Saturday, August 16, 2014

Public/Private Gardens

 A few weeks ago I visited a community garden on 111th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.  It had been lovingly tended for a number of years by two women, Margaret Doyle and Julia Gabriel, who would garden two or three times a week.  In 2011 Julia died of a stroke and Margaret has since spent a good part of each summer away.   The garden was renamed the Julia Gabriel Community Garden in her memory, but is now largely neglected and ignored.  On the day of my visit, the garden was unlocked and empty, while across the street at St. John the Divine visitors were enjoying a bit of sun.  There is nothing to encourage the visitor to cross the street and sit in Julia’s shade.  No color catches the eye.  The garden is dry and dusty.  Its two devoted gardeners have moved on and there are no heirs.

Julia Gabriel Community Garden

This is not a singular problem.  A 2012 article in the New York Times by Michael Tortorello called attention to the dwindling supply of volunteer gardeners, despite an increase of interest in food gardens.  Neighborhood demographics are changing, gentrification may produce more or less interest, and the first generation of community gardeners is dying out.  This varies across the city, for reasons not well understood.

In some cities, and in all European countries, allotments are more prevalent than community gardens. In contrast to a community garden, an allotment is a small plot of land made available to an individual or a family.  Large plots of land owned by a municipality or another entity are divided up into smaller parcels that are then assigned. There is usually an association overseeing the operation to which gardeners apply for a plot, pay a small fee, and adhere to the rules of the association.  How the plot is used is in the hands of the gardener, but must be reserved for only personal use. 

A community garden, on the other hand, is a single plot of varying size gardened collectively by a group people.  Although the gardens are seen as engines of community engagement, they are owned by a municipality and governed by the municipality’s terms of access and management.
Southwest Corridor Park

Boston is the rare city combining community gardens, parks and allotments in a single stretch -- the Southwest Corridor Park, a narrow, 90 acre ribbon of public open space.  A proposed highway project was successfully blocked by community resistance, rail lines buried underground, and in its place a five-mile stretch of tot lots, playgrounds, flower beds, open green spaces, athletic courts and 150 community gardens and allotments was established.

Many South Enders came from gardening and farming cultures in other countries.  Moving along the corridor you will find Italian plots with fig trees, French potagers alongside Asian gardeners growing vegetables vertically on posts climbing to spread horizontally along overhead lattice.

Boston also has allotments carried over from World War II, the Richard Parker Memorial Victory Gardens.  The once-abandoned gardens are now divided into 450 individual plots, used as the gardener chooses. Individual allotments are fenced and gated, but the larger area is open and anyone can stroll down the pathways at any time of day and peer over the fences.  The Parker Gardens are on publicly owned land and the city supplies only water; everything else is provided by the gardeners and their association.
A Parker Garden's Plot

In New York City, Roosevelt Island works on an allotment system, managed by the Garden Club.  The design gives each gardener 210 square feet, laid out in trapezoidal patterns so that no two gardens are alike.  You sign up, get on a waiting list, and hope for the best.  No one seems to give them up, and you usually have to wait until someone moves or dies. 
A Roosevelt Island Pathway

One gardener is a dedicated pond-builder.  One of the earliest gardeners, he has made extensive use of the debris from the various excavations and construction sites on the Island.  Large slabs of stone from the wreckage of the insane asylum and concrete sections of old foundations –- all carried by hand-drawn cart -- have been transformed into garden sculptures and stockpiled for bleacher-like seats at his ponds. 

The Roosevelt Island gardens are as distinctive as the gardeners who inhabit the space.  Some are meticulous, some are untidy, others are wild.  Some are devoted to vegetable crops, while some are just places to sit and enjoy other people’s gardens.

A Roosevelt Island Plot

The Garden Club provides a clubhouse of sorts in a storage shed.  Community rakes, shovels and hoes are stored in bins available to all.  A limited number of lockers allow gardeners to keep tools close by.  Twice a year the Club brings in soil and provides wheelbarrows for transporting.

In both the Boston and Roosevelt Island examples, city engagement is minimal. Could a version of these large-scale community garden projects, individually rather than bureaucratically driven, engage the general public in maintaining neighborhood parks?  Does the accessibility of the larger area, and the knowledge that these plots are available to all, perhaps encourage individuals more than the collective approach of the community gardens with their own built-in local politics?

What is it that gives these gardens so much more vitality than the average neighborhood park?  Are they affected by the demographics of the neighborhood?  By the cultural values of the times?  Should there be a Jeffersonian principal of home ownership applied to apartment dwellers and renters?  Here is your plot, use it as you wish?  If volunteers in public parks only get to do what is assigned to them, what would happen if that paradigm changed?  Anarchy or a robust landscape?

All the above is only the barest outline of what is actually happening on the ground.  In the coming weeks Emily Walker, Outreach Coordinator for New Yorkers for Parks, will be a guest contributor writing about what it takes to make a successful community garden, and the subtle shift towards allotments in schoolyards and individual plots in public housing.

Monday, August 4, 2014

August Notes

It was not hard to say goodbye to July.  It was a punishing month, with brief, vicious storms almost every day.  Hail ripped the broad-leaved perennials to shreds.  My giant hostas, for which I held high hopes, are tattered.  I could spend August experimenting with cutting them back, feeding heavily and enjoying new growth, but I fear that will set them back for next year. 

The solution for the moment is to do nothing and think about how to minimize the damage in future years. If you are seduced by the largest of the hostas, it may be wise to plant them alongside smaller leaved plants so that any damage will not be too visible. They would do well with other shade lovers --hydrangea, fern, hellebore, epimedium, heuchera.

Mixed Shade Planting

On the positive side, August is the peak month for garden lilies.  Now is the time to select yours for fall planting.  John Scheepers and Van Engelen bulb catalogs have probably arrived on your doorstep by now, so be sure to work your way to the back of the catalogs, past the daffodils and tulips, to the lilies and make your selection.

There are relatively few chores to tend to in August.  Be sure to replenish mulch; it will decompose in the heat of August.  Finish pruning spring-flowering deciduous shrubs. This is the last call to start perennials and biennials from seed. Garden sales start up in August.  Take advantage of them; container-grown plants will continue to drop in price. Butterflybush (Buddleia) disappeared from almost all gardens this past winter, and the nurseries ran out of stock early.  You will probably feel shortchanged in butterflies this August, unless your beebalm (Monarda) survived.

Buddleia and Friends

Among the brightest spots in the August garden are the Big Yellows.  It’s not uncommon to see Cup plant (Silhpium perforliatum) towering over the top of a roadside fence.  A native of tall prairie grass, it is quite common in the Midwest.  It’s one of the few plants that thrive in the hot, humid summers of the prairie states, and so it seems quite at home here.  The yellow daisy-like flowers are two to three inches in diameter and bloom at the top of the stalks.  They hold their bloom for weeks.  It is rarely seen in the garden, although its dark green foliage would make an excellent backdrop for other perennials.  The plants are tall and wide enough to block an unsightly view, enhance a shed, or simply fill up a large empty space. It is reported to perform best if given full sun and sufficient moisture, but we have seen it in dry clay soils, where it seems to be just fine. 
Cup Plant in an Open Field

The Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) is a more manageable late-summer yellow bloomer.  Growing to a mere five feet, it has a full, airy character, and is not nearly as tall as the Cup plant.  The flowers appear as sprays across the surface of the plant, with yellow rays and brown centers.  It starts to bloom mid-summer and continues into the fall.  The literature on species and varieties is somewhat murky, and it seems to be classified as a biennial, although it performs as a perennial for us. The form is lovely, light and full without being dense, and more graceful than the Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).  It doesn’t block a view or stop the eye; it encourages you to draw closer.

Brown-eyed Susan

Ligularia stenocephala ‘The Rocket’ will do the same for you in the shade that Brown–eyed Susan and Cup plant will do in the sun. Almost four feet tall and as wide, it sends up tall yellow spires that make a strong counterpoint to its shade-loving companions, invariably hosta and ferns.  Ligularia can be a little difficult to locate correctly in the garden, as they need moist soil and shade for the foliage, but enough sun to produce their spectacularly tall blooms.  Too much sun, and the foliage will wilt during the day.     


A native of Japan, Houttuynia deserves to be tried more widely in American gardens.  It’s very showy; mounds of tiny yellow-green blooms are carried above white petal-like bracts. A rapidly spreading, potentially invasive perennial, its heart shaped leaves and unusual flowers make it a worthy risk.  For the strong of heart, it can be partnered with Gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides),  another beauty hard to control.  This loosestrife requires space, and will win out over any competition.  It will take over your garden if you turn your back on it.   
Gooseneck loosetrife

For next August, think about more white flowers.  Shorter days will bring an earlier twilight and a particular luminosity to white flowers in the garden.  Think about Nicotiana and White phlox for next year.  Perhaps a white Rose of Sharon at the edge of the lawn.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

You Can't Go Home Again

Six years ago this week I left the woods at Altamont House in High Rock Park on Staten Island.  They say a garden dies with its gardener, but in some cases all you have to do is move away.  It’s probably the same with a house you have loved and left behind.  The new owner invites you over to see what she has done, and when the visit is over you wish you had never gone.

I returned to Altamont House recently, only to find that four years of hard work had disappeared, eaten up by the return of the forest and benign neglect.  I wish I could show you the difference, but all I have is pictures of the work as finished in 2006.  The few taken recently show nothing but dense green forest, underbrush and debris.

The Backdoor Garden - 2006

The Backdoor Garden - Today

When I arrived, I was to be the new caretaker of this 1910 house, brown shingle and yellow trim, empty and waiting.  The plan was to fashion it as a revenue-producing source for the park.  My job was to plan, oversee and help support the restoration of the house and the landscape. This was in August 2002, and I had a day job in lower Manhattan, a few short blocks from the Staten Island Ferry.  A logical, easy commute.

What I found was a site that had once been farmland carved out of a forest, and was now scrubby woods.  The land that was cleared to build the house was now covered in weeds.  A gravel courtyard had all but disappeared.  The old skating pond alongside the house had become a bog choked with waterwillow and buttonbush.  Fallen branches and dead trees littered the landscape

I wanted to make a garden, but or most of the first year I sat on the back steps, waiting for the site to speak to me and tell me what to do.   When we finally got to work, all we did was clear.  English ivy and giant spruces blocking all views and light were removed, and widespread Devil’s walkingstick and poison ivy cleared.

Looking Towards the Path to Boyle St. 

We opened up the footpath from Boyle Street to the house and planted Amelanchiers, underplanted with astilbe, turk’s cap lilies, ferns and tiarella.  All that is left are the Amelanchiers.  But I’m sure that if you walk in the neighboring woods in early spring you’ll still see Canada mayflower poking through a winter blanket of oak leaves.  And if you walk down the road to Altamont Street at around the same time, you’ll still find stands of marsh marigold in the damp areas.  Our daffodils were glorious and are probably still there, if you know where to look.  We planted hundreds of them up the hill from the Boyle Street footpath, just below the neighboring inland lighthouse.

We did pretty well on the shady side of the house.  We lined a six-foot wide path to a bog with a few Catawba rhododendron, highbush blueberry, hostas, bleeding heart, wood violets, columbines, lacecap hydrangea  and Jacobs’ ladder, all flanking an old mountain laurel and an equally venerable snow azalea. The path to the bog, beautifully edged with intertwined whip-thin branches, and all the plants, have disappeared completely.

Bog Path With Edging

We left behind our first steps in restoring a rock garden dating from the 1920s. We excavated the levels, but had not yet planted.  It faced what was once an orchard, but had now with the encroaching residential development become a second bog.  It was a very pond-like bog, and we thinned the edge to provide glimpses into its depths from the shoreline. The collapse of two large oaks opened up a path to the bog, and the following year we planted Ironwood and American Cranberrybush, all now devoured by the returning forest.

The Second Bog

All that remains on the site are the trees we planted and the mature shrubs that were there when I arrived in 2002 – a Japanese maple, an ancient pieris, an old mountain laurel, a large white azalea.

I expect that turtles still nest in the driveway, and that every spring Peepers call out to each other through the night.  I’m sure birds still visit; when the bogs were full there were ibis and egrets, a Great Blue Heron, and a family of mallards in permanent residence.

To leave a garden behind is to lose it, but Altamont House gave me more than I gave back.  I had been without a garden for 25 years, and I had never lived alone in the woods.  Without Altamont House I would not have become a garden columnist for the Staten Island Advance, writing first Woodland Diary and then The Weekend Gardener.  And perhaps I would not have gone on to other gardens.

Those years changed my life, as houses and gardens tend to do if you let them.  Occasionally, I dream about Altamont House.  In the dream I am sitting on the steps, still waiting for the landscape to speak to me and tell me what to do.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Return of the Lawn

There is nothing quite as calming as a long, cool and green lawn.  In my dreams I see protective borders, portable chairs and tables, arbors and croquet sets, a writer’s hut at bottom of the garden -- all very Virginia Woolf.  Then I wake up, plagued with the larger question. 

Is it wise to plan an ambitious garden for a property I don’t own?  Why not? What is ownership anyway?  A capitalist construct at best, I tell myself.  My charming landlady, H.S., will of course have to agree to a plan, but I will make a strenuous argument about improving her property and, furthermore, she can come and stay whenever she likes.

The Lawn at Bellefield

I don’t know anyone other than myself crying for more grass and a larger lawn area.  The thinking seems to be in the other direction, removing as much grass a possible.  Most gardens are developed by the occupant with this in mind: eliminating grass and then planting bed by bed, pocket by pocket, as the mood strikes. 

Instead, you can turn to a garden pro to help you out, but that can be disappointing if you are new to the site.  The most successful merger of occupant and pro occurs when the occupant has sat in her garden for a year or more, observing and making note of the shifting light patterns, base conditions, and habits of use.  It’s also a good idea to look at what other people in the neighborhood are planting, to see what works.

After a year of this, my thinking has grown stale, and I’ve turned the backyard over to Gail Wittwer-Laird.  You might remember her from the August 30, 2011 post “Growing for the Table.”  To help her get started, I asked the Village for a block and lot plan, but it did not locate the house on the site correctly.  Nor did it locate the aging cesspool, a discovery that fortunately came early enough to avoid problems. 

Gail Wittwer-Laird & Maxwell

Gail began by measuring, photographing, and laying out a plot plan with the major features correctly located.  While I tinkered with the side border shared with my neighbor, Gail was charged with coming up with a simple, elegant plan for the back. 

I currently use three different areas for sitting.  The first is a sunny spot on the western property line.  The second is at the rear of the property, in front of a recovered bed, now in its second season. The third is under maples on the eastern property line, where a children’s worktable is set up for August visits, and where I can escape the cascade of falling black walnuts.  The most important sitting area – off the kitchen, does not yet exist.  It is presently a doormat of small concrete slabs, wet with run-off from the roofline.  The entire backyard is enclosed with a 5’ tall hogwire fence, a surprisingly elegant solution to corralling dogs and small children, while eliminating grazing deer. 

The Blank Backyard at Livingston Street

If a lawn is to invite you to linger, it has to be intimate, to have a sense of enclosure.  Unless you are blessed with a river or a lake you will have to build your enclosures – buildings, walls, shrub borders.  On Livingston Street, most properties are uniform – long rectangular plots, the house close to the street, perhaps a barn, shed or garage at the end of the driveway or tucked in the rear.  We have none of the above; instead there is a gated and fenced portion of the driveway for tools, trash, etc.  No beauty here. 

Happily, there are only a few rules to remember about lawns:
  1. Locate the septic system before you put a shovel in the ground.
  2. Think about your lawn as a green garden.  No matter the dandelions and oddly appearing groundcovers, just mow them as you would grass.
  3. All gardens should provide privacy and bit of seclusion.  Your green garden is no different.  Start at the boundary lines and work inwards.  Borders should be generously deep.  If there are views worth capturing on neighboring property, leave openings to capture them.
  4. Plan your seating areas carefully.  Here on Livingston Street most of the shade trees are black walnuts with a few maples on the eastern property line.  By the fall of my first year here, I learned my favorite seating areas were in war zones and I was hammered by falling walnuts.  I moved to the maples, where I safely spent the cooler months. 

At the moment, just to have something to grow, I’ve planted out the existing oval bed at the rear with hosta, fern, astilbe, hellebore and hydrangea.  The front door garden is in its second year and with a few changes has settled in happily.  This spring we’ve added the companion border to our neighbor, doubling the size.  Respecting the established color palette, we’ve stayed with her blues and pinks, and added several whites.  We’re gambling on a predominately phlox border, ordering older varieties from Perennial Pleasures in Northeast Vermont, and filling in with newer varieties from local nurseries.  We’ve tucked in a few meadow rue for stature and left spaces for peonies.   

From The Front Door

The “We” has changed.  Natalka is concentrating most of her work on the other side of the river, but stops by for an occasional tweaking.  Benito has taken over the heavy work, coming by on Saturday mornings for a few hours.  The beds have been heavily dug, prepared with a beautiful edge, extensively weeded and heavily mulched.  I’m hoping the maintenance has now been reduced to watering, deadheading and staking, which are all manageable tasks for me.

The overall plan is almost complete, and I will share it with you when it is finished, that is if it earns a seal of approval from H.S.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

An Artist Paints With Flowers

Gardeners run the full gamut of aesthetic inclinations, no subset more so than artists.  Monet gardened to paint, Jim Sullivan gardens in stone, Robert Dash gardens with painted doors and gates, Sarah Draney deploys rustic salvage and found objects. Only Linda Stillman grows flowers for their pigments alone. 

Linda Stillman With Flowers
I first saw her work at The Gallery at R&F in Kingston, housed within the factory producing R&F Handmade Paints.  I’ve seen endless photographs of flowers, and paintings of flowers, but I had never seen actual flower pigments used in the making of art.  Her interest in the direct use of pigments evolved from an early land installation, August Garden, a planting of annuals laid out in the form of a calendar for the month of August.  The garden was photographed daily from above and the passage of time documented by observations and drawings. The exhibition then moved on to a series of works on paper using colors derived directly from the flowers onto the paper.

Choosing Pigments 
Linda was not always focused on the ephemeral.  “1998 was the official start of my switching careers from commercial to fine art,” Linda says.“  I had been trained as a commercial artist and worked as a graphic designer and an art director.  At 50 I shifted gears, and earned an MFA in the Visual Arts from the Vermont College of College of Fine Arts in Montpelier.” 

From the beginning her work was centered on space, time and memory.  As she became more deeply involved in her art she worried about how she would find time to garden.  “That’s when I decided to plant for the August Garden land installation.  I converted my old vegetable garden into a planting of annuals in the form of a calendar for the month of August.”  She photographed the garden at various stages of growth, and then transformed her observation into art, abstracting the essence by creating the rubbings from the very plant materials she had been growing.

From there she moved away from the representational calendar and on to greater abstraction, using the petals from flowers and rubbing their pigment directly into paper.  Only freshly cut flowers would do; dried flowers would not produce the effect she is after.  The main concern in her art is how to remember.  “I select the flowers and rub the colors directly onto the paper as a way of remembering. Traces of plant matter often remain.”

A Typical Harvest Ready for Work  
I visited Linda in her beautiful garden and studio in a rural town in  Columbia County, NY.  She works out of a serene studio in one of pair of handsome barns.  There is a strong sense of calm; it’s hard to imagine interruptions. 

The flower drawings are only a small part of her concentration on ephemera, on the intersection of time, memory and nature.  She executes small sky paintings as seen from her the studio, from the same window in exactly the same spot, every day of the year.  “The idea, she says, “was to capture something ordinary and make art out of it.”  In 2008-9 she exhibited skylines by month at the Arts Club of Chicago

Studio View for Sky Paintings 
During a recent residency at Wave Hill, Linda made drawings using flower and plant specimen, and continued her Sky series by executing a small painting every day, but from a new location.  Her aesthetic is simple and austere; daily paintings are important if you are to capture time and memory.

Her garden is anything but austere, but it is composed with a painterly eye.  The vegetable garden is robust and immaculately organized.  The rows are meticulously maintained.  The flowers are clear and vivid, as is her body of work using plants.

Vegetable Garden
Everything grown can be utilized in a work of art, but there are problems still to be solved.  What is the life span of a pigment derived directly from plant materials?  Are fixatives necessary?  Will they change the character of the finished work?  Or is the whole point that the work is as ephemeral as the flowers themselves, and perhaps that is just as it should be.

A Flower-Stain Technique Demonstration