Monday, May 26, 2008

Red Hook Nursery Tour Spring Update!

Well in the last couple of weeks I have been back to the Red Hook Nursery district a few times. Most things have remained the same but there are a couple of significant changes. Please note that this report is as of spring, 2008. Things undoubtedly will change in the years ahead.

new address for Liberty Sunset Garden Center

Liberty Sunset Garden Center has moved their plant yard off the pier and into an adjacent lot that offers more space, neater appearance, and similar views to the harbor. Their indoor plants are still located in the old brick warehouse, but all their trees and plants have been shifted. They have also built structures like tables, trellis, arbor and pergola to shade the plants.

strange elevated walk for shade loving shrubs and perennials

There was a greater attempt to label the plants with name and price, though some plants were still unlabeled. They seem to be actively building out this new space and the workers were there this Sunday banging away. I thought it was fantastic, honestly. It's probably the most interesting garden center location anywhere -how can you beat that view. The plants play off the 150 year old brick, wood, iron, and concrete well. They also had a huge compost bin and a deck (for events?).

old timbers  on the left, deck with solar panel on the right

The plants did look healthy, but some suffered from horticultural pests. I shook some of the perennials and little gnats flew about. I cannot say if these are harmful or not, but I noticed them. You want not to introduce new buggers into your garden, your hands are already full.

Coral Bells (Heuchera) in quart-sized containers on a table

Chelsea Garden Center, now just across the block from Liberty, has expanded their space since I was last there in autumn. There lot size seems to have doubled to be on both sides of the trailer "office".

This spring
Chelsea has an emphasis on large-potted perennials. They had many 2.5 gallon pots of basic perennials like yarrow or catnip. Inexperienced gardeners may jump at these larger perennials, but they are really not worth the price. For $24.95 I can buy a 2.5 gallon echinacea at Chelsea Garden Center, or for $9.99 I can buy the same plant, but in a gallon-sized container, at my local J&L Garden Center. I could also go to Gowanus Nursery and buy that same perennial, but a little smaller in a quart-sized container for $7.99. Well-heeled gardeners don't go for the large-potted perennials because we understand how quickly a perennial generally grows. At Gowanus Nursery, you could buy three different plants for the same price Chelsea is charging for the one large plant. I was glad to see that Liberty Sunset and Gowanus had mostly quart and gallon-sized perennials -it really makes the most sense for them and us.

All three Red Hook nurseries had individually-potted vegetable starts, but none had an extraordinary variety. Chelsea does now carry some heirloom vegetable starts, but expect to pay more for them. Liberty did seem to have the greatest variety of individually potted tomatoes and peppers, although the hand-written labels made identifying them tough. I cannot overstate how important it is for nurseries to label properly. If you have been waiting all year for that striped German tomato and some time around August you find an early girl tomato in it's stead, you'll get cranky.

unlabeled peppers at Liberty

So which nursery to go to? To be fair, you could do well at all three. I'd say that Chelsea may meet your basic plant needs -they have all the plants that you would expect at a mid-atlantic nursery: annuals, herbs, vegetables, trees, shrubs, and perennials, but at a higher price. I go to Gowanus when I am looking for something unusual or something I simply cannot find everywhere else. They may not have it, but then I'll always see something else that I find interesting to grab. Also, at last check, Gowanus still has the best prices for perennials, so many under $12. Liberty seems to exist somewhere in the middle, having both the basics and some unusual plants at reasonable prices. Oh yes, and they have the best view.

If you want Brooklyn's best price on potting soil or compost in bags, head over to J&L nursery. I live around the corner from them and without a doubt, they have the best prices on bagged Farfard soil, compost, and potting mix of anyone in the area, big box excluded. You will pay a few dollars less per bag than at any of the Red Hook nurseries.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Vegetable City No More

My dreams of turning this lot into a vegetable farm are finally coming to an end. Workers doing something as the slow building boomlet continues in the neighborhood.

Planter Box Garden

Well I just had enough of building on the sidewalk, so on Tuesday I went over to a friend's house and built another four planters in his basement. Less headache for sure and it really rained that day. I planted them up with tomato starts, carrots, basil, and green beans. Unfortunately, those green beans are pole beans and I planted the starts as if they were bush. Now I'm either gonna have crowding, shade, and trellis trouble, or I gotta pull those out and replant. Its so hard to yank out seedlings after a certain point and these guys are past that point.

I'm not so sure we're even going to get enough sun in that side garden for vegetables like tomatoes. When I put perennials in that area, its seemed so shady as it was November. But by last summer the shade lovers were wilting for too much sun. They get heavy morning sun, but by June 21st, I think the 6 hour sun will max out and then they will see less and less. So an interesting experiment it will be.

My box design is less than perfect and rudimentary in design and construction. But it was easy and thats what I was looking for. Remember my alternative, my original idea was to use those 5 gallon pails so readily available. That would have been a cheaper proposition. These boxes, had I found more scrap wood, would have cost me the price of the screws. Instead I bought $100 dollars worth of pine planks and 2 x 2s. I made 5 planters from new wood and I expect 5 years out of these boxes, giving each planter a $5/year cost. Every year longer reduces that cost. Of course, if I spent more on cedar, I would have longer-lived boxes. One of our scrap boxes is made out of redwood and that should last 10 years at least.

Its raining today, happy to not have to water the vegetables in. Unlike my perennial garden, these vegetables will require watering. I'm not happy about that -but the nature of our food plants is tender in so many respects.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Gentlemen, Start Your Tomatoes

I didn't recall how difficult it is to build things on a sidewalk in NYC. Take the moment when I cut myself with the pullsaw and hesitated to run in and get a paper towel and bandage because I didn't want to leave the chop saw and drill on the sidewalk! Finally, I took my chances and stopped the bleeding.
scrap poplar, scrap redwood, and new pine boxes

I made three boxes today, out there on the sidewalk. Rain continued to threaten, sometimes sprinkling. But somehow I managed three boxes, two from scrap wood and one from wood I bought. I have about five more boxes to go and the new vegetable garden will be complete. I've already planted up three new tomato starts.

I'm not much for seed-starting while living in the city; no room and I hate tossing all those extras. So I like to buy good-sized starts. Last week I found the two tomato varieties I had been buying at the farmer's market last summer to the tune of $4.50 a pound. They are Brandywine and Striped German, and although there were other varieties to be had, I needed to be disciplined. I bought only these two starts.

Brandywine and Striped German tomato starts and basil fourpack

This vendor at the Borough Hall farmer's market was selling these starts for only $1.00 each! What a price -and these plants were about 8 inches tall. The container they were in was tiny, but they looked healthy. With tomatoes I do not worry much about this because I'm going to pluck off the lower leaves and plant those babies deep in the soil so that they root from the stem as well as the roots.

I think its important for NYC nurseries to sell single starts as well as the four and six packs. I don't know what I would do with four or six -I barely have space for one! I went to four nurseries this past weekend and vegetable starts were running from $2.50 to $4.00 for individual plants. I bought one last variety at Gowanus Nursery, a San Marzano plum type. Just one.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Yardener vs. Gardener

Yesterday, I think I came across one difference between what I will call a yardener and a gardener. I heard the gas-powered blower from a few houses down. I was in the side garden, clearing and getting little starts ready for their upcoming transplant. The blower got closer, closer, closer until I looked up and their was a man who asked, "Ya want me to blow that space out for ya?"

"No, that's alright, I'll just bag up the debris," I say.

The yardener, he didn't even notice those delicate little seedlings. Good thing I was there, or he may have, in his neighborly way, blown that out for me. The gardener sees more, small and large alike.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


Garden growing like gangbusters. All that rain. Warm temps. Not much blooming, but about to. Irises have another week of bloom, pinks are doing their thing. Lavender forming buds and yarrow about to pop. Shrub rose beginning, climber has many buds. Geraniums doing their thing, but evening primrose holding off.

The big news is the planter boxes I have to build tomorrow for our new vegetable experiment.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bagged a Potato

I was at a suburban grocery store today, buying asparagus (from Peru) and garlic (China). I was adding to our mother's day feast-adding vegetables to my families no-vegetable menu. I noticed a plastic wrapped brown thing in the vegetable area. Can you believe it?! It was an individually plastic-wrapped potato! It was called Potat-OH! They were described as scrubbed and ready for microwaving!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Too Busy

School is nearing its end and its got me and my wife so busy we cannot get the time to get our vegetables in. We need to build wooden boxes first. We are building 8 tomato boxes, two bean boxes, and a variety of other things boxes. Its a lot of wood which we are hoping to recycle from students projects and other sources. At first we were going to use those 5 gallon plastic pails from Sheetrock compound, but then I decided I didn't want to go with plastics. I'd rather use a material more commonly associated with plants.

On the 17th of May I am going upstate to a small organic farm, called Four WInds Farm, near where I went to undergraduate school. Its in southern Ulster county, a farm and woodland region that I would like to see stay that way. Instead, I see a lot more new homes there now than when I went to college over 15 years ago.

The farm raises grass-fed cattle, turkey, chickens, pigs and sheep, but they also sell organically grown, heirloom vegetable starts on the third Saturday of May. So I am going to check out the meat, but will come home with vegetable starts for those planters I hope to build that same weekend. I will let you know how it goes.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Compost Host

For those of you looking for that great free NYC compost, its no longer available this season. The next compost give-away will be in autumn. So many of us want to amend our garden soil or fill pots with the stuff, it is too bad that we can only get some two times a year.

If you live in a neighborhood with gardens, community or private, there may be some compost to be had for the asking and carting. Ask around, often gardeners make more than they need.

If you have to go to a store, try a nursery. Ask them for compost without any treated sewage sludge. If you go to a large chain store, like Home Depot, you may get "organic" compost with organic wastes in it. If there are no ingredients listed on the bag, don't trust it. Somewhere on the packaging there should be a proud boast of the all-natural ingredients used to make that compost. Compost should smell relatively clean, not like the water's edge when the tide is out, and shouldn't be slimy or soggy.

A brand I have used in the past is Coast of Maine soil amendments. Apparently the brand is available at most Whole Foods in NYC. If you can imagine dragging 10 bags of compost through a Whole Foods, then I guess that's a local source. I think, however, that you can trust your garden center to steer you in the right direction when it comes to picking truly clean compost.

Another way to get good compost is to go to a composting company. For very little money, compared to the bagged price, you can get high-quality compost. If you want more than a cubic yard, these companies will deliver or you can pick it up yourself in a pick-up truck. Maybe you can buy a few cubic yards with several neighbors and divvy up the pile!

A company I have used is Nature's Choice, based in New Jersey. I bought over 100 cubic yards from them for a big project on 15th Street in Brooklyn. They have extraordinary cubic yard prices and excellent, rich black compost. Everything I planted in it grew exceptionally well. I don't recollect what delivery will cost you, nor do I remember what their minimum quantity is for delivery. But if you can swing this method of getting compost, you can get it right when you need it. Oh, and by the way, when they say they'll deliver between 6 am and 7 am to avoid traffic, they'll be there at 5:59 am!