Monday, July 22, 2013

I ate it

I've been very remiss on the blogging front lately, and I left readers hanging after the cliffhanger ending - will she or won't she? - of my last post. I know this, because I've had people I never knew read my blog coming up to me, at parties and weddings, asking if I ate the strawberry.

The short answer is yes.

The longer answer is that although I loved the idea of leaving a note, I published that post and then immediately left town for the weekend. By the time I got back, the strawberry had already reached and then passed ripeness, and had a couple of mushy spots. I could easily tell that, if its owners still existed, they were not going to harvest their strawberry, so I picked it, cut off the mushy spots, and ate it. It wasn't very good.

After that, I felt free to pick and eat and of the other strawberries when they ripened. (I think I got 3, total.) None of them were fantastic, but I wasn't expecting much from a plant in a too-small pot which got only afterthoughts of water all season. I'm still glad they didn't all go to waste.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ethical Dilemmas

Last summer, I was not the only gardener on our rooftop. Midway through the summer, three pots showed up, much prettier than my reclaimed versions. However, they were horribly overcrowded. 

The small pot in the back had four pepper plants, and the big one in the middle had both an eggplant and a strawberry plant. I can't remember what was planted in the medium pot in the foreground. When I finally ran into the gardeners, I didn't have the heart to tell them that they hadn't even planted their strawberries until long after strawberry season was over, not to mention that there was no way there was enough room in those little pots to grow all those different plants. Besides, I was pretty much a novice at this myself - who was I to correct someone else? I think they got one pepper on one of their pepper plants, and that was the extent of their harvest.

Now, I'm pretty sure that last summer's gardeners are not gardening this summer. I haven't seen them over the past few weeks, their pots haven't been moved an inch since I put them back after the hurricane,* and last season's dead stalks haven't been removed. But . . . they're not all dead stalks. The strawberry plant is still alive, and this year - in season - it's bearing fruit.

When I noticed it flowering, I started watering it occasionally. I haven't babied it, but whenever I've had a bit of extra water after I'm done taking care of my plants, I've given it a drink. Now it's got four strawberries, one of them approaching ripeness. 

Like I said, I don't think the couple who planted it are still paying attention. They may not even still live here. Or I could be wrong. I could have missed them. Maybe I've just been giving this plant extra water, because its owners have been taking care of it all along.

I'm pretty confident that's not the case, but I can't be sure. So the big question is:

Do I eat the strawberries?

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Doesn't it just look good enough to eat?

*Being the only person to spend so much time on the roof gives me a feeling of responsibility for it. When Hurricane Sandy was approaching, I pulled all of my pots in off the roof, but felt like I couldn't leave everything else up there to become projectiles, so I pulled in the other pots, too, as well as all of the chairs (whose origins and ownership are uncertain). Then I put it all back where it came from.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Gardening Resources: Your Local Library

Every time that I venture down to my local branch of the Queens Library, I make sure to do two things. The first is to stop by the "Go Green" shelves that are conveniently located right in the entrance. This is invariably full of books with titles like The City Homesteader, Urban Gardening for Dummies, and The Essential Urban Farmer.  I like to browse, and pick up whatever strikes my fancy. This has led to some spectacularly good reads, as well as some quite mediocre ones. (The Bountiful Container was an excellent resource; Paradise Lot was pretty good; and A World without Bees, despite the important subject matter, was barely worth the paper it was written on.)

The second thing to do at the library is to check out the bulletin board and the card rack, which advertise upcoming library programs. In the past few months, I've been to a program on backyard chickens, and one on growing mushrooms. Just today, I picked up cards for "Plant Propagation Workshop," "Bike Repair: Fix-A-Flat," and "Urban Cycling 101." There have probably been a dozens of other cool programs I couldn't attend but would have liked to. Most of these programs are free of charge, and lots of them even include free giveaways. Several people went home from the mushroom workshop with mushroom growing kits (I wasn't one of the lucky ones!) and apparently participants in the upcoming plant propagation workshop get to take home cuttings to grow at home, while both biking workshops are giving out flat repair kits.

Upcoming Queens Library workshops!

The other key resource at the library is the request function. Although my small branch doesn't have every book I need, the Queens Library system has almost everything I could imagine.* Whether I'm looking for Suzanne Ashworth's Seed to Seed or Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, I can request it and have it at my library in days. (Or sometimes, in months - someone must keep renewing Wild Fermentation, because I've been at the top of the queue for months now and still haven't received it!)

If you're a gardener on a budget, you don't need to go out and spend a fortune on gardening books. Your local library may offer everything from classes and workshops to fun and interesting books to practical instruction guides.

*I recently used WorldCat to discover that a book about my great-grandparents' Italian hometown exists no closer than Switzerland, but I suppose you can't have everything!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Form and Function

I spent last weekend at my parents' house, which is in the suburbs. When we pulled in on Friday evening, Ben remarked on how pretty it looked. In the dark, I was hard-pressed to understand what he was talking about, but the next morning it was obvious. There were tulips blooming in front of the house, and low, bushy flowers creating carpets of color along the driveway.

We spent some time on Saturday afternoon helping my mom fill hanging  pots with flowers, and it was a glorious day. The sun was shining, and I even have a bit of a tan to prove it. There's just something so much more enjoyable about gardening in a pleasant, beautiful environment, as compared to my dreary, mostly barren rooftop. The soundtrack to our work was birds singing and insects buzzing, not the intermittent roar of the 7 train.

I approach my rooftop garden with a pretty utilitarian viewpoint: yes, I love it, and I love the process of creating it, but I put most of my limited time, energy, and resources into plants that provide at least some return on my investment, whether that return be in the form of tomatoes, carrots, beets, lettuce, zucchini, basil, or even just attracting pollinators to my otherwise infertile roof.

Last weekend had me doubting that approach for the first time. Maybe my vegetables would do better if I spent more time on the roof, which I'd be more likely to do if the roof was a glorious oasis in the middle of the city - or at least had some pretty flowers. Maybe I'd spend more time outdoors, and less time watching Netflix, if my little outdoor space was a more pleasant place to spend my time.

A week has passed, though, and the memory of that beautiful sunny day with the chirping birds has begun to fade, while budget concerns remain pressing and a particularly busy week and some very full weekends have proved that I have even less time to devote to my garden than I thought. The thought of spending money on ornamentals, and then having to find extra time in which to tend them, has started, again, to feel like a bit of a wasteful luxury. And after a few sunny days early this week, in which I could barely find the time to water, and a few rainy days following them, in which I didn't even bother to visit the garden because I knew I didn't need to be there to water, I checked on my plants Friday morning, and wasn't sure what I needed decorative plants for at all. After all, what's more beautiful than a pot full of arugula, newly sprouted? What's more enjoyable to watch than carrot seedlings turning into carrot plants? What's nicer to look at than spinach that finally looks like spinach?

Friday, May 3, 2013


I haven't had a lot of luck with my cool-weather crops so far this year. The collards that surprised me by overwintering bolted almost immediately. (I cooked them up for dinner, buds and all.) Something is eating my baby bok choy seedlings, and only my baby bok choy seedlings, and yet I can't find anyone living in that container. And all of the new collards I planted this year have failed to come up, or have died immediately.

However, I have a number of bunching onions that seem to be doing well, although I think they could use a little fertilizer. (If only my worms were quicker with the compost - don't they know I have plants who need nutrients?!) My beets and carrots are still tiny seedlings, but so far they're doing well. And I have some lettuce seedlings that are doing better now that they're getting full sun on the roof (they had been mostly in the shade on the balcony), but I fear they won't last very long once it starts to get hot up there.

I'm hoping for better luck with my warm-season crops. I have a successful little tomato seedling that I hope to transplant into a larger pot soon, and another one that seems quite happy but is in no rush to develop its first true leaves. I also planted a bunch of squash and melons from saved seeds - watermelon, zucchini, and spaghetti squash. The spaghetti squash and the watermelon both got super-long only a couple of days after planting. I hadn't though that a seedling could get leggy before it developed its first true leaves, but the squash in particular is 6-8 inches long and floppy. Now that it's in a sunny windowsill with a light added, it seems otherwise quite happy, and I'm not sure whether I should be starting over or just seeing where these seedlings will go.

I'm also trying something new this year by planting potatoes. I ordered seed potatoes from, and am excited to see how they do!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Land, neighborhood, culture

My garden consists of a number of modified 5-gallon buckets on my rooftop, because I have no yard. Meanwhile, from that same rooftop, I can see two vacant buildings, sitting on two unused lots, right next door. Their only occupants, as far as we can tell, are a cat and several raccoons, the latter of whom occasionally have loud screaming matches on the roof in the middle of the night.

I'm planting in 5-gallon soy sauce buckets with all that land sitting right in view. It's torture.

These parcels of land, by the way, figure prominently in my contingency plan for the apocalypse. Infrastructure just has to last long enough for me to get down the street to Home Depot and buy bolt cutters. The bolt cutters get me inside the fence, and then I cultivate the land heavily to give my family something to live off of, and something to trade with. It occurs to me now that the cultivation might go a little easier if Home Depot were still functioning well enough to sell me some additional tools as well. I'm no doomsday prepper, but I will admit that it has crossed my mind to think about buying a bolt cutter before the apocalypse so that I can immediately put my plan into action, should the world as we know it end anytime soon.*

My first plan for gardening, once I'd seen all the land next door and after I decided that bolt cutters and trespassing were best reserved for the apocalypse, was to use the bits of ground around the abandoned stoop and the piece of soil that juts into the sidewalk (what may have once been a driveway) to do some real, live, in-the-ground gardening. I didn't for a number of reasons that mostly involved the distance to a water source, the uncertainty about the soil quality, and the apparent habit of the locals of using the stoop area as a public bathroom for their dogs. It just seemed easier to use the roof, essentially.

Then one day last summer, I realized how close I'd come to being a destructive, gentrifying, homogenizing force for evil in the neighborhood. I had the day off from work and was walking down the block when I noticed an older Asian woman on the sidewalk, bent down over that plot of soil, filling a plastic shopping bag with the plants she was picking. I didn't recognize the leaves she was harvesting, but I was suddenly horrified to realize how close I'd come to cultivating her wild harvest right out of existence.

When I recently read Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates, I learned that one of the basics of permaculture is observing a plot of land for a full year - all four seasons -  before beginning to cultivate it. This allows you to understand the ecology, the microclimates, the different environments that make up your piece of land. It occurred to me that this philosophy applies to almost any situation, not just agriculture. By letting 18 months pass - though it wasn't my intent - I had the opportunity to see even the culture of the neighborhood in action, and how that affects the land.

*N.B.: I don't expect the end of the world any time soon, but there's no harm in a thought exercise (and maybe some bolt cutters), right?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Some spring housekeeping

We've been having a chilly spring, which has prevented me from doing much in my garden by virtue of the simple fact that I don't want to be outside when it's cold out. I know I'm waiting a bit too long for some of my cool weather veggies, though, so last week, I bit the bullet and got some work done.

I brought the 5-gallon buckets I'd gathered in off the balcony and finally washed them out in the shower, so they'd be ready for drilling and filling as soon as I can borrow a power drill. (Goal: go as long as I can without having to purchase my own drill, despite the frequency with which I seem to need one.)

I was planning to pull up what was left of a collard plant I had harvested at the very end of last season, so I could feed it to the worms and plant a new one in its place, but I noticed a few green leaves and began to wonder if it could have possibly accidentally overwintered - despite the fact that I had assumed it was dead and abandoned it to its fate. Maybe my very cold balcony still provided enough shelter to keep it alive? Just in case, I decided to water it instead of uprooting it, and we'll see if maybe I have an earlier harvest than I was expecting. I added a few scallion seeds around the edge, since the pot seems plenty big enough to hold a couple of smaller plants as well, and those don't take up much space. I also took a large, low, container where I'd been storing some of last year's potting soil and mixed it up a bit and then planted half a dozen spinach plants and scattered a bunch of lettuce seeds.

So far, this year has been a bit haphazard, and my planting has been done without much planning. I should have amended the soil before I started planting, but failed to do so, so I need to make sure I get my hands on some fertilizer once these seeds start sprouting.

Update: in just the time it took to compose this quick post, I asked for and received permission to borrow a friend's drill. I may have my drainage holes drilled by the time you read this!

Friday, April 5, 2013

No, really, there are WORMS in my KITCHEN

It happened. There are worms in my kitchen. And they're there on purpose. My job involves pest control and I keep worms in my kitchen. Anyone who knew me in high school, when I was involved in The Great Arachnid Car Accident of 2004,* would be speechless.

After taking the vermiculture course from the LES Ecology Center, I decided that the most cost-effective way to get worms into my kitchen was to buy the worms from the center ($22), but to make the "worm condo" ourselves. Using Swagbucks I had accumulated, I got a free $10 Home Depot gift certificate and dispatched Ben to the store for a plastic bin.

We borrowed my parents' electric drill and drilled small holes in the bottom of the bin, for drainage, and larger ones around the top, for ventilation. Then I placed an order to pick up worms on Friday, and so we spent half an hour or so Thursday evening tearing and dampening newspaper to create bedding.

I couldn't be there when Ben picked up the worms, and I was both relieved and disappointed. By the time I got home from work, they had already mostly disappeared into their bedding, exactly how I wanted it. I was only a little disappointed to get what I wished for and not see any worms.

(He took a video, but won't let me post it.)

I'd begun saving food scraps in a yogurt container in the freezer a few weeks ago, so we had already added food to the bin, a feast to makes any worm's mouth water.

The major problem that first night was that turning off the kitchen light behind us is such an ingrained habit that we kept leaving them in the dark. We were warned to keep a light on during the first night to prevent escapes before the bin begins to feel like home. But we survived, and so did they, and then . . . we went away for the weekend the very next day, to visit my father-in-law for his birthday. Ben stayed a few extra days, since he didn't have to work, but I cam home, alone, that Sunday night, with absolutely no idea what I'd be walking into. I pictured a bin full of dead worms. I pictured opening the door to find worms all over the living room. I pictured an unimaginable stench.

Instead, I found a bin full of worms, all alive as far as I could tell, and although I thought I noticed a bit of an odor when I first walked in, it dissipated quickly.

It's been almost 3 weeks now, but it feels like these worms have been part of our household forever. There are days when the bin is a bit . . . fragrant . . . but it's no worse than the days when our garbage can used to be rather . . . aromatic. Now though, the worms take care of that decomposing food and the scent goes away without anyone having to take the garbage out!

The best part, for me, is seeing the little casings spread throughout the bedding and sticking to the sides of the bin, and knowing that slowly but surely, that garbage is being turned into fertile compost that will grow good food that will feed us!

*I can't be the only teenager to total a car trying to kill a spider . . . but I hope for the world's sake that there aren't too many of us.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Worms in my kitchen

Last week I went to an Indoor Composting Workshop at the Lower East Side Ecology Center to learn about vermiculture. We spent all last summer dropping food scraps off at the LES Ecology Center stand at the Union Square Farmer's Market, and then buying finished compost from them to use in the garden, and I got fed up with giving them my food for free, and then having to buy it back as compost. So I've been pondering getting a worm bin for a while now.

The major kink in this plan is that I think worms are gross and scary and I don't want anything to do with them. There was an incident when I was in the 4th or 5th grade, in which my loving younger sister, as we walked home from the bus stop one day after a rain storm, decided to pick up some earthworms and chase me down the driveway, flinging them in my direction. I took off running away from worms that day, and I pretty much haven't looked back.

My main motivation in attending the workshop was to prove to myself that there was nothing to be afraid of. I already had a decent idea of most of the facts that were presented, since I've been contemplating this step for a long time, and had researched it extensively online and checked out Composting Inside and Out from the library not long ago. But I wanted to see how icky and wormy a worm bin really was, and whether I minded being around it, and whether I would have to touch the worms.

When the teacher came around to give us each a worm, I politely declined. I asked whether it was possible to have a worm bin without having to touch worms, and she assured me that it was. I don't believe her 100%, but I'm going with it for now. Besides, my husband thinks a worm bin would be "kind of cool," so I'm going to let him do any gross parts.

I'm hoping to be able to pick up a pound of red wiggler worms this week!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to make a purchase from Amazon after clicking one of these links, I will receive a small portion of your purchase price as a commission. I personally make a point of starting my Amazon shopping through the affiliate links of bloggers and friends whenever possible, so that large corporations are not the only beneficiaries of my purchases, and encourage others to do the same, regardless of whether they use my affiliate links or another blogger's.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

It begins

I'm just beginning to start some seeds for the upcoming season. I can only manage to plant a few of each variety, because as much as I'd like to fill the building's entire roof with fruits and veggies, my eyes are, once again, bigger than my supplies.

I use the lowest-tech, lowest cost, method of starting seeds that I know of, which is recycled yogurt containers. This year I'm also using recycled soil from last year, although I'm already wondering if I'm going to regret it: the first thing that sprouted is something I did not plant. Right now, my little seed pots are just on the living room floor (on an old church bulletin, as you can see), but I'll move them to a sunny windowsill (well, the sunniest windowsill we have) as soon as I see green.

So far, I've started a handful of scallions (Evergreen Bunching Onions from HVSL) as well as some spinach, but haven't seen any action yet. I'm skeptical of the spinach, because it's a 3-year-old packet from my last apartment and was not stored well during years 1 and 2, but I figured I'd give it a shot for now, while most of the seeds in my library won't need any attention or resources for a few weeks. I plan to direct sow more scallions later, but wanted to get a jump start with at least a few - and yet walk the fine line of not planting too many, because last year our own scallions were ready right about the time, of course, that our CSA was overflowing with scallions, and we ended up with more than we could eat. I ended up leaving ours in the ground longer than intended, and eventually just tossing most of what we got in the CSA into the exchange box for a few weeks.

Earlier this week I picked an empty 5-gallon bucket out of the trash near a bar in Midtown, because those are the cheapest, easiest pots available for planting. My husband was, I think, a bit embarrassed that I went trash picking and then carried home with us on the subway not even something cool, or vintage, or salvaged, but a piece of obvious garbage. However, with all the restaurants I pass on a daily basis, I don't see nearly as many of these as I'd expect to, and so I need to take advantage when the opportunity presents itself! As I've mentioned, my plans for this year are bigger than my resources necessarily allow, but free vessels to use as pots represent the most cost-effective way of expanding my garden. I just have to clean them out (this one is currently on the balcony, covered, with some pickled ginger still stuck to the inside), and drill some holes in the bottom. Instant container garden!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Art of the Heirloom: Cultural Seed Savers

Friday night I attended the opening of the exhibit Art of the Heirloom: Cultural Seed Savers at The Horticultural Society of New York. I heard about it through the Hudson Valley Seed Library's Seeder's Digest (love that!) e-mail newsletter. I admit to being a bit shocked, because I had never heard of the Horticultural Society of New York.

Half of the reason that I started this blog was that it seemed like very few people were online talking about urban gardening in New York City. I had spent a lot of time searching for information about gardening in New York City, and somehow I had never encountered the Horticultural Society, which is a shame, because it seems like an awesome place, and I can't wait to attend more of their events in the future.

The exhibit features the original artwork commissioned by the Seed Library for their art packs, seed packs featuring said original artwork. I'm no art critic, but I loved the agriculturally themed artwork, and I was fascinated to see the many different ways in which artists could interpret seeds and plants. The exhibit included everything from intricate botanical drawing, to abstract pieces, to very literal interpretations of the names of vegetable varieties like the Upstate Oxheart Tomato or King of the North Pepper. (Imagine how you'd interpret those, and then check out the artists' takes on the HVSL website - or better yet, at the exhibit, which is open through March 8!)

I was intrigued to notice a clever piece (the illustration for the Shaghai Baby Bok Choy) by Natalie Merchant. The name didn't register with me at first, but then I noticed that the artist's bio read "Natalie Merchant has earned the reputation for being a songwriter of great quality and a compelling live performer. She calls the fertile Hudson Valley her home, where she has been busy gardening and seed saving for 25 years." Could the painting be by that Natalie Merchant? My husband Ben (my husBen) thought it was obvious. "It says she's a songwriter!" I thought it too weird. Probably just some local singer and painter whose name happens to be Natalie Merchant, right? As it turns out, the Wikipedia entry for Natalie Merchant (the Natalie Merchant) says that she "likes gardening and painting," which is enough to make me admit that Ben was right, and that Natalie Merchant! designed the art pack for the baby bok choy.

Mid-90s singer-songwriters aside, the artwork in this exhibit touches on every imaginable facet of vegetable gardening - the culinary, the aesthetic, the botanical, the cultural, the linguistic - and is definitely worth seeing if any of these interest you.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Garden 2012

Last year, I began my gardening project with plans to have a few containers on my balcony, but soon realized that my plans were bigger than my deck. We have rooftop access - at least I think that's the intention, as the door's not locked and some people keep chairs up there, but no one mentioned it when we were shown the apartment or when we signed the lease, and it took 4 or 5 months of living here for us to realize it. I wasn't sure whether I was using the roof legitimately, but since no one seemed inclined to stop me, I went ahead and installed my motley crew of potted vegetables there in the spring.

Rooftop garden

They look a rather humble there, a random assortment of repurposed containers I found on the street, and official flower pots I bought on sale or "borrowed" from my parents . . . without telling them.

Tiny Tim Tomatoes, with Basil in the foreground

This time with flash

Sweet Salad Peppers
One morning, on my way up to water my plants on the roof, I ran into one of the guys who works for the building's owner. I asked if it was okay for me to keep plants on the roof, and he told me it was fine. "Just don't get locked out." Now, given that the door is never locked, it had never even occurred to me that it might lock behind me - but he seemed to think that not only was it potentially conceivable, but that it was likely, that it would happen unless I took precautions. So now I try the doorknob from both sides every time I venture onto the roof, and even though it is clearly unlocked, every time, I never let the door shut behind me.

My garden last year consisted of Tiny Tim Tomatoes (which were kind of boring), Sweet Salad Peppers (which tasted good, but were so small I couldn't figure out how I was supposed to use them . . . in salads, I guess), carrots, beets, collards, baby bok choy, scallions, and a pot of basil I bought at the Farmers' Market. It was mostly a success, but also very much a learning experience, and I can only hope to do better next year!