Monday, September 3, 2012

The Roses of West End Avenue

There are few gardening conditions more dispiriting than the scrap of earth that lies between a New York City building façade and the sidewalk.  Passersby toss in candy wrappers.  Local Laws 10 and 11 mandate scaffolding to inspect and repair stone work which can take a few weeks, a few months, or what feels like forever. Nonetheless, a few building owners officially take on the task of managing these strips, and in some cases a sole volunteer will make a small paradise out of an unpromising plot.

365 West End Avenue in June
Carol Morton is one of these intrepid gardeners.  365 West End Avenue is a grand old rental building where tenants who stayed put still meander through what seems like vast spaces to anyone looking for an apartment today.  The garden, however, was not a joy; on either side of the front entrance ubiquitous yews wrapped in dusty ivy were left to fend for themselves.  The mandated scaffolding, supposedly erected only every five years, has occurred at 365  three times in eight years.  Each time it blocks light and air, causing plants to struggle.

'Sombreuil' with Clematis
Carol planted impatiens for starters, and removed the old plants one at a time.  The owners of the building, the Mehlon family, were skeptical at first, but have become enthusiastic supporters.  “They love the garden now,” Carol reports.  

In the early years nobody helped, which was fine with Carol.  A quintessential West Sider, she says ”I don’t want anyone else’s opinion.  I’ll make my own mistakes.”

 I don’t know what those mistakes might have been at the beginning, but there don’t seem to be any now.  Carol specializes in roses, if specialization is a reflection of passion and knowledge.  She selects roses only a daring gardener would risk; eye-stopping orange and purple, leavened with yellow and white.  “I want only the greatest roses,” Carol says.  She selects from the ratings of the American Rose Society, the official arbiter of commercially available roses, and purchases new ones only if there has been a fatality.  All her roses are versatile, adaptable, continuously blooming, and disease and pest free.

Carol’s inspiration has been her cousin Richard Katz’s roof garden in Brooklyn.  It was his roses that convinced her to try them on West End Avenue, and now she is returning the favor.  “I gave Richard ‘Dortmund,’ a climbing red pillar rose he planted at ground level.  It is enormous, covering the entire gate to the garage.”

Now to the roses: starting at 365’s southern corner, ‘Sombreuil,’ popular since 1850, has flat, creamy, very large white flowers, is mildew-free and ideal for training on walls.  It blooms vigorously in June then again in unexpected, unpredictable flushes throughout the season.

Next in line is ‘Westerland,’ a beautiful apricot-orange rose with big, three-inch orange flowers, semi-double and wonderfully fragrant.  It pales once the street trees leaf out, and it loses some of its orange cast.

‘Sally Holmes’ follows up the line northward.  The individual flowers are modest, but the cumulative massing on a plant is memorable.  Close up, the flattened form changes color with the season: white in early spring, apricot in later spring and early summer, and rosy pink with the cooler nights of fall.

The startling ‘Night Owl’ is next, sporting dark, reddish-purple blooms with prominent yellow stamens.  “I am not pleased with it;” Carol complains, “there is not enough light for it to flourish.”  She has only herself to blame.  When new street trees were planted Carol, a good New Yorker, took on the watering task.  The trees flourished, and now the roses that used to be in full sun are shaded most of the day.  Some gardeners are architects of their own demise.
Night Owl
Carol’s season doesn’t end with the fading of the roses.  In the summer the garden glows with the double white flowers of Rose of Sharon, which climb to the second floor.  Hydrangea ‘Endless Summer’ accompanies summer phlox.  “I’m crazy about tuberous begonias, and I planted eight this year.“

Spring Columbine at Ground Level
Like most generously spirited New Yorkers, Carol has a demanding day job; she manages money for individuals.  “I work in the garden on weekends, about three hours a day, and the building staff waters. Carol has been doing this now for ten or more years, and there are no hard and fast rules. “Gardens are very idiosyncratic,” Carol observes. “In this building heat leaches from the limestone façade and creates a microclimate that encourages even Cannas to winter over.”

As if the frequent scaffolding and the robust street trees were not trouble enough, passersby allow their dogs to pee in the garden, attracted by the Please Curb Your Dog signs. “If dog pee smells so good,” Carol reasons, “why don’t they let them pee in the house?”

Carol Morton in the Garden
However, there are many more appreciative passersby than abusers.  Recently, one woman walking with her ailing son said “ I can’t tell  you how much this means to us. We just can’t get to the park anymore.”

The roses alone are worth a visit in June.  If you are in the neighborhood, stop by, take a look, and please leave a thank you note.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

An Editor Edits Her Garden

A chance encounter on an Amtrak train led me to a small village and Carrie Tuhy’s enchanted cottage and garden.  The conversation was of nothing more consequential than the proximity of rail service from Manhattan to the Hudson River Valley, where Carrie spends whatever time she can carve out away from the city. “Do you think it’s possible,” I asked, “to find a modest house in a small village on a street with sidewalks and neighbors?”  “I just did that,” she replied,“ and invited me to tea that afternoon.

Carrie is a former magazine editor (Real Simple, Instyle) who is now the co-founder of Second Lives Club, a blog for women who are jumpstarting the next phase of their lives, which she did with a retreat from the corporate world and the purchase of her house.  It is a picture-perfect, 1940’s Cape with three rooms down, two rooms up and a bath-and-a-half.  On a corner lot, it has a front yard, a side yard, a back yard, a picket fence, and a very ambitious, aging garden.
The Cottage in Spring

Carrie bought the house from a couple in their eighties who were reluctantly leaving to mover closer to their children.  The wife was a passionate gardener, and left all her tools behind with Carrie.  “I had never had a garden, and I didn’t drive when I first came here,” Carrie said.  “It didn’t matter, because the house was in walking distance to everything. “  For someone used to Tribeca this was a calm transition, and a car didn’t appear until later.  Probably when she realized you can’t garden without one.

Viburnum Anchoring the Front Door
The house is located at the improbably-named corner of Mulberry and Chestnut Streets.  I walk by often, since as a result of that chance encounter I am now renting a small apartment nearby.  It’s allowed me to take photographs in the garden’s moment of tidiness in early spring, to the fullness of late spring, through the over-blown summer, and into the fall and winter. 

The Side Yard
“The garden is the work of the three women who lived here over a long period of time – 60 years -- and it’s taken me five years to begin to understand it,” Carrie reports. A tidy picket fence surrounds the house, with a few ornamental trees planted inside the fence.  They are almost crowded out now by the trees outside the fence, installed by a zealous village street tree planting program. 

The long border lining the walk to the front door is a fine example of why such borders should always be perpendicular to the house rather than parallel.  While looking down the length of the border from the house to the street you see none of the empty spaces that are inevitable in a mixed border.  Only when you are parallel to the border do you have an opportunity to examine all your mistakes.

The Long Border
Carrie’s long border covers the seasons from early spring bulbs, through peonies and iris in late spring, to phlox and its companions in the summer.  The hefty viburnum anchoring the corner of the front steps is replicated in the long border by baptisia and a few sub-shrubs that serve the same purpose.

Alongside the house is a crowded group of spirea ready for division, leading to a trellised alcove, the first of a number of garden “rooms.”  Directly off the sunroom, the trellis is graced by an apple tree, espaliered by Carrie.  About 9 x12, this small room is perfect for a morning coffee, or afternoon tea and a nap.

The Sunroom Terrace

The Shed's Interior
The aforementioned sunroom is ideal for a writer, but it is a shed in the garden that has captured the writer’s heart in Carrie.  “I thought I would be able to write there, like Virginia Wolfe did at her writing lodge at Monk House in East Sussex.   It has become instead a theatre of memory, filled with souvenirs of travel and sentimental objects considered too personal for the more public rooms.  

The Shed's Exterior
The shed is added onto periodically, but still remains unused. Two windows were given as a birthday gift from an admirer long and sadly gone.  A daughter’s desk occupies one end of the shed; a bench sits outside the door for contemplating the garden and the passage of time, which is unavoidable while sitting on a garden bench.

And so the editor steps in.  Gardens are not static, and for every gardener there is a moment when just enough becomes too much.  The small ornamental trees are battling with the street trees.  Perhaps the formal herb garden in the middle of the rear garden should be replaced with a calm lawn.  Perhaps the vines, if thinned, would let a little air in.  Isn’t the once-sheltering clematis now a shroud?  Have the roses on the trellis stopped blooming?

The editor begins to edit, but it requires learning a new vocabulary and a new language.  Plants are not as orderly as words and sentences, but that is what second lives are all about, isn’t it?

Carrie in the Garden

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

August Calendar

              The past two months have been virtually bone-dry.  The last week in July had a few old-fashioned gray and rainy days, but not often enough to mitigate the damage.  The most drought-resistant strongest flowers in our perennial border are my least favorite  -- Monarda and Filipendula. 
Monarda and Filipendula: Evicted
We’ve removed them all, I hope, and now I’m stepping back to look at how the garden is planned, and the lessons to be learned from bad times:
 1.    Group your plants according to their moisture needs.  Don’t mix drought-resistant plants with those happy to have their feet wet, no matter how artistic the combination.
2.    Keep plants that require watering close to the house where it is easier to give them what they need.  Plants further towards the perimeters and slightly out of sight can be left on their own with hope for the best.
3.    Be careful of knee-jerk reactions to a drought.  If you plant only dry-soil plants, chances are next year will bring steady rains.

Pumpkin Patch on Chestnut Street, Village of Rhinebeck
We are making some changes, moving our ever-thirsty hydrangeas, the temperamental Nikko Blues, to a cluster close to the house.  This way a single sprinkler will cover them, rather than the laborious coiling and uncoiling of multiple hoses and their connectors.  The picture below is a hot weather whimsy, a pumpkin patch happily sprawing along the front yard of an elegant Victorian village house.

Week One

August is a peak month for garden lilies, but they will need staking if they are to look their best. Now is the time to select yours for fall planting.
Examine your borders and pay the price for the penalty for not thinning early in the season. Phlox in particular suffered from mildew this summer.     
Cut off the browned foliage of bleeding hearts.                                                                                       
Ferns will also begin to brown out abou tnow. You can leave them alone, or if the aesthetics bother you, trim off the dieback. 
Rudbeckia and Helenium: Survivors

Make note of which plants survived the drought and add them to your plans next year.                         

Replenish mulch. It will decompose in the heat of August.                                                                    
Keep a watchful eye on containers. By now they will have filled up with roots and will require a more frequent watering schedule than when the roots were surrounded by an ample amount of moist soil.                                        
 Evaluate the shade in your borders. Branches may have grown and are now shading beds that used to be in full sun. The reverse is also true. If you have taken down tress your formerly shaded plants may now by frying.                                       

Week Two

Bearded Iris. Order Now.

Order iris, poppies, and peonies for late summer planting.                                               
This is the last moment to fertilize perennials, lawns and woody plants. If you do this any later, new growth won't survive the autumn chill ahead. 

Week Three

Garden sales should be underway by now. Take advantage of the opportunity to buy container-grown plants, as they will continue to drop in price. 
If you are gardening on a rooftop, think about installing a simple irrigation system. One or two days away will result in the loss of almost everything.   
Sweet Autumn Clematis Running Riot 

Agressive vines will have made a spectacle of themselves by now. Thin excessive growth on autumn clematis, trumpet vines and wisteria.                                                                                  

Week Four

Begin harvesting raspberries. Cut back old canes after blooming, but leave the new. Next year's crop will come from this year's new canes. Mine are so out-of-control it would take concrete posts and suspension cables to hold them in place. 
Every group of plants will present some candidates with damaged foliage this summer. Try and sort out insect damage from fungus, scorching, or mildew and treat accordingly.  
Lantana on a NYC Terrace

Terrace and roof gardens will need some fillers now as summer annuals begin to peter out. Look for annual asters and mums in garden centers. Add new geraniums as the old will likely suffer in the August heat. Lantana will hold up nicely until first frost.                                                                                 

Once again, note which plants have performed poorly and ruthlessly eliminate them. Life is short. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Boston’s South End Community Gardens

In June, I walked through parts of the South End of Boston with Lynne Potts.  She is the perfect guide, a long-time resident, a gardener, and the author of a soon-to-published book on the South End.  She is also (and primarily) a poet who divides her time between New York and Boston. 
Holyoke Street, South End, Boston

Among other attributes, the South End boasts the largest concentration of Victorian houses outside London.  It grew from filled marshland to middle class housing, through financial panic to tenements attracting new immigrants, to absentee landlordism of the 1960’s, to the slow climb back to the diverse, mostly middle class community of today.

We started our walk on quiet, shaded Holyoke Street, the sort of street that leads you to wonder how we in New York manage in a such a crowded and noisy city.  It is a street of front gardens: Number 19 is planted with boxwood, viburnum, rudbeckia, astilbe, clematis, sweet woodruff and wild ginger. 
Holyoke Street Front Garden

Lynne raised her family at Number 11, and now with her children grown she has divided it up into 3 rental apartments.   Along the way she acquired other houses, borrowing against one to purchase the next.  She acquired garden plots in the same way, picking up one after the other as allotments became available.  When she first settled in the South End it was a slum, and the low cost of houses appealed to pioneers like Lynne, people with limited resources but with determination, a vision for the future, and a commitment to the neighborhood.

The rear of the residential streets are separated by alleys.  Once the alleys divided the rear gardens of the houses, but as single family homes gave way to multi-apartment condominiums or rentals, the gardens became coveted parking spots.  Only Lynne’s garden remains.

At the end of Holyoke Street is a section of a narrow, 90 acre, five-mile ribbon of community gardens and pocket parks, the Southwest Corridor Park.  They exist because of community resistance to a transportation project planned in the 1950’s and 60’s to extend I-95  from Route128 into Boston, with a rail line down the middle.  The land was cleared, but highway construction was halted in 1969 as a result of the determination of community leaders.

Now the rail lines run underneath and deployed along the five-mile stretch are tot lots, playgrounds, flower beds, open green spaces, athletic courts and 150 community gardens.  As Lynne and I stood in her garden plot admiring her basil, bikers and strollers (in manageable numbers) crisscrossed the pathways. 
Lynn's Community Garden Plot

The position of South Enders was that the value of parks and gardens lies in its role in building community life.  Eleanor Strong, an early advocate, argued that it brings people of diverse backgrounds and ages together outdoors.  Many South Enders came from gardening cultures, and community gardens help them keep in touch with their roots.  You can see this as you move along the Corridor; in a section planted by Asian residents, vegetables are grown vertically on posts climbing to grow horizontally along overhead shelters.

The apotheosis of this theory may be seen in the Richard Parker Memorial Victory Garden, started in 1942 in the Boston Fens.  It is the last remaining vestige of the victory gardens that were nationwide during World War II .  Almost everyone grew vegetables then to offset the shortages created by rationing and the demand for food exports to the armed forces. (Note: My first garden was the victory garden in our backyard in Brooklyn.) 

Boston’s Victory Garden was part of the Back Bay Fens, a piece of the Emerald Necklace designed by Olmstead and Vaux.  The Charles River was dredged to provide fresh water lakes and ponds, but once dredging stopped, the edges became marshes, silted in by reeds.  Tom Wagner, a gardener on the very edge of the marsh says, “ If you were to step out of my garden among the rushes, you would sink 15 to 20 feet." 
Garden Pathway

After the war’s end the victory gardens were largely abandoned.  As part of the larger community redevelopment work of the 70’s the garden was divided into individual plots, eventually reaching 450.  Tom has been gardening there for 16 years, spending about four to five hours a week tending his plots.

Over the years Tom has managed to accumulate four contiguous plots.  “I was a co-gardener for a double plot and then my partner, now deceased, obtained another double garden next to ours.  I’ve been able to continue gardening these plots ever since.”

Applications for acquisition were somewhat easier in the early days, but there was a high turnover.  “New gardeners would sign up, plant, and as the season progressed the novice gardeners had no idea about the need to weed and water. They would just drift away.  Now prospective gardeners submit to an orientation before having a plot assigned to them.”

Most gardeners live nearby in apartments, and these plots are their only open space.  Some are used for growing vegetables, some as small woodland gardens, others as mini-backyards with all the accoutrements you could want from umbrellas to garden chairs to picnic table tables to kiddie pools.  

A Typical Victory Garden Plot
As in any grand plan, there are skeptics. The purists in town would like to see the community gardens leveled.  In Boston, as in other cities, the champions of the gardens are periodically under siege from the city or developers.

What is it that makes these gardens so much more appealing than the nearby small neighborhood parks?  In NewYork the battle for increasing park maintenance budgets is never-ending.  Yet the community gardens seem to thrive.  Is it because everyone gets to do his or her own thing?  Is it the Jeffersonian principal of home ownership applied to apartment dwellers?  Do volunteers in public parks only get to do what is assigned to them?  If you let them do their own thing in a public park, would that result in landscape anarchy?

In Boston, city engagement is minimal. The Parker Gardens are on publicly owned land and the city supplies only water; everything else is provided by the gardeners and their association.  Could a version of these large-scale community garden projects engage the general public in maintaining neighborhood parks?  It’s something to think about in the long, dark winter, but not in the growing season when all we want to read about is what everyone else is doing. 
Roosevelt Island, N.Y. Community Garden Plot 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

East 87th Street

If you walk around the streets of New York, particularly the old residential neighborhoods, you will occasionally pass small group of houses that were probably part of an entire block when first built.  Some people are blessed to live in such a house on such a block, while the rest of us can only wonder what life is like inside.

The Church and its Garden
Franny and David Eberhart are so blessed.  Moreover, it was the  home of David’s parents, and carries with it the burdens (or privileges) of tradition and responsibility.  Sometimes, these extend not only to the house but to the neighborhood as well; Frannie tends the garden at the church around the corner as well as her own. 

But first, the house and the block.  The houses on the western end of East 87th Street off Second Avenue were built by the Rhinelander family in 1890 as rental properties.  They were designed by Renwick, Aspinwall and Russell, the architects of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 

The Eberhart House
It was one of six houses, a not uncommon configuration in Manhattan in the late 19th century.  The entire city was divided up into 25x100 foot lots: four lots purchased at the same time could hold six houses.  The group of six at the eastern end of the street were built in 1886, and designed by another famous architect of the time, Henry Hardenburg of The Dakota fame.

The houses were built for families of modest means; the initial renter was a postman.  Marcus Eberhart, the first of the family to arrive in this country, came in the 1870’s and worked at Steinway Pianos.  Later, the family had a foundry on East 76th street producing manhole covers.  The Eberharts bought the house from the Rhinelanders in the 1950’s and passed it on to David and Franny in 1977.   The house could have no wiser custodian than Franny, who is the Chair of the Historic House Trust of New York City

It is an airy, beautiful house, with a broad landing for a central staircase that rises from a full-width open parlor floor, wrapping around itself all the way up to a sky light.  The house is never dark, the fate of so many brownstones.

Steps Through the Eberhart Garden
The Eberharts’ garden is directly off the dining room, which had been the kitchen before they flipped the rooms.  The grade of the garden was 3 ½ feet higher than the new dining room doors, so the garden was pushed back, and steps cut through a ridge of schist, which still remains.

As all north-facing gardens in the city, it is green and cool, but offers a limited palette.  Some plants have done very well; a sycamore planted bare-root is now six stories high, and annuals have been added since my visit.  But I think it’s fair to say that Franny’s gardening heart lies around the corner at the Church of the Holy Trinity, 316 East 88th Street.

Built by the Rhinelander granddaughters in1897-9 as a tribute to their father and grandfather, it sits next to the family’s Children’s Aid Society, designed by Calvert Vaux.  The church was a settlement church, free of charges for pews, and open to all.  It was built to serve a neighborhood of immigrants and transients, it was planned to foster clubs and societies designed to improve social conditions.  It remains a community church to this day.

The North Facade
 It occupies 11 full city lots plus an additional parcel purchased to accommodate a sizeable garden, which sets the buildings back from the street. It continues to provide a quiet space in an increasingly hectic city.  You would not know that the disruption of the Second Avenue subway construction is only a block away.

“I’ve been working in the garden for 30 years. David and I were married here,” Franny says.  When asked how much time she devotes to it?  “Not enough. A dozen other people volunteer regularly, but the driving force behind us is Helen Palmer, who lives across the street and looks after the garden.  There is no budget for the garden, but we manage to add a few azaleas.  People arrive with plants, and we plant what they bring.”

The day I visited the garden, the lawn was carpeted with falling cherry blossoms, a dogwood was getting ready to open, iris foliage had made its appearance, azaleas were blooming and boxwood anchored the corners.  The golden brick glowed and the gates were open. 

The gates are always open.  A magnificent tower dominates the site; you can’t miss it.  If you are in the neighborhood, stop by and sit for a while.  Amid the city’s constant re-building, it’s reassuring to know that some things will always be here.