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.

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.

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.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Fruits Galore, But Not Apples

Check out, a new video is up about me and my cat pruning kiwi vines.

Growing fruits is one of my specialties but, sad to admit, I may be the worst apple grower I know. What’s worse is all the time and effort I put into growing my apples, even way before they begin to fruit.

Mine are all super-dwarf trees, planted because these small trees yield more from a given land area than large trees and they eliminate the need for ladders. Usually, dwarf trees are made by grafting the
desired variety onto special dwarfing rootstocks. Mine are M.27, M.9, and Bud.9. But dwarfing rootstocks have weak root systems that barely support the trees and cannot forage far for nutrients and water. So the trees need staking and the best of soil conditions.

My super-dwarfs are special. They are interstem trees, each of which I made by grafting a desired variety onto a foot-long stem from a dwarfing rootstock variety (the stem piece itself can confer dwarfing) which, in turn, I grafted atop a seedling rootstock. The roots, then, are of seedling apples (made by planting any apple seed). Seedling apple roots forage well and make sturdy trees.

Despite the robust root systems, I still provided excellent soil conditions. The trees grow in a mulched strip 8 feet wide and drip irrigation automatically ministers to their water needs.

With all this, the trees began the season well, a few sprays and some traps keeping insects and diseases at bay followed by careful thinning out of the swelling fruit so that the trees’ energies could be channeled into fewer and, hence, better fruits.  Beautiful fruits hung from the branches going into early summer. And then, the bane of my apples struck. Summer diseases, such as white rot and black rot, started to erode away fruits with telltale rotted areas. By August, whatever fruits were still on the plants were mostly rotting.

Why my repeated failures with apples? Everyone else seems to have decent enough apple crops this year, although one’s sense of decency for their own backyard fruits is sometimes shaded through rose-colored lenses. How about blaming the weather, the wet June? No, everybody around here had it. I blame my site: It’s backed by 6000 acres of woods (not mine) in which lurks plum curculio and other pests. Also, all summer, cooler air collects in this low-lying valley; moisture condensing out of cooling air promotes pest problems.

Moving to an upland site, ideally on sloping land bathed in full sun, would go far to spelling apple success for me. Still, pests make apples among the most challenging of fruits to grow almost everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains.

By right, I should just abandon apple growing. But I don’t.

Perhaps it is the eternal optimism of a fruit grower. Next year . . . I’ll prune more carefully trying to rid my trees of overwintering innoculum for summer diseases. I’ll try out a new, organic fungicide, such as Regalia, safe to use and extracted from -- of all things -- that fierce weed Japanese knotweed. Perhaps I’ll be lucky.At the very least, growing apples gives me some failures to write about.

The other reason I persist is for taste. There are over 5,000 varieties of apples and knowing how to graft makes it relatively easy to create a tree of virtually any of them. Or to lop off the top of what was
My Hudson's Golden Gem this year
thought to have been a promising tree to quickly create a tree of a new variety. Buying apples limits you to the dozen or so varieties selected, in large part, for good shipping, good looks, and other commercial qualities.

Which brings me to Hudson’s Golden Gem, a golden apple, not yellow, like Golden Delicious, but truly golden, its russeted skin bouncing off light as if coated with flecks of gold metal. Inside, the flesh has a coarse, chewy texture and sweet, rich flavor that hints of pears and walnut. This variety seems to bear a bit more reliably than many others.

Hudson’s Golden Gem is one of a dozen varieties that I grow for their outstanding flavor -- when I get fruit.

When people talk of planting “fruit,” they usually mean planting apples. But apples are not the only fruit.

Notwithstanding my poor luck with apples, I am inundated with other fruits. Right now, baskets are
overflowing with the likes of American persimmons, pawpaws, and kiwiberries, and there are plenty of grape bunches and figs to be plucked and pears waiting to be ripened and eaten.

People often ask me what I do with all the fruit that I grow. I eat it! Not right now, of course, so much of it has to be stored.

No refrigerator could accommodate all my fruit, so enter CoolBot ( CoolBot makes it possible to use a room air conditioner to cool an insulated storage room to the near-freezing temperatures suitable for storing fruits.
This electronic device, when paired to an air conditioner, “fools” the air conditioner into thinking that it has not yet reached 60°, which is the
lowest temperature those units normally wants to go. All you do is set the CoolBot for the temperature to which you want the room to cool. CoolBot also uses less energy than a standard, walk-in, cooler compressor.

My storage room consists of a trailer the inside panelling of which I removed, added foam insulation, and replaced. Right now it’s stacked high with boxes of fruit.

Perhaps one year, some of those boxes will be filled with apples. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Who's Got a Pretty Garden?

The Liberty Bell was not the goal of my recent visit to Philadelphia. Instead, I made a bee-line for Chanticleer (, a public garden in Wayne, just outside Philly. It’s one of America’s great (as in fabulous, exceptional, matchless) gardens. Like other great gardens -- the ones that I consider great, at least -- flowers are not the main attraction at Chanticleer.

The beauty of Chanticleer rests, in large part, in its “structure.” That is, the enduring qualities of the views, the shape of the land, the large trees, the paving that leads your eyes and your feet, and the walls.

One special structural feature of Chanticleer is its ruins. Yes, ruins! Not actual ruins, but a stone mansion, roofless and apparently falling apart -- all built to look that way. Why? Because ruins add a romantic air to a garden. Dilapidation. Plants re-enveloping the decrepitude, much like the lush trees ready to gobble up oblivious humans frolicking in Fragonard’s Roccoco landscapes. A return to the primitive, to Eden, Nature regaining the upper hand.

Chanticleer’s ruins may look like Nature is gaining control but it’s not so. After all, this ruin was built. The plants, likewise, are planted. So dripping out from crannies among the rocks are chains of succulent plants. Water gathers in nooks (constructed, of course) in which grow water plants. In one “room” that could have been a main hall in this ruined mansion, if it had ever began life as a non-ruined mansion, is a large, stone table with a mirrored surface. The edges of the table actually form a lip which hold the pool of water that makes the table’s mirrored tabletop.

Chanticleer is not all ruin, just one little section. Another distinctive feature of the garden is its sweeps
of grasses. Lawn sculpture, of lawn. So there is mown lawn within which are splayed large sections of tufted, tawny, clumping grasses (fescues, I believe). Cover crops, which are used on farms for soil improvement, are used decoratively at Chanticleer, perhaps also for soil improvement. One 70-foot-long by 15-foot-wide, leaf-shaped bed had been tilled and was sprouting “veins” of rye(?) plants along its length.

Chanticleer sports many annual or cold tender plants distinctive for the size, color, or shapes of their
leaves. Some grow in pots, attractive and distinctive in their own right. In response to my query about how they store all those tender plants in winter, I was told that most were discarded. Chanticleer closes for the season November 3rd.

Oh, and they do have pretty flowers also at Chanticleer.

Returning to my own garden, has Chanticleer now provided inspiration for here? No. My garden is a very different kind of garden from Chanticleer. Chanticleer provides a thoroughly enjoyable feast for the eyes, but not something I need to take home.

The main emphasis here on the farmden (see, it’s not even a garden any more) is edibles, albeit used more or less decoratively, depending on where you look. A feast mostly for the mouth, somewhat for the eyes.

The goal is to produce an abundance of flavorful, nutritious foods pretty much the year ‘round. Year ‘round food is made possible in this climate -- here at the farmden, at least -- with freezing (many vegetables), common storage (e.g. cabbage, apple, pear, onion, squash), fermentation (cabbage, radishes), drying (tomatoes), one 5’ by 5’ coldframe (lettuce and other salad greens), and a 400 square foot, minimally heated greenhouse (lettuce and other salad greens, kale, chard).

But wait, now that I look around, things look pretty good around here also. Right now, golden Chojuro
and Seuri-Li Asian pears hang from the branches of espaliered trees sitting atop a stone retaining wall. Atop another retaining wall along the east and north side of the house is a lush, green groundcover of lowbush blueberries, soon to turn a fiery crimson color. Mingling with those blueberries are low-growing lingonberries, whose red fruits are highlighted by the backdrop of the plants’ glossy, evergreen leaves.

(My book, Landscaping with Fruit, details ways to make a fruitful landscape that looks nice and tastes good.)

Way in back, running down the field is a row of pawpaw trees, their large, lush tropical-looking leaves hiding the mango sized fruits now ripening. The creamy white fruits have taste and texture along the lines of vanilla custard or crème brulée. Some of the leaves have begun to shed their tropical look as they turn a clear yellow.

My persimmon trees aren’t hiding their fruits. Those fruits, which give their name to the color persimmon orange color, liven up the trees, and will persist -- decoratively, like Christmas ornaments -- and
remain edible even after the leaves drop. The fruits, the varieties Mohler, Dooley, and Yates, are delicious, akin to dried apricots that have been plumped up with water, dipped in honey, then given a dash of spice.

And on and on. Very tasty. And nice to look at. But Chanticleer is admittedly nicer to look at.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Scything I Do Go . . .

What a lucky gardener I am to have a one-acre field at my disposal. Not for planting, though. Except part of it; I couldn’t restrain myself.

When I moved here, many years ago, the caretakers of the field -- before it was mine --mowed it every couple of weeks all summer long. Before them, another neighbor had mowed the field once a year with a sickle bar mower attached to his tractor. Nowadays, I mow the bulk of the field once a year with my tractor’s
brush hog attachment, which is, in essence, a giant rotary motor. But I mow the edges and a significant portion of the field by hand, with a scythe.

(Stay tuned for a scything video posted on my "Life on the Farmden" video series; link to the series above, to the right.)

So what’s so lucky about having this not-so-care-free field to take care of? Four things. First, the field offers a bit of wildness near my cultivated plants, a place where bees, dragonflies, and butterflies can frolic. Not that they can’t frolic among my cultivated plants, but there’s something to be said for what goes on among plants and soil hardly touched by human hand. Of course, rabbits, voles, and other undesirables come with the territory; I have to accept them.

The second lucky thing about having this field is all the mown vegetation it provides. Mowings from the brush hog are not easily gathered, but that from my scythe is. Laid on the ground beneath my trees, shrubs, and vines, this vegetation provides mulch that keeps the soil moist and feeds soil microorganisms and plants. Stuffed into my compost bins, the vegetation is nutritious food for my compost “pet” (pile).

That scything is also good for me, for the exercise. What a joy to step out in the coolness of morning and swing the scythe, stirring my “blood and [flexing my] muscles, while it clears the meadows," to quote Scott Nearing, who lived to be 100. That’s lucky thing number three.

Lucky thing number four is that I get to enjoy the beauty of the field, now dominated by yellow heads of goldenrod. Livening things up are spots of white asters against a shifting green background of grasses. And then there are patches dark green with thorny blackberry canes or red with leaves of sumac.

Ah, that sumac and those blackberries. They are the next step in the field’s transition from a meadow of herbaceous plants to woody shrubs, and then on to trees. That’s what happens if Nature’s given a free hand around here.

But I want a meadow. Not only that, but I notice that the ground beneath the tall goldenrod plants is quite bare of other vegetation.

So I’ve taken matters into my own hands, and am now scything down some of the goldenrod and any
areas dense with blackberry canes or sumac shoots. Exposed to light, the near-naked ground should soon be dense with sprouting grasses. By selectively scything those cleared areas repeatedly next spring, grasses can regain a toehold. Grasses are the only plants that tolerate frequent mowing.

A balance needs to be struck here. Too much mowing, and only grasses will persist. I’m trying for a mix of grasses with some goldenrod and other flowering meadow plants.

With a nod to sustainability, the question arises: In mowing the field and removing the mowings for compost and mulch, am I robbing Peter to pay Paul? As nutrients are carted off along with the vegetation, will the field yield less and less over the years. My guess is not.

Only a small portion of the total field gets scythed and harvested. And I scythe and harvest different areas each year. Soils have natural abilities to regenerate themselves when left alone. Nutrients locked up in
native minerals are unlocked over time as those minerals are solubilized by microbes and root exudates.

Even nitrogen, the nutrient that plants need in greatest amounts, can be grabbed from the air (which is 80% nitrogen) and put into a form that plants can use. Leguminous plants do this with the aid of symbiotic bacteria, but soils also contain free-living bacteria and other microorganisms that can grab at the nitrogen in the air to put in the ground.

So, all in all, the field presents a win-win situation, for me, for my plants, and for all the creatures, microscopic and larger, that get to enjoy it.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Flowers and Grapes

I thought the reason for the bags was obvious, but the eyes of just about everyone who steps out on my terrace turn upwards and then a quizzical look comes on their face. “Why are those bags up there,” they
ask. The bags enclose bunches of grapes hanging from the vines, and their purpose is to fend off birds, bees and other insects, and disease.

The payoff for tediously fitting slit paper bags around individual bunches, then stapling the folded over opening down around the stem, has come. Usually, not always; sometimes I open a bag and find nothing inside. But while many unbagged bunches are marred with bird pecking and black rot, the bagged bunches, at their best, reveal perfect bunches of plump, juicy grapes. We bag about 100 bunches each spring.

The longer grapes hang on the vines, the more apt they are to have a run in with birds or other ills. Bagged grapes, on the other hand, can be left hanging until they are dead, dead ripe, at their flavorful best.

How about flowers? I seem to have been ignoring them. In fact, the longer I garden, the more I look upon flowers in the same way as icing on a cake. They are a nice addition, but they are not the main show. Center stage around here is given to stone walls, arbors, trellises, fencing, the bark and tracery of branches of trees, and leaf shapes, colors, and textures. Their statements are bolder, less frivolous, and endure throughout the year .

Still, every year I do try out a few new flowers, and three annuals brought both beauty and endurance (for a flower) here this summer. All three have been blooming nonstop since late spring, and should keep up the show until weather turns frosty.

First is petunia. Not just any old petunia but new hybrids called Supertunias. These hybrids come in a
number of pastel colors, just like traditional petunias. They part ways with traditional petunias in their profusion of nonstop blossom. The blossoms always have an attractive backdrop because they are self cleaning -- spent blossoms disappear into nothingness.

The second floral winner for the season is Xerochrysum bracteatum, sometimes classified as a Bracteantha species and sometimes called golden everlasting, or strawflower. I am growing the hybrid called Sundaze Blaze.

Bracteantha is, in fact, closely related to, and resembles, the more familiar strawflower (Helichrysum), looking like one that’s spreads its wings (petals, in this case) wider and larger. This native of Australia grows in just about all habitats there, except those that are shaded, so, as you might imagine, it’s a tough plant.

One more plus for Bracteantha is that it provides food for various butterflies, hoverflies, and native bees. Hoverflies are beneficial insects, so the bracteanthas indirectly may have
offered some protection to my grape bunches that were not bagged.

And finally, there’s Begonia benariensis, the variety Surefire Rose. I’m not a big fan of begonias, except for the Mandarin series, with their elongated, lance-shaped flowers and leaves all drooping decoratively from their pots. Surefire Rose, in contrast, is rounded: the leaves are rounded, the flowers are rounded, and the overall shape of the plant is rounded. With little enthusiasm, I plopped a few small plants I had been sent to try out into holes I made beneath a witchhazel shrub on the north side of my house.

Sometime around midsummer a critical mass of blossoms was reached. The red color of these flowers spilling out from beneath the witchhazel and onto the wall containing that bed would stop me in my track as I walked by. The show has increased in the intervening weeks.

As good as the show was from these annuals, they are, after all, annuals, destined to collapse in death with the first hard frost.
The begonias are tender perennials, so could be carried through the winter indoors if I dug up the plants and potted them up, or rooted cuttings. Easiest to preserve, literally, would be the bracteantha; like strawflowers, bracteantha dries well. I’ll give it a try.

Observation and note-taking are crucial to good gardening. Some gardeners have the observation part down, fewer write them down. Observations are pretty much useless once forgotten or mixed up.

One benefit of my writing this “Gardener’s Notebook” is that it affords me the opportunity -- sometimes forces me -- to write things down. I’m always trying to get my timing right for planting the greenhouse to ensure a steady supply of fresh greenery all winter long. With that in mind, two notes to myself: 
•Sow parsley on July 7th for transplanting into the greenhouse on September 17th.

•Sow kale and Swiss chard in the greenhouse for transplanting in the greenhouse on September 17th.