Friday, December 21, 2007

Notes from Around Town: Rusk Institute Greenhouse

These days the topic of horticultural therapy has been getting a lot of attention, even though it is a practice that has been around for centuries. According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, horticultural therapy is defined as “a process utilizing plants and horticultural activities to improve social, educational, psychological and physical adjustment of persons thus improving their body, mind, and spirit.” Hundreds of years ago doctors began to notice patients recovering more quickly when they had the opportunity to spend time and be active in the gardens outside of the hospital walls. After World War I and World War II horticultural therapy was used nationwide with veterans to help them improve the use of injured limbs and increase mental function, not to mention an avenue for them to learn new skills and provide food to their families. As Tia Deanne Jones wrote on her website describing the history of horticultural therapy, “now horticulture therapy is used in hospitals, nursing homes, institutions, rehabilitation facilities, schools, prisons, camps, day care centers, group homes, halfway houses, homeless shelters, community centers...I think you get the idea”. Here at the HSNY Library Katherine Powis has found records from the early 1970’s discussing this aspect horticulture and its ability to improve people’s quality of life here in New York City. On Riker’s Island James Jiler directs the HSNY Greenhouse program teaching inmates horticultural and woodworking skills so that upon release they can graduate to become members of the HSNY GreenTeam. As is our mission, to improve the quality of life in New York through horticulture, John Cannizzo and our GreenTeam have been working for years with many public and private partners performing horticultural therapy throughout the five boroughs. The Horticultural Society has worked with and put together gardens for at-risk youth, men and women living with HIV and AIDS, the mentally or physically disabled, senior citizens, as well as many other populations.

A week ago I had the wonderful opportunity to introduce a tour of HSNY members to Nancy Chambers, a Horticultural Therapist working here the city for over 20 years. Nancy is the director of the greenhouse and horticulture therapy facility at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine. The Rusk Institute operates under the auspices of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine of New York University School of Medicine, located on 1st Avenue at 34th Street. Operating out of a greenhouse and facility originally donated by Enid A. Haupt, the Rusk Institute greenhouse is truly an oasis here in Midtown Manhattan.

Filled with different plant collections, a number of chirping birds, and even a well-behaved cat named Bamboo, the greenhouse provides much needed stress relief for both patients and staff. When you enter from the lobby you are greeted by the gentle trickle of water coming from the large water feature in the center of the first greenhouse. When I studied the history and theory of landscape design the sound of water was often discussed for it’s ability to provide calm and tranquility to an environment. Instantly you realize that the space does feed all the senses. There are so many plants to look at, from hanging epiphytes to massive woody trees. Like a botanical garden, collections are labeled and organized in a way that is educational and easy to take in. You can touch and feel the contrast between the thorny euphorbia and the soft African violet without fear of being reprimanded. You can sense the humidity and the smell the fresh “green” oxygen being omitted by the plants as they photosynthesize. The birds, some caged and some not, chirp away and accompany the classical music coming from a small radio hanging in the second house. Perhaps there are not plants to taste, but I did pass by a nurse sitting and eating her lunch and she seemed to be having a perfectly fine time. In the second house there was a great little display of certain plants that people choose to dry and use for teas. The entire green space is easily accessible and the choreography is clear, another aspect of a successfully designed garden. As Nancy enlightened us further, she asked if any of us had ever spent time in a wheelchair. “The best views of the greenhouse and all the plants are enjoyed from a sitting position”, she explained. I don’t think any of us had thought of that until we sat and took a look from a different viewpoint, and sure enough she couldn’t have been any more correct.

Nancy went on to describe how plants and green space bring forth in all people a sense of fascination. Clearly you do not have to be from a certain country or ethnicity to appreciate the beauty and peace in this interactive space. That same fascination has unbelievable restorative and recuperative abilities. Plants can move you because they might have qualities that are reminiscent, whether they possess ethnic, historical, or culinary significance in your life. Either way interacting with those plants elevates your senses. With elevated senses and aided by a restorative environment, we are more alert and alive and able to deal with the stresses life brings. In this day of technology and urbanization we forget that all humans have an affinity towards nature that is biologically fundamental. By feeding that affinity we can be more sensitive, aware, grounded, mentally and physically healthier.

Eventually one of our members asked about patients who had no previous connection to gardens or plants and how they were accepting, or not, this kind of therapy. Towards the end of our tour Nancy had arranged for us to sit through a workshop similar to the ones done with the patients at Rusk. We sat around a large round table and Nancy’s colleague Gwen explained the exercise, repotting a clump of Norfolk Island pine trees so that we each had our own. Gwen described the history and some clever anecdotes about the plant so that each of us could relate to it in our own way. We were asked to handicap ourselves and not use our dominant hand. Right away we realized that an important part of the lesson was how we were forced to talk and communicate with each other to achieve each of our goals. We quickly realized how working together meant that all of us could fill our pots with soil, plant the small evergreen, and water them, even with our respective handicaps. When we finished we each had our little tree and a great understanding of the other people in our company. I heard stories of growing up in Africa, and tales from English country sides, even shared a story or two of my own about where I had been and how I came to this place. Plants brought us together and at the end of this short exercise our senses were elevated and we were better friends than before. In short, Nancy and Gwen taught us more than words ever could. That’s the power of horticulture and horticultural therapy, and it was amazing!

The Rusk Institute greenhouse is open to the public seven days a week and I urge you all to visit. Enter the lobby on 34th Street just east of 1st Avenue and turn right to see the entrance to the greenhouse. During the week it is open from 8:00am to 5:30pm, and on the weekends from 1:00 to 5:30pm. They even have houseplants for sale and obviously the proceeds go towards maintaining a very important and necessary cause. I thank Nancy Chambers and her staff and volunteers for the amazing work that they do.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Houseplant Aphids

(aphids come in many colors and sizes but usually you can identify them by their round or pear-shaped bodies and the two cornicles (little spikes) that emerge from the back of their abdomen. photo credit: Bob O'Neil, Purdue University)
I enjoyed the houseplants program a few weeks back. I'm still struggling with aphids, I think, on our...? Would the rubbing alcohol work on that? At what dilution would you recommend?
If the aphid situation is really bad I would probably go to the next step of control which would be to use an insecticidal soap. If I discover a small population of aphids (i.e. a few) I usually begin by spraying the plant and its foliage with a strong stream of water. If the stream does not knock off the pests completely the hope is that the force of the water breaks their piercing, sucking mouthparts, disabling their ability to continue feeding on the plant. Then I might clean the leaves with a ½ and ½ mix of rubbing alcohol and water, physically removing as many pests as possible before placing the plants back on display. If the population is larger, but still isolated to a specific part of the plant, such as the tips of new growth, then sometimes it is best is to pinch off and remove that part of the plant to the garbage. As long as the rest of the plant is healthy and has plenty of foliage to photosynthesize pinching off a damaged shoot should not be the death of the plant. If anything pruning or pinching back your plant should promote new growth to follow. Lastly, if the plant is seriously infested, then buy yourself some insecticidal soap. As with any chemical, follow the instructions explicitly. I would place the plant somewhere safe so you can really coat the entire plant with the spray solution. I place my infected plants in the bathtub and spray them to the point of the soap running off the tips of the leaves. I let them sit and dry before putting them back into an area of direct sun, if applicable, then continuing to keep an eye on them. Because female aphids can give birth to live young in only a week’s time I would check again and potentially re-spray after a week or so. Again, follow the instructions on the bottle. Safer Soap, or some such insecticidal soap, you should be able to find at a decent florist or garden center/supplier. I usually go to either the Flower District on 28th Street or Chelsea Garden Center on 11th Avenue at 44th Street.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Reinventing the Lawn

Requiring compost-rich soil, mulch, and regular irrigation through the summer, cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) can provide excellent visual interest for a partly shady space where turf can be hard to grow. This photograph I took up at Garden in the Woods, but you should see the stand of ferns out front of the Dekalb branch of the Brooklyn Public Library where we have one of our GreenBranches learning gardens.

Back when I was a student at the New York Botanical Garden I had the opportunity to intern with a phenomenal organization up in Massachusetts called New England Wild Flower Society. Devoted to education and conservation of native plants, NEWFS is based in Framingham, MA, where they have a 45-acre native plant botanical garden called Garden in the Woods. If you ever get up to Boston, you must make a side trip to Framingham and find this hidden gem tucked within the suburban sprawl. As an intern with the horticulture department I was responsible for a number of different garden areas that I became very protective of. As any devout gardener can relate, over time the plants felt more like children and the gardens felt more and more like home. Both the horticulture and conservation departments do an unbelievable job educating people to the threat of invasives, how to combat them, the importance of native plants in the landscape, how to incorporate them, and how we can continue to support other such valiant efforts. I miss my friends up at New England Wild Flower Society and wish them all the best as they move forward with their own missions.

With that, I wanted to share with you an article I wrote some months ago. It addresses some alternatives to traditional lawn species, and ways in which we can convert some of our smaller turfed areas into more sustainable green spaces. It was recently posted to the New England Wild Flower website, but you can simply click on the link below and read away. Enjoy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Reminder: Art Opening at HSNY

Image: Sarah Hirzel, Planted for Peter, 2007, charcoal on gessoed paper, 57 x 78 inches, courtesy of the artist.

DECEMBER 11, 2007 – FEBRUARY 8, 2008

Opening reception for the artist:
Tuesday, December 11, 2007 from 6 to 8pm

Please join us this evening from 6-8pm at the HSNY Gallery, 148 West 37th Street (between 7th and Broadway) for the opening of Gardens, Sarah Hirzel's solo debut in New York City.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Black Plastic

A few weeks ago I put up a post talking about aggressive and invasive plants and how to deal with them in the landscape. To take a look at that post you can simply click here. When one of these plants has taken hold in the landscape it can be very overwhelming. Inevitably it becomes much more work to remove it than one might think. Invasive plants can often propagate themselves from the smallest piece of leaf, stem, or root tissue left in the soil so you really have to make sure you excavate the plant entirely. As with some cases, like the situation I wrote about before, you may be revisiting and re-pulling the same plant species for years after discovering its negative affect in your landscape.

With that in mind, I did receive an email from a great HSNY supporter and friend who added a suggestion that I forgot to mention earlier. The original question was, after many years of trying to simply pull and remove these incredulous plants, is there anything else I can do?

Another option is to attempt to smother and suffocate the plant by laying down black plastic. When I used to live in Massachusetts, educating people about changing their front yards into natural meadows seeded with native wildflowers, I often began by explaining how one would start by laying down black plastic. Here in the city I have seen black plastic used in many situations where the homeowner or super was trying to regain a piece of land overrun with annoying and aggressive weeds.

This is what you do. You should be able to find black plastic at any major retailer or garden center. It comes in rolls of varying length and thickness. What you are looking for is a heavy duty plastic that is the same as what they make construction-grade garbage bags out of, roughly 2-3 millimeters thick. I suppose if the area was small enough you could simply cut and use a contractor’s garbage bag that has been made flat. Lay the plastic over the area to be reclaimed and anchor the plastic with heavy weights (bricks, cinderblocks) or by driving stakes through it to keep it in place. So the area does not look like a complete eye sore, I lay down mulch over the plastic so that at least I am looking at wood chips or some other kind of decorative mulch as opposed to the ugly black plastic. If the area is still a focal point I have even recommended placing planted containers on the plastic so that there is still a visual while you work to reclaim the area underneath. Eventually when you pull up the plastic you can incorporate the mulch into the soil so you have not wasted that part of your investment. By cutting off all light and fresh air to that area the seeds, stems, and roots of unwanted plants will die back with a less likely chance of return.

This sounds very easy to do, and in fact, it is. There is one catch, however. To ensure the success of this plan of attack, it is imperative that the plastic be laid down, undisturbed, for one complete year. No exceptions! Letting your impatience take over, by figuring that “six months must be long enough to do the job”, I assure you is not going to help you at all.

You see, a horticulturist will tell you that there are summer weeds and winter weeds. Some weeds set seed that germinates in the spring or summer while others can set seed in the fall that will not germinate until the following spring. Therefore you have to consider weed control in the dead of winter just as much as you do during the dog days of summer, and again, you must have the plastic laid down for a full year. Then you have invasive species in addition to the weeds. Since these plants can be so persistent and aggressive I think it is best to smother them for as long as you can stand it. The backyard of a business next to my home in Queens has had plastic laid down for almost a year now. They should continue to keep it down for a few more months and then it will be spring and an ideal time to re-landscape the area. After a year the plastic can be taken up and the area cultivated. I would take a shovel and single-dig the entire area, incorporate a 2-3” layer of compost on top of the area being reclaimed, and perhaps single-dig it again. The methodology does take some time and, speaking from personal experience, a lot of patience. However, by using this technique properly, you can successfully reclaim your garden area and start fresh. You can always use the year in between to really take the time to design and plan the ideal garden you will enjoy for years to come.

Winter Protection

Hi Alex,
I have 5 frost related questions:
Where in NYC can I find burlap by the yard to wrap up pots?

The closest place to me is Jamali Gardens at 149 West 28th Street, between 6th and 7th on the north side of the street. Last I knew they had rolls of burlap that were big and reasonably priced. I also know that Chelsea Garden Center at 580 11th Avenue at 44th Street has rolls of burlap in stock as of this morning. Of course if you are an HSNY member you can present your membership card for 10%off your purchases at both the Chelsea Garden Centers, here in Manhattan and out in Red Hook, Brooklyn. To learn more about HSNY membership click here.

Would you recommend bubble wrap as an extra layer in between the burlap and the pot?

As long as it’s dry enough outside when you wrap the pots I think bubble wrap would be fine. I would not recommend it over the plants because it will inhibit airflow too much, but around the pot I think that would be some good additional insulation. Luckily I have a call in to a good friend and accomplished terrace gardener so I will see what his opinion is as well.

Do you think that I should wrap the stems and leaves of a bamboo plant with a flat sheet of Frost Protek ( as well as wrapping the pot?

I have usually seen people leave their bamboo exposed, but so many people treat their balcony containers differently. I know from our previous conversations that this is a new plant in that location so I might choose to be a little over-protective the first year. Frost Proteks products look very good and I think I remember you saying that you’ve had good luck using them in the past, so I don’t see why not. Many people recommend spraying plants with a spray called Wilt-Pruf that coats the plants with a protective layer to help against winter desiccation, but I am a little wary of that. Even though Wilt-Pruf is derived from conifers and is biodegradable, I’m never sure how well it will break down in spring, and I can’t see how clogging the pores that provide essential gas exchange for the plant is a good thing, even if the plant is considered dormant this time of year. In fact, evergreens this time of year are still performing basic and essential gas and water exchange through their leaves, even though it is as a slower rate than during the hotter months of the year. Therefore, I’d use the Frost Protek, or maybe even just use some burlap if the other is too costly. Maintaining some airflow through the wrapping for the stems and leaves of your plants is essential.

Should I continue to water the pots when they dry out? My balcony gets no overhead rain.

I don’t usually worry about watering during the winter, but that is because my stoop still gets moist even though there is an overhang. That being said I might recommend watering your containers sparingly once a month. Certainly you do not want them sopping wet, but a little moisture in the soil I believe helps protect the roots a little better compared to if they were bone dry.

Have you got any tips about frost protection?

There are only two other things that come to mind. The first is winter mulching. Depending on how much room you have in the edges of your containers, you can use either straw or pine boughs to add an airy but protective layer of mulch before wrapping your containers. By wrapping and mulching, the whole goal is to regulate the soil temperature in your containers as much as possible. It is the repetition of freezing and thawing that can lead to plants crowns and roots receiving the most damaged through winter. If we can keep that temperature nice and constant then your plants will make it through without much desiccation. Secondly, depending on the layout of your balcony, it can be a great help to the plants to move and group the containers together in the most protected spot on your balcony. Placing the containers right up against each other will help the whole bunch of them to be a bit more sheltered for the remaining months of freezing temperatures.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Planting bulbs and microclimates (A Word of Thanks)

(lily-flowered tulips like these 'Queen of Sheba' were among the many different varieties of tulips and daffoldils planted at the 96th Street branch of the New York Public Library by local teenagers)

Yesterday I had one of those days that reminded me why it is so important that we do what we do here at The Horticultural Society.

As people were bundled up and ducking inside or underground to avoid the cold and falling snow I was preparing to do just the opposite. Melissa Fisher, Director of our GreenBranches program, was busy installing a new GreenBranches learning garden out in Whitestone, Queens, and she had asked for my help. As part of our GreenBranches programming we plant bulbs in the fall with young children and teenagers at a number of our library gardens throughout the city. The recent weather was keeping the Whitestone installation on a tight schedule and Melissa had phoned to ask if I could run the workshop planting bulbs with teens up at the 96th Street branch of the New York Public Library here in Manhattan. Luckily my schedule for the afternoon was free of meetings so I said, “of course”, got the details from Melissa, and was on my way.

Well, as the afternoon rolled on I must admit I began to get nervous. I began to fear that the ground would be too frozen to plant, and I wondered what I was going to do with the hundreds of tulips and daffodils. The workshop was scheduled from 3:30 to 5:00pm and as the temperature continued to drop I then feared that no teens would even show in the first place. Certainly the looks of complete bafflement I received from the bundled commuters didn’t help, but I continued to swim upstream with my big bag of tools and reinforced steel shovel.

I arrived at the 96th Street Library, and it was amazing how my fears began to melt away. It was actually my first time at the 96th Street branch and entering the small backyard garden it looked so beautiful with the fresh dusting of snow on the evergreens. I always refer to our GreenBranches gardens as real oases here in the city, and this was no exception. I pulled a trowel from my bag took a stab at a piece of barren soil between a rose and some bergenia. To my surprise the ground was soft and the trowel penetrated the soil easily. I stood back and began to laugh to myself. Of course, I thought, microclimates! How could I have been so foolish?!

In the midst of getting myself worked up I had forgotten one of the basics. Here in the city we always have to consider microclimates. To understand microclimates in the city we have to take into account all the abiotic factors here in the city that might affect our gardens. Abiotic factors are nonliving, often man-made factors that affect our natural environment. For example the positioning of a terrace on the 20th floor that faces the water might be much colder and windier than your typical garden plot on the ground. Equally so, a backyard garden surrounded by large heated buildings might have slightly warmer soil temperatures compared to if it were out in the open. Microclimates are not to be thought of as being good or bad, but we certainly must consider them when discussing or performing urban horticulture. In this case the presence of a microclimate was to our advantage.

A few minutes later I was happily proven wrong a second time as a number of young teens joined me outside and asked what we were going to be doing for the afternoon. Wired on their large cups of hot chocolate these kids were amazing. After explaining what bulbs are and how they grow the boys and girls couldn’t wait to get planting. We laid out the bulbs, tulips and daffodils to flower from early- to late-spring, and we all got busy planting. Eventually the darkness forced us to quit for the evening, but not before we planted a couple hundred bulbs in this little oasis behind 96th Street. I was reminded how fearless kids can be and I felt I was learning just as much as they were. Furthermore it reminded me of the power and value of horticulture here in the city, and how important it is that we engage everyone to make this a greener, healthier, and happier place. I know those kids will be keeping a close eye on the GreenBranches garden at 96th Street, and I can’t wait to hear and see their reaction next spring. Even more I can't wait for those kids to continue to learn and grow, knowing how they will influence others to embrace horticulture in our city. Thank you to the amazing staff at the 96th Street library, the kids who now know and care about the importance of gardens and plants, and all the members and supporters of HSNY who make these programs possible.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Notes from Around Town: NYBG and Winter Interest

The other day I was invited up to the New York Botanical Garden for a meeting and luncheon. I joined a number of other green organizations, land trusts, city and state departments, and representatives from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and New York Botanical Garden to discuss the importance of community gardens, our role in their success, and what needs to be done in the future to ensure their longevity. As a 105-year-old nonprofit here in Manhattan, HSNY is an organization that provides all the same offerings as the larger botanical gardens: educational resources including classes and a library, research and statistics based on our exemplary outreach programs, horticultural phone and email support, consultation services, numerous events throughout the calendar year, horticultural services, and experienced horticultural staff who train and educate communities throughout New York City. This year we are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of both the Riker’s Island Greenhouse program and the community-based GreenBranches program, two of our exemplary outreach programs that prove that horticulture improves the quality of life for a wide range of local communities. Our GreenTeam, graduates of the Riker’s Greenhouse, have worked closely with other social service organizations and the land trusts providing horticultural services, workshops, and horticultural therapy in community gardens throughout all of the boroughs. We enjoy sharing with other green groups our experiences to help aide with the communal goal of successful, sustainable greening of our city. And it was a fabulous meeting of the minds. I can say without hesitation that I am thrilled to be a horticulturist living and working in the city during these times of necessary and beneficial change.

But, of course, I couldn't leave without getting out and taking some pictures of the trees and shrubs I love so much this time of year. Everyone else was headed to the conservatory to get a tour of the Holiday Train Show, but I snuck away and reunited with some of my old friends. This time of year some people have the nerve to say nothing is happening in the garden, and I must say that absolutely boggles my mind. It is true that many leaves have fallen and many herbaceous plants have died back already, but there is still so much interesting fruit-set and seed, bark, and forms in the landscape.
Malus ‘Red Jade’ is a weeping form of a flowering crabapple, a member of the rose family, Rosaceae. The white flowers that bloomed in spring have led to the glossy red fruit that hang off the dark, pendulous branches. This specimen is mature, spanning 15’ wide and almost as tall. I love the combination of the dark, textural bark and the red fruit, which the birds love as well. Even here in some shade the fruit-set suggests that the tree put out a decent amount of flowers.
Newer cultivars of flowering crabapples are now being bred for even greater fruit set in the fall,not to mention variations in color. Here is a young Malus ‘Sugar Tyme’ and below it, with the yellow-orange fruit, is Malus transitoria ‘Golden Raindrops’. Then there is Callicarpa japonica, or Japanese beauty berry. A deciduous shrub, beauty berry loses its simple, toothed leaves in fall, leaving at the nodes these clusters of purple fruit. The shrub, which typically reaches about 6’ tall and wide, has an upright arching habit that might not be interesting enough for some. However, the 2” clusters of unique purple berries that cover the shrub this time of year certainly make up for its rather ordinary form. Planted amidst a woody border, the contrast of colors this time of year would be sensational.
Rhus typhina is called staghorn sumac. A North American native, found from Georgia up to Quebec, staghorn sumac is a very durable shrub with its open habit and large compound leaves. This cultivar, ‘Laniciata’, has very deeply divided leaflets that almost look fern-like and have great fall color. Here all that is left is the hairy crimson fruit atop the bare branches which will remain through winter.
While we are on the topic of North American natives, here are two shots (above and below) of an Ilex opaca, or American holly. With their large, pyramidal habit that reaches taller and wider than most hollies in the northeast landscape, it is a beautiful staple for fall.

Ilex verticillata, commonly called winterberry, is yet another native Ilex for our region. As you can see this member of the holly genus is deciduous, but who needs leaves when you have the stems so covered with bright red fruit through the fall and winter. I have had the most success with this plant when placing it in full sun in an area that stays moist on a regular basis. Certainly for the best fruit-set you are going to want to provide these upright shrubs with as much sun as possible. Some references say that winterberry can tolerate dryer soils as well, but I'm still testing those hypotheses.
I have talked about redosier dogwood in the past, botanically known as Cornus sericea, and here it is in front of a stand of tall grasses. The bare red stems in fall have great character on their own, especially when combined with more natural colors and hues like these tall grasses behind them.

While we are on the topic of combinations, here are a few that caught my eye and I wanted to share them with you.
In the background is bluestar (Amsonia hubrechtii) and in front a small globe blue spruce (Picea pungens 'Glauca Globosa'). The Amsonia is past its prime, but imagine a soft, glowing yellow in contrast to the striking blue of the spruce. All over the garden the blue spruce were stunning.
Or how about the dried blossoms of a Hydrangea with a more typical green conifer far behind? All through the summer people can forget that green foliage is a color in itself, but the fall and winter is a great time for evergreens to shine.
Here a kind of pine is wedged between a large Euonymus shrub in the foreground and a huge Taxodium in the background. The rest of the year it is hidden but this time it looked so full and rich and vibrant.

Of course, in the fall you do not want to forget about viburnums. Most of us know viburnums because of their spring flowers and fragrance, but plenty of species remain interesting well into the fall. This is Viburnum setigerum, commonly called a tea viburnum. The russet fall color and clusters of hanging red fruit makes this one of the most popular viburnums for this time of year. This upright, multi-stem shrub is a slow grower, but give it time and you will end up with a specimen that stands a good 6'-8' tall and nearly as wide.
Lastly, I had to take a picture of the Choctaw crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia x indica 'Choctaw'). Those of you who know me well know how I am infatuated with these trees, and yet again I say, "well, why not!?" I've talked about the upright habit of these small-to-medium trees and their exfoliating bark. I've mentioned the late summer flower than can range from soft pink to brilliant magenta. And here I am, underneath the almost black clusters of dry fruit that sit at the outermost tips of the branches. Combined with the cinnamon bark and against the amazing blue of the fall sky, now that's a form in nature I'll appreciate all winter long.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Plant ID: Lysimachia clethroides (A Discussion on Potential Invasives)

Gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides) is a member of the primula family, Primulaceae. It is native to China and Japan, and therefore is an introduced species here in the United States. It has upright stems with long, narrow foliage that are 3” or 4” in length. The plant grows about 2’ to 3’ tall and spreads by fast-growing rhizomes as well as by seed. In late summer the plant produces spires of white blossoms right above the foliage that grow in beautiful curvy and contorted forms, hence the name. Gooseneck loosestrife grows in full sun to part shade and is adaptable to a wide range of soil conditions. It is hardy in USDA zones 4-9. But beware, just because it sounds and looks like a beautiful plant does not mean you shouldn’t still do your homework.

I was first introduced to this plant when I found it growing outside of my father’s retail shop in the Hamptons years ago. Next to a formal herb garden that I planted outside the storefront window was an unkempt space and in it was growing gooseneck loosestrife. My father enjoyed the plant, its persistence, and late summer flower, so we left it in the area and let it do its thing. In fact, when my father closed the shop he liked the plant so much that he divided a piece from the mother plant and transplanted it to my parents garden at home.

If only I knew then what I know now.

After a few years my father called and explained that the loosestrife was quickly taking over my parent’s garden and asked how he might control it. We talked about the multitude of small black seed that follow the profuse spires of white flowers and I recommended deadheading the flowers before they passed maturity to prevent the seed from forming. I also taught him about the aggressive underground rhizomes and explained that he would have to remove them entirely to ensure that the plant did not come back. Lastly he asked if he could move it to the other side of the driveway, which happened to be adjacent to a portion of natural woods. I exclaimed, “No, you can't do that!” Plants that become invasive in home gardens are bad enough, but when they spread to natural woodlands then the problem can become exponentially worse practically over night. Had the gooseneck loosestrife been allowed to drop seed and spread it’s rhizomes into the woods then there would be nothing holding it back. As an introduced species with no natural predators, whether they be other plants, feeding insects, or diseases, the plant would eventually begin to overtake our important native plants, ferns, and mosses. It sounds hard to believe that one transplant could disrupt an entire ecosystem, but unfortunately I have seen it happen entirely too many times.

Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) is perhaps one of the best examples. Originally chosen and planted in American gardens because of its brilliant red fall color, burning bush is an introduced species with no natural predators. Planted in suburban lots all over the northeast the seeds eventually spread into nearby woods and began to produce multiple seedlings. Now, from southern New Jersey to northern Massachusetts natural forests and woodlands are being disrupted and native species are losing the fight against this invasive shrub. Driving in the fall you might not think anything is wrong as you see patches of the bright red shrub amidst your local woods, but a trained horticulturist will be quick to tell you otherwise. Organizations devoted to restoring natural ecosystems and habitats can no longer attempt to eradicate the problem and the plant populations that have run rampant; the best we can do now is to control the infestations as best we can. Some states have made great strides to make invasive plants illegal to buy or sell, but I am sorry to say you can still find burning bush for sale in New York State.

You can tell this is a topic I feel strongly about. Therefore you can imagine how my emotions flared when a woman called recently to ask about how she could get rid of a patch of gooseneck loosestrife in her garden in New Jersey. I explained the profuse seed production and the aggressive rhizomes and she knew the characteristics all too well. Year after year she dug up as much as she could, even resorted to Round-Up, an extremely strong chemical herbicide that should only be used as a last resort, and still she would find new growth every spring. I believe she said it is now the fifth year of her battle. I tried to find feeding insects that she might introduce to her garden that would target the gooseneck loosestrife, but to no avail. There are more heavy duty herbicides on the market, but in a condensed residential neighborhood I could not ethically recommend introducing them for fear that if wrongly applied they might leach into the ground water. After much research and many conversations it was frustrating that the best piece of advice I could give her was to not lose hope, to keep up the fight, and to reaffirm that she was doing everything right.

So, what lessons can we learn from these overwhelming tales? While conservation and native plant advocates fight for stricter policies regarding the growing and sale of invasives, (insert applause here), it is our duty to be the best educated consumers we can be. Gooseneck loosestrife, to the best of my knowledge, is still not considered invasive. I even found a few websites that listed it as an “ideal garden plant”. Obviously I beg to differ. The next time you see a plant at the nursery that you are new to, consider doing a little research before taking one home and planting it in your garden. If it is an introduced species from another country, even if it has been introduced for centuries, see if you can find out if it has any tendencies towards becoming invasive. In this regard a little internet or book research can be invaluable for the long run. Better yet, see if there is a native alternative that might work just as well in your landscape plan.

Monday, November 26, 2007

HSNY Movie Screening: Rivers and Tides

(photograph of Andy Goldsworthy from the film Rivers and Tides)

Come join us for a viewing of Rivers and Tides on Tuesday evening, November 27th, from 6:30 - 8:00pm at the HSNY Headquarters (details below). Directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer, Rivers and Tides is the 2001 documentary of Andy Goldsworthy, acclaimed installation artist and photographer. The film includes commentary by the artist as well as breathtaking footage of the process and product of his artistic endeavors, both in the States and abroad. You have likely seen Goldsworthy's coffee table books and impressive photography, but wait until you see how his work really comes to life in this insightful and inspiring documentary.

Movie Screening: Andy Goldsworthy’s Rivers and Tides
Tuesday, November 27, 2007, 6:30 – 8:00pm
Free for members, $5 suggested donation for nonmembers
The Horticultural Society of New York
148 West 37th Street
13th Floor
New York, NY 10018

Monday, November 19, 2007

Plant ID: Paphiopedilum sp.

This is a kind of Paphiopedilum, an orchid commonly known as a slipper orchid. As members of the largest flowering plant family on earth, Orchidaceae, there are slipper orchids indigenous to both the Old World and the New World. New World slipper orchids, those native solely to the Americas, are known by the genus Phragmipedium. Cypripediums are slipper orchids that have been found in the Americas as well as Europe and Asia. Paphiopedilums are considered Old World slipper orchids and are native from India across southern China to the Philippines and New Guinea. Within the genus Paphiopedilum there are terrestrial species, which grow in leaf litter on the forest floor, lithophytic species, which grow anchored on limestone cliffs, and epiphytic species, which grow on other plants. The one above that I bought and added to my collection is an epiphytic species. You can tell this by the free-draining yet moisture retentive mix of fir bark that the plant is grown in, meant to resemble the environment in which they would naturally grow, in the crook of a tree perched high up in the rainforest. Many orchids have pseudobulbs which are large bulbous growths that retain and store excess water and nutrients for times of drought. Paphiopedilums, however, do not form pseudobulbs and instead do all of their water and nutrient storage in their thick, fleshy leaves. You can see that the slipper orchid I bought has an attractive mottling to its leaves. Paphiopedilums have been found at every elevation from sea level to 7,000 feet above sea level and higher, and those found in lower, warmer situations tend to have this characteristic leaf pattern. Now, certain orchid growers will tell you that both the solid-green and mottle-leafed Paphs can be grown with equal success, but since this is my first of this genus, and our city apartments can get so overheated, I thought I'd stick with one that I felt might adapt better to the environment I can provide. That and the mottled leaves will continue to provide some visual interest even after the flower has passed. This beautiful slipper orchid will prefer night temperatures a good 10 or 15 degrees cooler than the day, so I have placed it near a window where I hope it might get a chance to cool off a little bit at night. We cannot always provide the ideal conditions for plants we choose to grow as houseplants so we simply have to do the best we can. Otherwise I will provide it with general orchid care: water once a week in winter and perhaps more often in the summer when the plant is more active; keep a tray of moist pebbles underneath the pot to provide some additional humidity in the immediate area around the orchid; and continue to grow it in an area of bright, indirect light with no direct sunlight for any length of time. I bought this plant a month ago and the initial flower is still holding up very well. Remember, if you want your orchid flowers to hold up, you must provide the plant with some extra added humidity. There is a second bloom on the flower spike, another reason I chose this specific specimen, and after a month that is just beginning to open. Lastly, there was one final reason I chose to buy a Paphiopedilum and I will share that with you as well. Orchids have a growth habit that is either monopodial, or sympodial. An example of a monopodial orchid is a Phalaenopsis, or a moth orchid, that typical white orchid you see everywhere. Upon examining the plant you will see that all of its new growth emerges out of one single growing point at the top of the plant. Orchids with sympodial growth habits, on the other hand, put out new growth from the base or the sides of preexisting foliage. Look again at the foliage picture above. See the main growth where the flower stalk is rising up, and then see the new leaves growing up and out to the left of that? Well, that new growth will eventually grow into a plant of its own with its own flower spike. If it gets large enough I hope that some day I may be able to sever it from the mother plant and continue to grow on its own. In general I like to buy and grow orchids with sympodial growth habits (Paphiopedilum, Oncidium, Cattleya, etc.) because even when the plant is not in flower there is typically enough new growth of foliage that the plant is still large and interesting enough as a houseplant.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Notes from Around Town: Ford Foundation Atrium

As fall and winter finally approaches, and as we adjust to our winter routine of spending less and less time outside, I wanted to share with you a special interior green space here in the city we can all enjoy. Below are pictures from the Ford Foundation Atrium, which is located between 42nd and 43rd Streets just west of First Avenue. Built from 1963-67, this interior garden space is one of the most popular green atriums here in New York City, and rightfully so. When you enter this green oasis you can't help be amazed by the tropical plants of all shapes and sizes that stand before you. As you follow the choreography of the pathways you find yourself eventually surrounded by these trees and shrubs, taking in the good air, and at peace thanks to the soft sound of the water feature in the center. The atrium is open to the public from 10-4 on business days and if you have never been, it is a visit that you should treat yourself to very soon. Even yesterday, on such a dreary day here in the city, my coworker and I couldn't help but feel inspired and energized after our trip through the atrium.
Different kinds of Ficus trees that have been there for years are now well established and reaching up 20+ feet into the vaulted ceiling that goes up the entire height of the building.
Below the larger trees the sloped beds are loaded with tropical shrubs like Schefflera arboricola with it's rounded palmately compound leaves, and groundcovers like Trandescantia with striking purple on the undersides of their silver-striped leaves, just to name a few. Variegated plants are incorporated too, like the arrowhead vine (Syngonium podophyllum) to provide additional texture to the planting beds on a year-round basis. With enough plants to maintain decent humidity in the atrium there were even a number of different ferns that I was thrilled to come across.
As we strolled through my coworker and I had to marvel at how brilliantly the atrium was laid out so that it was visible and enjoyable to all those in the offices up above. A man and woman were sitting on one of the paths having an afternoon debriefing and certainly we thought they had found the perfect setting for their little meeting.
In addition to all the levels and layers on the ground floor there is a mezzanine that had large trees and shrubs in it, as well as many hanging plants that cascade down to welcome you when you enter from 43rd Street.
And even though most of the plants in the atrium are tropical plants known for their foliage, I was able to find a few wonderful flowers to educate my colleague about. Above is a tropical shrub or tree botanically known as a Calliandra. Not surprisingly the common name of this tropical shrub is known as either powderpuff or flame bush. There were also camellias in bud and a few already putting out their multi-petaled winter blossoms. Down by the water feature in the center I found a gardenia that still had a number of their intensely fragrant flowers on it, and I tell you, I could stand there and smell the gardenias all day they are so amazing. So, next time you are over on the east side around 42nd or 43rd Street, treat yourself to a walk through the Ford Foundation Atrium. I am sure you will be pleasantly surprised. And lastly, as always, keep in touch with HSNY and become a member as I hope to lead a tour or two of the atrium, and perhaps others, in the upcoming months.

Plant ID: Gaultheria procumbens

Walking in the Flower District the other day preparing for an event I was impressed to find many vendors selling Gaultheria procumbens, commonly called checkerberry or wintergreen. Wintergreen is a North American native, and it is very important to try and incorporate as many native species into our gardens as possible. These plants are used to the climate here in the northeast and you do not have to fear them becoming invasive as some introduced species from other continents may become over time. Wintergreen is cold hardy in USDA Zones 4-8. It prefers full sun but can tolerate part shade. This plant does best in rich organic soil, so do not hesitate to incorporate a lot of compost when planting. As with many perennials, younger plants are more resilient and can often adapt more quickly to their new environment compared to much larger, older specimens. Last summer I was able to get to know wintergreen first-hand visiting and working in a number of gardens and sanctuaries up north in Massachusetts and in it's natural environment these plants perform best in a soil that is kept moist on a regular basis. Individual plants of Gaultheria procumbens will only get to about 6" tall, but over time they can spread up to 3' wide, so they make for a tremendous groundcover. Pale pink flowers in summer will produce these red, waxy berries that will persist through the winter. In addition the foliage will turn an attractive red in fall. As the name might suggest, this is the plant from which wintergreen oil is derived. It is the berries that are processed to make this essential oil that is used as a liniment for muscle and joint problems. Next time you see this plant, or better yet when you go to purchase one for your own garden, crush one of the leaves in your fingers and the scent I'm sure will raise your eyebrows and enlighten your senses.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Events This Week at HSNY

The following event will be held at The Horticultural Society of New York, 148 W. 37th Street, 13th Floor. To RSVP contact Fiona Luhrmann at 212 757-0915 ext.100 or

Fun with Fall Flowers: A demonstration class with Robb Moss
Thursday, November 15, 2007, 6:00 – 7:30pm
Free for HSNY members, $10 for nonmembers
Join Robb Moss, co-owner of the New York Studio of Floral Arts, for a demonstration class about fun fall arrangements you can make for the holidays. You will also learn more about how HSNY members will get ongoing discounts at Robb’s floral studio right in the heart of the Flower District.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Figs (continued)

(photographs of a Ficus carica in Astoria, Queens, pruned and tied and ready to be wrapped for the winter)

I have a question for you regarding a fig tree, about 5+ feet tall, planted this spring: When should it be pruned, now or in the spring? I believe here in Peekskill it should be wrapped with burlap in the winter, but when??

Regarding the fig, those are some excellent questions. I did post a blog entry about figs in late October and if you click on the link here you will find that. As far as wrapping you definitely do want to wrap the tree if you are up in Peekskill, and now is a good time to do that. As far as how to wrap it, that is a bit trickier and I admit to you I am still learning. I live in a mostly Greek part of Queens and what I saw last weekend really intrigued me.

Every winter I see that people have wrapped their figs so tightly that they appear extremely tall and narrow, like a tightly bound bundle only a foot or two in diameter but easily 8 or 10 feet tall. Luckily during my walk on Sunday I got a little more insight into the process. I came across a tree that had been pruned and tied, but not yet wrapped, so I could better understand the process of winterizing these warmer-climate-loving trees. The owner had cut each branch back very hard so there were only a few (2-3’) feet of growth coming from the main trunk of the tree. What he was left with was bare branches; the thin branches towards the tips of the tree with lots of foliage and even some fruit he simply chopped off and got rid of. Then he had taken each branch and slowly forced it so that it was held right against the trunk pointed upwards. Now, I was confused as to how he was able to bend all the branches without them cracking or breaking, but unfortunately the owner had gone inside and I missed my opportunity to ask him. With all the branches tied to the trunk with a ton of rope and twine, I assumed the next step was to wrap it in a tarp and leave it to rest through the winter. Before receiving this visual insight I always thought that you wanted to prune in the spring and not prune them heavily in the fall, but apparently I still have some things to learn about over-wintering figs in New York. Obviously there are still some questions to be answered and I hope during a walk home soon I can run into another neighbor wrapping their fig so I can clear up a few things. When I do I will definitely be in touch.

Iris (continued)

(photograph of Iris 'Cherokee Heritage' taken at NYBG late May, 2005)

Thank you for your prompt response, Alex. I grew up in Michigan. So know iris can grow in the cold. I will see if I can find out about cold hardiness. One more question. The way you describe planting them is exactly the way we would do it out here. What about the rhizomes
freezing when they're so shallow, particularly the first year? Do I mulch? And, if so, how much and with what?

I did a little more research and you are right, it doesn't seem like there is a question of whether the iris are cold hardiness enough. As far as the big rhizomatous iris (German bearded iris, etc.) I've found that they are quite durable even though they are right at the surface of the soil. Up at the New York Botanical Garden where I was a student and worker for two years they have a tremendous spread of bearded iris and I do not remember mulching them at all. They are in an area with a lot of gravel to provide maximum drainage and that is certainly important. I've done some research and what I've found seems to make sense. Do not mulch with leaves, woodchips, or anything equally organic that might hold too much moisture and promote rot. If your new home stays evenly cold through the winter and there is reliable snow cover then I do not think you have to mulch. If you fear that there might be a lot of freezing and thawing spells that might disrupt the iris then I would recommend laying down a single layer of evergreen boughs to provide a light, airy layer of protection. Obviously it would have been more ideal to get them transplanted with enough time to establish some roots in their new home before winter, but hey, some times we just do the best we can given the circumstances.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Moving Iris Corms Upstate?


We are planning a move to upstate NY, around Utica. I am bringing some iris corms from Oregon and am wondering how to take care of them and grow them in NY's climate. Any ideas? resources? Thank you.

Thanks for writing. Since you are moving from Oregon, where the climate is milder for the most part, it might be worth double-checking that your corms are going to be cold hardy to zone 5 or even colder, zone 4. If you know the species of iris you are bringing I would imagine most references will be able to tell you their cold hardiness. That being said, I would simply get them in the ground when you get here. As long as you can pierce the ground I would plant your corms about 4" down in a spot with ample sun and soil that is well draining. If you are dealing with larger bearded iris then those rhizomes need to be planted much shallower, with the top 1/3 or 1/2 of the rhizome above ground. Again, it might be worth checking the cold hardiness first. Either way, planted in the fall your iris should be able to establish enough of a root system to perform well for you next summer. As far as references to use, the American Horticultural Society puts out a number of books through DK publishing that I consider excellent reference books across the boards. They are even getting more specific with regional books and they do have one specifically on the northeast. Otherwise, when you get here ask you local garden center what books they use as references. Regarding the internet I like a website called and can easily spend days reading about everyone's experiences, successes, etc.

In related news, I will be teaching an informal demonstration class on planting bulbs in containers tonight at the HSNY headquarters from 6-7:30. I will be discussing planting bulbs both indoors and out and there will be a little hands-on demontration towards the end. This program is free for HSNY members and $10 for nonmembers.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Alternative to Dwarf Alberta Spruce in Containers

I recently ran into a friend who had a good question about evergreen plants for containers. Outside of where she works in Brooklyn, a small retail shop, they have two large pots that are about 16" or 18" inches in diameter. She described the small trees planted in them at present and I was able to assess that they were dwarf Alberta spruce, Picea glauca 'Conica'. Dwarf Alberta spruce are slow-growing, short-needles evergreens that grow in a very conical habit and are quite popular for use in containers. If you see one in passing you might say it looks like a perfectly miniature Christmas tree. Liz was concerned because they were developing many brown patches and beginning to look pretty rough. She was wondering how she might fix the situation and if the trees will bounce back. I asked about sunlight to the area where the pots are situated and Liz said that there is partial sun and definitely some shade. Spruces of different shapes and sizes are attractive evergreens because of their sturdy needles, dense growth habit, and slow rate of growth. The photo below is a small containerized spruce (not a dwarf Alberta) that I saw in the Flower District on 28th Street.
The catch with spruce is that they need to be grown in a full sun application to do best. By this I mean they need at least 4-6 hours, if not more, of direct sun daily. If they are in too much shade, they begin to thin themselves out from the bottom up so that they can have the most efficient amount of needles working for the relative sunlight they receive. Unfortunately most coniferous trees, such as spruce, do not rejuvenate and put out new growth from their lower branches like herbaceous or broadleaf evergreens might. Therefore I recommended to Liz that the trees be pulled out of the containers and planted somewhere where they will get more direct sunlight. She had an idea as to where they could go and said she would move them. I recommended that she prune out the dead branches, that they would most likely not produce needles again, and hope that over time as the remaining branches grow and spread that they might fill in the holes that are presently there. However, Liz then had one last question. What can I plant in the containers that will do better?

A reliable option, and a selection of plants typically easy to find in the city, various hollies (Ilex) are excellent plants to use in containers with part shade. This is a containerized Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) I found while down on 28th Street that I think might be a good option.

It will grow a few inches a year and will keep that overall shape that is rather conical. Eventually it will want to be replanted to a garden, but for a few years it would hold up in an adequate sized pot with ample drainage. If you wanted an even slower grower, you might also consider boxwood (Buxus sp.).
Boxwood and Japanese holly may look alike, but there is one way of telling the two apart. Take a close look at the small rounded leaves produced by each broadleaf evergreen shrub. If you touch the margin, or edge, of the Japanese holly leaf you will feel a very slight serration, while the margin of the boxwood leaf is always completely smooth. Boxwood are slower growers compared to most hollies but it will do just as well in a container in part sun or shade. In either case you could plant these shrubs in the pots out front of your work for some instant structure and then plant annuals or vines around the edge for an extra added shot of color.

There are other options as well and we can discuss those further. There are larger leafed hollies that hold up well in containers in the city, but eventually they will get large and need to be planted in the ground.
Variegated plants, with two-tone leaves, are attractive because they provide different color and texture within one plant, but it is helpful to know that variegated plants often require more sun. If you think about it, the white, or light parts of the leaves do not have as much chlorophyll in them as an all-green leaf might, so they often need more sun to efficiently photosynthesize and grow. Grasses can be great too, especially for their potential fall color, and again, I am more than happy to discuss some of those options as well. Best of Luck.

Daisies Growing Out of a Succulent?

(This is a photograph I took of a Delosperma species growing amidst various Sedum and other succulents in a green wall application in Williamsburg, Brooklyn)

I have a plant on my terrace, looks sort of like an artichoke. For the first time since I've had this plant, it budded out and from the bud was born a perfectly beautiful daisy?
The other parts of this plant have sprouted their daisies as well and I would like to know what this kinds of succulent brings forth daisies?

Believe it or not, a succulent that has a showy, daisy-like flower is not that unheard of at all. Because they are used to growing in challenging environments, such as arid and exposed deserts, it makes sense from a survival standpoint that cacti and succulents are very compact, often drought tolerant, and otherwise durable plants in the landscape. What people may not automatically think about is that because their natural environment may lack an over abundance of pollinators, cacti and succulents typically have very bright and showy flowers to be able to attract their respective pollinators from great distances. One such example is a plant botanically known as Delosperma, or ice plants as some refer to them. Delosperma are succulents that do most of their nutrient storage and water retention in their large fleshy leaves and they appear very much like your typical succulent. Once established the plants do flower and their blooms are wonderfully showy daisy-like flowers that can range from pink to purple. Now, I am not sure if the plant that you have written me about is definitely a Delosperma, but if you are able to email me a picture of it, please do and hopefully we can identify it to a more specific genus and/or species.

Growing Figs in Brooklyn?

Every week i see beautiful fig plants at the green market, and am tempted to plant several in my back yard (in Brooklyn). I know they are not really frost tolerant, and remember reading Joan Dye Gussow describing how she wraps hers in burlap every autumn (but she lives on the banks of the Hudson). I also remember some figs in the back yard of a house here in my neighborhood, which i was told had been planted MANY years ago from plants or cuttings brought over from Italy. the garden had been neglected for years, but the figs had flourished, without bundling up, i assume. So, what do you think about figs in WIlliamsburg? i have a small stone patio, which will hold some heat. Can you recommend any other edible perennials for the urban gardener? I was thinking about fruit trees, but wouldn't be able to, or want to, spray...
also, a totally separate question.

I've been reading about the decline of common songbirds in this country, and wonder what I could plant to feed/shelter the birds. I have some big weeds that grow clusters of dark purple berries that the birds seem to dig, but the plants aren't that nice. I'd rather choose a perennial/shrub/tree than keep working around the big weeds.

Your question about the fig is an excellent one. The common fig is botanically known as Ficus carica. This shrub or small tree is native to western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean region and has been cultivated for thousands of years. A number of references describe the fig as only being hardy to zone 8 or warmer, which makes it an unlikely candidate for our colder 6b or 7a conditions here in the city. However, that being said, in my neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, where there is a substantial Mediterranean population, there are figs being grown everywhere!

I would say that you should definitely try and grow one in your backyard in Williamsburg. Well, I should add that planted in the ground I think they might do fine, but in containers I would not recommend figs because their roots will freeze through and really suffer. Figs grown in the city benefit from a sheltered sunny location in a backyard or protected community garden. They thrive on long warm summers in full sun and a dry atmosphere, so for the most part our city summers are perfect for them. In the winter you will need to wrap it, and a couple layers of burlap or a breathable tarp over the entire tree is necessary. In Queens I even see people wrap them in those standard blue all-purpose tarps, which I fear will suffocate the winterized tree, but every spring I am amazed at how the trees come back and leaf out bigger and better than before. Not to mention the fruits do turn out to be delicious. Now, it is possible that some of those trees in my neighborhood have been there for many years and originated as cuttings from overseas, but I would say that if you can find a small specimen then you should have a good chance of success as well. As a general rule of thumb for all trees, they are most resilient in their youth and slowly become less-so as they mature. Therefore, you should be able to plant and care for a small tree and it should be able to adapt to your environment well enough that it will be around for years of enjoyment.

As for the other question about the birds, there are plenty of shrubs that produce edible fruit that songbirds will love. The plant with berries that you are describing is most likely a weed called pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana) and it can certainly become a late summer nuisance. Shrubs that you might consider to plant for the birds would include blueberry (Vaccinium), serviceberry (Amelanchier), dogwood (Cornus), snowberry (Symphoricarpos), blackberry and/or raspberry (Rubus), and many many more. If you are thinking more in terms of trees then there are plenty of apples (Malus) and cherries (Prunus) you might consider. Here in our library we have a great book called Bird Gardens, a 21st-Century Gardening Series publication by Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and it would be a perfect book to give you plant suggestions based on your garden's orientation and exposure.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

How to Care for a Bromeliad?

(Neoregelia is a member of the Bromeliaceae family that we grow here at HSNY Headquarters)

I have a Bromelia plant and would like any care instructions you could provide. Do I water it at the top of the leaves and let it funnel down as I have been told. The water seems to accumulate and I fear will rot the leaves. How close to the leaves should the dirt go? It does not get direct sunlight is that okay? The flower fell off, will it grow another?

Bromelias and other members of the Bromeliaceae family, collectively called bromeliads, can be pretty easy to care for. As you know, the leaves emerge from a central rosette and create a bit of a cup. It is true that you want to water your bromeliad by pouring water into that cup. In their natural habitat, bromeliads grow at elevations up to 6,000 feet and are either epiphytic (meaning they grow on other plants) or they are terrestrial (meaning they grow in the ground). For this reason, they take in the majority of their water through the “cup” which serves as a water reservoir. During the summer months when the plant is most active you will see that the center will dry out and will need to be refilled frequently. You always want to keep some water in the cup, but during the winter months when the plant is less active you will realize it does not take it up nearly as quickly. Do not worry about rotting the leaves, they are tough. As for the mix it is potted in, you can water that occasionally as well, maybe once a week or so. The mix is more to anchor the plant in place, but if saturated, that can rot the base of the plant and you want to avoid that. Bromeliads love humidity so you may choose to have a layer of stones in your saucer so that excess water can evaporate immediately around the plant without the plant actually sitting in water. As far as the soil level, in some cases the potting mix is right up to where the plant flares out, in other cases there might be a little more of a stalk. This can vary as long as the plant is properly anchored in place and the mix drains freely. If it does not get direct sunlight, at least provide it with as much bright light as you can. I do not recommend bromeliads for shady situations. Finally, regarding the flower, you are going to continue to grow your bromeliad and you are going to watch out for a new growth from the base. A new side-shoot should eventually emerge, and grow into a tall plant of its own. Eventually this side-shoot, called a “pup” will grow to be large enough that it will produce another flower.