Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The making of a garden

 October 2013

We moved from Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, last October. We left behind a much loved terrace. All 66 Square Feet of it. Our life there was immortalized in my book. Many of our pots and plants from Brooklyn moved with us, some never made it

On the terrace attached to the bedroom of our new apartment in Harlem planter boxes built by our landlord some years before were already in place. In them irises, asters, Pachysandra, tomatoes, eggplants, tangles of morning glory and many weeds crowded together. The dusty soil was so dry it would not absorb water. 

Over the first weeks I removed most of the plants and added 10 bags of organic potting soil, and handfuls of Espoma granular fertilizer. I transplanted the irises and asters.

January 2014

I ordered a bird feeder online (there is gap in the design sector for attractive birdfeeders!) and soon flocks of juncos were hopping around in the snow.

January 2014

It was a bitterly cold and unusually snowy winter. 

January 2014

Many plants died. A leaking gutter made wall of ice that entombed old boxwoods, roses. The famous fig.

 February 2014

But I worked in good weather, and planned on new plants. 

And then the soil in the pots began to thaw. I planted pansies, and sowed catgrass for the feline. 

 March 2014

But whenever I was out on the terrace I felt as though the eyes behind every window facing us were on me. I doubt they were, but I felt vulnerable. I needed some kind of fence or screen, but did not want to build a stockade or feel like I was in a cage.

April 2014

Birch poles seemed a good idea - I love the natural colour and texture of white birch and they would also provide relief from the all-surrounding, slightly oppressive pale brown of the deck and planters. The poles came from Wilson Evergreens and arrived within days after ordering. 

I sank the the 6 foot uprights all the way down into the boxes, two feet deep, and watered them in well. The next day the Frenchman helped me tie the 4 foot crosspieces on with brown twine. The birds took to them immediately!

 April 2014

I thought about hanging filmy screens or curtains from the fence but decided that fast-growing climbers would be better looking. To save money I ordered annual seeds: scarlet and purple runner beans, and hyacinth beans (lablab) from Botanical Interests. Gloriosa lilies - which had worked so well as sprawling climbers in Brooklyn - arrived from Brent and Becky's. The Brooklyn clematis was in a corner pot near the fence, and I hoped it would flourish, here too.

April 2014

I waited for warmer weather to plant out the beans, knowing how much they hate cold nights.

May 2014

Roses came from David Austin - while happy in the spring, they have not flourished in the four hours of direct sun they receive. They need more. By far the most successful shrub has been the blueberry, so I bought two more at Union Square.

May 2014

At last the weather warmed enough to let us eat - and cook - outdoors. An elemental pleasure, for me. 

 June 2014

By June the gloriosas and the beans had begun to do what I had imagined they might.

June 2014

And the birds continued to enjoy the fence.

June 2014

Wonderful friends brought fat boxwoods and perennials all the way from Saunders Brothers in Virginia. And I added a small annual cardinal vine to the climbing mix. Roses, Thai basil, nasturtiums, Calamintha, Echinacea, Talinum, chives and the original asters share these front planting boxes.

June 2014

In the shadiest planters on the left I planted mint, jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), bellwort (Uvullaria grandiflora) and native bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia). 

July 2014

And when I came home after a month away in late June and July, the beans were dripping with...beans. 

August 2014

This simple screen makes the world of difference when we sit outside.

August 2014

The Nicotiana sylvestris, grown from tiny seeds, have reached human heights, and are scented at night.

August 2014

The lablab beans (native to tropical Africa) are the last to bloom, and fruit.

August 2014

So there it is. A terrace after six months.

Its future is uncertain. Our landlord says he must lift the whole deck to repair leaks in his roof, below. The whole garden will be lifted down to his backyard.

But let's not think about that, now. 

Let's enjoy it while it lasts.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Edible Plant Walk, Central Park

Cornelian cherries

Central Park's North Woods
23 August 2014, 11am-1pm

The last summer walk!

In the shorter days of late summer stone fruit and edible weeds flourish in Central Park. If we look up, there are Cornelian cherries (actually Cornus mas, a Mediterranean dogwood), black cherries, and perhaps hackberries, too.

Weed, or herb?

In the North Woods, jumpseed, pokeweed and mature stands of Japanese knotweed carpet the woodland floor, while plantain and burnweed pop up opportunistically beside paths. Burdock and lambsquarters are in bloom, and the cooler season's dock might be beginning to show itself after our unusually mild August. 

American burnweed

As we walk, learn to spot these and many other wild edibles, and how to use them. And enjoy a brunch scone along the way, spiced with mahlab - the powdered kernels of wild cherries and stuffed with black cherry jam.

Mahlab and black cherry scones

Closest subways are the 2/3 at 110th Street, and the B/C at 110th.


Shoo, fly

I had been wanting a fly net forever, despite being married to a man who is able to catch flies with his bare hands and relocate them. But neither of us likes flies buzzing around our meals.

So one day in July, waiting in the rain at the traffic lights to turn into Constantia Village, our local shopping mecca in Cape Town, I was delighted to see the fly net lady standing on the traffic island, selling her wares to passing cars. (You need nerves of steel to drive in South Africa. Everyone comes to the traffic lights. The lame, the halt, the blind, the ancient, the children, the hopeless and helpless, the heartbreaking, the chancers and the syndicates, the vendors, the entrepreneurs, and the occasional, genuine craftsperson. If you followed your heart you'd be bankrupt within a few days. So you put your heart in a cage and drop ice in all around it and wrap it in plastic sheeting to prevent drips. But sometimes it still sees out.)

I digress.

I pulled into the parking lot across the way and went over to see her things, and I bought three, each for R80, or about $8. They are three feet long by two feet wide, with pretty beading all along the edges to weigh the net down.  I think they are beautiful.

And now our cheese is safe in Harlem.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rich pickings at the dump

On a perfect Saturday we walked into Dead Horse Bay. We wandered the paths, finding mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), wasabi-hot poor man's pepper (Lepidium virginicum), young dandelions (Taraxacum officinalis), pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and smooth sumac (Rhus glabra). The Phragmites - the monoculture of invasive weed reeds - were in bloom. 

So were the bottle trees. This was an old bayberry.

Tide was high. The beached Sandy boats gather more graffiti every year.

We spread out our picnic on a beached log. Field garlic butter, sumac butter and sumac bread. I found some sea rocket (Cakile edentula) leaves to top mine.

By the time we had eaten the high tide had retreated enough to allow us to walk along the littered shore.

The steam punk tree lives on.

As we cut back in to the old dump, the reeds closed in again.

This sumac is Rhus copalina. Winged sumac (glossy sumac, dwarf sumac), as its leaves' axes (below) told me, soon enough. I have never paid it much attention but I have also never seen it in bloom as profusely as this. It was heavy with bees carrying even heavier loads of pollen. It will bear fruit much later than the smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) we found, or the later staghorn (Rhus typhina).

Bless botanist's carrying plant bibles. Fortunately, I did not know until the end of the walk that Eve is a botanist, or I would have got the jitters.

                                                                  We found ripe blackberries.

And trees dripping with fat black cherries, the best I have tasted. Sana, a fellow walker, pointed out guava notes. Yes!

Goldenrod is early, I think. A funny botanical year.

We paused for a good bit, here. Now I have jam to make. Or perhaps chutney. Then again, the black cherry fizz I bottled last week is incredibly delicious. What to do?

I limited myself to one bottle from the beach, but a good deal of sumac, super-sour and moistly fresh. Now bathing in jars vodka, gin, and water with sugar.

The next walk is this Saturday, in much tamer Central Park.

More here.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

There was light

The lamp. The one we went across the water to buy. Someone asked.

(And yup, that's a Meuschke above the bed.)

Friday, August 15, 2014

El barrio meets the hood

We walked. East. Way east. To find a toaster at Costco, or perhaps at Target. We passed The Urban Garden Center, newly recovered from the Harlem gas blast. It promised a pig, but it was a long way from 5, yet, and we moved on.

Toaster in hand and some startling, culture-shock fast food later (tiny dish of $3.95 pasta Alfredo, 600 calories? No wonder people get fat), and depressed by the awful, giant pet store we saw - it was the cat's birthday and he needed gifts - we turned west once more, walking towards Lenox Avenue.

At 117th and Lenox I found a surprise farm stand, and cheered up. It is there every Saturday. They say. It sold us the nicest corn I have ever eaten. We grilled the ears over coals that night (45 minutes), still in their husks, then rubbed them with butter and sprinkled some ramp salt and parmesan cheese over the top, with a squeeze of lime. The upstate stand (Marlboro, NY) sold a startling selection of eggplants too, and we ate those the following night, with our guanciale sourdough pizza.

Then we found a hole. This is the WHOLEfoods hole at 125th. Get it??? At last something is happening inside it. Three concrete trucks stood churning at the corner, sandwiching (it was a club sandwich) a flattened street sign.

The hole is betternTV.

Finally we crossed the Depressing Intersection, which actually looks OK in this light.

...and were back in our hood. Past the corner social of old men on crates and fold out chairs, past the pee- smelling corner opposite, past the neat front gardens and the boarded up brownstone, past the new condominium and the house with morning glories to the roof, down the sidewalk towards the little fat kid who plays outside every afternoon with the skinny boy and the girl, till their mother shouts at them through their building's intercom, and up our steps, and home.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Evening, to contemplate much mint makes a good mojito.

The sunset pink on the next door building.

The mystery of the hole. Who keeps digging it, between the marjoram and the unhappy strawberry?

Several mornings in a row. I don't think the squirrel. I think a bird, for a sort of dust bath - it's so smooth.

And it throws all the soil down into the neighbor's deserted backyard. We even set up a time lapse camera, to catch it. But that time it did not come.

And how long it will be before the Nicotiana decides to snap at the waist?

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