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

Monday, March 30, 2009


Above, Rosa 'Harison's Yellow', grown from a cutting in a container. It's living happily on the 18th floor rooftop garden I tend for my condo building of 100 apartments, New York City. All other rose images in this article are from 'my' same garden. I don't own it but I volunteer to do all the work, from planning, planting, pruning, feeding and deadheading, so I think I've earned the right to call it mine.Calling all Rose Growers.
The forsythia is in full bloom; it’s time to prune and fertilize your roses before they break dormancy. Frost and cold spells vary from year to year so gardening by calendar date is questionable. Farmers and old-time gardeners have learned to watch signals from common trees, shrubs and perennials for planting and pruning clues.

Phenology is the study of these pairings, which of course differ in warmer climates. When forsythia blooms here in the north, it’s time to prune the roses, also time to plant peas if you’re a mind to. Wait to plant potatoes till the first dandelion flowers: beets, carrots, lettuce, and spinach, as lilac comes into first leaf. It’s a fascinating way of observing natural cycles.

Noticing the forsythia yellowing up in the park I ran to break out my favorite rose pruner, a long handled Fiskars Easy Reach pruner that allows me to cut without getting attacked by the dense branches. First stop is a heritage rose ‘Harison’s Yellow’ (aka ‘Harrison’s Yellow’), which blooms for three weeks starting in early May. It remains happily in its container the rest of the year displaying fine foliage. It needs no special care or spraying, just organic rose fertilizer now and then when I think of it throughout the growing season, and of course regular watering. NO insect or disease has ever appeared in its five years in my roof garden.

I prune out dead wood, and shape the shrub by cutting way back on those canes that arch out low into the garden playing space. I don’t want any parent complaining that darling Jimmy has gotten scratched when he grabbed the thorns. I cut tips of other branches to stimulate growth.

Escaping?Below, climber 'New Dawn' trying to escape the confines of the high fence. I leave most of these canes to be enjoyed by eyes looking out from other windows.
She Knows Roses
Pat Shanley, President of the Manhattan Rose Society, and a Consulting Rosarian for the Society offers this advice: “Pruning early allows you an unobstructed view of the entire bush. ….By removing the smallest and weakest growth you allow the plant to send its energy and nutrients to only the strong, healthy canes and emerging buds. It’s a straight forward procedure and once you get over the initial shock of it…. you will be well on your way to a happy, healthy, abundantly blooming rose garden.”My roses happily winter-over in their containers with no special protection, here 'America'.
If one variety can't make it through our blustery climate, I shovel prune, dig it out, toss away, and find one that will.

Pat continues, "Your first order of business is to remove all dead, diseased and damaged wood. Next you need to open the center of the bush to promote good air circulation and reduce the likelihood of fungus diseases and insect infestations. This involves removing the twiggy growth and crossing canes.” On my windy 18th floor roof top air is always moving, even on a calm day, reducing the possibility of the dreaded black spot.

Cut canes on a 45degree angle ¼ inch above an outward facing leaf bump. Different sorts of roses have slightly different needs, so for complete information consult a rose book.
Below, I allow clematis and 'Knock Out' tm to tangle up in one 24" wooden box for an informal look, and snip stems only when they threaten to engulf each other.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


(above, my faithful houseplant, Stapelia gigantea with fly pollinator)
Winter seems endless in New York City, and to keep my fingernails properly dirty when I have no gardening chores, I’ve made a few wintertime propagation experiments. First I dug up, re-potted, and brought indoors the tender lavender ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’. I also took four, five-inch cuttings from the mother plant, stripped the bottoms of leaves, dipped them in a rooting hormone and stuck them in a soil-less mix. Mother and daughters stayed on my office windowsill through winter ‘08, grew and bloomed summer '08 in my rooftop garden.(above , lavender cuttings on left, lavender mother plant far right, in green bottle, Ming Aralia cutting)

House Plant Dividend
At the same time I took a cutting from the five foot Ming Aralia that resides in a corner of my living room. The cutting, about eight inches long, stood in a bottle of water for three months; when fully rooted I potted it in it’s own container. The baby is promised to Diane and Gary the next time they come for a visit. (She had the chutzpah to ask for it.)
The mother plant was a cast-off, offered by a family in my building who was selling their apartment. Their realtor laid down the law. Get rid of that thing because it takes up too much space and makes the living room look minuscule. The offer was made with full disclosure; the plant looked like it was dying and maybe the building “Plant Lady” could resurrect it. I did, merely by deep watering once a week.(above, Ming Aralia mother and daughter)

Got Spit?
My Stapelia gigantea (Carrion Plant) was getting long and ungainly, so three weeks ago, I whacked a piece off,
let the end heal for a week, while
warning Ben not to throw it in the
garbage.This succulent would
probably root perfectly well in
potting soil without any special
treatment, but a friend who seeks
out heritage roses in unusual
places swears by the rooting
properties of saliva. She says she
carefully puts the end of a rose
cutting in her mouth and slathers
it with spit before placing it in
potting mix. Talk about organic,
free, and ever-handy, I couldn’t
resist the spit treatment. Since I
don’t know the taste and health-
fulness of the plant, I spit in my
hand and rolled the end of the cutting in it. I’ll spare you the sight of that, but I experienced the smug feeling that comes from getting away with something. Of course there’s no control group so the fact that the cutting is doing fine is absolutely no proof of the efficacy of the spit treatment.

A perfect project for a kid’s science experiment, does spit encourage rooting and in which plants? What enzymes or growth hormones are in saliva that would encourage rooting? Anyone out there have any knowledge or a reference? Best answer gets the cutting in a hand thrown stoneware pot; see mother plant in bud above, then in bloom below.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

City by the Bay

Warning! This post is NOT from the Big Apple.

I'm in California speaking at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, and I've spent lots of time on the streets, checking out urban horticulture in the City by the Bay. I'm sure I look like a child, marveling through my camera lens at the most casual street plantings. But the plant palette is so different here (San Fran is Zone 9), I just can't help myself.

Which would you rather see by the subway tracks: rats or poppies? It's a tough choice, I know, especially for a New Yorker, but I'm going to say poppies.

And check out the woody trunk on this prickly pear! This is a street tree that LOOKS tough enough for New York City, although I doubt it would withstand our freezing winter temperatures. True, there are perennial Opuntia (prickly pears) hardy to NYC, but I'm pretty sure this isn't one of them.

Jasmine growing up a tree in the middle of the Mission district.

Tibouchina in front of a nursing home.

And in bloom right now, all over the Bay Area is Ceanothus (aka California lilac). Blooms are generally shades of blue and purple (there's also a white variety) and bees love 'em. The fragrance resembles that of Heliotrope, i.e. intoxicatingly delicious. Sadly, most of them aren't hardy for us back in NYC, although a few less blue, less beautiful relatives are listed for zone 6. It's a new shrub for me and I hate to say goodbye. Anyone know a blue Ceanothus for zone 6?

Monday, March 16, 2009


What’s your sign?

Not your astrological sign, silly, but your real sign? The one that informs your gardener’s soul that spring is truly here regardless of weather or date. When I’m on my knees planting pansies in the front of my abode I remember doing the job as a young girl with my Mother, then with my firstborn son ‘helping’ at 10 ½ months, and an unbroken line of springs since then. Now when I’m kneeling on the cement in front of my building in New York City, cold, impersonal strangers invariably stop to chat. They thank me for making the block look beautiful, tell me that they choose 80th St not 81st to see what I’ve planted. They worry about what will happen with the next inevitable snow or hard frost. Another teaching opportunity; the plants will survive perfectly. Young kids are intrigued by pansies because of the anthropomorphic faces and each stops to ask their grownup ' What's she doing'. I explain.

Planting will be a day this week, whenever I can grab the time and find the plants. Other Ellen often invites me to drive with her to the Long Island wholesalers to pick up some flats, but her excuses for the next two weeks include speaking at the flower show in San Francisco, and a commercial job in Florida. So what! Aren’t the pansies more important?

If I can force myself to
wait for this Saturday,
I’ll go to the Green-
market and buy four
flats, grab some water-
cress and other early greens for a fresh spring salad. If I can’t wait, I’ll go to the wholesale flower district around 28th St. or take two buses to The Plant Shed on 96th & Broadway where they carry a varied selection of annuals and herbs in season. But will they have purple and orange, my choice for this year?

Pansies are cool weather plants, droop and get straggly in summer’s heat. By July 1 when caladium or coleus in my tree pits have started to take off, it’s easy to rip out the pansies and add them to the compost bin on the roof. They've done their job. Although commercial pansy growers have tried to develop a new market for their product in fall, and they grow perfectly well then, I keep my symbols orthodox: pansies for earliest spring, pumpkins and gourds for fall. Let me not confound my growing year.

Pounding Flowers
Pansies are a perfect flower for a craft dye project, for kids or grownups. The flowers, along with many others pictured here, contain a dye that can be pounded out with a hammer or wooden mallet onto thick un-coated, absorbent paper like drawing paper. It's exactly the opposite of pressing flowers where your trying to preserve the flower and preserve the color and keep the flower. Here you're trying to force the color outward to make an imprint of the flower and discarding the flower. An advantage is that the results are instantaneous.
1.Practice with a single flower, no leaf or stem, on a piece of paper towel. Place on a hard surface like a work table.
2.Cover with another piece of paper towel, then hammer all over the flower, as gently and as evenly as possible. If you don't see color emerging, bang a little harder, keeping fingers out of the way.
3.When it seems as if you have
color all over, carefully open the
paper and inspect. Scrape off
any pieces of flower residue and
you should have a nice pansy
imprint. When you're satisfied
with the test you can make a
greeting card or a picture for
4.Cut your good paper to size. Put
paper towel below your good
paper to prevent any dye from
going through onto the table.
Then place a flower carefully,
face down. Add a sheet of
paper towel on top. Hammer
away. (Right), Early summer
harvest for pounding. Intense
colors work best. Double click
to enlarge photo.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

NYBG Orchid Show

I'm the Ellen with the orchid jones. Orchids excite and delight me and I never miss a chance to revel in their exotic beauté. If I could roll around on the floor in their soft, fragrant petals, I would. I'm pretty sure they'd frown on that at the New York Botanical Garden, where this year's Orchid Show has a new, Brazilian twist.

The show is always an extravaganza: thousands of plants with tens of thousands of flowers displayed throughout the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, special children's activities, narrated tours of the show, classes on home orchid growing, and special lectures from international orchid experts. But this year they've upped the ante with a display designed by Raymond Jungles, in the style of his mentor, Roberto Burle Marx. The show is more modern, with bigger swaths of single colors making dramatic statements.

Some of the details literally made me stop and smile with delight at their innovative-ness. For example, while I wasn't wild about the wall of white Phalaenopsis (yes, I know, it's the sheer NUMBER that's supposed to impress) I was delighted by the black granite bench with the built in planter filled with Epidendrum. Loved it! And I wasn't alone. People were waiting in line to have their picture taken next to the flowers (or maybe in front of the wall of white Phals, but I choose to give them more credit than that).

I also applaud the black scaffolding clothed in epiphytic orchids. Most of the orchids we grow indoors are epiphytes, plants that grow on other plants in nature. They grow best when their roots are exposed to the air, rather than in pots. Traditionally they're shown tied onto trees or slabs of bark. There's plenty of that conventional display here, but there are also several bamboo structures (painted glossy black) with epiphytes attached to vertical, horizontal, and diagonal bars. It's a convergence of color at various angles; hard, shiny black surfaces peeking out from under alluring foliage and flowers. It's unexpected and it works.

I wish there were more of the unusual stuff. I realize I've been to more flower shows than your average Joan, so perhaps I'm just jaded. Even when something doesn't quite hit the mark, like these tiered display boxes, I appreciate that I'm seeing something new. Why wasn't I wild about the tiered boxes? The largest box was too high for me to see well (not being 8 feet tall). It overshadowed the smaller box at eye level, leaving those plants in the dark.

There's also some non-living art thrown in, the most impressive being an original Burle Marx mosaic in the middle of the reflecting pool, surrounded by orchids and bromeliads in complementary colors. Like most visitors to the show, however, I'm drawn to the living art.

My favorite? THE CHANDELIER! (opening photo) It's an overhead circular display of gigantic hanging baskets packed with pendant pendents of Phalaenopsis and Dendrobium orchids. Me likee.

Now through April 12, 2009.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


All photos except second from top ©Alan & Linda Detrick, Ellen Spector Platt design.
I saw pansy flats for sale at my corner store last week. Tulip bulbs peek up through the snow in my tree pits. Hellebores in my roof garden display full bud. The Philadelphia Flower show is in glorious bloom, an easy Amtrak ride from New York City through Sunday 3/8/09.

Since 1829, now the larg-
est indoor flower show on
the planet, over 250,000
people walk their feet off
through the 33 acres of
concrete flooring admir-
ing all manner of gar-
dens, arrangements,
plant competitions and
educational exhibits.
There is some immutable
law that every visitor
must go home with a
plant, pack of seeds,
book, vase, tool or shed.
Nothing seems as popular
as pussy willow. Visitors
to the show create pedestrian hazards as they manipulate long bunches through the crowded aisles of the Market Place.

I’ve often been poked by someone
else's pussy willow, and may have
done some inadvertent poking of
my own, until one year I rooted
the fresh stems and grew three
of my own shrubs, then had
enough to cut and sell at my
booth in the Market Place along
with my dried flowers and herbs.

Here are some other things you
can do with the pussy willow you
buy fresh at NYC greenmarkets.

When stems are very fresh
coil each one and lay it inside
a glass pitcher, building up
the construction. Three or four
stems will probably fill the
container and the willow will
dry in place. Buds of yellow
mimosa just starting open
will also dry as they lay.

Find a group of similar bottles in different sizes and put one stem of either regular or contorted pussy willow in each bottle without water. (below) The display will last until you get bored by it.

Make a pussy willow wreath on a metal wreath frame, cutting larger stems into pieces about eight inches in length. Use the finished wreath as part of a table centerpiece with sprigs of mimosa which will dry in place and various size eggs, both dyed and natural.

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