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A Movable Garden: Saying Goodbye to a Brooklyn Backyard


A Movable Garden: Saying Goodbye to a Brooklyn Backyard

August 14, 2018

Our 1,000-square-foot backyard garden in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens is now in its third summer. But by the end of September we must move, and I must decide what plants come with us when we go. This will be our fourth move with a garden in tow. The nature of rental real estate is such that you can’t plan too far in advance, generally signing a lease within 30 days of the move date. So while we are actively looking, we do not yet know where we are going to live. Will the new garden space be sunny or shady? Big or tiny? In-ground or on a rooftop? I have plants to fit every scenario. Way too many plants. And no plant will be left behind.

To make lemonade out of this batch of lemons (actually, I like lemons), I am planning to throw an August plant adoption party for the pots and plants that don’t make the cut. There will be botanical cocktails, there will be fond farewells. I won’t cry.

Here’s a visit to the summer garden. It looks a lot different from when we moved in.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: I began growing airy, annual Nicotiana mutabilis—one of the ornamental tobaccos—in our Harlem garden, using it for seasonal height and also in the hopes of luring hummingbirds (it worked).

Beyond it, the side borders and vegetable garden are rambunctious. Quite apart from gardening for pleasure (and therapy), I grow some more unusual edible plants experimentally, for the first-hand experience I need when advising others to cultivate them. How does common milkweed behave? What about nettles? Are ramps impossible to cultivate? Can you grow your own fiddleheads? (You will find the answers in Forage, Harvest, Feast, my new wild foods cookbook.)

Above: The potted area of the garden enjoys (suffers?) an extreme combination of intense sun and deep shade.

It took me at least a year to figure it all out. These pots see about six hours of sun a day from late spring to late summer (none in fall and winter) and the mix that thrives right now includes pineapples lilies (Eucomis species), calamintha, dahlias, lilies, and flowering tobacco.

Above: Pineapple lilies have won my heart. While they are slow to start, by high summer they are in bloom, and their juicy flower spikes stay attractive through fall.

That’s a very good return on investment. Pollinators love them. In five hours of summer sun this collection of pots includes perilla, purple basil (which appreciates some relief from hot sun), and stalwart begonias. Last winter some of the potted pineapple lily bulbs rotted, despite being technically hardy here (USDA zone 7b). Pots are extreme environments and the freeze-thaw cycle in them is far more brutal than for the same plants in-ground, just a few yards away. The bulbs stored in the fridge’s crisper drawer were fine. Left in their pots, a chilly basement would be ideal.

Above: Lilium ‘White Butterflies’ is $15 per bulb at the Lily Garden.

Lilies have bloomed in all my New York gardens. They take well to containers, and different types offer a sequence of bloom from late spring to late summer.

Above: In winter these pots look barren (even if a perennial is lurking beneath their topping of mulch). But by summer they resemble the hedgerow I intended, a place rich with foliage, flowers and the bustling lives of beneficial insects, as well as their prey.

I garden organically, without herbicides or pesticides and the reward is a host of hoverflies, lacewings, ladybugs, many kinds of bees, and butterflies (somehow, I never see the caterpillars…). The shrubs include native arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum), elderberries and serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) and are planted in terra cotta pots 18 inches in diameter.

Above: In the rear third of the garden I plant in the narrow beds that existed when we moved in.

The lilies include statuesque ‘Silk Road’ and ‘Ice Palace’. Between them swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a magnet for bees and butterflies. Liatris, cleome and daylilies share the space.

Above: White-and-lemon ‘Madame Butterfly’  ($7.50 from The Lily Garden) is one of my new favorite lilies, with ‘Scheherazade’ in the background.
As the lilies’ petals fall, I deadhead them to prevent them setting seed. Then they are dug up very carefully, and potted in donated and recycled plastic nursery pots (the Gowanus Nursery has been very helpful with pots as well as recycled soil). The plants need to carry on growing, the leaves feeding the bulb, before winter storage. A few weeks in pots will allow them to settle before being transported to their new homes.

Above: This year the Thai limes were attacked by scale, and when the trees were moved outdoors the scale insects seemed delighted and doubled their population. I was thinking dark thoughts about applying systemic  poison (breaking all my own rules), when one day this fierce little warbler (a common yellowthroat) arrived, on spring migration. He was joined by friends. I sat and watched the birds hunt and snap up beakfuls of scale. I could not have scripted it any better. It was wonderful. The trees were cured.

Edible plants: In winter my Thai limes (Citrus hystrix) overwinter indoors in a sunny room, along with a Meyer lemon, a finger lime, pots of curry leaf trees, and cardamom.

Above: Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is a glorious perennial, growing from underground runners. I grow the plant because I view it as an outstanding American vegetable, from its shoots, to its buds, flowers, and pods.

The flowers are strikingly beautiful, richly scented, and filled with nectar. And monarch butterfly larvae feed on milkweed leaves. It grows aggressively, which is why it is often viewed as a weed, but I control it by simply pulling up the shoots that pop up where they are not wanted.

Above: Because milkweed can grow very tall I planted peas nearby so that the legumes and the milkweed could share an expandable pea trellis for support. The peas also fix nitrogen, cutting down on the need for additional fertilizer. An Expandable Pea Trellis is $48.89 from Gardener’s Supply.
The Boston ivy in the background nearly died from a fungal infestation last season. I had let its leaves stay on top of the soil in winter as a nice mulch, or so I thought.  But I learned later that in this case the fallen leaves can be a hothouse for fungal reproduction, and last fall I picked up every single leaf (I did, really). Blight be gone.

Above: I save some milkweed pods for seed, and eat the rest (blanch in boiling water for 30 seconds to dispel the latex from the cut end, then roast, deep fry, or sauté).

Milkweed dislikes being transplanted so adopting these ones out will be a challenge, even though they are in high demand. The good news is that even if the plants’ leaves wither and fall soon after transplanting, the underground runners will still be at work, and will survive to appear next spring. This is not a good candidate for a potted garden, because those runners really like to, well, run. (Try swamp milkweed, instead.)

Above: While most of vegetable patch is given over to rows of garlic and greens like arugula and lettuce, this year I tried tomatoes, despite that six-hour sun limit. Cherry tomatoes need less sun to ripen than larger varieties, and have done very well, bursting right out of their tomato cages.
See more ideas at 10 Easy Pieces: Tomato Cages.

Above: Sub tropical edibles share space with more familiar shade lovers like hostas, native ferns, heucheras and snakeroot, and begonias. The curry leaf tree (center, rear, with pinnately compound leaves) loves humid summers and puts out lush new growth after an indoor winter.

Myogo ginger and so-called Vietnamese cilantro (Persicaria odorata) thrive. Prickly ash grows here, too – Zanthoxylum americanum is the American species of Sichuan pepper.

Above: In the long summer evenings we eat outside every night, and watch the evolving pageant of garden life. In mid June fireflies begin to light up like airborne and electrical punctuation, bright apostrophes in the twilight. Katydids, crickets, and cicadas arrive next, providing a late summer soundtrack.

Giant dragonflies zoom high above us, like a squadron miniaturized drones, performing crazed maneuvers in pursuit of their prey: mosquitoes. We cheer. Above the rooftops, chimney swifts chatter as they catch insects and talk with their beaks full. If we are very lucky, we see a neighborhood possum, walking along the wires strung between buildings (since opossums love to eat ticks and do not carry rabies, we are fans. Also, we think they they are cute.)

The uncertainty of a move is stressful, but I have to remind myself that I have done this before, and I can do it again. But we feel our migratory rental lives are coming to an end. This will be the last move to a place we do not own. It is time to put down real roots.

Where will the next garden be? Which plants will stay and which will be adopted?

If you stick around, you may find out…

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Product summary  

Arbors, Obelisks, & Trellises

Tomato Towers

$46.89 USD from Gardener's Supply Co.

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