Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sugar Magnolia

A tree grows in Brooklyn - a pretty magnolia tree in my backyard that blooms for but a short time, so I captured portraits from the blossoms' lifecyle in photographs. Click to see larger images. Enjoy and happy weekend!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

From Scrap to Soil

In case you're wondering, this is what a crazy environmentalist's freezer looks like, filled with a multiple months worth of food scraps. My alternative to composting is to collect food scraps in the freezer (rather than an open bin, to eliminate worries over mold and smells and fruit flies), and I'm supposed to drop off the bag every week or so at the Union Square Greenmarket on my way to work. However, I never really adjusted to my slightly longer commute after moving last summer, which means I've been lazy and letting bags of fruit and vegetable rinds pile up in our freezer, much to my boyfriemd's chagrin.

Ever since reading Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte, I have never been able to throw anything in a trash bin without the guilt that it will just pile up on a giant landfill somewhere, never to decompose. Even though a large majority of the trash we produce is organic matter, it is unlikely to actually break down because most landfills have anaerobic conditions that don't permit natural decomposition. For that reason, it is much better to divert food and other organic waste from the waste stream in the first place by composting.

However, I will admit that composting has remained one of those elusive green endeavors that intimidates me. Composting seems to involve spending money on a special structure, or the know-how to build your own. It involves the tricky business of getting the right combination of greens and browns. It can involve worms when done indoors. And I definitely don't want to deal with a compost heap if we do move in a few months. This is why I just collect my food scraps and leave the actual composting to the experts.

New York City doesn't have municipal compost pickup yet like Seattle and San Francisco, but that doesn't mean you're out of luck. If you're not able to compost in your home, you can drop off food scraps with the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which runs a fantastic system near the East River and sells compost and soil back to the public, and several community gardens maintain their own compost bins. This link lists drop off points around Manhattan and Brooklyn, but I'd also check with your local community garden, as I know some are not listed here, such as the North Brooklyn Compost Project. You could also check with friends, who might welcome additions to their own backyard compost bins. And regardless of whether or not you are a New Yorker, the nyc compost project website has some great resources for how to start your own compost pile.

The circle completed itself when I finally lugged all those bags of frozen produce to Union Square during "gardening weekend", and I got a little discount (shhh) for buying compost-enriched soil from LESC at the same time as donating scraps.

I also save money by reusing last year's soil. At the end of fall, I cut off dead stalks and mostly left roots and dirt intact in their pots in storage over winter. Come spring, many of the roots had decomposed, and I was able to use this soil, mixed half and half with fresh soil from LESEC for this year's gardening. My plants are all doing fine so far, so I think this method is sufficient in nutrients. So there, I guess I am starting to learn some gardening tricks!

UPDATE: There is a new food scrap drop off site in Brooklyn. Evoluntionary Organics at the Saturday Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket is now accepting food scraps for composting, starting this Saturday, May 1. They ask for a $1 donation each time you drop off to cover their costs involved in transport back to their farm in New Paltz and large scale composting. I'm so glad I won't have to schlep bags on the subway anymore. Hurray!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Garden Pet Repellents and other Tools of the Trade

I debated whether I would bother doing any gardening this year. One of the dogs has a special affinity for chewing up plants - greens, dirt, plastic pots, and all. (Remember this photo? And the repeated demise of parsley starts?) After watching Milo systematically destroy most of last year's plants over the course of the fall, I felt it would be futile to attempt much more than to hang a few pots out of his reach. On top of that, we may or may not be moving this summer (smack in the middle of growing season) and may or may not have outdoor space if we move.

But, being blessed with (what passes for) a yard in New York City, it would almost be criminal not to take advantage of growing space. I can't let fears about what may or may not happen in the future get in the way of what I want to do now. That's how time slips away from us, leading us to realize years later all the missed opportunities. I can't let the dogs control my life (even though they'd like to). Anyway, due to a recent fence-breakthrough incident, the dogs aren't allowed in the yard unsupervised for the time being.

My plan is to be much more vigilant about using deterrents to keep pets away from the plants. For now, I just gave a spritz of the vinegar-tea tree-water all-purpose cleaner that I keep on hand, but I think it's actually too strong, so I found several other simple options. In particular, it's great that coffee grinds and citrus rinds can be saved from the trash to serve a dual purpose as both repellent and nutrient enrichment. I'll let you know how these work out.

Natural Garden Pet Deterrents

* dilute a teaspoon of vinegar with water in a spray bottle and spray onto the plant on a semi-daily basis, especially after rain
* sprinkle cayenne pepper or other black or hot pepper onto the soil
* dilute pepper in water and spray onto the plants
* soak rags in vinegar and place around the perimeter of the garden
* sprinkle coffee grounds and citrus rinds onto the soil (bonus: this is good for the plants!)
* stick a bar of soap near the plant

Also, that growler is there to prove one needn't purchase special equipment for gardening. I use a large spoon instead of a trowel. And a growler or jug stands in for a watering can (although it does require a few more trips to the kitchen sink).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Nature's Resilience

I made a couple incredible discoveries when I unearthed last year's accoutrements for planting last weekend.

First, this pot, ignored in a hidden corner of the yard all winter, had sprouted with baby seedlings. It will be a surprise to see what grows in here. Maybe just weeds or grass, or maybe something more special (though some weeds deserve more attention then they get).

Second, this plant (some type of tropical canna), leaves eaten off by dogs and/or killed by the cold, was cut down to its bulbs and left in the basement for winter. I learned on Saturday that it grew all the way back up to this height while languishing without water or light for months. Unbelievable, but it did.

Sometimes plants are delicate things that quickly perish from a little neglect, and sometimes they are hardy beasts that pull through with the help of inner resouces stored in bulbs, stems, and roots. Just as we humans sometimes wilt easily in the face of stress, and sometimes we draw upon our strengths, pick ourselves up, and face the world anew. Isn't that what spring is about - beginning again? To see the living world of wonder around us with new appreciation, to spring clean our way into a fresh start, to reenergize after a winter of hibernation?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Getting Dirty

Operation "let's get this garden started" has been completed, with a sigh of relief and accomplishment. My least favorite part of gardening is the dirty part - schlepping heavy bags of soil, excavation of last year's dead roots, deciding which size pots are best for which plants, anxiety over whether I'm providing enough drainage and compost, and physically doling out the dirt - so I'm always glad when this onerous hurdle has been passed.

My interest in gardening began two years ago, as a natural next step following my interest in local eating. In my ideal world, I would turn our yard into a cornucopia of produce with a zero mile footprint, but in reality I stay within the limits of my knowledge and laziness by creating a simple container garden, mostly from already-started young plants bought at the farmers market. Now that almost everything is potted, all the garden asks is a daily watering or two, and in return I will (hopefully) be blessed with fresh herbs, tomatoes, and greens for fun summer cooking.

Here's what I planted this weekend:

Purple sage
Creeping rosemary
Lemon thyme
Anise hysspop (Licorice mint)
Bloomsdale spinach
Swiss Chard
Mesclun salad mix

I will also plant cherry tomatoes and peppers in a month or so once it's warm enough. And some pretty flowers, to be determined.

What are you growing this season? Can you recommend any gardening blogs or websites that can help demystify the confusing (to me) field of horticulture?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Farmers Market Brunch

I'm a big proponent of making brunch at home. Even though going out for brunch is a New York City thang, it's an activity I rarely indulge in. Somehow I've faithfully kept up the routine of shopping at my local farmer's market nearly every Saturday, going on three years now. When you have access to eggs and other farm fresh ingredients that shine in simple breakfast preparations at home, it's hard to see the value in spending more at a restaurant.

Since Jay is also enamored with our nearest Greenmarket, I thought it would be fun to get together for a brunch of foodstuffs bought from farmers that morning, and our schedules finally coincided last weekend for an afternoon of eating, drinking, dog carousing, and Brooklyn story swapping.

What can you feast on from early spring farmers market fare? Fresh young vegetables had not yet made an appearance (though I've since heard rumors of ramps), but there were still trusty hearty vegetables on offer that have made it through the winter in storage. I prepared home fries from local potatoes sliced thinly, chopped into small pieces, and cooked in a thin layer of oil in a hot skillet until browned. My no-knead bread didn't have enough time to rise, so I bought a sourdough wheat boule at the market instead, to toast and top with Lynnhaven goat cheese and scrambled local eggs and leeks. I followed Molly's recipe for leek confit, but I think I could have saved myself some effort and just sauteed the leeks. Jay was a trooper and shucked a zillion oysters for us to enjoy. These bivalves plucked from the waters off Long Island tasted salty like the sea, like oysters should.

The drinks were not so local, but sourced somewhat sustainably: bloody marys with our micro-distilled vodka of choice, Tito's Handmade Vodka and organic tomato juice; and well as very strong sparkling screwdrivers of vodka, fresh squeezed organic orange juice, and soda.

Finally, there were gluten-free beet brownies for dessert, using local beets, honey, and eggs. I have been experimenting with the right recipe - the first try was too intensely chocolately and the second too overcooked and dry (sorry!). Hopefully the third time will be the charm, and I will have an amazing indulgence to share with you soon.

One of my greatest joys in life is entertaining, and sadly, I haven't done enough of it in this apartment. I feel bad subjecting guests to the chaos of 150 pounds of overly excited canines. So thank you to Jay and D for braving the dogs. It's given me the determination to forge ahead with plans for many more parties and barbeques now that spring is here.