press the glued stem against the wall and hold it in place as you tape the stem to the building immediately above and below the glued section. The tape looks funky, but it's temporary. Once the glue has hardened (about 24 hours) you can remove the tape.

Gorilla glue poufs up, so you don't need to use much. If it's visible, creeping out from underneath the stem, don't worry. The extruding glue wears away with time (and a little bad weather) and next year's foliage will help mask any glue that remains after the winter.

The glue bond holds for years, so it's a win-win-win situation.
1) You're happy (the vine is attached);
2) The vine is happy (its stem is undamaged); and
3) Your super is happy (no holes in the building).

Tis the season.

Special thanks to Other Ellen for the photographs that involve my hands. She braved the wind and cold to help shoot this project!

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Creative Gift

Macro Photography for Gardeners and Nature Lovers by Alan Detrick, (Timber Press, 2008, 24.95 paperbound)

This can’t be an unbiased book review when the author, Alan Detrick is a good friend, a colleague and my collaborator on one book, two magazines and many other projects. Instead it’s an appreciation from a grateful student for a teacher, who with words and many stunning pictures can make me stop, observe, think, notice and change how I perceive the world. This is no mean feat and Detrick accomplishes his goals in this book partly by giving the reader the rationale behind the photos. Many times he offers side-by-side images of the same subject taken two or more different ways, pointing not only technical differences, but his visualization of the outcome.©Alan & Linda Detrick

Detrick defines macro photography as “capturing an image that’s at least the same size on film or digital sensor as the actual subject and up to 10X the size of the actual subject”. There’s absolutely no need to be either a gardener or a nature lover to enjoy ‘Macro Photography’. It will tell any photographer how to capture fantastic light and patterns, and the flowers, leaves or insects can be almost incidental. His discussions of backgrounds struck a chord, because while I’m very aware of junk in a picture, I’m much less aware of how adding (or subtracting) splashes of background color can make or break the image.
©Alan & Linda Detrick

But maybe because I am a dedicated gardener, I found the bug images particularly enchanting, a change from my usual concentration on flowers and foliage. I’m left with the feeling that even I could capture a pollen covered bee just crawling out of an early morning flower if I follow the master’s tips.

There’s a big downside to this book however. It’s hard to simply read and admire. It may cause you to run out to buy a macro lens, the low tripod, cable release and other necessities to try macro yourself. Detrick is a one-man economic stimulus package.

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