Friday, August 27, 2010

Adult Pleasures I: Gambling

I recall gambling thrice in my life, though I could be wrong: twice in Central City, Colorado (once with my “in-laws” at the nickel slots armed with $1, which I promptly lost); once with a broad assemblage of Viet’s relatives (again, with nickel slots but armed with $2; as evidence I had no clue what I was doing, I kept feeding the machine, oblivious to the blinking lights, until someone point out I “won” and needed to push a button, at which point a barrage of nickels came pouring out…maybe $50, probably much more as I filled one enormous sized tumbler with my winnings…but which was quickly squandered as relatives dipped into my tumbler and I as became enamored with the idea of winning more); and once in Las Vegas.

Yes, I have a Vegas story, but, as the marketing byline goes…

Oh, who am I kidding?! Here’s my dirty secret: I went to Vegas for a conference and gambled $1 at my hotel, which I lost within seconds. Blegh. Vegas sucks.

I gambled for the 4th time this week.

As I reported, some prized hostas in my rear shade garden have been stricken by a sudden outbreak of the fatal Sclerotium rolfsii, a soil-based fungus. Upon identifying the nodules (the sclerota), I began generously spraying the affected plants with a 10% bleach solution. Unfortunately, I realized that I disposed of all the yellowing leaves from June Plantain hosta in the ground compost pile (which fortunately I had cleaned out and harvested the good compost before I left for Europe). I lifted up the debris and witnessed a festival of white and red-brown sclerota, both ridiculing me for my stupidity and thanking me for adding to their ranks. Nasty.

I felt dirty, robbed, diseased.

My garden: infected. My cleanliness: made a mockery of.

What could I do? In lieu of resorting to fungicides, I decided to gamble.

I first tackled the compost heap and carefully bagged everything. I even scraped the pile down to the hard clay surface, and then exacted my revenge by spraying a 10% bleach solution over the surface, being careful to remove the worms first. I do hope they return.
Next, I set about excavating the affected plants by digging 14 x 14 holes around them (larger than the recommended 8 x 8 holes), carefully removed the root ball and surrounding soil, placed each onto large white bags, and then carefully removed the rotting segments and salvaged the healthy segments.

All horticultural doctor websites recommended removal of all affected plants and soil. But, upon seeing healthy crowns, firm, white and bulbous as could be, with delicious thick yellow-white roots descending from the crown, I concluded that I might actually be catching this fungus early, and so decided to gamble.

June Plantain had two remaining healthy crowns (3 were rotted), while all of Lemon Drop seemed healthy (the sclerota were few, and my shower of bleach, which seems not to have harmed the plant, apparently stymied their sordid deeds and bought me enough time to cleanse the plant of them). I washed the remaining crowns and root systems of all soil, sprayed the plants in their entirety with a 10% bleach solution, and then rinsed them thoroughly. My next act of gambling took the form of situating the plants back where they came (but only after I scraped the sides of the holes and sprayed the bleach solution into the hole and along the sides), along with rich humus and compost mixed with soil.

Thus far, my gamble seems to be paying off. I see no new infections, and the plants, assisted no doubt by the brief spell of cool weather, appear as vibrant as can be expected after such trauma. Of course I can't help but feel a sense of loss, especially when I see older photos of what Lemon Drop and June Plantain once were. But I take heart in being robustly proactive, and remain optimistic. They will return, and they will be gorgeous.

In the meantime, I’ve been inspecting twice a day. And in my “off times,” my little garden helper, Gramsci, keeps watch.

I’ll keep my dear readers posted, as I am sure Gramsci will keep me posted.

** For Judy, whose valor, intelligence, wit, charm and remarkable ability to run 9.5 miles (even while undergoing chemotherapy) inspire. Let's hear it for Judy!! **

Color in the Garden: Purple

Evanescent is not usually a word attached to the color purple, perhaps because its regal association gives it a gravitas that other colors may symbolically and metaphorically lack. Yet the varying hues of purple in my garden, much like variations of the color yellow, cast it in a particular richness and evoke variations of mood: the spring blooming Technicolor variegated Siberian iris speaks a vibrant language of expectation typical of the season, while the Purple Perilla, now in its late August (albeit misplaced) majesty, grounds the Maple tree bed (together with ajuga) in sharp contrast to the leavening effect of Hosta Undulata Albo-marginata.
Certain hues of purple in my garden—like the row of Liriope muscari that borders my front walkway and the anemone chrysanthemum situated at the walkway’s base transport me to a past I have forgotten, to a life I may or may not have lived, and to a set of memories I can only barely recall. I stall, if momentarily, at the base of the property, enraptured by these brilliant spikes of purple set against rich evergreen, gently arched foliage, the tunnel effect not lost on me, propelling me both backwards in thought and recollection and forward to the brick stairwell of welcome.

Later in the autumn a single bloom chrysanthemum rewards with a mass of pale lavender blossoms on the opposite, east side of the sun garden, which proves a nice complement to Liriope. Their simultaneous bloom elevates and enlivens; the more somber, reflective evocations of Liriope alone dissipate, and together they beseech the visitor to cheer.

Such stimuli purple provides—from hope and expectation to evocation and recollection, from cheery welcome to arrested thought, from enchantment to gravitas—and for that reason I balk to think that the great English gardening guru Gertrude Jekyll thought purple to be a “difficult color” that should be “used sparingly” in the garden. Fortunately, that other great gardening guru, Vita Sackville-West, disregarded Jekyll’s admonitions and created the rich tapestry that is the Purple Border in the Top Courtyard of the Sissinghurst estate. Of course, Vita’s celebrated gift to gardening was the White Garden, but one should not overlook the herculean effects of the Purple Border and, more generally, the sumptuousness of generous uses of purple in the garden.

Be forewarned, however: purple is lifeless, dull, and sullen in the sun. At dawn and at dusk and on cloudy days, however, purple (especially in mass) conveys multiple moods, and evanesces even in its most magisterial of tones. Thus I would urge the gardener to use a preponderance of the softer, lighter shades in sunny areas, and darker purples as accents, and the reverse in shadier parts of the garden. Together, some of the lighter shades like Tall Purpletop Verbena and Sedum Autumn Joy, set against the silvery hues of Provence Lavender on one side and a blood red dahlia on the other, can positively transform a space by adding, unexpectedly, both levity and depth.

Perhaps of all the colors, purple encourages the gardener to be playful and to be serious, to fortify and soften garden spaces, to enrapture and subdue.In this sense, we must extend our thanks to Vita for serving as purple's advocate, for extricating it from the confines of shadow and accent. If red is the vanguard of the garden, then purple is the proletariat that carries out and forwards the work of the vanguard. And in this sense, it is pure dynamism. Even Simone agrees. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Turn, Turn, Turn...

The Byrds had it right (though to be fair they did adopt and rearrange the words from Ecclesiastes 3:1):

“To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose under Heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep…”

And the song goes on….

I had pondered an entry on “the August garden,” usually a time of repose when plants seem suspended in time, weighted down by sultry days, the air thick with humidity and the sounds of the cicadas. But, as I wrote in my journal, we’ve had “August heat in June and since” and, despite my long absence and the unrelenting early spring – late July drought, my garden in August is offering quite a show.

Until now.

I have noticed that since my return 3 particular plants (one in the sun garden, two in the shade garden) have not been performing well. I did lose my lovely white Gaura (Whirling Butterfly) in my absence, and next to it Carpathian Harebells (Campanula carpatica Blue Clips) finally died yesterday (it, too, required additional care during its first year of transplant, and the heat and parched conditions in my absence clearly took their toll, as did the fact that I dropped a bag of mulch onto it in early July, effectively splitting Campanula in half). But the rest: spectacular! The dahlias launched into overdrive the other day, probably to compensate for Rudbeckia’s waning display. I am quite pleased, as are my neighbors!

In the rear shade garden, two of my prized hostas—Lemon Drop and June Plantain (about which I wrote in “On Metamorphosis”)—looked to be suffering a bit, and I quickly diagnosed their woes: drought. The enormous maple tree acts as an umbrella to both, and dry conditions are further exacerbated by the canopy provided by Nandina and the Oakleaf Hydrangea in the case of the Lemon Drop hosta, and the Oakleaf in the case of June Plantain. In the height of summer, both do receive a few hours of mid to late morning sun—and both can tolerate it—but not without moisture.

Careful watering only marginally improved Lemon Drop’s situation (its leaves were baked a crispy brown), and noticeably June Plantain’s. But then by late last week June Plantain sported one yellow leaf after another, and I discovered yesterday that she was succumbing to the always fatal Sclerotium rolfsii, a soil-based fungus that is, according to the many horticultural sources I’ve consulted, impossible to eradicate but able to be managed if caught early.

If the previous week was a week of coincidences, then this is the week of infection and rot: eggs and salmonella, Viet’s computer and an internal rot (not a virus), and now, a few of my prized hostas and Sclerotium rolfsii.

The bad news is that Sclerotium rolfsii, as mentioned, cannot be eradicated. Not even harsh winters of prolonged below-zero temperatures can kill the Sclerota, small white then, as they mature, brown-red protective spheres the size of mustard seeds that have allowed this fungus to survive since before the dinosaurs ruled the earth. Hostas, peonies, ajuga, Aquilegia (columbine), Campanula, day lilies, foxgloves, wood ferns, and 192 other plants both sun and shade tolerant succumb to the disease.

There isn’t much good news. One can plant hostas such that the crown (the area where the leaf petioles emerge from the root base) rests above the soil, in hopes of minimizing petiole contact with the soil (this is an effective method, though nearly an impossible condition to ensure as rain almost inevitably splatters the Sclerota onto the plant, which actually is the chief method of fungal spread). One can spray a 10% bleach solution on infected areas, which will not kill the fungus but will slow its advance and thus may save whatever remains of your prized specimens. Fungicides such as flutolanil (marketed as Contrast), and products containing PCNB, including Terraclor, Defend, Pennstar, and (all formal names are registered trademarks) have proven effective, but care must be taken with these as phytotoxic reactions (from yellowing to death) may occur. One can remove all of the soil from the infected area (be sure to dig down at least 8 inches), and replace it with uninfected dirt.

The good news, in the end, may reside in the fact that, despite the loss, the mourning, the frustration, and the unsightly bare spots in the garden, one can look beyond. For everything there is a season: a time to plant, a time to die, and a time to plan for the future.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hosta Flowers

No self-respecting gardener admits growing hostas for their flowers. At least no one I know. Until now: I do.

Of course, such an admission assumes that (a) I am self-respecting, and (b) I am a gardener. For the sake of argument, let's just accept those assumptions.

True, I do not select, nor have I ever selected, hostas for their flowers (this defense sounds vaguely Clinton-esque, doesn't it?). Indeed, most garden centers sell hostas well before they sport their spikes of rather sparse and somewhat meager flowers, thus making it impossible to purchase based on floral display. But that is no matter, for hostas attract with, and are prized for, their foliage: ovate or lanceolate (acicular, acuminate, cordate, feathered, lobed, obcordate, obovate, sagitate, or serrated, among other types); smooth or rugose; viridescent, lutescent, or albescent; solid color (blues, greens, yellows, golds), variegated, medio-variegated, or marginally variegated. Diversity indeed!

At this time of year, though, the hosta offers another bedazzling treat as it sends up tall spikes of white, mauve, or purple flowers that tower over its base, reaching towards the skies, its tubular flowers drooping as if paying homage to the foliage that begot them.

I know many gardeners who simply cut these stalks, for they do look a bit unkempt. What an act of theft, I say! Nay, an act of horticultural treachery!

Of course, trimming the untidy is no different than pruning a bush, for the method and the effect are the same: the deliberate act of manipulating nature to achieve a particular aesthetic. So it appears the snob is not the hosta flower foe who intrepidly annihilates the scruffy spikes, but me: the one who condemns those who do so, even as he merrily prunes and shapes a myriad of plants to achieve a desired look. Shame on me! (Why do these posts escape me ever so?!)

Monday, August 16, 2010

On Instincts, or, Anatomy of a Decision

Four months ago I purchased a Japanese Maple: Acer palmatum Dissectum--a green, lace-leaf canopied maple. It wasn't my first choice; neither are the laceleaf Dissectums nor the green leafs my favorite. I wanted a red maple, an Acer sieboldianum or, preferably, A. palmatum sango kaku. But the UD Botanical Garden sale was sold out of most cultivars and varietals, and only had a few uprights which I did not at the time want. But there was one fine looking specimen with a lovely mushroom top canopy and full foliage; it looked to be a robust grower (as robust as the slow-growing Acers can be), and so out came the checkbook.

At the time I knew exactly where to plant it: near the tip of my own little garden promontory. The space receives ample sunshine and shade (of all the spaces in my predominantly shade garden, save for one little patch that receives abundant sunshine and in which I planted deep blue/indigo bearded irises), and deserved more attention that it otherwise commands. When installing our stone patio (not of neat manicured cuts but rather of organic, unexpected natural shapes that lent the entire enterprise a puzzle-like game of assembly) and outlining three beds with short stone walls, I decided to give the patio a tear-drop shape. I extended the stone wall outwards, giving it, the patio, and the bed a gradual curvature, and thus creating a point where two walls meet, and where the walkway and patio converge. Given my rock fetish, I capped the point at which they meet with a lovely piece of red Pennsylvania shale.

But once I arrived home, I hesitated (as I always seem to do) and began to question my decision. This is a perpetual psychological game I play, as if the act of questioning will engender a command, a veritable mark of certitude like the aural snap produced by the judge's gavel when it meets the desk. No such luck. My game is my game, and I must subconsciously like paralyzing myself.

Now, though Viet and I bought over 600 pounds of stone, and though I “liberated” a few large flat stones from misuse and disuse, and though my friend Will gave me a few fine flat stones, I still lacked enough to round off the patio into the tear-dropped shape I desired.

So I decided after purchasing the Japanese maple to employ a bit of French subterfuge: trompe l'oeil. I would round off the patio space not with more (expensive or stolen) stone, but with a slightly curved garden bed. How ingenious! (And we silly Americans had the childish, scolding audacity to dispose of anything French, even going so far as to replace the signifier of “fries” with that importunate word “Freedom” as if that was going to change anything.)

Time got the better of me: end of the semester grading, a publication-related deadline, and then Europe. Fast-forward to 7 August 2010: I scraped the soil surface of the envisioned bed and situated the maple where I thought it should be. I launched my hunt for dwarf boxwoods to create the border I desired, but found none—thankfully so, because the more I looked at the bed, the more I disliked the idea, or at least the idea of situating the maple in that space.   

And so, four months later, on 14 August 2010, my Japanese maple received its home: at the tip of my little garden promontory. It is rather unassuming there, and rather looks nice (as my initial instincts foretold) under-planted with Sedum ellacombanium and a bit of Lysimachia Creeping Jenny. Gardeners so often want to create a dazzling display, a memorable aesthetic feast (to satisfy our inner drama queens?!). But sometimes the gardener does desire subtlety, to create a natural visual-scape that belies its ideational origins.
For the record, I also purchased another Japanese maple at the Rockford Park Plant sale, though I do not know what cultivar it is (I suspect it is Omure yama Matsumurae, as its young leaves begin life a vibrant red, “fade” to a crimson and then gradually to a deep green; and, moreover, its upright branches have become pendulous, the mark of the Matsumurae, though I have resorted to securing them to stakes). This one I situated in a chartreuse pot which I thought a very handsome contrast to its vibrant red foliage, and it shall remain there until I can decide where to plant it.

But Matsumurae likes its location very much (it grew rapidly during my time in Europe), and I rather think the juxtaposition of plant and pot is quite smart.

I should learn to trust my instincts.

Friday, August 13, 2010

On Strange Coincidences

Are coincidences anything but strange?

Intuitively, yes. Even Lord Byron in Don Juan said so. But according to statistical analysis, the answer to that question is “no.”

To illustrate, the birthday paradox refers to the 50% probability that 2 people in a randomly assembled group of 23 people share the same birthday; that probability jumps to 99% in a group of 57 people. Interesting on one level to be sure, but leave it to the quantitatively inclined to rob life of its intuitive attractions and seeming mysteries. Kill joys. Sorry, dear colleagues.  

In my world, I experienced three pleasant coincidences this week (I now hesitate to call them “strange” as did Lord Byron). On Tuesday, my wallet was stolen. After replacing several of the IDs, I mused to Viet that it would be wonderful if someone contacted me to tell me s/he found it. “Wishful thinking” was his response. Well, after waiting in line for hours at DMV and running around (albeit in the same building) to secure a new University of Delaware ID and pay the insulting replacement fee (150% more than DMV!), we returned home to learn that, lo and behold, someone did indeed find the wallet, intact and all items present!

On Thursday, my friend D wrote on her Facebook page that she found a 1929 Buffalo Nickel amongst her pocket change. This is an incident worthy of publicizing in an of itself, but was made all the more incredible by the coincidental find of a 1929 Wheat Penny in the backseat of my car--a backseat that no one had sat in for well over 6 weeks.

Finding the penny and learning soon thereafter about D's numismatic discovery was actually the 3rd coincidence of the week, and was a result of the 2nd, I am convinced. On Wednesday I wrote of the need and desire to renovate my east side shade bed, and identified 3 architectural plants that could tolerate dry shade and provide year-round interest. But, alas, my local garden centers did not carry those plants.

Yesterday, I visited my preferred Wilmington garden center, Old Country Gardens, to treat myself to “a little happy” as Viet is out of town for the next week and a half. And there I came upon pleasant coincidence #2: Sawtooth Aucuba japonica Serratifolia (Serrated Japanese Laurel). Granted, it is not Aucuba japonica crassifolia, the very plant I mentioned, but it is close enough! (For the record, I also purchased a Solange peony cultivar, which is a Chinese double type white, for the front sun bed.) Perhaps the penny was stuck to the bottom of the Sawtooth Aucuba.

I knew exactly where to put my perfect new find: right in the center of the bed. But now I prevaricate. My friend Melinda commented that the bed needs something vertical—why, with New York constantly on my mind, did I not think of verticality as the spatial solution? (Hypothesis: because I was thinking aesthetically, not spatially.)

So dear readers, have you any ideas for a vertical dry shade loving plant that can, once it reaches a certain height, tolerate approximately 2 hours of non-consecutive sunlight in the springtime before the trees leaf out? I do not want evergreens, as the neighbor’s towering evergreen hedgerow provides the shade for the bed, and it just seems so…well…boring. I could plant Oak Leaf Hydrangea or Nandina, thus replicating themes in the back yard garden spaces and hence unifying them, but I’d like to do something different. I could move my beloved Kerria japonica Golden Guinea from its current location, which it does not seem to like and which apparently served as a smorgasbord while I was away to a few million insects (the plant is so pathetic looking I shall not even photograph it). That would offer verticality in addition to year round color thanks to its chartreuse stems, and import lovely springtime yellow flowers to the space—that is, if it survives.

The possibilities are endless.

And so too are the probabilities of endless possibilities.

At least that’s what statistics tell me.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Extreme Makeover: The Garden Edition

My limited experience with gardening and gardeners might best be characterized by the word “restraint.” Unlike our houses, which people renovate, rehabilitate, restore, redecorate, and reconfigure with reckless abandon, whole scale renovations of the garden are less frequent, and met with considerable circumspection if not frowns.

Two things seem to be at play here. First, I surmise most gardeners tend to think that “next year will be better.” So, we leave the wilted, sparsely-leafed, browning specimens in the ground for another year, blaming poor performance on extreme weather conditions, unusual insect activity, cat urine, or whatever else seems a prime suspect. The mantra, unfortunately, ensures continuation of the pathetic looking space we call a garden.

Second, more poignantly, I think there is a general unease with tampering with life. Sure, we may whack the heck out of some plant we dislike, hoping to kill it, but each year it returns more vigorous than the previous (and looking surprisingly attractive!). But with those specimens that we care for, like, and indeed for which we paid a handsome price, we lose the courage of our convictions, thinking that we’ll kill the plant, upset it, and plunge it into despair and hence poor performance if not death by moving it.   

So, with those things in mind, I publicly announce my resolve to renovate the east side shade garden bed. I’ve been unhappy with it for several days, though probably longer. Perhaps visiting other people's gardens adversely affected the view of my own garden. Perhaps this harsh season—record breaking heat and drought, which has caused much visible damage—has deflated the promises I harbored for that bed.

No matter the cause, the bed needs a plan, a scheme, an order, a visually more aesthetic placement of plants. Of all my beds, this is the least photographed. Sure individual plants command attention, but the visual sweep fails to entice and excite.

The renovation may simply involve moving around some plants, and filling in gaps where plants have ceased to exist—drought and heat, combined with particularly dry, deep shade conditions in certain spots, have exacted their toll. I am in need of an architectural plant that can withstand those conditions, and I should like to situate Ephedra or Aucuba japonica crassifolia or, preferably, Hebe parviflora angustifolia in the space where I most need year round visual interest, but local garden centers do not carry them. I should probably ask if they have recommendations, but like most men and directions, I don’t feel like slowing down to bother the other.   

My renovation, my extreme makeover—garden edition might actually have to wait, not because I curse  suspected maladies and culprits, nor because I particularly value plant life (I do, but that doesn’t stop me). Rather, like many a gardener, I suppose, the ultimate cause for restraint lies in finding that proverbial perfect plant, the one you discover after months or possibly years of research, the one you find a desire well up in your heart, the one that you search the eastern seaboard (or whatever region from which you hail) until you find it.
The true cause for restraint is it seems, quite unexpectedly, obsession.

Friday, August 6, 2010

On the Ephemeral

Peace bells toll, recall
the flash of light that erased
traces of being.

Flowers, like life itself, have a way of escaping us. Their ephemeral beauty unfurls before our eyes, captivates the passer-by, and in an instant disappears.

I refer not to seasonal displays of a continual succession of blooms, a veritable florid parade, that all gardeners strive to create (save for those who are most easily seduced when creating their gardens and just happen, by accident of exuberance, to purchase plants that flower at that particular time). From the early spring bloomers—the tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, paper white—to the mid to late spring rhododendrons, peonies, and irises; from the unfolding of the myriad summer blooms, to the autumnal delights of the asters, chrysanthemums, camellias, and Sedum Autumn Joy (though mine, exemplary of 2010’s acceleration of time—August heat in June!—is already in full bloom), we delight in the ephemeral displays as the mutable palette of the garden (spring pastels give way to the intensity of summer flowers and soon to the more muted, autumnal burnt colors) offers new vistas, captures seasonal light in peculiar sorts of ways, and permits us to feel the existence and passing of each season (something we really no longer do in our air conditioned cars and offices, carried away by the rhythms of a non-agrarian work life).

Rather, I refer to the more specific, technical sense of ephemeral as captured by the word’s Greek origins: epi (on) and hemera (day).

I have two plants whose ephemerality arrests: Golden Kate Spiderwort (Tradescantia x andersoniana) in the partial sun section of my shade garden, and Blaze Starr Rose Mallow (Hibiscus coccineus) in the sun garden.

Golden Kate is a lovely, delicate, yet hardy addition to the garden. Her tri-petaled purple flowers with bright yellow stamens are set off by chartreuse flowing leaves that positively glow in the sunlight (though be warned: she does not like much sun).

I've written on several occasions about Rose Mallow, but never about her flowers as she has only recently begin to expose herself fully to the world. Her large, palm-sized plus flowers spend the early morning emerging from their paper-thin green sheaves; by mid-morning, they appear as fuschia teacups with deep-red waxy interiors; and by late afternoon they fully unfurl such that their green sheaves look like exploding five point stars set behind deep red petals which invariably accentuate the burgundy colored stalks.      

This is not to say they only bloom on one day of the year and, should you happen to be on vacation or at the store, you miss their spectacular showing and are all the poorer for it. No. Each flower lasts one day, but the plant rewards or compensates as it were by producing a succession of blossoms.

Though a garden is ephemeral in the generic sense, a garden needs ephemeral plants in the technical sense. Somehow, they heighten our anticipation, awaken our senses of the unexpected, and allow us to appreciate the simple yet profound joys of nature.

Written in memory of all those whose lives vanished with, and whose lives were irreversibly affected by, that ephemeral flash of light on 6 August 1945, and again on 9 August 1945

Thursday, August 5, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Green, II

My dear reader (again, here’s that pesky assumption that some people actually do read this blog) might question why the previous entry on community gardens, and why protests against the expiration of protections of them are (a) worthy of a blog entry, and (b) are worthy in and of themselves. I have been asking myself that since I last posted on The New York Times news story and decided that, no matter how remote from the actual garden experience such a post might be, it nevertheless deserves attention.

The architecture of the urban space as a whole emerges from the amalgamation of public and private, the traditional and the inventive, the commercial and residential, the artistic and the staid. Such multiple amalgamations manifest in and over time the myriad of conversations between diverse groups with distinct interests and visions—and if conducted democratically and constructively, the conversation produces an urban visual aesthetic in which buildings and spaces directly relate to (and serve) the people who inhabit, discourse, and use those spaces. The curious intermixture of the public and the private inevitably produces its own peculiar verve, its own vibrancy, and its own needs—and it is this verve that we identify with the city. 

But if the conversation assumes more of a dictated tone, then we witness “disasters” as many urban planners and architects call them, such as Berlaymont, home of the European Union in Brussels, which divide rather than unite neighborhoods. Berlaymont on weekends and “after hours” is a dead-zone; nary a cafĂ©, restaurant, shop, or movie theatre open doors to attract people to a once vibrant neighborhood. The Rue de la Loi is more a fetid gash, an abstraction of the law for which it is named, rather than a grand European boulevard, a transitional zone, that seamlessly integrates distinct districts (in this case, Grand Place, Brussels’ historic city center, and the EU district) and therefore offer the verve and vibrancy we so often associate with urban spaces.    

Of course, many cities contain public gardens and parks—grand gestures to all those unable to afford plots of land on which to garden, barbeque, and relax—and the public garden has become a staple of successful urban design. But so too have community gardens become an inextricable space in the urban landscape; community gardens are the creative, personal cousin of the predesigned, public garden space. And they are just as important.

Community gardens encourage the personal production of food—and more importantly the sharing of food amongst neighbors (how many have planted a few tomato plants only to discover that those plants have produced more tomatoes than one could conceivably consume?). Community gardens offer a visual and psychic respite from the concrete, steel, stone, and brick that constitute the city’s artifice. Community gardens challenge the anonymity of the city by offering a space to till and toil, converse and conserve, garden and grow. Community gardens serve as a vital, if extremely localized, lifeline of the city, for they make communities out of districts, neighborhoods out of zones.

New York is not simply the neon electrifications of Time Square, but the collective of localized attempts to make the city one's own. New York is not simply the suffocating subterranean transportation system, or the actualized ruminations of architects who seek higher and higher into the skies, but the violent jolts of the unexpected and the creative resonances of those who inhabit (and, indeed, shape) the city. 

And community gardens, as homegrown, sporadic, and organic as they are, represent the marriage of public spectacle and private ingenuity, and thus feed literally and figuratively, aesthetically and psychically, their creators and tenders, those who happen upon them, and the city as it imagines and lives itself.      

Monday, August 2, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Green

Kermit the Frog’s iconic song spoke to millions of children who somehow, for some reason, felt different. Its affirmative message of glamour in ordinariness readily translated into depth and appreciation of self-conception, even if its ultimate message of self-acceptance seemed improbably timid (“I am green…And I think it’s what I want to be”).

But in New York City recently, a group of ardent demonstrators affirmed Kermit’s message of hope—in a literal way that only Kermit, being actually green, could fundamentally appreciate.  

Theatrics were plentiful. Some decorated their bikes with cardboard cutouts of horse heads, and many donned tricorn hats and evocative 18th century clothing. The leader rang a handbell, and the group, instead of chanting “The British are Coming! The British are Coming!” adopted its spirit in the guise of “The bulldozers are coming! The bulldozers are coming!” (I personally would have preferred “The Bureaucrats are Coming! The Bureaucrats are Coming!” It’s sexier.)

If Paul Revere could rally the colonists to good effect, then Time’s Up, the cycling and environmental advocacy group that organized the protest, surely wanted to capitalize on his example.

So what, my dear reader asks, what was all of the fuss about? They were alerting Manhattanites to the expiration of legal protections for approximately 500 community gardens that had been in effect since 2002. While the city has no plans to develop those spaces, neither will any protection guarantees exist past September. Given the “development” (parking lots, buildings) of 150 community gardens in 2002, it is no wonder that some Manhattanites, so desirous of even miniscule patches of green on their once verdant island, are sounding the proverbial and, as Thursday’s demonstration revealed, not so proverbial, bell.

On 0 August, the city will hold a public comment session on the new rules. Time’s Up and citywide gardening groups encourage mass attendance; concerted opposition might very well compel the city to extend protective status. (See The New York Times article here.)

One can only hope, in this age of Alice Waters and Obama (I mean not Barack but Michele and her White House vegetable garden and “responsible eating initiative”), that city officials will acquiesce. If they really have no plans for development as they have announced, then renewing the protections should prove unproblematic. But if they resist such renewal, then city officials will truly be in a pickle: having to explain their resistance all the while piling more layers of manure on their undisclosed plans.