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

Monday, December 26, 2011


Up on the rooftop Christmas day, in my container garden, not Santa but Rosa'Graham Thomas',
the annual Calibrachoa 'Million Bells',new self-seeded calendula plants and California poppies, waiting to bloom.and at my bus stop, a few flowering pear blossoms.
All is not right with the world.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

I'm confused. And I'm not the only one.

Last week in Central Park:

Some plants think it's August.

Some think it's September.

At least one thinks it's May.

But the one I'm really worried about is this little beauty.

What are they going to do come next March?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Win a copy of Art Wolk's informative and hilarious book," Bulb Forcing: for beginners and the seriously smitten." All you have to do is comment directly below this post or for the tech challenged, email me and I'll add your comment section: 75 words or less describing your greatest success or failure in bulb forcing.

Garden Bytes publishers Ellen Spector Platt and Ellen Zachos will judge your comments and announce the winner on the blog. Entry deadline, Jan 2, 2012. The book is a beautiful hardback, signed by the author, published at $32.95 with free shipping courtesy of GardenBytes.com .(above, Crocus tomasinianus, 'Ruby Giant' forced in a pot)

Now is the time for New York City gardeners and all urban gardeners with tiny or non-existent outdoor spaces to think of growing bulbs indoors. Ok, you people with huge gardens are also invited to add the pleasure of winter blooms to your indoor space.

I've been forcing bulbs since girlhood but as I read Wolk's book I kept thinking with wonderment, 'I didn't know that.' He reveals all from his vast experience; how using a heat mat under a pot or increasing room heat forces the two or three amaryllis flower stalks within a bulb to shoot up and bloom simultaneously for a grand display.
I never realized that tap water that contains fluoride would probably kill the freesias I was trying to force (OMG, so THAT'S why...) Try layering your bulbs, explore a different species like anemones or ranunculus, plant a multi-species pot.(three photos above courtesy Art Wolk, from his book "Bulb Forcing." Directly above, Wolk's 13-division daffodil display at the 1999 Phila. Flower Show)

Maybe you don't want to compete for the big blue ribbon wins as Wolk does. I'm happy with a few hyacinths in water in a color to compliment my new gift African violet (see below). But in "Bulb Forcing" I discovered why my hyacinth stems are so short. If you want to learn the secret, win the book, or even (gasp) buy it.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


(giant Cydonia oblonga v. petite Chaenomeles japonica)

'Tis the season to cook with quinces.

I've extolled the virtues of the traditional quince in the past, but these days I'm looking at edible plants from a different point of view.

The ornamental quince (Chaenomeles japonica) is grown primarily for its flowers. When I was growing up we had a beauty in our garden, and my parents told me the fruit wasn't edible. I'm sure they weren't intentionally lying to me. Most people just don't realize these hard, yellow fruit can be delicious.

Ornamental quince grows well in containers and new hybrids have expanded the flowers' color palette from shades of pink to include orange and red. Please note that some of these hybrids (specifically the Proven Winners Double Take series) do NOT produce fruit. So sad. Were they bred that way on purpose? Did someone think that was a good thing?

Spring is the pretty time for these shrubs, but fall is when they get interesting. Small ripe fruit looks like lumpy tennis balls. They're often marred by large black spots, but these can be cut away during preparation and do nothing to mar the sour, complex taste and fragrance of the fruit.

Flowering quince is great for making jelly. It has loads of pectin and jells easily. But why not be a little more adventurous and experiment with membrillo?

Membrillo (aka quince paste) is a classic Spanish dessert. Most recipes call for traditional quinces, sugar, and water...that's it. I used ornamental quinces, and added a vanilla bean and a Meyer lemon. It's time consuming, because basically what you're doing is cooking all the liquid out of the fruit mixture, which literally takes hours. But boy oh boy is it worth it.

Serve it with slices of manchego or sharp cheddar and you'll impress the hell out of your dinner guests. After they've enjoyed it and praised your culinary skills, you can tell them you picked the fruit from the flowering shrub on your terrace. If you don't have a terrace, you may be able to score some ornamental quince fruit in your local park. Most people let them fall and rot.

I harvest from the same spot every year, offering the shrub's owner some jelly or membrillo in return.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Solon shows you how.

Five years ago, Solon and I went to the local garden center to buy him a plant. He chose an African violet and the African violet thrived. It thrived a lot. We moved it to a bigger pot a few years ago, but this year Solon asked if I could help him divide it. I'm always happy to spend time with Solon AND with plants, so I jumped at the chance. Here's how we did it.

First, find two (or more) pots in which to plant your divisions. Solon liked this watering-can pot, but he wasn't sure it would work because there was no drainage hole in the bottom.

Without a hole, excess water wouldn't be able to escape, which could lead to root rot. Instead, we chose two, terra cotta, 4" pots for the two divisions.

I knocked the violet out of its pot (on newspapers, of course) and told Solon not to be shy. He easily pulled apart the two main clumps of the plant.

Next, Solon covered the drainage hole with a stone, then poured fresh potting soil into the pot.

He added more potting mix around the plant, pushing it in deep.

We thought we'd have two African violets after the division, but while we were pulling things apart, we found two mini-plants, trying their best to push up from underneath the leaves of the larger plants. These clumps didn't have many roots, so we decided to try an experiment.

We potted them up in 2" pots, then placed each one inside a zip lock bag.

Solon inflated each bag (after reminding me I should say inflate instead of blow up. Apparently blow up means something different to little boys...), creating a mini-greenhouse for each mini-violet.

In the end we had two, freshly potted, blooming African violets, and two mini-violets, which Solon has promised to send me regular reports on. He's going to open the bags once a week, check the soil moisture, water if necessary, and re-close the bags.

Solon asked what he should do if the plants outgrow their bags. I explained that if they start growing, they've established roots and they can come out of their mini-greenhouses.

Update: Six months later, Solon is the proud owner of four, floriferous African violets. Way to go, Solon!

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Again, The High Line. Endlessly fascinating in every season. Join me on a trip to a hidden spot smack in the middle of Manhattan. See it before the third section, the Spur over the Hudson rail yards, is rehabbed.

to view full screen, click on arrow, then on cluster of four tears, near bottom right of video.To hear my glorious narration, make sure your sound is ON.

AFTER, on the second section, between 20th and 30th sts.


New York City has a program to plant a million new trees within its five borough's. I wonder what number I got.
The pin oak, one of the four in tree pits in front of my building, 'died' in 2009. I called the Dept. of Parks and Recreation in the fall, got a case number and a place on the waiting list. The tree was cut down 5/25/10, and two months later, sprouted shoots from the 'dead' stump, so not dead, but not a tree either.The city plants trees only in spring and fall. No action fall of '09, spring or fall of '10, or spring '11. Finally, Nov. 15, 2011 the contractor hired by the city dug up the stump, enlarged the tree pit and planted, amazingly, what I had requested, another pin oak.With new soil, several inches of dark mulch, and without a fence or curb, in one day it became the favorite peeing place of all dogs on the Upper East Side.The next morning we had warning tape in place and I planted spring bulbs provided by the Block Association. The tape will remain until new curbs and fence are installed.The new tree pit is almost twice as long as the original, adding a good 12 sq. feet of growing space for the tree roots. I'm told that the city plans to enlarge all tree wells as trees need replacing.

1.In each of two summers without the tree, summer annuals for shade like coleus and caladium grew 3-4 inches higher than the same species under the trees.(above), annuals under a pin oak.
(below), no tree.2. One youngish woman in my building asked me, the garden lady, what was new in the garden. She told me she never noticed the dead tree or that the tree was sawed off or that the tree had been replaced. Over two years of not noticing a site she walks by directly in front of her building. And I thought it was so important!

Monday, November 14, 2011

shedding evergreens

It's that time of year again.

Please don't panic.

Instead, take a deep breath, put on a long sleeved shirt, a pair of gloves, and get ready to dive into your mugo pine, topiary chamaecyparis, or arborvitae.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: just because they're called evergreens doesn't mean ALL their leaves stay EVERgreen. It's normal for evergreens to lose about 1/3 of their leaves every year, and most of the browning and shedding happens in the fall. Clients who don't expect this tend to panic, and react with cries of "My _____ is dying!"

But it isn't.

It just needs a seasonal cleanup. Which requires no fancy tools and just the smallest amount of specialized knowledge. Ready? Once you've reached both hands inside the evergreen, move them around lightly and quickly in a rubbing/fluffing motion. Work from the top down and the inside out, moving around the entire shrub or tree. Occasionally you'll run into some stubborn brown needles, reluctant to give up their position on a branch. A quick snip of the pruners shows the recalcitrant evergreen who's in charge.

A little trim and the restoration of youthful color...it's a hair appointment for your shrubbery.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Other Ellen's post last week reminds me of the value of berried plants in the fall landscape in NYC. In our winter enthusiasm to get immediate color in spring, we often give short shrift to fall interest.
Here are 5 shrubs with berry interest, planted with fall and winter in mind. Above, chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) in container on my roof garden, and below, a few clusters of the berries 'pruned' for decoration indoors. Firethorn (Pyracantha) has small white uninteresting flowers in spring but shines in autumn and throughout the winter. In small spaces, prune it as an espaliered tree in a container against a wall. Below, it appears in a built-in planter in front of a NYC townhouse.
Fall flowers/spring berries, a reverse of the usual plan.
Above, Oregon grape-holly at the Central park Zoo last Dec. 31. The flowers are followed by blue-black berries in spring, below. Note to Other Ellen: I've read that the berries are edible. True? have you tried them?If you have a larger garden, smooth sumac berries are a fall mainstay, and last all winter.
I've always coveted a Beauty Berry (Callicarpa dichotoma) for the surprising color of its fruit. Maybe 2012.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Sorbus americana

Growing up I was told mountain ash berries were poisonous. I'm sure the lie wasn't intentional...my family just didn't know any better. They weren't foragers, after all. Realizing I could cook with the berries gave me the thrill of discovery, as did learning that our mountain ash is the rowan of Lord of the Rings fame. It's the little things.

Mountain ash berries (Sorbus americana) are a classic jelly fruit, tart and full of pectin. Our recent snowfall makes this the perfect time to pick them because the berries (actually pomes) sweeten after a frost. If you live somewhere warm, you can put them in the freezer for a few days to make the fruit more palatable.

Raw berries are juicy and highly astringent. They also contain parasorbic acid, which can cause indigestion, but cooking converts this to sorbic acid, which is entirely benign. The cooked fruit makes a not-too-sweet jelly, traditionally used as an accompaniment to meat, but it's also good with cheese, the sharper the better.

As a landscape tree the mountain ash is relatively short-lived, rarely making it beyond 25-30 years old. In a traditional, in-ground garden that might be an undesirable characteristic, but in containers it's perfectly alright. Even long-lived trees need periodic replacement and root pruning in a containerized growing environment. Small white flowers are very fragrant in late spring/early summer, and they attract lots of pollinators to the garden.

Two thumbs up.

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