Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ugly, But Tasty, Old Fruit

Today’s fruit du jour is medlar (Mespilus germanica), one of the most-disgusting-looking fruits you could imagine. Don’t stop reading! Medlar was a popular fruit in the Middle Ages, and with good reason. Charlemagne was so taken by this fruit that he decreed that it be planted in every town he conquered. Medlar needs some contemporary pr.

Let’s get those bad looks out of the way. Picture a small apple with a rough, russeted skin and the calyx end -- the end opposite the stem -- flared open. Not very pretty, eh? That homely appearance gave rise to
some not-so-complimentary nicknames. “Open-arse” fruit, for example, by Chaucer. Or, from Shakespeare, more discretely, “open-etcetera.”

Ugliness, for medlars, is not just skin deep. When harvested, which was a few weeks ago here, the fruits are white and rock hard within, and not ready for eating. The fruit must be bletted, or ripened, a couple of weeks or more. I blet my medlars by setting them on the cool, north windowsill facing my kitchen sink. With the woodstove at full tilt, the air at the windowsill might still be too dry for best bletting, so I also have a few fruits bletting beneath a small bell jar in another cool part of the kitchen. A wrinkling, dark skin tells me that bletting is complete. At this point the flesh has experienced a dramatic transformation --  to brown mush.

I put all that ugliness behind me and taste that brown mush. Delicious! Something like very rich applesauce with hints of wine. I’ve only eaten them straight
up. They allegedly also cook up into delicious tarts, jellies, “fools,” and the like. Here’s a simple recipe for a tart, dating back to 1660, from Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook: “Take medlars that are rotten, strain them, and set them on a chaffing dish of coals, season them with sugar, cinamon and ginger, put some yolks of eggs to them, let it boil a little, and lay it in a cut tart; being baked scrape on sugar.”

(For a once popular fruit, medlar has had its share of pejoratives. “Rotten,” in the above recipe, means bletted. But many fruits, including European pears and avocados, need to be harvested unripe to ripen off the plant. Admittedly, few are brown mush when ready to eat.)

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So much for medlar’s bad looks and good flavor. Let’s take a good look at the plant itself.

Those ugly fruits ripen on a very attractive, small tree that never reaches more than about eight feet high or a spread of equal width. It’s a year ‘round beauty, even now, leafless, with its craggy branches and light brown bark. In spring, in contrast to many other fruit trees, the leaves unfold before the blossoms; each
blossom, opening singly and with white petals like a wild rose (a relative), is then framed by a whorled backdrop of forest-green leaves.

The tree is also self-pollinating, so does not need a companion to set fruit. Small size, beauty, and ability to perform solo make a medlar tree perfect for a small yard. One tree, then, doubles as your ornamental plant and your fruit tree.

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Pests can be a big bugaboo when growing tree fruits. The best way to deal with pests is to avoid them, and the best way to avoid them is to grow kinds or varieties of fruits naturally resistant to pests. That’s one reason I suggest against growing apples pretty much anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. (Two of apples most significant pests, plum curculio and apple maggot, are absent from many areas of the West.) Nectarines, peaches, apricots, and plums similarly suffer from serious insect and disease problems, again, especially east of the Rocky Mountains.

You may wonder, then: What’s left to grow? Pears, for one. Also, a slew of other tree fruits that are not well-known, fruits such as medlar, pawpaw, persimmon, cornelian cherry, raisin tree, mulberry, and Asian
Bletting medlars
pear.  These uncommon fruits all have excellent flavor and few or no pest problems (and play the leading roles in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden). They also demand little expertise or time in pruning as compared with some of the common tree fruits.

Not that biting into a fresh-picked, good variety of well-grown apple or peach isn’t a heavenly experience. And not that the occasional tree of such fruits some years bears a decent crop without trouble. But it pays to play the averages and proceed with eyes wide open. What are the chances for a good harvest and how much effort (and learning) will be devoted to upping the odds?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Mulchercising with a Cat


I’m getting a lot of mulchercise here at the farmden these days. It’s good for me and good for the ground and, in turn, my plants.

Four piles of materials await me: a pile each of new and old wood chips, and a pile each of new and old leaves. The new pile of leaves is going to sit out this year’s mulchercise sessions. After a winter of settling and some decomposition, that pile will be just right for being planted with squash and melon plants. The lanky vines can run wild over the pile through summer and then, next year at this time, I’ll spread the much-reduced pile.

Last year’s leaf pile, from which I harvested this year’s squashes and melons, is part of my present mulchercise. The now dark brown material is getting hauled over to and spread beneath currant bushes, over the asparagus and flower beds, and on ground that will be home, next spring, to a new bed of Fallgold raspberries.

On to the wood chips . . . the old pile? That’ll go beneath various trees.

It’s amazing how simply spreading organic materials on top of the ground can bring so many benefits. Physically, that fluffy layer cushions the impact of raindrops so that moisture can percolate slowly into the
Me on the "abs & bicep" machine
ground rather than pound the surface, sealing it, and running off to make gullies. Mulch also insulates the ground, modulating swings in temperature to keep roots and other soil denizens happier. Next summer, the mulch will slow evaporation of water from the soil.

Biologically, mulch is food fungi, bacteria, and other soil organisms, the lion’s share of which are beneficial. As the leaves and wood chips go through cycles of being digested and excreted, what’s eventually left is humus, a witch’s brew of beneficial, organic compounds, which, in turn, is tied to nutritional benefits to plants. During decomposition, nutrients gathered up into leaves and wood are released into the soil, for plant use. Organic acids released during decomposition further nourish plants by dissolving additional nutrients from the rock matrix in which the soil was formed. And finally, organic chelates in humus grab onto some nutrients to render them more readily accessible to roots.

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I didn’t forget to mention my new wood chip pile; that mulch is getting carted over to blueberry heaven, heaven for the blueberries, that is. (Also for me, during summer’s harvest.)
Each autumn, right after blueberry’s leaves drop, I spread 10 to 20 pounds of soybean meal over the thousand square feet of planted area, then top it with a fresh layer of wood chips (this year) or leaves or
George is company, but not much help

wood shavings. Some years I also spread sulfur pellets over the ground to maintain the soil acidity that blueberry plants require. Not that often, though, because another benefit of an organic mulch is that it buffers changes in soil acidity, offering plenty of wiggle room in what range keeps the plants happy. The mulch also buries any berries infected with “mummy berry” disease, a problem I never have because the mulch layer prevents any spores that might be present from wafting upward to re-infect berries next year.

Blueberry bushes have shallow root systems, most roots descending less than a foot deep, with no root hairs. Thirty years with 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch laid atop the ground has created a soft, moist, heavenly environment for blueberry roots.

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I can just picture some readers “raising their hands” to point out that adding fresh, low nitrogen, organic materials to the soil results in nitrogen starvation of the plants. This science-y, oft repeated (and printed) myth needs debunking.

Soil bacteria and fungi need to eat both nitrogen and carbon. Wood chips and leaves are high in carbon
Me on the  “quads and aerobic machine"
but low in nitrogen, so these microorganisms grab at any other nitrogen in the ground to eat along with their fresh chips or leaves. Bacteria and fungi are better at garnering soil nitrogen than are plants, so plants are starved for nitrogen. Only temporarily, though, until some of the digested carbon is given off as carbon dioxide and what’s left are the higher nitrogen dead remains and excreta of bacteria and fungi.

When fresh chips or leaves are used as mulch, decomposition proceeds very slowly at the interface of soil and mulch. So slowly that nitrogen is re-released into the ground at about the rate it’s being tied up. Digging chips or leaves into the soil will definitely cause a temporary tie-up of nitrogen; mulching with these materials will not.

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So here at the Springtown Farmden Health Spa, I am mulchercising away. I start at the “abs and bicep machine,” rolling what looks like a garden cart
Me on the “rotary torso machine”
over to the mulch pile and then using what looks like a pitchfork to load leaves or chips onto the cart. Then it’s on to the “quads and aerobic machine,” whence I pull what looks like a cart full of leaves or chips over to some plants in need of mulch. Next, it’s the “rotary torso machine,” which looks like I’m scooping leaves or chips from the cart, twisting around, and then dumping it beneath a plant. Finally, back to the “abs and bicep machine,” for another rep. I should be able to get a dozen or so reps in before the mulch freezes solid for the winter.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cold? No Problem.

Brrrr! The mercury plummeted to nine degrees Fahrenheit in my garden a couple of weeks ago. Yet I was still harvesting fresh salad greens. And I don’t mean kale and Brussels sprouts; they’re tasty and still available in my “back forty,” but tender and succulent they are not. Likewise, I don’t mean turnips, carrots, or other root crops that can nestle in the relative warmth of the earth. (My root crops anyway were pulled and packed away into a box for winter storage.)

What I am talking about is lettuce, endive, and Chinese cabbage. These vegetables, which ARE tender and succulent, must have antifreeze in their cells to be able to remain so in the face of such cold temperatures. Actually, that’s not far off: With gradual exposure to increasingly colder temperatures, cold-hardy plants are able to move water out of their cells into the spaces between the cells, where freezing would cause less damage. Moving water out of the cells also concentrates the solution within the cells and -- if you remember from your high school chemistry -- concentrating a solution lowers the temperature at which it freezes. Warming weather reverses the process.

Mother Nature had a little hand from me, in the form of row covers, which are diaphanous blankets thrown over plants to offer them additional frost protection. Spun-bonded row covers let light and water pass
through. I’ve used these materials in spring and autumn for many years, but looking through the Harris Seeds catalog (www.harrisseeds.com), I came across a “point bonded row cover” which was said to give plants an additional 8 degrees or more of cold protection. That’s a lot.

A few weeks ago, I set metal arches (made from 5-foot lengths of concrete block truss reinforcement) over the rows, cut the row cover to 6 foot widths, and laid it over the hoops secured by additional metal hoops over the row cover. The material evidently is very effective; my guess is that endive and lettuce are cold-hardy to the low 20s and the row cover would bring protection down to the low to mid ‘teens. But this was 9° F.!

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Row covers represent a trade-off between cold protection and light transmittance. Generally, the  heavier the row cover material, the warmer the temperature under the cover and the less light reaches the plants.

So in early spring, I’ve use a 1.25 ounce cover to speed along growth of new plants. This cover lets about 70% of the sunlight penetrate and keeps plants about 3° warmer than outside the cover. In early summer, I use an even lighter weight material, 0.55 ounce, to cover my eggplants so flea beetles don’t ravage them. Eighty-five percent of sunlight makes it through this lightweight material.

The point-bonded row cover is a heavier material than row covers I’ve used in the past. Endive, lettuce, and Chinese cabbages are now snuggled under 2 ounce fabric. Only about 30% of the sunlight, which is sparse anyway this time of year, makes it through this material. But the plants are fully grown, so don’t need to grow. To just stay alive, now, they need cold protection more than light.

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So I’m driving along here in New York's Hudson Valley and what do I see growing wild along the
roadside? A cactus. A cactus growing wild outdoors wouldn’t be an oddity in Arizona, but New York doesn’t have the climate and soils usually associated with cactii.

The Eastern Prickly Pear or Indian Fig (Opuntia humifusa) actually grows wild throughout the eastern parts of North America. You’re most likely to come upon the plant growing in a sunny spot in well-drained soil. Not the one I found, though. This plant was growing on a rock face, which is well drained, on an east-facing slope right at the edge of woods. Not particularly sunny.

Prickly pear cactus can be oddly attractive, even edible. The pads, once the spines have been rubbed off (not with bare hands) can eaten be raw or cooked. The red fruits are also edible. The Opuntia species usually eaten is O. ficus-indica, which is not hardy in cold climates. Even that species never tasted that good to me so I wasn’t anxious to try eating any of the roadside plant.
Also, in New York, Eastern prickly pear is classified as an “‘exploitably vulnerable species,’" which is a plant likely to become threatened in the near future throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges within the state if causal factors continue unchecked.”

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I lied; I did pick off one fruit for tasting. It was seedy and flavorless. All was not exploitive, though, because I am planting the seeds.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Beans, Beans, . . . and Blueberries

Deb and David gather around the kitchen table as the contenders are brought forth, each steeped in its own cooking juice in a custard cup. The event is the long-awaited bean test, home-grown Cannellini beans vs. store-bought Cannellini beans vs. home-grown Calypso (Yin Yang) beans. Mostly, we are interested in
whether the home-grown Cannellini’s would be better than the store bought, a possible reason being that stored, dry beans get tougher with age.

I planted a very short row of the Cannellini and of Calypso beans back in the middle of May. I do mean short, only about 5 feet each. After all, this planting was for testing, not for production.

The beans I planted, as well as kidney beans, pinto beans, and some other dry beans, and green beans, share the same botanical lineage, Phaseolus vulgaris. All can be grown just like green beans except that for dry beans, the harvest is of mature seeds, so a longer season is required, typically around 90 days or so.

After my dry bean harvest, I transferred an aliquot of each variety into its own glass custard cup, did the same with an aliquot of store-bought Cannellini beans, and filled the custard cups with water. The cups went into a larger pot with an inch of water and the whole setup went onto the woodstove to simmer for a couple of days. Retrieval and cooling bring us to this moment.

No need for a blindfold test because the differences were dramatic. The results? All three of us gave the home-grown Cannellini’s the highest marks in terms of creamy texture and good flavor. Second best was Calypso. It appears that I’ll be devoting more space next year to growing Cannellini beans.

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In addition to mouth-watering flavor and creamy texture, Cannellini beans (and other white beans) are rich in phosphatidylserine. The thinnest thread of evidence suggests that phosphatidylserine might -- just might -- improve memory and cognition, as well as confer other health benefits. Cow brains are among the richest sources of phosphatidylserine, but I’d rather be forgetful than get mad cow disease.

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Lowbush blueberries abound in the woods around here but are conspicuously absent from gardens and landscapes -- except in my front yard. I grow them for “luscious landscaping,” that is, for both beauty and
good eating. Plants recently shed their crimson leaves, which is how they show off in autumn. In spring, they show off their nodding, bell-shaped, white flowers, and all summer long, the ground is blanketed with healthy, bluish-green leaves on stems a foot and a half high.

Next summer, I know my plants won’t fruit because yesterday I cut all the stems right down to the ground. Best yields come from stems that are one-year-old and two-years-old, so stems have to grow at least a year before they can flower and fruit.

Traditionally, and under natural conditions, periodic pruning of lowbush blueberries was done with fire. Fire had the additional advantage of knocking out some potential weed and pest problems. Of course, burning also has its hazards and I’m not seeking any excitement in the blueberry bed along the east side of my house beyond a big crop of berries. So I went at the plants this week with hedge shears and hand shears, cutting the stems as low as possible. The lower to the ground plants are lopped back, the fewer the resulting stems next summer, and the more energy the plants can channel into fruit buds for the following year’s harvest.

I don’t really want to sacrifice all of next year’s lowbush blueberry crop so I lopped to the ground only half the planting. Next year, that half that was spared my shears will bear and next autumn I’ll cut those stems down. The summer after next, this year’s lopped down plants will bear fruit, and next year’s lopped down plants won’t. And so the harvest can continue hopscotching merrily along, keeping the plants productive and me in berries every year.

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Sharing the lowbush blueberry bed is an Arnold’s Promise witchhazel shrub getting its digs in to offer what is perhaps the final oddity for a generally odd growing season. Year after year it has reliably flowered in March. This year it’s flowering right now, probably because of cool weather followed by extended warm weather duping the shrub into acting as if it was, in fact, March.

One problem with November flowering is that fewer or no flowers will open this coming March. Another problem is that I’d rather see the flowers in March, coming in other heels of winter’s relatively achromatic landscape.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Seedy Time of Year

Around here, eating fruit isn’t always just about eating fruit. Following my last bite of this Macoun apple I’m eating, I flick out the seeds with a paring knife into a cup. Same goes for pears and their seeds. Early in summer, I spit out Nanking cherry seeds into a waiting vessel. All these seeds are for planting,

Seeds of these cold hardy plants won’t sprout as soon as they hit moist, warm dirt. If they did, the young seedlings would be snuffed out by winter cold. It is after a period of exposure to cool, moist conditions that they -- thinking winter over -- sprout. Seeds in dropping fruits, of course, enjoy this experience naturally and poke up through the ground first thing next spring,

Wanting to keep a close eye on my seedlings, I plant them in pots and seed flats rather than let them do what they would do naturally. After I had collected the seeds, I kept them dry, and now am ready to plant
them. This week I am sowing the seeds in potting soil in flats and in pots. Once given a good watering, the seed flats and pots get covered with a pane of glass to hold in moisture. Tucked against the north wall of my house, the seeds will sprout in spring,

Sometimes I cozy such seeds into plastic bags of moist potting soil in the refrigerator. The problem is that the seeds then  sprout in the bags in midwinter. Cool, not cold, temperatures are what fool the seeds into behaving as if winter’s over. About 1,000 hours, depending on the species and variety of plant, usually does the trick. In the refrigerator, temperatures are always cool; outdoors, only sometimes, and there, it’s not until late winter that the required 1,000 hours of cool temperatures have been fulfilled. It’s hard to provide ample light for an enthusiastic seedling growing in midwinter,

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Unless a plant self-pollinates and has been grown in isolation, with desirable plants selected each generation for many generations, seedlings are unlike their parents. So none of the fruits on the seedlings that grow from the seeds taken from Macoun, Golden Delicious, Liberty, Bosc, Maxine, and Clapp’s Favorite apples and pears will match the parents; they will most likely be inferior,

No problem; these seedlings are for rootstocks on which to graft stems of good-tasting varieties of apples and pears. Rootstocks are ready to graft after growing for one season,

Nanking cherries are an exception; no varieties are available. The seedlings, which show some variation, are all good-tasting, so no need anyway to graft,

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Another batch of seeds I’m sowing is of more tropical-like plants: passionfruit and hardy orange. I write
“tropical-like” because the passionfruit I’m planting is maypop (Passiflora incarnata) and the hardy orange is Poncirus trifoliata. Both should survive winter cold here. Both are also northern members of tropical or subtropical families, and their seed behavior reflects their tropical “roots.”

Hardy orange seeds, like citrus seeds, lose their viability if allowed to dry out. Things are not so clearcut with the best way to grow maypop from seed. I sowed the seeds as soon as I removed the delectable, gel coating each seed (by eating it),

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Hardy orange is a nice ornamental plant; my hardy orange is the variety Flying Dragon, which is a spectacular ornamental plant,

In contrast to apple and pear seedlings, hardy orange seedlings often resemble their moms. Seeds of hardy orange, like those of citrus, look like any old seeds that result from the union of male pollen with
female eggs. In fact, many are apomyctic, that is, derived solely from mother plant tissue. No jumbling around of chromosomes to produce variable seedlings here. Apomyctic seedlings are clones, Flying Dragon in the case of my hardy orange seedlings,

A citrus or hardy orange fruit yields some apomyctic and some sexual seedlings, about 50% of each in the case of hardy orange,

As I admired Flying Dragon over the past few months, one way or another I had to make more plants. Cuttings taken a few months ago weren’t rooting and although the plant flowered, no fruits were evident. Then, last week, as leaves dropped from my plant -- hardy orange parts ways with real oranges in being deciduous -- I caught sight of a single orange orb perched on a stem. One fruit is plenty because they are very seedy. That single fruit, smaller than a golf ball, yielded 20 seeds,

I didn’t eat any of that Flying Dragon fruit. A bit of juice from hardy orange adds a citrus-y tang to a recipe but the fruit itself is too robust and bitter for eating straight up,


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fruit of the Gods (and So Easy)

Every taste reaffirms the botanical name, Diospyros, which translates as “food of the gods” (or, more poetically, “Jove’s grain”). And, as usual, this time of year, the crop is good so tastes are aplenty. I’m
Sukis American persimmon & Jiro kaki
referring to persimmons, American persimmons, a fruit you’ve got to grow to enjoy because, when ripe, they’re too soft to travel much further than arm’s length, from tree to mouth. Eating them is like eating dried apricots that have been plumped up in water, dipped in honey, and given a dash of spice.

All this god-like fruit comes at little cost in terms of time or know-how. Once established, the plant does not call out for pruning or even for help against insects or diseases. Just enjoy. The only caveat is to start out with a good tasting variety that ripens within the growing season. Here in USDA hardiness Zone 5 in the Hudson Valley, for flavor, cold-hardiness, and ability to ripen within the growing season, I recommend the varieties Szukis, Mohler, Dooley, and/or Yates.

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In contrast to our native American persimmon, it’s cousin, the Asian persimmon, also known as kaki, is quite familiar in markets. Kakis have been cultivated in Asia for centuries. Marco Polo saw them near what is now Shanghai and, over the centuries, many varieties have been selected, over 2000 of them. Previous to the 20th century, it was the most widely grown fruit in Asia.

Alas, I cannot grow kakis because they generally succumb to winter cold below about zero degrees Fahrenheit (USDA Hardiness Zone 7). But would I want to grow them? As compared with American persimmons, this other “fruit of the gods” is larger -- the size of a medium to large tomato, depending on variety -- and firmer, which is why you do find them in supermarkets. With some varieties, you can bite into and enjoy them while the flesh is crisp. Try that on American persimmon, and for the next half-hour, you’ll feel like the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner is at work inside your mouth. As far as flavor, kakis are more watery than American persimmons, perhaps a tad sweeter, but not as rich.

Most gardeners, given the choice, plant kakis rather than American persimmons. After all kakis taste good and they are larger and easier to handle and store.

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I would not grow kakis instead of American persimmons, but I would grow both, if I could. And now I’m thinking it may be worth a try this far north (a possibility actually suggested back in 2004 by author Lee Reich in his book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden). My friend Vicki (who illustrated the aforementioned 
Jiro persimmon (kaki)
book) planted a tree of the kaki variety Jiro in her front yard a few years ago and this year reaped a bountiful crop of large, beautiful, crisp, tasty persimmons -- that’s in Maplewood, New Jersey, USDA Hardiness Zone 6b, only 90 miles and one degree of latitude south of here.

Jiro is not a particularly winter cold-hardy variety of kaki. What’s more, crisp-ripe kakis, such as Jiro, generally require warmer summers than kakis that only develop full flavor when soft. New Jersey summers may be hot, but nothing like the hot, long summers of Mediterranean climates where these fruits grow so well.

My plan, then, is to plant one of the known cold-hardier varieties of kaki, varieties such as Eureka, Saijo, Giombo, and Great Wall. With a prime location, such as a south facing slope or backed by a warm wall, the trees might survive and ripen their fruits.

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Persimmons -- both kakis and American persimmons -- are interesting fruits, sexually. Individual trees
Szukis persimmon
bear only male flowers or only female flowers. Because a fruit is the fleshy expansion of female flower parts around the seed, only females bear fruit. With most plants, those female parts swell in response to seed development which, in turn, is in response to pollination from a male flower.

But not to worry; there’s usually no need to plant useless (except for their pollen) male persimmon trees when growing persimmons. Many cultivated, female varieties of persimmon bear fruits parthenocarpically (from the Greek, “virgin fruit;” is there a religion here?), that is, without pollination. The previously mentioned varieties of American persimmon are parthenocarpic.


If parthenocarpic fruits were tainted with pollen, they will, of course, contain seeds. With some kaki varieties, bite into the fruit and you experience more than just the presence or lack of seeds. So-called “pollination-variant, non-astringent” kakis are only non-astringent (astringency being that vacuum-cleaner-in-the-mouth sensation) if pollinated. Fortunately, the crisp-ripe Jiro fruits grown by my friend Vicki, is a “pollination-constant” variety of kaki: sweet when crisp-ripe whether or not they were pollinated. The fruits have no seeds and no need to be sired by a nearby male.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

COME TOUR MY FARMDEN

SEEDS OF ALL STRIPES

Finally, after many years, I made it to the library. No, not the book library. The seed library, the Hudson Valley Seed Library.

Hudson Valley Seed Library is neither an ordinary library nor an ordinary seed vendor. It all started in 2004 in a book library, the public library in Gardiner, NY, where Ken Greene was working as a librarian. Working where people borrow and return books got him thinking about -- why not? -- setting up a library where people “borrow” seeds and return them also. With seeds, the “returns” are even better than with books. One borrowed seed of an annual vegetable or flower gives, in return, hundreds of seeds by the end of the season, in addition to tasty vegetables or colorful flowers.

Ken eventually left the Gardiner Library to put his energy into growing -- literally -- what became the Hudson Valley Seed Library, which began business in 2008. What about the borrowing and returning? Seed-growing takes a certain amount of know-how. To maintain trueness (that is, a seed from a packet labeled Buttercrunch lettuce snuggled into the ground actually grows into a Buttercrunch lettuce plant), Ken started growing most of the seeds for sale himself.

But the “library” part continues. For a nominal membership fee, anyone can become a community grower. In addition to a discount on the cost of the Seed Library’s seeds, community growers get to grow out seeds to return to the library. Each year presents a different variety to grow for all the members. And -- most
importantly -- they get an education on how to best grow the plants, maintain trueness, and collect the seeds for the year’s variety. So a promiscuous vegetable, such as cucumber, whose female flowers mate easily and readily with any cucumber pollen, needs different treatment than, say, a tomato, whose flowers maintain greater fidelity because each one has both male and female parts, and just a little vibration -- a breeze, perhaps -- unites male with female parts. This year, community growers harvested Blue Pod Capucijners Soup Pea seeds. Dwarf Sunflowers are on the docket for next year.

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The weather was still warm and sunny when I visited the library in early October. Erin, an enthusiastic gardener/farmer who works there (and is working with some Otto File polenta corn seed I gave her), took me on a quick tour of the seed storage shed and the packing shed, and showed off their new seed-cleaner.

Rather than looking like a seed factory, a field for growing seeds can look like a very beautiful garden. Especially with flower seeds. Rather than just a flower bed of zinnias, spread before me was a small field electric with colorful, large heads of Dalhia Zinnias staring up at the sky.

Tasting some of the vegetables was fun, and put two varieties on my list for planting next year. Pink Ping Pong tomatoes were the size and shape of ping pong balls, with no similarity beyond that. The flavor was smooth and sweet, but not too sweet, and plants were still yielding well going into October.  Scarlet Ohno turnip sports a scarlet skin that encloses a white flesh having streaks of scarlet. After scraping two-inch diameter roots clean with my knife, I cut slices to eat; the flavor raw was excellent, right out in the field, no doubt enhanced by the surrounding forest getting ready to put on its autumn show, the bright sunlight, and the clear, blue sky. (Scarlet Ohno also tasted good the next day, sliced onto a plate on my kitchen table.)
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A certain number of Hudson Valley Seed Library seed packets cry out to be looked at. No ho-hum drawings or photos on these packets. Ken commissions artists to do illustrations, not necessarily of the

vegetables or flowers, but of an artist’s representation of the particular variety. So Calico Popcorn’s packet, illustrated by Jacinta Bunnell, sports a line drawing of an ear of popcorn against a colorful calico backdrop. A German Shepherd -- Ken’s old dog, Kale -- with a mouthful of kale decorates the packet of Dino kale illustrated by Michael Truckpile.

The originals of each year’s new artpacks (not every variety gets an illustrated packet) are featured in an art show that begins locally and then travels around the country. To see the schedule, go to http://www.seedlibrary.org/events/.

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As I sit here writing, yeast and Lactobacilli bacteria are having a field day, feasting on moistened wheat flour that’s expanding by the minute as carbon dioxide is generated and trapped in dough. My bread is rising, bread made from seeds I saved for eating -- wheat -- grown this summer.

I finally tired of looking at the red pillowcase of wheat seedheads that had been sitting on the floor in a corner of my kitchen since the end of July. Whacking the pillowcase was supposed to knock the wheat berries off the stalks; it didn’t, not sufficiently, at least. A reader suggested pounding the pillowcase with a shoe. I did it, and -- voilĂ  -- one cup of wheat berries from a 15 square foot planting. I ground the wheat into a flour in a coffee grinder.

Fourteen hours later: The bread has been baked, cooled, and sliced. The flavor? Excellent, but no different from my other breads. The yield? One-third of a loaf.

I had wondered how much land would be needed to grow a loaf of bread and now I know: 45 square feet, at least for me, a beginner in grain growing. Average wheat yields in this country are about 40 bushels per acre, which translates to twice my yield, in which case a loaf could be squeezed out of about 23 square feet. However, wheat yields can run as high as 150 bushels per acre -- something to strive for (a loaf from 6 square feet).

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Too Much Respect, Walnut Tech, and Nasturtium Homage

Last week I wrote that popcorn “don’t get no respect,” but should. This week: garlic, why so much respect?. It may be sacrilege -- although it was not the case 50 years ago -- to say that I’m not crazy over garlic. The amount of space people now devote to garlic in even small gardens never ceases to amaze me. If pressed for garden space, I’d fill every square inch with tomatoes, peppers, peas, and other vegetables that you can sink your teeth into right out in the garden, rather than garlic. You can’t purchase that experience; you can by garlic.

Okay, I do grow some garlic. But not well. My garlic’s roots don’t get to wallow in soft, mellow, compost-enriched, drip-irrigated soil along with my other vegetables. The cloves get tucked in an out of the way place where neighboring plants force its green shoots to stretch for light and the soil is not nearly as nourishing.

A challenge to grow something well can be more attractive than a good harvest, which is what induced me, a few weeks ago, to purchase some heads of California Softneck garlic for planting. Potential problems with this purchase did nothing to restrain me -- again, for a potential challenge rather than future flavor.
First, it was a little late for planting. Garlic likes to be settled into the ground in early fall, even as early as late summer. Roots grow as long as the ground temperatures remain above 40°F.. Planted early, then, roots can begin foraging for nutrients and anchoring the cloves against being heaved up and out of the ground as the soil freezes and thaws.

The second problem is with the variety California Softneck. Softneck varieties are generally grown in -- guess where? -- California, and are generally, not always, less cold-hardy than hardneck varieties. Perhaps my purchase was a cold-hardy softneck. Perhaps not.  California Softneck does not seem to be a true variety name.

Oh well . . . into the ground the cloves went, 4 inches apart. Because everything else was so iffy about this planting, the cloves were awarded prime real estate, right in the vegetable garden. Because of late planting and dubious cold-hardiness, these cloves got further coddling with a mulch of pine needles to slow cooling of the soil.

I like a little garlic and even if California Softneck puts on a poor showing, next summer I will harvest some of the hardneck varieties I planted, as usual, in late summer in an out-of-the-way spot outside the vegetable garden.

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Buckets of black walnuts awaiting processing have spurred new technology in backyard black walnut husking. The nuts are ubiquitous, delicious, and free for the taking. Problem is that they are wrapped in spongy, green husks that are messy and tedious to remove.

The usual approaches to husking are stomping on the fruits or driving repeatedly over them, then rubbing off the barely clinging pieces of husk. It’s a lot of stoop labor.

Enter a trowel, the kind with the serrated edge that’s used to spread tile adhesive. One edge of said trowel went into a slit I cut partway into a sturdy piece of wood, which kept the trowel oriented vertically.

  To husk, roll a nut along the serrated edge. With that done, a twist of the halves in opposite directions leaves half the husk in one hand. The other half peels away with ease.  This walnut-trowel technology works especially well with husks whose flesh is still plump, as they are when freshly harvested. Husks go into a bucket and nuts onto a tray for a couple of days of drying, then to the barn loft for a couple of months of curing.

My friend Bill is sticking with his stomping-on-the-fruit method of husking. Sometimes I also walk along and stomp a few nuts before stooping to gather them up. For bulk processing, though, I like using the trowel.

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Every time I walk past the arbored gate into my vegetable garden, I get to admire the nasturtium vines hugging and trying to climb the locust posts. Red, orange, and yellow flowers continue to peek out from among the round leaves that still ooze the freshness of summer growth.

Nasturtium offers a lot of bang for the buck. No need to start plants ahead of planting out in spring. I just poke a hole in the ground and drop in one or two of the pea-sized seeds wherever I want a spreading
glob of greenery and flowers -- perfect for, softening the stark contrast between a vertical post and flat ground or the sharp-looking edge of a wall.

If that’s not enough to recommend nasturtium, eating them would almost be. Either the leaves or the flowers are a spicy addition to any food. The taste is too sharp to wolf down in any quantity. Nasturtium is good en masse to look at and good with a light touch for eating.

        Late news flash: A few days after I wrote about and was admiring my nasturtium, night temperatures plummeted to 24 degrees F. The flowers melted into a tawny mass of ones and stems, all of which I whisked over to the compost pile before it turned to mush. It was a good run while it lasted.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Grainy Successes


The problem with popcorn is that it “don’t get no respect.” Sure, it’s a fun food, nice to toss into your mouth while you watch a movie. But that’s been the case only since the 1930s.

Popcorn is a grain, a whole grain, as good a source of nourishment as wheat, rice, rye, or any other grain. Popcorn was among the foods brought by native Americans to the first Thanksgiving dinner. For anyone who likes the idea of raising their own grain, popcorn is a good choice. It’s easy to grow, it’s easy to process, and it’s easy to save seed from one year to the next. I grow two varieties -- Pink Pearl and Dutch Butter-flavored -- and have saved seed from my plantings for over 20 years.

Every year I plant two beds of popcorn, each bed 10 feet long by 3 feet wide. Growing popcorn is no different than growing sweet corn, except that you can plant a little earlier (early May around here) because
the lower sugar concentration of popcorn seeds make them less likely to rot and because the plants inhabit their beds pretty much the whole season. Popcorn, like any corn, needs good soil; all the beds in my vegetable gardens are moist and rich from drip irrigation and a yearly dressing of compost.

Popcorn and sweet corn need to be isolated from each other as does each variety of popcorn, if you want the varieties to remain pure. My popcorns grow in separate beds that are within 20 feet of each other so they do cross-pollinate a little, which is interesting. The sweet corn, though, is in a separate garden. Cross-pollination, in this case, would make for less pop-able popcorn and less sweet sweet corn.

I plant two rows of “hills,” or clusters of plants, down each bed, with 2 feet between hills and 8 seeds per hill. Once seedlings are up and growing, hills get thinned to the best four plants. Yields are about 36 to 72 ears of popcorn per bed (the Dutch Butter-flavored variety bears 2 ears per stalk), which translates to 6 to 12 pounds of popcorn per bed. We just finished off the end of last year’s harvest, so 12 to 24 pounds of popcorn is about how much Deb and I pop each year. (The average American consumes about 3 pounds of popcorn per year, in a movie theatre, of course.)

Besides offering the satisfaction of growing your own grain, popcorn-growing also lets you choose from a
number of varieties. They don’t all taste the same. An important commercial criterion is volume after popping. My popcorn does not puff up to great volumes, but the popped kernels have rich flavor.

We just finished snapping the dry ears from the stalks of this year’s crop, although there’s no rush to harvest popcorn. Processing entails nothing more than pulling back the husks and tying 2 or 3 ears together to hang and dry from the kitchen rafter. It looks very pretty.

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Months ago, I wrote about planting another grain, wheat. The plants grew nicely, ripening to a small amber wave in their corner of the garden before being harvested back in July. After hanging the cut stalks to dry for more than a month, I stuffed them in a pillow case and batted the pillow case around to knock the wheat berries from the stalks. No luck.

So I let the pillowcase full of stalks, seedheads, and grain sit another few weeks. This morning batted it all around some more. Too many berries still clung to the the seedheads. Popcorn is easier.

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Besides popcorn, another of my successful and satisfying home-grown grains is chestnut. Okay, it’s not really a grain. But chestnut is unique in being a nut that’s high in starch, just like grains. In many parts of
'Colossal' chestnuts dropping from tree
the world, the nuts are dried, ground into a flour, and used to make breads, pancakes, and other foods usually made with grain flours.

Like popcorn, chestnuts are very easy to grow. Just plant two trees. They grow fast, they bear quickly and reliably, and they have an attractive spreading form clothed with leaves that stay glossy green all season until they turn a rich brown color in autumn. The only caution is to avoid planting them where you’ll be frequently walking, playing, or sitting because of the spiny burs that drop with the nuts.

American chestnuts succumb to chestnut blight but there are plenty blight-resistant varieties, such as Colossal (slightly resistant), Eaton, and Peach.

Chestnuts are a lot easier to process than wheat. Just pick nuts up from the ground daily during their
'Colossal' is colossal!
2-week ripening period, let them sit a few days to cure, then slit and roast them -- 450° F for 1/2 hour. The nuts can also be dried for grinding into flour. I may try that.