Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 3-foot-long logs resting against the wall near my front door are not for firewood; they’re for eating. Not the logs themselves, of course, but what’s growing inside of them. As I write and as you read, thread-like fungal mycelia are spreading within, digesting wood and growing bigger and stronger. Sometime next fall, delicious shiitake mushrooms should start popping out of the bark.

Any old rotting log will not produce delicious, or even edible, mushrooms. A couple of weeks ago, I inoculated these logs with spawn of selected strains of shiitake mushrooms. The spawn originally came from, via my friend Bill Munzer, who had some spawn left over from a shiitake growing workshop he recently held. The spawn arrives as inoculated plugs which get hammered into holes drilled into the logs. A coating of wax seals in moisture.

The logs would, in fact, make excellent firewood. Bill uses oak but I only had access to Norway maple, an invasive tree that anyway is better dead than alive. The oaks should pump out mushrooms for a longer period of time, as long as 5 years, but first mushrooms might show up sooner on the maple.

Not much fungal growth occurs during cold weather. On the theory that more growth sooner leads to mushrooms sooner, I’m keeping one of my logs in my cool, damp basement. An occasional dowsing with water will make sure the log stays plump with moisture.

Come spring, Bill will be hosting another shiitake growing workshop and I’m going to inoculate a few more logs. I’ll report back on the progress of production from outdoor, fall inoculated logs vs. outdoor, spring inoculated logs vs. basement, fall inoculated logs. Most important is my remembering not to accidentally saw up the logs near my front door for firewood.


Those 3-foot-long logs by the door are now nearly buried in snow, as is the rest of the garden. This recent snow has brought my outdoor salad pickings to a screeching halt.

Not that the endive, lettuce, radicchio, radishes, parsley, and arugula protected beneath tunnels of clear plastic are necessarily dead. It’s just that I can’t get to them. The snow became heavy and later turned to a freezing mist that effectively sealed the edges of the plastic tunnels right to the ground. The weight of snow has bowed down the plastic along the rows between the metal wire supports, making it look like the garden is being colonized by giant, white caterpillars.

It’s probably nice and cozy in those tunnels, though, and I am confident that everything is fresh and ready for picking despite December 13th’s morning reading of 7 degrees Fahrenheit.

As soon as the snow thaws and some of it begins to melt away, I’ll peek beneath the plastic and, if everything inside is cozy, as expected, pull away more snow to make the salad pickings more accessible before truly bone-chilling weather establishes itself for the season.


After writing the above, I became more curious about what was happening beneath the plastic so I bundled up and went outside for a look. After breaking chunks off large chunks of snow and tossing them elsewhere in the garden, I finally was able to peel up the plastic and assess the situation.

And since it was nearing supper time, I thought I’d see what kind of salad I could harvest for dinner rather than just taking a peek. Frisée endive was, as expected, turning a bit mushy. Note to myself: Don’t grow Frisée again; it doesn’t stand up well to cold and it’s hard to find dirt and slugs among the frizzy leaves. Escarole (Broad Leaved Batavian endive), on the other hand, looked a little weather-beaten but otherwise fine. The only lettuce still out in the garden is New Red, which stood as proud and as fresh as it would have any day in spring or early fall. Arugula likewise seemed not to acknowledge that temperatures had been and were quite cold.

The salad, supplemented by celery from the greenhouse and whisper thin slices cut from turnips in cold storage in my mud-room, was freshly delicious.

Late news flash: The thermometer on morning of December 18th reads 3 degrees! Outdoor salad pickings? Hmmmm. Perhaps no more.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Orchids are one group of plants I’ve regularly sidestepped. It seemed to me that if you grew orchids, you became crazed over orchids, to the exclusion of other plants. You then fill your home with as many of the over 20,000 species as you can cram onto your windowsills. I feared being led down that path.

My sidestepping took a turn into orchid-land 20 years ago when a local orchid enthusiast gave me a plant of Odontoglossum pulchellum, which I today learned has also been called lily-of-the-valley orchid. But more importantly today, the plant is in bloom. Blossoms from this plant are no rare occurrence; it’s bloomed every year for about the past 15 years. Usually, though, blossoms wait until February to unfold.

Odontoglossum pulchellum doesn’t sport knock-your-socks-off, traffic-stopping blossoms; instead, they have a soft, suble beauty. Right now, delicate, arching flower stems rise up from clusters of torpedo-shaped, green pseudobulbs perched up out of the “soil.” Eight to 10 dainty, waxy, white blossoms line up along each flowering stem and a sweet fragrance, more like paper whites than lily-of-the-valley to me, that transports me to spring.

I get all this for very little effort and without becoming orchid-crazy. For years, I didn’t know the name of my plants so couldn’t even look up how to grow them. Rather than pot them up in any special orchid soil, I merely mix an equal volume of wood chips from my outdoor pile into my regular, homemade potting soil, along with a bit of soybean meal for extra nitrogen. I keep the plants in a sunny window in winter and sometimes move them outdoors in summer, dividing and repotting the pseudobulbs to make new plants.

For this bit of effort, I get fragrant, white blossoms every winter, and they last for at least a month. Odontoglossum pulchellum is easy to multiply yet I’ve happily managed to restrain myself to keeping only 3 or 4 plants after I’ve divided and repotted them each spring.


Growing good celery demands a gardener’s greatest skill, and this year, in the greenhouse, I have the finest celery I’ve ever tasted or grown. The stalks are large, thick, juicy, even a little sweet. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can take credit for this horticultural achievement.

Every summer I sow celery seed to transplant into my minimally heated greenhouse to provide stalks for salads and soups throughout winter. I do take credit for selecting a good variety: Ventura, available from Fedco Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I also take credit for providing good soil conditions; each year I slather an inch or so of ripe compost on all the beds in the greenhouse. And I’ll take credit for providing timely watering, with drip irrigation until a couple of weeks ago and by hand through winter.

Ventura is an open-pollinated, rather than a hybrid, variety, which means that I can save my own seed for replanting each year. Beginning a few years ago, I’d allow one or two of the greenhouse Ventura plants that began to form flower umbels to do their thing and make seed, which they did prodigiously. I’d collect seed for planting the following season’s outdoor and indoor celery.

Some of those seeds would drop to the ground and germinate, and they sometimes grew into seedlings as good or better than the plants I would later transplant into the greenhouse. Especially this year. While my transplants are still growing to harvestable size, these “volunteers” are already ripe and juicy. And especially ripe and juicy this year. Why? I don’t know. I like to think I had a hand in all this.


Nothing like a little snowfall to clean everything up in the garden. December 5th was the date of the first snow, and the white blanket covered the pile of crocosmia leaves lying on the ground and waiting to he carted over to the compost bin, some weeds that sprouted in the mulched area beneath the dwarf apples, some of the smaller plants I haven’t yet cleared from vegetable beds, and numerous other messy distractions. The whole view was knit together in the sea of whiteness.

Alas, now, three days later, the snow is already dissolving away. I’ll get to those jobs soon – unless another snow falls first. Late news flash: December 9th, another snowfall, more landscape-worthy than the first.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Time for the next step in hunkering down for winter – not by caulking around windows, not by propping snow shovels next to the front door, not by waxing up the skiis. What winter will need is flowers. Or, at least, I need flowers to make winter more pleasant.

Poinsettias and jasmines are the flowers du jour. Not that either is blooming yet. As I said, it’s time for the “next step” in preparing for winter. Both these plants would naturally bloom sometime in spring but I need them blooming in the depths of winter.

I began planning for both plants’ winter bloom back in September’s balmy days. Not much was required. All the plants needed were nights of uninterrupted darkness and cool temperatures. And, for the jasmine, also being kept on the verge of thirst.

With more than enough neglect behind them, these plants should be ready to bloom. The poinsettia came up from the cool basement window where it resided since October, and the jasmine came in from the cool greenhouse, where it resided since early November. Both plants are now sitting in warm rooms basking in the sun of south-facing windows, and will hopefully blossom within a few weeks.

I could have – should have – brought the plants to those warm, sunny windows a few weeks ago. Then, they might have been in bloom for the holidays. November sped by too quickly.


Winter preparations are also going on outdoors. I’m winterizing – not my car, but my trees. First comes a 2 to 3 inch layer of wood chips beneath the plants. Rather than the conventional, tight landscape ring around the base of the tree, which does little more than keep mowers at bay, my young trees get mulched out at least as far as the spread of their branches. Older trees’ roots fend for themselves in mowed ground without mulch.

Next comes protection from rodents. Mice revel in that soft layer of mulch around trees so I keep it back a few inches from trunks. Then, mice may have lodging but at least no ready food. To further keep them and rabbits at bay, each young tree gets a 2-foot tall cylinder of quarter- or half-inch mesh hardware cloth at its base.

The hardware cloth cylinder is thoroughly effective until a foot or two of snow accumulates, at which time the rabbits perch on top of the snow and casually munch on small trunks and branches. To thwart such bad behavior (from my perspective), above the cylinders I swaddle trunks and main branches with plastic spirals (sold for protecting trunks).

And then there’s winter cold. Actually, cold and warmth, which together is what drive trees crazy. Imagine a bright, cold, winter day: The sun shines on dark tree bark, warms it, then, abandoning the tree, drops below the horizon. Temperature of that warmed bark immediately plummets, to the tree’s dismay. To prevent see-sawing temperatures, I either paint trunks white with latex paint diluted half with water, or wrap trunks with white Dewitt Tee-Wrap, which also protects trunks from borers.


Back indoors, one plant that won’t be brightening winter with its blossoms will be my gardenia. The foliage has collapsed, dried and shriveled. Yellowing of a few leaves a few weeks ago made me suspect that the plant was hungry for some nitrogen. Perhaps a more acidic soil was needed, or iron. Not. Not. Not.

I finally gave up the ghost on the plant, tipped it out of its pot, and performed an autopsy. The roots looked surprisingly healthy. Not so, the stems. Slices into it at various points revealed grayish brown flesh indicating the plant was thoroughly dead at least down to its roots.

Despite the healthy appearance of the roots, I suspect that the problem was too much water. (Or too much fertilizer?) Especially in cool weather, gardenias get sick and often die from excessive water.

Gardenias are amongst the most challenging of houseplants to grow. Yet I remember a beautiful, large gardenia plant basking in a sunny window in the house of my friend Mike’s mother, who otherwise had no particular interest or skill with plants. I’m not giving up. I’m getting a new plant.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Plants grow and multiply, which sometimes causes trouble. Such trouble was highlighted this week with my digging crocosmia bulbs.

Backpedaling perhaps 10 years, we find me ordering crocosmia bulbs from a mail-order catalog. I’d seen the plants blooming in a friend’s garden in New Jersey and marveled at the graceful flower stems that arched up and out from clumps of sword-shaped leaves. Lined up near the ends of each flower stalk were pairs of tubular, hot scarlet blossoms.

Crocosmia isn’t supposed to be cold-hardy outdoors where winter temperatures drop below minus 20 degrees F., so the first couple of autumns, as instructed, I dug up the bulbs for winter storage. Each spring following, the plants would get off to a slow start, finally blooming late in the season or not at all.

In disappointment or laziness, I stopped digging the bulbs up each fall. I was surprised to see them appear in spring anyway. Not only did they appear in spring; they had some real oomph, growing almost as luxuriantly as the ones in my friend’s garden. To make matters better, they started blooming earlier, in July, and in great profusion, and they have done so reliably year after year with no help at all from me.

The crocosmias also multiplied, and they did so with such enthusiasm that there became just too many of them at the original location. So I started digging. And I uncovered bulb after bulb after bulb, ready to bloom and multiply next year. Now I have to decide what to do with all those bulbs. Plant them? Give them away? Compost them? I would have never thought I could have had too many crocosmias.


Does anybody still dig up their gladiolas each fall? I don’t, but to no avail. Left outside, they still survive every winter. Yuk.

I don’t like gladiolas. Perhaps it’s because they are the most popular flower for funerals.

At any rate, I did, for some reason, plant some glads over 20 years go, glads whose beautiful salmon, pink color, I subsequently felt, was wasted on glad flowers. The nice color couldn’t outweigh the funereal associations, so after a couple of years of digging them up for storage each fall, I decided to sacrifice them to winter cold.

Unfortunately, they reappeared each year, and have continued to do so annually. I have to chuckle whenever I read instructions such as: “Corms should be dug after foliage has matured and started turning brown. Lift corms carefully with a spade or spading fork, taking care not to cut into the corm. Cut the tops off 1inch above the corm and dry for 2 to 4 weeks in a warm location (70-80 degrees Fahrenheit) with good air circulation. Remove the old corm which is beneath the new corm. Discard any rotted or damaged corms. Cut stems back to within an eighth (1/8) inch of the corm. Place the corms in an onion sack or old nylon panty hose. Hang from a wall or ceiling. Ideal storage temperatures are between 35 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Hah! Doing nothing at all has, unfortunately, worked fine for me. At least the gladiolas haven’t multiplied as fast as the crocosmias.


The whole concept of winter hardiness for a plant only whose roots (or corms, in the case of crocosmia and gladiola) need to survive winter is hazy. After all, three feet down in the soil almost everywhere, temperatures hover around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lay some mulch on top of any soil and penetration of winter cold can’t reach as deeply as through bare soil or lawn. Bare soil doesn’t peek out anywhere in my garden. Whatever is not lawn has been mulched year after year for over 25 years with leaves, wood chips, sawdust, compost, hay, or whatever other organic materials I can get my hands on. (No, my garden isn’t three feet higher than it was when I started because those organic mulches do decompose, enriching the soil as they do so.)

Nonetheless, the ground that the crocosmias and glads call home is well-insulated from winter cold. Warmer winters for the past few years have, no doubt, also helped these “nonhardy” bulbs survive outdoors, especially the less cold-hardy crocosmia.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

My blueberries make me happy, so I make them happy. (They made me happy this year to the tune of 150 quarts of berries, half of which are in the freezer.) I don’t know how much work bearing all those berries was for them, but I have begun my annual fall ritual of lugging cartload upon cartload of wood chips over to the berry patch to spread beneath the whole 25 foot square planted area.

I don’t begin this ritual spreading until the blueberries’ leaves drop. Then, old leaves and dried up, old fruits are on the ground and get buried beneath the mulch, preventing any disease spores lurking in these fallen leaves or fruits from lofting back up into the plants next spring. Rainy, overcast summers or hot, dry summers or any weather in between – my bushes have never had any disease problems.

I did do two things before spreading that mulch. First, I spread some nitrogen fertilizer: my universal pabulum, soybean meal, at the rate of 2 pounds per hundred square feet. And second, I spread some sulfur, at about the same rate, to keep the soil acidic.

The mulch, a couple of inches depth, went on top of the soybean meal and sulfur. In past years, I’ve mulched with leaves or with wood shavings. Pine needles would also be fine, as would any other weed-free, organic material.

Besides suppressing potential diseases, that mulch decomposes to create a soft root run that retains moisture, just what blueberries’ fine really like. Mulch and good nutrition coax my bushes to make a couple of feet or more of new growth each year. Fruit is borne on shoots that grew the previous season, so all that new growth translates into a good crop in the offing for next year.


This year also brought in a bumper crop of pawpaws, another learning year for growing this uncommon fruit. Pawpaws are the northernmost member of the tropical custard apple family, and the fruit does indeed taste very tropical –a flavor mix of banana, mango, avocado, and vanilla custard – even though it’s easy to grow and native throughout much of the Northeast. Two trees would be adequate for most households; I have about 20, just so I can learn more about them and their individual differences. That makes for a lot of pawpaws!

Right after bloom, I started thinning the small fruits. Pawpaw has a multiple ovary so each blossom can give rise to as many as 9 flowers. Some research indicates that reducing the fruit numbers would yield bigger fruits, which we humans like, especially when the fruits have large seeds, as do pawpaws. The small fruits are hard to see because they match so closely the green color of the leaves, so I didn’t thin as many as I had hoped. That said, at season’s end, fruits on thinned clusters seemed no larger than fruits on unthinned clusters. That said, the trees did bear a lot of large fruits.

Beginning around the middle of September, I began harvesting the first fruits. I picked some up from the ground and picked some soft and some firm from the trees, all of which continued up until early November. I was curious how well the fruits would keep in cold storage. They kept better than expected; ones that I picked back on September 29th and October 17th are still flavorful.

I also wanted to see which varieties (grafted, named clones) or seedlings (unnamed plants grown from seed) tasted or stored best. Nothing consistent bubbled to the surface in this regard. Expanding the palate, I also offered a lot of tastes locally and beyond. The only thing consistent was the “Wow” that followed those tastings. Almost everyone loves the taste of pawpaws.


Scarlet runner beans were not a bumper crop this year, but only because I didn’t plant many. I grow this vining bean, as do most people, primarily as an ornamental, for its scarlet blossoms. I occasionally eat the fat, hairy, yet delectable green beans. Every year I collect some of the matured black and pale purple, calico seeds for replanting the following year. This year, I decided to cook up some of these seeds and taste them.

Scarlet runner bean seeds are quite tasty (and, I learned prior to eating, nonpoisonous). So I collected all the mature seeds still hanging on the dead vines. Next year my yard will be aflame in scarlet flowers and, because the plant is pest-free – even to Mexican bean beetles -- I expect to reap a bumper crop of beans.


Friday, November 20, 2009

New models of plants, like cars, are deemed necessary to keep consumers interested and spending money. My cars (actually trucks . . . you know, manure and all that) stay with me for as long as they keep rolling along, so it was with equal skepticism I looked upon a new “model” of mandevilla, called Crimson, that arrived at my doorstep early last summer.

I was first attracted and introduced to mandevilla about 20 years ago. The glossy leaves and the bright red, funnel shaped flowers, were part of the attraction. The vining habit was also a big part of the draw, making the plant a stand-in for morning glory, but with prettier leaves and brighter flowers. Mandevilla is a perennial, tropical vine, so must winter indoors rather than be seeded outdoors each spring like morning glory. My vine’s leaves yellowed so much in winter that I tired of looking at it; one winter day I walked it over to the compost pile.

The variety Crimson is a new kind of mandevilla whose main selling point is its bushy growth habit. So yes, it is different and new, but wasn’t that vining habit one of the things I always liked about mandevilla?

Still, I have grown very fond of Crimson. It flowered continuously all summer and, since coming indoors in September, continues to do so, with new buds on the way (at every third leaf bud, according to the “manufacturer.”) I’m going to think of Crimson mandevilla as a very pretty, long blooming, bushy plant. Yes, it’s a worthy new model.


Sickly-looking leaves of houseplants – such as my mandevilla of yore – can be traced to a number of causes. Already I’m seeing this yellow transformation creeping up on my gardenia, which just finished one of its hopefully many fragrant shows.

Both mandevilla and gardenia need soils that are quite acidic (pH 4-5.5) in order to thrive. Not enough acidity makes it hard for the plant to imbibe iron, resulting in iron deficiency and yellow leaves.

But wait! It’s not time yet for the “iron pills.” Looking more closely at my gardenia, I see that it is the oldest leaves that are yellowing. Hunger for iron causes the youngest leaves to yellow (and for their veins to remain green). Yellowing of older leaves most commonly means that the plant isn’t getting enough nitrogen. The nitrogen is being robbed from older leaves (which turn yellow because nitrogen is an important component of green chlorophyll) to feed the younger leaves.

The prescription? Add some soluble nitrogen fertilizer and pay more attention to watering. Too much water drives air out of the soil, and roots gasping for air have trouble doing their work to take up sufficient nutrients.


Yellowing leaves are not always a bad thing. (Think of birch leaves a few weeks ago, or aspen leaves.) I’m happy that my asparagus’ leaves have yellowed. The plants have been growing vigorously all season, feeding their roots to fuel next year’s growth of the delicious young spears that I’ll be snapping off at ground level from late April to early July. With this year’s work finished, the shoots and leaves, left to grow unfettered since early July, are yellowing and dying back. My short-bladed brush scythe was the perfect tool to make quick work of the plants, a fluffy addition to the compost pile.

With the asparagus shoots and leaves cleared away, I could get into that bed and weed it. The bed was pretty much weed-free until July, but then wet summer weather kept weeds germinating and growing, and hard to reach among the 6-foot-high forest of feathery stalks. The bed is now weeded and soon to be fertilized (2#/100 square feet of soybean meal) and mulched (wood chips 2 inches deep).


Friday, November 13, 2009

I don’t know about you all, but I have a great urge to tidy up my garden this time of year. Partly it’s because doing so leaves one less thing to do in spring and partly because, as Charles Dudley Warner wrote in My Summer in the Garden in 1889, “the closing scenes need not be funereal.” All this tidying up is usually quite enjoyable.

Moist soil – and not too, too many weeds – make weeding fun. Creeping Charlie (also know as gill-over-the-ground) has sneaked into some flower beds. Its creeping stems are not yet well-rooted so one tug with a gloved hand and a bunch of escaping stems slithers back from its travels forward from beneath and among flower plants and shrubs. What remains are occasional tufts of grassy plants, especially crabgrass, easily wrenched out of the ground or coaxed out with my Hori-Hori garden knife.

This tidying is intimate work: me, the soil, weeds, and garden plants at close range. While I’m down there on hands and knees, I’ll also cut back some old stalks of perennial flowers. When everything is cleaned up, I’m going to spread a blanket of chipped wood (free, a “waste” product from arborists) over all bare ground.

The one thing not to do this time of year, as far as tidying up, is pruning. Better to prune after the coldest part of winter is over and closer to when plants can close up wounds.


A few weeks ago, I, along with anyone visiting my garden, was wowed by autumn crocuses then in bloom. As I pointed out, they weren’t not true crocuses (they were Colchicum species), they just ed like crocuses – on steroids. Today, October 27th, I noticed that my true autumn crocuses (that is, the ones that are Crocus species) are in bloom.

And I did really have to stop and notice them after that most flamboyant show of fake autumn crocuses. These true crocuses (crocii?) are dainty plants, just like spring crocuses, and their colors are subdued: some are pale violet and some are white. In contrast to the fake autumn crocuses, which multiplied like gangbusters, the real autumn crocuses look about dense as when I planted them. Both kinds of crocuses wait until spring to show their leaves.

It’s fortunate that the part of my garden, which is the mulched area beneath the dwarf apple trees, that’s home to autumn crocuses, real and fake, is free of weeds. Otherwise, the real autumn crocuses, being so dainty and lacking a supporting role of leaves, would be swallowed up, visually or for real.


Back to weeds . . . I’m trying to see the positive side of all that creeping Charlie I’ve been pulling. Bits of it that have insinuated themselves in amongst the bases of stems of woody shrubs, especially thorny ones like the Frau Dagmar Hastrup rose, are not that much fun to weed out. So what’s good about creeping Charlie?

For one thing, with shiny, round leaves of a deep, forest green color, it’s not a bad looking weed. The flowers are an attractive, purple color although neither big nor prominent enough to make a statement. The otherwise excellent reference book Weeds of the Northeast (Cornell University Press) erroneously states that “the foliage emits a strong mint-like odor when bruised.” That would be nice except that I’ve never noticed that odor and didn’t even when I just ran outside to crush some leaves check up on this statement.

Creeping Charlie grows well in sun or shade, so well that when I worked in agricultural research for Cornell University, I considered the plant as a possible groundcover to replace the relatively sterile herbicide strips in apple orchards. It grows as such beneath my dwarf pear trees.

The plant could even be a somewhat ornamental groundcover, making up for any lack of great beauty with its capability to rapid fill in an area and grow only a couple of inches high. You couldn’t ask much more from a plant – except to keep out of some of my flower beds.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Dateline: New Paltz, NY, October 19th, 5:30 am. I bet my garden is colder than your garden. I was startled this morning to see the thermometer reading 23 degrees F. Not much I could do at that point about protecting “cold weather” vegetables still in the garden, some covered with floating row covers and some in “plein aire.” The thing to do under these circumstances was wait for the sun to slowly warm everything up and then assess the damage.

I ventured out to the garden for a survey in the sunny midafternoon. Joy of joys. None of the cold-hardy vegetables was damaged by the cold. Romaine lettuces stood upright and crisp, arugula was dark green and tender, radishes were unfazed, and the bed of endive, escarole, and radicchio looked ready to face whatever cold the weeks ahead might offer.

That 23 degree temperature reading came from my digital thermometer read indoors from a remote sensor out in the garden. Most surprising was the reading from the old-fashioned minimum/maximum registering mercury thermometer out in the garden. This thermometer remembered the night’s lowest temperature as 20 degrees F. Brrrrrrrr.


Moving, figuratively, to warmer climes: the Mediterranean. I’m taking the Mediterranean diet one step further by trying to grow some of the delectable woody plants of that that region.

Figs are a big success, and not an unfamiliar sight well beyond their natural range. I’ve tried all the usual methods of growing them in cold climates. I’ve grown them in pots brought indoors for winter; I’ve bent over and covered or buried the stems to protect them from cold; I’ve swaddled the upright stems in leaves, straw, wood shavings, or other insulating materials. All yielded some fruit, but none of these methods beats having a small greenhouse with the trees planted right in the ground. Handfuls of soft figs, so ripe that each has a little drip from its “eye,” follow each sunny day and should do so for a few more weeks.

Bay (as in “bay leaf”) also does well, this one potted. After 20 years, my bay laurel is a handsome little tree, trained to a ball of leaves atop a single, four-foot trunk. The fresh leaves are much more flavorful, almost oily, than dried leaves, especially the old, dried leaves typically offered for sale.

Three hopeful Mediterranean transplants are my olive, feijoa, and lemons. I purchased the olive tree in spring, whereupon it flowered and has actually set a single fruit! The feijoa, also known as pineapple guava, has two fruits on it, which might not seem like a big thing except that those two fruits represent the culmination of about 15 years of effort. (More on that some other time.) True, feijoa is native to South America, but it thrives and is often planted in Mediterranean climates. The same goes for lemon, except that it is native to Asia. My Meyer lemon hybrid, like the olive, was potted up this past spring and sports a single fruit.

The long shots among my Mediterreans are pomegranates. My two plants – the varieties Kazake and Salavastki – are cold-hardy, early ripening, sweet varieties from central Asia, so should do well here in a pot. (They are cold-hardy for pomegranates, down to a few degrees below zero degrees F.) They have yet to flower and fruit.

In a few weeks I’ll move all the potted fruits to the sunny window in my very cool basement, where winter weather is very Mediterranean-esque.


Persimmon is another tree grown in Mediterranean countries, although it’s not native there. Up here, I grow American persimmon, an outdoor tree that is cold hardy to below minus 20 degrees F.. Besides yielding delectable fruits, it’s a tree that requires almost no care, not even pruning. Some of the tree’s branches are deciduous, naturally dropping in autumn.

Heavy winds of a few weeks ago took the persimmon’s self-pruning theme too far and blew the top off my 20 year old tree. Fortunately, my three other persimmon trees remained unscathed. I’ll just trim the break from the decapitated tree and it will be fine. That dead wood need not go to waste; it’s used to make high quality golf clubs. Not for me; I couldn’t get out of the garden long enough.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Looks like another of my rosemary plants has bit the dust. And this one did so very early in the season. Too bad, because it was a very elegantly trained tree form rosemary.

I brought this rosemary plant indoors a couple of weeks ago. With outside air streaming in through frequently opened windows and flames dancing in the woodstove only occasionally, the plant, along with other newly moved houseplants, would – should – have had time to gradually acclimate to the drier, warmer air indoors. I paid careful attention to watering, even filled the saucers beneath the pots with water to raise the local humidity and supply some water from below by capillary action.

The photo at left is of my rosemary plant pre-death.

I evidently didn’t pay enough attention to the rosemary tree. The problem with rosemary plants is that their thin, stiff leaves never wilt to show that the plants are thirsty. My plant finally showed its thirst by suddenly raining desiccated leaves to the floor as I brushed by it.

I seem to lose a (nicely trained) rosemary every few years. Fortunately, experience has taught me to always have one or more young plants in the wings awaiting just such a calamity.


I could have such fun with this horticultural treat. My garden is going “nuts.” I’m feeling “nutty.” I’m “squirreling away” food for winter.

In this case, some of that food is actually “nuts.” Right now we have 6 half-bushel baskets filled to the brim with husked, washed, dried black walnuts. Squirrels and many of us humans are extremely fond of this nut’s rich flavor, different and much more distinctive than the English walnuts found in markets. Black walnuts are all over the place, free for the taking.

Allow me to backtrack to a week or so ago . . . That’s when black walnuts, nestled in their soft, green, tennis-ball-sized husks, started dropping in earnest. They shed heavily each year when the trees are just about leafless. Strong winds helped, of course.

The first step in preparing the nuts is to de-husk them, which my wife Deb does with the aid of rubber gloves and a light, one-hand sledge hammer. The gloves are to keep the juice, used to stain wood and clothe, from staining her hands. She dumps a few nuts on the ground, hits them with the hammer to loosen the husks, then twists the husks off, dropping the husks into one bucket and the golfball-sized nuts into another.

My job is to clean the husked nuts. I spread them on a screen and hose them off.

Then the nuts need to be dried, which we do by spreading them on a cloth on our sun-drenched deck. The danger here is pilfering by squirrels. Fortunately, the deck is also where Leila and Scooter, our two squirrel-hungry dogs, spend a lot of time in half sleep. We gather the nuts up into half-bushel baskets to bring indoors each night and on rainy days. The nuts are sufficiently dry, and not prone to mold, after a few sunny days.

Once the nuts are dry, it is very important NOT to eat them. At least not yet, because they taste too “green.” Instead, we put them away somewhere cool and squirrel-proof to cure until January, at which point they are delicious. That is, once you get to the meat, which you can do with a hammer or – much, much more easily and with less finger trauma– with a special nutcracker. I use the “Master Nut Cracker.” Come January, I look forward to re-visiting those “nutty” baskets now in storage.


I envy nongardeners and my pre-gardening life after nights like last night, October 14th. Everyone feels the weather generally cooling, but temperatures around freezing are critical to us gardeners. Last night, temperatures dropped to 28 degrees in my garden.

That temperature definitively signals the end of peppers, basil, summer squash, and other summer vegetables. That temperature also tells me to start readying cold weather vegetables, such as lettuce, cabbage, radishes, and arugula for even colder weather in the offing. My goal is to continue picking fresh vegetables from the garden for salads and for cooking on into December.

Today I draped floating row covers, which are lightweight fabrics permeable to water, light, and some air, over beds of cold weather vegetables. Floating row covers offer about 4 degrees of cold protection. I’ll do more when temperatures drop further.


Friday, October 23, 2009

A few months ago I wrote that I once saw eye to eye with ex-President Bush – that was H. W. Bush, and we saw eye to eye about broccoli. Neither of us thought much of broccoli, in my case, it was my own, home-grown broccoli that failed to please.

This year I thought I’d make a real effort to grow good broccoli to see if perhaps I could effect an about face. The crop from my first planting was awful. I persevered with a second planting, sown in seed flats in June, for a fall crop. I gave each plant adequate spacing (2 feet apart in the row, 2 rows per 3 foot wide bed), planted them in soil enriched with soybean meal and an inch depth of compost, and kept an eye out for cabbage worms. The heads have been ripening in this cooler weather, and I’ve been making sure to harvest while the buds are still tight.

All this effort has paid off: The broccoli is delicious. Bush, you’re wrong.


Home-grown apples can be quite delicious. That is, if you get to harvest any decent fruits, which you likely will not do if you grow apples east of the Rocky Mountains. Over much of the eastern U.S., apples have a few but very serious pest problems. If you don’t spray appropriate materials at just the right moments (note the plural), you usually do not get anything worth eating.

Which brings me to the workshop I held last weekend on backyard fruits. I suggested growing fruits that have few or no pest problems, preferably those that don’t even need the precise, annual pruning demanded by apple trees. To whit: For some easy to grow tree fruits, consider pawpaw, American persimmon, and/or medlar. They all have unique flavors reminiscent of, respectively, banana, apricot, and applesauce. Plus, they require no spraying and little or no pruning. All are quite ornamental, so do double duty as landscape plants also.

A couple of other fruits were also ripe for discussion and tasting. Hardy kiwifruits, everyone agreed, were delicious, similar to but sweeter and more flavorful than the fuzzy kiwifruits of the market. They’re grape-sized with smooth skins and you just pop them, whole, into your mouth. They are also easy to grow except that they must be pruned religiously unless you don’t mind them smothering an arbor or trellis, with the subsequent fruit becoming hard to pick.

Another tasty fruit now ripe, this one on a shrub, is – dare I mention it – autumn olive. Yes, I know it’s very invasive. On some bushes, the pea-sized fruits have lost their astringency and are very tasty. With silvery leaves, autumn olive is also quite ornamental.

All these fruits are among those dual purpose “luscious landscape” plants I describe in my book Landscaping with Fruit.


We also saw some beautiful nuts – trees and shrubs, that is – at the workshop. First were filberts, also known as hazelnuts. I’ve grown both the American and European types. I no longer grow the American types, which are native to eastern U.S., because, although resistant to filbert blight, the nuts are small and somewhat bitter. However, their leaves turn a beautiful color in autumn.

European filberts bear large, tasty nuts. Blight resistant varieties of European filberts were recently developed, and they grow to make large shrubs whose stems arch out from the base of the plant like a fountain of water. I grow the varieties Santiam, Hall’s Giant, Lewis, and Clark, all bearing within 3 years of planting.

And finally we came to chestnuts, another nut with its own blight. This blight was introduced from Asia. American chestnuts are killed back by chestnut blight but resistance and tasty nuts are found in Asian chestnut species. I grow a few varieties of Asian hybrids, including the variety Colossal and a seedling, both of which bore within 5 years of planting, and the varieties Peach and Eaton, which are still young.

Chestnuts are beautiful, spreading trees with healthy looking, glossy green leaves that will soon turn a rich, golden color. Every day now I pick up golfball-sized, buffed brown nuts that drop from Colossal’s branches.