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

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Who needs to join a gym?

There are times when gardening makes me feel artistic and creative. There are times when gardening makes me feel serene. But this week I was a macho, macho gardener and it felt really good.

Many people think of container gardening as small scale gardening: a pot of annuals on a front stoop, a windowbox on a terrace parapet. But the next time you walk down a New York City street, look up. Those trees you see showing over the tops of buildings are growing in containers, and they didn't get there by themselves.

For the last three years I've been working on a transplant project in a large rooftop garden. The old boxes are wood with stainless steel corners; we've gradually been replacing those with stainless steel boxes. They look sleek, modern, and elegant, and they should last much longer than the wood. (Even with liners, cedar boxes only last about 5 years.) They're also expensive, which is why we've stretched the project out over several years.

Moving trees isn't a one-woman job. I LOVE to get in there and lift with the guys (and I also have a thing for power tools) but the truth is I couldn't manage this without my crew. Remember, these are 10 foot Arborvitae we're moving around! First we clear the table and chairs out of our work area and start pulling out the old boxes. (Casey Clark puts his back into it, above.)

Some of the old boxes have rotted through. We (and by we I mean Mark Ianello) cut these up into pieces small enough to fit into large garbage bags, and the salvageable boxes are set aside. We also bag any old soil we can work off the rootballs. Note: most building won't allow you to leave your garbage behind; contractors (gardeners are contractors) are expected to remove their own debris. I call an independent garbage hauler at the end of a heavy work day like this. We take the garbage to the street and load the truck ourselves.

The new boxes are lined with landscape cloth to prevent soil from falling out the drainage holes, and we add fresh soil to the bottom of the containers.

Notice the bag of Fafard Complete Planting mix? It's the best bagged mix I've found and my first choice for container gardening. It's only sold at independent garden centers, so you may have to look a little harder to find it, but the results speak for themselves. I wouldn't use anything else.

We often do some root pruning before we lift the trees and shrubs into their new containers. This gives us more room for nutritious new soil, and opens up root space in the containers.

We decide how each tree should be oriented, then lift it into place. Each box is filled with more soil and the taller trees are wired to the iron railing that surrounds the terrace.

Clean-up is the most tedious part of the day. Despite working on a tarp, soil falls into the cracks between roof tiles. I spend an hour with a shop vac and a crevice tool, then water in the new transplants and hose down the tiles. I think the clean-up is harder on my back than the lifting!

Step one is complete. The new boxes look great (fortunately my client agrees) and there's now plenty of room to add herbaceous plants among the woodies. This has been an issue lately; the old boxes were so chock full of roots that I could barely squeeze in a handful of pansies.

At the end of a day like this I'm exhausted but satisfied. My walk home through the park is considerably slower than usual, but I remind myself that I got a pretty good workout and earned my living doing it. Who needs to join a gym?


Frank said...

J&L Nursery in Brooklyn sells the purple bag fafard potting mix for $5.99 a bag. Its the big bag, too. Can't be beat.

Ellen Zachos said...

Thanks NYCG, that's an excellent price! So much better than what I've found. I'll order from them next time.

Cheval Force Opp said...

What a great project, glad I could see it from my warm armchair. Cheval

Ellen Zachos said...

Cheval, if you come to NYC I may put you to work!

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