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

      Saturday, November 29, 2008

      A Pot to Pea In

      Emboldened by my rooftop cotton crop last year (all of three plants),’08 was my summer to experiment with planting peanuts. I’m always searching for plants that will teach kids the connections between what we eat and use, and how it grows, things I can grow in my all container garden on a rooftop in Manhattan. Although I’ve farmed flowers and herbs in Pennsylvania, and grew enough vegetables there to make a dent in our supermarket shopping, I had never tried growing peanuts. In fact though I was intrigued with the Planters Peanut man as a girl, and pondered smooth vs. chunky for peanut butter sandwiches for my kids, peanuts were pretty much off my radar screen as a crop.

      I love a challenge. The first part was finding seeds in early June when the big idea hit. Many companies thought it was too late to ship. Henry Fields did not. At www.HenryFields.com. I selected both ‘Early Spanish’ (100-120 days) and ‘Virginia Improved’ (120 days) and planted them more or less according to package directions on June 18. There was not one line on the packages about planting on a city rooftop in containers.I knew that the peas grew underground from 4th grade teacher Miss Stimson at the Mann School in Philadelphia. But I knew little else. When the leaves emerged they looked like PEA leaves, and when the yellow flowers followed, they looked like PEA flowers. The light bulb finally exploded in my head. I had planted PEAnuts. As they grew I thinned to one plant per pot.

      Found a Peanut. The ‘nuts’ are really legumes, seeds encased in a shell, like peas and limas. The nuts form from the ovaries of the flowers that are near the bottom of the plant stems. The ovaries send down tubes into the ground where the peanuts mature. Both varieties formed peanuts, with the ‘Early Spanish’ a little smaller and faster maturing as advertised.I’m told that one can plant the peanuts from a grocery; they must be un-roasted of course, out of the shell but whole, not split in half. If you want to try that, go to a health food store and look for organic peanuts that ostensibly haven’t been treated with any growth retardant. My opinion? A packet of seeds is the biggest bargain in the universe both for the educational matter that’s on the outside and the miracle of growth that’s within.

      My rooftop peanut harvest wasn’t enough to roast for World Series watching to cheer on my beloved Phillies and I’d sworn off FOX TV for the duration, so I bought some peanuts already roasted, and shelled them as I listened to the World series on radio.

      Sunday, November 23, 2008

      Goodnight, Garden(s)

      Putting the garden to bed for the winter might seem sad to some, but for me it's an appropriate end to a busy, productive, exhausting season. Along about Halloween I start looking forward to the week of Thanksgiving, which is when I say so long, farewell to all my gardens.

      Cutting Back
      I actually started doing this about a month ago. As soon as the annuals and perennials begin to look bedraggled, I cut them back, not only to make the garden look neater, but also to make my final clean up faster and easier. Yes, the gardens look a little bare with fewer flowers and less foliage, but I think that's appropriate for late fall. Subdued, serene, focus on the evergreens, the ornamental bark, the dried seed heads.

      Move it Around
      At the end of the season it's easy to see what's outgrown its place and needs to be moved, maybe even divided. Yes, it would be nicer to wait till the warmer days of spring, but will you really remember how big that Rudbeckia got, or will you convince yourself it couldn't possibly have been so huge and let it muscle out the elderflower yet another year? I thought so. Do it now.

      Drain the System
      Skip this part if you don't have an irrigation system. (But stay tuned for my "Why Everyone Should Have an Irrigation System" post, due out next Spring.) Truth is, your system should be drained before the first frost (or at least the first hard freeze), so keep an eye on the forecast. PVC piping can crack if water inside freezes and thaws, and this may lead to messy, wet insurance claims from that formerly pleasant downstairs neighbor.

      Mulch it Good (like Shanti, my lovely assistant)
      This is tricky, because here in NYC the leaves haven't always finished falling by Thanksgiving. And really, what's the point of mulching if a metric ton of small, yellow, locust leaves are going to fall the next day, messing up your mulch job? You definitely need to mulch, but you might have to wait until after Thanksgiving. The exception: I don't mulch rooftop containers. Why not? because I...

      Bough & Berry
      There's something about bare containers that is more depressing than bare, in-ground gardens. Maybe because the containers are positioned explicitly to be viewed, directly in front of the windows. Maybe because the railings and walls they once camouflaged are now exposed metal, brick, wood, or stone. So I decorate containers with evergreen boughs and decorative branches. These last for months and brighten up a bleak view. Notice the clever use of blue cedar boughs as mulch!

      Say Goodnight, Gracie
      Once your garden is neatly trimmed, mulched, and berried, you may survey your work with well-deserved satisfaction, knowing all will be well till spring. Unless a branch falls and crushes the hydrangea, or the Japanese maple tips over and breaks a limb, or the frost heaves up all the Heucheras. Or a thick blanket of protective snow gently covers the entire garden until the beginning of March...yeah, I pick that one!

      Wednesday, November 19, 2008

      It Takes a Village

      It’s called The Holiday Train Show. It opens on Nov.23 at the New York Botanical Garden and stretches until January 11, 2009 when you might be able to see it with fewer crowds. Some people can’t get enough of the garden-gauge model trains. I’m mesmerized by the replicas of New York landmarks, designed and constructed by a botanical genius, Paul Busse, and his team from Applied Imagination in Alexandria, Kentucky.

      Above, Van Cortlandt Manor, (1784) made of cedar bark, honeysuckle, willow, acorn caps, redbud pods and more. Of course take the kids, but this show fascinates adults as well; the numbers prove it and this is its 17th year.

      The 140 build-
      ings, four new
      this year, are
      made from bits
      and pieces of
      berries & bark,
      twigs & moss,
      pods & cones,
      dried flowers &
      leaves, and
      other scaven-
      ged plant
      materials. Busse said, “When I saw the black locust tree fungus, that’s all I needed to make the spiral of the Guggenheim Museum.”

      Live plant materials are part of the fantasy, adding a riot of color and texture. Where else can you find those Manhattan landmarks, the Flatiron Building, Empire State, Chrysler Building and the NY stock exchange within 4 feet of each other while trains whiz past? Viewers who know the city get a sense of discovery even before they read the explanatory signs. All boroughs are included, see the Guyon-Lake-Tyson House (1740), S.I. (below)

      and Old Stone House (1699) Brooklyn (below) made of cedar bark roof shingles, willow walls, plum bark and wood fungus. Busse also used reeds, twisted sea grass, spruce cone scales, and birch & salt cedar twigs.

      Since the train show is in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory of the New York Botanic Garden, it’s balmy indoors, whatever the chill outside.
      For more details visit www.NYBG.org.

      Your Own Village
      After you’ve been inspired at the show, make your own village at home. Mr. Busse said that he’s done projects with kids using milk cartons as the base for the buildings. Take your kids out for a hunt in your garden, neighborhood and/or nearby park. Gather
      twigs, dried
      grasses and
      leaves, cones,
      pods, acorns
      and other good
      stuff. Here’s
      what I gather-
      ed from my garden and neighborhood, including slices of Osage oranges (see post dated 10/24/08) that I slowly dehydrated on trays in the oven. Color comes from a velvety sumac head that separates into small sections, rose hips and firethorn berries that will dry in place. I also have acorn caps, several kids of conifer pods, lambs’ear, birch bark , and sorghum that re-seeded itself from last year. Double-click on this any any other picture to get a really good view.
      1. Gather pint, quart, or half gallon milk or juice cartons. Rinse well and dry the exterior.
      2. Cut off a section of the bottom to make the size building you want. Here I’ve used one half gallon and one quart to make four buildings. The top halves have peaked ‘roofs’ and I’ve inverted the bottom halves to make flat roofs that can be tiled.
      3. Take outdoors to a protected location, put down old newspaper and spray with flat black paint. This step is important so that if some spaces remain uncovered the brand names and ads on the carton won’t show through.
      4. You can try to make a faithful rendition of your own home or a building near you, but it’s much easier and less frustrating to allow your creativity free reign. Use low temp glue, or a thick white craft glue for kids; or a hot glue gun for adults, who know how not to be burned and are ready to stick fingers too hot fingers in cold water.
      5. Add what you need from the kitchen, like cinnamon sticks, dried lentils and beans. While Busse coats his buildings with urethane (used to protect boats and to give his buildings an antique finish), you’ll probably want to display yours indoors.
      6. But first, take outdoors and spray several coats with a can of shellac for some protection. Place a grouping of buildings on a windowsill, shelf, mantle, or tray in the middle of a dining table, or under a tree. Surround with cut evergreens as you wish.

      Monday, November 17, 2008

      Community Supported Agriculture

      In case you haven't noticed, there's not a lot of room for kitchen gardens in NYC. Oh sure, you can grow tomatoes on rooftops and herbs in window boxes, not to mention lettuces in Brooklyn and maybe even a respectable spread of eggplants and zukes in Queens or Staten Island. But not many of us have enough room to grow all our own fruits and vegetables, which is why green markets and CSAs are essential to any New Yorker who wants fresh, local food.

      You all know what greenmarkets are, but how about a CSA? Community Supported Agriculture is a coop arrangement between a group of local foodies and a farmer. The farmer sells shares to members who pay in advance for fruits and vegetables throughout the year. By paying ahead of time you share some risk with the farmer. Will the spinach be attacked by beetles? Will the butternut squash be drowned by late summer rains? Maybe. That's the chance you take for seasonal food grown by a farmer you actually know.

      And did I mention, you never know exactly what you're going to get until the food arrives? The delivery includes whatever is in season, meaning you won't get tomatoes in June or cucumbers in October. My share this week included: garlic, beets, carrots, potatoes, acorn squash, celeriac, parsley, dry beans, kale, cauliflower, pears, and apples. A cornucopia of autumn goodness.

      Now's the time to subscribe for 2009! My own CSA sells out fast, so I re-subscribe nice and early. To find a CSA in New York City, check the Just Food website. If you're living somewhere else in the U S of A, check out Local Harvest. Type in your zip code and get a list of the CSAs nearest you.

      Most groups recommend a half share for couples and a full share for families, but Michael and I easily get through a full share with just the two of us. You can buy an extra fruit share and supplement with monthly meat, egg, and cheese deliveries. There's maple syrup, honey, yogurt, bread...even fresh flowers if you're in the mood.

      The point is that just because you live in a single room with one window that faces a brick wall (no wait, that's me) it doesn't mean you can't have fresh fruit and vegetables in the middle of this big, bad, hungry city.

      Photos 2, 3 & 4 were taken by Adam Mastoon for my book: Down & Dirty: 43 Fun & Funky First Time Projects & Activities to Get You Gardening. I'm allowed to use them in conjunction with promoting the book, so consider this a promo!

      Thursday, November 13, 2008

      Blooming Grasses

      My gardening season starts on Christmas day, when the tradition on my farm has been to light the fireplace, brew a pot of tea, and surround myself with spring catalogs that have been poring in. I start with a sharp pencil, Post-its for marking pages, lists of seeds and plants, and fantasies of what my garden could look like. My tradition continues on New Year’s Day. While the other half of my family celebrates with college bowl games, I try on old and new plant favorites on my wish list.

      My visions are vivid for spring and summer, much less so for fall and winter. I do my major garden center buys between April and June, and am seduced by plants not on my list because they’re coming in to season. If I got to a nursery more often in fall I‘d have more grasses in my garden because they’d scream ‘Take me home.’

      During fall and winter many grasses show off best. Majesty of structure, movement with the breeze, whispering sounds, a backdrop of crimson and gold trees or a dusting of snow, are some of the reasons to plant grasses. In Mid-November the sun streaming through blooming grasses in the Conservatory Garden is one of the highlights of the display. (top center)
      The Conservatory Garden is a largely hidden treasure on 105th and 5th in Central Park.

      On the right, noted garden photographer Alan Detrick captures light playing off the grasses in one of my fall displays. (©Alan & Linda Detrick)

      New York City gardeners find that that grasses are perfect for containers and many like sea oats, golden variegated Hakonechloa,and Japanese blood grass do well in light shade. Use grasses like the tough Giant Reed (Arundo donax) for screening as well as aesthetics. Remember that the annual spring shearing will leave you temporarily exposed. On the right, my rooftop garden in September with Pennisetum grass, black-eyed Susans, and the lovely Joe-Pye variety, Eupatorium 'Little Joe' (Double-click to enlarge photo.)

      Cut a few stems of any grass from your garden when the plant is coming into bloom and stand them in an attractive container. They’ll dry in place and give you an elegant but inexpensive display all winter. If you don’t have any of your own, look in vacant lots for weed grasses like green foxtail, that looks fantastic dried. Pick in the green stage, late summer to early fall so the seeds won’t drop all over your floor as the bloom dries.

      Sunday, November 9, 2008

      Great Lawns

      Before President-elect Obama made his electrifying acceptance speech at midnight EST last Tuesday, John McCain made a concession speech on the ‘lush lawn’ (New York Times 11/5/08) of the land-marked Arizona Biltmore Hotel. Most viewers were hanging on McCain’s words. But because like most women I’m a great multi-tasker, I was also trying to get a glimpse of the lawn in the darkness.

      One and a half years ago DJ (Daughter Jen) and I stayed at that hotel for one night on our way to a longer visit to the Grand Canyon. With views of stately Camelback Mountain in the near distance the hotel, that calls itself “The Jewel of the Desert”, has a massive watering program to maintain the lushness in an alien climate. DJ and I were dismayed at the lawn and plant choices made by the landscaper and escaped to the Desert Botanical Garden nearby to enjoy a much more appropriate scene.

      Back in New York City, Central Park features a thirteen-acre oval carpet of Kentucky bluegrass known as The Great Lawn. The lawn was totally refurbished eleven years ago with special soil, sod, drainage pipes, irrigation lines and 250 pop-up sprinklers. In 1997 the cost estimate for maintaining the lawn was 650,000.

      Like the lawn at the Arizona Biltmore, it’s lush and well-cared for, and the scene of some major events. People go there to read, relax, and sun themselves, play softball, cricket, make out, and listen to concerts. The stage on the great lawn has played host to the likes of Pavarotti, Pope John Paul II, the NY Philharmonic, and a new Disney movie.

      Dear gardeners, do we need/want/deserve such a lawn? Does a privately owned hotel in the desert deserve it?

      Saturday, November 1, 2008

      Container Art

      Without my realizing it, I’ve become a stalker. I go to visit the object of my affection about once a-week. I try to grab a peek as I’m going by on the bus and I take photos in all seasons. Of all the planters visible on the streets of NYC these are by far my favorites. They are redone completely three or four times a year; in the interim when they get sad looking, plant material is removed or added. There are two window boxes and some built-in concrete planters about 12” H x 12” W that flank the flight of stairs to the entrance of the building. I’m enthralled with the color and texture, individual plants that are slightly unusual, and combinations that surprise. I go to see what ideas I can steal for my own garden because these are truly inspirational.

      In a city where we may not have a garden of our own, why not enjoy the borrowed scenery of others’ gardens? As I stop each season to take pictures, passersby approach me to share their own delight.

      I finally walk up and open the imposing front door to the Orthodox Greek Archdiocese office on 79th St. between 5th and Madison to discover the name of the artist who designs and installs the plants. He is Evan Denis, a third generation florist, as he calls himself, who no longer has a shop but works for clients doing floral design, events, traditional florist stuff as well as designing terraces and containers.
      Visit Evan Denis at: www.evandenisflorist.com. or after you visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, walk three and-a-half blocks south and see what another artist does with his palette.

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