Thursday, May 28, 2015

The tentative terrace

The late May air has become muggy prematurely. Dusk lingers, and by 8pm neither the candles nor the solar jars have been lit.

The terrace is getting going, in terms of growth. The climbing beans are heading straight up, and by late June will form their leafy screen. The black raspberry has set fruit (green right now). The two clumps of favas are looking fine. We have been eating the leaves once a week in a huge salad. The herbs (cilantro, parsley, thyme, oregano, mint, sage, self sown fennel, calamintha, agastache, nasturtium, and rose scented and lemon pelargonium) are all very happy. There are  jewelweed volunteers all over - one can eat the young greens, but I also keep them as handy poison ivy antidotes and hummingbird attractors.

The long darkness of winter, the longing for the light, seems far behind us.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The green islands of the big city

Perhaps heading to Pelham Bay Park, on the Bronx side of the Long Island Sound on the first warm weather holiday weekend of the year was not the brightest idea we've ever had.

Usually we're here in April, for the giant, unsprayed stands of Japanese knotweed, now too tall and tough to collect. Still - for me, the plant lover, I knew that new discoveries lay ahead. The crowd-averse Frenchman was less optimistic.

There were boom boxes, there was salsa, there were unclad bodies of every proportion. There were sprawling picnics emerging from plastic bags and foil trays and there were dozens of portable barbecues. Fully dressed, with backpacks and long lenses, we stalked through the shiny masses, pale aliens from the planet of observation.

And into the green. The salsa brass still shimmering behind us.

This was helpful. The little flowers above belonged to a Smilax vine, but looking at them later I was able to tell the difference between Smilax rotundfolia, above and below...

...and Smilax herbacea (below), which has starburst flowers. The young, growing tips of Smilax are edible and taste (without the cobwebs) a little like grape tendrils, but are more succulent and less astringent.

The last of some native pinxter azaleas were in bloom - Rhododendron canescens.

While the woods here are plagued - dominated - by noxious invasives (a USDA classification) like Japanese knotweed, day lilies, vinca, garlic mustard, mugwort, and field garlic (all high on my Eat List) there are still wonderful, if threatened, patches of indigenous wildflowers.

Common cinquefoil, above (cinque = 5 = the number of leaflets), is Potentilla simplex, masquerading often as the barren strawberry.

Lovely and new, last seen one April when its leaves were red: This is wood betony, above, Pedicularis canadensis. It carpeted the forest floor in just one area for a couple of dozen feet.

Inbetween the wood betony plants grew these dainty flowers - yellow star grass, geophytes whose tiny hairs are indicated in the species name: Hypoxis hirsuta.

There were pathside clouds of Geranium maculatum.

Tall and pretty and invasive dame's rocket - Hesperis matronalis. While it behaves and looks a little like Phlox, its four petals indicate that it belongs to the big mustard - Brassicaceae - family. So, yup, edible.

And growing in sheets down to the water, Aristalochia clematitis. Responsible, apparently, for kidney failure and urinary tract cancers down the ages, in those who consumed it as a medicinal herb. It contains aristalochic acid. It is European in origin and has taken over one side of a small island, here.

We made our usual pilgrimage to our picnic spot.

And were rewarded with the sight of two American oyster catchers on another rocky island.

Two sandwiches, and one all-American beer. We developed a fondness for Miller on a Namibian camping trip, and drink it for the fumes of nostalgia.

I baked a sour cherry sourdough loaf on Saturday morning, and the sandwiches were smeared with beach plum chutney before being stuffed with cheese and arugula.

Another troop of picnickers arrived, three families and four strollers strong, with their barbecue. 

On the way out through the phragmites - also very invasive - I nibbled the pale and tender tips of young stalks that slip easily from the middle of the giant grass cylinder. Tastes like cucumber!

And then it was back out again.

And through the good-smelling smoke of the hundreds of barbecuing partiers with their boom boxes camped beside the giant parking lot.

...onto our bus, driving past pretty pink horse chestnut (Aesculus x carnea) and  back to the 6 train and Harlem.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Wild Foods Spring Walks - 2015

25 April 2015, 12pm - 3pm
Inwood Hill Park

In glorious Inwood Hill Park the spicebush will have leafed out, violets will have opened, and jewelweed seedlings may have appeared like green confetti on the forest floor (I planted a couple on my terrace last year, and a hummingbird visited the flowers in August). There are edible and invasive day lilies here, as well as the notorious but strongly delicious garlic mustard. Field garlic, one of the earliest spring edibles to appear, is one of the most versatile of all wild plants and weeds. Cook it, pickle it, make oil from its leaves. Japanese knotweed should still be collectable. 

It's one of my favorite spring walks; it's hardly a city, up here: 

On one side, the Spuyten Duyvil, separating Manhattan island from the mainland, and on the other, the mighty Hudson, separating us from Governor Christie (if he's home).

Pokeweed shoots

Pack a lunch for a forest picnic. Bathroom at start and end of walk.

We meet at 12pm sharp at the entrance at Seaman Avenue and Isham, returning there by 3pm or a little later. The closest subway is the A to 207th. More information will be emailed to confirmed walkers closer to the time.


Pokeweed, violets, field garlic, dandelion, catbriar, Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, mugwort

2 May 2015, 11am - 1pm  SOLD OUT
Central Park's North Woods

The forested Northwest corner of Central Park is an unusually quiet pocket of Manhattan. Downy woodpeckers scour the tall trees for an insect lunch. Cooper's hawks scour the trees for downy woodpeckers. Among those trees grow an interesting mix of woodland natives, like Virginia bluebells, May apples, and violets. All good candidates for edible gardens. There are the domestic and prolific pokeweed, and catbriar, as well as invasive alien edibles, like Japanese knotweed, burdock, dock, and lamb's quarters. 


Elm samara

9 May 2015, 12pm - 2pm  SOLD OUT
Prospect Park

The green heart of Brooklyn will be spilling over with spring birdsong and tender greens. On the less-traveled eastern woodland edge we'll find edibles from dandelion to garlic mustard, and plantain to burdock and pokeweed, with many surprises inbetween.

We meet at the Flatbush Avenue entrance opposite the Brooklyn Botanic Garden at 12pm. The closest subway is the B/Q at Prospect Park, a couple of minutes' walk away. From there we will move north, ending at the Grand Army Plaza end of the park, at 2pm.

More information will be emailed to confirmed walkers closer to the time.



16 May 2015, 12pm - 3pm 
Inwood Hill Park

By mid-May in Inwood the wild blueberries should already be in bloom and the catbriar shoots tender. We may spot prickly but delicious nettles and jewelweed nearby to soothe the burn. Young, sage-y mugwort will have appeared.

We meet at 12pm sharp at the entrance at Seaman Avenue and Isham, returning there by 3pm or a little later. The closest subway is the A to 207th. More information will be emailed to confirmed walkers closer to the time.


Prospect Park

27 May 2015, 5pm - 7pm [SOLD OUT]
Prospect Park

A spring evening stroll, midweek.

Late May is peak foraging season. Come and learn to tell one green leaf from another, succulent stem from fibrous non-entity, edible flower from indifferent, and sip a sup of the previous season's bounty, when we take a break (you'll be released in time for dinner reservations in Park Slope or Prospect Heights!)

We meet at the Flatbush Avenue entrance opposite the Brooklyn Botanic Garden at 5pm. The closest subway is the B/Q at Prospect Park, a couple of minutes' walk away. From there we will move north, ending at the Grand Army Plaza end of the park, at 7pm (2/3 is nearby).

More information will be emailed to confirmed walkers closer to the time.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Shopping for dinner

Union Square is green at last.

The fiddleheads of ostrich ferns (Mateuccia struthiopteris) are still at the market, driven down from Vermont twice a week, where the season is well behind ours. Although I think they are delicious, I am curious about the impact that harvesting has on natural populations of the fern. 

And I was pleased, and also amused (despite myself), to see lambs quarters (Chenopodium album) for sale. I bought almost half pound. Ouch. Yes folks, your 'weeds' are selling in New York City for $6 a quarter pound. Eat up! Lambs quarters are closely related to quinoa, and are very nutritious. I am growing my own planterful on the Harlem terrace. Personally, I think they blow spinach out of the water, once cooked.

And another green in the foraging vein, but cultivated, in this case: a skinny-leafed species of plantain, Plantago coronopus

Also known as erba stella, and minutina.

So, supper, with a dessert of the first strawberries I have tasted this year, was: a risotto with the fiddleheads (cooked for a minute, first), and asparagus tips. The Frenchman scraped the pot.

Tonight? Lamb's quarter phyllo triangles with feta and sumac, and the salad of the minutina.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Analog design

My plant loving mind likes this part, a lot.

Pyrex, paper, plants, and paint.

A garden-to-be, on a Manhattan rooftop.

Monday, May 18, 2015

What to plant in semi-shade, urban-style

The Harlem terrace has begun to grow. A lot died this winter: three beautiful boxwoods, and every rose. The pots froze, of course, then were buried in feet of snow, and then the tops melted in our overhead noonday sun, and the roots sat in water while the bottom of the pots remained iceblocks, unable to drain. I think they just drowned. 

So my semi shade is not horticulture's semi shade. It is complicated. We have the shadow cast by tall buildings that sandwich each side of our townhouse. It lasts till about noon (at this time of year), when a few hours of intense overhead direct sun begin. Then more shade. Choosing a plant to cope with that kind of stress is not simple; most semi shade plants evolved in woodlands, and like gentle sun, or filtered sunlight. Under high noon they wilt. And I've realized that some full sun lovers can survive here, but others not - in early spring and late fall the sun cannot clear the building to our south. So it's always an experiment. Welcome to 2015.

Japanese forest grass - Hakonechloa macra 'Aurea' (now that the kitty is no longer around it will be able to grow full without having its ends nibbled off - I miss him very much) - a good foil for: Cimicifuga  'Hillside Black Beauty,' a very dark-leafed bugbane cultivar bred in Connecticut and grown by Jim Glover on the North Fork of Long Island. Cimicifuga - now classified as Actaea - is native to the eastern US. I am hoping that it will be happy and reach its 4'- 5' height. And last, very exciting - to me - a foxglove: Digitalis 'Gold Crest.' Reputed not only to re-bloom but to attract hummingbirds. Sold. I have planted three in various spots.

In Brooklyn a week ago I picked up two specimens, from GRDN, the wonderful little garden shop on Hoyt Street, of Corydalis lutea, an exceptionally long-blooming perennial (most flower for between 1-3 weeks, and this Corydalis keeps going till cold weather). It used to grow in the gravel on the floor of our Brooklyn terrace - it does not need a lot of space.

Jim Glover also grows these white Corydalis, and when a friend offered to bring me some plants, I jumped. Yes, please. Corydalis ochroleuca. I think it is gorgeous.

Below - after seeing it in bloom in high forest shade in Central Park, I have wanted to grow swamp milkweed - Asclepias incarnata subs. pulchra. I considered  A. syriaca (common milkweed, which I like to eat), but I think it would need more sun. Maybe some monarch butterflies will find my plant. If you can, grow some milkweeds for the butterflies - their larvae depend on it.

Also spotted at GRDN, this lovely little Heuchera, a cultivar called 'Snow Queen.' I think she's a bit hot. I may have to shuffle pots around again. Heucheras are troopers, and there are dozens to choose from.

The fava beans I have not mown down for salad leaves are in bloom. They handle the light situation very well.

The lilies are up, with annual, self-seeded jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) to keep them company. Along the edges in the wooden planters the herbs are herbing. All the herbs I like - except chives - do well here, which has surprised me. There are also a million volunteering seedlings, from last year. It is fun sorting out the Verbena bonariensis from the quickweed, from the lambs quarters (I am farming the last two in their own pot), from the thyme, from the Nicotiana...

And the empty jar? It is a solar lamp - I bought three in South Africa and we love them.

Light for the nights to come.

Friday, May 15, 2015


The best of Now -  a Northeastern spring - on a plate.

These are just-blanched wood nettles, on the left. When I pick them I lop off just the top two pairs of leaves, where the stalk is still very tender. Yes, they are very prickly. After 2-3 minutes in boiling water the stings dissolve and the stem is tender enough to eat. Then I refresh in cold water, to keep the colour.

On the right, very beautiful New Jersey asparagus.

They are destined to be soup, a sipped snack for a walk in the woods on Saturday

There is one more spring walk on my list for the city, midweek in Prospect Park, on the 27th, with wild botanical cocktails. Yes, I am still figuring out how exactly to equip my backback. Two cocktails' mixings, glasses, ice...



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