Today is the first day of spring. That is what the calendar tells us. But it is still cold and tomorrow, we are expecting yet another snow storm – really! There were 4 of them over the last 3 weeks. New York City was mostly spared, it rained and sleeted here more than it snowed.

Flowers, gardeners and bees were not deterred. We did some spring cleaning, pruned most of the roses and took care of the bees. The bees resumed their house cleaning and began to collect fresh pollen for the next generation.

Helleborus flower in several colors from green over white to dark purple. Here a cream-colored and pink specimen

Now, the bees find pollen and nectar on winter aconites and crocus flowers

A few weeks ago, Sara took a look into the hive. She was happy to see that the bees are doing well and the colony is strong.

Iris reticulata

We will see what tomorrow brings. There is no question, winter will be over at some point.


Attending a workshop

Last Saturday, some members of our garden went to the first outdoor GreenThumb workshop of the year. We went to the “Know Waste Lands” garden in Brooklyn for a lesson in espalier fruit tree pruning. The site of this workshop was interesting: it is garden and a local composting facility that operates through a youth employment program. It also has a number of fruit trees that should grow as espalier trees along the fence. On one side are three plum trees that had not been pruned for a couple of years. One of them was the subject of the workshop.

The plum tree to be pruned

Espalier trees are trained to grow only in two dimensions, often on a structure, in our case the fence. The technique is ancient and is used since the Middle Ages to grow fruit inside of small courtyards without blocking too much light. This feature makes them attractive for gardeners like us, who have also only limited space.

Well-trained espalier trees can look very pretty. A beautiful example of an espalier plum tree is found on this website from a gardener in England.

The workshop was led by Greenthumb outreach coordinator Eric Thomann. He first showed us which tools to use and how to sharpen them. He also gave good advice for pruning trees: have a partner who can step back and look from a distance and who can curb runaway enthusiasm. Don’t do it at all when you are in a bad mood.

Felco shears are the best!

There are several ways to train trees as espalier. The main branches can be arranged horizontally, as a candelabra or fan-shaped, even in circles. Eric showed us several options. We decided to go for the fan-shape with the plum tree at hand.

Listen up!

One pruning rule is to not cut a tree by more than 1/3 total. This will encourage growth and doesn’t stress the tree too much. That rule was impossible to follow with our tree, which was already very tall and needed to be shortened to the height of the fence.  There were also several branches that were growing into the fence and towards the garden. Since this tree was going to be two-dimensional, these had to go. Even the branches that we kept had to be shortened, and small side-branches trimmed off. It is unlikely that there will be any plums this year. Training an espalier tree requires patience.

To achieve the fan-shape that we chose for our tree, the branches must be coaxed a bit. This happens by bending them and tying them to bamboo stakes and to the fence.

Eric attaches a bamboo pole

Eric started with the branches on the lower left of the tree, then moved on to the taller branches, which he cut with a pruning saw. He then trimmed off side-branches with his Felcos.

A ladder was needed to get to the taller branches

The official time for the workshop was up before the tree was even halfway pruned. We’ll have to come back to see the final result.

Before we left, GreenThumb raffled off books and tools. We were lucky: LaGuardia Corner Gardens won a pair of nice pruning shears (thanks GreenThumb!). We don’t have an espalier tree, but we can use the new shears to prune roses, too. February is a good month to do this.

Snowdrops and bees

It is mid February. We have had some cold days, some quite warm days, some rain and a little snow.

Snowdrops in the morning sun

When it is warm and sunny, our bees are coming out of their hive and clean house. They drag various detritus, including dead colony members out and drop it on the ground in front of the hive. This is important to keep the colony healthy. Sara took a little video last week.

Today, I saw some workers that were busy collecting pollen. They visit snow drops, the only flowers that they can find at this time in our garden. I have seen flowering witch hazel nearby, but these plants are pollinated by moths. Winter aconites are still small buds. But in a few days, they should open up, adding variety to the bee’s buffet.

This bee has collected bright yellow pollen into the basket on her leg.

We are very glad that the bees have survived the truly arctic weeks in late December and early January and seem happy and healthy. Perhaps, we will get spring honey this year!

Harbingers of spring

Today, we got some more snow. Nothing much, but enough to cast a light blanket over the sleeping garden. Almost everything underneath is still dormant. However, right next to the entrance to the garden grow our earliest snowdrops, and these show the first flowers! A closer look under the leaves of a Helleborus reveal some swelling buds. A few more sunny days, and they will open, too.
It is almost February. Two more months and we should see daffodils and tulips. Until then, we keep studying our plant catalogs and dream of spring.

Snowy snowdrops


A Helleborus bud

2018 starts with snow

Maybe you have heard that we just got hit by something, which meteorologists call a “bomb cyclone”: A rotating storm with a cold center that is combined with a very strong dip in atmospheric pressure. Whatever it was called, it brought us the first snow of 2018. Here in New York City, it was less dramatic than the name might suggest. We had worse blizzards. Nevertheless, it snowed from morning until afternoon, and our snow team braved the elements five times to clear the sidewalk.

Shoveling while the snow still comes down hard. The garden got a nice thick blanket.

From a gardener’s perspective, all that snow is great. This is because next in the forecast are several days of particularly cold temperatures (down to 3ºF) and strong winds. But our garden has now a warm blanket that will protect it from this bitter weather.

Meanwhile, some “sissy” plants enjoy a vacation indoors. Hibiscus, coleus, plumbagos, pelargoniums and begonias would be long dead otherwise. They are looking forward to spring, just like us!

This hibiscus likes it warm and got droopy when the temperature in its winter home temporarily dropped below 50ºF. It perked up when it got warm again.