Pruning roses

As you may know, we are proud of our roses. We are blessed with over 50 varieties that gardeners have accumulated over the years. Every year, they put on a wonderful show of abundant flowers. To be at their best for our Rose Walk in May (this year scheduled for the weekend of May 18/19), we need to take care of them now.

Most roses need a pruning in early spring, before they start growing. This year, we offered a rose pruning workshop through the community garden umbrella organization GreenThumb. Because we have so many different types of roses and one of our gardeners is a rose expert, we wanted to share our expertise.

Workshop participants check out different pruners. For pruning roses and any other woody plants we really only want to use bypass pruners. Stems thicker than a thumb are better cut with long-handled loppers.

On a beautiful sunny day in March, a group of gardeners from as far away as Forest Hills in Queens gathered to watch Shinichi take the bypass pruners to our roses. First, we tackled some of the hybrid tea roses. For them to grow nice, large blooms, they can be cut back by 2/3 of the length of the stems. To encourage a nice shape of the new growth, we prune the stem to an outward facing bud. This will prevent later criss-crossing of the stems.

Roses are cut above an outfacing bud. These here are seen a couple of (cold) weeks later when the bud below the cut started to swell.

Next, we tackled “Livin’ Easy”, a large Floribunda rose that had grown very tall last year. Here, we wanted to simplify the structure of the plant by cutting out crossing stems from the middle and shortening the canes by about half. Like hybrid tea roses, Floribunda roses can deal with pruning beyond the usual 1/3 rule, especially if the rose is as vigorous as our Livin’ Easy. (This rule says that pruning by more than 1/3 at a time is weakening the plant. It applies to all shrubs and trees.)

Livin’ easy before pruning. It had grown really tall over the last year (Photo: Elisa Monte). The inset shows one stem as it looked a month later. This is really a vigorous rose!

Everybody offered suggestions, where to cut Livin’ Easy back. When we were happy with our work, we gathered for a group photo. Check out below how this rose looked after pruning.

Some participants of our workshop with Livin’ Easy in the foreground (Foto: Elisa Monte).

Finally, there are species roses and the old garden roses: Damasks, Bourbons and Hybrid Musk roses. These are not pruned at this time of the year. They flower only on the canes from the previous year, if we cut now, we’ll remove all flower buds! Of course, the three D apply to all shrubs, so we did cut back all damaged, diseased and dead canes. We also removed criss-crossing branches and shortened the tips of the canes just a little to maintain the shape of the rose.

Discussing how to prune Madame Hardy, a Damask rose. Here, only  the tips of the branches were cut. A few weeks later, the buds are growing nicely.

With so many roses, we are still not quite done with pruning all of them. Fortunately for us, it has been pretty cold since the beginning of March, and it is not too late to finish the job this weekend. I better get my shears ready!

Spring is here!

Snowdrops, Helleborus and winter aconites are in bloom right now.

Today, it was warm enough for taking off that winter jacket. It was also warm enough for our bees to come out of their hive in numbers. We were so very happy to see them. Not every year do the bees survive the winter, but this year, they did!

Bees at the entrance to the hive. Some were feeding their sisters, probably with fresh nectar from some of the flowers nearby.

Some winter aconite flowers had opened a few days earlier right in front of the hive. At first they had no visitors.

Visitors of the winter aconites. The one on the bottom left corner pretends to be a bee. It is, however a hover fly. The others are indeed bees from our hive.

Now, however, bees (and a fly) were busy drinking nectar and collecting a little pollen from these lovely yellow flowers.

Most bees seemed to come home to the hive from further away. None of them brought back a lot of pollen. There is just not much blooming right now, although in the plantings nearby, daffodils had opened their flowers almost over night. Unfortunately, these daffodils, bred by us humans for large colorful flowers, are not very attractive to any pollinator. Bees seem to mostly ignore them. Hopefully, other flowers will open soon and provide the pollen that our bees need to raise their larval sisters.

Daffodils are not very attractive to pollinators. But crocus are.



Catching up: Youth Leadership Council

It suddenly got cold in New York City. It’s a good time to remember what was going on in the garden this summer. One story we love to share is here (by Barbara Cahn):

This summer, our garden participated in the Youth Leadership Council, a program run by the city to engage high school and college students in volunteer work. Between April and the end of July, we hosted a group of students from around the city, most of whom had never gardened before.

Barbara and some of our students are inspecting their plants.

Our member Dr. Eileen Ain generously lent her plot to the group for the summer so that the students could get their hands dirty and grow their own vegetables and herbs.

Sara Jones taught them how to prepare the soil and plant lettuce and beans from seeds, and tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, chard and basil from seedlings. Our students even grew potatoes in a laundry basket!

The little plants got their markers, and the map shows where everything is. The “Enemy Territory” contains mostly harmless peonies.

The YLC members mapped the plot, made labels for the vegetables, and cast mosaic stepping stones to make a path. They learned to maintain the plot by weeding and watering, composted the weeds, sieved the finished compost and put it back to fertilize their plants. They also came to know the garden’s honeybees and butterflies.


New stepping stones line the path between tomatoes and Iris and basil plants. The potatoes are in the baskets seen in the back.

Several garden members taught mini-workshops in making sun prints (Erica Uhlenbeck),  hydroponics (Karin Kiontke), vertical gardening (Sarah Blakeley), drip irrigation (Jen Sloan), meditation (Eileen Ain) and seed saving (Barbara Cahn.)

The YLC students learn about hydroponics (growing plants without soil; most of your “baby kale”, “baby spinach” and “baby lettuce” is grown this way) and collect seeds from Barbara’s kale plants.

At the end of the program, the students harvested the produce they had grown, and turned it into salads, cooked dishes and desserts, and we invited gardeners and neighborhood residents to a party to celebrate the season.

Yummy cherry tomatoes and healthy kale are ready to harvest.

Party with food made from the harvested veggies: cucumber salad, pasta with pesto from our own basil, a salad bowl with lettuce and tomatoes from the student’s plot, of course the little potatoes, and to drink mint-strawberry lemonade. The lady in black is Eileen, who allowed the students to grow all of these goodies on her plot.

In August, we attended a graduation ceremony at the United Nations, which had the theme “Migration and Agriculture.” The students made a pretty poster and gave a presentation on how this theme relates to our work.

Graduates and teachers of the Youth Leadership Council at the UN on August 23.

For us, this was a valuable experience. Eileen puts it this way: “We have all learned so much and are thankful that we have become trail blazers to solving a global need for fresh, healthy food. Seeing the graduates at the UN gave me hope. Yes, I would give my plot again.  It was a vibrant summer with gardeners giving wonderful young New Yorkers tools for life. We are all in gratitude for these experiences in our community garden.”

We were very happy to welcome these students into our garden and hope they will be able to use their gardening experience in the future.

From pupa to butterfly

Today, our monarch emerged from his chrysalis, 11 days after he pupated (and yes, it is a he, I learned in the meantime how to distinguish males from females as pupae and adults).

For the longest time, the chrysalis looked pretty much unchanged on the outside. It remained bright green with its lovely golden spots. The amazing transformation that was going on inside was very well hidden. After a week, one can see the developing antennae and the proboscis on the belly of the chrysalis. On the side, there are some veins that look like the veins on the adult wings. However, even 10 days after the monarch had pupated, there was still no hint of the color that the adult would finally take on. This is, in the morning of the 10th day, the chrysalis was still green. In the evening, some hints of orange and black were shining through.

The chrysalis formed on September 22nd (see previous post). From the outside, it did not change much for many days. On the belly side (top row right two and bottom row left two photos), one can see the developing antennae, proboscis and legs. Here was the only place, where any other color besides green was showing. Then, between morning and evening of October 2nd, the marking of the adult inside of the chrysalis began to appear. I assume that the pigments were made earlier, but they were hidden inside of the chrysalis to keep it well camouflaged until the night before it was ready to hatch.

And then, on the next morning at 7:00 am, the chrysalis was all orange and black and the pattern on the butterfly wings inside were clearly visible. One hour later, the butterfly was out. Like the formation of the pupa, the hatching of an adult monarch takes only a few minutes. This time, I missed it (rats!) although I checked on him again and again. One moment, he was still a pupa, a little later, he was hanging down from the transparent shell of his chrysalis and had already unpacked his wings.

Here he is, a perfect, beautiful adult monarch, drying off his wings moments after he hatched.

I will keep him safely at home for one more day so that he can harden out completely. If he gets hungry, he has some honey water to drink. Tomorrow, he’ll be send out into the world and off on his voyage to Mexico.

More on monarchs

Over the last weeks, the tiny little monarch larvae in our garden grew and grew. And they ate a lot! Some of our milkweed plants look pretty sad with few leaves remaining and their tops chewed off. But what do we care? We are happy that our monarchs are thriving. When we checked on one milkweed stand last week, we found half a dozen larvae munching away. The biggest ones are now at the fifth and last larval stage. They usually sit on the underside of a leaf that they clipped slightly at the stem so that it hangs down and conceals the big caterpillar.

The beautiful monarch caterpillars. A second stage larva on the left and two 5th stage larvae. The one in the middle sits under the leaf that is cut so that it hangs down and hides the larva that eats away on the tip of the leaf. The caterpillar on the right has perhaps already started to wander.

These big guys were usually gone the next day. But we didn’t have to worry about them. When these caterpillars are ready to pupate, they enter a wandering phase during which they leave their food plant and look for a secure place to enter the next stage of their life, the pupal stage. Despite searching carefully, we did not find a chrysalis (this is what the pupa is called) in the garden.

To possibly observe the pupating process and to see the chrysalis, I took one of the biggest caterpillars home and then with me to work. I gave him (or her, of course, we can’t tell the sex of a caterpillar) a bouquet of fresh milkweed leaves and waited. The first night and much of the morning, he methodically chewed away on leaf after leaf. Then, while I was attending a series of talks, he decided that it was time to wander. And he somehow wiggled himself out of his cage — oh boy! After searching the entire office twice, my colleague found the caterpillar crawling on the underside of her desk on the other side of the room. These guys can run! Back in a more secure cage, the caterpillar went home with me again.

The caterpillar in his cage (a beaker) has used silk to attach himself to a leaf. He  is getting ready to pupate.

Over night, he settled on a leaf and was now attached with his rear end, hanging head down. He was no longer wandering, but he was still moving, curling and uncurling, and at times he trembled a little as if he was shivering. My butterfly-expert colleague informed me that this monarch was now in the pre-pupa stage. We had no idea how long this stage would take, but it was definitely time to keep an eye on him. Finally, a little after noon, the pre-pupa got a little shorter, uncurled completely and the caterpillar skin split on its back side to reveal the blue-green surface of the pupa underneath. I was so lucky to look at him just this moment. What happened next took all of 2 minutes and 30 seconds and I caught it on my cellphone camera. (A Thank You to all engineers who made this possible.)

Monarch chrysalis are amazingly beautiful with their lovely blue-green color and golden specks. What is going on inside is even more wonderful. Over the course of ten days or so, the larva will completely disintegrate and regrow as a butterfly. It is a privilege to get a chance to observe this metamorphosis, even if only from the outside.
Of course, I hope that I will also catch the moment when the butterfly emerges from the pupa. In any case, I will take a picture before we send him on his way to Mexico. You will see it here.

The chrysalis on the next day