Before winter arrives

The forecast is telling us that winter will take its first swipe at our region tomorrow afternoon. The night is predicted to be bitterly cold with temperatures in the 20s. The National Weather Service warns: “These conditions will kill crops and other sensitive vegetation, ending the growing season for 2017.” By this weekend, our basil, coleus and nasturtiums will be dead.

Late fall clematis in the morning sunlight.

This would have been pretty hard to believe just a couple of days ago. Some summer flowers were still doing really well. Even the sunflower was standing tall and did not look like it wanted to stop blooming yet. The roses, by the way, had a particularly nice fall bloom this year and are not done yet either.

A really tall sunflower and morning glories.

On the other hand, it is time to make some room for planting tulip and daffodil bulbs, and many plants and animals in our region need the winter break to remain healthy.

We brought the hibiscus and begonias indoors, donated the red wiggler worms to an elementary school and gave our bees a warm blanket.

Winter you may come, we are (almost) ready!

Here are some photos as a farewell to the growing season 2017.

Cleome, Nasturtium, Echinacea and Phlox are all still doing well.

“Onion grass” and hollyhock.

And then there are the roses! Chicago Peace, Souvenir de la Malmaison, Happy Chappy and Capitaine Dyel de Graville. The roses will survive the frost and may keep blooming into December.

Some of the last tomatoes (orange cherry tomatoes that are still quite sweet); the flower of a toad lily and the berries of lily of the valley; Kirengeshoma palmata, a Japanese plant that flowers late in fall.

Of asters, bees and birds

Asters are reliable fall flowers. They bloom year after year from mid September until late October without requiring much care. Cutting them down once in early June delays the flowers a little bit and they show up when the summer flowers begin to fade.

Aster display in 2014 (Foto Hubert Steed)

Now, most asters are gone, but a few weeks ago, they were in full bloom. We mostly grow the non-double-flowered kind that produces nectar and pollen in the yellow middle of each flower. Both are eagerly collected or sipped by bees and butterflies.

Aster flower with honey bee (left) and wild bee (right).

Monarchs love asters, too. (Foto Hubers Steed)

These insect visits guarantee that the flowers are pollinated and produce seeds. The seeds germinate readily in the following spring. This is one reason we have Asters in colors from light pink to dark purple. They are a genetic mix of the flowers from the previous year. Each new plant is a surprise.

This year, I contemplated cutting the faded aster flowers off. This way, I would not have to weed out as many aster seedlings next year. After all, I need to keep some space for other plants as well. But then I noticed that now, after nectar and pollen are spent and bees and butterflies are gone, the flowers are visited by other animals: Our resident house sparrows are harvesting the seeds of my aster plants. Since this food has to be much better for them than bread and cookie crumbs from the trash can, I put my shears away. If the sparrows eat the seeds, I don’t have to worry too much about weeding next year either.

Female house sparrows, perched on my border fence, nibble on aster seeds.

A handsome male is watching in the distance.

Monarchs and other insects late in October

On the last Saturday of October, it still did not feel like fall. Only the honey locusts were dropping their golden leaves, and it was so warm that working in the garden in a T-shirt felt just right.

Insects were out and about.

A hover fly, masquerading as honey bee.

A queen bumble bee (or so I think) looking for a place to spend the winter.

The milkweed bugs moved to the salvia in large groups. I wish I knew why.

Most notably, we are still visited by many monarch butterflies, who refuel on the nectar of milkweed, zinnias and sunflowers.

Overnight, a storm moved in and it is now windy and wet. The garden needs the rain. I hope that the butterflies found good shelter until the storm is over and they can continue their journey south.

Compost

I wanted to write about compost for quite a while. Compost is important, it is what keeps a garden growing. Our garden is getting compost from GreenThumb (the NYC community garden umbrella organization) and from the city’s sanitation department. We are also making some compost ourselves in a tumbler composter. We started this only a few years ago, and we are still learning how to do it best. (We also have a worm composter).

Critical eyes on our tumbler

Last year, we experimented with adding lots of coffee grounds from a local coffee shop to our compost bin. This kicked the decomposition into overdrive. The material in the bin got so hot that steam emerged on a pretty warm morning in May. At other times, some material did not seem to decompose at all.

Steaming compost, enhanced with a lot of coffee ground.

This summer, we invited Master Composter Sashti Balasundaram of the NYC Compost Project to teach a workshop about composting. During this workshop, we learned not only what compost actually is and how it is created, but also how New York City is trying to compost more of the organic waste that residents produce every day, and why this is important.

Sashti Balasundaram teaches about compost

So what is compost? Sashti told us: “Compost is decomposed organic matter through human intervention.” Humans collect the organic matter, combine it, pile it up, turn it and sift it. But the main work in composting is done by others: by bacteria and fungi and by invertebrates like insects, mites, millipedes, nematodes earthworms, snails, among others. These organisms work in succession: bacteria and fungi begin the decomposition process. Through their activity, the material can get quite hot: 150ºF is not unusual. This is too hot for the macroorganisms, who will colonize the compost a little later. They turn it over and aerate it. This is important since composting requires oxygen as well.

Decomposers in compost (from the Compost Project’s tip sheet)

After it is finished, the perfect compost should have a fine, crumbly consistency and smell earthy. To get this outcome, the right stuff has to go in. We are advised to put ½ greens and ½ browns into our bin. “Greens” is plant material that has still some life in it, e.g. leaves and flowers and fruit- and vegetable scraps. These are rich in nitrogen. “Greens” do not have to be green. The coffee ground, which we used so abundantly last year, has lots of nitrogen and qualifies as Greens. “Browns” are rich in carbon, for instance dry stems and leaves, straw, wood shavings and paper. Sashti confirmed what we already learned from experience: what goes into the composter should be bigger than a finger and smaller than a hand. Otherwise, the compost becomes either too dense or it takes too long to break down.

Barbara sifts our compost. The result is pretty good, but some sticks did not break down.

Why composting? Clearly, compost is the best fertilizer for a garden. But there is another advantage of composting: all organic material that is recycled this way does not end up in a landfill, where it would turn into the powerful greenhouse gas methane. In the short and long run, composting is cheaper than trucking organic waste to a landfill. The NYC sanitation department has only recently begun to collect organics from households in some parts of the city, but almost all schools recycle organic waste, and they are even using compostable plates and cutlery. Elsewhere, residents can bring food and kitchen scraps (sans meat) to numerous drop-off sites. There are more than twenty in Manhattan alone.

Organics bins in front of a school in Manhattan (left) and at the drop-off site on Union Square (right).

What we drop off will be taken to composting facilities. One of them is on Governor’s Island. It is a surprisingly pleasant place with a flock of happy chickens and mounds of brown material that does not smell of anything bad at all. Here, all organic waste from the restaurants on the island is processed, too. Some of the finished compost is used at an urban farm, some of it is redistributed to residents.

Our little garden will always need to get compost from one of these facilities to fertilize our plants. But we are thinking of getting a second tumbler to increase our own production as well.

The composting facility on Governor’s Island.

 

Plant Profile: Milkweed

Some of our beloved summer flowers are those from the milkweed family. We like them for their pretty flowers and because they are the exclusive food for America’s most popular butterfly, the monarch. We grow a couple of native species and the tropical Asclepias curassavica, which dies in New York as soon as it gets cold, but can be easily grown from seeds.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) on the left and the tropical milkweed (A. curassavica) on the right.

Milkweed has its name from a white latex-containing sap that also contains toxic heart glycosides. This poison protects the plants against herbivores. Some insects, however, are adapted to eating milkweed and don’t get sick.

One of them is, of course, the monarch butterfly, whose larvae eat nothing but milkweed. But there are also aphids and the milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) who live on the sap of milkweed plants. These insects do not only thrive on the poisonous milkweed, they also store the toxin and are thus becoming poisonous themselves.

Aphids on our butterfly weed (left) and a monarch larva (right).

Large milkweed bugs are found on the seed pods of our tropical milkweed plant. The photo on the left shows nymphs of different sizes, the photo on the right an adult.

Different from many other insects that are green or brown and blend in with their environment, the milkweed specialists are quite conspicuous with their bright red or yellow colors and black patterns. These colors says clearly: “Don’t eat me! I will make you sick!” Birds that have tasted one of these insects remember the experience very well and do not make the same mistake again.

A honey bee enjoys the nectar of our tropical milkweed (left). The flowers are also visited by tiny wild bees (right).

The nectar of the milkweed plants is not poisonous and is collected by our honeybees and by several species of wild bees. Monarch butterflies like it, too.

LaGuardia Corner Gardens is currently visited by many monarchs who are migrating from Canada to Mexico. This is clear sign that summer is over and fall has arrived.

A migrating monarch had stopped in the garden to refuel for the long flight south.