Harlem Community Garden Walking Tour

This past weekend, I participated in a walking tour of community gardens in Harlem.  Organized in congunction with Green Thumb NYC, the tour took us to 14 different gardens across Harlem, from 118th to 153rd, Madison Ave to Amsterdam. It was a perfectly sunny, hot late summer day and the gardens were a lovely retreat from the city streets.  I met some really wonderful neighbors and explored parts of Harlem I don’t normally walk through.  Below is a selection of photographs of gardens from the tour.

the rose garden

this corn was at least 10 feet high

yes, I do.

Who would be mean to cats?

The Clayton Williams Garden

collards

turn that empty lot into plots

St. Mary’s

All of St. Mary’s produce goes to their food pantry.

pods

beautiful murals

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My three favorite letters

What’s the best part of tomato season? BLTs. Fresh, juicy tomatoes right off the plant, crisp lettuce, and lots and lots of bacon. Holy shit.

Yesterday, the largest tomato on my lemon boy was ripe enough to pick. It sat on my counter, in a little basket, begging me to use it in a meal worthy of it. I thought about that tomato my entire way home from work. “You need to do something with it tonight. It’s perfectly ripe now. Don’t waste it.” Walking from the subway it hit me – BLT.

I stopped at the slightly-less-shitty grocery store near my place for bacon and fresh bread. Cooked the bacon, toasted bread, sliced the tomato, and assembled the best BLT I’ve ever made. A bottle of Brooklyn Summer Ale and reruns of Louie rounded out the meal. Best dinner of the summer.

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BLT

2 slices of toasted multigrain bread
Mayo (I like olive oil mayo)
Lettuce – I got some great lettuce from the CSA this week
A few thick slices of tomatoes – I squish the seeds out cause I hate them
Lots of bacon

Put it together like a sandwich (I don’t know how else to instruct putting a sandwich together), cut in half, and put in your mouth. Chew. Have your mind blown.

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Columbia Road Flower Market

The start of the London Olympics has me thinking a lot about the summer I lived there in law school.  I was in London when it was announced they were getting the 2012 games.  I was on the tube on my way to the British Muesum when the conductor announced it.  An old man went on a mind-blowing, profanity laced rant about how the Olympics were going to ruin London which made everyone in the car look uncomfortable in that proper British manner.  Up on the street, the city threw a party – Sporty Scary Spice performed.  The next day, terrorists set off bombs around the transport system and the jubilation from the day before turned to shock.  One of the papers ran two photos of Trafalger Square side by side – one on the day the Olympics were announced with people celebrating and the other with it completely empty on the day of the bombing. I’m trying to forget that association with the London Olympics.

The majority of my time in London was wonderful, if not a little lonely because I knew very few people.  I spent a lot of time in parks and public gardens reading and a lot of time wandering markets.  Almost every Sunday morning I was at the Columbia Road Flower Market.  A few blocks of Columbia Road in the east end are turned into big outdoor flower market every week, selling both cut flowers and plants.  The flowers were cheap.  Huge bouquets for 5-10 pounds.  I usually didn’t buy anything because I wouldn’t be returning to my flat until the evening.  There were some cute gardening shops along the road and a few places to get a good sandwich or some coffee.  It’s just a lovely spot to spend a morning.

Why don’t we have flower markets like this in the States? The flower district in NYC hardly compares. Boston has a flower market, but it’s wholesale only.  Okay, yes, you can get a cheap bouquet for $10 at most bodegas, but the selection mostly sucks.  For 10 pounds I could walk away with spectacular bouquets so big I’d have to carry them with both arms.  I miss the flowers in the UK.  It’s one place where, this Olympic season, the Brits have us beat.

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Mint on the M7

I swim at a local public pool in the evenings.  The parks department organizes adult-only lap swim hours in the mornings and evening during the outdoor swimming season.  I’m not naming the pool I swim at because we get very few swimmers compared to the other pools and I want to keep it that way.  I will say, however, that my garden is on my way home from the pool.  I stopped by last night to pick the tomatoes I knew would be ready and to get some herbs for a salad I planned for dinner. 

I swim a mile each night.  When I’m done, extreme laziness sets in.  Rather than walk the 10 blocks home I jumped on the bus.  I didn’t realize how potent the mint was until I overheard a woman in the back of the bus say “I smell mint.”  She repeated it, looking around trying to figure out where it was coming from.  I pulled the small bunch out of my swim bag.  We talked about herbs and uses for mint.  The scent took over the entire bus, which I have to say is a huge improvement on how NYC buses usually smell.  I wish I had some extra to share, but I only picked enough for my salad. Still, it was nice to meet someone new.

The salad?  Here’s the recipe.  I don’t really measure things, so this is all approximate.

  • the kernels from one ear of corn
  • sliced zucchini – about a handful
  • diced red onion – about a handful
  • 1 small tomato diced, seeds removed because I think the seeds are nasty
  • handful of chopped fresh herbs – I used mint and purple basil
  • pinch of red pepper flakes
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil

I briefly sautéed the corn and zucchini in a little bit of the oil – just until the corn turned a brighter yellow.  (At this point I realized that bacon would have been a good idea.  cook some bacon, use the bacon fat to cook the corn and zucchini and then crumble the bacon on top.  But I didn’t have any.  Boo.) I diced the tomato and the onion, chopped up the herbs and tossed them in a bowl.  When the corn and zucchini were done, I combined it with the other stuff, sprinkled on some salt and pepper and red pepper flakes, and drizzled some olive oil. Mixed it up, put it on a plate and ate it.  I didn’t think to take a picture until after I ate it all.  Yes, I ate it all.  It was amazing.

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a morning in the garden

it felt so good to take these off

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When compost goes bad…

Saturday was clean up day at the garden. Everyone gets together to talk shop and tackle the big projects. For me and a fellow gardener, that meant salvaging the compost bins from the disastrous mess they had become.

From all the reading i’ve done, composting seems easy enough, but there’s a little bit of an art to it. You need the right mix of greens and browns. It needs to be turned. It should be wet, but not too wet, or too dry. Since the two bins had been installed last year, gardeners have been pretty good about filling it up. What they haven’t been good at is filling the bins with the right stuff.  One bin had a foot-thick layer of newspapers about half way down. The other was completely overloaded with thick branches. In both bins, decomposition was halted and things were getting funky.

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My partner and I dismantled the bins, sifted out any usable compost, and saved the worms. There was a surprising amount of good compost underneath all the shit that had been thrown on top.  The rest, sadly, went out with the trash.

We set up a three bin system – one for new stuff, one for the stuff that’s getting there, and a third for the stuff that’s ready for the garden.  I’m serving as compost sheriff now, but my policing powers don’t extend beyond tattling to the garden board when someone throws trash in the compost bin and giving stern but educational lectures on proper composting to anyone caught in the act. I want a badge.

In the end, being elbow-deep in festering veggie scraps all morning paid off. I took some of the good compost we saved and mixed it into my plot. I  hope the tomatoes appreciate the effort.

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Yoga in Harlem

One of the reasons why I never made enough use of my former membership to a fancy yoga studio chain was that I had to travel all the way down to Lincoln Center for class.  Since I moved to Harlem several yoga studios have opened, including the Urban Yoga Foundation located in the heart of Striver’s Row.  Living Social is currently running a deal (which is how I learned there was a studio so close to home) – $30 for a month of unlimited yoga classes.  I’m excited to try them out.  If you’re interested, here’s the link to the deal.

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On eating healthy and diet foods…

Don’t tell my coworkers, but I “borrow” their salad dressing in the office refrigerator if I’ve forgotten to pack some of my own.  My teenage experience sneaking gin from the bottle in the laundry room taught me how to do so without getting noticed.   (Sorry, mom.)

I found myself in this situation today at lunch – tasty salad made with lettuce and cucumbers from my CSA, but nothing to put on it.  (At home I use lemon juice and olive oil and I’ll usually make a vinaigrette to bring with me to work.)  The fridge had recently been emptied, so the pickings were slim.  A nasty looking “Italian” dressing and bottle of some weird zero calorie thousand island.  How the hell could thick, congealed thousand island dressing be zero calories?  Curious, I tried a taste, and it wasn’t bad.  It wasn’t great either, but it was palatable.  It tasted a whole hell of a lot better than the italian stuff so I went with it.  And then I made the mistake of reading the ingredients. I don’t think there was anything in that bottle derived from actual food products. It didn’t even claim to have “natural flavoring.”  Ehh.

Eating my organic salad covered in chemical dressing, I started to think about “diet” foods and their health value.  After some stern words from my doctor, I’ve made a major effort to improve my eating habits and the quality of the food I eat.  This garden and my participation in a CSA are part of that effort.  My consumption of vegetables has certainly shot up over the past few months  in large part because I think it’s wrong to waste my wonderful CSA produce.  My olive oil and lemon juice salad dressing may have more calories and fat, but can one even consider the weird no-calorie salad dressing to be food?  Additionally, I don’t see any evidence that these diet foods help one lose weight.  There is a group of women in the office who have frozen, microwavable diet meals every day for lunch.  But after years of eating the same sodium and chemical-laden food, they appear to have gained, not lost, weight.  I could go on about the diet industry or the state of food production in the US, but I’m not an expert on either.  All I do know is that after a few months of eating a mostly plant-based diet and exercising regularly, I just feel better.  And I must be looking better because I’m getting way more catcalls when jog through the neighborhood.  I’m not about to be come some sort of moralistic, organic food crusader, but I think from now on I’m going to make sure to bring my own salad dressing.

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A lesson in pruning

My tomatoes started looking rough about a week and a half ago.  Lots of dry, dead leaves.  It started with one plant, but continued to spread.  I go to the garden to water every other day and always give my plot a nice long soak.  But maybe it wasn’t enough?

This past weekend, I emailed the following photograph to my mom and my good friend Kate with the question – is this due to lack of water or lack of fertilizer?

My mom said water.  Kate suggested fungus.  Minutes after sending the email, two men wandered into the garden, one of whom was a horticulturist for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  Just my luck!  He suggested watering more frequently and some mixing in some compost.  All three recommended pruning the suckers back.

I’m not really a pruner.  Every time I’ve grown veg or herbs in porch containers, I’ve kind of just let them go.  And, for the most part, they did fine.   Maybe I’m afraid of over-snipping? But the more I read about gardening and the more I talk to other gardeners, I realize that pruning is important to the health of the plants and can result in greater production.  Instead of coddling them, I need to instill some discipline.

I returned the next morning and cut off almost all of the dried and dying branches.  I left the few that had some sort of flower activity on them.  I’m happy with the results.  The plants look better and my plot doesn’t seem as unweildy.  I have no idea if I’ve employed proper pruning technique, but it’s been a few days and the plants haven’t died so I’m not too concerned.  Once I had them pruned, I realized that I have a lot of space for interplanting.  I could sow spinach in between the tomatoes.  The spinach would still get some shade from the sun and I’d get more out of my plot. 

I also can see the tomatoes better, and they’re my real focus, not the leaves.  I discovered that two of the roma tomatoes had developed blossom end rot.  Blossom end rot is caused by lack of water.  Now I know I need to go more frequently to water or mulch around the plants.  (Mulch! Must investigate mulch options at the Urban Garden Center.)  At least it only took the loss of two tomatoes to teach me this lesson.  I would have cried if it was an entire plant worth of fruit.

This coming weekend, my focus will be taming the overgrown cucumber plants.  After 3 weeks of consistent cucumbers, they don’t seem to be producing as much.  There are plenty of flowers, however, so maybe I just need to be patient.

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