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

Thursday, April 30, 2009


YES, to Union Square Greenmarket, between 14th-17th Sts. along Broadway, Manhattan. Open Mon. Wed. Fri. and the big day, Sat. 8am-6pm.

NO to cut flowers in full
bloom. Expect to get only 2-3
days in a vase
before they'll expire. YES to
cut flowers in the bud stage
just starting to unfurl, so you
can enjoy them for a full week.

YES to a tasty,
colorful selec-
tion of potato
varieties, care-
fully stored
since last sum-
click on any
photo for
close-up view)

NO to any variety of basil plants
unless you're willing to baby
them for three weeks until time
to place in the garden. Basil is
the herb most damaged by cold
weather and cool soil. YES, buy
for cooking now if
you like.
YES to tasty, hydroponically
grown tomatoes.

YES to a wide variety of salad
greens, red and white kale,
Swiss chard, all greenhouse
grown. YES to mushrooms
and pungent wild ramps.
More about those next week.

YES to thyme and other
perennial herbs that are ready
to be planted
Use creeping
thyme be-
tween the
cracks of any
garden path
for an aromatic
and cushiony

YES to an orchid, though it may not feel like a spring flower. If you've been itching for one, try Silva's Orchid Farm.
I've known them over the years
for their fantastic displays at the
Philadelphia flower show, never knew they sold in New York City. At Union Square they have a
wide selection of healthy and attractive plants. Select one with lots of buds and little bloom, to get the most enjoyment this season.

YES to a sweet treat before
you go home. From all the
muffins, scones and lemon bars, I opted for a small sack of pure maple sugar candy studded with pecans from the Deep Mountain Vermont maple syrup guy. They've been coming every year for 25 years, Grandfathered into the New York City Greenmarket despite their distance from the city. The 1/4 pound of deliciousness lasted for almost a week, as I nibbled my way through the bag wondering when I could go back for more.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Knotweed Crisp: follow-up foraging

Went foraging with my sisters and their sons over the weekend. True, it wasn't in the five boros, but Georgia, at Local Ecology, directed me to a tasty dessert recipe after reading my last post here. She asked me to post a follow-up, and in gratitude for sharing the recipe, I do so now. Hope the rest of you forgive me for this rural post, but even a New Yorker has to get out of Dodge sometime. And the dessert tastes just as good with city knotweed, I promise.

Start by enlisting your young nephews to help pick knotweed, even if they insist you're crazy. Clean and chop 4 cups of knotweed stems. Simmer over medium heat to create a tender compote. You won't need to add any water; the stems contain quite a bit of liquid. Add 1/2 cup sugar and move compote to buttered casserole dish.

Assemble crisp topping from 1/4 cup flour, 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup quick cooking oatmeal, 1 tsp. cinammon, and 1/3 cup butter. Combine to form a rough, crumbly topping, and sprinkle on top of compote. Bake at 350 for half an hour.

Serve with vanilla ice cream. It's delicious, no matter what the nephews say.

Thanks, Georgia!

April, 28, 2009
P.S. I've just been asked to submit this recipe to the House of Annie: Grow Your Own Roundup. It's a recipe roundup of blog posts written during the month of April that feature ingredients grown in your own garden or foraged from your area. There are some tasty-sounding dishes there...I'm going to try the nettle pasta and ramps quiche!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Stop what you’ve been doing. Go to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Stroll among the flowering cherry trees, the magnolias and flowering crab apples. Go home. Enjoy the rest of your day, week, month…Especially beautiful right now are the Weeping Japanese Cherry, Prunus subhirtella ‘Pendula’ around the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden. A Cherry Watch Blossom Status Map on the BBG website shows you where each tree is and its stage of bloom from bud stage to post peak. The famous BBG Cherry Blossom Viewing Season (Hanami) runs from 4/4 to 5/10 this year, with over 50 Japanese cultural events planned for the Festival Weekend of May 2-3; everything from drumming, traditional kimono show, bonsai pruning, folk dance, manga and anime, origami, food. Go to BBG.org for program and directions.

On the cherry esplanade 76 Prunus ‘Kanzan’ are in early bud. just starting to show a pinkish tinge and should be in full bloom for the main part of the festival. The torii, a vermilion wooden structure in the pond announces the presence of a Shinto shrine among the pine trees on the hill of the Japanese garden. Kids love to watch colorful koi swimming lazily and dozens of turtles sunning themselves on logs in the pond.BBG prolongs the display of bloom throughout the festival month by planting over 40 cultivars of flowering cherry. I went to BBG, taking three trains, to view the cherry blossoms, but found I was entranced by the Magnolia collection as well, including the magnificent yellow variety ‘Elizabeth’. Leaving the pond area I was startled to see a large camellia in full bloom. Just wait 'til I tell my sister in Oregon, who always brags about hers.Other Ellen went to Japan to view the cherry blossoms. I went to Brooklyn and D.C. So there!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Let the Foraging Begin!

Yesterday was my first official foraging expedition of the season. That's not to say I haven't picked a garlic mustard leaf here and there, but yesterday was my first big haul: Japanese knotweed.

Also known as Polygonum cuspidatum or Fallopia japonica, some people think knotweed is bamboo because of its invasive growth habit and jointed stems. It grows best in moist soils, but knotweed can survive in a WIDE variety of growing conditions. Years ago it was touted for erosion control and as a wind break. Oops! Now it's well on its way to taking over the planet.

Japanese knotweed muscles its way up through the earth in spring. It’s a thick spear of growth, mottled with red, like asparagus on steroids with a sunburn. Before it starts to branch it’s very tasty; after, the stems are so tough that you have to peel them to eat them. That’s too much work for me, so I harvest early. Knotweed grows fast; within a few days it’s gone from tender to tough, so when you see the first spears poke up, don’t dawdle.

Which brings me to a sticky wicket. You're going to read a lot about foraging in my posts because it's one of my favorite things to do. Trouble is, foraging in NYC can be tricky because it isn't exactly legal. NYC Park Rangers can write tickets for removing plant material from city parks; the maximum fine is $1000. I sincerely doubt any self respecting park ranger would do that for knotweed (ranked HIGH on the Audubon Society's list of most invasive plants) but should you run into a ranger who is behind on his ticket quota...well, be forewarned.

That's why I harvest with a friend. Not only is it more fun, but it helps to have a look-out, right Leda? In the more remote parts of our city parks this won't be necessary. But in busier spots, remember that not everyone understands or appreciates wild edibles. Also remember: no ranger has the right to look in your back pack without probable cause.

Knotweed is an easy crop to harvest; you can gather 5 lbs in under 10 minutes. It can be used in place of rhubarb in pies, sauces, jams, and it also makes a delicious soup and one of my favorite wild wines. People compare it to asparagus, but I think that's because of the visual; it has a very distinct, tart taste.

When I get my harvest home the first thing I do is soak and rinse. For some reason, there are always a few ants among the knotweed. Above, on the left are the harvested stems. On the right are the prepared stems, with their leaves removed. I reserve 3 lbs for wine and divide the rest into 1 lb bundles. Some goes for soup, some for pies, some for stirfries.

If you've been thinking about trying wild edibles, knotweed is a great plant to start with. There are no poisonous look-alikes, and it's so plentiful you don't have to feel guilty about harvesting it to satisfy your personal appetite. Go ahead and take the first step. But do it now, while the knotweed is tender and the getting is good!

Potage de Polygonum
Coarsely chop one pound knotweed stalks, one large clove of garlic, and half an onion. In a large pot, combine these three ingredients and add four cups of chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about ten minutes, till everything is tender. Puree the mixture in a blender or food processor, then add 1/2 teaspoon dry dill or caraway, and salt and pepper to taste. Return the soup to the pot and reheat. It should be a little thinner than pea soup; if it’s too thick, add a little water and stir. Serve hot or chilled, with a swirl of sour cream or yogurt.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Over the weekend I worried about pirates, job losses, recession, war, and Callery pear trees. I can do little about the first four, so I’m concentrating on the trees. Some NYC blocks look like fairyland in full bloom. I counted a stretch on Third Avenue with 15 of these Pyrus calleryana trees marching along the curb, three blocks in a row. Down every side street there were more. That’s when I started to worry. What happens when a new pest or disease decides to favor Pyrus species?

The latest census of street trees done by the NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation in 2005-2006 listed the Callery pear as the third most common species at almost 11% of all trees, led only by the London plane tree at 15.3% and the Norway maple at 14.1%. No pests or rampant diseases attack Callery pear trees now but…In the seventies and eighties I was living and working in Pottsville PA. It was an ugly coal town, redeemed by huge elms and chestnuts planted along the streets. When realtors touted ‘old shade’ they didn’t lie. Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight claimed most of these trees, almost overnight. In front of my office in the town square all the trees fell victim. A young architect started a collection to plant new trees, and the city tree commission chose Callery pears to rim the square. There must have been forty of them and several years later they were 30 feet tall and gorgeous, both in spring bloom and in fall with golden color. Still are gorgeous for all I know. But if attacked, they all go out together, leaving the square bereft again.

I was interviewed extensively by the Pottsville Republican in the early 90’s about the history of the project and they printed everything I said, except the lessons we might have learned about mono-culture and how new pest and diseases can lay bare an entire area if planted with the same species.

In NYC you can request a
street tree to grace the
front of your home or
business, and in about a
year, the Dept. of Parks
and Recreation might
plant one. Or plant one
yourself after submitting
a free permit applica-
tion and getting appro-
val. If you need to dig
up the sidewalk that will
be another permit please.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Opening Day

No, I'm not talking about baseball. Although in light of OE's last post about phenology I'd like to add some urban phenological insight to this urban gardening blog: Plant violas when baseball season begins.

It's been a busy winter: teaching, travel, flower shows, finishing off a really long book proposal (which I hope ignites a bidding war among publishers). For the last few weeks I've been itching to get back into the garden, dreaming about the fragrance of violas and their bright little faces.

Of all the violas, my favorite is Viola tricolor (aka Johnny jump up, heartsease, wild pansy). Its smaller flower size seems more natural and less domesticated than that of the beefier pansy. Yes, it can escape, and yes, it can spread enthusiastically, but in city windowboxes this is rarely a problem. If I find a few self-seeded plants popping up between the roof tiles I consider myself lucky. Viola tricolor is a cool weather plant that does best in full to part sun. It's easy to start from seed, but I usually start with flats for an instant burst of color. In NYC, violas can look good through the end of June, depending on how hot the location is. You'll know when it's time to pull them out; flowers get smaller and plants get leggier as the temperatures warm up.

At the other end of the viola spectrum is the burly Viola x wittrockiana (aka garden pansy). These flowers are two to four times larger than Johnny jump ups, and there are tons of colors to choose from: almost black, tangerine orange, maroon, white. They are slightly less fragrant than their petite cousins, and grow best in full to part sun, regular moisture, and cool temperatures.

You may also find mixed flats labeled simply violas, with flowers larger than Johnny jump ups and smaller than pansies. Don't worry about the lack of a specific epithet. If you like the flowers, buy 'em; when it comes to violas you can't really go wrong. Plant them near a window where their scent can drift indoors on a warm spring day.

Some clients choose to skip pansy season. They say it's cold outside and they won't use the terrace for another month or so. They say they don't want to plant something now that they'll just have to pull out in a few weeks. I say poppycock. You can get 4-8 weeks out of pansies if you plant them now and that's well worth the effort. Besides, what better way is there to celebrate the beginning of baseball season than by planting a crop of Violas? Go Bosox.

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