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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 (, 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.!

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.


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.