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.