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

      Wednesday, March 31, 2010


      The roof needed resurfacing, the leaks around the fence needed to be fixed, the brickwork on the side of the building needed repointing and I was told last year by the Board of the builing that the garden I tend would need to be deconstructed last summer. They hired a gardening crew of five, to come with jacks and dollies and move all of the 80+ planters to one side.I'm glad I didn't have to do it.The roofing crew lifted the pavers, laid new insulation and waterproofing.They took down fences, added new copper gutters and wall caps. All supplies came up 18 stories by crane.I worried about my trees during summer and fall, parched without their usual drip irrigation.
      I placed an order of 31 new fiberglass containers in a faux lead finish to compliment the gray of the pavers. One man in a huge truck with gate-lift elevator delivered the containers on 8 pallets. Traffic on the street was blocked for 45 minutes. I learned the pleasures of being cursed at drivers who, though seeing the blockage, decided they needed to go a hundred yards down the street and sit there, honk and curse. My first order of potting soil was a modest 40 bags; I wasn't sure how much usable soil I'd find between the roots in the old containers. Not much, as it turns out. Two more orders, and today my total is 120 bags, and counting.I was assigned a crew of three hardworking men from the building who sawed the old containers apart; first the rotting wooden boxes, then the galvanized metal liners, then the pot-bound roots. They were able to lift plastic pots and pour in some old soil. They muscled the big shrubs into their new fiberglass containers. I did the easy stuff: pour in bags of new potting soil, divide and plant day lilies, lavender, peonies, and other perennials; deal with the roses.
      I have a new and undying respect for the 'Saws-All' which cuts through the toughest roots; the name says it all. The grasses I won't need will find a home with Other Ellen and her deer in PA.
      Although the job is 60% complete, we have another 12 big containers to go. Below, the sight on the roof today before clean-up. And oh yes, someone in the building doesn't like gray containers, and someone else doesn't like the metal chair that is the centerpiece of my xeric garden that will remain in the center of the roof.
      Ben waters the first pot containing my precious Rosa 'Harison's Yellow' given to me as a cutting by Stephen Scanniello. The rose survived radical pruning in preparation for the move, a summer without food or water, and it's now leafing out in spectacular fashion. I've placed it against the East wall where it will be the first thing any visitor will see throughout May. Container #1 also hosts newly replanted iris, pass-along plants from Other Ellen, and California poppy seeds, planted in cool weather as they prefer.

      Thursday, March 25, 2010


      At the top of my peeve list must be neighborhood stores, garden centers, and even the vaunted Greenmarket at Union Square where vendors sell tender crops like tomatoes and basil weeks before the last frost date.(double-click on any image to enlarge) What are they thinking? Where will these plants languish before they're planted by the gardener? Surely people aren't buying for their windowsill herb garden or their indoor hydroponic farm.
      OK, I admit
      that I planted
      my pansies
      March 15th this
      year, but I
      know that a
      little frost,
      even snow
      won't hurt
      them too
      much. Plant
      your sage,
      chives and
      thyme if you
      want to, any-
      thing peren-
      nial, but the
      vendors pictured top and below are complicit in garden failure. I can only think it's a way to get a second sale when the first plant fails in the cold weather. The Channel 1 meteorologist is predicting possible frost tonight. It's still March folks. Don't sell basil yet! (above right, ESP and her pansy 'hangover')2. For a consulting project, I've been thinking a lot about failure lately, and the roll it plays in the life of the novice gardener. I used to read some of those gorgeous gardening books by famous British writers, thinking I should be able to produce a similar garden. Well, the heat and humidity of a Philadelphia summer, not to mention the freezing winters, didn't exactly match a climate like Gloucestershire, England, and no publisher exactly made that clear. In fact the opposite. Gardeners from England and their publishers often imply that we could and should be doing what they do; another opportunity for failure, when a novice gardener doesn't know enough to even ask the climate questions.
      3. A third opportunity for failure is offered by garden catalogs showing macro photos of tiny blossoms without showing the flower in a larger context. A buyer purchases a plant like the one above expecting it to be loaded with 6" blossoms, then must face the reality of 1/2" blossoms. It happened to with witch hazel. I read the description, saw the huge blossoms, and was later astounded by the discrepancies with what I got: small blossom on a shrub that held over its dead leaves from fall. (see above) Whose failure is that? Certainly not the novice gardener?

      4. My fourth and last peeve (at least for now) are the plantings in the islands of upper Park Ave. I've heard that a special trust exists to support these plantings. Season after season there's a stage set of one type of flower, tulips in spring, begonias in summer for example. While I admit that the taxis and traffic lights make excellent foils for the color of the tulips, could we have some imagination please? An actual garden instead of floral theater?Now that I've confessed my current top four peeves, please write in your pet gardening peeves. You'll feel better for it.

      Below, mid spring as I like it, at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 4/19/09.

      Sunday, March 21, 2010

      a roving reporter visits Austin, TX

      If I say Austin, do you think blue bonnets? Chances are if you're a garden fanatic, you know Austin, TX as the home of the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. This time of year is when the blue bonnets (aka Lupinus texensis) bloom, and despite the fact that the last few days in Austin have been colder than NYC, the flowers are starting to pop. It's a few weeks away from peak, but I still enjoyed the show.

      Also at the Wildflower Center was a spectacular yellow jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens) climbing up a galvanized water tank; what a great juxtaposition of color and texture. But they should really do something about the fire ant problem. Cayce's screams were heard for miles as she was dragged back to the colony.

      Downtown the streets are full of music lovers enjoying SXSW. (For more about the weekend in general, click here.) Street horticulture in Austin is predictably different from NYC; the plant palette tends toward the succulent, and galvanized is definitely in.

      Flying home tomorrow, and this preview of spring has got me psyched to start planting! I wonder if bottle trees are hardy in New York City.

      Saturday, March 13, 2010


      Seeds gotta grow, and now is the time.
      (double click on any image to enlarge)
      I used to time the planting of my first indoor seed trays to the end of the Philadelphia Flower Show. I'd come home from ten days at the show where I was selling my season's crop of dried flowers. I'd unload the truck, restore some order in the barn, and plant whatever perennial seeds I was trying that year. I started annual seeds about three weeks later.
      Below, Jen's sweet pea 'Cupani' that she starts from seed and sets out in the cool spring of NH.Although I had been an inveterate planter of marigold and zinnia seeds since childhood, it wasn't until I needed to plant 200 foot rows on my farm that I was forced into expanding my seed repertoire. If I had had to buy all the plants, there would have been no Meadow Lark Flower & Herb Farm.

      Low and behold, I found I could grow lavender, delphinium, yarrow, globe thistle, artemisia 'Silver King', Eryngium, Centaurea macrocephala, even day lilies from seed under the simplest home conditions. I had no heating pads, no grow lights, and didn't transplant seedlings into ever larger containers. What I had were 19 windowsills, wide enough to hold two or three standard planting trays with 48 or 60 cells each, bagged potting mix, and plastic wrap to keep in humidity till the seeds germinated. My ability to grow perennials from seed under these most primitive conditions was a revelation to me. Were plant nurseries in a conspiracy to prevent my knowing that for the $1.50 price of a seed pack I could grow 48 Lavandula angustifolia 'Hidcote'. Did I care if the plants were not identical? In fact I reveled in the differences.

      In New York I have three long windowsills with very good light. The hardest part of growing from seed is choosing which plants to grow.
      Three Rules for Growing Plants
      from Seed
      1. Read the back
      of the seed packet.
      2. Read the back
      of the seed packet.
      3. Read the back
      of the seed packet.
      Determine if the
      seeds are better off
      planted directly in
      the garden, as my
      sunflower and pop-
      py packets say. Pay
      strict attention to
      whether the seeds
      prefer to be cover-
      ed with soil and to
      what depth. Some
      seeds need light to
      germinate and get
      no covering.
      Pay attention to the timing. If you plant too early, your seedlings will get leggy indoors, and plants will be weak and scraggly.
      This Years Choice
      I need morning glories to climb up my fence. Despite all the new varieties I always gravitate to 'Heavenly Blue' for that gorgeous zap of sky in large flowers. The seed packet says soak overnight before planting, and oh yes I will.
      I must have bachelor buttons, and choose 'Blue Boy' for even more heavenly blue. I'll plant these outside "as soon as the soil can be worked" says the packet from Renee's Garden. That will be this week for sure, as soon as the rain stops. If I don't deadhead assiduously, these flowers will drop viable seed and I won't have to replant next year. I'm happy to see them wherever the blow.The bachelor buttons in the photo above were all volunteers from two years ago, flying in among the David Austin rose, 'Crown Princess Margareta'.

      This year I'll try for the first time Pride of Gibraltar (Cerinthe major atropurpurea)
      The Cerinthe stunned me last summer in the gardens of Diana & John M. near Cardiff, Wales. It has dramatic purple bracts and foliage with a blue cast. I'm hoping that what grows in the Welsh countryside will look as dramatic on an 18th floor roof garden in Manhattan.
      Below in Wales with calendula and poppies. And remember it's not necessary to have a doll tucked in your jacket when you plant your seeds, but who knows, it might help.Thank you to Renee's Garden Seeds, Ferry Morse Organic Seeds, Hart's Seeds, and Lilly Miller for feeding my seed habit and supplying me with free seeds to try.

      Tuesday, March 9, 2010

      You know it's hard out there for a tree (or a shrub)

      A week of 50 degree weather has New Yorkers talking about spring, but I say they're tempting fate. Or at least pushing their luck with Mother Nature. It's still 11 days till spring officially begins, and it's not unusual for April storms to dump a load of snow just when we've let down our guard. It's often these late storms that bring the heaviest snows, and those can do the most damage to trees and shrubs.

      So what can you do?

      First, anytime there's a build-up (6 inches or more) of snow on a tree or shrub, go outside and shake it off. Six inches of heavy, wet snow can split a shrub or tree open. It may break the crown of the plant, splitting the woody stems, or it may simply bend the branches out of shape. Even the latter can severely disfigure a tree or shrub and require pruning or cabling to resume its original shape. Evergreens suffer most from this kind of damage since their foliage helps catch and hold the snow.

      Deciduous trees are vulnerable, too. Acute branch angles are weaker than branch angles of 90 degrees. Tree branches are strong, but as a general rule damage occurs when the weight of snow or ice exceeds 40 times the weight of the branch itself. (No, I don't expect you to go outside and weigh the snow.) Some pre-snow, preventative pruning to remove highly acute branch angles (less than 45 degrees) will strengthen the overall structure of your tree and leave it less vulnerable to this kind of damage.

      And finally, shallow-rooted trees can be pulled over by the weight of wet snow. This isn't something you can treat retroactively, but by making sure your trees are well and deeply watered, you'll encourage the development of deep roots that provide adequate anchorage. Twenty inches of wet snow was more than the shallow roots of this poor conifer could handle. Pulled those roots rights out of the ground. It hurts just to look at it.

      Friday, March 5, 2010


      photo courtesy New York Botanical Garden, John Peden photographer
      The only orchid show in the five boroughs is wowing visitors in the landmarked Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden, but only until April 11. The theme of this year's show is "Cuba in Flower" designed by Cuban reared landscape architect Jorge Sanchez.
      photo courtesy NY Botanical Garden, Ivo M Vermeulen photographer.
      The show designer has planned the tour so you start with a tantalizing water view of the Castillo de la Fuerza, the oldest stone fortress in the Americas. Orchids cascade from the walls, drip into the pool, and are reflected in the water. From there you're on a path that takes you through the entire conservatory, where orchids are strategically placed among the permanent collection of tropical trees and vines. You'll can find the vanilla orchid, a native of Mexico, which is pollinated by a bee that lives only there. Vanilla orchids grown in Madagascar and elsewhere must be pollinated by hand, because the bee hasn't traveled.
      Hunt for my favorite plant in the show, Darwin's star orchid ( Angraecum sesquipedale) with its eleven inch long nectar tube. Marc Hachadourian, Curator of the show and of the NYBG orchid collection, provided this fascinating story: because the flower opened only at night, Darwin's theory of evolution was able to predict the existence of a moth pollinator whose long tongue would be able to reach inside the nectar tube to pollinate the plant. Actual photos of of this event are now available to all on Youtube.

      Stroll by more plants of
      botanical interest until
      you emerge into the
      main theater of the
      show. With Cuban royal
      palms soaring, brilliant
      flowers at every level,
      and water reflections,
      your eye flits from
      image to image.

      With about 7000 orchid
      plants on display,
      flowers are groomed
      daily. Whole plants are
      replaced as needed by
      understudies waiting
      in the wings so the show
      will always look
      Photo to the right courtesy NY Botanical Garden, Robert Benson photographer

      Remember to take your cell phone so you can dial in to the narrative, greatly enhancing your experience, or plan on attending one of the guided tours, lectures or demos scheduled.
      Every visitor has a camera or at least a cell phone and is vying for the best angle to capture the color and the drama. Hey, you just walked in front of my best shot. Well, it would have been my best shot if I had remembered to charge my back-up battery. But since I failed, NYBG came to my rescue with these memorable scenes of the show.
      As you leave walk under the palm allee draped with orchids, and breath the air mixed with sweet and spicy scents of over thousands of orchid plants.photo courtesy of New York Botanical Garden, Ivo M. Vermeulen photographer

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