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,

---------------------------------------------
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,

----------------------------------------------
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),

--------------------------------------------
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.

--------------------------------------------------------------
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.

-------------------------------------------------------------
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.

--------------------------------------------------------------
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.

-----------------------------------------------------------
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.)
--------------------------------------------------------
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/.

------------------------------------------------------------
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.

--------------------------------------------------------------
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.

--------------------------------------------------------------
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.