Monthly Archives: May 2017

Homegrown in New York

Though Mr. Estrada calls himself a farmer, his bounty sprouts from the unlikeliest of settings: a patch of green wedged among the bodegas and public housing projects of the South Bronx. There, in a community garden where Mr. Estrada is one of dozens of urban farmers, he fills a box of soil no larger than a child’s sandbox with the things he used to grow with his father on a farm in Puerto Rico.

“If I knew what I know now, I would have helped my father a lot more,” said Mr. Estrada, 74, a retired cook. “There would have been more food.”

Mr. Estrada is able to carry on his family’s agrarian tradition in a teeming metropolis as a result of New York City’s thriving network of community gardens, which is being expanded at a time when an onslaught of development has made these public green spaces more valuable than ever. The community gardens are a refuge for immigrants and those without farms or country houses to escape to in the summer as well as a homegrown source of fruits and vegetables in food deserts like the South Bronx.

This summer, the Parks Department’s GreenThumb program — the nation’s largest community garden program — has grown to 553 gardens, up from 501 in 2009. Most of the gardens sit on city-owned or other public property, and are maintained by community groups and a dedicated corps of 20,000 volunteer gardeners

 In many neighborhoods, community gardens have fiercely loyal protectors who have mobilized in recent years as the city has targeted gardens in Harlem and elsewhere as sites for affordable housing, and private developers have also eyed them.

Bill LoSasso, the director of GreenThumb, said the program had increased its efforts to create more community gardens across the city, especially in largely immigrant communities where many newcomers have roots in agricultural areas. Its budget has increased to $2.9 million annually from $720,000 three years ago, and its staff has nearly doubled to 35 people, who provide training and support and free materials like plants, shovels and wheelbarrows.

“Sometimes when you arrive in a new place, you don’t have a network you can tap into for support,” Mr. LoSasso said. “By joining a community garden, you’re joining a network of neighbors who are coming from diverse backgrounds who can help new members of their community to get settled.”

Garden Vines

There’s no reason that those of us working with smaller spaces can’t also enjoy these plants. Pruning and trellising your garden vines will keep them under control and looking their best.

Growing Silver Lace

Silver lace vine, or Polygonum aubertii, is a deciduous or semi-evergreen (depending on the zoneit’s in) member of the Buckwheat family. These vines can thrive in a variety of soil conditions and don’t require much maintenance once they’ve matured. In certain zones, silver lace can even become invasive and grow past the boundaries of the garden it was planted in.

Native to western China and Russia, these vigorous vines form dense growths of twisted limbs that look great wrapped around garden fences and arbors. Depending on your location, your silver lace vines could produce their small fragrant flowers from spring all the way into late fall. It’s thanks to these white, wooly plumes that silver lace has also come to be known as “Fleece” vine.

Silver lace can usually handle being cut back down to ground level each year but responds better if trimmed early in the spring. While they’re also drought tolerant, it’s important to give these vines a good soaking at least once or twice a month — especially if you aren’t regularly watering them with an irrigation system of some sort. It can take a year or two to establish itself in a less-than-optimal growing environment, but once it’s grown accustomed to the area, silver lace proves to be a hardy climber.

The Sweetness of Honeysuckle

There are actually a few honeysuckle, or Lonicera, plants that are native to the U.S. These vining plants can easily be grown in either sun or partial shade and produce sweet-smelling flowers that attract hummingbirds with their nectar. As a kid, I used to pinch off these flowers and nip their bases to suck this delightful treat out of them. Honeysuckle varieties that are more shrub-like produce berries that attract seed-eating birds.

Unfortunately, the benefits these vines offer local wildlife come at a price. Some varieties of Japanese honeysuckle (L. japonica) can grow to cover extremely large areas, smothering other plants if left untamed. Still, these more aggressive species can be used to stabilize banks or hillsides with less-than-ideal soil conditions. In private yards and gardens, honeysuckle plants will require extensive annual pruning to be kept in check, but they can provide some excellent screening if trained along a fence or trellis.

Clematis, the Queen of Vines

The majority of the 200-plus species in the genus Clematis are twisting deciduous vines. Their erratic growth habits are often the reason gardeners either love them or can’t stand them. These vines do well when supported by a sturdy fence, tree trunk, or garden arbor.

Like silver lace and honeysuckle, clematis is capable of growing in a variety of soil types. They prefer fast-draining soil that contains enough organic material to keep their roots cool and aerated. Some nurseries suggest placing rocks over the tops of clematis roots or placing a ground cover around their stems for additional protection.

Clematis vines also respond well to pruning, but because the group is made up of so many different species and varieties that bloom at different times of year, it’s hard to say exactly when to prune them. For instance, those that bloom in spring should be pruned about a month after the flowering period ends, maintaining the main branches and restricting the sprawl. Varieties that bloom in the summer or fall should respectively be pruned in the fall and early spring.

After cutting flowers off of your clematis vines, try burning their stems to make them last longer indoors. I picked this tip up from The New Sunset Western Garden Book, my go-to guide for plant care. Who would have thought to do something like that?

If you ever find yourself in Lake Oswego, Oregon (on the outskirts of Portland), consider checking out the Rogerson Clematis Garden at Luscher Farm. This neat little place offers onsite tours and hosts lectures on clematis. In late May, the garden even puts on a vine-centric anniversary celebration.

Selecting the Right Vine

No matter where you live or what your vining plant needs might be, you should have plenty of options to choose from. I’ve even seen some gardeners use grape vines as ground cover in places where cold winters and summer frosts prevent them from being trellised upwards. Other vines like wisteria, bougainvillea, ivy, or star jasmine might also do well in your zones (though they certainly don’t in mine). No matter what varieties you decide to bring home, remember than vining plants all serve the same purpose: they cover surfaces. Some will twist and wrap around themselves or nearby posts.

Potager Garden

Potagers are generally designed in geometric patterns rather than in simple rows. Many potagers contain plants trained to grow upward on trellises or next to the house. Occasionally they’re edged with Boxwoods or other shrubs. In addition to vegetables, potagers usually include flowers, especially varieties for cutting. They may also include small fruit trees, herbs, aromatic and medicinal plants.

(Paris potager)

 The French potager differs from an American suburban vegetable garden in several ways. The French mix herbs, edible flowers, non-edible flowers, fruits and vegetables and grow them together in an artistic design. A potager is continually replanted throughout the growing season. Whatever is fresh is gathered in season. Historically, potager gardens were located just outside the chateau where they could be easily viewed and accessed.

(Austrian potager)

The French approach to vegetable gardening involves a philosophy that entails bringing beauty to a food garden rather than seeing that garden as having only a utilitarian purpose. The beauty of the garden and having the garden closer to the house gives those growing a potager much more of a connection to the garden than the usual vegetable garden. The French view a garden much like an artist’s canvas. It’s a way to paint a landscape with the colors and textures of plants whether they are to be eaten or not.

In suburban America, homeowners often tend to go to the remotest part of their property to plant vegetables while trying to hide them from view. Food gardens are primarily planted in rows out of site. Unfortunately, these gardens can easily become neglected, weedy, and overgrown.

(Belarus potager)

When thinking about creating a potager garden, consider what kind of foods your family enjoys and how much of each variety is practical for your family’s size. Then think about adding plants with different growing seasons. The garden should seldom, if ever, be bare. Think about structure and strive to use every nook and cranny. For instance, you can plant shorter plants underneath taller ones. It’s necessary to harvest from all over a potager garden in order to make sure it continues to grow and produce. If you harvest all of a plant, don’t leave that spot empty. Plant something else there.

Next consider the sun exposure of your site. Vegetables need plenty of sun. Soil preparation is also extremely important so be sure to prepare your soil with large amounts of organic amendments such as compost, leaves and straw. Continue to replenish the soil regularly with good organic matter. This allows you to plant closer together and the plants will remain more resistant to pests.

Once you have decided on which plants you want to grow, make a sketch of the garden. A traditional potager has a geometric layout and contains plants that will provide interest during all four seasons. There are no set rules with the modern potager. The plots need to be at least slightly raised and are best surrounded by a hard walking surface such as bricks, gravel, or other types of pavers.

The only rule for a potager garden is to create something you will truly enjoy. If you enjoy your garden, you’ll naturally want to spend time there. And that is perhaps the most important function of any garden.

Tips for proofing houseplants

 Believe me, I really can’t wait for the escape. But for obsessive houseplant collectors like me, going away at the height of the growing season can be tinged with anxiety. Given the fact that I am currently watering my growing army of ferns, orchids, carnivorous plants and herbs virtually every day in hot weather, a two-week absence could be enough to finish off some of my more delicate specimens. But things don’t have to be this way!I don’t have massive trays or capillary matting to hand (frankly, who does?)

If, like me, you are planning a summer break, there are a range of super-simple measures that you can take to ensure your houseplants survive the temporary abandonment. And the best thing is it’ll only take you five minutes to do before you dash out the door.

As the primary factor affecting how quickly your plants will dry out is temperature, simply moving them from sunny window sills to cooler, shadier spots can reduce their rate of water loss by up to 80%. It doesn’t really matter if they are sun-loving plants either as, for a short break, water stress is likely to have a much larger impact than a spell with lower light levels.

This is particularly important for fast-growing, thin-leaved plants, such as ferns, herbs and indoor bedding plants, which are likely to succumb to the effects of water stress far more quickly than slow-growing or succulent plants such as aloes, cacti, yuccas and tillandsias. Specimens to prioritise also include ones in small pots, as their small volume of growing media will dry out more quickly, as well as anything in a porous unglazed terracotta container (as opposed to plastic, metal, etc).

Grouping your newly repatriated plants together in a close huddle will further reduce water loss by creating localised humidity, as the leaves of neighbouring plants both emit and trap the water vapour of each other.

If you want to go one better, the standard advice is to put all your plants on a tray of capillary matting and saturate this with water. With this traditional horticultural technique plants can draw on the moisture in the matting through the holes in their pots via the wick effect when thirsty.

As a person who doesn’t have massive trays or capillary matting to hand (frankly, who does?), I find simply laying an old towel down in the bathtub, sticking my plants on top and giving the whole lot a good soak with the shower works brilliantly. The frosted glass of my typical “bright but cool” bathroom helps cut down the exposure to direct sun and the small size of the room also helps trap the most humidity.