Friday, April 11, 2014



April 26th, 2014: “Pruning Nuts”, New York Nut Growers Association spring meeting at the Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, 423 Griffing Avenue, Riverhead, NY, on Saturday, April 26, 2014 from 9:30 until 3:00,

April 27th, 2014: 2-5:30, "Pruning workshop" with Lee Reich, at my farmden in New Paltz, NY. Contact me for more information. This hands-on (my hands) workshop will cover: The best time to prune; the “tools of the trade”; Plant response to various kinds of pruning cuts; pruning demonstrations. Contact me for registration and more information. 

May 3rd, 2014: 2-5:30, Make your own trees at the "Grafting workshop, at my New Paltz, NY farmden. The how, why, and when of grafting; demonstration of 2 easy kinds of grafts; and then make your own pear tree to take home. Contact me for registration and more information.

May 10th, 2014: "Weed-less Gardening", in conjunction with Garden Conservancy Open Day at Margaaret Roach's garden in Copake Falls, NY, 11 am,

And now, on to the post . . .

  Are the 6,000 acres of forest preserve behind my farmden mocking me? Almost every day, weather permitting, I grab pruning shears, a lopper, and a pruning saw, and head outdoors to snip, lop, or saw at least some stems or limbs from my trees, shrubs, and vines. Up there in the forest, no one is doing any pruning yet everything seems copacetic.

Let the forest laugh. My efforts here aren’t for naught. If a large limb crashes down from a forest tree, the forest as a whole is none the worse for wear. If a limb cracks off the honeylocust that is supposed to shade my deck . . . well, that’s not good for the deck, for the health of the tree, or for the desired shade. Similarly, a forest doesn’t feel the loss of one tree to pests or diseases. Not so for the stately crabapple gracing a front lawn.

So I prune to help keep my trees healthy. A tree with good form is stronger, less likely to lose a limb. And if a limb does surrender to the weight of snow, a crisp pruning cut of the frayed stub leads to quick healing of the wound. I prune off any tarry, black growths on my plum trees so that they can’t further the spread of black knot disease. I prune my kiwi and grape vines so that each remaining stem can bathe in the sunlight and air that is inimical to the spread of fungal diseases.

As gardeners, farmdeners, and farmers, we demand more from our plants in terms of flowers, fruit, and/or form that a forest does from its individual trees. Pruning, in removing some potential buds, directs a plant’s energy into fewer buds, making for more spectacular blossoms and more luscious fruits.

I prune also because it’s fun. Gardening is more than just good food, pretty plants, and a chance to “work” outside with the sun warming my back. It’s also, for me at least, about watching plants respond to my ministrations, rewarding me if the response is positive, and providing a learning experience if the response is negative.


Last year’s invasion of cicadas has thrown a monkey wrench into my usual pruning. Cicadas didn’t feed on stems, but use them as a nursery in which to lay eggs. Ms. Cicada prefers 1/3-1/2” inch thick stems which is, unfortunately, the thickness of many stems on my fruit trees, most of which show at least some damage. The slits weaken the stems so they are more likely to break off and have less energy for new growth so can support less fruit, physically and physiologically.

Mostly, I’m going to wait to prune these plants to see what they have planned in terms of flowers. If they flower heavily, which is doubtful, I’ll shorten stems enough so that they don’t break under their weight of fruit. I’ll also reduce the number of fruits to the number I estimate the weakened plants can support.

I’ll go ahead more or less with my normal pruning on stems or trees that don’t flower. Probably a little less severely than usual so that the plants can put all their energy into growing as much as possible to build up their energy reserves.

In either case, good soil enriched with plenty of compost, mulching, and timely watering will provide good growing conditions to put injured plants on the road to recovery.

What of the future? Those slitted stems no longer house eggs. The eggs hatched last summer a month and a half after being laid, and then, the nymphs dropped to the ground. After burrowing in the soil, the next 16 years will be spent growing and feeding on roots.

Roots! My poor trees. Perhaps I should have cut off all the slitted stems last year and burned them before the eggs hatched. But that would have severely debilitated the plants. Oh well, nothing’s to be done except give the plants good growing conditions and hope for the best. As always, Mother Nature has the upper hand.

A lot of gardeners sow their tomato seeds too early and the result is spindly plants. The time to sow the seeds is about 6 weeks before the average date of the last killing frost, which, around here, is April 1st. No joke.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Fuzzy Buds and Snow Removal; Where's the White Cat?

Did the cheery looking box of “Mickey Mouse” adhesive bandages my friend Bill handed me actually contain adhesive bandages? No. Instead, fuzzy green buds spilled out. An illicit drug? No, again. Those “buds” were sweet fern seeds, which Bill suggested planting.

Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) is a native plant, one of my favorites, valued for its resinous aroma. That aroma always transports me in time back to summer days hiking in the White Mountains along sunny, dirt roads lined with sweet fern when I was nine years old. Poor  (but well drained) soil and hot afternoon sun bring out the best in sweet fern. The plant makes do in poor soil by getting its nitrogen from the air with the help of a symbiotic microorganism.

Sweet fern is attractive even if it lacks the flamboyance of showy flowers or colorful leaves. Picture clumps of 3-foot-high stems clothed in dark green fern-like leaves. “Fern-like” because sweet fern is not, in fact, a fern but a member of the Myrtle family, along with bayberry.

So, yes Bill, I would like to grow sweet fern. But I have reservations about starting it from seed. The seed retains its viability for decades but sprouts only after jumping through a few hoops. Old seeds that have been lying dormant in the soil, perhaps for decades, sprout readily. Over time, their seed coats have been softened, chemical inhibitors have been leached away, and a spate of cool weather has reassured them that winter is past and it’s safe to sprout.

To get seeds to sprout in a more reasonable time, the seed coats need to be scarified, or made permeable. Nicking the seed with a wire cutter, rubbing it with sandpaper, or soaking it in sulfuric acid will do the trick but care must be taken to avoid damage. Mixing the seeds with moist potting soil  and refrigerating it for a month or two gives it the chilling required. After that, greatest success in germination comes with soaking the seed in a solution of gibberellic acid, a plant hormone.

You know what? I’m not going to bother with the seeds. Sweet fern is easily propagated from rhizome (root-like subterranean stem) cuttings -- as long as I can find someone with sweet fern who will let me take a few cuttings. All that’s needed is to dig up some of the shallow, horizontal rhizomes, cut them into 2 to 4 inch lengths (the longer pieces for the thinner rhizomes), and set them 1/2” deep in a mix of equal parts peat and sand or peat and perlite or just vermiculite. New roots and shoots will develop and, this summer I could imagine that I am again walking along again in my white T-shirt with a pack on my back, canteen at my side, and Ked’s sneakers on my feet, wafting in that delicious aroma from along a sun-parched road.

Much, much easier to grow from seeds than sweet ferns are peas. If I can only get out in the garden to plant them! The time to sow peas around here is April 1st but -- as I write this on March 19th -- night temperatures are in the ‘teens and the garden sleeps beneath a blanket of snow.

(St. Patricks Day, contrary to popular notion, is not the right time to sow peas around here, or in many other places. It depends where you garden. That’s probably the right date for sowing peas in Ireland and in South Carolina, but it’s too late in Florida and too early here.)

The reason to rush peas into the ground as soon as possible is because the bearing plants don’t like hot weather. The earlier they get into the ground, the sooner they begin to bear. Once weather turns torrid, I pull the peas out and plant bush beans, fall cabbage, or some other vegetable where they stood.

The reason I don’t plant peas on St. Patrick’s day is because, first of all, it would be hard to plant in usually frozen ground. Also, peas don’t germinate until soil temperatures hit 40°F. If they just sit in cold, moist soil without sprouting, they’re apt to rot.

No need to twiddle my thumbs waiting for the soil to warm. Sprinkling some wood ash on the garden should hasten soil warming. The ashes hasten disappearance of the snowy blanket both from a “salt” effect (from the mineral salts, not sodium chloride, in the wood ash) and from their dark color.

Wood ash also helps nourish garden soils, making the soil less acidic and adding potassium and a slew of micronutrients. But restraint is needed to avoid too much of a good thing. Excess potassium or alkalinity ends up feeding plants an imbalance of nutrients.

The mere dusting I spread a few days ago began its work quickly, soon pitting the surface to look like a miniature range of jagged mountain peaks.

(Update: The snow, since I initially wrote the above, has thoroughly melted except in a few shaded areas. Nothing like a few 50 degree days to make spring's presence finally known.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Of Orchids and Oil

Over the past few weeks, excitement was steadily mounting on the windowsill. First came the stalk that poked up from the bases of whorls of leathery leaves. Then, buds started fattening up along the stalks. Finally, after a half a decade of growing Dendrobium kingianum, the pink rock orchid, it looked like the plant might finally reward me with some blossoms. Which it did, a couple of days ago.

The actual blossoming was somewhat anticlimactic. No flamboyant shapes or colors, just small, white blossoms. And no particularly green thumb was required to get this orchid to blossom, just time.

Pink rock orchid is known to be a tough plant. While many orchids are native to lush, tropical jungles, the conditions of which are hard to  even approach, indoors except in a hothouse, this orchid is native to rocky environments of Australia. It tolerates cold below freezing and hot temperatures over 100°F., and does not demand an inordinate amount of light. I water whenever the potting mix seems dry.

The problem is that “orchid flowering” conjures up both a greater challenge and blossoms more spectacular than are offered by pink rock orchid. So I’m now just going to look upon it as an attractive houseplant with an attractive flower. It even has a pleasant, slight scent.

I’ve waxed enthusiastic about the handfuls of ripe figs I gather up in late summer and into fall from my greenhouse. And about heads of lettuce and m√Ęche, celery stalks, and sprigs of parsley that fill salad bowls all winter. Yet all is not always so Eden-like within the greenhouse. Last year scale insects began to attack a couple of fig trees. Innocuous-looking, small bumps on the bark -- dormant scale insects -- threaten to wake up in a larger outbreak this year. Action is needed. Now.

Last year at this time my weapon was an old toothbrush and a solution of soapy water. The brute force method of scrubbing the insects from the bark was effective -- to a point -- but tedious.

This year I’m smothering the buggers. My weapon of choice is oil, not any old oil but a specially refined oil that minimizes damage to plants while leaving insects gasping for air. It also contains an emulsifier so it readily mixes with water. Spray oil comes in two “flavors:” dormant oil and summer oil. Plants are more likely to be damaged by oil when they are in leaf and growing, so summer oils are more refined; summer oils mixed at higher concentrations can be used as dormant oils. (Summer oils are also called “horticultural oils,” “stylet oils,” or “ultrafine oils.”)

Oil sprays have been around for a long time -- commercially for over a hundred years -- and have the advantages of causing little harm to beneficial organisms and being relatively safe for birds, humans, and other mammals. Insects and mites (which oils also control) have little likelihood of developing resistance to oil sprays. The oils might be petroleum-, plant-, or fish-based.

So what’s not to like about oil sprays? Most importantly, they can damage plants. To avoid damage, sprays must be applied when temperatures are above freezing but not too, too hot, say above 90°F. Also, some plants, such as Japanese maple, redbud, azalea, hibiscus, and sugar maple, are readily damaged by oil; and oil will strip the blue, waxy coating from Colorado blue spruce, turning the needles green. The longer any plant is coated with oil, the more chance for damage; low humidity hastens its evaporation.  

Spray oils work by direct contact, which is advantageous unless you have a pest whose eggs are resistant to oil and keep hatching over time. Or if the pest flies in from elsewhere. Many gardeners routinely spray their fruit trees in spring with oil, with little effect because the most significant pests of fruit trees generally do not hang out on the stems or fruits for long enough for a direct hit by an oil spray.

Back to the fig trees in my greenhouse. They’re getting weekly sprays of dormant strength summer oil until the leaves begin to unfold. Once that happens, I may mix up a batch of summer strength oil. The goal is to reduce populations drastically because, despite the innocuousness of oil sprays, I’d rather not spray anything once fruits begin to develop.

My other tack to keep scale insects at bay is to wrap the trunk with a band of masking tape coated with sticky Tangletrap, providing a Maginot line to stop ants from climbing the trees. (Hopefully, more effective than the real Maginot line.) Ants enjoy the sweet honeydew exuded by the scale insects and, in return, herd them, protecting them from predators.

Spraying and banding may seem like a lot of effort. But fresh figs are worth it. And with snow still on the ground, there’s not that much else to do, gardenwise, yet this time of year.