Friday, June 28, 2013

Mulberries, And The Winner Is . . .

I’ve been a fruit nut for a long time, and throughout that time have had a particular attraction to uncommon fruits (about which I wrote a book). Evidence of the latter began with  the planting of a mulberry tree in my front yard when I lived in Wisconsin. The plant and fruit seemed intriguing; little did I know, back then, that mulberry trees were growing all over the place. Right now, I could probably bump into a dozen wild trees within a quarter mile of here, or within a quarter mile of my old domicile in Wisconsin. Mulberry is the second most common “weed” tree in New York City.

Commonness is one reason that mulberry doesn’t “get no respect.” Also, fruits from run-of-the-mill trees are too cloying for most tastes. Still, the fruits are abundant, local, organic, and sustainably “grown,”
and some trees have better than run-of-the-mill flavor. The latter are available as named varieties.

Which is why I could be seen today bending flexible poles aver two small trees. Mulberry fruits are a favorite of birds; I needed to protect the fruits. The two trees -- the varieties Oscar and Kokusu -- allegedly bear delicious fruits. Taste of the fruit from these small trees will confirm whether or not they are worth keeping and growing into larger trees. If worth keeping, the trees, once large, will bear enough for the birds and humans.

My bird protection was easily erected. The ends of the flexible poles, in short sections held together by an inner elastic cord (from, like tent poles, went into foot-long pieces of PVC pipe that I pounded into the ground. Clothespins hold bird-netting in place on the poles and metal staples pinned the netting to the ground.


'Illinois Everbearing' fruit
Three species of mulberry are commonly eaten: white mulberry, Morus alba; red mulberry, M. rubra; and black mulberry, M. nigra. (Fruit color has nothing to do with species names; many white mulberry trees bear black fruits.) In the eastern part of the U.S., we find our native red mulberry as well as white mulberry, introduced from Asia in the early 19th century, as well as hybrids of the two. Black mulberry thrives best in Mediterranean-type climates.

Right next to my two little trees I have an older mulberry, the variety Illinois Everbearing, a natural hybrid of the white and red mulberry species that does indeed bear over many weeks. My Oscar tree is probably a variety of white mulberry. Kokuso is sometimes listed as its own species, M. latifolia. At any rate, all three varieties are supposed to be hardy and delicious.

'Illinois Everbearing'tree
I can vouch for Illinois Everbearing because I’ve grown it for a number of years. Although hardy, branches often die back because they don’t realize, towards the end of summer, that it’s time to slow down growth and toughen up for winter. I make it slow down as summer wanes by letting grass and weeds grow high at its feet, sucking up excess moisture and nutrients.


The best-tasting of the mulberries, I’d even stick my neck out so far as to say perhaps the best-tasting of all fruits(!), is the black mulberry species. The berries aren’t particularly big but they pack enough flavor that they could be the size of an orange. Their flavor has a nice balance of sweetness and tartness along with some  . . . je ne sais quoi. Mulberryness?

Problem is that black mulberry is not hardy here. I’ve grown it in a pot, but a potted plant has only a limited amount of stems on which to hang fruits so yields are very low. I planted one right in the ground in the greenhouse a few years ago, planning to espalier it as directed in my book, The Pruning Book: “To train a
M. nigra in greenhouse, prior to its demise
mulberry to a tidy form, develop a main set of limbs, then prune branches growing off these limbs to six leaves in July to make short, fruiting spurs.” Not so! I garnered that pruning information from a British book, and it’s evidently is another gardening Britishism that doesn’t work on this side of the pond, probably due to differences in daylength and/or summer temperatures. My tree has done nothing but grow and grow, with little fruit on the abundant, lanky stems.

This week I ripped the black mulberry out of the greenhouse and planted, in its stead, a fig to accompany the three other in-ground figs there. 

A few weeks ago, before the black mulberry awoke from its winter slumber, I cut off a branch and grafted it onto a similarly sized branch of the Illinois
Morus nigra fruits
Everbearing tree. Black mulberry isn’t supposed to be cold-hardy outdoors here, but who knows? It’s a very long shot. As I said, I can’t believe everything I read, even if I wrote it. This time I hope that all of us are wrong.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Moon Landing?

Anyone visiting my garden a few days ago might have thought they happened upon a moon landing or extraplanetary explorer. A two-legged creature was wandering around in bright blue pants and a bright blue, hooded jacket (actually, rain gear) with goggles and a respirator and 4 gallon tank strapped to its back. Periodically, an engine whine was accompanied by a cloud of mist (a jetpack)?

The creature was me and I was doing what was necessary to put myself on the road to a harvest of delicious apples (especially the variety Hudson’s Golden Gem) and plums (especially the variety Imperial Épineuse). I was dolled up for what looked like a moon landing because I was spraying pesticides on my
trees. In this part of the world, sad to say, that’s generally what’s necessary to get a decent -- sometimes any -- crop of apples or plums.

Some years I grow these fruits organically; some years I grow them, as some commercial growers say, ecologically or biologically. My organic approach is to spray a special formulation of kaolin clay, called ‘Surround’, and sulfur, a naturally occurring mineral. ‘Surround’ keeps insects at bay; sulfur does the same for some diseases. To be effective, ‘Surround’ must be maintained as a dust-like, white coating on the trees. This laid-back Mediterranean look to the trees necessitates a not very laid-back 3 sprays, before bloom, to build up a base layer, and followup sprays every week or following as little as 1/4 inch of rainfall. Even then, in my experience, control is marginal.

My ecological/biological approach is to spray the horrible sounding material, Imidan, with, again, sulfur. Imidan is a chemical pesticide, but one that has a relatively low toxicity both to humans and to beneficial insects. A perfect year would require only 2 to 3 sprays, the first right after petals drop and the others before mid-June. Re-spraying is usually not needed until after an inch of rainfall. Between rainfall washing off spray, sunlight degrading it, and dilution due to fruit growth,
'Surround' on apples
fruits are essentially squeaky clean by harvest time. (After the end of June, approaches other than sprays thwart remaining major pests.)

Back to my moon suit . . . The suit is necessary no matter what I spray. Getting doused with, or breathing, even something as benign as kaolin clay is not good.

And the jetpack? That’s my backpack sprayer. Spraying anything is no fun. Fortunately, except for the apples and the plums, spraying is almost never needed here on the farmden. Also fortunately, my sprayer makes easy work of the job. It’s a Stihl, gasoline-powered backpack sprayer that always starts right up, gives good coverage, and lets me, in less than a half an hour, mix the spray, apply it to about 2 dozen trees, and thoroughly clean it.


Spraying pesticides, organic or otherwise, is not the only approach to keeping plants healthy. Any insect or disease problem can gain a toehold only when there’s a plant susceptible to the problem, an organism that can cause the problem, and a suitable environment in which the problem can develop. So, I beef up my plants’ defenses by paying special attention to the soil, making sure drainage is perfect, and by applying
Good soil, organic matter added from the top down
mulches of compost, wood chips, hay, and other organic materials. The mulches feed the plants as well as worms, fungi, and other “good guys” in the soil. Above ground, pruning lets branches bathe in sunlight and air, both of which make for better fruit and conditions less conducive to insect and disease problems. If my plants are thirsty, they get water.

What I do not do to make my plants healthy is apply compost tea, biochar, or any other potions, or, along the same lines, click my heels together three times and repeat, “There’ll be no pest problems.”

For apples and plums in this part of the world, all three requirements for pest problems -- pest presence, susceptible host plant, and environment suitable for the problem to develop -- are generally fulfilled. Hence, the necessity of sprays. Still, using a minimum of carefully selected sprays and needing to “ship” my fruit no more than 200 feet from the trees to my mouth (or kitchen) makes for a minimum affront to the environment.

People too often equate “fruit growing” with growing apples. That should not be the case because there are plenty of other fruits, and plenty of them can be grown with hardly a thought to pest control. Pears, for instance. I have about 20 pear trees; none require spraying. The same could be said for blueberries, raspberries, persimmons, cornelian cherries, blackberries, pawpaws, hardy kiwifruits, gooseberries, currants . . . I could go on. In some cases, such as grapes, choosing a disease-resistant variety is the way to avoid having to spray.

As I emphasize in my recent book, Grow Fruit Naturally, choosing plants adapted to your site is a very important part of growing fruit naturally, as is providing optimum growing conditions. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Visitation, Clematis, and a Workshop

Last minute notice: Come visit my farmden, in real life. As part of the Garden Conservancy Open Days program, I'll be hosting visitors between 10am and 4pm. For more information about this visit or other sites, contact the Garden Conservancy (


Letting a few clematis plants grow is the closest I’ve come to playing the lottery. It looks like I’ve won, judging from the first flower that opened last week.

Let me explain. I have a half dozen or so clematis plants of named varieties that I got from nurseries. A few years ago, I started noticing small plants -- seedlings of the named varieties, especially from near a Nelly Moser plant -- sprouting near the mother plants. I meant to save a couple, I even transplanted some, but these first seedlings succumbed to neglect. More recently, I’ve paid closer attention to the seedlings, especially those that sprouted fortuitously near the fence around the vegetable garden.

The gamble was that some seedlings would be garden-worthy. (Not that big a gamble; if not garden-worthy, I could just dig them out and walk them to the compost pile.) Named varieties of clematis, such as
Seedling of Nelly Moser
my plant named Nelly Moser, are propagated by cloning. That is, every Nelly Moser plant is genetically identical to every other Nelly Moser plant. Clones of any plant are propagated by root, leaf, or stem cuttings, by grafting, or by some other method of asexual propagation.

My seedlings arose from seeds that dropped from a pollinated flower, that is, the seedlings are the result of the sexual union of pollen and egg cells. Whatever jumbling around of genes happened during that union will be reflected in the plants’ growth and flowers.

My first seedling flower spread open clear, blue petals -- beautiful. It’s a keeper. If I deem it truly and uniquely spectacular, I could give it a name and multiply it asexually to spread the joy. Then it would become a named variety or, to use the more professionably acceptable term, “cultivar,” from the words “cultivated variety.” The word “cultivar” grates on my ears; I refuse to use it.

That unspeakable “c” word came about because the word “variety”was too general; it could mean two different things, plantwise. One meaning is a garden variety, as in Nelly Moser clematis. The other kind of “variety” is a botanical variety.

In the classification of plants, a botanical variety is a subclassification sometimes occurring within a
Nelly Moser clematis
species. That occurs if there are populations within the same species that are sufficiently similar to distinguish themselves from other populations within a species, and the differences are inheritable. (Both populations are, of course, sufficiently similar to be included within the same species.)

Botanists have not chosen to bastardize the English language with so ugly a word as “botanivar” tomean a “botanical variety.” Likewise, there’s no reason for horticulturalists to bastardize our language with the word “cultivar.” I’ll stick with “cultivated variety” or, if the sense is obvious, just “variety.”

The flowering habit of my clematis seedlings is also of interest. That is, when does it flower? Some clematis flower only on new growth, which means they flower later in the season. Some clematis flower only on old growth, which means they flower early in the season. And still other clematis flower on both new and old growth, which means they flower early and late, over a long season.

As I detail in my book, The Pruning Book, pruning technique varies depending on a clematis plant’s flowering habit. Early bloomers are best pruned right after they finish blooming. Late bloomers are pruned before growth begins for the season. And you do a little of both for plants that bloom early and late. (My book groups cultivars -- whoops, I mean varieties -- of clematis according to their flowering habits and pruning needs.)

My seedlings have mostly appeared near the “feet” of Nelly Moser, which flowers early in the season, so
Nelly Moser and its baby
presumably will be similarly inclined. That is the case with the seedling that recently unfolded its blossoms. But it could flower again this season.

For now, I’m enjoying the flowers of the first bloomer and looking forward to what unfolds on the stems of other seedlings.

“How to Grow a Lot of Vegetables with Little Space, Time, and Effort” is the topic for an upcoming workshop I’ll be holding here at my farmden in New Paltz on June 23rd, from 9 to 11:30 am. (The growing season is still young: It’s not too late to get more out of your garden; it’s not even too late to start a garden!) The cost is $50 and space is limited so registration is necessary. For questions or registration, contact me at garden[at]lee

Friday, June 7, 2013

Back to the Future

Time to jump into the future, again. It’s autumn of this year and tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and other summer delicacies are on the wane. Does the vegetable garden appear melancholy and forlorn? No! It’s lush with savory greens that thrive in that cool, moist weather to come, vegetables such as kale, broccoli, cabbage, radishes, turnips, lettuce, and endive. (Right now I hunker more for tomatoes and peppers than cabbages and turnips but nippy temperatures and shorter days will, I know from experience, bring on the appeal of autumn vegetables.)

Planning and planting need to take place right now in order to realize my autumnal vision. First on the agenda will be sowing seeds of cabbage and broccoli, in early June, not right out in the garden but in seed flats from which, after about a week they’ll be pricked out into individual cells in plastic trays. A little more
than a month after that, the plants will be ready for their permanent home in the garden. That might be where early bush beans or summer squashes had been sown, harvested, and cleared out of the way. The point is that autumn’s broccoli and cabbage plants, although sown in early June, need not take up space in the garden until late in July.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, information on frost dates, both the last spring frost  and the first autumn frost dates -- can be gleaned by choosing a state from the website and then finding weather data for a nearby location. That nearby location for me is Poughkeepsie, NY, for which there is a 50% chance of the temperature dropping to 32°F on October 9th.

I figure when to plant broccoli and cabbage by counting back the number of days these plants need to reach maturity from the average date for the first killing frost. And then I add more days because I don’t want to necessarily wait until that first frost date before I can start harvest.

Not that 32°F. would spell the death knell for broccoli and company. But growth slows dramatically as weather cools and days grow shorter so I like to have my plants pretty much fully grown and ready for harvest before the first frost date. With cooler temperatures, vegetables can sit out in the garden patiently awaiting harvest in good condition. (In warmer regions of the country, vegetable plants will actually grow through winter, making autumn a fine time to sow peas or set out cabbage transplants.)

Other vegetables, with different numbers of days needed to reach maturity, need sowing on various dates through summer. Here’s the planting schedule for my zone 5 autumn garden having an early October first frost date (as well as additional planting dates for vegetables of summer); where frost dates occur earlier, push sowing and planting dates the same amount of time earlier, and vice versa for regions with later frost dates:
•June 1: sow broccoli and cabbage in seed flats; sow small amount of lettuce and cilantro in seed flats or in garden;
•June 7: 3rd sowing of corn and 2nd sowing of bush beans in garden;
•June 14: 2nd sowing of cucumbers in seed flats; sow small amount of lettuce and cilantro in seed flats or in garden;
•June 21: 4th sowing of sweet corn in garden; 2nd sowing of summer squash out in the garden; sow small amount of lettuce and cilantro in seed flats or in garden;
•July 1: sow endive and parsley in seed flats; 3rd sowing of beans in garden;
•July 15: sow beets, chard, turnips, kale, and winter radishes in garden; sow Napa-type Chinese cabbage in seed flats;
•August 1 - September 1: multiple sowings of spinach, small radish varieties, mâche, arugula, mustard greens, and pac choi type Chinese cabbage in garden (early sowing will likely bolt but later sowings will press on late into autumn); keep planting lettuce.

All plants growing in seed flats are transplanted out to the garden as soon as they begin to grow too big for the flats, which is typically four to six weeks after seeds are sown.
Multiple plantings of bush beans and cucumbers are ways to keep ahead of bean beetles (yellow, with dark spots) on the beans and striped cucumber beetles (yellow, with dark stripes) on the cukes. It takes awhile for new plantings to get attacked, and that attack is mitigated by whisking the old plants, with potential attackers still feasting, out of the garden to the innards of the compost pile. Multiple plantings also help with summer squashes’ squash vine borers, evident from wilting leaves and a sawdust-like frass that oozes out of stem, although I’m usually glad to be rescued from excess-squash-syndrome by the time the borers take plants down.

The above schedule omits a few vegetables. Carrots: I don’t grow them, but if you do, July 15th is the date to plant them around here. Some people have luck with autumn peas. I don’t because first it’s too hot for them and then it’s too cold for them. Still, if you want to take a chance, sow them August 1st.

And what about rutabaga, parsnip, and kohlrabi? All I can say is, “Yuk!”