Springtime in an urban garden is different than in a suburban or rural garden. For one thing you may not own your land. Your plants may be growing in raised beds, in pots or in circumstances that would not be considered optimal. Your coop board or condo association may prevent compost bins. Your wildcrafting may be in city parks where you need to avoid areas of pesticide use.
For many years I struggled with feeling that I couldn’t be an authentic herbalist living in the city. I thought “real herbalists” should be living off of the land like Kiva Rose or farming herbs like Matthias and Andrea Reisen, or living in rural settings like David Winston. But one day while conversing with a local practitioner of Yoruba Ifa medicine, after harvesting weeds from the church garden and going home to decoct my locally purchased Chinese herbs, I realized that urban herbalism, complete with its lower than average carbon footprint, had its own advantages.
When I first started, land was my initial challenge. We have a first floor apartment in a four-story building that is built nine feet from the next building, and the alley intersects with long a ten foot light court. The building has a narrow front yard, barely large enough for oak barrel planters. All of the ground is covered in concrete. And we don’t own it outright, so I had to obtain permission to put out pots, eventually parlayed into raised beds (but lost the compost when a neighbor expressed the fear that it would attract rats.) Without a car I scavenged pots of soil from the trash, used compost until the pile was banned, ordered soil amendments via UPS and purchased bags of dirt from Home Depot. Don’t ask what it cost. At least I don’t look out on a brick alley.
Then I had to find plants that would survive the low light conditions. I learned the difference between plants that needed dappled shade and those that could survive deep shade with occasional hours of sunlight. Evergreens were out because sun touched the back only between April and October. Flowering plants had to climb or have interesting enough foliage to justify the occasional flower. The lack of many nearby garden centers, certainly any with interesting or affordable plants favored perennials. That left me with a number of native plants or plants with useful and attractive leaves.
I also found a nearby church with a yard that needed landscaping. It had to look good, accommodate a nursery school and church activities, but I managed to plant it as a teaching garden where I could bring over school classes. The nettles are cut low and kept behind double layers of fencing at the back of a native plant garden to keep children safe when retrieving balls. The buddleia, used in Chinese medicine, attracts butterflies and the echinacea borders attract bees from the newly legalized rooftop hives, but not as much as the vitex tree. The sages, basil, oregano, thyme and bergamot season the cooking for the homeless. Mints and lemon balm are shared with congregants including an elderly parishioner whose shingles went away after overnight infusions of lemon balm. A neglected tree that shaded the front beds was replaced by a well-located volunteer mulberry tree, which is an entire pharmacy in itself. The “weeds” include poke (berries removed for safety’s sake), chickweed, wormseed, lambsquarters, dodder, plantain, dandelions, and a myriad of others that come and go as the birds drop seed. I plant the lawn with chives and red clover along with the grass but attempts to add fragrant grasses have not worked out.
This spring came late. Our last snow was in mid March and it is threatening again tonight. In the park the mugwort is just sticking its head up above the ground. The garlic chives are huddled in bunches near the streams and the violets share an occasional flower to munch on during walks around the Ravine. Witch hazel is just finishing its yellow flowers. Bergamot leaves are forming around last years stems by Fallkill Falls. The viburnums have green buds and a few dried berries. Liquidamber trees are bare, as are the oaks. The ganoderma growing on logs on Lookout Hill have survived human and weather conditions. No sign yet of the mayapples in the Midwood. Sassafrass has not leafed out yet, but the magnolia buds are opening and a few are in bloom.
In the church garden, the apricot, crabapple, and magnolia are in full bloom (and I could not bear to pick the medicinal magnolia catkins when such lovely flowers were to come.) The spring bulbs, planted from the last Easter service decorations are starting to flower. Nettles are still underground, but the anise hyssop, lemon balm and mints are emerging. No sign of the comfrey or valerian, but they are sure to return, along with the cimicifuga and Joe Pye weed as the season progresses. The he shou wu is getting an early start on the rose arbor. Mayapples have not opened up yet but have emerged while the Solomon’s seal cannot be seen. Doesn’t look like the bush cherries will be in flower for Easter. Nothing much to do but to clean up the debris from last year and the evergreen boughs laid around for protection.
I check the front yard barrels and see that the goji berry has not sprouted out along the long stems from its first year. The rue made it through the winter but will undoubtedly increase. Too soon to see if the ashwaganda has reseeded, but the catnip, lime balm and white peony are coming back. I will fill in the rest with annuals or tender perennials from the farmer’s market.
The alley garden is starting to come alive. The arum made it through the winter, still in glorious leaf. No Jack in the pulpits though. The clematis is starting to grow up the trellises. I pull away all the sunflower stalks, probably leaving behind a few Jerusalem artichoke-like tubers. Didn’t plant them last year because for all their height, there were no flowers, and they were shading the goldenseal, but they came back anyway. Squirrels have planted oaks, but the raccoons have left us alone. The aralia is brittle and dead, but the crampbark is leafing out. Agrimony, potentillia and false unicorn are leafing out in the less shady bed. But no sign of the bloodroot among the hosta shoots. I hope the hostas weren’t too much competition. The spindly branches of the horsetail are up. I clear away last year’s poke stem, leave the lemon balm and anise hyssop growing in the spilled soil behind the low pots. A little chickweed is in the large pot where I tried to nurse the schisandra along, but I think I lost it. Note to self: this year replant the maple tree in the tree pit along the street before someone else fills it with flowers.
The challenges of growing in the city are real, but so are the opportunities. The church garden I grow allows children who play along the street to watch things grow, to sample the grapes hanging over the fence and to grasp some precious tastes of nature. The Greek crossing guard can see the spike lavender she used to flavor lamb again, while the coop next door to the church gets to look at greenery instead of a vacant lot. The preschoolers can dig holes for the bulbs and the school children from down the block can taste the stevia and smell the wintergreen while learning why clover isn’t poison ivy eventhough both have three leaves. Anyone who stops by learns how spit poultices of the plantain that grows here and in every tree pit or sidewalk crack can save lives. The herbs help connect us to the earth again, even if we are surrounded by brick and concrete. Nature is here among us, even in New York City.
Prospect Park Trees http://www.blog.designsquish.com/index.php?/site/tagstags/vintage/P125/
Yellow first flowers http://ayearinthepark.typepad.com/prospect_a_year_in_the_pa/weather/
Park Slope in Spring http://www.xtcian.com/arch/2005/07/
How to Make A Plantain Spit Poultice
Nature Waiting to Take Back the City