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

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

fall is for transplanting

If you're a regular reader, you've seen this terrace before. We're gradually swapping out all the wooden boxes for stainless steel and this week we completed the north terrace, planting the last three large containers. To make it extra interesting, I'm conducting a test.

This year I'm doing a side-by-side comparison of two premium potting mixes: Fafard & Jolly Gardener. I've used Fafard for years and been impressed with its performance and high quality. But since I'm constantly in pursuit of perfection, I'm curious about this new mix. Jolly Gardener will be available next year, and by then I'll have collected enough hard data to give you my considered opinion on how it performs, and which mix might be better for you.

Fall is a great time to divide and transplant. The combination of cooler temperatures and autumn rains reduces the chance of transplant shock, and because it's the time of year when plants send energy down to their roots, they'll re-establish a solid root system before winter comes.

Stay-tuned for regular progress reports and photos to show how each box performs with its respective potting mix. They're growing side by side, with identical irrigation and similar combinations of woody and herbaceous plants. The proof will be in the pudding. I mean the potting mix.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Where to go for pumpkin fun from now until Halloween?
Visit the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center at the Northern edge of Central Park, 110th between 5th & Lennox for their Halloween Parade and Pumpkin Sail. Kids bring their carved Jack-O'Lanterns, the volunteers add lit candles and float them out on the lake on individual wooden shingle rafts. If there's a nice breeze, they sail across they lake in a blaze of glory. Sunday. Oct. 25th 3-6PM.
Below, ready to travel across the Harlem Meer.The Queens County Farm Museum offers a pumpkin patch and corn maze every Saturday and Sunday through Nov. 1. Kids see how pumpkins grow and can buy their favorite, some trucked in. This working farm established in 1697 on 47 acres is now within New York City Limits . The NY Times of 10/19/09 reported on school trips to the Farm Museum and quoted one kindergartner who discovered that "pumpkins have seeds inside them".

Travel a little farther up river to Croton-on Hudson to see over four thousand carved pumpkins decorating the grounds of Van Cortlandt Manor at the annual Great Jack'OLantern Pumpkin Blaze. Spiders, dinosaurs, fish, snakes ghosts and a pumpkin construction of Henry Hudson's ship, the Blue Moon are some of the imaginative carvings.

Below, the head of a snake.
You must purchase advance tickets and the last day is Nov.1.

Below, a butterfly in two halves, from the Blaze.

I filled in bare spots in
my four tree wells
last year with 16 small
pumpkins. Eight
were still in place
six weeks later.

Below, New York's Mayor
doesn't have to worry
about his pumpkins,
because police patrol
the front of his home
on E. 79th St. 24/7.

I wish Grand Central Station still had it's Pumpkin Fest, last seen two years ago, when they exhibited giant Jack-O'Lanterns and scary giant puppets. The biggest pumpkin I saw this year was displayed at the Topsfield MA Fair, weighing in at 1471.6 lbs. grown by Bill Rodonis of NH. My favorite pumpkin is the heirloom variety 'Rouge vif d'Etamps' here grown by Jen in Canterbury NH, ready to turn into a coach for Cinderella or a savory pie, or to decorate a low stone wall.Fall decorations in my apartment include 'Jack Be Little' miniature pumpkins, dried seed heads of Sedum, pine cones, pomegranates, and an assortment of other pods. Pomanders made of Clementines with whole cloves stuck in add color and aroma to the collection. They're a great project for little kids who can't wield a knife to make a Halloween face.

Friday, October 16, 2009

somebody help me!

I'm a really good jelly maker. Jam maker, too. Ask anyone. But I could use some help with this: Pomona's Universal Pectin. How does this relate to New York City gardening? I hold Pomona's responsible for wasting two of my precious NYC foraged crops.

I'm a big fan of the Amelanchier. It does great in containers:

and provides the multi-season interest required by small gardens.

flowers in spring

berries in summer

foliage color in fall

Every year I harvest the berries and make jam or jelly, sharing it with the clients who actually own the tree.

Jams and jellies made without commercial pectin generally require a 3:4 ratio of sugar:fruit to produce a good jell. Using commercial pectin (for fruits that don't contain enough natural pectin to jell) requires more sugar to balance the bitterness of the pectin; you might need as much as a 7:4 ratio of sugar:fruit. Pomona's lets you use less sugar, or experiment with alternate sweeteners like honey or agave nectar (even stevia, O.E.!). This year, in an effort to be healthy, I tried the Pomona's pectin and used agave nectar.

What a disappointment. Not just because it wasn't tasty, but because instead of the clear, vibrant, purple color that one has come to expect from amelanchier jelly, I was left with a cloudy, muted purple jelly that wouldn't be allowed in a county fair.

Instead of learning my lesson, I gave Pomona's a second try, this time with the precious Mayapple. Mayapples are an under-appreciated native plant, perfectly suited to shady back yards.

Most parts of the mayapple are poisonous, but the RIPE fruit is both safe and delicious. Local fauna is privy to this secret, making it difficult to gather enough ripe fruit to DO anything with. In NYC, however, our special brand of wildlife (rats, pigeons, and cockroaches) is less interested in wild fruit than in dumpster diving, making it an excellent place to forage.

Mayapple jelly is like sunshine in a jar. Hard to describe in terms of other fruits but here goes: a combination of citrus, guava, and pineapple. I thought by using sugar instead of agave nectar I might have better luck with the Pomona's, but alas! No clear, sparkling color and a lackluster taste...what a waste!

So here I am at my wits' end...not a happy place to be. I'm going to throw out my remaining two boxes of Pomona's unless you, dear readers, can tell me where I went wrong. Is Pomona's an inferior product or am I missing something? I have some terrace-grown plums waiting to be jell-ified and I don't intend to blow it again.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


© Alan & Linda Detrick, Ellen Spector Platt design.

I grow culinary herbs on our condo rooftop and make them available to everyone in the building. Fortunately for my selfish needs, 95% of the residents don’t seem to cook, or don’t like fresh herbs, so there’s plenty for the few of us who do.

I usually have old favorites like basil, thyme, rosemary, lavender, cilantro, dill, mint, perilla, calendula and anise hyssop but the collection varies from year to year and I’m always excited to try a new taste. This year I NEEDED Stevia rebaudiana, commonly called honey leaf, candy leaf, sweet leaf, or sweet herb, and I planted two 4" pots in larger containers.

When I nibbled a leaf in
May, I wondered what
the excitement was
about. I’d read that
stevia is 200 to 300
times sweeter than
sugar, and this leaf
had just a tinge of
sweetness.But by late
September, when tiny
white blooms appeared
and the leaves were
ready to harvest,
they were infinitely

Right, stevia and thyme

In the garden stevia is
not a pretty plant;
leaves and flowers are
quite undistinguished. It grows as a small shrub with shallow roots, native to tropical and subtropical regions of South America like Paraguay & Brazil but it won’t winter over here. Plant after soil has warmed, in New York City, late May or early June, in an area with excellent drainage.

To harvest I cut all
the stems from one
plant, rinsed them
off and hung them
to dry. I’ll save them
for a lecture/demo,
so audience mem-
bers can taste my
organically grown
herb. The other
plant I dug up
and placed in a pot
on my sunny office
window. I could have
saved the plant by
taking cuttings, but
not this time around.

The leaves are the
sweetest part: stems
and veins contain
some bitterness.
Stevia is reported to
have no carbs and
no calories because
the sweetening mol-
ecule can’t be ab-
sorbed by the intes-
tines. Many think it
reduces blood
pressure, is a diuretic
and is useful for dia-
betics as a natural
sweetener. There are
some vague indica-
tions that stevia may
reduce fertility, which
in my Grandma years,
is not something I’m
personally concerned

In health food stores
it’s sold bagged as dried leaves, chopped into powder or crystallized,
as an herbal supplement. Sweetness depends on the concentration so recipes are hard to figure.

Above: Stevia hanging to dry in my NYC closet, with peonies, lavender, goldenrod, etc..

Try a crushed fresh leaf or two in a pitcher of fresh lemonade or iced tea. To sweeten hot tea or coffee, brew along with the tea leaves or coffee grounds.

Buy stevia in spring at your favorite nursery or on-line from an herb grower like my favorite, Well-Sweep Herb Farm in Port Murray, New Jersey.

Now if I can only stop myself from reaching out and nibbling on the sweet stuff every day I might have a plant left come spring.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

photo contest: great garden animals

Kyra's favorite spot in the garden is the bird bath (I wonder why!) next to the Hackonechloa, which she prefers to cat nip. (Photo by Adam Mastoon, from Down & Dirty, by Ellen Zachos)

Hello loyal readers, it's time for another photo contest! We've tinkered with the rules to allow our non-blogging readers to enter, so things are a little different this time.

Our theme? GREAT GARDEN ANIMALS... show us your pets!


1) Enter your best photo of an animal in the garden. The animal may be PET or PEST, and the garden (or plants) should be essential to the image, not just background. No birds or butterflies this time, please.
2) Include a brief caption (1 or 2 sentences).
3) Email your entry to esp@ellenspectorplatt.com. If you have a blog, include the URL so we can link back. We'll add all entries to the bottom of this post.
4) Images should be jpegs, no larger than ONE megabyte.
5) Photos can be indoors or out.
6) Points given for light, composition, and originality. We're not looking for closeups; we want to see how the animal and garden relate to each other.
7) The contest ends at midnight on October 28, 2009. Winners will be announced by November 4.

Here are a few examples, to clarify:

Sisko anticipates the flavor of wheat grass grown indoors from seed on a south-facing windowsill.

Andy K. on his New York terrace: as his hips grew more arthritic, the red wagon became his preferred method of roaming the streets of NYC.

Our talented and entirely impartial judge is once again Joe De Sciose. Joe is an award-winning photographer whose photographs have appeared in numerous Condé Nast, Hearst and Meredith magazines and books, as well as in print media for the New York Botanical Garden and The Brooklyn Botanic Garden. From 2003 to 2008, Joe was a Senior Staff Photographer at Southern Living Magazine. He was the sole photographer for Garden Guide: New York City (The Little Bookroom, 2002) and The Flower Gardener’s Bible (Storey Books, 2003), which was awarded a Garden Globe Award in 2004 by the Garden Writers Association for Best Photography for a Garden Book.

The prizes? A folding garden saw (most excellent tool!), a box of seed packet note cards, and a sock of songbird seed in a gift pack...all in a handsome tote bag.

So show us your best combo of flora and fauna. We can't wait to see what you've got.


"Get the steak. can't you see we're starving!?!?" Tracy Waaka, Brooklyn NY

Fefe channels his inner feline in a Brooklyn windowsill "jungle"
Laurent Lambert, Brooklyn, NY

The frost is on the pumpkin. Time to get the harvest in!
Sarah James, Exeter NH

This is Titus with our pumpkin harvest. My mom adopted him from our local grocery store with his sister. They were very young, and think my mother is their mother. They follow her everywhere and are always with us in the garden. So cute!
Ulla Kjarval, NYC & the Catskills

Sunday, October 4, 2009

fruity booze...a special autumn cocktail

Look around you...summer is over.

I love fall: the vibrant foliage, the refreshing temperatures, the anticipation that heavy, sweaty garden work will soon be over. And so I raise a glass to Autumn in New York with this very special cocktail.

The recipe for the basic booze comes from 66 Square Feet (an excellent NYC garden blog, btw). I was immediately inspired to start a batch of my own, albeit with a slightly different agglomeration of fruits:
-mulberries (foraged in Central Park)
-red, black, and white currants (from my CSA fruit share)
-gooseberries (from my own bush!) N.B. Gooseberries are a VERY easy fruit to grow in containers. They'll take light shade and are rarely bothered by pests, perhaps because of their thorny armor.

3 lbs of fruit requires 1.5 lbs. of sugar. I layered the fruit and sugar in a VERY large jar, then poured in vodka to cover. Of course the sugar all washed down to the bottom of the jar, but I swirled it around every time I remembered and trusted that all would be well.

After 5 weeks of macerating, it was time to taste. I was curious about Marie's suggestion to mix the fruity booze with gin. It's vodka, after all, and since when do vodka and gin mix well? Um...since now.

2 parts fruity booze
1 part gin (I used Bombay Sapphire. The cucumber flavor of Hendricks wouldn't be right here.)
1 part seltzer
1 part fresh lime juice
over generous ice

I can't begin to describe how delicious this was. Sweet, yes, but the tartness of the berries balanced the sugar. And the color is OTW. Of course I love that it's not a flavor combination you'll find in a local bar. The best things are always homemade and this seasonal cocktail is no exception.

I put aside 4 small bottles for gifts (if they survive through to the holiday season) and I'm saving the vodka soaked fruit for an experiment with drunken jelly, perhaps next weekend.

So what to call it? Autumn Breeze, September Slammer, Fall Foliage Fizz? I'd love to hear your suggestions. Cheers!

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