Randalls Island Park Alliance

Archive for the ‘Ask a Gardener’ Category

New Wildflower Planting at Hellgate

In Ask a Gardener, Wildflower Medow on October 19, 2012 at 4:07 pm

by Kaity C

On October 3, 2012, a crew of volunteers from accounting firm Ernst and Young came to help with our expansion of the Hellgate Wildflower Meadow. As volunteers were carefully planting the wildflower starts into the soil, butterflies were already landing on the first flowers.

Here is a list of the some of the genuses we planted that day, and the # of butterfly/moth species that feed on them. Adapted from: http://bringingnaturehome.net/native-gardening/herbaceous-plants. Hurray ; )

Native Plant Genus # of Butterfly/Moth Species supported
Goldenrod Solidago 115
Milkweed Asclepias 12
Aster Aster 112
Cardinal Flower Lobeilia 4
Bee balm Monarda 7
Beard Tongue Penstemon 8
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia 17
Hyssop Agastache 4
Sneezeweed Helenium 5
Rose Mallow Hibiscus 20

The Return of Native Plants to Randall’s Island

In Ask a Gardener, Wildflower Medow on October 19, 2012 at 2:42 pm

by Kaity C

Native plants are making a comeback. There are two native wildflower meadows on Randall’s Island, and our Hellgate Wildflower meadow recently received a generous upgrade from a group of volunteers from the accounting firm Ernst and Young. I am inclined to plant natives, have seeded them in all the gardens where I have worked, and have gone on tours of native habitat gardens. And yet, when the volunteers were here and one asked about the reasoning behind planting wildflowers, I began to explain and realized I had internalized a love for natives but lost my grasp on the knowledge and evidence supporting their use. Change comes from a combination of understanding and fashion. On a superficial level, fashion is great for driving change. But understanding is what creates lasting change. “Sustainability” is a very fashionable word that can be bandied about without a true understanding of its origins and implementation, and I confess my understanding of natives became superficial over time. I’ve consulted a few resources on native plants here to re-educate myself and to remind others about why native plants deserve our attention.

1. What is a native plant?

There are varied opinions regarding this question. Generally, native plants are those found growing locally before the introduction of other plants from distant countries. However, in landscapes shaped by agriculture over thousands of years, this distinction may be arbitrary. In the United States, native plants are often defined as plants that were growing before contact with Europeans.

2. Are all native plants good and are all non-native plants bad?

Not necessarily. Some native plants are ideally suited to the local environment, whereas other natives are so successful that they dominate a planting and reduce the diversity of the whole area. Helianthus tuberosus (one common name: sun choke) is native to this region and also aggressive. In the Hellgate Wildflower Meadow, which was conceived to showcase the abundance and diversity of this region’s wildflowers, sun choke occupies large patches and could out-compete most of the other wildflowers if given the chance. In late summer, Eunyoung dispatched the whole crew to pull up the sun choke in an attempt to reduce their spread.

Non-natives can be invasive bullies, but many are ideally suited to gardens, despite their distant origins. Although I don’t know any gardener today who would deliberately plant Japanese knotweed or bindweed, there is a large class of common gardening plants that are non-native but are naturalized. Many of these ornamental, non-native plants cannot reproduce or spread readily without continued human help. Some ornamental, naturalized plants used in the gardens at Randall’s include: Muscari and Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ and Echinops bannaticus ‘Taplow Blue’. Many non-native plants play an important role in supporting local biodiversity.

3. Yes, native plants are back in fashion. But besides being fashionable, why plant natives?

Native species have been adapting to local conditions for thousands of years. They have had longer to adapt to the soil and the climate, and they plan an invaluable role in supporting biodiversity.
Even modest increases in the native plant cover significantly increases the number and species of breeding birds, including birds of conservation concern. As our forests and natural areas continue to disappear under pavement, gardeners have the potential to play a crucial role in saving biodiversity.
Sense of place: The New York area has its own distinct assemblage of native plants. We are not obliged to create uniform national gardens of begonias, impatiens, and mums!
Ease of care: When installed in the appropriate site, natives require less maintenance than their exotic alternatives. Once established, they usually need less water. Having evolved with the area’s insects and diseases, they are less likely to need fertilizers or pesticides.
Habitat loss = species loss: There is a one-to-one correspondence between habitat destruction and species loss. In Delaware, for instance, state ecologists say that 40 percent of all native plant species identified in 1966 are threatened or extinct; 41 percent of native birds that depend on forest cover are rare or absent.
For many locally rare animals, native plants are essential to their survival. For example, the Federally-endangered Karner blue butterfly feeds exclusively on wild blue lupine, both of which are native to New York State. Although you may see our native insects visiting exotic plants, they are not able to sustain themselves from exotics. You will certainly see butterflies atop the blossoms on Butterfly bush, native to China, but you will only see adults who can sip the nectar. The plant cannot be eaten by the butterfly larvae.
Added beauty: New York City has hundreds of native species. These attractive plants meet every horticultural need from ground cover to attractive foliage and hardy blooms, and all ecosystem layers: ferns, wildflowers, vines, shrubs, and trees. A native garden can offer year round beauty and interest.
Preserve natural heritage: Our local biodiversity has diminished in the exotic invasion. Some introduced garden plants, like dame’s rocket, Oriental bittersweet, privet, and purple loosestrife have overtaken our landscapes. Planting natives is our only means to reclaim the landscape.
Cleaner waterways: Native grasses and wildflowers provide excellent erosion control. Increased biological diversity encourages rainwater to enter the soil. Monocultures of ground cover such as lawn create high levels of water runoff, thus encouraging local drought and polluting waterways during storm

Working here has helped me see how Eunyoung and Phyllis have applied information about natives to the unique conditions at Randall’s Island. They have chosen plants that suit the local environment here without dominating it.

Some excellent resources for native plants:

Bringing Nature Home. (2008). Tallamy, Doug. Timber Press.

A Guide to Native Plants of the New York City Region (2007) New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Gargiullo, Margaret B.

Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada Second Edition (1991) The New York Botanical Garden. Gleason, Henry Ph.D., Arthur Cronquist, Ph.D.

Native Plants of the Northeast A Guide for Gardening and Conservation (2005) Leopold, Donald, J.

Native Species Planting Guide for New York City and Vicinity (1993) Natural Resources Group, City of New York Parks & Recreation. Luttenberg, Danielle, Deborah Lev, Michael Feller.

Wildflowers in the Field and Forest. A Field Guide to the Northeastern United States. (2006). Clemants, Steve and Carol Gracie. Oxford University Press.

Rosenzweig M. L. 2001. Loss of speciation rate will impoverish future diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. USA 98, 5404–5410

Bee Nice

In Ask a Gardener, General Plants on October 18, 2012 at 11:44 am

By Merryl Spence

Photo: Merryl & Poppies, Native Garden, Randall’s Island, 2012

As a gardener I love bees. Heck, as a human being I love bees. Bees are a vital part of our everyday garden activities and life as the human race knows it. Bees make our food world and plant world go round. Really they do. If these pollinators ceased to exist, whole communities could collapse. A few basic bee tidbits if you will:

* Its estimated that bees pollinate a third of the food we eat, at a value of $15 billion per year. Yup, yup. http://www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=15572

* Bee venom has  been found to have medicinal properties, used for treating arthritis, multiple sclerosis and even fibromyalgia, and more recently to treat sexual dysfunction, cancer, epilepsy and depression. Oh yeah. http://www.apitherapy.org/

* The honeybee hive is perennial. Although quite inactive during the winter, the honeybee survives the winter months by clustering for warmth. By self-regulating the internal temperature of the cluster, the bees maintain 93 degrees Fahrenheit in the center of the winter cluster (regardless of the outside temperature).  I’ve often wondered what they do in winter and here’s my answer. So cool.

I recently watched the documentary about disappearing bees, Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? The film examines the global bee crisis through the eyes of beekeepers, scientists, farmers and philosophers. Wild and managed honeybee populations have been in decline for the last 30 years, according to the USDA. But in 2006 beekeepers began reporting 30 to 90 percent losses in their bee colonies, and the term colony collapse disorder became synonymous with the mysterious disappearance of bees around the world. While the reason isn’t fully understood, possible causes include pathogens, viruses, pesticides, environmental change-related stress, malnutrition and migratory beekeeping.

There’s not a solution for colony collapse disorder or even an exact scientific understanding of whats happening to bees as of yet. BUT,  there are several IMPORTANT things you can do to help (check out the link below). In the meantime take care of our fuzzy winged friends. We need them to survive and right about now they really need us.


Salves, balms, bath salts, oh my!

In Ask a Gardener, New Ideas and Expansions on October 16, 2012 at 1:05 pm

 By: Merryl Spence
(Photo; Merryl & The Tetons 2012)

Beginnings sometimes stem from unexpected places.  For Potlatch Remedy and I, the beginning was Rikers Island, fall of 2010.  Yes, that Rikers.  After a ten-year career in the entertainment industry I found myself seeking a new environment and a fresh start.  I took a position working with inmates in a horticultural therapy program.  The three-acre garden at Rikers is gated within Rosie’s, the women’s detention center. A stunning array of trees – maple, evergreen, tiger sumac, holly, and fig – live alongside an abundance of flowers, succulents, vegetables and fruit. There is a koi pond and a green house. Fifteen wild guinea fowl, feral cats, possum, mocking birds, seagulls, sparrow and monarchs also call this garden home. And for a few hours a day, three groups of inmates (two groups of men, one group of women) meet here to learn about botany, urban landscaping, urban farming and gardening. The program director often made salves and lotions with the inmates utilizing many herbs and native plants from the garden. I was moved by the relief so many people found in both this practice and this place. My imagination was fired, and I became fascinated with the basic healing properties of plants and natural elements.

My evenings at home in Brooklyn became filled with experiments involving me, my stove, and natural ingredients. I began combining, dissolving and solidifying these elements into what would ultimately become the product I am excited to share with you – Potlatch Remedy.

Potlatch Remedy is handmade salve produced in small batches using premium-sourced organic and natural products including: beeswax, calendula, witch hazel, organic olive oil, organic jojoba oil, shea butter, lanolin and vitamin e. All of these ingredients have traditionally been used for their medicinal healing properties.

The name Potlatch has a dual meaning for me. A potlatch is a gift-giving festival practiced by Native American communities of the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada and the United States. Potlatch means “to give away” or “a gift”. This is also the name of my grandfather’s Idaho cabin just west of the Tetons. Potlatch is the culmination of everything I aspire to make a part of my life – the healing properties of nature, community, and a whole lot of love.

Making salve is a passion for me. There is something deeply soothing and rewarding about making something from scratch that is used for healing purposes. Anyone can do this from home and with a small budget. It’s easy, super fun and makes for a unique gift any time of the year. As a gardener here on Randall’s Island I occasionally get the chance to work with Nick in The Learning Garden. There are a number of herbs and plants available that are key ingredients for homemade salves, lotions, balms, scrubs, bath salts etc. Here is a very easy recipe via Janice Cox (Janice Cox is the author of Natural Beauty at Home) utilizing lavender (Lavandula x intermedia ‘England’, the species we grow in The Learning Garden) from the Randall’s Island Learning Garden.

• 1 cup dried lavender flowers (any species you’d like)

• 2 cups whole oatmeal (to keep it natural/organic use a natural or organic brand)

• 1⁄2 cup baking soda

1. Place ingredients inside a food processor or blender. Grind until you have a smooth, fine powder. The powder should have the consistency of whole grain flour.

2. Pour into a dry, clean container. To use: Pour 1/2 cup into your bath as you fill the tub.

There are a number of resources available online and at local bookstores that will provide you with endless ideas and recipes. Here are a few of my favorites;

Stephanie Tourles book Organic Body Care Recipes is a great resource and provides an endless amount of easy to follow recipes for a variety of body care needs. Her book has become a staple in my library.


I’m also a BIG fan of Kendra and Scott’s blog http://asonomagarden.wordpress.com I could spend days on here relishing in their recipes and suggestions. Fantastic they are! Here’s an easy winter hand salve recipe; http://asonomagarden.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/how-to-make-an-easy-winter-hand-salve-aka-eczema-fighting-lotion/

Winter is coming. Get ready and create!

The Caterpillar’s Arrival

In Ask a Gardener, Learning Garden, New Ideas and Expansions on September 6, 2012 at 11:26 am

By Dianne Crary

We have a new caterpillar in The Learning Garden.  It doesn’t move and greets visitors at the entrance to the garden.

The caterpillar is painted on boards attached to our milk crate garden.  Earlier this year I blogged about the field trip that Randall’s Island gardeners took to River Park Farm in Manhattan to see a garden made out of milk crates (see Zach’s Lil-Acres).  We decided to try out this system in our Learning Garden (see Create a Garden with Milk Crates), but the black crates were not very cheery and The Learning Garden is where many New York City children are introduced to gardening and its benefits.

We came up with the idea to form  an undulating line of milk crates and to cover the crates with boards to look like the parts of a caterpillar.  Aaron Moritz, a fellow gardener, cut large plywood sheets to match the measurements of the three different sizes of crates and then painted them with a primer/base coat of gray.  Aaron also drilled holes at the right location so the boards could be attached to the crates.  Now, they were ready to be painted as a caterpillar.
When taking a class at the New York Botanical Garden, I noticed a person behind me drawing an adorable bunny rabbit.  Jackpot!  I immediately asked if she could draw a caterpillar for our garden.  She was intrigued and readily said that she would love to help out.  That was how Eunjoo Paek joined our caterpillar team.  Later I found out that she had been a children’s illustrator for McGraw Hill.

One Sunday afternoon Eunjoo and I got together to do the painting.  We rummaged through various cans of paint left over from other jobs and picked out a few colors.  With paint, brushes and boards in hand, we headed out to The Learning Garden to paint in the shade of a cherry tree.

Eunjoo outlined the face of the caterpillar while I started on the simpler task of painting ovals for the body segments.  Various children who were picnicking with their families came over to see what we were doing.  Quickly their shyness disappeared and they asked if they could paint too.  So Eunjoo and Idrew ovals on the boards for them to fill in.  In no time we had a cue of children all wanting to paint.   The ovals were divided in half and then into smaller sections to accommodate everyone.
The boards had to dry sufficiently for additional colors to be added to the face and for the legs to be painted.  Eventually, it was all done and the children were proud of their work, as they guarded the drying boards lying on the grass.

In the weeks following, the boards were covered with three layers of varnish to help them withstand the elements and then mounted on the crates.  The crates are now cherry, amusing and child-friendly.  This caterpillar is also garden friendly, since it does not eat any of our plants!

Harvesting Seed

In Ask a Gardener, General Plants on July 3, 2012 at 6:28 pm

by Kaity Cheng

There are several beds of Salvia nemorosa (woodland sage) in our waterfront garden. Clusters of this flower can also be found at the Hellgate Wildflower Meadow. It is an attractive plant that is easy to grow and propagate, with the result that it has been passed around by gardeners for many years. Its fragrant flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Salvia nemorosa grows in clumps, bearing flowers of blue and purple gradations.

As spring rolls into summer, the perennial blooms follow each other in waves. Salvia nemorosa bloomed in May, painting purple swaths along the waterfront. Even as the flowers senesce, clumps of Salvia nemorosa continued to provide color, until the purple yields to brown.  After the flowers are spent, it is good to cut back woodland sage. Cutting back induces a second, less showy bloom in the fall. We also cut back the woodland sage so that we can harvest their seeds.

I began cutting back the flowers on a hot Sunday afternoon. I gazed at the bed of woodland sage, which appeared quite long for a lone gardener. With pruners, I held clusters of stems together and snipped them at their base. I piled these flower stems into a cardboard box, and stored them in a dry room in our tool cottage.

Salvia nemorosa

Eunyoung had stressed the importance of dry conditions for storing the flowers. The following week, Jean, Jeong Aee, Dianne, and I completed the spent flower stem harvest. We used a combination of pruners and shears, the former being neater, the latter being more satisfying! We scoured the island for used brown boxes. Diving into a dumpster turned up one usable box. The Sportime Tennis Center turned out to be the most reliable box provider, with a retail store that receives daily shipments. Still, we had not uncovered enough boxes to store all the woodland sage. Some of the sage ended up in our trusty rubber buckets, and some were stored in some of our gray plastic storage bins.

The following day, as we began to strip off the leaves, we noticed how wet the flowers felt. There was also a smell. Ants had found the plants and apparently liked them. So this was a good lesson in plant storage. Plastic and rubber lack porosity and any organic matter stored inside will get soggy. Even in a dry cardboard box, if the plants are packed in too tightly, there is no way for air to circulate. Our method of stuffing as much as we could into our already scarce bins did not allow for  proper evaporation and ventilation.

Much of what we had meant to save had to be thrown out. Mold had gathered and spread around the damp stems. We foraged for a few more boxes, and divided the salvaged stems and stored them loosely and spaciously in the boxes.

JeongAee salvages for healthy stems

We are now well prepared for the next time we harvest plants for seed. We know we’ll need a good supply of dry boxes. If we harvest the flowers directly into the boxes, we’ll be less likely to harvest more than we can store. Although I had the urge to save everything we were cutting, this urge often leads to unexpected waste! Had we harvested half the amount and composted the rest, we would not have had the mold issue. The risk of mold is lower if leaves are stripped off immediately, as they carry moisture. In our Salvia nemorosa harvest, we left the leaves on, thinking the salvia stripping would be a good activity for the heat wave looming before us.
In spite of our losses, it was well worth our time to save seed from this year’s crop of woodland sage. The life force of those dead-headed clusters continues in the seeds that were harvested, and will persist after those seeds are spread somewhere else.

One look around the Hellgate Wildflower Meadow illustrates the value of saving seed.  The seeds of native perennials were broadcast across the meadow. Unlike at the waterfront, where Salvia nemorosa blooms in defined swaths along the water’s edge, the Salvia nemorosa at Hellgate are scattered in clumps, designed not by pen and paper but by the forces of sun, wind, rain, and soil. Salvia nemorosa thrive in the lottery of the seed broadcast.

How To Make More Plants

In Ask a Gardener, New Ideas and Expansions on June 27, 2012 at 1:11 pm

By Aeong Aee Boo

Most of us go to a nursery to buy a plant.  There are other ways to “create” a new plant.  On Randall’s Island, I experimented making cuttings with several different  plants.   In spring and early summer, softwood cuttings can be taken from most deciduous shrubs and trees, as well as, hardy tender perennials.

On May 3rd, Merryl and I collected materials for softwood cuttings from Waterfront garden, Rock garden and Learning garden. Early in the day when plants are turgid, we removed shoots about 5-10 inches from parents plants. The species we choosed were Salix integra, Buddleia davidii, Viburnum, Cotoneaste horizontalis, Hydrangea arborescens, Hydrangea anomala ( climbing Hydrangea ).

Collected materials were put into a bucket filled with water to help the plants retain moisture . We made cuttings by trimming  the bottom of each plant  just below the node about 2-4 inches long and removed the lower leaves.  The base of cuttings were dipped with cinnamon powder.

We filled the pots with compost and made holes with a stick for inserting cuttings. Into each pot,  we inserted 3-4 cuttings and labeled and watered them. Then the pots were place in Rice paddy under plastic cover.

Every weekday I watered the cuttings. I found some of the cuttings were well rooted  after 4 weeks . The most successful species are Buddleia, Hydrangea, and Salix.

I removed the dead cuttings (Viburnum ), and the well rooted cuttings were hardened off for two weeks without cover.  After hardening off, I potted them individually on June 24th.

Instead of rooting hormone powder, Cinnamon powder would be effective.   I found that compost was also a good setting for cuttings.

My advice is to give it go and see what happens.

Ask A Gardener

In Ask a Gardener on May 11, 2012 at 10:13 am

By Dianne Crary

 QUESTION:  Can containers create a “garden”?
How much should I water my containers?  How much is enough?

ANSWER:  Plants in containers can add beauty in small areas, on terraces or even indoors.  They brighten up spaces, can add architectural interest, and act as mini gardens.  Often larger plants are placed in the center surrounded by smaller ones.

If plants around the edge of the container are spilling over the edge, they add softness to the total arrangement and can even hide ugly containers.

Containers are used at Randall’s Island to enhance the entrance to Icahn Stadium, as well as other areas.  The containers should have holes in the bottom; to allow any excess water to drain out, so that the roots will not rot and give space for air (oxygen) to enter the soil enabling the roots to breath.

When watering, one should water just to the point that some water drains out of the bottom of the pot.  Too much watering leaches out the nutrients that are held in the soil.  Until last week, there had been very little rain and there is usually a good breeze on Randall’s Island to dry out the soil.

When checking the containers on Monday morning, one could see that the containers desperately needed water.  The containers were watered, but some containers appeared to be very dry, because no water was draining out.  More water was added, but suddenly the pots overflowed and the plants were floating.  The holes at the bottom must have become clogged.

This situation called for an emergency solution.  We drilled holes in the sides of the plastic terra cotta pots.  An unexpected and interesting fountain was created.

If you have a question send it to:  phyllis.odessey@parks.nyc.gov