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IT BEGAN when my daughter moved into a Prospect Heights brownstone with a struggling pine tree in a barrel  out front. Each time I visited, I eyed the dead branches, wishing I could take a pruner to the thing and tidy it up. One day, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I told her, “I’m going to prune that pine. If your landlord says anything, tell him your mother is an itinerant urban gardener who goes around pruning people’s shrubs unbidden.”

While my East Hampton house is rented out, I’ve been getting my gardening jollies catching up on maintenance in the yards of my buildings in Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill. I ride around with a wooden box of garden tools in the back of my car — a hand rake, lopper, pruner, shovel, gloves, trash bags. When the urge to garden strikes, I’m ready. But I can see how this could get out of hand. Last week, I was walking along a Park Slope sidewalk and saw a lovely Japanese maple in a cobalt pot in someone’s front yard. It was full of weeds. My fingers itched to reach over the iron fence and pull them out, but I restrained myself. One recent morning, in Philadelphia to visit my son, I went out in my pajamas at 7AM and pulled 2-foot-tall weeds out of cracks in the sidewalk in front of his building … and the building next door.

Soon, I’ll have my half-acre to play with. In the meantime, I stealth-garden on other people’s property and enjoy what they’re doing with their window boxes, tree pits and containers. They’re doing a lot; it’s an encouraging sign of the times.

Below: March of the pots, a trend I’ve spotted this year for the first time. This is good news. In decades past, they might well have been stolen.

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Above: Window box explosion in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood. Below: Ivy and seasonal containers decorate a carriage house in Old Kensington.

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Below: Orange cosmos and white gaura have burst through the iron fence around this apartment building in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, seeding themselves in cracks in the sidewalk.

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Below: A proudly tended Brooklyn tree pit with petunias and variegated hosta.

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LAST WEEK, I FINALLY ACHIEVED ENTRY into a pair of restored 18th century houses in Philadelphia that had eluded me for years. The modest 1776 Todd house, above on left, and the elegant 1786 home of Bishop William White are on the same block in Center City, Walnut Street between 3rd and 4th. They’ve always been closed when I’ve tried to visit in the past. They’re only open in the summer months; sometimes they’re understaffed; they only allow 10 at a time inside; you call for information and can’t get through — so a certain mystique had built up for me around these sites. Then there’s the ticketing rigamarole: you have to first pick up a (free) ticket at the Visitor Center at Independence National Historical Park, a few blocks away at Market and 6th, and sign up for a scheduled half-hour tour, which happen once or twice a day.

On Friday morning, however, I did it. Five showed up for the tour, including people from Missouri and Washington State. First we visited the middle class house where John Todd, a Quaker lawyer, his wife Dolley Payne Todd, and their two children lived (with just a single servant). It’s very much a Philadelphia row house of the late 18th century, with narrow twisting wooden stairs, a tiny kitchen, a dining room and parlor, small bedrooms, and an office in a prime corner where Todd practiced law. He died here in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, as did 4,000 other Philadelphians , including one of their young sons. Dolley went on to meet another young lawyer, James Madison, in that very house two months later, and eventually became the 4th First Lady of the U.S. The house is furnished with period pieces, though they’re not original to the house — and well done as the restoration is, it is just a warm-up for the Federal-style Bishop White house a few doors down.

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Above: The side of the Todd house is more impressive than the front, which is only two windows wide. We entered through a door behind the picket fence.

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From top: kitchen, dining, study in Todd house.

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The 4-inch-wide door to the left of the stairs is a candle closet(!)

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Above: Fire buckets hang from the ceiling in the Todd house.

IMG_0100When Kevin O’Neill, the National Park Service ranger who led the tour, opened the fanlight door to the Bishop White House, left, we all gasped. It is grand, especially by comparison to the Todd house: the plaster archway in the front hall, the diamond-patterned floor cloth, the wide stair landings and turned balusters, the painstakingly reproduced Scalamandre (or did he say Schumacher?) wallpapers in every room. This house is filled almost exclusively with furnishings that belonged to the original homeowner, a bishop in the Protestant Episcopal Church just around the corner. The artifacts were rounded up in the late 1940s and ’50s from as far away as Texas and South Africa; they’d been sold off after the Bishop’s death in 1836, but their provenance was apparently traceable down to the silver and china. The Bishop had 11 children and quite a few servants; Washington, Jefferson and Franklin were among the elite guests. He seems to have been an admirable guy — an abolitionist, of an ecumenical bent (rabbis dined here as well), a charitable fellow who never turned a beggar away empty-handed from his door, the story goes.

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Above: The very wallpaper patterns in place in the late 18th/early 19th centuries.

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The painting propped on a stand, above, commissioned by one of the Bishop’s children shortly after his death, is of this second-floor study. It greatly enabled an accurate re-creation of the room, even after the house had been occupied by an insurance company for decades (happily, they did no damage to the house’s architectural integrity).

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Above: The Park Ranger peering down the hall to where I was lagging behind to take a picture. He’s hoping I’m not some kind of stealth graffiti artist, or perhaps just anxious to keep to his schedule.

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Above: All the mod cons in a room at the back of the hall — from here straight into an alley that ran behind the house.

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Above: A kitchen much larger than those in other houses of this period. Below: The Bishop’s mosquito-netted bed.

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Some of the Ranger’s statements were questionable, such as that Philly went into decline after the 1790s (when the nation’s capital was moved to D.C. and the founders, who had gathered there as a central point while the Constitution was being written and the nation formed, repaired back to their Virginia plantations and homes elsewhere), and that the city’s reputation and vitality didn’t return until the Bicentennial of 1976. Huh? What about the Industrial Revolution? The 1876 Exposition? American Bandstand?

But it may be true that nothing that came later — not even the current real estate boom, which makes Brooklyn’s look sleepy — ever quite recaptured the glory and opportunity of those post-Revolutionary years, preserved for our consumption in a pair of brick row houses.

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Above: On the same Center City block as the Todd and Bishop White houses, a park in the style of the late 18th century, always worth a look.

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DON’T YOU JUST HATE when a blogger starts off a post by apologizing for a long silence, then runs down a list of excuses ranging from being busy with ‘real’ work to computer and/or camera troubles?  I mean, like, who cares? Just get on with it.

This hypothetical blogger could have other issues as well. Sheer laziness, perhaps. Concern that people are sick of seeing photos of the same old place again and again (and who could blame them?) Or simply living life instead of blogging about it, which may be a good thing.

For the record: the month just passed was a productive one at The Hole (a friend’s suggestion for a name for my new house, borrowed partly from the name of the road it’s on, and in the absence of anything less pejorative, or anything else at all, I’m growing to like it).  I busied myself with small improvements to house and garden, prepping for my July renters — installing a washer/dryer, planning for a new deck come August, hanging pictures on the walls.

The great room, below, is kind of great.

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The living/sitting/dining room, below, looks pretty much the same…

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as does the kitchen…

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The master bedroom is shaping up.

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The guest room is rather sweet (and extremely difficult to photograph).

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Out in the yard, the vegetable beds remain unplanted, the shed unrenovated. Though I do have a spectacular weed…a verbascum taller than I am.

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I’ve done a bit of planting, not a lot; that will come in the fall. I discovered a local couple who sells hosta and ferns — big healthy ones — for $3 and $5, out of their backyard. Who says the Hamptons is a rip-off? For me, being able to grow hostas at all, thanks to a 6′ tall stockade fence the deer have yet to breach, is a remarkable thing.

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I’m in Brooklyn for July, with a planned return trip to Rancho La Puerta (my 12th, I think) mid-month. It’s all good, and I’ll make no excuses for that.

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THE MONTH OF MAY hasn’t been so much merry as schizy (though there have been some undeniably merry moments). I spent the first two weeks of the month saying goodbye to my former home, a vintage cottage in East Hampton, N.Y., enjoying its deck and outdoor shower every chance I got. I gazed into the woods, wondering how I was going to survive without that particular view.

I had one last yard sale, then moved my remaining “staged for sale” furnishings from the cottage to the other house I bought last year — a mid-20th century L-shaped bungalow, below — a quarter-mile away. A few days later, I sold that beloved first cottage, five years and a day after buying it in 2009, and six months after putting it on the market.

It was the first time I ever sold a property (I still own a few; see my About page). Did it feel momentous? Nah. I had experienced all my emotion in anticipation, it turned out. Closings are non-events, I’ve realized. No ceremony, no festivity — just attorneys and a title company rep passing papers back and forth to be signed. No one says congratulations; you’re lucky if get hello and goodbye. Afterwards, I ran to the bank, and then — except for sharing a bottle of champagne with a friend — pretty much forgot about the whole thing. It’s out of my hands now. If the garden on which I worked so hard and long reverts to nature — well, so be it.

Below, views of my “new” house and landscape, as it looked earlier this month:

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Now I’m all of a piece — all my things in one house, responsible for only one garden and one Town of East Hampton tax bill. Most significantly, my focus and attention is now in one place. I’ve furnished the rooms comfortably, and I’m doing the best I can to control the indoor climate in my unheated, un-cooled house, alternating space heater and fan as weather demands.

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I made a conscious decision to make no decisions for a while — to call no contractors, no deck guys, no guys at all. There are big jobs ahead: replacing the deteriorating deck and installing windows in a long hallway where now there are boarded-up holes, to name two major priorities. But I’m not ready to move on anything quite yet.

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Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying my new borrowed view, of dogwoods in the neighboring yard, above, and the rhododendrons have come out, spectacularly, to greet me.

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9781604694178lA RECENT THREE-HOUR WORKSHOP at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, taught by renowned urban forager Leda Meredith, was a revelation. Among the startling things I learned is that one can actually eat some of the weeds I’ve been battling for years in my East Hampton garden. But “edible” is a subjective term. When I returned to find agepodium podagraria (goutweed) and garlic mustard in full spring resurrection, I immediately tried munching on them, and quickly spit them out.

Meredith, author of the new book Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries(Timber Press) admits you can’t grow vegetables (except mushrooms) in deep shade, but she provided ideas for making the most of what sun you’ve got in hopes of getting a few tomatoes and cukes: use ‘cheats’ like foil-covered reflectors to increase light, and plant in lightweight containers you can move to follow the sun, though that seems like it could become a full-time job.

Useful rules of thumb: if we eat the seed-bearing part of a plant (e.g. cukes, green beans), it needs more light. If we eat roots or leaves (green leafy vegs, carrots, some herbs), you can get away with less. The most aromatic herbs (basil, oregano, thyme) are Mediterranean in origin and need abundant sunight. The likes of coriander and parsley, not so much.

Meredith, a former professional dancer who now leads foraging expeditions, teaches workshops, and blogs about food preservation, local eating, and foraging, reminded us that you can eat the leaves of beets and carrots, and eat wild edibles like field garlic, ramps (wild leeks), fiddleheads and May apples (I actually have the last two in my East Hampton garden as well).

But most of her presentation focused on things that are not going to supplant Greenmarket produce in my diet: hog peanut, a twining ornamental; wild angelica, hopniss, American spikenard, wild ginger, pink purslane, and even a narrow-leaved hosta (lancifolia), to name a few. “Saute the hosta like spinach,” she told us. You can eat the early chutes of Solomon’s Seal, and the leaves and flowers of violas and pansies, too.

All very interesting, and kudos to Meredith for pioneering the use of these plants as edibles. It’s good to know about things that won’t poison you if disaster strikes, or Whole Foods is closed.

 

 

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