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

Monday, August 31, 2009


Jen in her NH garden. (Double click any image to enlarge.)
When I lived and worked in the country, in a town of three thousand souls, I craved a city vacation: all noise and tumult, music and museums: Philadelphia, San Francisco, D.C., Boston, Barcelona, New York, Paris, St. Petersburg, Tokyo, it didn’t matter. Since I’ve been living and working in a great city, I crave the country and, of course, the gardens.

Every summer, Daughter Jen generously allows me to weed her vast New Hampshire vegetable and cutting garden, pull the garlic, pick the beans, and encourages
me to cut armfuls of her
flowers and herbs for
arrangements. She
sends me home with
samples of her blue-
ribbon garlic, dried
goldenrod and nigella
pods among my dirty

right, flowers & herbs from
Jen's cutting garden, in-
cluding dill seed heads and
anise hyssop flowers.I love
the way the bright orange
of the cosmos flowers
transforms a traditional
pink/blue color scheme.

Jen serves us beets picked ten minutes before roasting, Yukon Gold new potatoes, green and yellow beans, heirloom tomatoes, sweet tender carrots, patty pan squash. Her garden, fenced against deer, racoons, and to keep out her own playful dogs, was roto-tilled 8 years ago, and formed into raised beds, but never re-tilled. She top-dresses with compost, adds a couple inches of new wood chips to refresh the paths, and hand-weeds her pesticide free garden.(above, early broccoli a few weeds and spirea, coexisting happily together.)
Vegetables are interspersed with annual and perennial flowers available for cutting all growing season, so there's always great a great play of sight, smell and taste. It's plain fun to walk in this garden.(above, cactus flowering zinnias, my favorite for cutting and showing off, no arranging skills necessary)

Once upon a time Jen bought garlic to plant, and received seed garlic from friend Mary just down the dirt road, but over a few years saved her own best heads, and now plants only her own 'seed garlic', the biggest and best of her unblemished stock. Garlic adds fabulous flavor to almost any main course, but the stiff-neck species is also great in kitchen or dining room as a swag decoration with other dried flowers and herbs, here, chive flowers, orange calendula and sumac seed heads. Who's to stop you stealing a stalk when you need it and retying the swag to take up the slack?She's a consistent blue ribbon winner at the New Hampshire State Fair as she, like other garlic growers works her own survival of the fittest experiment, with garlic adapted to her own soil and climate conditions. My stash to take home to the City includes as many garlic heads as she allots me, and always a new treat like Red Chinese red noodle beans that she grew for the first time.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

When is a container not a container?

Two weeks ago I taught a terrace gardening intensive at the NYBG. (I should be grading the final projects right now!)

One student asked, "When is a container not a container?" He was curious about green roofs, and whether he should think of a green roof as a container or as an in-ground garden. An interesting question...I think of them as super large containers: light weight potting mix, limited root space, and an impermeable boundary at the bottom. Not everyone agreed, and that led to an interesting discussion.

Which got me thinking about how creative NYC gardeners can be when confronted by unusual planting opportunities. Someone on W 91st Street (between Amsterdam & Columbus) saw opportunity where most people would find only wasted space.

It made me stop and smile as I rushed from one sweaty job to the next. Thanks, mystery gardener.

P.S. I say these are both containers...what do YOU say?

Monday, August 24, 2009


Last Tuesday a major wind and thunderstorm hit Manhattan, leaving dreadful tree damage in Central Park, parts of Randall’s Island and Harlem's Thomas Jefferson park. By Wednesday morning the NY Times reported more the 100 trees down in Central Park, most in the Northern third. Thursday morning after the Parks Department did a quick survey I got a group email from Douglas Blonsky the President of the Central Park Conservancy asking for donations. Restoration and repair estimates were projected at over $500,000, with millions more in lost value of trees and wildlife habitat. Blonsky reported over two hundred trees down, plus hundreds more damaged and possibly needing removal.On Sunday, morning I went out to see for myself. Workers had already dragged trees blocking roadways off to the side and had started removing hanging limbs; other areas were marked by yellow danger tape. A horse chestnut tree obstructed the path I wanted to take.
People were using the
park as they always did.
Runners on the East
Road focused straight
ahead, seeming oblivious
to the damage. Dogs
walked and peed, sniff-
ing new scents. Walkers,
readers, picnicers, and
soccer players continued
with their activities.
According to the last
tree census in Central
Park in 2008 there were
26,000 trees. Now one
to two percent are gone.
The Conservancy
announced that they’ll
rush to replace as many
of the fallen trees as
possible to prevent inva-
sive species like Norway
maples and Japanese
knotweed from taking over.
The 70 mph winds didn’t
seem to discriminate
between Tulip Trees,
Hickory, American Elm,
Sweet Gum, Sycamores,
and Horse chestnuts.
History of past loves will
disappear as well.
Double-click on this pic-
ture to enlarge, and
check the date 1918 on
the trunk.
The NY Times reports
that the wood cannot
be used for either lum-
ber or firewood because
of Asian Longhorn Beetle
restrictions, but it will
be shredded and shipped
to landfills. I don’t quite
get why that will be better.For the most part, The Conservatory Garden at E. 105th street seemed unscathed, though several damaged trees towering high over the Western edges of the garden, made the wisteria pergola unsafe and off limits. See damage near the top and center of the image.
To get more information and to donate to the Central Park Conservancy go to:
This Crape Myrtle was oblivious to the death and destruction beyond the garden.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


three appliances above designed by J. Franklin Styer Nursery

Drill, cut, poke or burn drainage holes, or take advantage of the openings already there. Add potting soil. You have a container for garden plants.At the end of last summer, Other Ellen had a Cotoneaster that she had dug up and needed to discard. I grabbed it but it was too late for me to plant so I shoved it in a heavy plastic garbage bag, cut some holes, in the bottom for drainage. You see it this spring in full bloom. I learned this trick from OE's book, "Down & Dirty" where she planted a tomato directly in a bag of Pro-Mix and grew it on, with the bag full of dirt as container. Pretty, no: effective, yes.The commercial form of a black plastic bag filled with potting soil is covered by the impatiens above.When I needed a colorful container for these Torenia, I grabbed one from my set of plastic trugs, and poked drainage holes in the bottom. Since Torenia are annuals, at the end of the season I reclaimed my trug for its original use of lugging stuff.
Just a little soil in a crevasse and you have a natural container, at least until the heat destroys the pansies.

Oy vez! These stiletto heels and pointy toes will destroy my feet no more. (Nancy Goldman design)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

And the winner is...

Marie Viljoen of 66 Square Feet:

Joe De Sciose (judge extraordinaire) says: "I really like the clear sense of place and vantage point of the photo. The small terrace and the street below leave no doubt that this is an urban environment. The photo is intriguing as it makes me want to go visit this garden. The red wall makes a great combination with the plants. (It would have been cool if there had been red cars parked on the street or one driving by.) Thoughts that have nothing to do with the photo: I am concerned that the pots on the ledge are secure and will not blow off in a storm. And I ache with empathy for the gardener for the commitment she has made to daily watering. The first photo on Marie’s blog is a fine photograph too but the composition and the background aren’t as interesting. It might be fun to see a shot with the herbs in the foreground and the street or buildings fading off into the background."

And for our runners-up:

"Jayme, good color, light and depth of field. But since we offered extra points for photos featuring herbs in an urban setting..."

"Jen, a great moment-in-time shot; you can never go wrong with herbs in a blue pot and a cute puppy in a photo. The soft light is perfect for this type of photo."

Thanks to all of you for entering and Marie, please email me at acmeplant@gmail.com so we can get you your fabulous prizes.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Run, do not walk

to Gowanus Nursery in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Tucked in between the BQE and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the nursery's lush foliage, colorful blooms, and ripe fruit stand out against the surrounding industrial architecture, emphasizing the oasis that is Gowanus.

Everyone who gardens in this city knows it's tough to navigate the freight elevators, double parking, and garbage disposal. And what about the PLANTS? The high cost of NYC real estate means that most city garden centers and nurseries are small, allocating bench space to only the most popular, sure-to-sell plants. What if you want something that isn't an impatiens or a petunia or a geranium? Something that an educated, experimental gardener might find irresistible...

Gowanus specializes in unusual plants: annuals, perennials, trees, shrubs, and vines (and a few tempting tropicals at the back of the garden). Show me a big box store or a shop in the Plant District where you can find Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed), Aconitum carmichaelii (monkshood), or Anemonella thalictroides (rue anemone). No can do! (And those are just the A's!)

Michele Paladino, the owner and driving force behind Gowanus, has a strong aesthetic and sense of design; both are apparent the moment you step into the nursery. She chooses everything she sells and sells only what she loves. Michele also has the wisdom to hire a dedicated, friendly, and well-informed staff who eagerly and tirelessly provide tech support for everything they sell. These are REAL gardeners, with dirt under their fingernails and pine pitch in their hair.

I admit, Gowanus isn't the easiest nursery to get to if you don't have a car. It IS acessible by public transportation, but who wants to lug loads of plants (and you WILL buy loads of plants) on the subway? Here's my solution: call a car service. For about $40 you get door to door service for yourself and your plants. If you're buying for a client, that's a reasonable delivery fee. If you're shopping for yourself, make sure you buy enough to make the trip worthwhile. It won't be difficult.

Going to Gowanus Nursery is worth a little extra effort. The prices are competitive, the service is exceptional, and the plants will knock your socks off. Chosen with city gardeners in mind, they are well maintained and sold with conscience (no hard sell here, they really try to help you choose plants that are right for your garden). You'll get more than great plants at Gowanus Nursery. The education and inspiration you'll find there are priceless.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


One month after I took my first astonishing walk on The High Line, I returned with my family to view the miracle that has been wrought in the Old Meat Packing District of New York City.The Friends of the High Line and the design teams they selected have transformed an elevated section of dysfunctional railroad track built in 1930, into New York City’s newest park. I insisted that my visiting family see for themselves.

Summer has brought a
meadow-like effect with
strips of native and
non-native flowering
perennials and grasses.
Trees and shrubs provide
some height. On that
Sunday at 8:30 a.m.
only a few runners, a
man with his coffee and
MacBook, and some
quiet strollers joined us.
As the morning pro-
gressed, more people

I saw the city in a new
and secret way. As
traffic honked below, I
was eye level with sec-
ond floors and roofs of
other buildings. There
was bird song.
Some sumac was in fruit.
I spied the only building
that Architect Frank
Gehry has designed and
built in New York City. I
glimpsed a large liner
and tug on the Hudson
River and walked around
the top of the Chelsea
Market. It’s all here.

There are just enough
glimpses of rusty track,
wooden ties and details
evoking memories of
the old railroad,
that I had the same
frisson as I did when
as a girl, I walked the
forbidden Pennsy RR
tracks two doors away
from our home. I fantasized putting a copper penny on these tracks, and having a steam locomotive roll over it to produce a flat souvenir as I did years ago.

On prominent display now, drifts of gay feather (Liatris spicata), not one of
my favorite garden flowers but here buffeted by the winds, looking as if it
belongs; three cultivars of coneflower (Echinacea purpurea); blackeyed
Susans; a lovely variety
of Joe Pye (Eupatorium
dubium ‘Little Joe’) that
I grow on my roof in a
container; the silvery
fragrant native herb,
Mountain Mint
muticum); Sedum
telephium ‘Red Cauli’; and bright red sneezeweed (Helenium x ‘Rubinzweig’).

My girls, both plant
lovers and gardeners
were suitably impressed.
My son-in-law who has
the critical eye of one
who does historical
restorations for a living
has nothing but positive
words for those who
saved this structure.
And my husband, an
avid non-gardener is
wowed by the beauty
and serenity of this
special city hide-out.

Notes of warning. I'm
told The High line gets
crowded weekends and
holidays midday and

A second section from
W. 20th St. to W. 30th
St. opened in June '11and an additional spur line north of 30th St.is still is awaiting redevelopment.
Turn up the sound on your computer and click bottom right tear-drops to view the BEFORE pictures on video full screen.

BEFORE, NYC from ellen platt on Vimeo.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

time for a drink

You know how karma swirls in circles? You find yourself on the same block three times in one week. You run into someone twice in a single day, someone you haven't seen in months. Or...suddenly everyone is talking about drip irrigation.

I don't take on a new client without a drip irrigation system. Most of my city gardens are in containers, and containers dry out more quickly than in-ground gardens. Water evaporates through the sides of porous containers and soil temperatures are warmer than those of in-ground gardens, which leads to quicker evaporation and transpiration. During the height of the summer heat, container gardens can need water every day, maybe several times a day, depending on the size and placement of the containers. Frankly this is way too much work for me, and it would be foolish for a client to pay me my hourly rate to stand there and water when a simple machine could do it without sweating or feeling resentful.

Automatic irrigation is something I take for granted, but it's come to my attention that some people can't quite picture how drip irrigation works in a container garden.

1) If you don't have a hose bib (spigot) on your terrace or back yard, hire a plumber to install one. Check with your building first to make sure this is allowed.

2) Attach a backflow preventer and a filter to the hose bib. The backflow preventer (sometimes called an anti-siphon) keeps contaminants (fertilizer, dog pee, etc.) from travelling back into the plumbing of your apartment or home. This is required by law in most states and is generally a good idea everywhere. The filter prevents particulates from passing through the system where it might clog thin hoses and emitters. In the image below, the filter is the black, grenade shaped appendage appearing just right of the red faucet.

3) A pressure regulator may also be necessary to reduce the water pressure running through the irrigation system. Drip irrigation systems generally operate at 20-30 psi (pounds per square inch), which is lower than the water pressure of most residences. The pressure regulator insures that great rushing streams of water don't rip apart your newly installed system.

4) Next come the solonoid valves. You'll need a valve for each zone of your garden (the above set-up shows 3 solonoid valves). These remote control valves are opened and closed by an electric timer/controller (we'll get to that in a minute). A large terrace might need different zones for areas with varying water requirements: sunny and shady areas, small window boxes and large mixed containers. With different zones you can give your sunny, small window boxes 8 minutes of water twice a day, while giving your large, shady containers 20 minutes once a day...get it?

5) PVC (or polyethylene) piping comes after the solonoid valves and runs around the perimeter of the terrace, attached either to the walls, or to the parapet, against which the containers are arranged.

6) 1/4" tubing, sometimes called spaghetti tubing, is attached to the PVC piping and ends with an emitter. There are many different kinds of emitters (some pressurized, some not), all of which deliver water SLOWLY (that's why they call it DRIP irrigation) and efficiently, directly to the soil surface. In early spring the spaghettis may be visible, but once the plants grow in, you won't be able to see them.

Go ahead, find the spaghettis in this picture.

Can't do it, can you?

The whole magilla is controlled by a timer (either battery operated or electric) which is wired to the solonoid valves, telling them when to open and close, controlling how often and how long the plants are watered. The timers are programmable and can be adjusted as watering needs change during the season. You can also attach a rain sensor to avoid irrigating when it's pouring, as it has done with depressing frequency this summer in NYC.

This all probably sounds much more complicated than it really is. Truth is you can buy kits that contain most of the essential parts pre-assembled (backflow preventer, filter, pressure regulator, and valve(s)) and simple, battery operated controllers are available at big box stores. Or you can call an expert for a professional (albeit somewhat more expensive) installation. Either way, don't be put off by the initial cost. It's a lot cheaper than paying someone to water all season along, nor will you be spending oodles of $$ to replace the plants that died because you went on vacation and your neighbor didn't water properly. Automatic irrigation is also a lot more dependable (as long as the system is actually turned on, right O.E.?). Drip is efficient since no water is wasted by flinging it willy-nilly through the air (like a sprinkler does), nor will standing water collect on leaves and flowers where it may encourage fungal diseases.

So what's stopping you? Drink up.

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