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April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
– T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland
APRIL HAS BEEN CRUEL, an abrupt withdrawal from the stimulation and excitement of my monthlong trip to Europe in March. Though I was there but four weeks — and they flew — the trip had been in the planning all winter, so my head had been in Europe far longer. Now both mind and body are back in Brooklyn and I’m in recovery, chafing against the fact that I’m no longer hearing mellifluous Romance languages, hopping on and off trains with a sense of purpose, feeling intrepid and self-sufficient, exploring new streets and seeing new vistas, steeping myself in art and culture, walking a pair of sturdy boots into oblivion.
I came home to bills and taxes and issues I’d been happy to put out of my head completely for the duration of my trip. I’ve been feeling dull and grouchy, if only to myself, pissed off about being back in New York, but unwilling to kvetch out loud, for who would sympathize with someone who’d had those four weeks of freedom and delight? I couldn’t even write a blog post; what could I possibly say or show that would hold a candle to Verona or Naples? I went out to eat with friends at restaurants new to me, including Eugene and Company in Bed-Stuy and Chavella’s in Crown Heights, and though I liked them both and look forward to return visits, couldn’t even be bothered to lift my iPhone to take a photo of my food.
“Mixing memory and desire,” T.S. Eliot wrote — that’s what April has done for me, mixing the memory of being in Europe with the desire to return. Be here now? Ha. I’ve been wanting to be there. I drove out to my house in Springs to check on things and found both house and garden in perfect order, just as I left them last November, but didn’t feel the usual uplift.
It was only yesterday that I finally felt “dull roots stirring.” I met a friend for lunch in Bryant Park during a brief spell of perfect weather, and it happened as I emerged from the subway, caught a glimpse of the Park’s newly seeded lawn (thankfully rid of the skating rink and market stalls of winter) and the stately back of the Public Library, and the fountains, and the daffodils, and the carousel, and the happy people released from their offices basking in the novelty of an alfresco lunch, and even the green and blue glass skyscrapers which somehow on this day didn’t offend but wowed me with their shiny brilliance. I was a bit early, so I went inside the Library and wandered through their current, excellent exhibitions: one of vintage photographs and another of World War I graphics.
Coupled with my first visit of the season, this morning, to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, below, where the cherry orchard is late to bloom but the magnolias are going crazy, I’ve at last begun to think, hmmm… maybe New York can hold a candle, after all.
I AM INCREASINGLY FOND of Japanese gardens, and quite unreasonably proud (as if I had something to do with it), of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden‘s Japanese garden, constructed 100 years ago and opened to the public in June 1915. It’s a masterpiece of Japanese garden design — the premier work of its creator, Takeo Shiota (1881-1943), who came to the U.S. in 1907.
The garden is a combination of two Japanese garden traditions: hill-and-pond style (self-explanatory), and the ‘stroll’ garden, in which different vistas are gradually revealed as you meander along winding paths.
Japanese gardens are floriferous when cherry trees, azaleas and irises are in springtime bloom. These photos were taken in high summer, when I found the garden green and shapely, its evergreen structure at the fore, conveying the intended sense of permanence.
Compare the century-old historical photos, above, with the much greater lushness of the present day. Seventy years after its creator’s death, the garden’s beauty and integrity remain. It’s nothing short of a national treasure, IMO, and I feel fortunate to live nearby, where I can pop over on a weekday morning and have it practically to myself.
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.
THE ROLLER COASTER RIDE IS OVER. I’m officially in contract to sell my East Hampton, N.Y. cottage, after a long winter of offers, negotiations, anticipation and disappointments. Closing will be on or before May 15 — five years to the day since I bought the house in 2009. My real estate agent and my neighbors think I’m crazy, but I’m still gardening just as I would if I were staying — raking leaves off the perennial beds, top dressing with compost and mulch, pruning winter storm and deer damage.
Sign on David’s Lane, East Hampton
I want to leave the garden in tip-top shape (with no expectations that the new owner will be as OCD as I am). The house and garden have always been primarily a labor of love for me, though I admit to hoping I might be compensated for those labors in dollars someday. That’s not to be the case (no, I didn’t get my twice-reduced asking price), but I’m not changing the sub-title of this blog. I still believe in old-house real estate as an investment. But sellers have to be prepared to wait for the market to cycle round to a favorable position, and I wasn’t able to wait any longer, with House #2, a 1940s modernist ranch in the same community, bought last year, awaiting further renovation.
I’m no longer in need of furnishings for two summer rentals (in fact, I now have four sofas), but I’m still attending yard sales on Fridays and Saturdays just for the fun of it. See below for a photo of my latest acquisition, a set of six vintage wrought iron and wood chairs that are surprisingly comfortable. Do I need them? No, not at all. Do they work with the style of my new/old house? No, they don’t. Was I going to pass them up at $40 for the whole set? Of course not.
I’m also busy sketching ideas for a new deck and new configuration of rooms at House #2. Its renovation will be incremental and low-budget, once again, and will provide abundant blog fodder in months to come. In late winter, I took a five-session “Design Your Own Garden” class at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, taught by Jim Russell, who was terrific — he had us all thinking about our gardens in new ways. The T-squares and HB pencils brought me back to my year at architecture school, and I was very happy drawing and erasing away, though I never got as far as spec-ing actual plants, like some of my classmates. I spent almost the entire course on a general landscape concept: organization around three courtyards; as well as possible designs for a new deck and a system of paths.
Though I’ll be there another few weeks, things have now taken on a wistful “last time” feeling over at House #1. Easter Sunday, a friend came for a late lunch on the back deck. We opened a bottle of Prosecco, as we have done many times before, and lay on the chaise longues looking into the woods, talking and laughing, as we have done many times before. Though I’ve been known to profess non-attachment to any house or apartment (having moved four times in the past eight years), this one is hitting me hard. At least it’s well-documented.
SEEMS TO ME THE FALL COLORS — peaking late after an unseasonably warm October — are more brilliant than usual this year. Here in Brownstone Brooklyn, there’s no sense one needs to go up to Vermont or the Hudson Valley to be fully satisfied on that score. Above, Underhill Avenue in Prospect Heights. Below, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden — my favorite urban refuge –in its autumnal glory.