DIY Backyard Makeover

Previously published in The Wave.


For the past four years, our backyard has been a renovation dumping ground. Now that the house is essentially done, we wanted to clean things up and start the backyard garden for the summer.

In April, I watched this awesome show on Netflix called Love Your Garden. It’s hosted by Alan Titchmarsh, a professional English gardener, poet and gardening journalist turned TV personality. Alan and his quirky, knowledgeable team visits homes around the United Kingdom helping people transform their gardens. The families are deserving, having overcome difficult hardships, such as a husband who lost his legs in Afghanistan or a family with a special needs child that can’t get around and play in the backyard. The show is so inspiring and the gardens they build are lavish… maybe a little too lavish. “Matt, I think we need a water feature in the backyard. Alan said the sound of streaming water will create a tranquil outdoor living space.” “You live 100 yards from the 2nd largest stream on the planet, NO.”

But I never give up, never give in: “And since I love cooking, it makes sense to build an outdoor brick pizza oven. Alan said if you enjoy entertaining you should have an outdoor kitchen in the garden.” “Oh, sod off Titchmarsh!” Matt grumbled, killing my dreams.

After looking at our bank account and getting some pricing from landscape architectures and masonry companies, I realized my gorgeous English country garden with a cascading waterfall pond, outdoor kitchen, scarlet honeysuckle trellis entry and raised teak vegetable garden beds was not happening this year. Or possibly ever. Wanting to enjoy the yard in some capacity,  I decided a DIY backyard garden was my only option. Matt was relieved that my mind drifted back from across the pond, back to reality.

Our yard is mostly concrete and sand – a challenge. There is one large strip of plantable area – about 5ft by 100ft feet long. I bought three car loads full of shade tolerant plants and some annuals (petunias, marigolds and creeping jenny) from Lisena Garden Center. I was ready to get to work. Sifting through chips of our old asbestos siding,  broken glass and concrete in the “soil” was a terrible task. I added 20, 40 pound bags of compost once cleared. To combat the weeds and make things look pretty, I mulched the whole stretch after planting – back-aching work. It took a solid two days just for this section.

We had slate pavers left over from the front garden pathway so it made sense to make a patio over “sandbox” one. We hired help to get that job done.  In the other “sandbox” section we used a few pieces of slate as stepping stones, connecting the main house to the bungalow. Between the stones we planted grass seed. I very clearly remember Matt telling me two years ago when we built out the front garden, “Grass is TOO Long Island.” How the tides have turned. Matt has become oddly obsessed with watching the grass grow.  Every morning he’s been checking on it. He waters it daily. He sends me pictures of the grass. He gets on his hands and knees sometimes, evaluating the growth at eye level. One night, I saw him out there with his iphone flashlight!!


The rest of the yard is a concrete jungle. We thought to use planters to break up that space. Some we had and some Matt built. Three planters Matt upcycled, constructing them out of old porch columns! To finish things off, we found second hand furniture. We’re not in love with it, but it will due for now.

I should have known better, going through the house renovations that an instant backyard was unrealistic and actually not the best approach. I’ve learned it’s better to live with it for a while. On paper for example, a dining patio may look great in one location but after a few BBQs,  you may realize it’s better to have the table closer to the back door, which leads into the kitchen. I was telling my father-in-law Jerry about the backyard and said to him, “Yeah it will take a few years for us to suss it out.” He said, “It will take a lifetime, but that’s the fun of it!”










tagged in diy, gar, gardening

Horseradish and Such

Florishing Horseradish Plant

First off, horseradish is terrific in a Bloody Mary – let’s get that out of the way. It’s thought to be native to southeastern Europe and western Asia. It’s used as a spicy condiment… and in Bloody Marys. On a more sacred note,  it’s also commonly used in Passover dinners as the bitter herb.

But it’s not an herb! Even more strange, it has nothing to do with horses and it is not a radish. It’s a perennial root crop, part of the Brassicaceae family which includes mustard, wasabi, broccoli, and cabbage. Interestingly, wasabi (the Japanese condiment), is now usually made with horseradish due to the scarcity of the wasabi plant, which is extremely difficult to grow commercially. It’s hard to mimic the mountainous regions of Japan where it naturally grows. Or to put it another way, it’s super expensive. So wasabi’s cousin – horseradish – is dyed green, mushed up and is what you’re most likely eating when you go out for sushi. Sorry to be a buzzkill.

My mother-in-law Maureen planted horseradish two years ago and has been propagating the root ever since. It’s the type of plant that keeps on giving, spreading like mint and strawberries. Cultivating horseradish is easy, so get a plant and put it in the ground right now – it’s not too late.  It’s large green leaves will grow lushly and later in the summer you’ll start to see baby plants (offshoots). When the leaves die back at first frost, pull up the root and cut off the top two inches. Re-plant that, and harvest the rest. The following spring, the plant will regrow from the two inch clipping planted the year before. It’s that simple really.

Harvested Root

With your root harvest, make homemade horseradish. Wash the root thoroughly with a small nail brush or rough cloth to get all the dirt off. Once clean, peel and cut the root in 1 inch pieces.  Chop it in the food processor. A couple of spins in the chopper and it will have the consistency of the bottled stuff. My Mother-in-law first tried peeling and grating the horseradish root but the odor was too pungent and irritating. She warned me, “Do not touch your eyes or face without washing your hands first. It’s 1,000% more powerful than when you cut into an onion!” Once the root is exposed, the cells are crushed, an oil known as isothiocyanate is released which causes intense irritation to your eyes and skin. This oil is a natural defense mechanism for the plant in the wild. While making the horseradish a bit milder, vinegar stops the reaction and stabilizes the flavor. So preserve in vinegar and refrigerate up to 6 weeks.

Imagine when you tell your guests at brunch that the Bloody Marys you just served  were made with cultivated horseradish from your garden… oh the glory!

If all this horseradish talk has got you fixin for some, try this delicious recipe that Maureen sent to me. Best on some barbecued steaks I would imagine!

Zesty Horseradish Dressing


1 Cup Mayo
6 tsp. Horseradish
2 tsp. Dijon Mustard
2 tsp. Lemon Juice
Salt and pepper to taste.

Directions: combine all ingredients, cover and refrigerate.


citizen tree pruner!

Citizen Pruner Course 1

Ahhh! I’m so excited, I just started my citizen tree pruner course!! I learned of Trees New York ( through twitter (social media can be a good thing guys!) Their mission, “ plant, preserve and protect New York City’s urban forest through education and community participation.” And for decades now, they’ve been doing just that: “Trees New York was founded in 1976 as a volunteer response to New York City’s devastating cutbacks in forestry and tree-related community services. Trees New York has 40 years of experience in community tree planting, stewardship and education projects. Since its founding, Trees New York has trained over 12,500 Citizen Pruners and 8,000 youth in tree care and stewardship. Since 2005, Trees New York has planted over 5,000 trees in underserved communities throughout New York City.”

Last year I missed the deadline for the Trees New York citizen tree pruning class, but this year I made it a point to register early. The class is 5 weeks. You learn about tree biology, and urban tree care in the “field”. You can choose to attend the course in either Brooklyn, Queens or Manhattan.  After completion, and the final exam, you are officially licensed to prune and cultivate any tree in NYC, outside of a conservatory.

In my first class, I learned why caring for the city’s trees are so important:

  • Street trees act as a sound barrier, muting sound pollution.
  • They reduce stormwater runoff, reducing pollution of our waterways and the ocean.
  • Trees clean the air we breathe everyday by absorbing, dirt, grit and dust. Our instructor Ashleigh Pettus, Operations Manager & Environmental Educator mentioned an alarming statistic. According to National Asthma Survey, in 2009, 10% of all New York City children have been diagnosed with asthma and the cost burden to New York State healthcare system $1.8 billion annually. This is why Trees New York often host planting events around schools.
  • Trees are home to our wildlife neighbors which are  intracal to our urban ecosystem.
  • Can you believe studies have show that trees around homes can increase property value by 20%
  • Tree’s are pretty! They add beauty and character to our urban landscape, softening angular city streets.

In the second half of class I learned what can harm trees and what citizen pruners can do to make sure city trees thrive. Dog waste – very bad for trees! It’s toxic and absorbs into a trees vascular system. Heat off cars, trucks and pavement affect a trees survival. Compacted soil prevents water from penetrating tree roots. Girdling is when something like Christmas lights that are not removed strangle a tree – cutting into the outermost layer, the trees life line. Vandalism damages trees. If a branch is broke off or your proclaim your love “D <3 A” by scraping into a tree, you’re exposing the tree to infection, fungus and dangerous beetles. Think of it as an open wound and it takes years to heal.

While it is NYC Parks Departments responsibility to care for all of the city’s trees the reality is it’s too expensive for the NYC to maintain very tree planted. That’s why Trees New York created the tree pruner certification class in conjunction with NYC Parks.

There’s a good chance my columns in the upcoming weeks with be tree focused because there’s so much information I want to share with you!

Citizen-Pruner-Course24 Citizen-Pruner-Course2 Citizen-Pruner-Course24


tagged in nyc, trees

The Beaneater

Annibale_Carracci_The_Beaneater (1)

I spent some time this past week tackling a big clean out of the basement, which, up until that point, was a very dusty 30x60ft storage space. How does one collect so much stuff?  The plan is to transform the basement into guest quarters, for friends and family that visit this summer.

I was sifting through some boxes and came across one labeled books – containing mostly my art history books from college. Distracted and tired from organizing, I started flipping through. A work by Italian Baroque painter Annibale Carracci titled “The Beaneater” or Mangiafagioli in Italian, dated 1590, caught my attention.

The painting is a snapshot, just seconds before a man is about to eat his simple meal of beans and onions. Those foods and others that grow in or close to the ground were in Carracci’s time considered only suitable for low society – the peasants. It was thought that if a peasant ate foods grown high above the ground (intended for high society – the aristocrats) they would fall terrible ill.

The association continued. In the late 19th century, when poor Italian immigrants came to New York in hopes of living the American dream, beans were still known as “the poor man’s food” or “immigrant’s food” along with other cheap foods or foraged foods. Luckily, my people were gifted with the innate ability to cook anything superbly. So creating delicious meals using beans as the main ingredient was an easy feat.

After my tiresome day of peasant work in the basement I thought it only appropriate to pay homage to “The Beaneater”* – so for dinner I made  a simple meal from beans. I found this italian style tangy bean dip recipe from and used it as a starting point putting my own spin on it.

The original recipe suggests serving on pita triangles – that would be tasty I imagine but I decided to fill tomatoes with the mixture. Less carbs and it looks pretty adorable. Enjoy!

The Beaneaters Dip


2 cups cannellini beans
3 large cloves garlic
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 oz. fresh chopped basil
1/4 cup or more of Romano cheese
Medium to small tomatoes and/or pita bread
Salt to taste


Puree all ingredients together in a food processor.
Let the mixture stand for at least 1 hour. It with thicken.
Serve stuffed inside tomatoes or with pita triangles.
Serving in tomatoes: Cut the top 1/4 portion of the tomato off. Gently scoop the inside of the tomato with a knife and spoon. Don’t clean it out completely. Fill the tomato with the bean mixture. Eat.

*Annoyingly off-topic, my husband had to point out that there was a 19th century baseball team called the Boston Beaneaters, who eventually became the Atlanta Braves. They’re the oldest continuously-playing team in North American sports.



tagged in recipe