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

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Paper bush at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
I often take children on treasure hunts through garden or woods. We search for what's in season, what's unusual, cool, or beautiful. We admire, photograph, sketch or gather, depending on where we are. We make fairy houses and other wondrous crafts with pods, cones, dropped leaves and petals.

January 26th at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I was on my own, no child in tow. In the 'dead' of winter I wanted to find what was most alive and most appealing outdoors. Here are some treasures I discovered in just a tiny part of the BBG, on the walk from the #2 train to a meeting in the auditorium.

Of course, Snowdrops. Not so unusual in January but a very pleasing reminder that spring is coming. Also a big container of pansies at the entrance on Eastern Parkway. A stand of green stinking hellebores mixed with the copper of faded fern stems, and sprays of hardy Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) displaying their yellow flowers. (below)Buds
I swear I've never seen Paper bush before (Edgeworthia chrysantha, top image) but this shrub gathered a crowd of admirers, all gardening professionals. The "American Hort. Society Encyclopedia of Plants" shows pictures of this species with yellow flowers. So these must be the buds.
Fattening up too are the buds of the Star Magnolia, one of the first to bloom in spring. Their flowers are often blackened by late frost so never a favorite in my own gardens.
Last Fall's fruit still looking attractive are yellow and red-berried hollies.
A little wrinkled but still vibrant are the fruits of a flowering crab (Malus 'Sugar Time')

What looked like an
evergreen Magnolia
was spark-
ling in the sun. (I didn't
dare hop over the fence
to check the ID tag).

The variegated leaves of
the Kumazasa bamboo
(Sasa veitchii) below,
while not in peak con-
dition, served their
architectural function
around the viewing
platform of the Japan-
ese Hill and Pond

Without the distraction of flowers, I found lots of bark treasures, in particular two varieties of Crape-myrtle. The bark is so smooth it seems like a sanding machine has just completed its work.Whenever I'm in a special garden I'm looking for stuff that I can plant at home. One of the great treasures found on this hunt is a stand of Black Bamboo (Phyllostchys nigra), so called because of the shiny black stems of the mature plant. I actually do use it on my roof garden in a 30" pot. It's very successful for its conditions but will never compare to this magnificent specimen. Note how it's planted at the BBG isolated by a swath of driveway. Someone must have measured the longest possible root creep and decided it's safe.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

In your opinion...

It's that time of year again: Flower & Garden Show Time! This works out well for us Garden Communicators in cold climates, since we're not so busy outdoors for the next few months. I can't think of a better way to spend the winter than learning about new plants and hearing garden experts speak about what they know and love. (Well maybe an extended topical vacation, but that gets expensive...)

This year I'm giving a brand new presentation as the keynote address for the Connecticut Master Gardeners Association Symposium, in Manchester, CT: Just Because You're a Gardener Doesn't Mean You're Green! I'm excited because this is a chance to talk with experienced gardeners about making considered, careful choices on how to garden in harmony with the environment.

As gardeners we're more aware of our natural surroundings than many people...that's what comes of being obsessed with plants and landscapes. But we can do better. This lecture focuses on simple suggestions on how to be a better gardener AND a better environmental steward, and I'd like your help.

E.g., one of my pet peeves is how some gardeners don't understand that even organic insecticides can be harmful to the environment. Pyrethrin based sprays (made from certain Chrysanthemum species) may be organic, but they're still toxic to pollinators, fish, and birds. We all need to understand that there are alternatives to reaching for a bottle of bug spray.

What do YOU think is important? Have you reduced the size of your lawn or started cultivating the Soil Food Web? I want to know. Please share your ideas with me, and I promise to give a public shout out to anyone whose contribution makes it into my final presentation. And of course you'll have my undying gratitude...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


On Dec. 14th, 2009 I announced my Big Apple Roof Awards for 2009 in this blog.

Now my pick for least favorite: the roof garden at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

What, you didn’t even know MOMA has a roof garden? You’ve been to the Museum many times and never seen mention of it? You are a great fan of the MOMA sculpture garden and would love to see the roof?

Well you can’t. Not even if you pay admission. This “garden” is meant to be seen from neighboring windows, those that are higher than the 10th floor, so if you rent a room at the Warwick Hotel facing 54th St. or have an apartment at the Museum towers, or an office overlooking the Taniguchi building, you’ll be able to see the plastic boxwood-like things in all their glory. Oh yes, there are stones in patterns and some rocks too.

Apparently MOMA didn’t want anyone to be able to walk out on the “garden”, didn’t want any water leaking on the art work on floors below, didn’t want any upkeep costs. MOMA did want to placate neighbors who questioned expansion of the Museum. But if they really wanted to be a good neighbor, why would they leave their trash pile exposed on 54th St. for all of those neighbors to see every day.

This “garden” has been cited by the American Society of Landscape Architects with an Honor Award. The project statement refers to its ‘wit and irony’. Where they see wit, I see humorless, fake; where they see ‘irony’ I see insult and missed opportunity. I woke up this morning realizing that this design reminded me of the miniature golf courses of my girlhood.The ASLN award compares the MOMA rooftop to Japanese dry Zen gardens. I’ve been to many Zen gardens both in the US and Japan, and find them invariably delightful, serene places to stroll, contemplate, or enjoy from afar. Thinking of what MOMA might have done and didn’t, makes my blood boil.

Before I saw the roof I called on all of my scientific training to wait until I saw it myself. I was trying so hard to keep an open mind. Go see for yourself, provided you have a friend or acquaintance on a high floor overlooking 54th St. Don’t expect to be able to look just by paying your $20 admission to MOMA.

Many thanks to dear friend Leah G. who gave me access to her building’s roof for my viewing and telephoto lens.

The Portland Japanese Garden (OR)

A rock garden labyrinth at the Lodge at Sedona (AZ)

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Who's a real New Yorker? When I moved here from Pennsylvania, I was advised not to call myself a New Yorker until I had survived the city for 7 years.
But I discovered two more meaningful criteria.
1. When, deciding to go car-less, I sold my Jeep with its Meadow Lark Flower & Herb Farm logo.
2. When I fully accepted mailorder gardening as a feature, not a bug, of living in the city.

On my farm, I had used my Jeep and GMC panel truck to haul bags of fertilizer, trees and shrubs, flats of herbs and annuals, and even as modified cold frames in emergencies. I had ordered specialty seeds for the hundreds of varieties I grew for drying (Nigella orientalis anyone?) ordered bulbs so I could get the exact shade and timing I required, but everything else I trucked from nurseries as much as 90 miles away. Below, the interior of my barn with dried harvest.©Alan & Linda Detrick, Ellen Spector Platt design, all rights reserved.

Now in Manhattan, too cheap to rent a truck, and not wanting to rely totally on the kindness of Other Ellen to buy things for me, I expanded my use of long distance ordering. From Klehm's I bought the lovely native wisteria 'Amethyst Falls' (above), three varieties of clematis and two peonies. Well-Sweep Herb Farm had the grand assortment of species I needed for a living herb wreath. Do you think the Home Depot at 59th St. would have the peanut seeds that I REQUIRED? No, but Henry Field's did and shipped them right out with great instructions printed on the pack. Racks of Renee's Seeds are often available in the city, but what I crave are the unusual, and for that I run right to the catalog, though Renee sometimes gives me free seeds to try. At High Country Gardens I found some great lavenders, yarrows and other xeric plants for those containers not on my drip system. A terrific bonus of a good catalog is the amount of valuable planting and growing information, so pay heed.

Seeds, roses, perennials, herbs, shrubs, containers, fertilizers, and bagged compost all showed up in my building lobby, trucked there by UPS, FedEx, or USPS. I paid attention to the pot size and shipping dates so I'd know just what to expect and be available to plant immediately.

Daughter Jen living in NH, tries to eat from her garden from April thought November, and has the luxurious choice of a car or her husband's truck. But she still buys seeds, bulbs, and even perennials and trees from her favorite mailorder houses like Fedco for starter trees and organic vegetables, Bluestone Perennials where she can find small size plants to fit her budget, knowing (three varieties of beets and other good stuff from Jen's garden)
that they'll catch up to landscape size in a year or two, Baker Creek Seeds for heirlooms, Pinetree for their mini-packs so she can try lots of new varieties before committing to a pack of 60-100 tomatoes, beets or carrots, and Johnny's from Maine where winter hardiness is a given.
If I need to ponder which one of 32 varieties of sunflower to choose, from the largest to the smallest, I go straight to Johnny's. (below, biggest and smallest at the Korn King produce stand, Canterbury NH)If you want to check out other mailorder sources visit the Mailorder Gardening Association which lists members selling all categories of plants and garden stuff, phone numbers for paper catalogs, direct links to online sites, updated USDA hardiness map from 2003, and tips on how to handle your plants if you can't put them right in the ground. As I was exploring this site for today's post, I ran across Moss Acres; I had been hearing good things about them, had been meaning to try their mosses and now will, if not in New York, then in the shady garden of one of my kids.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Enough of the cold. Let's talk about warm gardens in NYC.
When the outside temperature was in the teens, I had the pleasure of exploring the vertical gardens at the new David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. While classical music provided the sound track, I could snack at 'wichcraft cafe, use the WiFi service, admire a huge wall tapestry, or buy same-day discount tickets for LC performances including South Pacific. Currently, the Atrium is offering free live concerts on Thursday evenings. (Be careful; the box office is closed on Mondays though the Atrium stays open).

I could also watch the floor to ceiling fountain, and even better, discover the patterns in the two vertical walls of plants, each 21' high by 34' wide planted with over two thousand tropicals.
These grow under natural
light from above, and
warm artificial lights
that bathe the gardens.
Plants grow in felt
pouches with no soil,
just water and fertilizer
provided by drip at
intervals throughout
the day.

One of my first posts to this blog was about an outdoor vertical garden on E. 86th St. It looked great until building scaffolding went up blocking the light. It's been over a year now. The construction is still there; those plants are DEAD.

There are a few bare patches on the Atrium walls at Lincoln Center, a great way to see the mechanics of planting, but I hope someone's paying attention to the constant needs of the plants and will keep the garden in
the great shape it deserves.

Friday, January 8, 2010

a winter garden

I don't do much outdoor gardening this time of year, for obvious reasons. But one of my best clients is coming back this weekend (after a month in warmer climes) and I wanted to make sure the garden looked neat, if not exactly welcoming.

I wasn't sure what to expect. We've had snow and wind and rain and more wind, and I prepared for several hours of clean-up in below-freezing temperatures.

What a wonderful surprise to step out onto the terrace and find a perfect winter scene. Subdued colors, obvious texture, fluid movement, defining structure. And there was warmth. Not physical warmth...remember the temperature was 20-something. But visual warmth. Maybe because the sun was out, maybe because we've passed the solstice and are undeniably heading toward spring. Or maybe it was all in my imagination.

What do you think?

Monday, January 4, 2010


Viewed from across a frozen pond on an otherwise gray day, the torii (gateway) in the Japanese Garden is startling to behold. (Brooklyn Botanic Garden) Grass seed heads around the Central Park Reservoir provide refuge for birds and interest for runners.Also in Central Park at the Conservatory Garden life goes on.
Kids in my building make snowmen on the roof garden using seedheads from blackeyed Susans for eyes and buttons, and grass stems for arms. At the Park Zoo I spy heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) which I vow to plant in my own garden this spring. In January 2008, the Japanese apricot ( Prunus mume 'Peggy Clarke') blossoms bloomed near the BBG Conservatory; I didn't know whether to rejoice at this early sign of spring or cry about climate change.

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