It may seem like spring will never come, what with the puddles of ice under parked cars, and the banks of dirty snow lining the sidewalks, but if you look at the fuzzy buds on the trees growing fatter by the week, you know winter is almost done. Already you can see the dark pink buds of the eastern redbud trees if you look closely. Four or five weeks from now, we’ll enjoy the yellow blooms of daffodils and forsythias, and in two months, it will be time to replant tomato seedlings.
So, as odd as it may seem after weeks of below-freezing temperatures and yet more snow yesterday, this is the perfect time to start new things from seeds! Instead of starting indoors, having to remember to keep everything moist at all times, which can be a challenge in a typical dry and hot New York apartment, I am inviting you to put everything outside in recycled homemade “greenhouses” and let nature take its course.
You can start vegetables, herbs, salads or flowers, or mix and match as you wish. I use empty plastic gallon jugs I had initially bought to prepare for Hurricane Sandy, but other clear plastic food containers (juice or milk, for example) work.
Cold weather is approaching fast! Next week, we might get our first real frost, and snow that actually stays with us for a while.
Assuming you followed my advice last month and weeded, cleared most spent flowers, and mowed your grass one last time, there shouldn’t be too much left on your plate. If not, this coming weekend provides one last opportunity before the promised first snow next week. It’s time to cut the last of the basil and mint, or bring it inside with the houseplants that summered on the patio or terrace.
If you have any planters made out of terra-cotta, any tropical plants, dahlia or caladium, this is it! Time to dig it out from the ground and store it inside. Then you can make sure to turn off the outdoor faucet valve in the basement, and remove or disconnect any timer, manifold and hose outside. With so little left to do in your backyard, we can bring a little bit of love to the street trees.
For the past two years, I have watched this acacia grow out of the root ball of one of the million trees planted by the city. At first, it was pretty small, maybe three or four feet. By now, it is almost as tall as the Gingko the city planted in that bed. Technically, you don’t need a license to weed street tree beds, but that thing is as large as the tree, and I really don’t have time to get arrested (falsely) for destroying city property. So I decided to go legit and get the Citizen Pruner license, so I could take a loper to the interloper.
We have almost a million new trees in the city, and maybe one of them is your block. They can all use a little bit of love. Ten things you can do to help a street tree:
As the nights get cooler and the leaves start to turn, you might be thinking that gardening season is over, but au contraire, mon frère! Fall may be the best time of the year to garden, as you can do almost anything: move trees and shrubs, divide perennials, install bulbs, and be almost assured of success. Even if the hurricane season won’t deliver much rain, the shorter days and lower temperature make watering and weeding a cinch, compared to what needs to be done in the spring.
There is something deeply satisfying about a lush, emerald green lawn. It’s soft underfoot, evokes childhood memories of running in forbidden park expanses, or rolling down hills hoping no bees will sting you.
I can’t ignore the strength of the emotional appeal, when so much of my work is tied to how people feel about their surroundings.
But! Having a lawn in the city requires an amount of commitment equal to parking your car in the street: a weekly mental calendar of choreographed moves, timed precisely; the fortitude to deal with the inevitable dents and fines; and the willingness to pay for and fix every mistake and bit of forgetfulness. And just like a car that sleeps in the street, you will have to accept a certain level of imperfection, or you can drive yourself crazy.
Whether you just bought a house that was sitting empty for months (or years) or have concentrated on the inside, giving the outside (maybe) a little bit of love once a year, there will come a time when you step out, look at your yard and get somewhat consterned. Bald spots, weed lots, crazy vines, muddy puddles may seem like plant problems, but they are often caused by poor hardscape choices that make maintenance a difficult and lengthy, sometimes impossible, chore.
The first step is to assess recurring issues: Does it leak into your basement every time it rains heavily? Do the plants in that one corner look sickly and die, year after year? Do you never use the steps of a path but rather cut across a planted area, tracking mud in the house? Does weeding take entire weekends that merge into Sisyphean labor? These are all design problems.
When people call me for help in their backyard, they often ask if they have enough sun to grow a lawn, tomatoes or a plum tree, and where would be the best placement for a grill, patio or ping pong table. Each person has his or her own list, often borne out of a desire to re-create a particularly fond memory of a garden or a lovely smell, taste or feeling. I must disagree with Tolstoy, who famously wrote that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It is exactly the reverse in Brooklyn backyards. Happiness is linked to unique, personal memories; unhappiness is all about the mosquitoes.
If you feel the mosquitoes have gotten worse, faster and more clever, you are right. The old native house mosquitoes (dark, slow, loud) have been supplanted by zebra mosquitoes (also called tiger, Asian or forest mosquitoes.) These newcomers are stealthier and much harder to control. The city still calls on everyone not to leave standing water, and while that is excellent advice for swamp mosquitoes, it doesn’t really slow down zebra mosquito reproduction, as the females lay eggs in any damp environment, such as as shady, moist underbrush, not just in standing water.
Another notable difference is that female zebra mosquitoes don’t try to make one blood meal before laying eggs; instead, they make multiple small snacks. So you may have six bites from one mosquito; worse, that mosquito might have taken blood from a bird, your dog, your neighbor’s cat and then you in short order, which explains why they are excellent vectors for contagious diseases for humans and animals. Finally, zebra mosquitoes are active during the day. They detect mammals through their breath and scent.
I am not telling you all this to ruin your 4th of July plans, but because knowing your enemy, you can attempt to defeat it.
1. Controlling standing water is not nearly enough. You also must clear any permanent damp spot; any area that will remain moist for three days or more can support mosquito breeding.
2. I am of two minds about the CO2 traps.
First, let me preface that “weeds” is a bit of a rude word. What differentiates a common weed from a native plant? Only the eye of the beholder. In my garden, I let the asclepias (aka the humble milkweed) grow, because it is the only food source of the Monarch butterfly larva, and I love butterflies. I reserve the moniker of weed for invasive species that don’t play well with others, or are hard to eradicate. But feel free to let the weeds grow if you love them. Apart from the asclepias, I have a soft spot for the common mallow’s pink flowers and the wild violets. All this to say, this is a completely unscientific approach. This weed business is all about how subjectively pretty, how invasive, and how difficult they are to remove.
From best to worst:
– Milkweed, wild campion, clover, wild violets: As I mentioned in my preface, milkweed is the sole food source of the Monarch butterfly larva, so if you want a great butterfly garden, to your butterfly bush, coneflowers or brown-eyed Susans, you must add a few asclepias. Wild campions are a great reminder you need to mow your lawn, and clover is very good at fixing nitrogen into the soil, while lawns are great at consuming it. Sometimes, it’s better to let partnerships happen, rather than fight nature tooth and nail. Wild violets spread if left unchecked, so it’s not a bad idea to remove most of them past blooming season, unless you want a full carpet the following year.
Winter has finally packed its bags, and it’s a perfect time to plant all manner of trees, perennials and annuals. It is also a great time to weed and reseed your lawn, before the weather gets so warm Bermuda grass takes over. Warmer days and frequent rains give everything a good start.
In preparation for the trip to the nursery, I figured this was the perfect time to talk about four beginner’s mistakes most people make when starting a garden.
1. The one of a kind syndrome.
Do you remember your high school class photo? Each of you with your own style, height, color, clothes, looking awkward? This is what happens when you plant one of each; every lovely plant looking awkward and lonely, with that slightly out-of-place, desperate look of a school photo. Everyone does better with a few friends, so try to find some strength in numbers. Say you plan on buying 24 plants total: Better to buy in threes, fours or sixes than 24 different plants.
2. Pushing plants out of their comfort zone.
Even plants that are adaptable do better when they are planted in the right spot (anyone who tried growing a lawn in the shade knows this). This means that in the long run, they will be stronger, look better and handle benign neglect with fortitude. If you go to a local nursery, they will sell plants that are adapted to the Brooklyn climate, and can inform you as to their needs for sun, shade and the kind of soil and drainage they require. If you order online, make sure to check that they are adapted to our zone (7b), and place them where they will be happy.