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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Apios americana are in bloom again...

(and yes, I'm quoting Stage Door)

Every year I forget they're coming. Every year I'm surprised by their fragrance. Every year I ask myself, "Why don't more people grow this plant?!"

Seriously, I don't understand it. I can only imagine no one knows about it because anyone who saw it, smelled it, tasted it ONCE, would be enraptured, addicted, hooked!

Apios americana (aka hopniss) is an athletic vine that grows best in full sun. In NYC it blooms profusely in late August (i.e. NOW), with a heavy perfume that will not be ignored. I wouldn't want to wear it (I don't wear perfume) but I sure love to smell it in the garden. Its leaves resemble those of wisteria (medium green, pinnate) and its flowers are not dissimilar, although the round, fragrant clusters are smaller than those of wisteria and bi-colored: red and pink.

The edible part of this plant is the tuber. It's too early to harvest them now; wait till after the first frost. And delicious as the tubers are (and they ARE delicious), today I want to convince you of Apios's ornamental value.

This is a trouble free plant, requiring almost no work from the gardener. In the ground it will take as much space as you give it, but it's equally happy in a container, and therefore well suited to NYC rooftops. It's not a demure plant; give it a large container of its own, then get out of the way. I'd estimate 20-25 feet of growth in a single growing season. That's enough to fully mask an unattractive railing or make an impressive statement against a bamboo fence. The vines remain thin and green, never becoming woody like wisteria, so it's easy to cut them back to the ground each year (and dig up a few tubers for supper...oh wait! I wasn't going to talk about that.) All you have to do is keep twining it in the direction you want it to go.

What are you waiting for?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


If you have it, you can grow this:Portland Japanese Garden

If you don't have water you can grow this.Northern NM

The Santa Fe Audubon Society captures rain in great barrels to help water the gardens near the Visitor Center. Rain and melting snow falls from spouts directly into the barrels and is siphoned off from there.

My dear friends in Santa Fe struggled for some twenty years, buckets in showers, to hand carry water to the garden. When they finally fitted the entire roof of their one story adobe home and garage with a water capture system the garden sprang to life.Santa Fe Greenhouses estimates they have one acre of roof surface and collect about 320,000 gallons of precipitation in their 38,000 gallon cistern.
And what are we doing about water in New York City? Not much! Rain water drains from rooftops into the sewer system. 70% of the sewage system carries combined rainwater and water flushed from our toilets. When a heavy rain comes along, there is flooding at the corners where sewers are backed up. With a really heavy rain, some subway lines are flooded. We pay to process all of the water together, even that which is not raw sewage.
Meanwhile a building such as mine is reluctant to wash the pavement with a hose or water the tree wells more than twice a week because water is too expensive.The Queens Botanical Garden demonstrates one solution above. On the green roof of their new Visitor Center, rain water is absorbed by soil and taken up by the plants that live there, helping to alleviate some of the flooding in other areas of the low lying garden.

On The High Line in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, bog plants are grown in special containers that are watered regularly.On my roof I've grown a bowl of carniverous bog plants for kids including the ever-popular Venus fly trap.If we don't have enough water we'll be reduced to this:

Or this:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

fly like an eagle

The Eagle Street Rooftop Farm is in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. A farm? On a rooftop? In Greenpoint? That's right. You heard me.

Founder Annie Novak gave us a guided tour of the 6000 square foot growing space and explained the farm's philosophy. Her realism was refreshing. Annie has no illusions that NYC rooftop gardens can feed NYC. Instead she sees her urban farm as an opportunity for education. The farm supports a CSA, supplies several local restaurants with VERY local produce, and partners with Growing Chefs ("food education from field to fork") to bring city-dwellers closer to their food source with a range of educational programs.

Financed by Broadway Stages (the sound stage located beneath the green roof) and designed by Goode Green, the base system is comprised of polyethelene, a drainage mat, and retention and separation fabrics.

They start all their own seeds and grow everything in a mere four inches of mix. No, it ISN'T soil. The growing medium is a combination of compost, rock particulates, and shale; it's lightweight, retains water, and provides good aeration. Annie top-dresses the garden with compost made on site, and rotates the mobile chicken coop to spread chicken manure throughout the garden.

Now in its second year, Annie collects data on what grows best in these unusual circumstances. One of this year's big winners is hot peppers. Tomatoes, salad greens, kale, and chard also perform well. The Biggest Loser: winter squash. (Sorry, winter squash!) She refines her crop choices based on performance and market value.

In addition to a carefully chosen palette of vegetables, Eagle Street harvests honey from three (now legal!) apiaries and includes occasional eggs from its six resident chickens in their CSA shares. There are also some very cute bunnies on site (in cages, where they can't munch freely), which are NOT being raised as meat, I'm told. Mmm...rabbit... I'm just saying.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Am I patient or just lazy? I prefer the more positive spin.

When I transplanted everything on my rooftop into new containers this spring, I lost only one shrub, this Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) that was one of a stalwart pair. The other was thriving in the next big planter. As you can see, I planted annuals and perennials around the dead bayberry, knowing I might have to rip everything up eventually. My excuse was that the bare branches had a nice architectural quality. Among my closest friends I'm known as the Queen of Denial.

Two months later, sprouts emerged from the base of the trunk, and in a few scattered places along the branches.Despite strong complaints from our resident Realtor who thinks a dead tree will make it harder to sell an apartment, I'm waiting and watching. This shrub is not dead.

Nor was the southern magnolia that I just had to have on my farm, after admiring the bright pink cones with vermilion seeds at Longwood Gardens. This despite my farm was in zone 5 and I knew the species I planted was labeled hardy only to zone 6. It grew well for four years, then one spring refused to sprout. I left that dead tree in place, watching it daily from my sun-porch, (this was laziness for sure.) Then after THREE YEARS It suddenly leafed out and was reliable year after year.

Street Trees
I tend the four tree wells in front of my building; there are Pin Oaks in the center of each, planted by the NYC Dept. of streets. Over a period of three years, one of the trees started to fail, then die; all twigs were brittle with no green inside.
Spring 2010 I notified the City. They examined the tree. They sent the chipper shredder. Here's what was left of the 16' Pin Oak on May 25.
And here's what appeared on July 12th.
Double click on the image and see the leaf sprouts coming up around the stump.
Critical Questions
1. Shall I cancel the order for stump removal and a new tree at the Dept. of Streets?
2. How long will it take these sprouts to grow into a tree?
3. Shall I select one sprout and let that develop into a single trunk?
4.Will building resident demand a new TREE?
5. If they do will I succumb to pressure?
6. Do giant oaks from cut-off stumps grow?
7. Will I live long enough to see it all happen?

Some opinions please!!!

Friday, August 6, 2010

It's too darn hot

Some days I think I have the best job in the world, others...not so much. This past month in NYC has been brutal (in case you didn't know) and I've usually restricted myself to half days on the rooftops, where the sun and heat are unrelenting. Despite my 70 SPF, I haven't been this brown since before we knew the sun was bad for us.

So where does a gardener seek shade and solace on a hot August day? In a brownstone backyard garden, of course.

Light is probably the most important variable when choosing plants for your location. Most people with shade gardens complain about not being able to grow enough flowers or vegetables or herbs, but there are times when I crave the relative serenity of a shade garden. True, Caladium and Impatiens aren't the most novel combination around, but they please me, and provide plenty of color in a low-light situation. So what if I can't grow roses, I can have climbing hydrangea. Not enough light for ornamental grasses? Use hostas instead.

The fence here was replaced last December, in a careless way that convinced me I'd loose several trees. In fact, I did not, and the climbing hydrangea and Schizophragma are once again climbing the heights.

And one bonus you rarely find in a rooftop garden: a little extra space in the back. I use it as a coleus nursery. Whenever I prune (at least once a month) I stick the cuttings in the back of the garden to fill in with some extra color.

Please forgive the date stamps. I've been fiddling around with camera settings and I'm mortified to see that I left the date stamp on. It has since been remedied.

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