Category Archives: Gardening

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.

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.

Saving annuals for garden

Choose certain annuals.

This propagation technique is not a good choice for ALL annuals. Focus on your smaller, bushy annuals that can grow in partial to full shade. We are looking for plants that can be kept through the winter as smallish potted or water-rooted plant, which will yield some stems in late winter for further cutting and rooting. References I checked cite Coleus (Solenostemon), Wax (fibrous-rooted) Begonias, Impatiens and Pelargoniums (zonal geraniums) as cooperating well with this method. In addition, Hypoestes (Polka dot Plant), Ageratum (Floss Flower), and some Plectranthus may be used as annuals and work well this way. After all, the term “annual” is a subjective designation based on a plant’s lifestyle and sensitivity to cold. Feel free to experiment with your bedding or container plants, keeping the plant’s light requirement and growth habit in mind. These named plants have a reputation for rooting readily, without any added rooting hormone. Giant sunflowers are not an appropriate choice for this method!

Take soft stem cuttings in late summer

Mid to late summer is the right time for stem cuttings. Plants should still be growing well, with plenty of stems. September’s continued warmth and sunlight encourage the cuttings to root. For propagation next spring I’d suggest you plan to make one plant now for every three to five plants you want to produce later. Please note they are called “cuttings” because a clean cut reduces the chance of damaged, rotting stems in your pot or vase

Trim up for pottin

A good cutting will have at least one node below soil for new roots, and one or more above the soil for leaf growth. A cutting should not have many nodes in the dirt (that would neccessitate a windowsill-hogging larger pot, more prone to overwatering.) Well prepared cuttings also shouldn’t bear too much greenery either. Lush, bushy cuttings may struggle as the plant tries to support the leaf metabolism on litttle or no root input. Any flowers or flower buds should be removed. But wait; for every rule there is an exception. If you are taking cuttings for water-rooting, you’ll need enough stem to hold the cutting upright and ensure that the end of the stem stays submerged. Be sure to remove any leaf material that may end up below the water line. It will only rot and endanger the health of the whole specimen.

Lay out your cuttings and trim accordingly. Discard excess stem below the bottom, “rooting”, node. Also consider removing or trimming some of the leaf area. Leaf trimming requires a judgement call on your part. Now pot up your prepared cuttings in small pots of good quality soil. As always, keep the pot proportional to the plant. Enclosing the potted cuttings in loose plastic will help maintain humidity. I used a clear plastic bag supported by disposable chopsticks from our favorite steakhouse. (Cuttings placed in water won’t need a humidity cover.)

The father of American landscape architecture

“An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views,” wrote Frederick Law Olmsted’s friend and colleague Daniel Burnham in 1893. Olmsted and his firm Fairsted (pictured at right) were also responsible for designing huge open spaces in places like Chicago, Buffalo and Atlanta.

Although the first “public” open space in the New World would technically have to be the Boston Common, from 1634, Olmsted believed that green spaces shouldbe public, and that everyone should have access to them. This may not seem so unusual to some of you, but to those of us who struggle to garden in the highly industrialized Northeast, or the smoggy West coast, having public gardens to enjoy from time to time keeps us all more sane. Having them look wild and natural without actually being totally impenetrable is an added gift Olmsted left us.

While Olmsted hired gardeners to work for him, he did not think of himself as a gardener. He consideredhimself an architect, using the outdoors instead of buildings, and was the first to call himself a professional “landscape architect”. Many, if not most of the areas he worked with in Boston were previously considered unsuitable for human habitation. Marshy areas, called ‘fens’, were unbearably humid and muggy in the summer, as well as filled with mosquitos and the diseases they carried. Sometimes open sewage ran in the streets. [Interestingly, the word FENS is an English or Welsh word, from which we in Boston get our beloved Fenway Park!]

The visionary Olmsted filled in the Boston fens, creating sloping grass-lined boulevards through them. Thinking on a huge scale, Olmsted connected a series of small and large parks, one large pondand Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum with green parkways, most including areas for vehicular traffic as well as pedestrians. The resulting park system spans 1,000 acres – in the middle of a city – starting at the Boston Common and ending at the Franklin Park Zoo.

Controversy exists today. While cleaning up and filling in the brackish unhealthy fens, Olmsted did destroy native wetlands. Still, in the 19th century, Olmsted was progressive even to think of the common person’s need for open space in crowded cities. If he had not replaced boggy unhealthy areas with beautiful public gardens and parks, someone else would surely have stepped in with apartment buildings and shopping centers.

Boston’s Emerald Necklace is truly one of our jewels. People from all walks of life encounter one another on its parks and paths. Every day, I drive past the field where my daughter attempted (unsuccessfully) to learn soccer as a four year old; at seventeen, she still treasures the tiny T-shirt. Nearby, adults practice Tai Chi in slow, graceful movements.