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

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Or is it Cymbidia? Either way, their time is now!

In my first book Orchid Growing for Wimps, I included Cymbidium orchids on the "don't try these at home list." That may have been unfair. The truth is NOT everyone can re-bloom these plants indoors, usually because they can't deliver the temperature manipulations necessary to produce a bloom spike. I've succeeded the past three years, and if you can do a few simple (but specific) things, you can, too.

The genus Cymbidium includes about 100 species and hybrids originating from a range of climates. Those we grow as houseplants generally require cold temps in order to bloom. In nature they grow at high elevations (in Asia) where temperatures don't drop below freezing, but get into the 40s. To mimic this, I leave my Cymbidium outdoors till night time temperatures are about 45 degrees, then I bring them inside and keep them in the coldest possible spot. Maybe you have a drafty window or an unheated guest room. If you can keep your Cymbidium at about 50 degrees from the time you bring it indoors, you should see bloom spikes in February. Watering once every 7-14 days will suffice, depending on how much light your plant gets. Even if you don't have an indoor cool spot, it's worth trying if you can leave the orchid outdoors to catch the 40 degree temperatures in fall.

I've collected several over the years, from friends and clients who gave up on ever getting them to re-flower. Of the three I own, two have bloomed every February for the last three years (no, not always the same two!). They all get the same treatment, so I can't explain why one flowers and the other doesn't. Maybe plants need a rest now and then, just like we do.

Cymbidium have so much to recommend them: the flowers are large and showy, they last for months at a time, and the plants are truly low maintenance if you can give them the cold treatment in fall. This is a plant that knows what it likes and will readily oblige you with bloom if you treat 'em right. Ready to give them a try?

Friday, February 20, 2009


Other Ellen and I say that if you can garden here you can garden anywhere, and ‘here’ for me is a windy rooftop 18 stories above the street. I reinforce my planting obsession by working without a committee, choosing plants that attract me, even though my roof garden isn’t “mine” but is shared by 100 apartments in my condo building.

In a great display of friendship, Other Ellen allows me to inhabit precious car space when she drives to wholesale nurseries on Long Island. I prowl through fields and hoop houses, sniffing and eyeing until I see what I can’t live without.

Two years ago when I
was exploring the sep-
arate topicsof ‘black’
leafed plants and chil-
dren’s gardens I spied
4”pots of black cotton
(Gossypium nigrum),
with leavesof deepest
burgundy. HAD TO
HAVE THEM. I bought
three little plants.
Placed in containers
amid Lantana, Million
Bells (Calibrachoa), and
Zinnia ‘Profusion’ they
bloomed, formed bolls,
and eventually popped
open to display real cotton.I had grown cotton before on my flower & herb farm in Zone 5, carefully starting the seeds indoors in flats on the sunny windowsill of my guest bathroom. Those cotton bolls had eventually popped open, aided and abetted by knife slits and drying in 140-degree temperature of my oven. But growing cotton in New York City in containers feels like more of a triumph. Kids playing on the roof were in total disbelief when I pointed out what we had.

After waiting several weeks, I cut the cotton, and picked out about 30 large, hard but very fuzzy seeds and left them out on a paper to dry in my office. Last March I planted them in a seed tray, on yet another sunny windowsill, and eventually had more cotton to plant last summer. I put one or two seeds per cell in a sterile seed starting mix, covered seeds lightly with soil, watered until just damp, then covered the tray loosely with plastic wrap until I saw sprouts. When all danger of frost had passed and the seedlings had gotten used to being put outside, I scattered them in containers with other plants. Satisfaction guaranteed when you plant, grow, save seed and plant the next generation.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Any day now...

I confess, as much as I seem to be endlessly patient and at one with the universe, I am chomping at the bit for spring.

Honestly, I love winter. Having grown up in NH, I crave banks of snow, ice storms, dark afternoons, and a wood stove to keep me warm. But along about Ground Hog Day I'm done. Which would be fine if I lived in the kinder, gentler part of Zone 6. In NYC winter lingers. Sometimes till March, sometimes till April. Frosts in May are not unheard of.

But like I said, I'm done. So I start looking. Prowling about for the smallest sign that underground something senses the days are getting longer and that on a sunny afternoon you can actually take off your jacket in Central Park.

Here's what's out today:
Galanthus nivalis (snowdrops)

Hamamelis mollis (Chinese witchhazel)

Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite)

Helleborus orientalis (lenten rose)

What's poking its head up in your garden? Go ahead...make me jealous.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Photos © Alan & Linda Detrick, Ellen Spector Platt Design
click on photos to enlarge

While gardeners all over the country are scrambling to prepare new style Victory Gardens this spring, New York City gardeners with limited space ponder our choices. We can join a community garden, transform backyard flowerbeds into vegetable production, dig up front lawns and convert them to food production, or devote containers to vegetables.

When space is especially tight we can grow fresh herbs, making a huge impact on cooking and diet. Sprinkled on the most mundane dish, fresh herbs provide a flavor explosion. You don’t need armloads to transform a dinner; two or three sprigs are enough to make a huge difference in very simple meals.

Pinch an Inch
Each year I plant 6-8 containers of herbs on my rooftop garden so anyone in my building can ‘Pinch-an-Inch’. Most popular are the perennials; thyme, chives, sage, tarragon, oregano and mint (the kids pick it for ‘chewing gum’); and the annuals; basil, dill, and cilantro. Parsley is a biennial and slow growing, so I buy plants. Rosemary is tender but sometimes winters over. Dill, cilantro, borage and fennel may reseed themselves. Others of my personal favs are lemon verbena, lavender, and lemon scented geranium, all perfect for flavoring or decorating desserts.
Herbs for Shade
All of the above prefer full sun and good drainage but if you have only part sun or part shade try chervil, lemon balm, cardamom (use the seeds), chives and horseradish, plus catmint (Nepeta cataria) for your tabby. What's your favorite for shady spots?

Seeds? Plants?
Begin your herb garden with either seeds or plants. Start perennial herb seeds on a sunny windowsill indoors in the beginning of March. Follow package directions and you’ll have small plants by June or July that will grow and last for years. Start annuals indoors as well, about April 1, or buy plants at green markets when all danger of frost has passed, around May 15. Basil is particularly sensitive to cold, so don’t rush it. I planted chive seed last March in the long box below . They and the other herbs were waiting their turn to go outside.A Good Read
Herb expert and teacher extraordinaire Betsy Williams just published a small, good-humored book, ‘Mrs. Thrift Cooks’ which is packed with dozens of recipes and tips on using fresh herbs, all with and eye to both taste and saving money. Mrs. Thrift is as good as her word; the book sells for just $6.95 at Betsy Williams.com.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Who has less light than me?

My guess is very few of you have as little light in your apartments (or houses) as I do. I live in a studio apartment with one window that looks at a brick wall about 10 feet away. I'm on the 3rd floor of an 11 story building and not much light works its way down to my dim windowsill.

Being a plant-a-holic, I couldn't let lack of light stop me from having an indoor garden. With the help of a very handy friend (thank you Stephen Barnett!) I turned my dauntingly dark windowsill into a plant display. It was surprisingly simple (was that because Stephen did all the drilling?); perhaps a few of you with little or no natural light might give it a try.

1) Screw 2 x 4s into your window frame, giving yourself a sturdy base for the light fixtures.

2) Attach fluorescent fixtures to the wooden frame. I used double tube fixtures on top, but only had enough depth for single tube fixtures along the sides.

3) Tuck the cords up behind the reflectors, run them along the top of the window, and down the side into a power strip. (I needed an extension cord to make everything reach.) Insert bulbs (half cool white and half warm white), then plug the power strip into a timer. Set the timer for approximately 16 hours of ON time and plug the timer into the wall.

4) Hang lucite or plexiglass poles across the window. By using clear poles, you create an open display space, where nothing distracts from the plants themselves.

5) Agonize for hours (or days) over the perfect arrangement for your plants. These are primarily Rhipsalis (although there's one Ceropegia in there). Rhipsalis are epiphytic cacti and very drought tolerant (aka low maintenance). In fact I just got back from a two week vacation and everyone looks just fine!

The truth is these plants probably won't flower in the low intensity of fluorescent lights, but they DO put out new growth. I rotate them every week so each plant has time close to the gro-lights. It just goes to show you that if you really want an indoor garden...nothing can stand in your way.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


She taught me in springtime, she taught me late fall
Cram bulbs in containers, smallest ones, top of all.

Plant in layers, in strata, biggest bulbs down beneath,
“Some soil between species, sun and water”, says Ms. Heath.

I forced in a basket, amaryllis in the middle,
Five perfumed narcissus, ten oxalis, sort of little.
Will they bloom by Jan.? (remember, I’m no techie),
Timing ….. problematic, but I trust bulb Queen Becky.

Five layers for summer, large pot out of doors,
With lilies and glads, and dahlias and more.Liatris is in there and oxalis encore,
Tiny rain lilies come last, crowded in to be sure.

When e’er you can’t tell which end to plant up,
Shall you plant on their sides? Ms. Becky says, “Yup”.www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com
photo above with glads ©Alan & Linda Detrick, Ellen Spector Platt design.

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