Monday, June 27, 2011

Spotted: Scrappy Bird Bath

If you garden at all, you'll see some birds. I even had a sparrow come into my garden room once in the middle of winter. It was delightful, at first. But then it wound up hopping all the way through my apartment...back near where my cat was the middle of a phone interview, and...oh never mind. It didn't end well. The bird was fine.

Anyway, I say invite your birds to stay a while (outdoors only!). But rather than buying a specially made bird bath, consider re-purposing materials you'd otherwise throw out...

When I glanced at this as I was walking by, I unconsciously took in a deep, peaceful breath. I thought of a Japanese zen garden.

It took me four or five more steps before I realized that it's an upside down metal stand, propped up with a cinder block, balancing a clay flower pot saucer (although it's darker than a regular clay pot).

I think it's beautiful, and I bet the birds like it. The foliage is quickly covering up the block too.

Overall, this shady garden is greatly enhanced by the addition of one thoughtful, clever inversion. And from now on, I'll try to think upside down before I discard anything.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Scrappy Gardeners Wanted

On June 22nd, The New York Times published an article on the "scrappy" rooftop gardeners of New York, which can be found here. Included was an inspiring slide that also left me feeling grateful for the space we have here in Hyde Park. And a bit puzzled. When you see just how far some people will go to create a little green nook for themselves--on a rooftop--it's surprising that Hyde Park has so much unused land. Whole 1/4 acre lots overgrown with weeds, or worse, covered with enormous, suspiciously weed-free lawns.

But it doesn't have to be that way. One has only to ask one's landlord for a bit of earth.

Case in point. These walk-up units have a large green lawn behind them. Residents clearly enjoy the lawn while reading, having parties etc.

But with so much space, why not designate a small piece of it for vegetables? --Or even a few low maintenance flowers?

Several people tend these plants. They've tilled the soil and planted things and seen to the watering.

I envy them their lettuce. They get about three hours more sun than I do, I'd say, and that makes all the difference.

I'm not holding my breath for some transformation into stylish, quirky, semi-private "urban oases." These are utilitarian plots. But I suspect it's just what the residents have time for, and just what they want. In any case, to see them watering, hoeing, or plucking fresh greens is a peaceful sight in itself.

This plot may no longer be fit for beach towels and BBQ's, but again, there's enough space for that anyway. Good job, gardeners!  AND, if anyone else out there wants to share pics of their own scrappy gardening projects, feel free send them to me at

Monday, June 20, 2011

Spotted: Kenwood Scarecrow Garden

Between Wilder House and the Lillie House on Kenwood and 58th is a communal garden, though I don't know who tends it. It may not be in full swing yet, but being so close to the university, surrounded by massive, famous buildings, tennis courts, and carefully landscaped homes, it seems an unlikely and (thus) happy space for a gardening experiment.

But surely the most notable feature of the garden is not what's growing here. It's got to be the scarecrows.

With the stylized elegance of a Greek tragic chorus, this football player works hand in hand with the one-eared cat man toward their common goal.

I know better than to attack a straw man, so let's just say that if you work 24/7, I guess you get to stand around with your belly untucked.

In any case, I look forward to seeing what precious crops require such careful vigilance.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Chain-Link Coverage: Climbing Hydrangeas

I haven't seen climbing hydrangeas on chain-link (yet), but they were recommended to me by someone at Gethsemane. I find the idea compelling...

For one thing, they provide winter interest. Just now, you'll have to use your imagination, but this close-up shows how the cinnamon colored branches might catch the eye when bare. Also, the thicker vines tend to exfoliate in fascinating ways. When mature, the branches may even provide a little woody coverage all by themselves.

They are not self-clinging; you have to train them when the new growth is soft and flexible. I was assured this would work on a chain-link fence in any case.

I don't have any experience with hydrangeas, but the worst problem I can think of is that they are very slow to start. It could take years to get good coverage.

Photo taken around June 1st
But once you do, they might look like this. Notice there are some gaps in the coverage--even growth may be hard to achieve. But I like the gaps. They're mysterious, something to peek through.

Each small plant costs $15-$50, which could be another problem if you have a huge fence. But (very cheap) morning glory is still at most 1 foot high, and it's June 17th. This climbing hydrangea has been lush and full for weeks. 

Because of its slow growth, this is not a plant for those in a temporary space. But if your more permanent gardening area features chain-link, and you don't mind fussing a bit, you'll probably be pleased with this in no time. For gardeners, time flies anyway (no matter how impatient we are). I also think those big heart shaped leaves would contrast superbly with the small square pattern of chain-link.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Spotted: Reclaimed Oasis

This patch of trackside splendor appeared some time during the last year. It used to be a great green mass of bramble, not without its charms, but also not without its plastic bags and general urban detritus. I could not have guessed I should snap a "before" picture, though I wish I had.

Now someone has taken the time and trouble to create, if not an actual secret garden, the suggestion of one. And in a way, this suggestion is worth more to us all because it's not jealously hidden away.
What I love most about this small-scale project is the curving path:

As with the fairy tale garden, this is a path to nowhere. It doesn't even lead to a fire escape. I would as soon set foot on it as stumble through someone's impatiens. But the mere sight of it makes me think of a barefoot ramble across pastureland in search of wild raspberries or a four leaf clover.

So thank you, Gardener, for casting your miniature spell!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Chain-Link Coverage: Nasturtiums

This isn't technically a chain-link fence, but the idea is the same. It's a wire mesh structure that I wanted to cover up. I can't live without nasturtiums in my garden, but for various reasons, they are not my first choice for covering my actual chain-link fence. They might, however, be yours...

Here are the pros and cons.

*they're easy and cheap to start from seed indoors; they are even easier if they're allowed to re-seed themselves outdoors in the ground (and then the plants seem healthier anyway).
*they attract hummingbirds like crazy!
*you can eat them, or so I hear; please read your seed packets carefully before you eat anything! They have a strong peppery smell that would either define an appetizer, or possibly overwhelm a salad.
*they offer lush, bright green foliage that contrast well with a chain-link fence--lovely, round large leaves that would soften any metal structure
*they do pretty well in hot, dry conditions
*they last a VERY long time at the end of the season, even with light frost; they are among the last plants to die in my garden each fall
*if you keep dead-heading the flowers, they keep blooming
*easy to remove when they die in the fall; unlike morning glory, the vines are easy to break and yank loose from mesh structures

Cons (or reasons they are not absolutely perfect):
*not self-clinging; you have to tend them every few days, weaving them in and out of your fence
*they start from seed each year, which means they won't grow up to waist height until early to mid-July each year; but they can get to be 6 feet tall by late August
*some people have trouble starting them indoors; I started some easily in March indoors, but had trouble in May. Don't know why. They start themselves outdoors very well, especially if they choose their own spot on their own terms (I had less success just throwing seeds in the ground myself in the spring)

And that's about it. I love them, but I tend to want coverage earlier, and my fence is long enough that continually weaving them in and out of the mesh is a nuisance. If you fail to tend them, they can flop forward, and possibly break. They also don't like to be transplanted once they have started outdoors somewhere. I've tried moving "volunteers" to where I want them, and I find that while they survive, they struggle at first.

But they are quite nice, and they also come in pretty dwarf varieties for pots.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Free Plants

Someone left a tray of giant sunflower seedlings outside my gate the other day. I still haven't figured out who it was, but Thanks, Plant Fairy! This is a perfect demonstration of gardening with what you've got--in this case, with Dixie cups.

There is something about sunflowers that agrees with a chain-link fence, and I actually have one growing, though it's just from fallen birdseed and will have a smaller head.

I have decided to keep one and give the others away. So anyone who's interested, let me know.

The plants are a little leggy and bedraggled, doubtless due to the long cold spring, but several looked plenty healthy enough to save...

I re-potted a few and put them in the ICU, or the sheltered side of my garden where weak or sick plants reside. Here they are looking a bit happier next to a nicely recovering house plant.
And here are two morning glory plants I started this spring. I have no use for them. They are almost exactly the same size as the seedlings in my garden.
I can also dig up a few more directly from my garden, in fact, if demand exceeds supply.

I thought I could get a head start on my privacy screen by using grow lights, but it didn't work out very well. My morning glory likes to grow when it likes to grow. So next year I probably won't bother starting them early.

By the way, morning glory is pretty invasive, so before you adopt, be sure you know what you're getting into!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Spotted: Fairy Tale Garden

I spotted this mysterious alcove while walking down an unremarkable side street a few years ago. The sheer unlikeliness of this urban oasis and its whimsical statuary caught my eye. Without revealing the location, I'll just say it abuts a basic city alley; the buildings all around it allow for sun only from about noon until 2pm; it is a common area; and down this beckoning, sculpture-strewn path is an average fire escape.

But you'd think there was something more back there. This enchanting sliver of green suggests a kind of though each step taken will draw the wanderer deeper and deeper into a half-remembered fairy tale.

Despite the lack of sun, these unique figures and a few key shade plants turn an otherwise barren strip of dirt into a magical passage.

I don't know what's growing on this fence, and the wind blew the leaves out of focus. Wisteria? It looks a little complicated to train up a chain-link fence, although I personally like complications.

Can anyone identify it?

Whatever it is, these thick serpentine vines add to the sense of fantasy.

Part of the wonder, too,  is just that someone decided to put so much thought into this space. And while I'm sure the Gardener here sometimes wishes for a good solid privacy fence, I am glad there is not one.