Monthly Archives: June 2017

Bittersweet Nightshade

Bittersweet nightshade is actually a tomato relative, and grows glistening, deep red berries any tomato would envy. But it would be wise to pay close attention to where this plant stakes its claim. Relatives include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers, but the family Solanaceae includes many darker, less friendly members. Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) takes after plants like belladonna, a notoriously toxic relation. As red and luscious as they seem, nightshade’s berries are best left on the vine.

Human relations with Solanaceae have always been complex. In fact, the tomato was not always so well regarded. Native to South America, the plants were grown strictly as ornamentals when they were introduced into European cultivation. Few actually ate tomatoes; that was far too risky. “Poison apples” or “love apples” were an attractive route to temptation or death.

Fast forward to the 21st century, when tomatoes are welcomed into family gardens and coddled each spring. Bittersweet nightshade is a European native, and was probably initially brought here for medicinal purposes. Many birds are known to feed on nightshade berries without any ill effects, and once the plant gained a toehold in the New World, it spread through their stomachs to a wide variety of suitable natural areas. Bittersweet nightshade is now a plant that can be found twining its way through wet woodland edges, neglected garden corners and the unpruned hedges of North America.

Nightshade is a perennial, and a healthy example can twine eight feet in a season before dying back to its woody base in late autumn. At this time of year, the leaves are colored a lovely dark green, and are almost always three-lobed at maturity, with a large arrow-shaped central lobe surrounded by two smaller side lobes. The vine produces a panicle of lovely half-inch flowers in midsummer, each pointing downward and similar in shape to a tomato’s, but far more dramatically colored. Each flower displays deep purple petals and showy, bright yellow anthers.

Nightshade was considered potent protection against witchcraft during the Middle Ages, and a sprig tied to the neck of a cow was sure to ward off the evil eye. The plant is even mentioned in John Gerard’s often-maligned 16th-century “Herball”: “The juice is good for those that have fallen from high places, and have been thereby bruised or beaten, for it is thought to dissolve blood congealed or cluttered anywhere in the intrals and to heale the hurt places.”

A Forest Floats

In a South Bronx forest, the ground sways as visitors collect blueberries, onions and wild carrots. The plants bob up and down as guests gather oregano or basil to add to their next meal. The floating forest on the Bronx River has one main purpose: to engage New Yorkers in a conversation about the benefits of shared, public food by offering crops to pick and eat.

“Not everyone has a garden, or access to earth, and it’s expensive. So how do we work together to get around that?” said Marisa Prefer, who manages the public programs for Swale, the floating forest project by the artist Mary Mattingly that started a year ago.

The artist transformed a 130-foot barge, once used for hauling sand to construction sites, into a public food forest with free edible and medicinal treasures. Last week, the floating green space moved from Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park to Concrete Plant Park in the South Bronx, one of the largest food deserts in the country, where healthy, fresh options are hard to come by, and on Friday afternoon it opened to the public.

“We’re trying to talk about food access, food security and food justice, and what those three things mean,” Ms. Prefer said. “What do they mean in New York City? What do they mean in the South Bronx? What do they mean in Brooklyn?”

One way to start that dialogue: Rent an empty barge from a marina in Verplanck, N.Y.; load it with soil, gravel and plants; anchor it at locations around the five boroughs; and invite people to harvest unlimited fruits, vegetables and perennials — free

The Swale project found a loophole. Backed by the city’s parks department, the floating forest circumvents rules about foraging on public land because technically, it is on the water.

“Swale does not fall under that rubric, so it would be the only place that you can, within a New York City public space, do this activity,” said Mr. Gunther, adding that although community gardens may permit growing and harvesting food, they are run by neighborhood groups and local residents, and are not always open to the public.

The White House garden

On the South Lawn of the White House just over a year ago, 10-year-old Endya Colbert dangled a worm directly in front of Michelle Obama’s face. Endya’s mother, Chala Colbert, has a photograph to prove it.

It was a brisk day for the first lady’s final spring planting, but Endya, whose elementary school in New Orleans offers a gardening program, assured Michelle — yes, the student felt certain they were on a first-name basis — that the worm was a sign of healthy soil.

The current first lady, Melania Trump, is settling into the White House and has yet to officially embrace her predecessor’s seasonal ritual: leaving the White House — often at a sprint — waving toward a crowd of miniature green thumbs, all of them in sneakers soon to be matted with mulch.

Some supporters of the White House Kitchen Garden — the 2,800-square-foot foundation of Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to reduce childhood obesity — have expressed doubts that the vegetable patch could weather a blustery presidential transition.

The Trump administration has already taken direct aim at the previous administration’s nutrition agenda by rolling back the school meal standards of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. President Trump’s budget proposals have included reduced funding for food stamps, Meals on Wheels and after-school programs that feed children, citing a lack of demonstrable evidence that such programs are effective.

The White House garden “made such a positive impact on low-income students — on how they view themselves,” Mrs. Colbert said after her daughter had returned to the White House two months later to harvest and cook vegetables with Mrs. Obama’s friend Rachael. (Yes, Rachael Ray, the celebrity chef and talk show host.) “Many of them don’t see vegetables in their daily meals, but Endya came back with all these healthy recipe ideas that I didn’t even know how to make!”

Sam Kass, the former executive director of the Let’s Move! campaign and former White House chef, said sowing those habits was what Mrs. Obama’s initiative — and the garden itself — was all about.

“She was quite serious, always, about delivering real results, about making it easier for families to raise healthy kids,” Mr. Kass said. “You saw her out there, digging and planting, chopping and eating with the kids — it kept us grounded in those principles.”

In the physical and financial sense, the garden’s preservation is guaranteed. In October 2016, W. Atlee Burpee & Company and the Burpee Foundation, its philanthropic counterpart, jointly donated $2.5 million to the National Park Foundation to ensure care for the plot for years to come.

According to Mrs. Trump’s communications director, Stephanie Grisham, the White House kitchen will cook with the homegrown vegetables and will donate the remaining harvest to charity. Ms. Grisham also said that the Trump family planned to continue the educational nature of the garden.

But the White House’s June harvest was carried out solely by the National Park Service, and administrators at the local Bancroft and Tubman schools, whose students frequented the garden over the last eight years, said they had not been invited back since the transition.

Tips for Creating Garden


“Ask yourself what you see yourself doing in the space,” said Sera Rogue, the owner of Red Fern Brooklyn, a landscape design firm. “Yoga? Reading? Entertaining? Morning coffee?” This will drive most of your decisions, including where to put the plants, what furniture to buy and how to address noise or privacy concerns.


 “When you talk to an interior designer, it’s about flowing through rooms, transitioning through space and creating focal points,” said Todd Haiman, a landscape designer, who pointed out that the same principles apply to creating outdoor rooms. In a small space, he suggested, “design on a grid,” using squares and rectangles, rather than circles, to take advantage of every square inch. If you don’t have much width, go vertical: A tall hedge, a few small trees or trellised vines in planters can create privacy. “I always try to create a sensory and experiential journey,” he said, which can be as simple as placing a pot of lavender near the door “so you brush up against it, every time you step out, and release its scent.”


 Even the hardiest plants require regular watering and pruning. If you travel frequently, a well-furnished terrace with an occasional bouquet from the farmer’s market may be more your style. Sedums and ornamental grasses generally do well in full southern sun. “I like to use full-sun-loving sedums in hanging baskets,” Ms. Rogue said, as they require little water and are “colorful, draping and textural.” She also suggested using sedums “in low bowls for full-sun rooftops and balconies — you can put them anywhere, as they do not need to be connected to an irrigation system.” For shady spots, her go-to plant is a Britt-Marie Crawford ligularia dentata, for its “large, round leaves that give height and volume,” she said. “In the summer, it sends up an otherworldly wand flower.” Whereas hostas, she said, are “overused.”


 If not carefully maintained, plants that drop fruit, like figs or tomatoes, can attract rodents in city gardens. Overgrown backyards with bird feeders and standing water are havens for all kinds of four-legged creatures, as well as mosquitoes. “City squirrels in backyards tend to dig up tulips in their search for nuts,” Mr. Haiman said, and water leaking from a hose or spigot “is like a water fountain.” Trim tree limbs and tall plants within a few feet of the house, he suggested, and in lieu of bird feeders try native plants like serviceberry trees or maple leaf viburnum.