Saturday, March 29, 2008

Its Spring in DC

Four hours south, in DC, it is spring. Bulbs blooming, cherry trees blooming, magnolia blooming, daphne blooming, hellebore blooming, forsythia blooming, Vinca blooming, and a new plant for me, called Sweet Breath of Spring, was blooming and scenting the world around it. Unfortunately Sweet Breath happens to be bad breath as it is invasive. But it truly sweetened the air.
Lonicera fragrantissima

The EPA Gardens

Walking alongside the Mall while in DC last week I noticed these signs describing rain gardens. They were sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, whose headquarters they decorate.

Apparently the gardening method the signs describe is demonstrated right before our eyes. Now I'll admit, I'm no fan of this administration's EPA and so I want to be hard on them. It is early spring after all, so the fact that there are little to no plants in the demonstration rain garden should not be made too much of. Hey, they're trying right?

How easy will it be to find plants that like both drought and flood as the sign describes? The image appears to represent a coneflower and maybe a baptisia or some kind of sage, perhaps. Hard to say exactly. A list of plants useful in this flood/drought environment would have been useful.

Could identification tags on the ground where these happy plants may be lying dormant have been useful? The patch of brown mulch I did see didn't exactly inspire me to plant a rain garden.

The average yearly rainfall in DC is about 39 inches. DC's downtown mall area is low lying, so collection of water from all those rooftops is a good idea. But downtown DC has a manicured landscape, heavy on the concrete, evergreen shrubbery, magnolia and cherry trees. Most of DC's runoff goes to the city sewer system, then into the Potomac River.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Cave Plants

Last week my wife and I were on spring break. We decided we could make it to Washington D.C. for a couple of days. We stayed right across from the Woodley Park Red-Line Metro station. Have you been in Washington's subway system? If you are rather used to NYC's subway, Washington's will blow you away. I have only been on it a few times in my life, but I saw it with open eyes this time around.

First of all, we descended on an escalator that seemed to be 200 feet long. Then we descended again on another about 1/3 as long as the first. By the time we were in the "tube", it was hard for me to estimate how deep under the street we were. It is not like in NYC, where the grate above your head leads to the sidewalk above.

These subways are CLEAN and somehow appear futuristic, way more than the Tokyo subways I rode on a few years earlier (they were even cleaner). It must be the concrete half-pipe the station is in. Adapted with sound deadening panels and rather dimly lit, it is an unusual "subway" experience.

One morning on our way to downtown DC, I noticed a green color across the tracks. It was near the lights that run the length of the tube along the tracks. Closer inspection revealed what I believe is a moss and maybe a fern. This discovery was amazing and quite beautiful. As we traveled the subway that day, I looked out the window at every station that had a central platform and, yep, there were the same plants growing out of the concrete, near the lights.

It was too dark to photograph well with my snapshot camera. Afterward we speculated on how they came to grow down there. Spores blew in on the draft or spores and seeds in the soil during construction -these are our ideas. Their must be enough moisture in the air or working its way through the concrete to support them. Of course, the lighting provides the energy.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

NYC Nursery Map

This map of nurseries is not an endorsement of any particular business, but a resource for anyone looking for a nursery in the NYC area. I'm sure I missed a few that are out there. I chose to not include any florists or hardware stores that also sell bedding plants, as there are so many more of those in NYC that it would overwhelm the map.

I've also included some nurseries that are in NJ, Yonkers, and Long Island that are within driving distance of NYC. These are marked with an empty green marker.

Some regions of NYC (Queens and Bronx) are woefully without local nurseries, although many of these areas are probably served by hardware stores, florists, and some big box stores.

Zoom in, then click on green icons for more information.

View NYC Garden Nurseries in a larger map

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Garden Coach

I've been coaching, tutoring, consulting (whatever you call it) for years, helping friends with their garden problems. If you are motivated, but do not know where to begin, do not understand the nature of your soil or other environmental conditions, do not know what to plant because you are bewildered by the variety, or just plain stunted by the thought of killing your first plant -a coach may be for you.

I have been gardening for almost thirty years. In those beginning years so much of what I had grown died or was unproductive because of my inexperience. Fortunately I learned early that gardening is an experience of life and death. Failure is an important part of the education of a gardener. Through it we learn the depth of our commitment to our work. We learn what not to do, because it forces us to seek out the reason for the failure.

I understand that people may want many different things from their gardening efforts. For those who are interested in vegetable gardening, perennial cultivation, annual planting, basic design and hardscape construction ideas, irrigation information, soil amendment guidelines, organic principles, native habitat planting -coaching may be the way to go. For those who want a design and installation, you should contact a landscape architect or garden designer, or at the very least a landscape service. Garden coaching, I would say, is not for you.

Garden coaching is for those who are motivated to do it themselves, or at least think they may want to give it a shot. There is a lot to learn and if you are adventurous, you may never deem your activity a success. That is good, because continuous learning is part of the art of gardening and the joy of it.

You should always remember, as a beginning gardener, that you do not have to do it all in one season. In fact you cannot and this is a blessing. You have a life, gardening is not your full time work. Gardens are organic creations and are forever changing. However, if you understand the principles underlying much of the work, you will be rewarded for it.

So if you have a yard of any size and you see its potential, but don't know where to begin, consider a garden coach. Look over my blog posts and read my bio, as it may help you decide if I am the coach for you. Its mid-March. In NYC this is the time to start thinking about doing in your garden. You see, I'm already coaching you.

Contact Frank at for more information.
$100 for the first consultation lasting up to two hours
$50 per hour thereafter

Monday, March 17, 2008

Oh, That's Who...

I have been gardening for twenty-five years. My first gardening memory is pulling out clumps of Sedum (I didn't know its name at the time) that grew as a ground cover along the side of my house. I moved it somewhere and it lived. I paid attention to its progress. Later on, I found myself moving clumps of grass around, doing the same thing. To this day I still move my plants around, and maybe too much. But, much like in those early years, they mostly keep on going.

In my mid-teens I began growing tomatoes, basil, and green beans for my mother. My father had been doing it previously but had since lost interest. I wasn't very good, losing tomatoes to wilt half-way through the season. Answer -dump miracle grow on them. Plants still lost. Hmmm.

While in college, I worked at a retail greenhouse and occasionally doing various landscaping jobs. I started reading Organic Gardening magazine. After graduation, I spent a couple of years building decks and planting gardens on rooftops and in backyards in Manhattan. I read Sara Stein's Noah's Garden in just a few days.

In those restless years I moved to Portland, Oregon. There I took up work with a landscaping company and had my first yard garden. I let the lawn grow tall just to see what would come up (neighbors hated that). After moving back to NYC, I began gardening for a couple in Great Neck, NY, and worked with a deck builder in Manhattan.

In 1997, I went to graduate school in New Mexico to earn an Master of Fine Arts. I had a yard garden and container garden, and spent time helping many friends with gardening problems and picking up some garden work. I earned a minor in landscape design while there and also designed and installed a home landscape for the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. I started reading J.B. Jackson and other cultural geographers.

Two views of my small, L-shaped New Mexico garden in 1998

After graduate school, in 2000, I came back to NYC, and begun work at a summer-only artist residency program in Maine. I gardened when and where it was possible. Around this time I stopped reading OG magazine, felt it was repeating itself. In 2002 I began work on a large lot-sized private property in Brooklyn. That project took a parking lot and transformed it into a garden -it took nearly two years. Unfortunately, it has since been sold and is under the wrecking ball. During this period I began creating gardening and nature motif art projects.

Greenhouse I built and tended at Socrates Sculpture Park in 2001-02

In 2004 I decided to turn the soil strip in front of my apartment into a garden after my landlord removed some old telephone poles from the area. Also in 2004, after a year of house renovation work, I had enough resources to rent a studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn. I began painting steadily again. After a rent increase, I moved my studio to a shared sublet in Dumbo, and after an increase there I moved again, and hopefully finally, to Sunset Park. In 2007 I began this blog and also began reading Paul Shepard's writing.

Brooklyn garden, October 2007

I do have a personal garden design approach, that of a strong hardscaping structure softened by abundant plantings, and a fundamentally organic approach to gardening practices. Organic, for me, is not a political stance, but just plain practical. My gardening prefers the hardy over the temperamental, rain over irrigation, compost over fertilizer, creatures over pesticides. Yet I will from time to time indulge in things that may require special attention. In other words I have a philosophy, developed over many years of experiments and failure, that is open but principled.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Spring and Fall Frost Date

If you were wondering "when is that last frost date here in NYC," below are two maps of first and last frost dates of the New York State season, courtesy of the wonderful people at Cornell University. These frost dates are "roundabout," so it is always wise to follow the weather when thinking of planting tender plants or deciding whether or not to harvest those last few tomatoes. Any given year we can push or pull these frost dates. But looking at those NYC dates tells me we in the city are very lucky indeed.

Click on the map for a larger view

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sumac Surprise

Yesterday I was taking a break, walking around the Brooklyn Bridge Park area. I noticed that many of the branches of the Staghorn Sumacs (Rhus typhina) planted there were broken, people snapping them for the clusters of red drupes that sit atop the branches. Going over to inspect the damage, I noticed for the very first time why these are called "Staghorn" Sumac. I always thought it was because the branches resemble the antlers of a young stag, which is true, but more than that, it is because the sumac branches are covered in a fine hair, giving them the appearance of a young stag's new antlers.

The hair was soft, felt-like, and attractive up close. I was amazed at discovering this. I really like Sumac, so easy to grow and very attractive. However it does spread, so you may need to have the room to let it go or hem it in with an underground barrier. I really like the cultivar Rhus typhina 'Laciniata', growing in two locations at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Isn't it beautiful?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

New York City Free Compost Facility Map


Scroll up or down through the garden calendar on the left of this page to check for current NYC Free Compost Giveaway dates. Click on the event for more details.

Click on the map as you would in Google Maps

View Larger Map

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Spraying

In thinking about native plants for our area recently, I dug into my library and took a new look at a book I read 15 years ago. That book, Noah's Garden by Sara Stein, was one of my quickest reads ever. Probably my quickest and I think that is because it fed something in me that I had a voracious appetite for at the time. I re-read one chapter this morning, The Aphid on the Rose, and you know it has the same resonance today. It fostered fifteen years of growth as a gardener and now with much more experience to rely on while rereading, it only makes more sense. Back then, just after graduating college it may have been passion alone that had me tear through this book, but now it is experience and sensibility that have me re-reading it.

Lately I have been thinking about whether or not I am really interested in flowering plants at all. In looking at my garden, in which everything flowers, you would ask how that could be. But since childhood I have been incredibly excited about the creatures of the yard and garden. I started thinking that maybe I plant for the insects and birds, the life which the garden attracts (myself included). I love the plants, their forms, colors, and scents. Yet I get even more excited when these attract the creatures that make the garden buzz with life. Stein's The Aphid on the Rose focuses on the complexity of "solving" garden insect problems. It turns out that we may not need to solve anything except our problem of planting the highly domesticated species that we are so attached to.

When I was a child I had an empty fish tank. I brought this tank out, into the yard and filled it with as many types of caterpillars I could find. In this tank I remember collecting what I thought was an exciting new kind with numerous hairs, charcoal grey with a reddish dots along its back. That early enthusiasm along with my young attachment to all things "wild" in our rather uncultivated yard gave me the insight to realize the negative impact of what was to come. Not long after my first encounter with the Gypsy Moth caterpillar, the population exploded and trees were being defoliated. Where I lived, on Long Island, oaks were the predominant tree and a favorite food of the caterpillar.

Tanker trucks were driven in on sunny summer afternoons where kids were playing outside, birds and squirrels doing their thing. Out of these tanker trucks came men with firehoses. Out of these hoses came a bitter smelling fluid shot upwards at high pressure. The undersides of trees, 60 or 70 feet up, where doused in this fluid which to this day still I have a scent memory. Not being fully aware of what was happening we kids stayed outside to watch.

On the ground, after the work was done, Gypsy Moth caterpillars were everywhere writhing, some laid still, some hung half connected to the tree bark. But the devastation did not limit itself to the caterpillars. All kinds of insects and crows, blue jays, sparrows and chickadees, even squirrels lay dead on the ground. It was a massacre. For a day the trees dripped this poison. In June, with less frequent rains, it was hard to imagine this poison "washing away." The spraying happened every summer for two or three years.

Eventually less and less people had sprayed. Less and less gypsy moth infestations occurred. They are always present, but in greater or lesser numbers. Yet I can say, with the skillful observation of a child, that none of our trees succumbed to the gypsy moth population. My family had not sprayed.

Last summer I was traveling through central Pennsylvania on Interstate 80 and I noticed the forest looked like it was having a very late spring. Seemed odd, but it was early June, so maybe. On my way back two weeks later, I realized that this was not the case. We stopped at a rest stop in the affected area to take a look at the trees. Gypsy caterpillars everywhere, but dead now. A state employee at the rest stop told me what I had already deduced, that they recently sprayed.

Defoliation in Allegheny Forest due to Gypsy Moth caterpillar

I don't have the knowledge to know if this was a mistake. In recent years there has been many threats to the hard and softwood forests of North America. The state may have made the decision that the caterpillars would weaken the trees to the point that other problems would wreak havoc. My instinct is to say that it was a big mistake, that the woods will recover as long as the whole of the ecosystem is intact. It seems to me that blanket spraying of chemicals ensures that the ecosystem is not fully intact.

I think people make emotional decisions when it comes to their trees being defoliated or, for that matter, their roses made limp by aphids. This emotional response gives way to chemical attack. Rachel Carson wrote about the often unannounced aerial spraying of the Gypsy Moth caterpillars in our area in the late 1950s in her book Silent Spring. Back then they used DDT mixed in fuel oil! I do not know the chemical agent used in the late 1970s and early 80s, but it is hard to believe that we were still reacting the same way to the caterpillars after two decades of experience. And, as my Pennsylvania experience attests, we are still reacting with a chemical onslaught after five decades.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Brooklyn Native

A comment posted recently by The Flatbush Gardener got me thinking about native plants. His question, "I'm looking for sources [of seeds] for ecotypes local to or near NYC and Brooklyn, Including Long Island, Any recommendations?" But my resources were old, and in books. So I hit the internet and realized quickly that native is used quite broadly.

When we say "native" to Brooklyn, do we mean native to North American, Eastern, Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic coastal, coastal woodland, coastal wetland, etc. etc? Ten or twenty thousand years ago, Long Island was non-existent to just formed from retreating glaciers. The Flatbush Gardener and I both live on the out wash plain immediately south of the Harbor Hill Terminal Moraine. Any plants that found their way here did so from the mainland and no doubt populations of plants shifted as temperatures were on the rise and the ocean advanced inland. If 10,000 years ago plants were colonizing the Long Island land mass, what were they?

Brooklyn may have a specific geopolitical identity, but it does not have a highly specific identity with regard to its native plants. Those growing here may be the same as those native to parts of New Jersey, Connecticut, Eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, Delaware, the Hudson Valley and further. The Nature Conservancy's EcoRegion Map describes our region as North Atlantic Coast. Yet I would feel comfortable saying that Brooklyn has much crossover with another of their named regions, the Lower New England Northern Piedmont.

The benefits of this are great when it comes time to plant natives in our gardens! We can choose from a wider range of plants than if we were planting natives for very specific ecosystems, like the Pine Barrens of Long Island or New Jersey. And this is a boon, because sources for native plants of the Pine Barrens are limited, but sources for natives of the greater region are plentiful.

But how do you know the plants or plant seeds that you are about to purchase are native to our area when they are labeled simply as "native"? Its wise to look to the experts.

For those of us in New York City, we can start with NYC Parks. Visit the Native Plant Center in the Greenbelt on Staten Island (I plan to do so this spring). Check out the Native Flora Garden at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Peruse the Audubon Society's book titled Eastern Forests. The New York Flora Association has an atlas of NY flora that will be useful in determining natives from non-natives. Also check out the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation site which includes rare native plant listings for New York State. This book LONG ISLAND NATIVE PLANTS FOR LANDSCAPING: A SOURCE BOOK, by Karen Blumer published in 1990 by Growing Wild Publications should be awfully useful if you can find it (used at Amazon).

From these listings and display gardens you can cull true regional natives that work for your particular garden environment as well as the local ecosystem. Jot down specific plant names and then move on to places that sell native plants or seeds.

Locally, we have the Westchester Community College Native Plant Center. They have a plant sale in early May. As I mentioned in a previous post, you can order native plant seeds from the New England Wildflower Society. A group called Plant Native has an excellent website with listings of native plants by region as well as listings by region of nurseries that sell native plants.

Once you know the botanical name for the regional natives you want, you can also go to your favorite nurseries or catalogues to seek them out. Here is a list of some regional native plant suppliers:

Fort Pond Native Plants
Toadshade Wildflower Farm
Environmental Concern - all the way in Maryland but a great service
Partnership for NJ Plant Conservation - a listing of NJ nurseries that sell natives

For a good dose of info on ecotypes, visit Wild Ones.
For more information on the New York Bight Watershed .
More on the New York Bight and Atlantic Coastal Plain .
Another on the geology of our region by the USGS.