Central Park’s secret garden

Today a friend and I walked our boys over to Fifth Avenue at 105th Street and were greeted by this:

The wrought iron gate was made in Paris in 1894. It originally stood before the Vanderbilt mansion at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street

Walking through the gate, we found ourselves in a formal garden.

The central garden is in the Italianate style.

Kaya was pleased by the fountain.

On either side of the central lawn were lovely, shaded walks.

The trees are flowering crabapples. My mother came to the garden in Spring to see them in full bloom and said they were magnificent.

Further exploration led us to the northern, French-style garden.

Which we entered through lovely archways covered in vines and flanked by colorful groupings of flowers.

The flowers by the entrances included bronze fennel, dahlias, cannas, and decorative sweet potato.

And we stopped to admire another fountain.

The Central Park Conservatory gardens were created in 1898, but in another form; they were originally a display of glass houses containing tropical plants.

This was all quite enough to be impressed by, but further wandering led us to a third, English-style garden.

By 1937, the greenhouses had fallen into disrepair, and these three formal gardens were created for the site.

In this garden, there was something beautiful, surprising, or often both at every turn.

I love the Swiss chard in this border

There was a fountain here as well.

In the foreground, you may notice an inscription on the pavement.
It is a dedication of the fountain by the sculptor Bessie Potter Vonnah to the memory of the writer Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of the children’s classic, The Secret Garden.

The Central Park Conservatory is open from 8 a.m. to dusk. There are guided tours of the garden every Saturday at 11 from April to October. The entrance is at 5th Avenue and 105th Street.

(Thanks for joining us, Seema and Vishnu!)

City plants

Who planted you?


Baki is going to day camp for a week and a half, so we have an early morning walk to the bus. It is a nice time to be out, because it is quiet in the East Village in the wee hours of the morning, and the air is still relatively cool. I have always loved being out in the city before things really get moving.

Yesterday, I happened to look over as we were waiting to cross the street and I saw this healthy, happy cucurbit, growing at the foot of a tree. It was such a lovely surprise. Who planted the seed and tended it so well, I wondered.

Coming to the city from the garden, it is easy to think that I would miss being surrounded by plants, but the truth is, I still am. On another short walk with my mom, we saw loads of beautiful plants, not to mention the stately trees that line the city blocks.

This is perhaps the opposite of the plucky cucurbit, but seriously, hats off to the person who tends these guys.

And these clematis growing by the garbage reminded me of the Chinese imagery of the lotus as a symbol of purity because although it grows in the mud it rises above the water and its flowers open. (My lotus back home is probably flowering right now.)

And that was in just  15 minutes of walking. Although I miss my garden, I meet lots of great urban plants every day I am here.

My father’s day

Me and my parents back in the day — Brooklyn Heights, circa 1980. I love this photo because we look like complete strangers standing at a bus stop. What could possibly be the connection between these three random dots? That, and my mom looks like a teenager although she is older in this photo than I am now.

We arrived in NYC without incident, in the end, and now all we have to deal with is the disorientation of jet lag and the tummy turmoil that the boys are suffering in the aftermath of the trip (and the less said about that the better for you, dear reader). I guess I always knew they would behave, but I try not to expect miracles from them. That way I am always grateful when they pull through with one.
While I was laying in bed on Friday morning (it seems impossible to me that this was just yesterday), staring into the dark and wondering how the trip would go, I was reminded of all the times that I have initiated journeys from my parents’ old house in Istanbul. I recalled one time in particular that I woke up on the morning of a trip to Tbilisi with a cold knot of dread in my tummy. I listened carefully to the house and heard the sound I had been hoping for — the steady, rhythmic creak of my father’s maple rocking chair coming from the top floor. I went up the spiral staircase and sat on the couch and we talked, and I felt the anxiety ease away. (My bus was stopped by highway robbers on the way to Tbilisi on that trip, but that is a story for another day.)

My father had a wonderful gift for dispelling fear, putting things into perspective, listening when that was what was needed, or dispensing calming hugs. I very often turned to my mother when I was upset, but if I were in a real state, she would always send me to my dad, and it was always the right thing to do. I even remember crying in his arms because I was waiting for a boyfriend to write me and my father hushed me, saying, “Journalists don’t write letters, love.” What was it about my irascible father that made me feel so grounded and secure?

He looks like a slob in the family photo above, but he was usually quite into his clothes. He loved to wear sarongs, a habit he picked up during his days in Indonesia back in the 50s,  and he always delighted when he found himself in a locale where he could wander around at will in one. Our family vacations in Mombasa always involved standing at wooden counters in dimly lit shops as a salesman unfurled colorful lengths of cotton pulled from tights stacks that lined the walls. Later, when my parents traveled to Myanmar, they brought back beautiful silk sarongs, and my father, ever the clothes horse, delighted in wearing them when he had guests.

In the final weeks of his life, my father’s hospice nurse, Dan, showed me how to steady him in his trips from the bed to the living room or the bathroom by pulling his sarong tightly around him and holding it firmly at the small of his back. I held the cloth, tethering him to me, and we marched slowly from place to place. Yet even when he was helpless as a child, he remained to me a giant of a man.

He died four years ago today, here in New York City.

Goodbye, spring.

Tomorrow, the boys and I will fly to New York to visit my mom. We’ll be away for two weeks, and Ali will be holding down the fort. Yesterday evening as we watered, I thought about how different the garden would be when I returned. The cicadas will be chanting, and the garden will be a summer garden. I will miss out on some of those transitional pleasures- the early tomatoes look a week away from ripening, and the peaches will get properly sweet and juicy while I’m gone. A gardener has no business leaving at the height of the growing season, I’ve been reminded, sternly.
This morning saw me pulling up bolted lettuce for the chickens and cutting down the peas (it feels like just yesterday that I put that trellis up for them) since Ali won’t pick them while I’m gone. I’d planted tomatoes and cucumbers under the trellis, and they’ve gotten a bit leggy waiting for their moment in the sun. We’ll see how they recover.
This evening I canned some peaches with a swig of brandy for a reminder of warmer days come winter. They weren’t very ripe, but I can’t face winter without my brandied peaches. And a neighbor brought over a great big sack of apricots because Ali had transported his goat in the back of the truck, so I cooked them and puréed them; I’ll make fruit leather with the purée when I get back, but for now it waits in the freezer.
Then I packed. This will be Kaya’s first long plane journey (it’s a 10 hour flight), and I fully expect the absolute worst, as is my custom. Baki is a marvelous traveler, so I’m not so worried about him. But Kaya? Well, let’s wait and see.


A recipe for compote:
You’ll need some

And some

Peel them if you like, and cut them up. Put them in a pot with water to cover and sugar (or honey, or stevia) to taste. Toss in:

Herb flowers- these are oregano. They grow wild in the garden and are a great favorite with the butterflies.
Simmer for five or ten minutes and let it cool. Compote is nice chilled- it’s quite refreshing on a summer day. Bits of cooked fruit in a light syrup- it goes down pretty easy. It might seem like food for invalids, but since an invalid would require comforting, nourishing fare, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.
Thyme flowers would be nice, in fact that’s what gave me the idea: I was reading a book called Mes Tartes by Christine Ferber, whose book, Mes Confitures, is my current favorite jam book (although the titles are French, these are English translations, by the way).
Her tarts are quite intimidating sounding and I have not attempted one yet. (I’m sure I’ll do it when my mom is with me in the kitchen this summer.) She had one tart, though, involving apricots and flowering thyme. That thought stuck with me.
When Ali brought a handful of the last, almost overripe apricots from the tree at the bottom of the garden, I mixed them with peaches from the tree by the kitchen, which have been falling even though they are slightly underripe (the whole kitchen area smells like peaches now,as the fruits ripen). I thought the result was quite tasty. The flowers taste like oregano, of course, but there is also a distinctly flowery flavor to them as well. It has made me curious about other herb flowers. I’ve not cooked with lavender much, for instance, but I’d like to.

Unsung beauties


I have to admit that I didn’t use to think much of marigolds. I think that I sort of grouped them with dandelions in my mind. In my defense, this was before I had a garden, and flowers were not something I spent a whole lot of time thinking about.
Then I saw the Mira Nair film, Monsoon Wedding. It’s about a Punjabi wedding, and there must be about a hundred thousand marigolds in the film. Someone even puts a whole one in his mouth and eats it.

Suddenly, I saw marigolds slightly differently. That was about ten years ago, and in the intervening years I have come to appreciate many qualities of the marigold. They are generous and free-flowering; they are unfussy and forgiving; they are pest control allies; and of course, they are a lovely burst of color, available in all sorts of varieties.
The newest addition to our consortium is Yummy Mummy, a chrysanthemum-flowered marigold (hence the name, which I find quite satisfying). Here she is from her spot among the tomato plants:

And here’s to all the unsung beauties out there, and hoping that somebody sees you for what you are.

Bearing fruit


This is the result; but first, some back story.

We began work in this garden four years ago. It seems like ago, although it has passed by quickly, but it is not all that much time when you think in terms of trees. With trees, time stretches out before you in decades because the steps that trees take are big long steps that span years. Kaya, on the other hand, takes little steps, so that from one week to the next he is quite a different little fellow.

When we first got here, we had to plant a tree a week. This is because we used a dry, sawdust toilet. Now, most things that I do are driven by necessity, not ideology. We use solar electricity because there is no other kind where we are, for example, not because we are great green giants. But one thing that I do get sort of driven about is water. And although I am not evangelical about it, I disagree with the notion of using water to transport human waste. Overall, although it is stinky stuff and can be full of ick, I can’t see why we don’t face up better to our own excrement and the disposal thereof. To this end, when it came to our toilet, I put my foot down and said no to the septic tank.

This left us with the problem of what to do with our buckets of waste. (They were not as stinky as they might sound, as we used sawdust to bury any deposits, but full is full.)  Our answer to this weekly dilemma was to dig extra deep holes when we planted trees and simply empty the buckets into them. A layer of dirt and a tree later, we could consider our toilet flushed.

Over the past four years, as you can easily calculate, we have planted a number of trees. They seemed to like the arrangement just fine.

(Things slowed down a bit last year when we got a separation toilet. If you are interested in knowing more, I will let Google do the talking.)

We have not had a huge amount of fruit from these trees, as anyone who has planted little saplings will know. The first year, I dutifully plucked all the flowers off of the trees. The next year, they bloomed like crazy and I rubbed my hands greedily. Then all the flowers fell off on their own and we had harvest like this: one sweet red cherry, one jujube, two apples. That is when I learned that plants really won’t be convinced to do anything they don’t want to do. If you want them to do something, you have to make them want to. And a young fruit tree is interested enough in thriving that it will not set more fruit than it is ready to, or at least the ones in our garden won’t!

So when Ali asked me if I had taken a look at the apricot tree down at the Old Water Tank terrace lately, I skipped down the hill and was delighted to be greeted by the tree pictured above. Kaya and I went down to pick them (he was in charge of sampling) and were rewarded with a nice heavy bucket of fruit:


I picked some of them before they were, strictly speaking, very ripe, but I didn’t want the bugs to get into them, and my mother had mentioned that she would like the apricot jam to be not too sweet. I have made jam with half of them, and it is tart, so she ought to like it. With the rest I think I may try my hand a fruit leather. These are tasty apricots, but not crunchy, which is how I prefer to eat them. We have a crunchy apricot bearing tree at the top of the garden, by the road, but those fruits are still green.

My first overabundance of fruit. A sweet predicament!