Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Is it really stealing?

As I walked through the park today I noticed I was stepping on dark blue/black berries. Couldn't be Amalanchier, couldn't be blueberries. Looking up I realized we are smack dab in the middle of black cherry season, and being a well-prepared forager, I reached into my backpack for a plastic bag.

Prunus serotina is the largest cherry native to eastern North America. It's easily confused with Prunus virginianus (aka chokecherry), although P. virginianus is a smaller, scrubbier tree. Black cherry grows wild in woods all over the east. Its bark is used medicinally, the wood of larger specimens is valued for woodworking, and the fruit is delish. Black cherries hang in loose clusters of 10 - 15 fruits, which don't all ripen at the same time. Red fruit isn't ripe; wait till it turns black and practically falls off its stem.

Of course even the ripest choke- cherries are so sour they'll make you pucker up tight, and the seed is large-ish, so these aren't the best munch-as- you-go fruit. But the juice is great for jelly, wine, or in a spritzer. Last year I made chokecherry/pear jelly but I'm open to suggestions for this year's crop.

I'm always nervous when I forage in the park. I'm not hurting anyone by picking a few berries, but park rangers have ticket quotas to fill and I never expect anyone to be reasonable. So I try to stay off the beaten track, but this fruit bonanza was close to a major thoroughfare. I furtively picked about a cup of fruit, then slunk off, hoping to find another tree in a more secluded part of the park. Sadly, I didn't, and the thought of that heavily-laden black cherry in the almost public spot haunts me. As I left, I spotted a raccoon 15 feet up in a nearby tree (a raccoon...in NYC). I hope he leaves a few cherries for me, because I'm going back for more.

(I know it's a crummy picture. What do you expect from a cell phone?)

Men in Trees

I had a great morning yesterday. Instead of sweating on a rooftop, I got to sit in a shady backyard, watching three very expert men do an unusual job. I hired Urban Arborists to prune dead limbs off a locust tree in a client's brownstone garden. We'd been getting lots of fallen branches (one of them heavy enough to crush a skull) and it was obvious we'd have more unless something was done.

So Andreas climbed at least 70 feet up, tapping and sawing, removing the deadwood and sending it down, where Hernan and Gonzalo cut it up and hauled it off. They made it look so easy, but I wasn't fooled. This is a job where precision is crucial: choosing the branch to hold your weight, making proper cuts, sending large branches down without hitting garden plants or a neighbor's dog. And damn if they didn't clean up after themselves!

And here's the other thing I loved: they didn't do too much. Bill Logan owns Urban Arborists and he was my pruning teacher at the NYBG. I remember he said, "Don't try to impress a client by making a big pile of branches, prune only what needs to be pruned, leaving as natural a shape as possible." Which is exactly what these guys did. When you look up at the old locust tree today, you can't tell anything was done. Except there are no dead branches any more, and the backyard is a safer place to be. Imagine that, quality in today's world. What a pleasure.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


This is what my client sees when she comes home from vacation. She doesn't see the soil strewn all over the terrace or the clumps of perennials lying on their backs, roots in the air. She doesn't see me sawing into their rootballs, breaking iris into clumps small enough to tuck in between and among the new plants I'm adding today.

My client is away for a month and I've been making lots of changes, hoping to delight her with a rejuvenated terrace when she returns. This is a moonlight garden; it's used at night, in the dark, after work. So I focus on white flowers, white foliage, anything that glows in the dusk while my client enjoys a glass of wine on her terrace after a long, hard day.

White crepe myrtle, white rose of sharon, rosa rugosa, caladium, begonias, lantana, hydrangeas, mandevilla, Siberian iris, and a new favorite, Calocephalus. Then a few spots of contrast to make the white pop: the chartreuse, finely cut leaves of staghorn sumac 'Tiger's Eye', the purple foliage of Physocarpus (aka ninebark).

And here's somethinng I learned today, maybe you can benefit from my experience. Ilex verticillata (winterberry) does not belong in a small container with other perennial plants. The roots of one small I. verticillata were hogging the nutrients in the planter box, starving its companions. I dug out the neighboring perennials and pruned the roots of the I. verticillata by 2/3. Then I added new soil to the box (Fafard, of course) and filled in with annuals. I figure annuals won't suffer from long term starvation since they're only around for a single growing season.

The leaves of 'Tiger Eye' (a Rhus typhina hybrid) underplanted with the groovy annual Calocephalus. Both do best in full sun.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Resistance is futile.

This is Seven, the newest addition to our household. For those of you who are puzzled by the name, her step-brother is Sisko, and Sisko's sister, Kyra, died last November. If it still doesn't make sense to you, perhaps you should watch a little more television. Science Fiction Television. And that's all I'm saying.

Monday, August 20, 2007

red, (no white), and blue

Oh Blog, how I have missed you!

My excuse: I've been so busy growing and picking and canning and pickling that I simply haven't had a minute to write about it. But I've finished work for the day and all I have to do tonight is can tomatoes, beets, and perhaps some corn relish. It's a light load.

To the right are dried tomatoes and canned blueberries, two of my favorite summer tastes. I dry the plum tomatoes in a dehydrator (my big Christmas present in 2006). It's so humid here that sun-drying would take forever. I can the blueberries according to a recipe in the 1943 Ball Blue Book. More modern editions don't suggest this method, but I like it.

1) gather blueberries in a square of muslin or cheesecloth
2) boil water and dunk the bundle of blueberries in the boiling water, swirling until spots of purple start to show through the cloth
3) dunk the blueberries in cold water, then transfer to sterilized jars
4) leave 1/2 inch head space; add no water or sugar
5) process 20 minutes in a boiling water bath

This method preserves the shape of the berries, doesn't add sugar, and keeps them tasting good longer than freezing. (Freezer burn can set in after a few months.)

I was amazed by how many blueberries we picked this weekend; usually the season is finished by now, but I'm not complaining. In fact, I'm not complaining about anything. We are enjoying the full flush of summer produce and the eating is magnificent: caprese salads, butter & sugar corn on the cob, ratatouille, blueberry pie. Who could ask for anything more?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Gooseberries & Mulberries...what a team!

Better late than never, right? I didn't make the gooseberry mulberry tart till this weekend, when we had a goodbye dinner for Mark, who returned to Kentucky after an all too short summer in Milford. The taste was excellent, an interesting combination of very tart (gooseberry, PA) and very sweet (white mulberry, NYC), but it didn't jell 100%. After remembering my last blueberry pie I asked myself if tapioca has an expiration date and if that might be why the filling was a little runny. Turns out it does (have an expiration date) although I'm still not sure if that's why it didn't jell. Because blueberries and gooseberries are acidic fruits, I use tapioca as a thickener instead of flour. But next weekend I'll be using a new batch of tapioca when we harvest our last blueberries.

Today I read the last Harry Potter book and made my first mozzarella cheese. To say the book was a lot better than the cheese is a gross understatement. The cheese was frustrating because I followed all the instructions EXACTLY and it didn't work. I suspect the blame lies with the dairy department at the Price Chopper. The recipe specifies that you can't use ultra-pasturized milk, but that pasteurized is ok. I checked every carton of milk in the store and chose the only one that said pasteurized, which turned out to be the Price Chopper brand. I think they were lying to me. Michael leans toward ignorant mistake where I come down on the side of careless stupidity. The point is that ultra-pasteurized milk doesn't solidify correctly for mozzarella so you end up with a more ricotta-like cheese. And I so had my heart set on a mozzarella/tomato/basil salad for supper tonight! I'll have to scour the city for less processed milk and try again next weekend.

As for The Deathly Hallows...it's excellent. And her plant references are right on.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

It's not the heat...

There are days when I think I have the best job in the world. Fresh air and sunshine. Great views high above the city sidewalks. Hawks screeching as they glide on the thermals over Central Park. But not today. And not yesterday or the day before, either. And I'm guessing probably not tomorrow.

We're having a heat wave here in NYC, and the humidity has been hovering at about 90%. A fierce thunderstorm early this morning flooded almost the entire subway system, funneling everyone onto the busses which were so full they wouldn't stop to pick people up unless someone else was getting off.

All week I got up extra early so I could get my heavy lifting done before the thermometer hit 90. And some things just have to wait. You can't spray for insects when it's this hot; the insecticides may damage foliage. You can't transplant established trees and shrubs when it's this hot; root stress can be deadly in this weather. And as for the pair of topiary Chamaecyparis I need to root prune...well forget it! I won't touch that job till it gets back into the 80s.

When oh when will that be?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

home grown

It's not a big harvest, but it's the first harvest. And nothing tastes sweeter than the first tomatoes of the season from your own garden. Except maybe the first tomato, basil, mozzarella salad. Next weekend I'll be making mozzarella for the first time!

We planted 5 different kinds of tomatoes this year, and the first 2 to ripen are Celebrity and Better Boy. We bought those as seedlings from a local grower; they're a few weeks ahead of the plants I started from seed: Old Flame, Black Tula, and Sweet 100. The squash is from seeds I brought back from Tokyo. I'm going to try it in a pasta recipe I found in Barbara Kingsolver's new book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

I tried another recipe from that book this weekend and was sorely disappointed! It was for basil-blackberry crumble, and when you brave the thorns of a blackberry thicket, you really care about what you do with every precious berry. I suspected the recipe had too much butter and not enough flour & sugar, but I always try a recipe as written the first time, then tinker with it later. I should have trusted my instincts! The fruit was swimming in butter and was barely salvageable.

It's an excellent book, in general, so I'm hoping this is just a typo. I went to their website, but there's no place to post a question or comment. At any rate, if you decide to try the recipe, make your own topping and save yourself some heartache. Tonight I'll give that pasta recipe a try, because I think everyone deserves a second chance! I'll let you know how it turns out.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Plant gooseberries! (please)

In 2002 I went to Sweden for a plant conference and the friends I stayed with asked me to go out to the backyard and pick some gooseberries for a pie. I had no idea how thorny gooseberry bushes are (very!) but after tasting that pie I realized every prick from every thorn was worth it. And it was probably the easiest pie I've ever made: throw the berries in a crust, pour over a little flour and sugar, a few dots of butter, add a top crust (or not) and voila!

I've never forgotten how delicious it was. Which is why when a friend in my Master Gardener class said he had a gooseberry that had put out some suckers (young plants sprouting from the roots of the parent plant) I jumped at his offer to share! I planted the suckers last spring, and got a crop that very first year. This year the bounty has tripled or quadrupled.

Here are a few wonderful things about gooseberries:
1) beautiful to look at
2) delicious
3) grow in light shade (most fruits and vegetables need full sun)
4) good in containers (mine's in a half whiskey barrel)
5) deer don't eat them
6) unusual

So tomorrow I'm going to make gooseberry pie. It's truly seasonal, truly local, and what could be better than that?