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

Sunday, February 28, 2010

I beg to differ.

I know this is a city gardening blog. But since I split my time between rural PA and Manhattan, I am constantly reminded of the differences between the two locations, despite the fact that they're separated by a mere 90 miles.

During the growing season, my PA garden is at least 2 weeks behind the gardens in NYC. Frosts linger longer and start earlier, and of course I don't find too many deer munching the Rhododendrons on the 20th floor. This week, while O.E. watched robins on her rooftop, we shovelled out from under 40+ inches of snow. And by we, I mean Michael.

34 of those inches fell in a single blast, so even though the roads were clear, our driveway wasn't plowed. Which means we lugged two cats and four heavy canvas bags of absolute necessities down our 86 yard driveway. (note to self: increase aerobic workout, your endurance needs work!)

We have hunkered down, stoking the wood stove and pulling liberally from the chest freezer. No robins here, only wood peckers, tit mice, and chickadees, grateful for the bird feeder. And squirrels. Enough to keep the cats entertained, but not enough to convince Sisko to venture off the deck.

Hard to believe that in a few hours we'll be back in Manhattan, land of plowed streets, swelling buds, and early robins.

Friday, February 26, 2010


Nine-thirty am, still snowing, schools closed, but no child has yet made it up to the roof garden that I tend for my building. Mine are the first tracks of the day. I plod through drifting snow past the stacked-up lounge furniture and displaced planters to find the snow image I didn't know enough to look for. Five fat robins are visiting. I don't know if they had stayed in New York City all winter or had just flown back for spring, but they are eating the leftover aronia and barberry fruit. I'm not prepared, have no telephoto lens, but I'm thrilled that they stay a while in my garden.
(double click on any image to enlarge)

How did they find the 18th floor?

Friday, February 19, 2010


The living butterfly exhibit at the Am. Museum of Natural History.

Sometimes I need a place to go in winter, breathe some humid air and observe plants and wildlife, a place not more than one fare away on my Metrocard. Not the obvious destinations like botanic gardens and zoos, but the lesser known and maybe less visited finds.

I've been to two recently, one at The Rusk Institute at NYU Hospital, and the other at the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West and 81st. St.Above, an aquatic garden with fish and plants demonstrates the ecological interplay of both at Rusk.

Right, Clerodendrom in bloom in the glass house at Rusk.

Rusk is famous for it's
physical rehab program,
but they also have a hort
therapy program for
children and adults who
are patients there. Since
1958 the Enid A. Haupt
Glass House provides a
tranquil retreat for both
patients and visitors.
NYU started the first
horticultural therapy
dept. in the US in 1970 and as part of the program established an outdoor children's garden. Visitors are welcome 365 days at no charge, although to enter from the street you need to come into the hospital on the 34th St. side between First and York Aves. and pass the security guard who waves you on through to the Glass House and walled garden. Neighborhood mothers with strollers often sit on the benches to meet and greet their friends. Songs from caged finches bred in captivity and pairs of lovebirds add a charming note.
At the Natural History Museum, the butterfly exhibit (with tropical plants) is on display through May 31, 2010. There's a fee in addition to the general museum admission. I was hoping to sit on a bench, watch kids watching the butterflies sipping nectar from flowers and fruits, but alas, no benches in this smallish space; keep moving through the exhibit, so not too much tranquility here. Butterflies alight seemingly at random on hair and clothing of visitors. There's great hilarity when one perches on the seat of some nicely worn jeans, giving new meaning to the word butt-erfly.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Buy this book! (please)

I met Sam Thayer at the 2007 NC Wild Foods Weekend. I was considering the trip, and when I saw that Sam was the featured speaker, that clinched it. I'd read his first book, The Forager's Harvest, and was impressed by the depth of his information and the sense of humor and personality that came through on every page. Sam offers a rare combination of vast experience and solid research. He's not afraid to use Latin names or correct terminology for plant parts and he also has deep personal knowledge of every plant he suggests.

Nature's Garden is Sam's second book and it's an even better read than the first. Once again, he has chosen a relatively small group of plants (42), then provides numerous, excellent photographs of every stage of every plant. He writes in detail about each edible, explaining where to find it, when to harvest, and how to prepare it. Sam's voice comes through loud and clear and his enthusiasm is contagious. And he isn't afraid to take a controversial stand, which he backs up with convincing data and details.

Nature's Garden begins with a section titled "Claimer" and reading it made me want to raise my fist in the air and say "Right on." So many books begin with a disclaimer intended to shield both author and publisher from litigation. Unfortunately this results in DIScouraging the reader from experimentation. Sam wrote his book to ENcourage people to forage, and he takes full responsibility for the information therein. He claims the contents rather than disclaims them, and then encourages us to read intelligently and be careful with our explorations.

Sam makes it clear that this is not a field guide; at 500+ pages, Nature's Garden would add weight to your backpack, plus it's so beautiful you might not want to risk schmearing it with mud or dropping it in a stream. I plan to use it for pre-foraging inspiration, then for instruction when I get my harvest home to the kitchen.

I could go on and on about the plants Sam includes (acorns, elderberry, Jerusalem artichoke, Mayapple), about his philosophy of nature as a garden, but I'd rather you read it for yourself. (N.B. Most of the plants in the book can be found in the Five Boroughs.) If you're a forager, this book should be in your library. If you're thinking about starting to forage, Nature's Garden will give you the jump start you need.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Central Park Rocks

The streets of New York City were quiet this morning, almost deserted, as obedient New Yorkers (!?!) listened to reason and stayed home from work in anticipation of The Blizzard of 2010. Oh please. I'm not bragging, but when you grow up in New Hampshire you have perspective: if the snowbank isn't over your head, it's a school day.

As soon as I entered Central Park, everything changed. THAT'S where all the action was.

The dogs!

The kids!

The snowmen!

On the walk west the scene was pretty but not treacherous.

On the way back east, four hours later, the accumulation was more impressive.

But what TRULY impressed me were the kids.

Mobs of them, with sleds, cardboard boxes, saucers, and all of them screaming (the kids, not the sleds). But basically they were behaving really REALLY well. No snowballs thrown too hard, no crashing into each other (well, a little crashing, but it was controlled crashing), and no meanness. The mood was one of jollity, astonishment, and delight. It made me smile all the way home.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


photo © Larry Hodgson, used with permission
For Thomas, Shady, Sorsha, Urban Gardens and other who commented on my post of Jan 2010, Baby It's Warm Inside:

Some of you were pondering the possibilities of a vertical garden at home; as promised, an image provided by garden writer and houseplant expert Larry Hodgson of his bathroom. Other Ellen and and I have been invited to see Larry's creative work in his home in Quebec Province, Canada, but so far haven't been able to take him up on his offer. Now that I see the picture, I'm holding out for an invitation to bathe. Double click on the image (and any other images on Garden Bytes) to see an enlargement and hunt for the two small flamingos that Larry added this year. Note the array of grow-lights that make a permanent installation possible.

Larry Hodgson, a talented garden lecturer, author, trip leader and raconteur is the author of many books, including "Houseplants for Dummies", "Decorating with Houseplants", and "Your Guide to Healthy Houseplants". My favorite of his books is "Making the Most of Shade", Rodale Press, 2005 to which I refer time and again for inspiration, information and his strong opinions.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Chicago ain't the only windy city.

I grew up when winters were winters and schools didn't close for a paltry few inches of snow. I'm not bragging...I just want you to understand that cold weather doesn't freak me out. I can take it.

I'm not so sure about the trees. It's been a windy winter and terrace trees are super susceptible (I'm on an alliterative tear) to tipping. A tree tips over in the forest and chances are no one gets hurt. On a terrace over East 79th Street, it's an entirely different matter.

I was over by the East River, looking down, when I noticed these arborvitae.

Are they attached to anything? I hope so.

Terraces are windy places, considerably windier than ground level gardens. Put two tall buildings next to each other and it gets worse: the wind funnels between them, intensifying and tunneling its way among the containers. Tree branches catch that wind like sails and something's gotta give. The tree may tip over or it may sail across the terrace, hopefully NOT into the great beyond. Here's what you can do to make your terrace trees more safe:

1) Thinning a tree's canopy decreases the surface area of the sail enough to keep the tree from going mobile. Try pruning out 20-25% of the horizontal branches.

2) Make sure your tree isn't too heavy for its container. Inadequate weight in the container makes it easier for the tree to tip. On rooftops we choose light weight containers and potting mixes, PLUS, winter soil is dry, and dry soil is light. This is a recipe for disaster. Keep an eye on the relative masses of your top growth and container. A big tree needs a heavy pot.

3) Square and rectangular containers are more stable than circular pots. On an especially windy terrace, use a quadrilateral container.

4) Tie it down! I use heavy gauge wire and pieces of garden hose to attach tree trunks to terrace railings. Cut the hose into 12' pieces and run the wire through it, then wire the tree in place, making sure the hose section is up against the tree trunk. The hose keeps the wire from cutting into the trunk when the wire becomes taut. Each tree should be wired at two or three points along the trunk, just in case.

I walked by my windiest terrace last week and from 18 floors below I could see that several trees had tipped over (actual trees above). I have pruned them, I have wired them, but still they tip. The pots are wicked heavy. Definitely heavier than the top growth. And yet they tip. I've suggested square containers to replace the round pots but I've met with resistance. I've suggested my client donate the biggest trees to the building's garden and replace them with smaller shrubs. She'll think about it.

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