Monday, September 5, 2016

Green Roof Update - Late Summer 2016

  It's high time for a Project Happy Life green roof update.  And, while going through the pictures I've taken this season, I found a bunch of good ones that I'd like to share.  So, in chronological order, here's what has been going on in this, the 4th growing season of our Brooklyn green roof.

Spring always brings a blanket of flowers to the green roof, although which species of sedum blossoms the most has changed over the years.  This year, we hardly had any of the tall blue-green sedum plants blossom.  They would make buds, and then it looked like the ants would get them.  Here, however, is a shot of the shorter sedum in bloom along with a couple of sage volunteers that seeded themselves in that spot last year.  I wish I liked using the sage as much as it likes to grow.

Here's some of that happy sage parent plant.  I love the color of those blossoms!

The strawberries in the Woolly Pocket are still doing well.  And, because we've had fewer squirrels on the roof so far this year, we've gotten to eat a lot more of what we're growing.  But all is not well, as you'll see later on...

A wide shot for you.  I've tried a couple of times to get peas to grow up the railing from those copper planters above the strawberries, but they never make it.  I think the soil is too poor and the railing gets too hot.  Next year, I'm going to fix that soil up (I've been composting like crazy, which is another story for another day) and give them some string to climb on.

For the first time, last year I planted some flowers on the green roof, and the bachelor buttons have been re-seeding themselves and spouting in some spectacular colors (last year, we just had blue and white).

I also experimented with planting a purple coneflower (echinacea) last year, and it came back really well this year.  There are even some seedlings starting in a couple of other spots on the roof now!

I had the opportunity to try my hand at stone carving when I was in school this past Spring semester.  I made a little addition for the green roof that we see as we're coming out of the hatch.

The berry production was prolific this year.  We had red strawberries, alpine strawberries, blueberries, and black raspberries.  For a while, our breakfasts could not have been beaten by the finest restaurants in the world.

Blueberry glamour shot.

We have had some spectacular skies over Brooklyn this year too.  We have had two double rainbows.

Some incredibly colorful sunsets:

Beautiful cloud formations:

And even a night when we could see the full moon in one direction,

And a lightning storm in the other direction.

As the summer has worn on, a lot of the bachelor buttons have dried out.  I can already see the next generation sprouting, though.  One neat thing I hadn't expected when I made the redwood planters last year was how many things would grow out of the sides of the planters.  In this shot, you can see some of the bachelor buttons even did it!

Two days ago, I even found a mushroom growing out of the side of one of the planters!

While I'll steer clear of eating that mushroom, we've had some nice harvests this year.  Our summer crops have consisted mainly of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and carrots.

But I also planted some of the little "Rich Sweetness 132" melons from seed I saved last year.  They've been doing well.  I like how they echo the cucumbers strips in a different color palate.

I'm growing my first crop of onions, and they appear to be doing well.  I started these from some little green onions that my neighbors put in their compost, because they were a little wilted.  I stuck them in water, and they sprouted roots.  So I transplanted them to the roof in the early spring.  I saw a youtube video that recommended cutting the tops back to encourage bulb formations, so that's why they've been lopped off.

I'm also experimenting with growing crops right in the sedum.  I've got a couple of collards and cabbage plants in there.  There used to be four of each, but I'm having a problem...

Doves, mockingbirds, or robins are digging up the sedum!  They're practically mowing it down - ripping up big clumps and tossing the clumps into the drainage rock.  In the process, I've lost some of the collards and cabbage seedlings.  I'm not quite sure what to do about it; I assume they're eating some grubs or something.  But they sure do make a mess!!  There's a walking path buried under the sedum clippings the birds have made in this shot.

I've noticed that our mint blossoms are being visited by a bunch of black and orange wasps that I've never seen before.  They don't linger, so I couldn't get a great picture of them, so here's an excellent picture from  They're called "blue-winged wasps" or scolia dubia, a wasp that preys on Japanese beetle grubs.  I'm guessing these wasps' presence supports my grub theory about those birds. 

No matter what the reason is the birds are tearing up the sedum, at least it'll make it easier to plant more crops on the main "lawn" of the green roof next year!  It's always so hard to think of pulling up the sedum to make room for other things when it's covered in little flowers in the spring.

Anyway, in case there's any doubt, the green roof continues to be my favorite place to be.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Prospect Lefferts Gardens - a historical history in many movements. Opus 1.

What follows is a rewritten excerpt from a paper I wrote for my History and Theory of Historic Preservation class at Pratt last autumn.

Prospect Lefferts Gardens is Changing
As I was walking around, admiring the architecture in my neighborhood and feeling fine, I pondered the question of how landmark historic districts relate to the cost of housing in Prospect Lefferts Gardens (PLG), where I have lived for the past 11 years.  I wondered if historic districts drive rental/housing prices up, or if they help keep prices stable.  PLG is a small neighborhood with three historic districts within its boundaries.  Since the buildings in the historic districts are protected (more or less), large-scale housing developers, who haven't paid much attention to the neighborhood for decades, are now focusing their attention on the areas surrounding the historic districts.  As a lover of old buildings, I originally thought maybe the quality of the area's historic architecture (due to its landmark status) was the main reason for the local rapid price increases and gentrification.  In other words, I wondered if the historic districts were so nice, it made the neighborhood more desirable to live in.  

But, I found out that things are far more complicated than I thought, and it has to do with the history of Brooklyn and the history of race relations in this country.  Let's start with a basic history of the neighborhood.

This is the first installment of a journey through gentrification, if you will.
Flatbush 1842 Brooklyn Historical Soc.jpg
PLG Resident Groups Through Time
Picture in your mind verdant forests filled with huge trees, meadows, streams, and pleasant hills. The Wisconsin Ice Sheet had receded, leaving Long Island behind.  Native peoples and all manner of non-human animals, birds, plants, and insects lived here.  As far as we know, Brooklyn carried on more or less in a state of lush abundance from the end of the last ice age until the early 1600’s.  The first white (Dutch) people arrived in the area and purchased land from the Lenape people in the 1630’s.  Prospect Lefferts Gardens is today’s name for an area on the northern end of the original Dutch village of Midwout (established in the 1650’s).  The village was renamed “Flatbush” in 1664, when the British took over.  In the 1800’s, the bustling country town of Flatbush was home to Erasmus Hall High School (established in 1786) and Kings County Hospital (originally founded in 1830 as an almshouse for the poor).  By the late 1800’s, with the urban expansion of Brooklyn, the town-turned-neighborhood boasted several thriving theaters and cinemas, including Lowes King’s Theatre, an opulent building which was neglected in recent decades before being restored and re-opened in 2015.  In 1913, Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team was opened.  At one time, Flatbush had so many impressive Victorian mansions (including one belonging to the Vanderbilt Family, which was very close to today’s Prospect Park subway station), the town was a tourist destination, and picture postcards of the mansions were popular.  In 1957, The Empire Rollerdrome was opened in an old Ebbets Field parking garage, and by the 1970’s, it was the epicenter for roller disco.

The Flatbush neighborhood is currently bordered to the north by Crown Heights, to the east by Brownsville/East New York, to the south by Flatbush/Ditmas Park, and to the west by Prospect Park.  The area was also briefly referred to as "Prospect Park East" by real estate developers in the early 1910's, but that name didn't last, probably because it's kinda lame.  In 1969, residents defined and named a small neighborhood within the larger Flatbush area “Prospect” (in honor of Prospect Park) “Lefferts” (in honor of the original prominent Flatbush land-holding Lefferts family) “Gardens” (due to its close proximity to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden).

In addition to your run-of-the-mill professionals and immigrants, it's fun to think that what is now Prospect Lefferts Gardens has over time been a center for baseball fans, horticultural enthusiasts, park-goers, those needing to make a stopover on their long, horse-drawn journey to Coney Island, and disco roller skaters (including Cher).

Cher and Bill Butler at the Empire Roller Disco 1979.
Photo: Pinterest by way of
Flatbush has always been home to a mixture of different people, however original homeowners in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens area were predominantly Dutch farmers.  As the area became developed, it was home to prominent Protestants of Western-European descent.  From the 1920’s through the 1950’s, Irish, European Jews, and Italian immigrants settled in the area.  In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, just north of Flatbush.  And in the 1950’s, although the neighborhood was still 99% white, a handful of black families started to establish themselves in the area.  

Ten years later, in 1960, at the end of PLG’s first 50 years as an urban neighborhood (as opposed to a sleepy farming town or Revolutionary War battle site), parts of the neighborhood were changing. Although there was still a majority of white people, in some census tracts, the majority had shifted from 99% to around 75%.  “White flight,” redlining, and blockbusting had begun.  Within only 10 years, by 1970, black people held as much as a 70% majority in the blocks East of the Manor (I’ll explain what The Manor is in a later post).  The total number of people living in PLG in 1970 was reportedly very close to what it had been 10 years earlier, however there were likely significant numbers of undocumented black workers from Haiti and other West Indian countries in residence. Also, the majority of the white population by then would have been Hassidic Jewish residents from the border of Crown Heights further east.

By the 1980’s, the entirety of PLG was 70-80% black of either African-Caribbean or African-American descent (two separate groups which have had tensions between them).  The neighborhood has had a white minority for the past 30-40 years, and since the arrival of my white self ten years ago, I have occasionally sensed and been witness to expressions of worry and displeasure from some long-time neighborhood residents that my presence was a sign of coming gentrification.  My neighbors were right, but it took a while.  The neighborhood racial makeup (mostly Afro-Caribbean) stayed generally steady through the 2000's, until the past 3-5 years, which have seen a large influx of young white people.  There has certainly been some racial turnover in home ownership (as happened with my own house, for example), however today’s new residents are mostly moving into neighborhood apartment buildings, because what working class person can afford a house these days?

That pretty much catches you up on the history of PLG’s human residents.  In the next post on this subject, I’ll explore the architectural history of the neighborhood.  Then we'll get to shenanigans, and eventually wrap up.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Planter Project - Part 2

When last I wrote about the redwood planters (Planter Project - Part 1), I hadn't yet filled them with soil and plants.  I ended up making 19 of them in total, and I can't remember for sure how many bags of potting soil I carried up to the roof.  I think it was 4 bags per planter, but I've brought up some compost and stuff since then as well.  Just to button things up, here's a little photo-journal of the rest of the story.

Once I had all the planters built, I decided I should level them so the water in the bottom tank portion of the planters would be the same distance from the filter fabric along the full length of the planter.  If they were left to rest evenly on the parapet wall, the water would have filled up to the fabric on one end, and barely made it into the net cup on the other end.

I got the first shimmed and leveled, and then I could fine-tune the shimming and leveling of the subsequent planters down the line.  The were then screwed to each other.

I have a 1/2" drip irrigation line running around the perimeter of the roof, and I have one 1/4" line branching off for each planter (in addition to the other lines branching off for pots and such).

The line runs up, between the pond liner and the redwood, then it pokes up through the filter fabric, before arching back down, and poking through the filter fabric into the inside of the pond liner tank.

Shimming and plumbing my way down the line.  It's too bad I cut the parapet capstone profiles into the bottoms of both ends of the planters.  I ended up having to fill them with scrap pieces on the down-slope ends.

Rooftop storm glamour shot.

I had some seedlings from the farmer's market waiting in this planter.

Once all the planters were shimmed and plumbed, I cut the top horns off.

I know it doesn't have much to do with the planters, but I bought some blueberry plants last year, and I was very impressed that they actually made blueberries!  On the roof!  And they are producing even more this year!

These planters really allowed me to increase our crops last year.  This is from May, 2015. 

And here's how things looked in July, 2015.  The drip irrigation system turns on for 20 minutes, 3 times/week.  It waters all the potted plants, and it fills all the reservoirs in the planters.  Some day, if I ever make a second generation of these planters, I'm going to work out a float valve system that will allow the reservoirs to stay full all the time.  But, for now, it's working well enough.

It's fun to go back now (May, 2016) and see these pictures of how the roof had gotten even woolier by August of 2015.  I'm planning to make a special redwood planter for a small crab apple tree this year.  And I'm going to try planting tall plants on the short side and short plants on the tall side.  Project Happy Spring!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Little Story. Little Sign.


I've got my fountain pen spiffed back up.  Janie (our cat) is in the bathroom - begging for someone to put her in the tub so she can drink the drain water.  Cindy is in Amherst at her good friend Robbie's induction into the UMASS Amherst Sports Hall of Fame (if it's not called that, close enough).  And I am very much avoiding doing some research on either of the two projects I'm supposed to do for school.  Spring is springing.  I'm on my own for a night.  Who wants to do homework?  I started in the late Summer last year, and I've been studying pretty solidly full time (outside, and (who am I kidding?) sometimes inside work at Blue Man too).

But today, I'm so excited and jumbled and lazy-feeling that I'm spinning my wheels - getting ahead on some things, like cleaning the kitchen or paying the bills, but potentially falling behind on other stuff - like doing my goddamn homework.

So, the original plan was to go to school (Pratt's Historic Preservation program) just for fun.  Then I let myself get talked into aiming for a Master's of Science.  I was given a scholarship for full-time attendance, so playing on my genetic pre-disposition to take advantage of a way to save money (thanks, Mom), I took a "fuck it" attitude and threw myself into school.  Full time.

Now I'm within spitting distance of my first year done, and I've taken a close look at the balance sheet.  On the "pro" side, I've found this energizing.  I've gotten much better at keeping myself motivated when I'm home as well as when I'm at work.  And I've learned a fair bit.

But, I haven't learned as much as I thought I would learn.  Or, rather, maybe I'm not getting as much out of this semester as I was last semester.  I should not have let my advisor talk me out of taking the 3 sustainability elective courses in exchange for this one required course in Historic Preservation.  It doesn't suit me.  No knock against the teacher or the class.  I love learning, and a good conversation about "the concepts of heritage" can be fun.  But this isn't what I thought historic preservation was all about, and I feel like I'm just doing busy work.

So, instead of homework, when I got home from work today, I did science in my thermos bottle with baking soda, peroxide, and boiling water - to get the tea scale out of the bottle and off two tea strainers with a fizz volcano.  And I put a new clip on Cindy's clip board.  And while I was at it, I put a couple of coats of Plasti-Dip on a pair of lineman's pliers...  I have not filled out my portion of our outline for our group project: writing an executive summary of a site management plan for the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou in Morocco.  Nor have I read George Nakashima's book, The Soul of a Tree, which I actually want to read, but obviously don't want to read it for research so I can write another site management/conservation plan - this one for a different class and for a different site: the Nakashima place.

So, I digitized an old cassette tape, watched some home reno shows on HGTV, scanned receipts, glued my model canoe where it had been broken...

Yup.  It seems like I'm getting a sign:  Pratt's HP program doesn't have what I'm looking for - at least not if I do it their way.  Because if I'd rather be sewing seeds on the roof than doing my homework (which I would), then I'm not studying the right thing for me.

Door to the Pole Barn (lumber storage) at Nakashima's.  Symbolism.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Planter Project - Part 1

I decided to make some planters that go along the parapet walls of our green roof, so we have more growing space.

Keiter and I rented a zipcar SUV and went out and bought 125 6-foot Forestry Stewardship Council Certified redwood fence pickets.  We had a little adventure getting them, because the only way they would all fit in the car was if we put the passenger seat all the way forward, the driver's seat as far forward as we could, and if Cindy (who is considerably shorter than I) drove home.  I had to ride home laying on the stacks of lumber in the back.  It's a good thing they were pretty wet.  Had they been dry, my entire front side would have been full of redwood splinters!

Anyway, we survived, got things stacked in the basement, and had the zipcar returned on time.  Here's a shot of the stack after I'd built one or two planters... Yup, I own a perfectly serviceable mitre saw, but I'm using a hand saw.  It's good exercise and practice.

The following Sunday, the experiment began!  My plan was to make planters that were three boards tall, sleeved over the capstones, and functioned as self-irrigating or wicking planters.  I wanted to get one long side and one short end out of each fence picket (using 6 fence pickets per planter).  I started  by working on finding the right dimensions for the planter.  I made a rectangle the same width as the capstones, carried it up to the roof, and took a look.

I like the look of it, but I wanted it to sleeve down father over the capstones.  I'm planning to use a pond liner for the bottoms of these (to make them lighter, and to save wood), and I wanted the bottom edges of the sides of the planter to sit relatively close to the capstones, so the pond liner didn't pooch out the sides once the water got in there.

 I ended up making the planter wide enough to sit on the outsides of the flanges.  I cut the contour of the capstones into the end boards to make the planter sit low enough.  Before pulling them up to the roof, I staple the pond liner to the sides.

Then I fit these corner pieces in - they hang down below the edges of the capstones, and I'll be able to attach brackets to the bottoms of the corner posts that wrap around the underside of the capstones if the planters aren't stable enough on their own.

Here's one after the pond liner is installed and trimmed, and I'm starting to stretch the filter fabric.

This is what it looks like after the filter fabric is stretched, stapled, and cut around the corner pieces.  I've created a water reservoir in the bottom section of the planter.  The dirt will sit on top of the fabric.  How will the water get up into the dirt?  You'll see in a minute.

In the basement, I pre-assemble the wooden rectangles of the planter (you can see the 2nd and 3rd courses in the background in the photo above).  So, once the fabric has been trimmed, I sleeve the wooden rectangles over the corner posts and screw the whole thing together, like so: 

This is how the water is going to get up into the soil:  I set three little net cups in position on the fabric in the bottom of the planter.  The soil is going to wick water from the lower trough up into the upper chamber through those net cups.  You can learn more about this style of planter by doing an internet search for "Self Irrigating Planter" or "Wicking Garden."  

I install the net cups in the fabric by cutting a little "X" through the fabric and pressing the cup in.

Finished.  Don't ask me how I'm going to get water into the bottom reservoirs; I haven't finished deciding about that yet.

By the way, it sure is easy to tell which side of this picture is our roof and which is our neighbor's!  I can tell you from personal experience, black roofs (or is it "rooves"?) are HOT - and not in a good way!

I set the first planter on the wall between my house and my neighbor to the East to see what it looked like.  On this side, I plan to install trellises on the backs of the planters to act as a bit of living screen.  I already like how much of my neighbor's unfinished roof is obscured by the body of the planter box.

A wider perspective:

The next day, I made 3 more.

And then I made 4 more.  I spent both of my days off this week making planters.  4 planters/day is the speed at which my process has settled.

In case it wasn't clear earlier, I make the bottom rectangle (with semi-attached pond liner) and the 2nd and 3rd rectangles in the basement.  Then I hoist them up to the roof on ropes.  Ignore the messy back yard.

So, after another weekend spent making planters (today and yesterday), I've got a grand total of 12.  I really hope they work.

I had originally planned to have the planters in groups, with some empty space in between.  But now that we have so many of them up there, we have really started to like the way they define the space and give us a bit more privacy.  We have decided to make enough planters to fill both walls on both sides.  I've already ordered more pond liner.  I guess I know what I'm doing next weekend too!

So, I have to make more planters, figure out whether I need to level the planters to make the water in the reservoirs submerge all 3 net cups equally (since they follow the slope of the roof), decide whether I want to buy and install float valves in each planter (which is probably going to be too expensive, since I can't go with valves that can be fouled by roots growing into them), or if I just want to plumb tubing into the planters from the drip irrigation system and fill them according to a timer rather than their water levels.

And I've got to buy a ton of potting soil and carry it all up to the roof.

Nevermind thinking about that, though!  Here's Keiter - showing off her chicken wings!

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