Now is the perfect time to start vegetable, flower and herb seeds in a sunny window indoors. You’ll get a jump-start on the growing season. You’ll save money starting from seed rather than buying transplants. You’ll grow what you like, whether heirloom, organic, or culturally-relevant crops you can’t find at the grocery store. One of my students, a Harlem community gardener, brought fuzzy cotton seeds to Bronx Green-Up’s Grow More Vegetables class. She’ll grow cotton to demonstrate the agricultural heritage of her ancestors.
Along with juicy-ugly tomatoes, fresh herbs, and those peppers that made the best hot sauce, gardeners should harvest the seeds from their most prized plants of the growing season. In my Bronx community garden plot, one basil plant is reserved for setting seed, while the others are for eating with Arthur Avenue smoked mozzarella and in-season heirloom tomatoes.
Saving seeds carries on the work of our ancestors, who selected plant varieties using excellent foresight—and their taste buds. An ancient practice dating back to the Stone Age, the first saved seeds were part and parcel in man’s transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer. As plants began to be domesticated, varieties were selected for their flavor, beauty, resilience, and abundance.
A school garden in summer can face some dire conditions, with students and staff fleeing the campuses of our local learning institutions at the hottest, driest time of year. As Bronx youth splash around the hydrants on their blocks, the peppers and cabbage they planted in spring try to withstand drought compete with the mugwort and crabgrass. Well, the JFK High School Environmental Club has just done something about that.
As Community Horticulturist for Bronx Green-Up, the community garden outreach program of The New York Botanical Garden, Sara Katz works alongside resident stewards of the borough’s community and school gardens and urban farms. She is also a hobbyist beekeeper at Taqwa Community Farm.
A message one frigid morning in early spring, left in a fine British accent: “Hello, this is Jane Selberg from PS 105. I’m calling because our school received a grant to build a garden. We would really appreciate any advice or resources you might be willing to contribute. We’d like to use the garden to teach the children about pollinators and wildlife, and plant native plants to attract butterflies and things.”
I smiled when I heard that one on the Bronx Green-Up line. Days before, we were offered 2,000 native plants for an upcoming public workshop we do annually with Butterfly Project NYC. The plants themselves were particularly noteworthy: castaways from construction of the new Native Plant Garden, which opened on May 4th at NYBG.
In a bright schoolyard near Pelham Parkway, in the Northern Bronx, the concrete has a colorful maze painted on it, a mural on the ground. This is where I came to meet Jane Selberg and, well, most of her immediate family: two blond daughters and their husbands, all yanking out weeds in a long brown stretch of garden-to-be, about a hundred feet long and four feet wide.
Learn About This Popular Urban Hobby in Dig in! Adult Ed Course
Sara Katz is the Community Horticulturist for Bronx Green-Up, the community outreach program of The New York Botanical Garden, and a hobbyist Bronx beekeeper. She will teach Beekeeping Basics at the Midtown Education Center.
Beekeeping is proving itself an urban hobby, with hives popping up on rooftops, in backyards, and in community gardens throughout New York City. Even the Botanical Garden has two hives in the Ruth Rea Howell Family Garden.
As a Bronx beekeeper myself, I regularly marvel at the detailed work of the colony: the bright colors of pollen brought back from so many flights, the hoarded honey, and the careful nursing of new life in the brood chamber.
The urban honeybee has faired well this summer, with ample sunshine, and in turn, abundant blooms of plants such as mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum). The leaves of this native perennial make a good tea or can be applied as mosquito repellant. Butterfly bush (Buddlea davidii), a shrub that can tolerate urban pollution and alkaline soils, has tufts of tiny purple flowers on show for months—a perfect plant for pollinators. These and many other flowering plants, from vegetables and herbs to street trees, are visited by bees and other pollinators in great numbers every season.
One Bronx beekeeper who keeps hives behind a rectory abutting the Genesis Park Community Garden has harvested 275 pounds of honey since July. It tastes floral, minty, and may originate in good part from the nectar of white clover, a spring bloomer found on lawns and other open spaces in the city.