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

Thursday, December 31, 2009

I am not happy.

The fence construction I mentioned in my last post began yesterday. The workers took great care protecting the inside of the house. They laid down paper in the hallway, moved furniture out of the way, and didn't leave a mark. Apparently their attention to detail ended at the door to the back yard.

The flags I planted to mark the perennials were bent and stepped on. I spoke with contractor Jim (Blue Line Construction).

Me: I'm not happy about this. Look where your guys are standing.

Him: You may have to move this tree (a Cercis canadensis) in the spring. We had to dig pretty close to the root ball. We dug up a lot of roots.

Me: Wow. I wish you'd told me about this; I would have moved the tree.

Him: It'll be fine.

Me: And you know this because...

Him: I've dug a lot of post holes in a lot of gardens.

Me: It may be fine or it may not be fine.

Him: Whether it is or it isn't, it's not in MY contract.

At that point I went to speak with the facilities manager (who hired the contractor). Of course what Jim said was 100% true. But how much better would it have been if he'd said, "I'm not sure if the tree will make it or not but I was as careful as I could be and I've done a lot of this kind of work and I really hope it will be ok."

The facts remain the same, but the difference is enormous. Whether the tree comes back or not, his lousy attitude means I'll do my best to make sure he's never hired by any of my clients again.

Monday, December 21, 2009


all photos©Alan & Linda Detrick, Ellen Spector Platt design.

A firm believer in the value of lazy gardening, I prune conifers only as I need them for decoration or for mulch. As I cut for wreath, garland or mantelpiece, I shape the shrub thereby skipping the step of dragging trimmings on the compost pile. Here I've combined fresh greens with home-made snowmen for a winter theme.
What You NeedTo make the snow men you'll need tube socks (a pack from a street vendor provide more than enough), uncooked rice (buy the cheapest kind), rubber bands, orange pipe cleaners, small cones, fabric glue or hot glue gun, assorted buttons and narrow ribbons.What You Do
Pour the rice into the sock, leaving about four inches empty at the top. Close and secure with a rubber band. Turn down the cuff to hide the rubber band, forming a little hat. Tie a piece of ribbon at the neck and another one at the waist.
Glue a cone at the top of the hat, small buttons for eyes and down the front. Cut a piece of pipe cleaner, poke it into the sock and glue in place.
To make different size snowmen, cut off part of the top before filling.Start decorating the mantel with greens. To make greens stay fresh much longer, fill some containers with wet floral foam and stick in the stems. Add other large cones, pieces of bark and bare twigs, whatever you can come up with.

Monday, December 14, 2009

just when you thought it was over...

Remember a few weeks ago I posted that all my gardens were neatly put to bed for the winter?

I foolishly thought my outdoor work was done for the season, but just found out that a client is replacing her fence next week. Which means someone (me) had to cut the woody vines (Hydrangea petiolaris, Schizophragma hydrangeoides) off the fence, transplant six shrubs that might be in the way, and mark any perennials whose crowns would be damaged by heavy work boots trodding upon them. Fortunately the ground wasn't frozen on Monday morning. I feel lucky to have sneaked in under the weather wire.

The thought of construction workers stamping through the garden makes me nervous. Even though the perennials have been cut back for the winter, their crowns and roots are still vulnerable to soil compaction damage. I'll never forget being reprimanded by Brent Heath (in the nicest way possible) that just because I couldn't see a plant where I was stepping, didn't mean there wasn't something sensitive just beneath the soil surface.

Admittedly, the fence is in bad shape, not to mention encroaching into our garden by 6-8 inches. I'm sure the construction will be worthwhile from an aesthetic p.o.v., not to mention the extra square footage, but still, I worry.

Fingers crossed.


Herein a totally biased judging of my seven favorite roofs. There is but one highly opinionated judge, ESP. Six roofs are listed in no particular order but the winner of the Big Apple Roof Award is last.

Above, Ann K. shows year after year how you can grow gorgeous roses in containers on an East-facing balcony and back them up with a few small trees, like this coral bark maple.

Walking The High Line, Manhattan's newest and most fabulous park, allows roof peepers like me to admire this installation by Robert Isabell, the late floral designer.

Another view from The High Line makes me wonder why none of these rooftop gardeners have invited me over for tea and to admire their gardens.

I went for the milkshake; I stayed to admire the roof of the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. Still don't know if it was planted or just grew. Just part of my work day.

Central Park and the New York City skyline facing South, as seen from the Metropolitan Museum roof garden. The view often outshines the artwork being displayed on the roof.

The Philadelphia Water Dept. installed this display of a greenroof at the Philadelphia Flower Show to inspire rooftop plantings that minimize water run-off. They offered lots of handouts to help gardeners do the same. Yes, I know, Philadelphia is not New York but I told you I was the only judge for the Roof Awards, and I'm from Philadelphia and love the Flower Show and what the Water Company did here.

And the grand winner of the Big Apple Roof Award 2009 is the greenroof at the visitors center at the Queens Botanical Garden. It has a great variety of plants, a small weather station, and a path to lead you through the garden. It's just one of the features that helped this building receive a platinum LEED award for ecological construction.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

not so frosty

Hey you!

That's right, you, Begonia! Have you looked at a calendar lately? It's freakin' December, ok?

And you, Impatiens?

No one likes a show-off. Just give it a rest.

Used to be annuals in NYC had quit blooming by Thanksgiving, but over the last few years the frost date keeps getting later. Truth is, we've already had a frost (or two), but with all the micro climates in the City, I'm still coming across clumps of annuals that haven't gotten the seasonal memo. Amazing. But there's no such thing as global warming.

Now, on a serious note...take a look at these Actaea.

I planted them five years ago in a brownstone backyard on the Upper East Side. I thought they were Actaea simplex, which usually blooms in September. Every year they produce buds and every year the buds just sit there through October and November, eventually turning brown in the cold. This year I thought about digging them up; in a small garden, plants need to deliver or else.

However, perhaps because of our lack of frostiness the flowers had enough time to bloom this year. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles. Or perhaps they sensed the imminent threat of compost-ation.

So here's where I need your help: please tell me, what species of Actaea blooms in December?

Monday, December 7, 2009


©Alan & Linda Detrick, Ellen Spector Platt design

I used to enjoy my roof garden. It looked liked this (above), and this (below)and this.Now it looks like this.
Five bad men came with two jacks on wheels.
They moved all 80 containers to one edge of the roof.Now this is what I have.On the far left above, the
coral bark Japanese
maple that I had care-
fully positioned in front
of a north-facing brick
wall is totally exposed to
the elements. The drip
irrigation system has
been shut down since
early September. Will
the maple ever look like
this again? (right) Will
my other cut leaf Jap-
anese maple survive?
Or the roses, which
I had to cut down by
more than 2/3rds? How
will the hydrangea
make it depending
solely on rain?

The cause of the up-
heaval was leaks from
the gutters of the roof
into apartments below.
NO, not caused by the
garden but by shoddy
materials in the origin-
al construction ten
years ago. Wouldn't
you know that the
roofing company is no
longer in business? So
it's remove the iron
fence, redo the gut-
ters, paint the fence,
repave the roof and
while we're at it,
check and repoint
loose bricks on the
side of the building,
using 'my' garden as
the staging area for

Some shrubs are
already dead but I'll
spare you the
pictures. Some of the long wooden containers that have lasted for over ten years might disintegrate during their final move back into their rightful positions.
But gardeners are optimistic and the sight of several roses in bloom the day after Thanksgiving was thrilling. Here's the ever ready, willing, and able 'Knock- out' trying to cheer me up. Just wait 'til next year.

Monday, November 30, 2009

shameless self-promotion

It's the time of year when people look for gift suggestions, and Shirley Bovshow at www.GardenWorldReport.com has recorded a show featuring several garden writers (including yours truly), each with a garden related gift idea.

For those of you who don't know my life's story, my first career was on Broadway. I still love to sing, and recorded a CD of (mostly) show tunes about flowers and plants. Shirley was kind enough to include my CD Green Up Time on her show and asked me to assemble a slide show to accompany the music. I collected 20 images that fit the green-up theme, then scrambled to record a video intro on Mike's cell phone! (Be kind, I need to work on my video skills.)

I hope you like the music, and if you decide it would be the perfect gift for the gardener on your list, please feel free to order from my website.

Watch live streaming video from gardenworldreport at livestream.com

Friday, November 27, 2009


Our family tradition when I was little was to take a Sunday drive in the country, leaving West Philadelphia for the rural atmosphere of Rosemont Pa, hunting for 'The Bittersweet Man'. He stood by the big curve on Montgomery Avenue, arriving in late September, selling bunches of bittersweet and Japanese lanterns. He'd remain for a few week's then disappear until the following year.
My Mother had a pottery pitcher with a shiny brown glaze that was the only container she'd ever use for the orange berries. Now I insist on cutting my own bittersweet every fall, from the roadsides in PA, NJ, NY or my favorite place, a certain backyard in Ipswich MA. Yes I know it's an invasive scourge to many people, but I'm actually doing a community service when I cut stems when the shells are bright yellow, just before the berries, open to bring indoors.
These days I often make
a simple wreath with the
stems. Here's how.
1.Cut stems in full berry,
three to four feet long.
2.Take one stem and
wrap it around itself,
tucking in the end. Now
you have the base of
the wreath. Even a six
year-old can do it with-
out help.
3.Take another stem and
weave it in and out
around the circle. Tuck
in any small branches
that jut out.
4.The trick is to harvest
the stems just before
the berries open, mid
September around New
York City, second week in October around Ipswich, and make the wreath the same day you pick the stems. That way you'll have almost no droppage of berries. Hang the wreath indoors in a spot that doesn't get brushed against, or on a door that doesn't get slammed. Prop on a shelf, or lay flat on a coffee table out of reach of the dog's tail. Lucy is very proud of her wreath, and I'm proud of mine.

I'll keep it until just after Thanksgiving on my coffee table (top of the post) then replace it with something else; but my little yellow pitcher with extra stems, sitting on a shelf in the bathroom, will stay until spring.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

This afternoon I finished putting the last of my clients' gardens to bed for the season. It finally feels like November in NYC; I hurried to beat the rain that never came.

Everyone is neatly cut back, well mulched, decked out with evergreen boughs and in some instances berries and gourds.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that my season is done that made me wax sentimental (and sigh with relief), but as I walked home through the park I saw foliage colors and juxtapositions of needles and leaves that put my work to shame.

It's all around us. At least till the first winter wind blows it away.

Happy Thanksgiving, city gardeners.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


When I hung out of my office window clutching my Canon Rebel EOS, I could grab a shot of the climbing 'New Dawn' rose draping the balcony across the street. Granted 'New Dawn' blooms for about three weeks in June, then never again that year, but the sight was so lovely it inspired me to plant my own in my all container garden on our 18th floor. I intermingled it with
a small bell-shaped
Clematis integrifolia
'Rooguchi' that used
the rose canes for its
personal trellis.(double
click on the image to
enlarge the Clematis)
Then in spring of 2009
I looked across 80th St.
with great dismay. The
owners of the terrace
garden had removed
the rose WITHOUT MY
borrowed scenery, not
just their garden. Don't
I get a say? This spring
their terrace had a few
small trees and some
splotches of crimson
that looked like geran-
FOR THAT. Isn't this a democracy? I propose that if I have to look at the garden daily and it's my only view, I should have a voice. Do you agree, or will this issue just go the way of term limits for Mayors in the city of New York?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

it's a floor polish, it's a dessert topping...

All hail Apios americana!

What? Never heard of it? I'm not surprised. You won't find it at a big box store; it takes a special kind of nursery to offer this plant.

Maybe people just don't understand how to classify Apios americana (aka hopniss, aka groundnut). Is it an edible? an ornamental? A. americana is both of these and more. Without exaggeration I offer you:

- an ornamental vine with a fragrant and lovely flower;
- a low maintenance plant, growing approximately 10 feet in a season;
- a perennial that grows in sun to part shade, tolerates wet and dry soils, and like most legumes, thrives in poor soils;
- a delicious tuber; after letting the plant establish for 2 years, you can harvest a crop each fall without sacrificing performance the following year.

I found no reference to growing Apios in containers, but decided to take a chance in a tight corner of a client's terrace. I wanted something that would mask the railing and grow well in a half day of sun. And if, perchance, I got to harvest a meal from the container at the end of the season...well, how nice for me!

The leaves of A. americana are typically leguminous: pinnately compound with 5-7 leaflets.

Flowers are wisteria-esque; individual blooms are pink on the outside, reddish on the inside (Georgia O'Keefe fans take note) and borne in clusters. They bloom in August/September and you'll often smell their intense perfume before you notice the flower visually.

Tubers form inches below the soil surface and grow in chains, with the older tubers being the largest. When you cut back the vines in fall (as I did earlier this week), it's the perfect time to dig up a meal.

In the wild this plant often colonizes rocky soils, making the tubers difficult to dig. In the cultivated soil of a back yard garden or a rooftop container, however, digging up a meals' worth of hopniss is quick and easy. I don't claim it's foraging, but it sure is fun.

I like my hopniss roasted, but you can boil, bake, or saute them...whatever your little heart desires. The taste is nutty and dense, like a cross between a potato and a peanut.

Whether you want to eat the tubers or merely gaze upon the lovely Apios, do me a favor. Ask for it wherever you shop for plants. Ask for it every time you go in. Ask until you wear them down. It's a tactic that works surprisingly well. In the meantime, you can find A. americana in Brooklyn at Gowanus Nursery and via mailorder from Brushwood Nursery.

P.S. If you get the title of this post, please let me know.

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