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

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Lavender grows in containers or in the garden (above, my Manhattan rooftop).

It’s a tasty
culinary herb,
has a delight-
ful aroma
which some say
reduces stress.
One plant pro-
duces enough
buds for a full
year of home baking.

It’s excellent as a cut flower,
both fresh and dried.(Right,
lavender spiral topiary
with dried larkspur, globe
thistle, et al). Select hardy or
tender species with flower
power from deepest
purple, lilac, pink and white.
I'll be starting two new
varieties from Renee's
Garden Seeds
on my
windowsill in early March.
Plants will probably bloom
the first season from seed.

Doesn’t that sound like the
perfect plant for New York?
Granted it needs full sun,
but to balance that one re-
striction, it repels deer
should you have any on your
balcony, fire escape, roof-
top, or Brooklyn backyard,
and it’s a perfect perennial
for an organic gardener
because it needs no spray
and little fertilizer.

Learn all about it in the
NEW edition of my lavender
book, hot off the presses,
'Lavender:How to Grow &
Use the Fragrant Herb', 2nd
ed. Stackpole Books 2009.
Purchase signed copy at my
website or unsigned from
your favorite bookseller.

Visit one of the lavender fairs and festivals described in the book, a treat for both gardeners and non-gardeners who will appreciate the tastes, music and aromas of an agricultural party. No need to go to Provence to see the real thing, try the US and Canada and you’ll be amazed.

( above, Purple Haze Lavender Farm, Sequim WA, below, two of my favorite gardeners in a lavender patch)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Is this winter?

Everyone in NYC knows it's been cold lately. Pipe-shattering, side-walk icing, nose-hair freezing cold.

So imagine my delight when after trudging uphill, through snow that quickly overwhelmed my woefully inadequate suede shoes, I opened the door to my client's greenhouse and found:

The misters were spraying, the air was humid and moist, and just for a moment I was transported to a kinder, gentler place. I call that place Riverdale.

Sadly I didn't have my camera with me...only a cell phone, but I did what I could to convey the lush tropical beauty I found in the middle of the Bronx. The Phalanopsis orchids are blooming like crazy, along with a fragrant Dendrobium 'Aussie Chip' and a highly scented Zygopetalum.

I stripped down to my undershirt (hey, no one else was there!) and got to work pruning, deadheading, and watering. It was well below freezing outside, but warm enough in the greenhouse to work up a sweat.

No tropical vacation for me this year, but an hour or so in the greenhouse, peeking out from underneath the Australian tree fern, goes a long way toward relieving that New York City stress.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Living wall, green wall, vertical garden, Le Mur Vegetal: they’re all names for a new type of garden design rapidly gaining respect. Pioneered by Patrick Blanc in Paris in 1994 vertical gardens are popping up on fa├žades when there's no other room to plant. Green walls are akin to greenroofs, but run vertically, often in a place where passers by can admire them, sometimes on an interior wall.

The structure requires plastic sheeting, a metal frame, and fibrous materials
to hold the roots in place. There is no soil. Plants are watered from the top
with a carefully metered solution of water and nutrients. This mix trickles
down; excess is captured in a trough at the bottom, then returned to the top
to reuse. Interior green walls need special lighting as well.

Eager to see an example and
not ready to spring for a trip
to Paris where I could see at
least six gardens designed by
Blanc, I hoofed it to E. 86th St.,
between 3rd and 2nd Ave. in
Manhattan. My eye was
temporarily distracted by a
fruit stand at curbside. I walk-
ed right by the garden, which
reaches from the second to
third floors above the Pure
Yoga Studio. If you look only
in the storefronts, or at the
strawberries on the cart,
you’ll miss it.

On this heavily commercial block, the garden makes an aesthetic statement, and a small contribution to reducing air pollution spewed out by trucks and the crosstown bus. I took some pictures but decided to wait until spring to write about it, tracking the stability of the garden through two more seasons.

Alas, on my visit last week
'scaffolding scourge' had over-
taken the garden. By law,
facades of New York City build-
ings over six stories must be inspected “periodically”. Once a company comes to inspect and make repairs, the scaffolding remains FOREVER. The plants were totally shielded from sunlight except for a small band above the construction. They looked ratty,if not dead.

So beware if you hope to install
a vertical garden: check out your
building’s plans before you start,
or try this small scale version of
a green wall in any limited space.
(As seen at the New York Botanic
Garden Home Gardening section).

Monday, January 5, 2009

Top five houseplants for...

The most frequent question I get as a houseplant expert is "What's the best plant for a room with no light?" Ok, if your room really has NO light, your best bet is plastic. But if what you actually have is LOW light, then here are my Top Five:

6) Fittonia verschaffeltii (snakeskin plant)
(Yes, I know I said five...you're complaining about a bonus?!)
This plant grows to be about 6-8" tall. It keeps its color in indirect light or under fluorescents. Variegation can be white or pink. Don't let it dry out; it's a dramatic flopper.

5) Philodendron selloum (cut leaf philodendron)
This plant is a living sculpture and deserves a better photograph. It flourishes in a bright northern window and if your northern window isn't bright, it will still put on a decent show. P. selloum gets big: 2' tall x 2' wide.

4) Ficus pumila (creeping fig)
This petite beauty grows well in dim light and under fluorescents. It climbs freely and can be trained onto a topiary form if you're into that. (Guess how I feel about it.)

3) Sansevieria trifasciata (snake plant)
I won't listen to a bad word about this plant! If you don't like it, it's because you haven't seen it used properly and grown well. This plant is a trouper: it's sturdy, architectural, 2-3' tall, and if you keep it on the dry side it grows well in very low light.

2) Rhoicissus capensis (oak leaf ivy)
This vine makes a superb living curtain. It's drought tolerant, grows in low light, and new leaves have a swell reddish variegation.

1) Aspidistra elatior (cast iron plant)
Look at the common name.
This plant survives dark, cold, dry places. Don't overwater it and A. elatior will be your pal for years.

What should the next Top Five be? Flowering houseplants? Vines? Drought tolerant houseplants? The choice is yours.


I’m a woman of a certain age, a grandma, dignified, polite, law-abiding. You wouldn’t think I’d go dumpster diving. You’d be wrong.
Stepping off the number 10 bus on Central Park West, minding my own business, I spied a woman throwing a large flower arrangement in the corner trashcan. It had probably once decorated the lobby of a grand apartment building. Like catnip to a cat, it lured me. There among the browning Star-gazer lilies, the limp roses and the curling callas, were five gorgeous stems of blue hydrangea, mature and crisp and just ready to complete their drying in my warm livingroom. For the result, see above.

©Alan & Linda Detrick

Piled in front of a neigh-
borhood grocery store
were crates and baskets
ready for the trash man.
I retrieved this mush-
room basket, sprayed it
with yellow paint and
made a grand container
for pansies. No need to
cut drainage holes be-
cause water seeps
through the cracks.

©Alan & Linda Detrick, Ellen Spector Platt design

Philadelphia where I grew up, was a proper city with alleyways behind
houses. Residents put out their garbage cans in the back, and trucks
could drive down, grab the garbage, all properly hidden from street life.
New York isn’t so dignified and mountains of plastic bags with both
garbage and recycling form on front curbs several times a week.
The great part of this system is that people display their larger items
and reusables for all to see. No need for FreeCycle.com. Two years ago
I snagged a fabulous green metal chair sans seat, to serve both as plant
stand and trellis for a climbing Hoya in a containerized succulent garden.
It’s still serving with honor on my rooftop. (above, center)

Last spring a storm pruned large limbs of a flowering pear on Second Ave.
Rushing to make a meeting, I had enough time to snap off some pieces
and stuff them
in my ever-
present canvas
bag. Later at
home I clipped
the stems and
watched the
buds bloom in
tepid water.

My New Years Eve gift below. See the explanation in my comment to Judy Lowe, at the bottom of the post SHOWOFF on 12/29/08.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Knotweed Wine

In case you haven't noticed, Other Ellen is very crafty. Give her a few foraged birch branches and voila! You've got art.

I'm not quite as aesthetically oriented...any creative energy I have left over after a hard day's work is devoted to investigating, preparing, and eating interesting food. Fortunately, I live in NYC where there's no shortage of interesting food. And some of the most unusual raw ingredients are free for the picking.

This time of year there isn't a lot to forage, but today I opened a bottle of homemade wine made from Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum aka Fallopia japonica) harvested in Central Park last April. Let me warn you, what I'm describing is illegal; you're breaking the law by removing any vegetation from NYC parks. I don't understand why, since knotweed is rampantly invasive and the USDA's National Invasive Species Information Center ranks it as a highly noxious weed.

Knotweed is a good beginner's wine for several reasons: It's ready to drink approximately 6 months after bottling (this is fast in wine-making time), it's tasty, and the raw materials are very plentiful. You'll find it growing in vacant lots all over the five boroughs, in addition to the aforementioned, off-limits parks!

Choose unbranched spears, between eight and 16 inches tall. They may be as thick as your thumb or as slim as a pencil. You can snap them off at ground level, but a pair of pruners speeds the harvest. In 15 minutes you can easily pick the 3 pounds needed for a batch of wine.

Knotweed Wine
Roughly chop 3 lbs. of knotweed stems (remove the leaves first) and combine with 8 oz. chopped raisins in a 2 gallon, plastic fermentation bucket. Crush lightly, then cover with a syrup made from 3 quarts of water and 2.5 lbs. sugar. Add a tsp. orange zest, 1/4 tsp. tannin powder, and a crushed Campden tablet. Stir, cover, and leave for 24 hours. Next, add 1/2 cup orange juice, 10 drops pectic enzyme, 1 packet wine yeast, and 1 tsp. yeast nutrient. Leave the mixture covered for 10 days, stirring daily. Strain the liquid into a one-gallon glass jug. Rack off the sediment every few months. Bottle when clear, and taste after 6 months (from bottling the brew).

If you'd like to learn more about wine-making, check out Making Wild Wines & Meads. It's a rewarding hobby (for obvious reasons) and even the smallest NYC apartment has room for a few gallon jugs.

And finally, in a bow to the ever-artistic Other Ellen, I give you knotweed in a vase. This is as close as I get to arts & crafts.

  © Blogger template Joy by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP