Friday, August 28, 2009

Elegance doesn’t generally wow me in the garden (or in architecture or home furnishings); lack of elegance often does. A most inelegant, cheerful flower is now in bloom. The plant is hibiscus, not the tropical one with glossy leaves and coaster-sized flowers, but the hardy, herbaceous perennial ones now sporting dinnerplate-size, red-bordering-on-hot-pink blossoms. What fun!

Looking at my plant more closely, I see that chewed up leaves are making the plants look . . . okay, perhaps a bit too inelegant. The culprit is the hibiscus sawfly, which looks something like a housefly as an adult, except the body section right behind its head is orange-brown in color. The real culprits, though, are the young, the small green caterpillars, who do the feeding.

So here’s my reminder, for next year, to pick the caterpillars off the plants early in the growing season. The caterpillars are also susceptible to most pesticides, which could be a last resort option. The moms keep laying eggs during the growing season so handpicking or spraying has to continue throughout the season. I’ll also keep an eye out for the caterpillars on my hollyhocks, of which I have 20 seedlings that will be ready to plant out next spring.

Thankfully the sawfly doesn’t attack some other important members of the hibiscus (mallow) family, such as okra, rose-of-sharon, and the tropical hibiscus I rescued from the Smith & Hawkens dumpster a few weeks ago.


Incessant rain. Never-ending rain. Day after day of rain. And with it comes mosquitoes and weeds. If there were going to be one theme for this year’s garden, it would be “weeds” (particularly troublesome for the author—me -- of a book boldly titled Weedless Gardening).

I do have weeds pretty much under control. In previous years that control, using techniques I describe in my book, required perhaps 5 minutes each week weed. Control this summer has required perhaps a half an hour per week.

Each season brings changes in the makeup of garden weeds, depending on the season’s weather patterns and changes, over time, in soil. This year’s most prominent weed is woodsorrel, a weed with yellow flowers and with leaves that resemble those of clover. There are two closely related species, an upright, bright green species, common yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta), and a creeping form, called – you guessed it – creeping yellow woodsorrel (O. corniculata).

Both wood sorrels are having a field day in my garden this year. The upright woodsorrel is easy and very satisfying to pull out. I just grab the top and the whole plant pops out of the ground. The creeping woodsorrel is more problematic because roots sprout from the stems as they creep along the ground and the purplish brown leaves make the plant hard to see against the soil.

I’m careful and diligent about grubbing out woodsorrels because seedpods of both species readily pop open to actually shoot their seeds. I envelop as much of each plant in my hand as much as possible then keep my fist closed around what I’ve grabbed until I’ve shoved the offender down inside my weed bucket.

As with other plants named sorrel, woodsorrels are edible, with a lemony flavor. I don’t like them that much.


All is not caterpillars, weeds, and other pests in the garden. This week the garden offered up a bumper crop of hardy kiwifruits (Actinidia kolomikta), a cold-hardy relative of our markets’ fuzzy kiwifruits, which are not cold-hardy here. Hardy kiwifruits have the same emerald green flesh as their cold-tender cousins, but the fruits are grape-sized and, with their smooth, edible skin, can be popped whole into your mouth. The flavor is also sweeter and more aromatic than the fuzzies.

Now is not the first time this year that hardy kiwifruits have wowed me. The vine itself is quite a beauty with variegated, luminescent leaves that are especially so all through spring. The leaves are brushed with areas of silvery pink, sometimes leaving circles of green that seem to have been painted on with an artist’s brush (something I jokingly assert to visiting children).

Hardy kiwifruit is an uncommon fruit that’s ideal excellent for “luscious landscaping,” that is, the use of fruit plants a for their beauty and their bounty. Besides beauty and good flavor, the only care the plant needs is annual pruning. If you are willing to sacrifice some yield of fruit and convenience in harvesting, the plants hardly even need that.

You do need at least two plants to reap a harvest of berries, one female for fruit and one male to provide pollen so that the female (or up to 8 females) can fruit. The males aren’t useless except for their pollen, though. They have the showiest leaves.


Friday, August 21, 2009

My ducks are as useful as they are humorous. I’ve always appreciated their fast-paced, duck walk patrol of the grounds for various insects on which to feast. But this year I’ve had a bumper crop of plums, and the ducks are being a big help with them also.

The thing about plums is that a lot of them drop to the ground. Some of them – not too many, I hope -- drop because they ripened before I got to them. Some drop because they have an insect developing in them, such as larvae of the dreaded plum curculio. And some drop because some disease has taken hold. With all the rain this year, quite a few are gray and fuzzy with brown rot disease.

I merely bemoan the loss of plums that drop before I get to them; my loss is the duck’s gain. Fruits that dropped because of some insect or disease, however, could provide the beginnings of next year’s insect or disease problems. Plum curculio larvae exit dropped fruits, burrow into the soil, and emerge a month later as adults ready for some more feeding until they find some place to hibernate for winter. So you can imagine how glad I am to see the ducks gobbling up whatever they can get at beneath the plum tree.

Brown rot infected plum fruits shrivel up to become brown “mummies.” On the ground or stuck on the tree, these mummies provide spores for infections next spring. Again, thank you ducks for cleaning up fallen, infected plums.

The ducks make a beeline for the plum tree as soon as they’re let out each morning, their heads and necks racing so far forward that the birds look like they’re about to lose their balance. Go at it ducks. Enjoy and entertain.


What a joy it is to be out in the garden in the early morning. Humanity is quiet, the birds are singing, air is cool, and a mist softens the brightness of rising sun.

Then come the insects, which are especially bothersome this year because of incessant rain. After the 15 minutes or so it takes them to pick up my scents, the bugs are swarming all around my head. They can definitely take the fun out of early morning play.

No problem. I could just douse my skin with either 2-(2-hydroxyethyl)-1-piperidinecarboxylic acid 1-methylpropyl ester) or para-Menthane-3,8-diol. Despite their horrendous sounding names, both these chemicals are quite safe to use, much safer that the commonly used DEET, whose real name, N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide or N,N-diethly-3-methyl-benzamide, is equally horrendous. Those two products I mention are not, of course, sold under those names, but as Picaridin (in, for example, ‘Natrapel’ and ‘Cutter Advanced Insect Repellent’) and Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (in, for example, ‘Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent Lotion’). Both these products compare favorably with DEET in effectiveness and longevity.

Still, I’d rather not goop anything onto my skin, unless necessary, in the freshness of the morning air. So what I more frequently turn to, and also highly recommend, is Bug Baffler, a mesh suit you just slide on quickly over clothes. A cap keeps the soft mesh away from my face.

Bug Baffler does have two drawbacks. One is that when the mesh is used to cover your face, it slightly obscures vision, especially if bright sun is shining directly on it from the front. And second, Bug Baffler makes me look ridiculous.


I’m beginning to rethink the value of my Doyenné de Juillet pear tree, about which I wrote last week. The pears do not really taste good, although waiting for the first drop before harvesting any could have caught her when she was already over the hill. La Doyenné gets one more chance, next year, and then if she’s not up to snuff, off with her head, and onto the waiting stump I’ll graft a different variety.

As for the remainder of this year’s harvest, the ducks, to whom I throw a few pears every day, seem to enjoy them as much as the much more delectable – to me, at least – plums.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Smith & Hawkens’ loss is my gain. That’s Smith & Hawkens, the upscale gardening store that sells . . . actually, I’m not exactly sure just what they do sell. They used to sell some very high quality, or at least very expensive, gardening tools, such as stainless steel digging forks and spades that were very decorative on garage walls even if never used. They also used to publish some excellent gardening books, such as Carolyn Mayle’s 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden and Elvin McDonald’s 100 Orchids for the American Garden. And then they sold gardening clothes. And then they sold furniture for the garden. And then they sold “flaming pots” for decorating your terrace.

Which is why I ended up poking my head in at a Smith & Hawkens retail store last weekend. Smith & Hawkens is going out of business and signs proclaimed that everything was discounted by 25 to 30%. No, I didn’t return home with a fire pot for my terrace. My sole purchase was 4 packets of “Renées Garden” seeds for a total of $6.13.

The real find, though, was a tree-form hibiscus with a braided trunk, an almost leafless specimen spotted by my wife as it was being walked out to the dumpster by an S & H employee. I retrieved the plant, noted its dearth of leaves and thirsty state, and walked it to our car for the trip to its new home.

Repotting and timely watering will, I am confident, bring that hibiscus back to its former glory. As for S & H’s fate, perhaps it was the economy, perhaps they wandered too far afield.


She really is the doyen, or most respected member, the dean, of the group. I refer to Doyenné de Juillet pear, also known as Summer Doyonné, and the group of which she is dean is, of course, July (Juillet, in French) pears. I picked over my tree just after the middle of the July and the fruit should be ready to ripen when I get it out of the refrigerator, soon.

(European-type pears, such as Summer Doyonné, ripen from the inside out, so if picked when fully ripe, they taste “sleepy” inside; they taste best if picked fully mature then allowed to finally ripen off the tree, preferably at cool temperatures. A short cold period gets ripening started.)

As described in U. P. Hedrick’s 1921 classic The Pears of New York, Doyonné de Juillet pears are “extremely early and highly flavored . . . borne in prodigious quantities . . . small . . . unattractive . . . do not keep well . . . as free as most of its orchard associates from blight.” All of which makes it a good backyard variety but an awful commercial variety. Mr. Hedrick did go on to say that the quality is variable, which is why I picked all the fruits and whisked them into the refrigerator as soon as I saw the first one on the ground.

This pear is perhaps the Doyonné de Juillet because it’s the only pear that ripens in July. Mine haven’t been particularly tasty. I still grow it, in part, for its history: It represents the handiwork of Belgian plantsman Jean-Baptiste Van Mons, who lived 200 years ago and was the most prolific pear breeder known. Van Mons was responsible for the now familiar pear varieties Bosc and d’Anjou. Doyonné de Juillet originated around 1800.


I bought my first microwave oven yesterday ($25 on and have already cooked up a nice batch of soil in it. Did you think that I was going to use it to cook food? Nah.

Usually, I don’t cook my potting soils, which I make by mixing equal parts sifted compost, garden soil, peat moss (or coir, a coconut fiber), and perlite, with a little soybean meal for some extra nitrogen. I avoid disease problems, such as damping off of seedlings, with careful watering and good light and air circulation rather than by sterilizing my potting soils.

Recently, however, too many weeds have been sprouting in my potting soil. Because my compost generally gets hot enough to snuff out weed seeds and because peat and perlite are naturally weed-free, these other ingredients aren’t causing the problem.

So I cooked up some batches of garden soil, using the “hi setting” for 8 minutes. My goal was to get the temperature up to about 180 degrees F., which does NOT sterilize the soil, but does pasteurize it. Sterilizing it would leave an open field for any microorganism, good or bad, to colonize. Overheating soil also leads to release of ammonia and manganese, either of which can be toxic to plants.

After the soil cooled, I added it to the other ingredients, mixed everything up thoroughly, and shook and rubbed it through ½” hardware “cloth” mounted in a frame of two by four wood. This mix will provide a good home for the roots of everything from my lettuce seedlings to that hibiscus I got from Smith & Hawkens’ dumpster.


Friday, August 7, 2009

I visited a most beautiful garden this week, one in which all the elements of garden design were deftly combined. At ground level grew groundcovers in pleasing and harmonious shades of green and of varying leaf textures. Leafy plants, lichens, and mosses were all utilized, the whole scene knit together by large slabs of underlying rock. In places, low-growing junipers and deciduous shrubs and trees brought the garden up from ground level, their exposed roots in some places visibly embracing bulging rocks.

Shakkei, or “borrowed scenery,” an important element in Japanese garden design, played an important role. Distant mountain peaks created a dramatic backdrop to some vignettes.

This garden also utilized what I like to call “luscious landscaping,” that is, the incorporation of dual purpose plants – for beauty and for eating – into the landscape. Lowbush blueberry, a plant whose dainty flowers hang like white bells in spring, whose healthy, green foliage ignites in crimson come fall, and whose stems glow red in winter, formed the bulk of the groundcover species. A few lingonberry plants interspersed here and there promised red berries in autumn and evergreen leaves as a foil for those red blueberry stems in winter. Juneberries, ripe during my visit, along with the blueberries, were among the taller plants in this garden.

And just where was this wonderful garden? Or gardens, I should say. They were in the high peaks of New York’s Adirondack mountains. The garden designer? God or one described by Darwin, take your pick. Beautiful, at any rate.

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Back down on the flatlands, the word “blight” is being knocked around in connection with tomatoes – your tomatoes, my tomatoes, basically, everybody’s tomatoes! Late blight is the blight of current interest, which you’ll be unhappy to know is the same disease that caused the potato famine in Ireland in the 19th century. (This blight attacks potatoes and tomatoes.)

Late blight is a problem in the northeast this year due to a particular confluence of events: infected tomato plants offered at “big box” stores gave the blight its start and rainy, humid conditions have kept it going. The disease does not overwinter here. It arrives here either on infected plants or by hitchhiking up from southern fields, where it does overwinter, when weather conditions are just right, that is, cool and moist. The spores can travel about 15 miles at a shot under good conditions.

My tomato plants have their usual midsummer splotches and yellowing, but with all this talk of late blight, even I, who usually finds pest problems more interesting than scary, got a little worried. After all, this year was the year we had planned to dry a whole lot of tomatoes and replenish our stock of canned tomatoes. So I tested for late blight pulling a splotchy leaf off a plant, sliding it into a plastic bag, and waiting a day. White, fuzzy growth on the leaf would mean late blight. No blight here – yet, at least.

Since hot, sunny weather, which would keep blight in check, was not in the offing, and since blight is around and spreading, I decided to spray my tomato plants, a measure to which I’d never before resorted. And it’s not because I grow mostly heirloom tomatoes; pretty much any and every tomato variety is susceptible to late blight. I used one of many copper sprays that are organically approved, still taking care not to dowse nearby other plants and to thoroughly protect myself while spraying. And we will now wash tomatoes and nearby plants before eating them.

Next year is another year. Except for potato tubers, in which the disease can overwinter here, late blight should be gone once winter sets in. All of which makes a good case for discarding or eating all tubers, and starting your own tomato plants next spring.