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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