Friday, September 28, 2012

Melon-ic Efforts

I like to keep my vegetable garden trim and neat and intensively planted. Melons have a different perspective on life. They like to sprawl every which way, tumbling across garden beds and latching their tendrils onto whatever they might come across to pull themselves up. Can ever the twain -- homegrown melons, here -- meet? Yes, and especially this year.

First, let’s look at the melons I planted in the garden. Seedlings a few weeks old went into the center of columns of concrete reinforcement wire 18 inches in diameter by 2 feet high. The idea was that the wire cage would contain the vines by letting them grow around and around the cylinder in an upwardly spiral fashion. Ripe muskmelons, the varieties Hannah’s Choice and Jenny Lind, could drop to the ground, the 2-foot maximum drop causing no harm.

My melons evidently weren’t in on my plan. Hot weather in early summer spurred fast and furious growth, with new shoots outstripping my efforts at coaxing the vines around and up  the cylinders. Most of the vines escaped their confines and sprawled over the bed, then onto the paths. I did manage to turn the vines inward before they overran adjacent beds.

Not to complain, though. There was a good crop of melons harvested, and vines have now been cleared away and beds prepared for next spring, with everything trim and neat again.

Melon-ic efforts did not end in the garden. My compost bins are, like my garden, relatively neat and trim. This is not to say that some sprawling vines couldn’t be accommodated on top of those piles. The compost isn’t needed until the end of summer or fall, anyway, and melons enjoy rich, moist soils. What could be richer and moister than pure compost?

So I pulled back the corners of the coverings on a few of the compost piles and planted Hannah’s Choice and Jenny Lind seedlings there also. These melon plants grew even more vigorously than those in the garden and sprawled over the tops of the piles and down the sides.

The compost pile planting was a total success. It also yielded the earliest melons, probably due to extra heat from the innards of the pile and the dark cover on the pile, and from the richness of compost.

Even then my melon-ic efforts were not at an end.

Every autumn I get a truckload of leaves from a landscaper, and through winter get truckloads of wood chips from arborists. The leaves and chips mostly sit in place until the following autumn when they get spread as mulch beneath trees and berry bushes and in pathways in the vegetable garden.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of making some use of that pile of organic material even as it sits waiting to be spread. Last spring a year ago I planted sweet potatoes -- another sprawling vegetable -- in the pile and harvested some humongous, orange tubers. This past spring melons, including Blacktail watermelon, were introduced to the pile along with my new planting of sweet potatoes.

Until raw organic materials start to decompose, they are relatively poor in nutrients, especially nitrogen. So instead of going directly into the pile, melon and sweet potato transplants went into holes scooped out of the pile into which I had added a few handfuls of compost. The compost would get the plants off to a good start. The melons, which are more demanding about their soil than are sweet potatoes, initially sulked and had to be encouraged with periodic watering and some additional fertilizer early in the season.

  The slow start was for the better. Melon plants, except for the watermelons, don’t keep bearing for a long time, and these leaf/wood chip melons brought up the end of the season with a late crop. Right now, the leaf and woodchip pile is completely overrun with melon and sweet potato vines. A few watermelon fruits are still ripening atop the pile and within lurks, I expect, a good crop of sweet potatoes.

To experience firsthand the possibilities in home-grown fruits, come to my workshop BACKYARD FRUITS: A TASTING AND A WORKSHOP, which will be held here art my farmden. Learn how to grow delicious fruits organically and then taste some that are in season, such as pears, grapes, pawpaws, persimmons, and kiwifruits. The workshop is Oct. 6th, 2-5 pm. Contact me for registration information.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Benas, Beans, . . .

Lima beans are one of those things, like artichokes, okra, and dark beer, that people either love or hate. I love them. The problem is that this far north, summer temperatures usually hover below those in which lima bean plants thrive, at least those best-tasting varieties of lima having large seeds and dry, sweetish flesh something like chestnuts.

A few years ago, I grew the variety Jackson Wonder, which was billed as a “prolific, cold-hardy heirloom with bright nutty flavor.” It was cold-hardy and prolific, and it is an heirloom dating back to 1888, but the flavor was blah.

A long, long time ago, I grew what might be the best-tasting of all lima beans, a pole variety named Dr. Martin. Dr. Martin’s demand for warm summers resulted in a harvest that was too paltry to justify space for those long vines again.

The earth has warmed in the quarter century since I grew Dr. Martin. The growing season is longer and summer temperatures are hotter. So this spring I thought it was time again to try growing some big, fat, flavorful lima beans. King of the Garden was the variety at hand, a variety perhaps as good as Dr. Martin. I started the seed in spring in pots indoors and planted out the seedlings, 2 per bamboo pole with 3 poles tied at their tops to form a teepee, a the end of May, by which time hot weather had worked its way into both air and soil.

King of the Garden plants grew, and grew, and grew. And flowered, and grew, and grew. And occasionally, I noticed a little, very little, pod beginning to develop. But no flowers or mini-pods grew to become large pods filled with big, fat, flavorful lima beans.

Lima beans are a finicky lot. Not only do they shiver in cool weather; they also underperform in weather that’s too hot. Like the hot weather we had, at times, this summer. More recent, cooler nights should improve pod set. That is, unless something else is the roadblock to pod production. That “something else” could be stinkbugs. Stinkbugs and stinkbug problems are moving north from their more traditional southern haunts. There were plenty this summer. The buggers enjoy limas.

Moving over to another bean, green beans, my third and last planting of which is now being feasted upon by Mexican bean beetles. (They also feed on the limas, but not enough to cause significant damage.) Mexican bean beetles are not something new that’s become more problematic with warmer summers and winters; they’ve been showing up in my garden for decades although few other gardeners with whom I speak seem to have problems with them.

Despite the beetles, I harvest plenty of green beans; my main beef with the beetles is that they keep me from being able to grow pole green beans. Pole beans, unlike bush beans, which get sequentially planted and then pulled out after a few weeks of harvest, are a long season crop planted in late spring to grow and bear until frost. That long season of growth offers a 24/7 dinner to bean beetles. Growing only bush beans restricts my choice of varieties and makes growing and harvesting the beans, for fresh eating and for freezing, more frantic.

This year, I tried to check bean beetle infestations with weekly sprays of neem, a relatively nontoxic pesticide derived from the Indian neem tree. It was ineffective. Another possibility is to elicit the help of a stinkbug! No, not any old stinkbug but one known as the spined soldier beetle, a predator a many plant pests. These bugs can be purchased as such or pheromone attractants can be purchased to attract them to the garden. I tried the traps many years ago to no good effect. Perhaps it’s time to import the bugs themselves.

One bean that seems to be pretty much ignored by bean beetles and stinkbugs, and any other pest, is soybean, which I harvest green as edamame. The edamame harvest this season has, as usual, been excellent. I grow the variety Shirofumi, both for its flavor and good yields.

Edamame usually flower and ripen pods in response to daylength, and Shirofumi edamame harvest ends in early August. Then, I usually pull the plants to make space for late plantings of cabbages, radishes, lettuce, and other cool weather vegetables. This year, the space was not needed so I decided to leave the plants in place.

Soybeans, along with green beans, lima beans, and other beans, are legumes, which are plants that, with the help of symbiotic bacteria in their roots, can use nitrogen from the air as food. Much of that nitrogen becomes the protein in the soybean seeds; the rest is in the leaves, stems, and roots. Leaving my soybean plants in place is helping to enrich the soil with nitrogen, from old roots that slough off. The rest of the plants, once pulled, go into the compost pile to provide nitrogen there and, as the finished compost is spread, subsequently in the garden. My lima bean plants, even if they remain podless, provide those same benefits. The same goes for my green bean plants, from which I’ll get a little extra nitrogen from all the Mexcan bean beetles on their leaves.

Do you want to grow fruit but think you don’t have room? I’ll be giving a workshop “Fruit for Small Gardens,” covering the fruits and growing techniques needed to reap delectable rewards from spaces as small as a balcony to as "large" as a small suburban yard. The venue is Stone Barns inn Pocantico Hills, NY on September 22nd from 1-3 pm. For more information, see

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sept 6, 2012 #35
by Lee Reich

It’s payday here on the farmden. The first Magness and Beurrée d’Amanlis pears dropped to the ground, signaling that it’s time to harvest those varieties. Immediately, before the chickens peck at the fallen fruit, which will then get hollowed out by this year’s abundant yellow jackets. The crop is pretty substantial considering last spring’s wide swings in the weather.
My Seckel pear, ready to harvest

Actually, the real payday -- eating the pears -- needs to wait a couple of weeks. European pears, such as Magness and Beurrée d’Amanlis, need to be picked underripe to finish ripening off the tree, or else their insides are mush. These two varieties are early ripening, and early ripening pears ripen best if chilled for a couple of weeks before being brought to room temperature for ripening. 

The pears must achieve a certain degree of maturity before they can ripen to perfection off the tree. The easiest way to tell when that magic moment has arrived is when the fruit stalk separates readily from the tree as the fruit is gently lifted and rotated. That’s after a few fallen fruits call attention to the tree. Not all fruits reach that lift-twist-separate stage simultaneously so I’ll go over the trees again 2 or 3 more times. (A refractometer, which measures sugars, also can indicate when to harvest, although the fruit must be cut so then can’t ripen for eating; most pears can be picked if sample fruits show refractometer readings greater than 10°Bx.)
Magness, one of the best of the European pears

Color on my Asian pears, the varieties Chojura and Yoinashi, is becoming more vibrant, which is their way of telling me that they’re near ripening. Unlike European pears, Asian pears don’t taste their best unless plucked from the tree dead ripe. When ready, they’re at that lift-twist-separate stage. They’ll need especially careful picking because as a result of last spring’s frost, less than a dozen of the golden gems hang from the branches, making each fruit all the more prized.

The tree fruits highlight what a strange growing season it has been. Besides the dramatic early warming last spring and the dramatic freezes that followed, the growing season got started early and has been unusually hot. The upshot is that everything, fruitwise, is advanced ahead of its usual schedule. Magness pears typically ripen for me around the middle of September, with Chojura beginning soon after. This year, all these fruits are ripening about 2 weeks early.

A hot season and early ripening could effect fruit quality, especially of pears. Some varieties taste best following warmer summers, others during cooler summers. Temperatures during ripening also have an effect on quality. It’s known that hot temperatures in the two months preceding harvest bring out the best flavors in Bartlett and Bosc pears, and that Anjou pears like it cool. The effect of temperature on the more obscure pear varieties, which are what I grow, is not well elucidated. Time, beginning in 2 weeks, when tasting begins, will tell.

This morning I was scything some tall grass and weeds beneath my persimmon trees in anticipation of their ripening. Mowing exposed a ripe, orange persimmon couched softly among stems and leaves on the ground. And then another one, and then another. I looked up and confirmed that Mohler persimmons are ripening.
Szukis persimmon

Mohler is one of a number of varieties of American persimmon that are cold hardy and will ripen their fruits this far north. My persimmons have survived winter lows below minus 20 degrees F.; Asian persimmons, which you find in the markets, are not nearly that cold hardy. The flavors differ also. American persimmons are drier, with richer flavor, the best varieties having taste and texture something like a dried apricot that’s been soaked in water, dipped in honey, and given a dash of spice.

Mohler is not available from nurseries. I made my tree by grafting a stem of Mohler, which I got from someone named Mohler in Pennsylvania, onto an American persimmon seedling. I was able to hook up with Mohler through North American Fruit Explorers (, a fun organization of fruit nuts who write about their fruit adventures, home and afield, and exchange plants.
Mohler, as well as my Szukis, Dooley, and Yates, American persimmons (the others are available from specialty nurseries) are very reliable and easy to grow. Mine have never succumbed to late spring frosts and the mature trees require no spraying, pruning, or any other care. They’re among the fruits highlighted in my books Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden (Timber Press, 2004) and Grow Fruit Naturally (Taunton Press, 2012).

Do you want to grow fruit but think you don’t have room? I’ll be giving a workshop “Fruit for Small Gardens,” covering the fruits and growing techniques needed to reap delectable rewards from spaces as small as a balcony to as "large" as a small suburban yard. The venue is Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY on September 22nd from 1-3 pm. For more information, see

To experience firsthand the possibilities in home-grown fruits, come to my workshop BACKYARD FRUITS: A TASTING AND A WORKSHOP, which will be held here at my farmden. Learn how to grow delicious fruits organically and then taste some that are in season, such as pears, grapes, pawpaws, persimmons, and kiwifruits. The workshop is Oct. 6th, 2-5 pm. Contact me for more information and registration.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Demise of Miss Kim, Sweet corn

Aug 30, 2012 #34
by Lee Reich

I killed Miss Kim. Sure, she was pretty enough, with lilac purple flowers late each spring. In fact, she is  . . .  I mean “was” . . . a lilac, although she was Syringa patula, a different species from the common lilac (S. vulgaris). 

The very reason that I had planted Miss Kim was because she was different. She would blossom later than the common lilac, extending the season when lilac blossoms and their fragrance could be enjoyed. Later in summer, her leaves were never to be marred by the powdery, white coating -- powdery mildew disease -- that mars the leaves of common lilacs. And her expected stature, no more than 6 feet high, would be fitting for the bed of perennial flowers that she would call home. 

The relationship did not work out. Her later blossoms did not extend the fragrance of lilac blossoms, at least not the heavenly aroma of the common lilac. Miss Kim’s flowers were fragrant but not pleasantly so. Her growth was my oversight: I should have predicted that the rich soil here in the Wallkill River floodplain would coax Miss Kim to new and greater proportions, proportions that overpowered other plants in the flowerbed. 

So Miss Kim had to go. After an initial effort with shovels, I, along with helpers David and Jonathan, coaxed her root ball out of the ground by adding a tractor and chain to the tool mix. Unfortunately, this is not the ideal time of year to dig up a large shrub for replanting. Miss Kim is now in some kind of lilac heaven.

Perennial bed, minus Miss Kim
The spot vacated by Miss Kim is thankfully open now to light and air. A bit too open, in fact, so a replacement shrub is waiting in the wings. My probable choice this time around: summersweet clethra (Clethra alnifolia), a native shrub that is adorned with fragrant, usually white bottlebrushes of blossoms in late July. 

Clethra usually grows to about 6 feet tall (uh-oh) but some varieties are more compact. I’ll be on the lookout for the variety Hummingbird (to 4 feet tall, heavy flowering, shiny leaves), Pink Spice (dwarf height unspecified, pink blossoms, dark, shiny leaves), or September Beauty (dwarf height unspecified, blossoms 2 weeks later than others). 

Clethra grows in sun or shade, in either case needing a moist, acidic soil. My site is in full sun; I’ll bank on plenty of mulch for keeping the soil moist. 

There’s time until fall to ponder which clethra to plant, or even whether to plant something else. Fall is particularly good for planting because the soil is just right for digging, warm and moist, not sodden, and because roots will grow in their new home but shoots won’t grow until after they’ve experienced sufficient cool weather between fall and spring. I like to plant on October 14th.

Not that Walmart is the go to place for good sweet corn but Walmart is, after all, the largest retailer of organic foods. Now there’s one more reason to grow your own sweet corn (in addition, of course, to at least some others of your own vegetables and fruits). Soon to be found on Walmart’s produce shelves: GMO sweet corn,”GMO” as in “genetically modified” sweet corn. 

Most corn grown in this country is, unfortunately, GMO corn. That corn is field corn, destined for animal feed, ethanol, and processed foods. Allergens, pesticide-resistant pests, adverse health effects to animals fed such crops, genetic contamination of wild plants and non-GMO crop plants, questionable economic advantages, increase pesticide use, and a host of unknowns are among the reasons that GMO crops should be banned. (For more, see GMO Myths and Truths at
Golden Bantam corn, grown here on the farmden

Most aggregious is the fact that GMO foods and feeds are not required to be labeled as such. 

I find comfort in knowing that the sweet corn I’ve been harvesting for the past few weeks, and for a few more to come, is non-GMO (the variety Golden Bantam, the standard of excellence in sweet corn 100 years ago) and has not even been sprayed with pesticides. I plant in “hills” (clumps of 3 plants), 2 rows of hills spaced 2 feet apart in the row down each bed. With good soil and water as needed, a 20 foot long bed yields 90 plus ears of scrumptious, healthful sweet corn.

I will be giving a workshop “Grow Fruit Naturally” at Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, NY on September 9th. For more information:

Do you want to grow fruit but think you don’t have room? I’ll be giving a workshop “Fruit for Small Gardens,” covering the fruits and growing techniques needed to reap delectable rewards from spaces as small as a balcony to as "large" as a small suburban yard. The venue is Stone Barns inn Pocantico Hills, NY on September 22nd from 1-3 pm. For more information, see