Thursday, November 10, 2011

A trip to the New Jersey pine barrens:

About a three hour ride from NYC you will find some very pristine and unusual landscapes in our southern neighbor, New Jersey.

The Pine Barrens consist of about 1.1 million acres of protected land, with extreme environments that range from sphagnum bogs to sandy deserts.

My mother and I went on this beautiful outing lead by Brooklyn Botanical Garden's Uli Lorimer, who has a wealth of knowledge about native plants and knew the pine barrens in and out (amazing job not getting us lost!). We were accompanied by landscape architect and native plant pioneer, Darrel Morrison. He's the designer of many sites in and outside New York City and has also recently worked on the expansion of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Native Flora Garden.

The following images illustrate the type of moonscape that exists in this sandy environment. Some of the plants we saw flourishing here are:

Broom Crowberry Corema conradii mixed with Bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.

These two species interspersed to create a beautiful low growing mosaic, the glossy leaves of the Bearberry reflected the light and Crowberry was like a red hairy mat.

The dominant species is the Pitch Pine Pinus rigida that surrounded the sandy paths we walked on and provided a unique sense enclosure; trees only slightly bigger than us. The Pitch Pine is accompanied by the Scrub Oak Quercus ilicifolia.

At the next site we visited my feet got pretty wet and muddy, thankfully it was warm and it was so beautiful that I didn't really care. But for people going out there, definitely bring high boots! On the way to the bog we saw pine forests with an undergrowth of blueberries turned bright red.

The bog was beautiful and tasty! I ate tart and refreshing cranberries. It was hard not to step on amazing plants, everywhere we looked there were carniverous Pitcher Plants Sarracenia purpurea . It makes sense there would be so many of these plants here, since the soil level is low in nutrients and high in acid, forcing plants to look for their nutrients elsewhere (namely, in bugs).

This set of Sarracenia are so red it looks like a crime scene!

I think the most beautiful scene we saw was watching the Eel Grass Zostera marina flow in the current of a shallow creek. The grass was so bright in the sun and so graceful. It was very peaceful and quiet at that moment.

Here are some photos of us collecting seeds and enjoying the day.

This little blue flower is the Gentiana autumnal, commonly known as the pine barren gentian!

I also wanted to write about another outing I had, that I believe is somewhat related. This was last week, on another beautifully warm day, to the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, led by the Newtown Creek Alliance's Kate Zidar. I can't believe I've lived in Greenpoint for ten years and not gone on this walk before. I think it had something to do with it lining the sewage treatment plant that's turned me off before, but now I know it's really beautiful. I also think the design, which features many native plants and natural rocks, is partially inspired by the Pine Barrens landscape. Definitely check it out for yourselves and keep your eyes out for it's expansion over the next few years.

And last, though not least, a few weeks ago I spent a day with a reporter from Al Jazeera English on a tour of green infrastructure in the city for a short video piece they were doing. We visited the green wall at Hugo Neu Recycling in the South Bronx, the High Line, Eagle Street Farm, and one of the roofs we installed last year. The video is now online and looks pretty good.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

End of Season Projects

So the season isn't over yet, we're still working hard, but here's one of the most recent projects we've completed that we're super happy with. It's an intensive green roof for a residence in Brooklyn, with soil varying from 2" to 8". It's planted with mostly native grasses and wildflowers using Switchgass, Little Bluestem, Butterfly Weed, New York Ironweed, and the rare New England Blazing Star, all from our favorite Glover Perennials out in Long Island. There's also a vegetable bed, lavender, and lots of Sempervivum.

Here are some pictures of the installation and one of the happy clients enjoying the roof after words!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Rooftop farms and gardens.

We had a great time at New Green City in Union Square last week. The day was so gorgeous and we were happy to see a lot of interest in green roofs. In particular we noticed interest in rooftop farming, which was to be expected given the crowd and the clear vogue for rooftop farms in sustainability/food justice/urbanist fields at the moment. So here is a little post about rooftop farming that can hopefully answer some common questions on the subject.

Eagle Street Farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Rooftop farms require more soil than regular, extensive green roofs. You need over six inches of soil to grow anything productively, so the part of the roof where you are gardening will have to to be intensive. This weighs more and costs more than an extensive roof, which has less than four inches of soil. I know you really want a cost estimate but this depends so heavily on the type of roof, location and size of the building that it is better to just get a quote. It could be somewhere between $25 and $60 per square foot.

Brooklyn Grange Farm in Long Island City, Queens.

The first thing on your agenda should be to find out the load-bearing capabilities of your roof. If there was construction done on your roof or a structural analysis performed in the last five years, you may already have this information. If not, contact a licensed structural engineer. In New York City, you can check the Department of Buildings database to see what documents are on file for your building. This is one of those tools provided by the city, like the NYCityMap that I think everyone should know about because I use them all the time. Maybe it's just me. Anyway, your roof will need to safely carry upwards of 60-100 pounds per square foot.

Frieda Lim's sub-irrigated planters at Slippery Slope Farm in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

If you've got that, you'll need to find a green roof company to do the design and installation. This is the easiest part! Alive Structures is here for you.

We think the best system for green roof gardening is a combination intensive/extensive green roof, where most of the roof has a low soil depth and the gardening plot or plots have higher depths. If you can't install a green roof on your building for whatever reason, other options are planters, sub-irrigated or regular, or hydroponics. For information on how to build sub-irrigated planters (SIPs) yourself, see Inside Urban Green. Keep in mind planters can also weigh quite a bit, so a structural analysis is really necessary for safety whatever you do.

Gotham Greens' hydroponic greenhouses in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Some other potential issues to consider when growing vegetables on a roof are nutrients and wind. The soils that are used for green roofs are engineered to be lighter than regular soil. They have a high amount of shale and are not designed for their nutrient content. Unfortunately, this means your veggies will be less nutritious. Spinach can't be high in iron if there isn't any iron in the soil. You should be prepared to spread a lot of compost or compost tea around your plants, so start saving those coffee grinds. Last, rooftops are windy. Any plant that grows off the ground, like tomatos, will need extra staking and care and if your roof is extra windy due to the location, you may lose soil over time.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

This Week: Alive Structures About Town

So you know how you've been meaning to meet the Alive Structures team and talk to us about how you're dying for an intensive native plant green roof at your 100,000 sf warehouse? Well, luckily for you, we're going to be at two awesome events this week!

This Saturday, Oct. 1st, we will be at The New New York: DIY Green Block Party, after 11am. The block party was a big success last year and has tons of crafts, activities and educational opportunities, including a couple of different green tours, yoga, and a compost bin raffle. You'll probably be too busy admiring our booth to do any of it though.

11th St and Wythe
Williamsburg, Brooklyn
L train to Bedford Ave or G train to Nassau Ave.
11 am - 5 pm

Next Wednesday, Oct. 5th, we'll be in Union Square at New Green City. There will be a DIY tutorials, a rainwater capture exhibit, and a scavenger hunt among other sustainable, family friendly entertainment. Come say hi.
Union Square Park - South Plaza
4, 5, 6, N, R, Q, L to 14th St- Union Square
10am - 6pm

Monday, September 26, 2011

Green is still greener than white.

We really like this Greenpeace ad, which says, "Simply painting your roof white reflects the sun's rays, which helps cool down the environment. In the fight against global warming, one degree cooler in our cities equates to three degrees cooler at the poles, which means a better chance of survival for animals like the polar bear, whose home is melting at a rapid rate."

Run-on sentence aside, the message is cleverly delivered and so important. Man, juvenile charismatic megafauna gets us every time. But we're a green roof company and we have to say, green roofs are much better for the environment than white roofs. White roofs' benefits are that they're less expensive and easier to implement, so we think they should be used as a stop-gap on roofs whose grading is too steep for a green roof, or until a green roof can be installed. Anyway, we made our own version:

To contrast, check out the actual map of NYC green roofs here.

Green roofs cool the roof, the building underneath it and the surrounding area; protect the roof structure from the elements, thereby prolonging its life up to an additional 50%; create habitat for butterflies and bees (without whom our urban ecosystems would collapse); and most importantly, capture stormwater! New York City alone releases about 27 billion gallons of untreated sewage and wastewater into the harbor every year.

Not only does all that water contain tons of bacteria and pathogens, but it also contains tons of trash. Much of the plastic trash you see on the street every day, from bottle caps to plastic bags, gets washed into the sewer system during a storm. A lot of it will end up in the harbor, and some of it will be eaten by sea turtles and other marine life. You saw that photo series by Chris Jordan that made its way around the internet last year, right?

It's pretty sad.

Point being, consider a green roof if you haven't already. There are low-interest loans and tax abatements to help with the cost, or if you're a business or non-profit, we may be able to get you a green roof for free. Just ask us how.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Bulbs for Spring!

Alive Structures is offering the following selection of native and unusual bulbs to be planted in the next month. Call or write to place an order and set up an appointment!

Eranthis hyemalis (order btwn. 25-100) $.62 each:
Commonly known as Winter Aconite, has a native range of Southern France
to Bulgaria. It blooms a buttercup yellow in part shade in March/ April. Attracts
honeybees when nectar is rare.

Allium cernuum (order btwn. 10-25) $2.10 each:
American Nodding Pink Onion has delicate pink blossoms hanging by tendrils.
Blooms in late summer. Best in full to partial sun.

Camassia quamash (order btwn. 15-50) $1.15 each:
A stunning violet color in early spring. Enjoyed as a delicacy by Native
Americans, for it’s starchy bulb. Likes a moist sunny spot if you have it, but can tolerate some drought as well.

Alive Structures will order and plant your bulbs for $200
Call us at 718-488-5927 or email your order at info [at]

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Labor Day Party New York Style

We were quietly enjoying Labor Day weekend at my mother's upstate home in Warwick, NY, which has an AMAZING rock garden, when....

New York Ironweed Vernonia noveboracensis and the Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis became so loud, attracting attention from the neighboring hummingbirds, and in general causing quite a stir while most perennials had calmed down long ago.

These plants were totally intoxicated by the recent amounts of water and sun, and were intoxicating to behold. Such bright colors!! Especially together, really a party not to be missed.

You can also appreciate the other beautiful plants in the garden, the Yucca, the white Allium tuberosum, and the stark seedheads of Verbascum blattaria or Moth Mullein.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Plant Behind the Monarch

Ever wonder what holds Kingdoms together? Often enough it's a plant.

Take for instance, the Monarch, Danaus plexippus, perhaps the best known of all North American butterflies, if you truly want to understand it you need to know about the plant genus Asclepias, that supports it. People love Monarch Butterflies but few know of the one plant that the pupa of monarchs, caterpillars, require to survive; Asclepias, commonly known as Butterfly Weed or Milkweed.

The reason Monarchs are so keen on this genus of plant is because of the chemical it contains; cardiac glycosides. As the monarch caterpillars eat the milkweed leaves they store the cardiac glycosides in their exoskeleton, making themselves toxic to predators such as birds. So birds in search of a meal quickly learn that the monarch is a unpalatable food that can make them vomit.

Few gardeners grow Asclepias, few landscape architects spec it in their designs, and few nurseries sell it, and yet it is crucial to the survival of this much loved wandering butterfly.

Friends of mine recently bought cut flowers of Ascelpias tuberosa, with showy orange blossoms, at the Green Market only to find a luminous green sac hanging from one of the stems. A week later a monarch butterfly shimmied out, though it didn't survive. Nonetheless, it was an inspiring process which they witnessed in their own Brooklyn apartment. Here are the pictures they sent.

I've often bought Asclepias tuberosa, only to realize the plant is hosting several caterpillars. What a wonderful gift to give to a garden, a rooftop, and to nature, more monarchs! And a plant they can return to every year to lay their eggs and feed upon as well as enjoy the nectar of the milkweed blossoms. Asclepias is also a diverse and beautiful genus with many species worthy of being in a garden.

Asclepias tuberosa is a late summer bloomer that is extremely drought tolerant, making it perfect for lazy gardeners or gardens with sandy dry soil. Here is it in one of our terrace projects combined with Yucca filamentosa.

Other Asclepias prefer more water, like the showy A. incarnata, which can get quite tall, and can be found by lakes or swamps. Here are a few pictures of it towering in my mothers garden.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What happens to a suburban dream deferred?

What happens when there isn't enough water to sustain a landscape? Does it shrivel up in the sun until there's nothing left? What about suburban populations faced with the realities of an arid climate met by climate change?

Photo via NPR.

We caught two harrowing NPR morning edition segments on the drought in Texas today. One discussed the effect the drought is having on local ecologies. The earth is dry so the plants are dry, so insect populations are decimated, so the bat colonies don't have anything to eat, and squirrels and deer don't have enough milk to feed their babies, and on and on. Desert ecosystems are fragile, supporting life with severely limited resources. Human development is one of the main causes of desertification, and the Southwest experienced a boom in population growth in the last decade.
Areas in red are high vulnerability of desertification. Credit USDA.

Texas started recording meteorological data in 1895 and in 116 years, this is the driest it's ever been. This year has been marked by extreme weather across the states, from a record-breaking snowstorm in the northeast last winter, to the record-breaking heatwave in July, to the hurricane currently approaching the east coast.

As climate change progresses over the next century, extreme weather will become far more frequent. We've had above-average yearly rainfall in New York City every year for the past 10 years. At the same time, the West is getting drier. Our climate is polarizing, and these changes are going to take a toll on wildlife across the board as it struggles to adapt biologies developed over thousands of years within the span of a few decades. One might think it would be easier for humans to adjust our consumptive industries and aggressive colonization customs, but perhaps the instincts behind these habits are as much a product of evolution as the drought-tolerant nature of Sunset Hyssop (native to Arizona and New Mexico).

Agastache rupestris is a fragrant member of the mint family and a hummingbird favorite. Photo via.

Native plant shout-out accomplished, I wish you a good (and safe) weekend.