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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.
Above: Window box explosion in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood. Below: Ivy and seasonal containers decorate a carriage house in Old Kensington.
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.
Below: A proudly tended Brooklyn tree pit with petunias and variegated hosta.
A 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.
A SWITCH has been thrown somewhere — “Garden ON” — and spring is busting out all over. Everyone with a Facebook page has been deliriously posting pictures of daffodils and magnolia blossoms, but indulge me a few, if you will. These, taken about 10 days ago at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, already seem a moment that has passed. Things are farther along now. To me (not being a bee), that’s the chief meaning and purpose of flowers: a reminder of how beautiful, and heartbreakingly ephemeral, it all is. And by “it,” I mean life.
On a lighter note, how funny is this sign, spotted in front of a Flatbush Avenue dive bar? “Spring is the time of plans and projects,” a quote from none other than Tolstoy, with whom I heartily concur — and also $4 drafts!
An odd thing happened with the onset of April, which always feels like real New Year’s to me. Two days ago, I signed a contract of sale on my cottage in East Hampton, the renovation and landscaping of which has been a recurring subject on this five-year-old blog. It was an emotional roller coaster to the end, with yet another near-deal falling through and a decisive buyer stepping up just last week. We’ll close on or before May 15. That is a great relief, of course — the house was officially on the market only six months, but it had begun to feel like forever.
But that’s not the odd thing. The odd thing is, now that the real-estate paralysis has lifted, I feel like blogging again. I have a backlog of drafts and posts to write. Fair warning! Meanwhile, consider the flowers.
A TRIP TO THE NEW CROWN HEIGHTS STORE, Reclaimed Home, could just save you a longer trip upstate. The architectural salvage and secondhand furniture on offer here are reminiscent of what you might find while foraging at the Stormville flea market in Putnam County, or in a Catskills antique store.
The spacious shop, which opened last weekend at 945 Carroll Street, in a former tattoo parlor a block from the 1000 Washington Avenue entrance to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, is a joint project of two longtime friends, top — Phyllis Bobb, a veteran flea market vendor who formerly owned a Victorian house in Beacon, N.Y. (its renovation is fully documented on her 7-year-old blog), and fine-arts painter Emilia DeVitis.
The repurposed pieces in the store, however — a decorative 19th century radiator grille used as the top of a side table, for instance, or a 1920s ‘waterfall’ dresser on wooden wheels, given new pizzazz with a painted red chevron design, are unique in all the world. Prices are accessible, and the info on the price tags exhaustive and painfully honest — a cast-iron chandelier is marked “Not vintage,” a piece in mid-paint job “Not finished yet.”
Check out the website, which displays many of the pieces for sale in the shop, with detailed descriptions and prices, or better yet, go to the store. It’s open five days (Wednesday-Friday 9-5; Saturday and Sunday 10-6, Monday and Tuesday by appointment).
BROOKLYN IS VAST — a mighty city in its own right until 1898, when it was consolidated into New York City and forever after out-dazzled by its skinny neighbor across the river. Considered on its own, the borough of Brooklyn is the fourth most populous city in the U.S. (and, I hear, the third most expensive after San Francisco and Manhattan). It sprawls seven miles from the Brooklyn Bridge to Sheepshead Bay, a patchwork of amorphous neighborhoods whose names and borders shift with changing demographics.
Old industrial building on Bergen St, developed as offices for creative types
Corner of Bergen and Franklin
And boy, are they changing, nowhere faster than in Crown Heights. I only stuck my toe in the waters of Crown Heights the other day, almost for the first time, when a friend and I set out to take a walk and ended up cruising Franklin Avenue, an artery exploding with restaurants, cheese shops, bakeries, wine bars, and vintage clothing stores on the northern side of Eastern Parkway, and nothing but laundromats and bodegas south of it. The Line of Yuppification, as a friend used to say, is stark.
Little Zelda, an appealing coffee shop
Rosebud Vintage, one of several
Wedge, a fancy cheese shop
We discovered an elevated subway line we never knew existed (the S train, a shuttle that runs only three or four stops between major lines), scoped out some beautiful industrial buildings, popped in and out of various shops, and ended up at cozy Cent’Anni in time for happy hour (5-7PM Monday-Friday, $4 wine and $2 crostini). Happy were we.
Below: the attractive Fez, now closed, soon to re-open