Love and Compost

Valentine’s Day is upon us, and with it the promise of wine, roses, and chocolate. Lace-trimmed cards and expensive candlelit dinners will herald eternal love. But not in this household—not this year. I’ve got a new mantra for 2013: Nothing says Valentine’s Day like a compost bin.

Trust me. My husband will love it. Ever since I began my container garden, he’s been after me to begin composting. All last year, I blew off his pleas. Exactly which patch of concrete outside our apartment did he think would make a good spot for burying the garbage? Or was he thinking of bringing a worm bin indoors?

Help came to me last month in the form of “The Reluctant Composter,” an article by Elissa Gootman in The New York Times. Prodded by her two young sons, she had looked for urban solutions to composting and had found (and tested) four! I learned that you can order live worms for your worm bin on Amazon. Who knew? (Her sons loved the critters and referred to them as “pets.”) Or you can pay a service to come pick up your garbage once a month. They’ll even bring you back composted soil, if you really want it. Or you can install a stainless steel electric composter in the kitchen—if you don’t mind the occasional odor and actually have room on your crowded countertop for another appliance.

But the solution that spoke to me was the Envirocycle Mini, a small barrel made of recycled BPA-free plastic that you can put outside, next to the outdoor garbage can. You spin it several times a week to ensure good air circulation and to mix your fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grinds, tea bags, egg shells, leaves, and dry grass. As Gootman promised, it is “unobtrusive enough that neighbors would not mind seeing it in a shared outdoor space, but not so nice that someone would likely steal it.” Bingo.

Today it arrived in a big brown box. (The company covers the $45 shipping fee.) It’s sitting inside, waiting to be unpacked—and for the snow to melt enough that we can find a place for it outside. It won’t exactly be a surprise, given that there is no room to hide a box that size. But it will last a lot longer than a box of chocolates—when you care enough to send the very best.

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Spanish Roja

Spanish Roja garlic Garlic, I always assumed, was just garlic. That was before I started reading about heirloom varieties with exotic names like Persian Star, Chilean Silver, Georgian Fire, and Creole Red. Robust and zingy, they promised to deliver more flavor than the common supermarket varieties that are stocked not because they’re the most delicious, but—surprise!—because they can last the longest on supermarket shelves.

So of course, I had to try growing my own, especially after I learned that garlic is a low-maintenance crop that I could plant in my empty window boxes during the winter. “Plant on Columbus Day, harvest on the Fourth of July,” said my friend Robyn, who runs a small farm.

But which variety should I choose? I already knew from reading Organic Gardening that I didn’t want a standard grocery store variety. It’s not just a question of the pungency. “Garlic sold in grocery stores is often imported from China and treated with a chemical to prevent sprouting,” the magazine warned.

My choice fell on Spanish Roja. According to Marie Iannotti’s wonderful book, The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Heirloom Vegetables, “Spanish Roja is a garlic lover’s delight; the strong garlic aroma enhances and intensifies its flavor,” which she describes as “a fiery, warm spice. This garlic might ‘burn’ your tongue when eaten raw, but it can be used to add a zesty bite to dishes.”

I planted the cloves right after the hurricane in late October, expecting to see the first scapes appear in spring. But a month later, there was a little shoot poking up out of the soil. Then another. And another. Whoops. Scapes aren’t supposed to appear until the warm weather—and then you’re supposed to cut them back so that the plant’s energy goes into the bulb, not the greens. I immediately messaged Robyn. “No worries—you’re fine,” she messaged back. “Those aren’t scapes, those are the first garlic shoots, and they will stop growing once the weather gets really cold, and then pick up again in spring. So, don’t cut ‘em!”

OK, so the temperature is in the 20s now. Yet the shoots are continuing to grow. How cold does it have to be?

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No Mere Hothouse Flower

Show off! Mandevilla in late DecemberMy mandevilla has an identity crisis. You think I’m joking?

The shopkeeper who first steered me toward this gorgeous vine recommended it on the grounds that it could withstand blistering heat and relentless sun—exactly the conditions on the west-facing side of our house all summer. But there was not a chance, he said, that this tropical plant would tolerate frigid winter temperatures. At most, according to the Plant Care website, a mandevilla “should be able to handle high 40’s for brief periods.” So how has mine survived a hurricane and three snow storms? How has it endured four days of sub-freezing temperatures that have shriveled the pansies and Swiss chard, both touted as cool weather plants? Didn’t it get the memo?

Mandevilla in DecemberTo be fair, I don’t expect it to last much longer. As the mercury has fallen, the glossy green leaves have taken on more autumnal hues and are now tinged with red and purple. In the last few days, as temperatures have lingered in the 20’s, the dozen or so blossoms that flourished right through Christmas have withered. Yet the vine still winds gracefully and tenaciously around its lattice, curls up the railing adjacent to its pot, and twists its way 10 feet up the strings we dangled from the second floor of the house to give it a structure to climb. You’ve gotta love it.

What never occurred to me is that it might be possible to overwinter a mandevilla. But with a little research, I learned belatedly (again!) that it is possible–though I should have acted sooner. I should have chopped off these magnificent vines before the first frost, cut the stalks down to no more than 12 inches high, and brought the plant indoors to “rest” in a cool, dark room until spring (a feat that can only be accomplished easily if the plant is in a container rather than the ground).

Is it too late to rescue my mandevilla? Perhaps. But I’m going to try. Any plant that tenacious deserves a second chance.

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Winter Berries

Euonymus japonicus Chollipo

Summer berries

The shortest day of the year has come and gone—and with it, the predictions of Mayan doom. The world still turns, the holidays still beckon. And in my garden, the euonymus bushes continue in their evergreen splendor, just as the shopkeeper at the garden center had promised they would.

Mine are not the only euonymus (pron. you-ON-i-mus) plants in town. Many people have these stately shrubs, but theirs don’t have berries. Mine do. It was partly the beauty of these berries that drew me to the plants when I first saw them for sale this summer. While my husband immediately keyed in on the variegated leaves, I loved the tiny white orbs scattered amongst the green, ivory-edged foliage.

Euonymus berries in winter

Winter berries

But in mid-November, I noticed something curious. The berry husks were taking on a purplish tinge. Soon the orange berries themselves were poking out from inside, some displaying sharply pointed tips. Now, as Christmas approaches, the purple has grown darker, more insistent, and ever more lovely. Who needs to decorate the fir trees outside when these berries are as striking as any ornaments?

But why do my plants alone have berries?

Euonymus japonicus Chollipo berriesFor the answer, I turned to Gilbert Resendez at Monrovia, the plant company. In short, it seems I am an untidy gardener. According to Resendez, this bush (full name, Euonymus japonicus “Chollipo”) is usually trimmed very tight for use as a hedge or border. In the process, the flowers are pruned off each spring before the berries have had a chance to form. He politely says my bushes are growing “in a natural untrimmed form.” And I’m so glad they are.

Euonymus japonicus Chollipo berriesI was already delighted with the color-shifting berries. Now I apparently have flowers to look forward to next spring. According to Resendez, they will be “perfect flowers” with both male (stamen) and female (pistil) reproductive parts on each self-pollinating blossom.

And the seasons of life will turn on.
Euonymus japonicus Chollipo berries

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Holiday Gift Guide

Jacobus Vanderveer HouseI don’t know about you, but when it comes to presents, the last thing I need under the tree is more stuff to take care of. To me, a great gift is one I can eat or redeem for a massage at the spa—and if on some level, it benefits the planet too, so much the better. Here, my latest top picks for gifts of truly good taste (in more ways than one):

A subscription to Organic Gardening. I know. I just finished saying that I only wanted edible presents or spa certificates, but after all this is a gardening blog—and a subscription to this gorgeous magazine will lead to many lovely edible things in your own garden next summer. I used to get this publication long before I had a garden of my own, and I saved the back issues because flipping through the pages provided so many hours of pleasure. $23.94 for a two-year subscription at organicgardening.com

B'More Honey B’More Honey. For each share you purchase in the nation’s first and only community-supported apiary, you receive a one-pound jar of incredibly flavorful all-natural raw honey, plus the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping to preserve healthy bee communities. The honey will be delivered when it is harvested next summer. In the meantime, recipients will receive a certificate. Last year’s recipients of this gift from me called the honey “cosmic,” “amazing,” “glorious,” and “amber ambrosia”—and when you consider that bees pollinate a third of our food crops, the investment in food security seems well worth it. $45 per share at Baltimorehoney.org

Chocoveda’s Chakra Truffle Box. You don’t need to be a yogi to appreciate these bonbons. Each of the seven truffles is devoted to a different chakra, making each piece of chocolate “a sacred experience,” according to Julia Lungin, the company’s owner and a certified Ayurvedic practitioner. Whether or not ginger lemongrass really has anything to do with the manipura chakra (I honestly wouldn’t know), each of these truffles is so delicious that it demands that you pause to appreciate and savor just what a miracle a truly good chocolate can be. $30 at chocoveda.com

Pastamoré Balsamic Vinegar. These can make any salad taste like a gourmet treat. Friends and family members often ask my husband and me the secret to our delicious salad dressings. In fact, they’re nothing but extra-virgin olive oil and one of these barrel-aged vinegars from Modena, Italy. They’re so flavorful, you might even drizzle a little on fresh clementines for dessert or dip your bread into it instead of olive oil (for just 25 calories per tablespoon versus 120 for the oil). I bought four of these last year for my husband for Christmas. Our favorite flavors? Citrus and dark sweet cherry. $20 for a 12.7-ounce bottle at pastamore.com

Marinelli's True Pasta Sauce Marinelli’s True Italian Pasta Sauce—the best marinara you’ll ever taste from a jar. Marinelli’s is handmade in small batches from vine-ripened tomatoes that are so naturally sweet, the makers don’t need to add sugar. (Most commercial brands do.) Nor are there artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives—just sauce that tastes so fresh and natural, you’ll suddenly realize how many artificial ingredients you’re used to tasting in typical store-bought brands. It even comes in a classy UV-protected box to help prevent degradation from light. (For an extra healthy meal, serve it over spaghetti squash.) $9.99 per 24-ounce jar at Whole Foods, Publix, and specialty retailers

Vital Choice Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon. This premium, wild-caught salmon tastes like salmon ought to (but so rarely does), and as a bonus, it’s loaded with heart-healthy omega-3s and vitamin D. It’s so healthy, it’s endorsed by Dr. Andrew Weil, who actually helped the owners formulate one of their popular products, the Sockeye Salmon Sausage. Though they’re called sausages because of their spices, they’re actually patties, containing nothing but salmon, a little arrowroot for a binder, and organic herbs and spices, for an incredibly easy dinner. They come in three scrumptious flavors—country style, zesty Italian, and spicy chorizo. $25 at vitalchoice.com

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The Pothole Gardener

Vincas

Vincas around my own tree this summer

Leave it to the Brits. Anything we can do, they can do quirkier.

Take guerrilla gardening—the semi-legal practice of planting seeds and flowers in vacant lots that belong to somebody else. We have a guerrilla gardener in my New Jersey town. He strikes under cover of night, leaving miniature gardens in the little plots of dirt around sidewalk trees. For months this summer, his activities were a topic of conversation among the neighbors. Who was the mystery gardener planting flowers up and down the street?

I immediately loved the concept, and I don’t mean to diss the local talent—but you expect to find flowers planted around trees. In London, guerrilla gardener Steve Wheen tackles entirely unexpected locations—namely, potholes. With a wacky English sense of humor, he fills gaps in roads and sidewalks with moss and miniature plants that stick up right out of the pavement. Then for good measure, he adds props to create scenes, from a tiny lawn-tennis court (complete with lawnmower) to a mini version of the royal wedding.

But you have to see his whimsical creations to understand just how wonderful they are, and his YouTube videos are the easiest way to observe him in action. East London Uncovered shows him discussing his creative process. Holes of Happiness shows East Enders in London stumbling across his marvelous creations—even a squirrel doing a double take. Check this one out.

Related link: Guerrilla Gardening

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Stevia 101

Stevia and teaOn a whim this summer, I planted some organic stevia seeds. For weeks, I watched with anticipation as tiny seedlings sprouted—excruciatingly slowly. But I was confident that the wait would be worth it. I’d seen over and over again how much more zing I could get from fresh-picked herbs than from the store-bought variety, and the organic stevia drops my husband brought home from the market were a pretty great starting point—sweet but not cloying, more complex-tasting than white sugar, and calorie-free!

When my plants were about 8 inches high, I plucked a few leaves and plopped them into a nice hot cup of tea. After steeping it for a few minutes, I lifted the cup to my lips and tasted … nothing. If I had expected the stevia to release its sweetness into a hot brew, like a bunch of fresh mint leaves, I was mistaken. And that wasn’t my only error.

Stevia grown from seedChastened, I did what I should have done in the first place—look up some information about cultivating stevia. Here’s what I learned.
1. Never grow stevia from seed. Oops. The levels of natural sweeteners in stevia can vary widely when the plants are grown “from scratch.” They’re much more reliable if you take cuttings from plants known to be high in these compounds. Look for “starter” plants in nurseries.
2. Wait till just before the frost to harvest the leaves. Cool autumn air and short days seem to favor higher levels of “stevioside” and “rebA,” the main sweeteners in stevia, so delay as long as you can.
3. For maximum effect, dry the leaves and grind them rather than simply immersing them in a hot beverage. While the latter will work with intensely sweet leaves, you will extract more of the sweeteners by going the former route. Dry the leaves on a screen or net to ensure good air circulation. In a day or two, you can crush and grind them.

Dried Stevia leaves about to be ground By this point, it was too late to rectify Mistake #1. But Mistakes #2 and #3 were correctible, at least for the unharvested leaves. I left the rest of my stevia outside until just before Hurricane Sandy hit. Then I plucked everything that was left and brought it inside to dry (outdoor drying not really being an option in the storm). Once the leaves had crinkled, I ground them with a mortar and pestle.

The result? My stevia is very pleasant, almost anise-like. But it’s still no match for a cup of strong coffee.

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Nor’easter Athena

vinca snow nor'easterNor'easter butterfly bush snowLike a Greek tragedy, Nor’easter Athena swept through the region this week, dumping heavy, wet snow on towns that were still getting back on their feet after Hurricane Sandy. In my own little garden, the snow bent and broke the boughs of the butterfly bushes (above, left) and flattened the vincas (above, right). But we were lucky. There were people who had just gotten their power back and promptly lost it when trees fell on power lines–and those who were still in the dark and cold, without a glimmer of electricity, when the snow began falling. Now, four days later, it’s in the 50s. Go figure.nor'easter snow nor'easter snow

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In Hurricane Sandy’s Wake

Hurricane Sandy, Hoboken train station

The Hudson River breaches the embankment, flooding the Hoboken train station

Hurricane Sandy has mercifully passed, but so much devastation remains in her wake. This morning’s walk felt post-apocalyptic, as my husband and I roamed the vacant streets. Stores we have never seen closed before–CVS, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s–were shut tight. Street lights and traffic signals were dark. Limbs down. Winds were still gusting, threatening at times to rip street signs from their posts.

In the afternoon, the curfew relaxed, and we were able to wander farther from home. The scenes we saw were devastating–heartbreaking. The back end of town is completely flooded out. The hospital, library, churches, schools, restaurants and countless residents have up to five feet of water in their basements or first floors. People were navigating

National Buard Hurricane Sandy

A grateful evacuee, rescued by the National Guard, being brought to City Hall for heat, food, and water

the streets with rafts and inflatable dinghies. Debris was everywhere. In the higher, drier parts of town, the few shops that were open for business had lines out the door, as cold, hungry people queued for a cup of coffee and a hot pizza–at least until the pizzeria ran out of dough. (Update: Two days later, the National Guard is here, helping evacuate those who are still trapped in their flooded homes. And grocery stores are open. Sort of. You shop in the dark by candlelight. Cash only. They ring you up on a calculator.)

Remarkably, my husband and I have one of the few houses in Hoboken that still has power–and we pulled through with no property damage to speak of. Even the plants that remained outside weathered the storm. The euonymus bushes, which had

Hurricane Sandy vincas

Storm-ravaged vincas

been my biggest concern, didn’t even look windblown. The butterfly bushes are still laden with purple blossoms. And the mandevilla sprawls as always, coiling around the railing, plants, trellis and ropes.

But here’s the curious thing. The vincas in the little bed of flowers out front, which were truly battered, seem to have had pigment washed right off their pink blossoms. Is that even possible?

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Battening Down

Halloween calm before the storm

Hurricane Sandy is still miles out to sea. But the winds are already whipping the trees. Stray plastic bags in the streets have been carried aloft on the winds and hover in mid-air like Halloween ghosts. Leaves swirl down the streets.

And my garden? Anything I can carry has come inside. But I worry about the flowers around the tree, the butterfly bushes, and especially the giant euonymus bushes clinging to their shaky trellises. So while others were shopping for batteries today and picking the grocery-store shelves clean, I went to 14th Street Garden Center for emergency advice on how to protect my plants. The best we could come up with for the euonymus in their giant containers was to reinforce the trellises with six 6-foot long stakes. The juniper has been pulled in closer to the house. I’ve harvested the last of the parsley, basil, and cherry tomatoes.

Hoping for the best …

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You Know It’s Fall When …

You know it’s fall when you have the urge to make applesauce—and today the itch struck. So I walked down to Sobsey’s, my local go-to purveyor of outrageously delicious produce. In front of the shop, under the awning, were a dozen cartons of low-spray apples from upstate New York—Braeburn, Cameo, Granny Smith, and more. Which ones make the best sauce, I asked? Mac, the resident culinary expert, pointed me to an amazing mix of Mutsu, Winesap, Jonagold, and Fuji—some tart, some sweet—that he said would create a complex tasting blend.

I wasn’t disappointed. “What are you cooking? It smells delicious,” my husband called from upstairs as the aromas began wafting through the apartment. The tantalizing scents suggested much more than just simmering apples—buttery and spicy, warm and comforting, without my adding anything to the pot other than apples and water. Normally at the end I would stir in some sugar and lemon to enhance both the sweet and tart characteristics of the fruit (as in this applesauce recipe). Neither one was necessary. These apples were that flavorful. A touch of cinnamon, and I was done.

Neither one of us could believe how delicious it tasted. We kept drifting back over to the pot on the stove to scoop another spoonful or two into our bowls. So here are my takeaway lessons.
1. It’s the apples, stupid. Start with great tasting apples, and you can’t go wrong.
2. If you want to give your applesauce extra texture and boost the nutrition too, leave the skins on. Bonus: You can cut your prep time in half because you won’t have to peel all those apples. It’s a win-win-win. (If you don’t want quite so many chewy peels in the final product, you can also grate the outside of the apple before cooking and add the grated bits of peel to the pot. They will disappear into the mix. I did a combination of the two.)

And now it’s time for another bowlful.

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Farmer’s Market Bounty

Having just read Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook’s hair-raising exposé of the winter-tomato industry in Florida, I’ve resolved again to buy small, local, and organic whenever possible–and to raise more tomatoes of my own next year! In the meantime, here are some unusual, eye-catching (and tasty) finds from my local farmer’s market.

Golden beets

Golden Beets

Heirloom tomatoes


Zebra Eggplant

Zebra Eggplant

Turkish Orange Eggplant

Turkish Orange Eggplant


Long beans

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Roses and Dahlias

The impressionist painter Claude Monet may be known for his water lilies. But according to the Monet show at the New York Botanical Garden, he also loved roses and dahlias. When I saw these at my local market today, I thought they were worthy of a great artist. How could I resist buying a bouquet?

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They Call It “Confetti Blazing Maple”

Dummen Confetti Blazing Maple

The label said “confetti blazing maple.” But I was pretty sure that nothing in this hanging basket resembled a maple tree.

All summer, my container garden brought me so much joy. Instead of fretting about work from the moment I awoke, I would walk out onto the stoop where it grows and examine all the changes that had occurred overnight—the new buds, the shoots that appeared from nowhere, the flowers that opened. I would inhale the scent of the herbs and revel in so much greenery in the midst of concrete.

So as fall grows frostier, I’ve started to look to the coming winter with the dread of a depressed patient whose shrink is leaving town for an extended vacation. Maybe that accounts for my late-season buying binge—pansies, ornamental peppers, purple fountain grasses, and, on the last trip, a mysterious floral combo called “confetti blazing maple.” Continue reading

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Sheep May Safely Graze

Sheep in Bryant Park for Prince Charle's Campaign for Wool

Sheep in Bryant Park, just steps from swanky Fifth Avenue

“Where are the PETA people?”

The New York Post reporter looked worried. She was supposed to be covering the anticipated protests over Prince Charles’s multinational Campaign for Wool, which on this particular day happened to include an event with live sheep in Manhattan’s Bryant Park. If no protests materialized, she had no story—as if 26 Merino and 4 Southdown sheep grazing between the Avenue of the Americas and swanky Fifth Avenue weren’t enough of a story by themselves.
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YouTube’s Urban Gardener (Hey, Great Title!)

Denton Tarver on the set of YouTube's Urban Gardener by Spaces TVIf I had a larger garden (and bankroll), I would hire Denton Tarver to come transform my container garden into a showpiece. Denton is a designer at ViewPoints Exterior & Garden Design in Manhattan and host of a program called Urban Gardener on Spaces TV. (In case you’re as clueless as I was, Spaces is a “channel” on YouTube that bills itself as “a younger, hipper version of HGTV.” It posts a variety of original 3-to-6 minute shows on YouTube about urban dwelling—shows like I Live With My Mom and Your Place is a Deal Breaker, and of course, Urban Gardener.)

HGTV it’s not. While the folks on HGTV have aspirational houses, we urban gardeners are usually working with much more modest spaces—a cracked sidewalk, a roof, a fire escape, a vacant lot. But that makes the resulting transformations all the more impressive. “If the space isn’t optimized, it becomes a landing pad for a cigarette,” says Denton. (Has he been checking out the concrete strip on the side of my house?) “When you fix it up, it becomes a favorite room.”
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Pansies–Not Just for Spring Anymore

Mammoth Blue-ti-ful Pansy

A Mammoth Blue-ti-ful pansy on Anne’s stoop

Move over, chrysanthemums! There’s a new fall flower in town—pansies—or so my neighbor Jane informed me a few weeks ago. I have always adored pansies with their cheery faces. When I was a child, we had an entire flower bed filled with them in the spring. To a kid whose head was full of storybook tales, it wasn’t hard to imagine the dark part in the middle as a little face, surrounded by a colorful cap. We had hundreds of them in the garden, in dozens of hues—a nursery garden full of friends that I could imagine laughing and smiling with me on a beautiful day.

Mammoth Blue-ti-ful and Matrix Blue/Blotch pansies

This year I missed out on the spring pansy season, because I didn’t start my container garden until June. But now I have a second chance. It seems that cool weather is cool weather to a pansy, no matter what month it falls in, and one equinox is just as good as another. There are even varieties of pansies that are specially bred to overwinter in mild climates or bloom until snowfall in colder ones. “Don’t plant them until the hot weather is over,” Jane advised. So once my husband and I decided that the last scorcher had safely passed, I went back to 14th Street Garden Center and stocked up (and while I was at it, picked up some multicolored ornamental peppers too, because they were just too pretty to pass up).

Every time I come home with a new armload of plants, I’m like a kid with a new pet. I’m just so thrilled and proud. And this latest haul is all the more joyful, because who would have thought that I could have so many colorful posies—in autumn!

Related Posts: Spring for Pansies and Azaleas–The New Fall Flowers?

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Urban Farm (Battery Included!)

I know. This photo of lower Manhattan from the harbor doesn’t look anything like a garden. But nestled between the Staten Island Ferry terminal (on the far right) and the rising towers of the new World Trade Center (on the far left) is a remarkable farm. That’s right—a one-acre farm in Battery Park (where you see the rows of trees along the waterfront).

I was sprinting through the park to meet my husband one evening last month when I first laid eyes on it—a mysterious enclosure with a tall bamboo fence around it and vines spilling over the sides and between the slats. I made a mental note to come back. But how, I wondered, do you even get in? The bamboo fence appeared unassailable–and it stood in the middle of a large lawn, which in turn was surrounded by a chest-high iron fence.
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The Ultimate Urban Garden–and Me

The (manmade) Pond in Central Park

The ultimate urban garden may be New York’s Central Park. The casual visitor might think that it’s just as nature created it, but in fact it had a giant helping hand from designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the mid-19th century. To compensate for the original swampy terrain, they hauled in 2-to-4 feet of topsoil from New Jersey and Long Island—a total of 30,000 loads, covering 843 acres, according to the Central Park Conservancy. They brought in trees, bushes, and flowers. They constructed lawns and gardens, carriage ways and footpaths, fountains and a stunning tree-lined alley. Of the land’s original features, only the mighty outcroppings of schist remain.

Seriously, even the lake, pond, and reservoir are manmade. On a private tour this summer with the Conservancy, the guide pointed out a waterfall tumbling down the side of a majestic outcropping. Then he took us to the source—a pipe atop the rock, gushing out New York tap water. We saw other pipes carrying water into The Pond at the park’s southeast corner—and the drain at the far end.

My point is this. So far I have confined my urban gardening to the stoop, railings, and sidewalk in the front of our rented townhouse. But since we live in a corner building, we also have a long, narrow strip of concrete around the side that runs parallel to the sidewalk. All summer I have longed to install raised beds there, but there are many reasons why that was out of the question—not the least of them, the fence we would have to climb over with buckets full of water carried through the house, since we had no hookup for a garden hose (and there’s no gate in the railing). It was crazy to even think about it. But after this tour of Central Park, I felt like an incredible wimp for not even trying. If Olmsted and Vaux could fill a 2.5-mile-long park with topsoil and even create waterfalls, surely I could at least put a few potted plants in my 125 square feet.

Instant upgrade

A month later, our landlord agreed to install an outdoor spigot—to water a container garden, not raised beds. At that point, all that remained was to go back to 14th Street Garden Center and explore the options with Vinnie, the owner, who had plenty of ideas. We ended up investing in two stunning chollipo euonymus bushes (pron. you-ON-i-mus) and one blue point juniper—all of them encouragingly labeled “easy care” plants. And the next day, two strong men made the delivery, hoisted everything over the railing, and planted it all in containers for us.

This must be the kind of thing stagers recommend when you sell a house, because suddenly the lot looked 100 percent better. An eyesore is now becoming a garden—and in large part, I owe it to two 19th-century designers.

Anne’s chollipo euonymus

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8 Things I Love About My Container Garden

1. A Stoop With a View. As I was sitting on my front steps last Saturday morning, a dad with two kids and a dog walked by. “I love what you’ve done with these flowers,” he said. “This space used to be so dead. Now it’s full of life.” That’s exactly how I feel. Few things have given me more joy this summer than walking out of my townhouse in the morning and seeing thriving plants everywhere—on the stoop, in the window boxes, planted around the tree, hooked over the railings. Before my upstairs neighbor, Danielle, realized where the plants were coming from, she thanked our landlord for them. “Green plants just make a place seem so much more welcoming,” she says.

2. Shifting Shades of Pink. To my amazement, the flowers on my purslane turn lighter or darker depending on how much water they receive. When I first bought the plant, I was afraid of overwatering it, since the shopkeeper had told me that every other day would be sufficient. Over the next several weeks, I barely noticed as the blossoms faded to a sandy desert pink—until I looked at my first photos and was shocked to see how intense the initial hues had been. (Think Pepto Bismol with a touch more red.) I began watering the plant more frequently, and before long, it was back in the pink. But nothing prepared me for the deep rose color I would find when I came home one evening after a summer’s downpour.

3. Perfect Pinwheels. The only “flower bed” I have is the tiny plot of dirt around the pathetic sapling out front. But much to my amazement, the flowers I’ve planted there have thrived, especially the vincas. Its flowers lie flat when fully open, but as they start to uncurl their tightly wound buds, they form a perfect swirl of a pinwheel. I’ve been watching them through the summer, and when I see one of these, I photograph it immediately. Eight hours later, the flower will be open.

4. Thirst for Life. Every time I harvest an herb or vegetable and think I’ve seen the end of it, it comes back. It happened with my basil. I thought I had chopped down every last stalk to make pesto. But a week later, when I came back from a short trip to California, there were tiny basil plants pushing up through the dirt. It happened again with my Swiss chard, which I thought I had polished off. And two weeks ago, just when I thought my cherry tomatoes were done, I started noticing a crop of tiny yellow flowers and even some miniature green orbs.
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Please Don’t Eat the Petunias

Anne’s petunias

After the untimely death of a colleague many years ago, his widow wrote a note to the staff: “Please don’t send flowers. Harry thought all flowers were petunias.” While it’s hard for me to imagine such willful ignorance of blooming plants, I have to admit that if he’d walked down the main street of Hoboken and admired the window boxes of the shops and restaurants, more often than not, he would have been right. Most of them seem to contain petunias, in all shades of pink, purple, even candy striped.
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Scents and Sensibility

Every morning when I walk out into the container garden on my stoop, I am greeted by the sweet scents of lavender, dill, basil, and rosemary. But when I try to describe these fragrances, I soon realize that my vocabulary is completely inadequate. What does lavender smell like, other than lavender?

It turns out that there are people in this world who have given the matter a great deal of thought. And some of the most knowledgeable are at McCormick & Co., the spice company.

At a foodie conference several years ago, I attended a session sponsored by McCormick on how taste and smell work together to create what we perceive as flavor. My favorite audience-participation moment came when we were all handed five tiny vials glued onto the flat side of a popsicle stick. We uncorked each one in turn and took a whiff. The first was clearly medicinal, redolent of tinctures in an old-fashioned doctor’s office. The second was delightfully minty, while the third gave the aroma of a pine forest. Fourth was something the audience could not describe any better than “earthy,” and the last smelled like “spring green.” It was hard to imagine how these scents could be connected—until we were instructed to uncork all five vials at once and sweep them, left to right, under our noses like an aromatic pan pipe. Suddenly the individual “fragrance notes” combined into a single, unmistakable scent—rosemary! “We do this presentation for food professionals and top chefs, and they’re always amazed,” says Silvia King, senior principal scientist and director of McCormick’s Sensory Center. “They think they know everything about food.”

As I sit on my stoop sniffing my lavender, I try to summon the same powers of analysis. Sadly, the best I can come up with is sweet, violet, and soapy. How would you describe lavender’s sweet scent?

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Show Me the Honey

This may sound preposterous, but in many ways, the perfect urban crop is honey—or so says Meme Thomas, founder of Baltimore Honey and the organization’s Queen Bee. We’ve all heard about colony collapse disorder. But if all bees were treated like Meme’s honeybees, I’m guessing that colony collapse would not be the problem that it is today. What’s so special about her approach? For starters, she keeps her bees in downtown Baltimore.

Suburban bees are distressed bees, she says. A perfect lawn without a weed in sight is like a food desert to a bee. The insects thrive on clover, dandelions, and wild flowers—the very things suburban gardeners strive to eradicate. And the lawn chemicals that kill off these weeds are toxic to bees too, so they suffer doubly.

Commercial bees are also a troubled lot. They’re hauled long distance from one farm to another to pollinate monocropped fields. The journey alone is stressful enough. And what do they get in return? A monotonous diet of pollen and nectar from a single crop. “Bees need a balanced diet, just as we do,” says Meme. “They should have pollen and nectar from a variety of plants.”

Even worse is the pure junk food they receive when commercial honey growers harvest the honey in the hive. Instead of leaving enough to see the bees through the winter, growers feed them sugar water or high fructose corn syrup, which provide calories but not nutrition. Sound familiar?

Now let’s turn to Meme’s Baltimore bees. Instead of monocropped fields or toxic lawns, they feed on community gardens, urban farms, and even wildflowers that grow between cracks in the sidewalk—on plants that aren’t treated with a lot of chemicals—and Meme provides weekly supplies of fresh chlorine-and-fluoride-free water, so the bees don’t need to resort to toxic runoff for liquid. Unlike commercial honey growers, too, she doesn’t smoke the bees out when it comes time to harvest the honey. “The smoke traumatizes the bees and depresses their immune systems,” she says. “And all the biomass from the smoke gets into the wax and the brood of young bees. It’s like entering a house where there’s been a fire.” Instead, she gently mists the hives, so the bees think it’s raining and retreat to the inner parts of the hive, allowing her to harvest. Finally, she leaves the bees at least 80 pounds of honey for the winter, taking only 5-10, so they don’t have to feed on sugar water.

And you can taste the results. This is the most flavorful, complex honey I’ve ever tried. It’s won blue ribbons from the Maryland State Fair.

To order a jar, you purchase a “share” in her CSA (“community-supported apiary”). The cost is $45, which seems steep (maybe even vertiginous) for a single jar. But as Meme says, “The real crop is healthy honeybees.” Given that bees pollinate a third of our food crops—including apples, blueberries, strawberries, peaches, almonds, cucumbers, melons, and scores of others—the investment in our food security seems well worth it. And you get an astonishingly good jar of honey, too!

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Guerrilla Gardening

Foxglove

A mystery gardener has been planting flowers in Hoboken. Where these blossoms come from, no one seems to know. On the warm June afternoon when I planted my first seedlings out front, a woman I’d never seen before asked me if I was the mystery gardener. I am not. But I now know who is.

He lives nearby and has a marvelous pocket garden of his own, every square inch crammed with some perennial or vine. What a wasted opportunity it must seem to someone of his sensibilities to find untilled plots of land, no matter how small. My husband and I knew he was about to strike a couple weeks ago when he whispered to us, “Watch this space,” while gesturing to a sidewalk tree with a barren patch of dirt around it. Fenced off with decorative wrought iron, the plot seemed to cry out for some bit of greenery.

A few days later I walked down that block and did a double take. I paced back up and down the street part way to make sure I had the right spot. I stood there blinking. The space, which had been completely empty a few days earlier, was now full of plants—not seedlings, but mature foxglove, snapdragons, and varied foliage. There was no sign of freshly turned earth. Seriously, it looked as if it had been there all summer. “Were those plants there a few days ago?” I asked a young man sitting on the steps nearby.

“No,” he said.

“Who planted them?” I asked.

“No idea.”

Then last weekend I sat on my own stoop photographing my lavender plants when the mystery gardener walked by and exclaimed, “Nice sunflower!” I don’t have sunflowers. I followed the direction of his gaze and noticed for the first time a perfect, foot-high sunflower plant sprouting among the tall wild grasses in front of the vacant row house next door. Once again, I blinked hard. “Did you plant it?” I asked.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied, as he grinned and walked away.

I recently learned that this phenomenon has a name—guerrilla gardening. Often guerrilla gardeners merely sprinkle some seeds on a vacant plot, rather than making miniature gardens appear overnight. If greenery should sprout, who’s to know the seeds didn’t just blow there on the wind? Either way, I love the idea. These blossoms are so pretty, they seem to me like gifts of random kindness. I can’t wait to see our new sunflower bloom and grow.

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Pesto!

Fragrant harvest

For years, my husband and I have trekked down to the supermarket during the summer in search of fresh herbs. Usually we come home with a few sad stalks of droopy leaves encased in plastic—which is why the fresh basil and dill from the garden this year seems so extraordinary. Every time we perk up a salad, stir fry, or pasta sauce with our own fresh herbs, my husband exclaims that he can hardly believe we grew these on our stoop. The flavors just seem so much more alive.

Soon-to-be pesto

But nothing wows me like pesto I made with basil, dill and flat-leaf parsley, when they were all growing like crazy. I chopped them down and tossed them all into the food processor, along with pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano, garlic, olive oil, and—secret ingredient alert—sun-dried tomatoes. The result is amazing. I may be biased, but this is the tastiest, most zingy pesto I’ve ever eaten. As I scraped the sides of the food processor, I couldn’t helping thinking, “This is grown-up cookie dough—stuff so good, you can eat it right out of the bowl” (and with no fear of salmonella, as with actual raw cookie dough!). Three batches later, the whole house smelled spectacular.

I am tempted to set up a blindfolded taste test for my husband—my pesto against the bottled stuff from the store. But why bother? I already know which one will win. Hands down.

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Withering Heights

Anne’s chard, back from the brink

All is going well until the blowtorch of July’s heat wave strikes. Worst affected is my Swiss chard, which I’m sure would be much happier in Alpine splendor than it is in the scorching New Jersey sun. The leaves used to be crisp atop sturdy red, yellow, and white stalks. But when I come home from work on that first blistering day, I find both leaves and stalks drooping limply over the side of the terracotta planter. They remind me of a jilted 19th century heroine, lying prostrate on the swooning couch. I imagine their reproach: “How could you abandon us all day without fresh water?” The lavender is listless, too, and the butterfly bush rapidly wilting.

I have been giving my garden roughly 2 gallons of water a day until this point. Suddenly that amount escalates to 5 and even 7 gallons. I’ve read that containers dry out much faster than normal ground, since they’re more exposed to the heat. But I’m shocked at how often I have to water these plants now and how much liquid they soak up each time, swallowing the contents of entire 2.5-gallon watering cans at a gulp.

In the end, there is no recourse but to bring the chard, cherry tomatoes, and lavender inside and give them respite in our air conditioned living room. (That’s at least one advantage over an in-ground garden. You can’t uproot the pumpkin patch and carry it all inside.) Overnight, my plants revive. But how long will I have to leave them indoors, with the mercury soaring?

I keep an anxious eye on the other plants that are still outside. Some are actually living up to their “heat-tolerant” billing. The purslane—that semi-succulent Mediterranean specimen—seems to be thriving. And the mandevilla, a tropical beauty, is handling the situation just fine. Most remarkably, the petunias look as fresh as the day I bought them.

Still, I can’t wait for this heat wave to pass.

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The Edible Balcony

I might never have attempted urban gardening if it hadn’t been for a book called The Edible Balcony by Alex Mitchell. In the interest of full disclosure, I used to work for Rodale, the book’s publisher, but that’s not why I’m writing about it now. The author, a gardening writer in London, paints a seductive picture of transforming a bare balcony into “a Mediterranean-style haven surrounded by grapes, tomatoes, lemons, and greens so fresh that they squeak while the traffic roars around you.” The gorgeous photos underscore the possibilities, with scarlet runner-bean tunnels, bee hives, espaliered apple trees, and more—all set up in tiny spaces.

Mitchell has a delightfully quirky sense of how to create a container garden, with pots fashioned from fruit crates, coffee tins, ceramic cookware, and even colanders. In addition to delivering a trove of basic how-to information, she seems to have no end of clever ideas on utilizing every precious inch. She stacks pots artfully on step ladders or builds vertical gardens on walls using hanging shoe organizers. But my favorite suggestion features creative deployment of a hat rack. “Not only can you hang baskets or other containers filled with strawberries, tomatoes, greens, or herbs from the hooks,” she writes, “but the central stem is perfect for supporting climbing beans or cucumbers—and all in the space it takes to hang your sun hat.” (Just be sure to set it up in an area that’s not too windy, and brace it, if necessary, with heavy stones at the base.)

When I first began reading The Edible Balcony in early May, I thought that, for all its charm, the book didn’t apply to me. I don’t even have a balcony, just a fire escape—and the cops frown on placing anything on the fire escape that might interfere with its intended purpose.

Anne’s butterfly bush–with its first visitor, a Red Admiral butterfly

Once Mitchell opened my eyes, however, I realized that I have quite a lot of room for container gardening. I have railings on both sides of the stoop—one of which I have since adorned with a planter full of basil, parsley, rosemary, and dill, and the other with Swiss chard and cherry tomatoes. I have the surface of the stoop and six stairs where I have now placed my purslane, mandevilla, and lavender. And there are more railings in front of the house, circling the entrance to the dry cleaner that occupies the space below us. Last week I hung a pot of pink, purple, and burgundy petunias on this railing, prompting the Korean cleaner to run out and thank me for the gift. My little flower garden of snapdragons and vincas around the tree out front is filling in nicely. I even have a butterfly bush on another little patch of concrete around the side of the house—and within two hours of its arrival, it had attracted its first Red Admiral butterfly.

I may not have an edible balcony, but thanks to Mitchell, I now have an edible stoop—and for someone who’s yearned for a garden for nearly 20 years, that’s nothing short of stupendous.

Related link: Lack a Balcony? Get One Delivered

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I Walk the Vine

Mandevilla

Some people have pets. I have plants. True, they don’t come wagging their tails to me in the morning. But I now firmly believe that plants have observable behavior. Most fascinating for me are vines, like my mandevilla.

When I first glimpsed the mandevilla for sale at 14th Street Garden Center in Jersey City, all I saw was a tall, dark, and handsome plant with deep green leaves and trumpet-like pink flowers. But after I’d invested in plant, pot, and soil, I soon realized that this was a creature with character too.

I know most people think that flowers are as lively as, well, potted plants. But within a week, I was watching my mandevilla send tendrils out into the air, seeking a structure to coil around. Hour by hour, these probing tendrils seemed to shift positions, slowly rotating like a satellite array searching space for radio signals.

I soon began fretting that the delicate shoots had no trellis. But the shopkeeper at 14th Street Garden Center assured me I didn’t need one. “Just hang some string down the wall for it to climb,” she said, “or take the vines and wrap them around a pole. You don’t need to be gentle.” That’s when I learned how finicky my plant was—not just any old support would do. I had placed the mandevilla on the stoop outside my front door, adjacent to the railing holding a planter full of herbs. I tried at first to wrap the tendrils around the railing. Time and again, the tendrils unwound and by morning had curled themselves instead around the stems of the basil plants.

I reverted to Plan B—some bamboo stakes and string that appeared equally unsuccessful for a day or two. But then the vines appeared to signal their approval. When a tendril reached a point of contact—usually somewhere along the middle of its length—the tip would soon curl back toward the new object, as if bending its neck to look in the opposite direction. Pretty soon additional tendrils were wrapping around the string, too, reinforcing themselves like a braided rope. Even tendrils near the base of the plant that had previously probed the air in seemingly random fashion began reaching toward the strings above, as if heeding some internal communications system, twisting around each other as they wound their way skyward.

No wonder Organic Gardening magazine dubbed the mandevilla “the mailbox vine of the moment.” “The flowers are big enough to make an impression at the curb, even if the traffic is going by at 35 miles per hour,” as the article put it, “but the vines are well mannered and do not threaten to engulf the mail carrier.” So I’m evidently not the only one who ascribes character traits to my plants. The mandevilla is well mannered, indeed—and a strangely intriguing companion.

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Sunbathing Beauties

SunPatiens in Anne’s garden

No matter how many pets and people trample the fledgling flower bed in front of my house, I’m determined to keep planting until the blooms are lush and beautiful enough to command respect. This has meant multiple trips to the neighborhood flower shop, where I’ve bought more vincas (purple this time), a smattering of begonias, and, on the last trip, a marvelous plant called SunPatiens that can withstand full sun and high heat.

If I’d started my garden a dozen years ago, I wouldn’t have needed to seek out plants that can handle unrelenting sunshine. But 11 years ago, the maple tree in front of our townhouse was accidentally cut down—a sad tale that will follow in a later post. The point is that no other replacement tree has yet survived on that spot, so I can’t even dream of buying shade-loving plants like impatiens that require the protection of cool, moist shadows.

Congo cockatoo impatiens in the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers.

That’s why the SunPatiens seizes my attention. According to the little plastic ID stuck in the pot, it’s “a completely new type of impatiens that thrives in hot, sunny conditions.” The key to its vigor apparently lies in a simple fact. It’s a cross between the somewhat sun-tolerant New Guinea impatiens and a hardy wild impatiens. (The Japanese company Sakata, which created the new hybrid, does not divulge which wild variety it used. But the choice is much more vast than I ever realized before. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I found this stunning Congo cockatoo impatiens in the Conservatory of Flowers.)

Whatever its lineage, I love the SunPatiens. The color is labelled as “deep rose,” but to me it’s an electric magenta. The five heart-shaped petals do not form a perfectly round flower. Instead, the blossom is elongated on the bottom, reminding me of a bulldog with sagging jowls. And because they’re taller and thicker than my little vincas and snap dragons, they fill the space between the border flowers and tree trunk nicely.

I add a small wire fence to reinforce the message that this is a tended flower bed, not a random collection of weeds. And gradually a small, barren plot starts to look like a real garden.

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Linnaeus’s Flower Clock

Morning glories

I’ve always been fascinated by morning glories. I know that some people regard them as unruly, invasive weeds—the kudzu of ornamental flowers. But I adore the blankets of blossoms they produce as they cover a fence or hedgerow. And I never tire of the way they open and close each day—not merely spreading their petals wide each morning and drawing them in at night, but actually curling and uncurling them, like fingers opening and closing into a fist.

So imagine my delight when I learn that the pink blossoms on my purslane also bloom by day and close up late afternoon. On workdays, I rarely see them in their full glory, as I leave for the office too early and return home too late. But on the weekends, I revel in the midday profusion of flowers.

It’s all the more remarkable, because, I just learned, each blossom lasts only a day. (So that’s why there are so many fallen buds littering my stoop every morning!)

iPhone--Blog and San Francisco 2012 042

Morning glories

Most flowers open once and remain that way until they wilt. But in those with daily rhythms, these patterns are so predictable that an astute observer could use them to form a rough sense of time. In 1751 the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus took the idea to its logical conclusion and proposed building a flower clock, using a full array of plants that open and close on a set schedule—morning glories starting at 10 am, water lilies at 11, and so on through the aptly named four o’clock flowers. And unlike a sundial, which can only function during broad daylight, the flower clock could theoretically continue ticking well past dusk, as evening primroses and moonflowers begin their nocturnal watch.

Granted, this is no precision timepiece. A few years ago, James Duke, PhD, a former USDA researcher and author of The Green Pharmacy Guide to Healing Foods, set one up at his Maryland home. “I can tell you to within an hour what time it is,” he says, noting that the degree of heat or cloud cover can affect timing, and some plants are more dependable than others. “The spiderwort opens punctually at 6 am. Scarlet pimpernel is good by 10 am. And evening primrose blooms promptly at 8:30 pm,” he says. “But my four o’clocks don’t open at 4, so they’re a failure. It’s a lot easier just to buy a cheap watch.”

But was a watch ever so much fun? Check out this uber-cool video of morning glories opening.

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Beethoven’s Veranda

Anne’s snapdragons

When I was little, my parents ordered their seeds from Burpee’s, tilled the soil and planted their garden the old-fashioned way. But decades later, in the densely populated urban setting I call home, I have no soil to till—or so I thought, until I trained my sights on the tiny patch of dirt surrounding the pathetic sapling in the sidewalk out front. This, I decided, would be my flower garden.

As it turns out, there is a charming little garden store four blocks away called Beethoven’s Veranda, a self-styled “symphony of flowers and plants.” Indoors, classical music from Pandora plays all day long, creating the illusion that your garden will be just as perfect as the works of the master himself.

Told of my project, Keith the shopkeeper recommended the snapdragons and vincas, which he said would produce blossoms all summer long. I was immediately charmed. There was just one problem. My little patch of dirt has had nothing on it for decades but weeds and dog piss—and Keith had just sold his last batch of fertilizer. “That’s OK,” said my husband. “We’ll bury fish, like Squanto.” Huh?

My history-major husband had somehow dredged up the fact that back in Plymouth, Mass., when starvation threatened the Pilgrims, the Patuxet Indian Squanto advised them to use dead fish as fertilizer for their crops. “We have some sardines at home,” he offered.

“Oh, great,” I replied. “Every dog in town will be digging up my flowers.”

“No, they won’t,” said Keith. “Every cat will.”

OK, so I knew my miniature garden was going to be an amateur operation. I didn’t know it was going to be this half-cocked. 

I bought a tray of 30 little pink snapdragon plants and 27 white vincas, and I headed home, knowing that this was an iffy proposition at best. The soil quality is near zero. The ground is constantly trampled by neighbors coming to the dry cleaner’s on the ground floor of our building. The dirt has been absorbing toxic exhaust from traffic for decades. And that’s before you factor in the dogs. The tree our landlord planted there last year promptly dropped all its leaves and refused to grow.

Yet, as I started digging in the dirt, I felt instantly more connected to neighbors I’ve never met before. People stopped to ask me what kind of flowers I was planting. Others actually thanked me. In my mind, this venture suddenly became more than my long-shot attempt at a garden. It was my very own Neighborhood Beautification Project.

Well, maybe that was a premature assessment. Within a week, two-thirds of the snapdragons were dead—not just deflowered, but totally withered away. “It’s a good thing the Pilgrims weren’t counting on us to feed them,” said my husband. Perhaps it was the week of pouring rain that did the flowers in. Maybe it was the fish. Truthfully, I never expected them to last.

But here’s the good news. The vincas are doing splendidly. Even more amazing, a neighbor told me he no longer lets his dog pee there.

I can’t wait to plant some more.

 

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Little Shop of Flowers

Forget the beach. This is my weekend destination.

Everyone has a favorite store or two—the bakery with the perfect canoli, the shoe shop with the gorgeous high heels, the hardware store that always has just the fixture you need. But my new favorite is 14th Street Garden Center in Jersey City. It was my lifeline last month when I wanted to start a container garden on the stoop of my house, but had no clue how to begin. “They’ll put it together for you, without you even realizing how much they’ve helped,” said my neighbor Jane.

To say that the place occupies an unpromising location would be an understatement. It stands on an otherwise vacant lot between the entrance to New York City’s Holland Tunnel and the New Jersey Turnpike extension. My husband and I have driven past it for years without ever feeling tempted to drop in. Yet once I step inside, I have the delicious sensation of being in a lush botanical garden–one where you can not only touch the plants, but actually purchase the objects of your desire. It’s now become my weekend destination of choice. Honestly, I’d rather go there than the beach.

First purchase, purslane

On my first tentative visit, my objective is just to find plants that can survive the brutal sun beating down on the front of our house all afternoon. I look longingly at the clematis, a gorgeous climbing vine with a profusion of velvety, deep purple flowers. Maybe not, says the clerk. It needs more shade.

Instead, he points me to a pretty pink-flowered plant hanging from baskets above our heads. This one loves the sun and heat and only needs to be watered every other day. When he pulls it down, I realize with surprise that it’s purslane–a semi-succulent (some would call it a weed) that grows wild on parched Greek islands. You can even see it poking through cracks in sidewalks. Yes, this is the plant for me!

Second purchase, basil

My husband and I pick out a blue-green, glazed ceramic pot for it. But what I truly desire are herbs. Of all the edible plants my parents used to grow, these were my favorite. My mother and I used to make a zucchini soup that we nicknamed “basil soup,” because that was its dominant flavor and the true reason that it became a favorite in our household. “Can herbs survive full sun?” I ask hesitantly, afraid of the answer. No worries, says our assistant. Just pick out a window box to hook over the railing on our stoop. Then choose from the many trays of seedlings. And when you’re done, bring it all over to the counter, where someone will pot it for you.

Ecstatic, my husband and I choose basil, dill, parsley, and rosemary—then extra basil, because how can you ever have too much? We take our stash over to guys at the “potting table,” and a small assembly line of workers remove the plants from their starter containers, fill our empty window box and ceramic pot with organic potting soil, and do the planting for us. Genius! This is potting for dummies—“porta-potting,” my husband calls it.

When we get home, I have an instant garden. And I didn’t even get dirt beneath my nails, at least not yet.

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It Was the Best of Thyme, It Was the Worst of Thyme

I know my friends will react with skepticism. But this is the year I’m becoming a gardener.

Mind you, I don’t dwell in some leafy neighborhood with tidy lawns. I live in Hoboken, NJ—directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan, where 50,000 residents crowd into the town’s single square mile. At the 1852 row house where my husband and I rent an apartment, the available space outdoors consists of a sidewalk and a stoop.

For years, I’ve longed for a place to grow plants. When I was little, our various homes were surrounded with a rotating kaleidoscope of daffodils, forsythia, rhododendrons, peonies, and more. Honeysuckle wound its way around our back fence. And the vegetable garden seemed to expand by the year, filling our summers with fragrant herbs, tender lettuces, and tomatoes that outclassed anything from the store. There were the zucchini that made us all feel like mighty farmers, with their huge sprawling vines—and the corn that I’m sure we would have enjoyed, if we’d ever gotten to it before the raccoons. 

Ever since my husband and I moved to Hoboken 18 years ago, I’ve told him that someday we’re going to have a house—a real house where I can plant a garden like those fragrant Edens of my past. But after several failed attempts to become homeowners, I’ve finally decided to put down roots here. Literally. 

So this is it—my stake in the ground. Anne Underwood, urban gardener. It may be small, but I’m going to make my patch of concrete bloom.

Others must be feeling the same way because I’ve seen a profusion of window boxes and planters around town in places where they never sprouted before. I wonder if it has to do with the uncertain times we live in. If you can’t afford that dream house, do you decide instead to fix up the place where you are? Or in the midst of economic peril, do people just want the reassurance and beauty of tiny shoots growing—an affirmation of life—the optimism of sunflowers stretching toward the heavens?

What do you think?

 

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