Entry 2

On the bright side, more than half of the 500 daffodil bulbs my horticulture class planted last week were still in the ground. So Monday morning was spent replanting the others. Do the four guys, who appear to be jobless and homeless, sitting on the bench near that playground planting bed, think my work looks pointless? Certainly repetitive.

The afternoon was spent planting a trumpet vine in the sun and 200 varied bulbs in part shade at Albano, a much smaller park a block north of Bellevue on the other side of Second Avenue. The intervening lunch break was at Yo Sushi, and there the Second Avenue Roll—spicy tuna, salmon roe, and avocado—reminded me of a traditional anti-squirrel, pro-bulb strategy. Spicy.

Paprika sprinkled on newly planted tulips
Paprika sprinkled on newly planted tulips

At the Bellevue daffodil bed, there’s now a little zoological field study: a black pepper area, a cayenne pepper area, and a paprika area. (The tulips at Albano also got paprika.) It’s probably the smell of freshly turned earth that attracts squirrels to newly planted bulbs. The idea is that now when they come to investigate the peppered beds, they’ll get a bit of the hot stuff up their noses. Squirrel experts have told me that mothballs, another traditional repellent, are useless. And there’s something organic about pepper—a plant product protecting other plants. It won’t hurt the little guys; it’s only a Weapon of Mild Discouragement.

There’s pressure to get the bulbs in the ground before the plumbers turn the water off in the parks, and here is why. The bulbs have been in cold storage since last spring, slowly shriveling. Once they came out of the cooler, the drying-out sped up. Which is why it’s important to plant bulbs as soon as you get them and water them as soon as they’re in the ground. Their roots have to get going before the ground freezes, and if you don’t water, the roots may be reaching out and finding not moist soil but air.

I have a soft spot for Albano, the paprika trial zone, from some success with plants and some interesting encounters with human beings. Success in the sunny bed this year: pink tulips in April, 12-foot wine-red hollyhocks in July, helianthus “Lemon Queen” mixing nicely with white buddleia in late summer and fall. The trumpet vine is going in at a spot where someone climbed a fence, lay down, and smashed three large sedum plants. Vines get themselves up out of harm’s way and then present their flowers at eye level—good park strategies.

One of the human encounters: One late spring afternoon, a man who looked amazingly like Hugh Grant came into the park—jacket open, crisp shirt, untied silk scarf around his neck. He told me he needed advice on the planting he’d done around a street tree. He particularly wanted to show me his irises. I was winding up in Albano and had one more park to water, so I said some other time I would be pleased to advise.

A gray-haired African-American man who’d been watching me carting soil and wrestling hose since before lunch observed the encounter. After the Hugh figure left, the gray-haired man came up to me and said, “Honey, you should have gone to look at that boy’s irises. You could have bettered yourself.”

The firehouse cat may be in here
The firehouse cat may be in here

And there is the firehouse cat. The neighborhood association asked if I could bring some flowers from the Parks greenhouse for under the tree the group had given in memory of the nine firefighters from Engine 16 lost on Sept. 11, 2001.

I was just finishing putting the plants in (purple heliotrope and lantana, a little too flame-colored I realized too late) when one of the youngfire fighters walked over and said:

“We had a firehouse cat. We loved our cat very much, and when she died, we wanted her to stay near us.”

Where was this going?

“And so we put her in the earth.”


“We put her in the earth here,” he said, pointing to the soil around the memorial linden tree.

Only one possible response.

“How deep?”

“Very deep,” was the answer.

But I wonder.

“Very” would have interfered with the tree’s roots enough to make it suffer, probably in a visible way. For all their undoubted heroism, there’s a teasing frat-kid aspect to groups of firefighters.

So this morning I asked Tom, one of the more mature-looking, whether they really had buried the cat under the tree. He said he didn’t know. A regrettably anti-climactic exchange.

Bellevue has squirrels; Albano has plant-killer pigeons. There’s a small bed opposite the park’s entry, which I’ve come to think of as the Trapezoid of Death. My first summer working in the park I planted 48 pink impatiens and 36 lovely dark red coleus. The display looked great for about 18 hours. The pigeons pecked the plants to ribbons, perhaps to get the water in the leaves. Next, with some malice, I planted hellebores, which are mildly poisonous. The plants were pecked to tatters, and there were no pigeon corpses. Next liriope, also known as lily turf. Installing liriope is just one step short of putting gravel in the bed. The pigeons sat on the grassy little tufts, and all but two of the iron-tough plants lay down and died. Now a dozen small-leaved ivy plants have survived since July. I go early tomorrow to the Parks Department’s Staten Island Greenhouse to consult with the city’s groundcover expert and get either some more ivy or something complementary.