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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 LOT OF PEOPLE (myself included) give up, somewhat, on window boxes and outdoor containers by the time November rolls around. Others keep going… like the owners of the swell Manhattan townhouse, above, who’ve created an arresting display with gourds and berries.
My go-to place for inspiration in all seasons, including fall and winter, is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, above (that’s a side view of the Brooklyn Museum as seen from inside the garden), where crews were busy on Sunday repairing Sandy damage. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to have been too extensive there.
Some go all out in autumn with mums. Usually that’s not particularly interesting, but I like the front yard planting, above, where the lavender mums are interspersed symmetrically with juniper, a yellow grass, and a deep purple leafed thing whose name is not springing to mind.
Sweet potato and coleus hang in through Thanksgiving, at least, the chartreuse of the always-satisfying sweet potato vine a vivid contrast against the brownstone.
A red annual grass is flourishing now in the concrete window boxes of a fine house on St. Marks Avenue in Prospect Heights. Is there anything being built today that matches the elegance of that hefty iron stoop railing and brownstone window ledges? No, there’s not!
I’M SHOWING YOU the window box, above, one of two attached to the front windows of my rental apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, not because I’m so very proud of it — they’re rather pedestrian, not to mention lopsided, but out of some documentary compulsion.
If you recall, this is what I started with in early May, below: pale white/lavender pansies, which I knew I’d have to replace in high summer, an interesting twisted juncus, vinca and bacopia vines, a hosta, and some angelina sedum. That, and high hopes.
As it happened, I did what I could on the fly on to keep them up on the infrequent occasions this summer when I spent time in Brooklyn. I had the help of my landlords, who kindly watered. I grabbed fill-in plants at the nearest hardware store, which turned out to be pink-red impatiens and begonias. I’ve done better in summers where I’ve actually been there to coddle, feed, and water, once even inspiring an entire block to follow suit.
Left to their own devices, the impatiens took over, the angelina sedum disappeared (not enough sun), and the bacopia and vinca drastically need cutting back. When I get back to Brooklyn tomorrow after more than a week away, who knows what I’ll find…but I think I’ll pick up a few mums or ornamental cabbages on my way to extend the season even further. After all, that’s what they sell those things for.
After a week
ABOUT A WEEK AGO, I PLANTED UP the two boxes attached to the front windows of my garden-level apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and I’m pleased with how they turned out.
I had planned to shop a local plant sale, but couldn’t wait: I ended up going to Lowe’s “just to see” what they had, and buying everything I needed there, a monochrome mix (white flowers only) of perennials and annuals.
The centerpiece of each box is a plant I’d never seen before: Juncus effusus or ‘Big Twister Rush,’ a perennial ornamental grass with some straight shoots and some corkscrew ones. They’re real eye-catchers. Here’s what else is in each box:
- Variegated hostas (‘Minuteman’ in one, ‘Wide Brim” in the other)
- Chartreuse Sedum ‘Angelina,’ for textural variation
- Pansies – white with a touch of purple
- Bacopa, with tiny white flowers which will trail
- Variegated vinca, another trailing vine
That’s it, except for stuffing a white impatiens into one corner that looked empty. The pansies will last until July or so (they’re cool-season annuals), and then I’ll replace them with something else. I re-used the old potting soil that was in the boxes, topped up with some fresh, and mulched everything after planting to keep things moist. They’ll need daily watering when it gets hot, and I admit to using a weak solution of Miracle-Gro in my city containers.
Cost of each box: about $25.
Upon first planting
Prospect Heights looking lush
Cherry blossoms and brickwork, Prospect Heights
High style on Columbia Heights, Brooklyn Heights
Rope wrapped tree, Fourth Avenue, Boerum Hill
A cornice too pretty for a boiler company, Fourth Avenue, Gowanus
Window box show, Columbia Heights, Brooklyn Heights
Something Parisian about this one, Columbia Heights, Brooklyn Heights
Elegance, Columbia Heights, Brooklyn Heights