The Lucky Gardener

Urban Outsiders, #4

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the HGTV show, Urban Outsiders, in which I acted as design consultant and for which my company did the installations. Four gardens in Brooklyn, NY and two in Manhattan.

The upper East Side of Manhattan was the scene for this episode. We were to build paths, patio, beds and a pergola.

The new owner of this studio apartment inherited a true mess of a garden space, which is actually larger than the apartment and presented many challenges logistically. Getting materials in and out the tiny entrance, working around camera crew and sound guys was challenging. The project had to be completed in 5 days, and with rain 4 of thosecdays, we scrambled, got soaked and brought untold yards of mud through the tiny apartmen

Fortunately for all, the owner’s mom cooked up a storm every day, feeding at least 10 hungry and wet crew members.

The backyard as we found it

The backyard as we left  it

April 27, 2012, 15:15
Filed under: garden design, inspiration, sprig flowers, Uncategorized

Trillium – a sure sign of Spring

What marks the arrival of Spring for you?

Is it one thing in particular? Perhaps the classic sighting of the first robin, spotting the first snowdrops or crocuses, or seeing bags of grass seed stacked outside the hardware store? Maybe, like me, it is simply something in the air – the moist, rich smell of soil readying to nurture its emerging plant life for another season.

Gardening has become a national pastime of huge proportions – there is even a National Dandelion Day. (Incidentally, World Naked Gardening Day is May 5th). We have become a nation of gardeners for whom Spring is perhaps the most anticipated time of the year.

Of course, plants aren’t the only life form that points the way to Spring’s arrival. Starting in early March, young turkeys descend on our lawn, the goldfinches flying around our birdfeeders regain their yellow plumage and swarms of tiny insects appear out of nowhere, buzz about for brief moments, then vanish with the wind.

Another indicator is the beginning of the greatest national pastime…Baseball. That sport’s Opening Day celebration is possibly the most-anticipated event in our country. For weeks before, we follow the players through their pre-season warm-ups, watching them stretch, run and throw while working out the kinks in their bodies and long-dormant skills. These weeks of practice remind their muscles how to prepare for the grind of the long campaign ahead.

Gardeners don’t get a Spring Training, nothing to ease them into the season. Our first days count, and are typically followed by calluses, sore muscles and stints on our own Disabled List. And unfortunately, we don’t have a 0 or extra players on a bench to replace us.

Like baseball players, gardeners get to work outside and roll around on the grass, and we don’t work in the rain. Our seasons last only during warm weather, and, as baseball teams go from city to city, gardeners will travel during the season to other gardens near and far. And, as with the occasional mid-season trading of players, gardeners have been known to trade plants, even in the intense heat of summer, when an opening develops or something we already have just isn’t working out.

I love visiting other gardener’s gardens, always learning by listening to someone else’s ideas and walking through their inspired creations.

But, as much as I appreciate the novelty in visiting new gardens, I feel no greater comfort than while surrounded by the familiar, deep-rooted affection I have for my own.

A clear home-field advantage.

Dear Village of Nyack,

Dear Village of Nyack…

Good-bye. It was fun while it lasted.

I just won’t be able to see you anymore.

I will certainly miss watching you move through each day, from the early morning light reflecting off Hook Mountain, to the last bits of sunset creeping over your tallest buildings.

No longer will seeing your traffic lights, eerily glowing on foggy nights, make me feel part of a suspense thriller or Sherlock Holmes novel.

Your firework displays were always a special treat.

No. We’re not moving away.

It’s just that the long-vacant lot adjacent to our property has been sold and the house to be built on it will block our views of the entire town.

Worse yet, the occupants will be close enough to borrow a cup of sugar, or share a bottle of Grey Poupon mustard without much of a stretch.

We always knew this day would come. We’d taken advantage of these views for years, through the property developer’s misfortune. As long as lots remained available, we had our private perch above town.

According to the floor plan, the master bedroom is on the side of the house facing us. Its bathroom window directly across from ours.

This new homestead will put a cramp on our lifestyle, forcing changes in some long-standing rituals. And, we must surrender the land we’ve cultivated and stewarded – well, invaded really – for years.

This means moving the trampoline fifteen feet closer to our house, transplanting trees and shrubs back to our side of the property line and no more ‘composting’ our leaves and grass clippings into their deep woods. A few chomps of a backhoe bucket will obliterate the stone patio that represents our most egregious trespass.

Of all the adjustments, however, the most disconcerting will be the end of a favorite morning ritual – frenetic chases through the house, usually ‘in-the-buff’, brought about by the reticence of our child, who shall remain nameless, to brush teeth or use the bathroom or to simply get dressed.

Our floor-to-ceiling windows will provide the new neighbors front row seats for these romps. No longer shared solely by the local fauna, I fear the incidences will be misconstrued, perhaps as lewd, at the very least crude.

But who knows, perhaps they will be similarly inclined toward ‘au naturale’ living. Then, though I’ll lose some views of the Nyack’s land and nighttime sky, I might get to see a different type of moon!

Seasons Changin’…
November 18, 2011, 12:48
Filed under: garden design, House Plants, Indoor plants

…just like that. It’s colder outside and darker earlier. House heat comes on – drying out the air. No more hosing down the plants to water them. Delicate pouring is the only way to keep the plants alive and not ruin the floor.

I hope these make it through to Spring.

Día de los muertos…de las plantas: A Pre-Halloween Trick

In most parts of the United States, our days leading up to Halloween can be busy hanging ghoulish decorations, carving pumpkins and perfecting costumes. This year, though, if you live anywhere in the Northeastern US, such plans were set askew by a freakish snowstorm that blasted its way up the Atlantic Coast just two days before ‘tricksters’ were to swindle ‘treaters’ out of their candy.

Nearly one foot of snow fell here in Nyack. The weather event came so early in the autumn season that most trees had yet to complete their end of year leaf-drop. As a result, gravity’s pressure on increasingly snow-laden leaves began to quickly and violently detach limbs from trees and trees from soil.

Looking out at the tops of trees swaying in the strong winds, I heard dozens of loud cracks, followed by ‘smoke-like’ puffs of snow, then finally definitive crashes of wood hitting the ground.

Magnolia, Bradford Pear, Purple Plum and Tulip trees seemed to be the most affected, though no species was uniformly spared.

Many old-growth trees and established landscapes were destroyed – a loss of plant life much worse than had resulted from any hurricane or ice storm I can remember.

The aftermath looked like a tornado. A Bradford Pear, about thirty feet tall, was felled in perfect symmetry, as the following pictures show.

In many countries, Halloween is not so much about candy, but rather for remembering family and friends that have died. Certainly, the massive loss of trees caused by this storm qualifies a new type of celebration for El Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

Rocks In My Head?
October 26, 2011, 10:00
Filed under: bluestone, garden design, inspiration, masonry, patios, Uncategorized

I find comfort in the company of rocks. Boulders, field stone, quarried stone or sandy pebbles – they all make me grin. The feelings run deep, relating mostly to my preference for using natural materials in my garden designs.

As with enduring lifelong friendships, certain rocks have accompanied me through more than one house move, becoming part of gardens in different locations. A good rock is hard to find and not lightly left behind.

One day last Spring, I wanted to rearrange a few plants and rocks in the garden. For some reason, I encountered exceptional resistance while attempting to move one of my larger ‘friends’ just a few inches from where it was. The wrestling match that ensued left me breathless, yet exhilarated.

At that moment, with a twinge in my back and twinkle in my eye, I realized that even though I design and build gardens every day, it had been quite a while since I was in the trenches, interacting with rocks at that more personal level. I missed the action, bloody fingers, blisters and all.

That brief encounter was an eye-opener. And, whether it was a personal challenge to summon long-dormant abilities, or a direct, some said foolhardy, attack on the aging process, I gave myself a summer project of building a bluestone patio on our property.

I set out each day full-tilt, buoyed by youthful enthusiasm and, no doubt, glorified memories of my own past conquests. With focus firmly fixed to the tough work of hauling, lifting and sorting slabs of stone, the patio quickly began to take shape.

However, as August gave way to September, fatigue and apathy had me in their grips and slowed progress considerably.

Heart and soul lost ground to creaking bones and aching joints that led to nightly bouts of live rigor mortis.

I’m convinced that had it not been for a hurricane, flattened wheelbarrow tire and my Chiropractor’s summer vacation, I surely would have finished in time for our Labor Day party.

When did rocks get so heavy, anyway?

It Must Be Love
October 12, 2011, 20:17
Filed under: garden design, inspiration, spring flowers

It must be love.

Nothing else could justify the presence of roses in my garden.

Let me explain.  Whether driven by personal design style, or an unfounded sense of Plant Kingdom hierarchy, I take pride having excluded certain plants from my landscape designs.

You wouldn’t, for instance, find a Yucca in my beds. Pachysandra wouldn’t be spec’d. And most definitely, prissy Roses were never, ever, a consideration.

With these self-imposed limitations, imagine the predicament I found myself in during a home-improvement project my wife and I undertook a few years ago.

We wanted to close off from view, the exposed underside of our wood deck, and finally finish a project started eight years before.

Tired of looking at the ugly, barren space, we struggled in choosing an approach to make the sixteen foot long, by eight foot tall space seem less imposing. Realizing the problem had no great solution, we feared that the wrong strategy would only make the situation worse.

We decided to install cedar lattice panels as screening, and though we were by no means convinced the choice would be visually satisfying, we felt we picked the best of the worst options.

Unfortunately, when the project was finished we were miserable – it didn’t work. We needed a fix, and quick!

The only solution was to grow something on the structure to disguise it, and in my heart I knew only one plant would really be right – and I didn’t like the answer. By the excited look in her eyes, I immediately knew the same thought had popped into my wife’s head, as well.

“Can climbing roses be trained on the lattice?” she asked.

Before taking time to dream up reasons why not, I heard myself stammer the unimaginable.

“Uh, I guess so”.

My answer triggered a smile that reddened her cheekbones and raised her ears skyward. I, on the other hand, was already dealing with my anxiety of actually being a rose owner.

We planted three climbers and they began to grow, covering the lattice with a profusion of blooms and gentle fragrance. The problem solved, I reluctantly tended to the needs of the vines. The scratches and punctures resulting from their pruning became constant reminders of my generosity in planting them.

One very hot day, after a particularly sacrificial session of cutting back the vines, I felt woozy from blood loss. In that semi-conscious state, a memory appeared of the flowers my wife chose for our wedding and of the vows we took that day.

Regaining strength and becoming aware of my surroundings, it occurred to me that of all the wedding proclamations we voiced, there was one I purposely had not made.

Still somewhat dizzy, and blinded by the day’s unforgiving sunshine, a voice from above commanded me, “I want more!” I was startled by this heavenly directive.

I realized it was just my wife, standing on the deck, shouting down to me.

“I beg your pardon,” I sang, “I never promised you a rose garden!”