Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hellooooooo out there. How does your garden grow???? Are you there?


I’m lucky enough to have a French window of two big, inward swinging panels out of which I can look over my vegetable garden every morning. Oddly enough, the garden bed that is catching my eyes these mornings for its beauty is the bed of kale plants.

No, it’s not a bed of colorful, ornamental kale, not even a reddish kale such as Russian Red. I grow just plain old Blue Curled Scotch kale, which is no more bluish than any other kale, or any other member of the whole cabbage family for that matter. What catches my eye each morning is the frilliness of the leaves and how neatly they line up along the stalk. It’s pretty.

My vision could be swayed by the fact that kale is such a healthful vegetable, being especially rich in calcium and vitamin A. Or the fact that it’s so easy to grow. I sowed the seeds in early March, planted transplants out in early May, have been harvesting it since the end of May, and will continue to do so probably well into December. (Another bed of kale, which I seeded right out in the ground at the end of May, is also looking good.)

Unlike broccoli, whose prime is past once buds open into flowers, or cabbage, which splits if left too long, kale doesn’t need to be harvested at just the right moment. It just keeps growing taller, with more leaves, if left alone.

The only thing kale needs protection from is rabbits and woodchucks, like most vegetables, and from cabbage worms. One or two sprays of the biological pesticide Bacillus thurengiensis is all that’s needed for the worms, or nothing, especially in a year like this when worms were pretty much absent.

What more could I ask for from a plant: flavor, health, and beauty?


I take it upon myself to personally promote the revival of an old-fashioned flower: kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate. It’s big, it’s beautiful, and it’s distinctly old-fashioned.

If you know the weed called smartweed, you have a hint of what kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate looks like. Smartweed is a trailing weed with what look like small droplets of pink dew at the ends of its stems. Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate looks like smartweed on steroids, the “droplets” the size of bb’s and, rather than trailing, the plant rises with robust arching stems to more than seven feet high. It’s just the height and form for growing next to a garden gate, which is where my plants grow.

Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate is a little hard to get started because the seeds germinate slowly and erratically. My plants thankfully lived up to their reputation of being self-seeding annuals, and those self-seeding plants have come up more robustly than the coddled few seedlings I transplanted last year. So far, it’s self-seeding habit seems restrained. All I did this spring was weed out the few extra plants, as well as those that strayed too far from my garden’s gate.


For many years, in addition to starting onions from seed (sown in February!), I also went the more conventional route and bought a few “sets” for planting. Sets are those small bulbs that grow first to become scallions, which are mostly leaf, then go on to fatten into bulbs that can be harvested and stored.

This year, instead of planting sets for scallions, I grew bunching onions, yet another type of onion, one that never ever makes fat bulbs. During the growing season, slender new scallion are produced around the bases of older ones. I set out transplants back in early summer grown from seeds sown back in spring.

Even now, these scallions still look like scallions, some larger, some smaller, depending on how crowded they are to each other. No matter their size, they’ve all been tasty right through summer and on into fall, maintaining all the time their scallion character.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Yesterday, September 2nd, I picked my first fig of the season, a big, fat, juicy, sweet Green Ischia, also known as Verte. For days, I’d been watching it swell in the tree in the greenhouse. Finally, it was drooping from its stem and the skin gave in readily to my touch, so I picked it and took a bite. Delicious.

Figs have unique bearing habits, which is why I am usually able to harvest those first Green Ischias a few weeks earlier than I did this year. Some fig trees, Green Ischia being one of them, bear fruit on both last year’s stems and on new, growing shoots. The previous year’s stems bear the earlier crop, the current shoots bear the later crop. (With some fig varieties, each of these crops looks and tastes different.)

Last winter, a propane glitch let greenhouse temperatures drop well below freezing. A lot of the old stems suffered damage so there was no early crop this year.

Most temperate zone fruits, such as apple, pear, and blueberry, as well as some varieties of figs, bear only on older stems. And still other fig varieties bear only, or mostly, on currently growing shoots.

These accommodating fruiting habits are what make it possible to grow figs, a subtropical fruit, where climates are quite cold. You choose whether you’re going to protect the stems by burying them, by wrapping them, by growing the plants in pots which are brought indoors for winter, or by growing the plants in a greenhouse. Then you choose the varieties to grow depending on whether you’re going to try to preserve old stems or go for a crop on new shoots.

I’ve tried all these methods. A greenhouse kept cool, but not frigid, in winter (35 degree) is ideal because you can preserve older stems and you can get a lot of growth, which translates to a lot of figs.

The three other fig varieties in my greenhouse, Brown Turkey, Celeste, and Kadota, bear only on new shoots. So each winter I cut these trees back to stimulate a lot of new, fruit-bearing shoots for the following year. Not too severely, though, or the fruit ripens too late. This pruning works out well because the cut back, leafless plants don’t shade the rest of the greenhouse in winter, when lettuce, kale, and other greens growing beneath the dormant trees need all the light they can get.


One of the most exciting things in this year’s gardening is a mere tuft of greenery that sprouted in a 4 inch, square pot. That tuft of greenery originated from some dust-like seeds that I sprinkled on the potting mix early this spring. Those dust-like seeds originated from seed pods of my Mandalay Mandarin hybrid begonia.

I’ve never grown begonias from seed before, and find it incredible that a whole plant can actually grow from a seed not much larger than a speck of dust. Hence, the special treatment I gave these seeds, beginning with sterilizing the potting mix to kill any weed seeds that would germinate more quickly and inundate the begonias even before they could sprout. After watering the pot, I set it on a capillary mat whose end dipped in a water reservoir. The water gets absorbed into the mat and then into the pot via capillary action, avoiding the need to water from above which would dislodge the tiny seeds.

Finally, I set the pot in dappled shade. I wanted to cover the pot to keep moisture from evaporating too quickly from the surface of the potting mix, where I’d sprinkled the seeds. I also wanted to cover it to keep out weed seeds. A pane of glass would be ideal because begonia, like most small seeds, needs light to germinate. On the other hand, I didn’t want the seeds to cook in their mini-greenhouse, so I propped the glass up ¼ of an inch or so above the pot with some wooden spacers.

Lo and behold, what first looked like a green haze has developed into a mound of green sprouts. The next step is to separate them and put each one into its own “cell.”

Then things get more exciting, as I wait for blossoms. Mandalay Mandarin is a beauty. Will any of her offspring match the parent? Will any surpass their parent?


On October 4th, from 2-5 pm, I’ll be conducting a “Backyard Fruit Growing and Tasting” workshop in my garden. This workshop will cover what fruits are best and easiest to grow, and how to grow them. Everyone will also get to taste delectable fruits such as pawpaws, persimmons, and hardy kiwifruit. Space is limited, and the cost is $30 per person with pre-registration before October 2nd, $40 otherwise. Email, or call 845-255-0417, for more information.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bibi Maizoon just made one of her occasional appearances, each one of which is most welcome. In case you don’t know who Bibi Maizoon is, she is (perhaps was) a member of the royal family of Oman. However, she is not the Bibi Mazoon making occasional appearances in my garden. That Bibi Maizoon is a rose, bred by renowned British rose breeder David Austin.

I consider Bibi Maizoon blooms to be as close to perfection as any rose bloom might ever be. The cup-shaped pink blossoms are filled with loosely defined row upon row pastel pink petals, nothing like the pointed, stiff blossoms of hybrid tea roses. Completing the old-fashioned feel of Bibi Maizoon blossoms is the flowers’ strong, fruity fragrance.

The bush itself is as imperfect as the blossom is perfect. Where to begin? For starters, the thin stems can hardly support the corpulent blossoms. Can’t, in fact, so the blossoms usually dangle upside down. Upside down blossoms are not that bad because I consider Bibi best when cut for vases indoors to better appreciate her rare appearances and fragrance.

Bibi Maizoon is also only borderline cold hardy in my garden. She frequently needs weeks to recover from cold winter weather before she can finally blossom.

And finally, Bibi Maizoon is a very weak grower. After years and years of bemoaning the desolate appearance of her part of the garden, I planted a polyantha rose within a few inches of Bibi to fill in with foliage and small, pink blossoms while Bibi rests. Weak growth means fewer blossoms, which is why it’s so exciting when one of Bibi’s pale green shoots topped by a pink bud pokes up through the finer polyantha foliage. It means another royal visit is on its way.


Ellison’s Orange is as unknown to most people as is Bibi Maizoon. Ellison’s Orange is an apple, an old and very delicious apple, and, oddly enough, it’s ripening right now. Everywhere else I read that this apple is supposed to ripen later in September and on into October, yet every year my Ellison’s Orange fruits ripen about this time of year.

Like Bibi Maizoon, Ellison’s Orange has its good and bad sides. On the plus side, it bears very well and at a young age. It also seems to be somewhat resistant to scab and cedar apple rust diseases, contradicting other sources on this point also. And what a beauty the fruit is, with its orange blush over a yellow background.

For me, the downside of this variety is the absolute necessity to pick it at just the right moment. One day an apple seems puckery underripe; the next day it might be sleepy and soft. If I harvest very carefully, I catch an apple at its delectable best, which is sprightly with an intense flavor that hints of anise seed.

I made my tree from a piece of stem whose cells trace back about a hundred years, to the garden of a Reverend Ellison in Lincolnshire in the east of England. The parents of reverend’s new apple weren’t lightweights. One parent, Cox’s Orange Pippin, the king of British apples, has an intense flavor that sometimes hints of anise seed. The other parent, Calville Blanc, an old French apple popular in the court of King Louis XIII, has a spicy flavor with just a hint of banana. No wonder Ellison’s Orange tastes so good – as long as I catch it at the right moment.


Everyone knows and loves sunflowers. Could there be a flower with a more cheerful face? Sunflowers are not only cheerful, but also seem funny to me with their oversized heads.

Because of their cheery countenance, and perhaps also because they are American natives, sunflowers have been “in” for the past few years. With that popularity came the introduction of many new varieties. There are tall ones, short ones, ones with deep orange, white, or maroon petals, branching ones, and those that don’t have pollen so that cut flowers don’t shed their “pixie dust” on furniture and tables.

I sowed a few different varieties indoors last April, then planted them out in May. Sunflowers also self-seed, and I dug up some of those self-seedlings to transplant around the garden. The long and the short of it is that sunflowers are now blooming all over the place. What fun!

For anyone who can make to New York's Hudson Valley on October 4th and is interested in growing fruits: BACKYARD FRUIT TASTING AND WORKSHOP, with me, in my garden from 2-5 pm. This workshop will cover what fruits are best and easiest to grow, and how to grow them. Participants will also taste delectable fruits such as pawpaws, persimmons, and hardy kiwifruit. The cost is $30 per person with pre-registration before October 2nd, $40 otherwise. For further information, contact me at

Friday, September 4, 2009

My wife commented at dinner the other night that everything we were eating had pretty much the same ingredients. The salad, besides lettuce, parsley, celery, olives, and dressing, had freshly sliced tomatoes, onions (as scallions), and peppers. Skewered and from the grill, were roasted eggplant and, again, tomatoes, onions (bulbs), and peppers. And our home-made focaccio was topped with – you guessed it – tomatoes and onions, in addition to garlic and fresh rosemary.

Not that either of us was complaining; the meal was delicious, and not by some culinary sleight of hand. The good taste came about because most of the meal came from our backyard garden. I had chosen flavorful varieties of each vegetable to grow and they all had been gathered within an hour of their being eaten. In the case of the sweet corn, also part of that dinner and almost every lunch or dinner throughout August and into September, we had the water boiling as we were picking so that the conversion of flavorful sugars to bland starches that occurs as soon as an ear is picked could stopped short.

These foods, day in and day out, don’t become tiresome. Earlier in the season, peas typically appeared on the menu almost daily; in a few weeks, the recurring vegetable du jour might be kale. It’s all good (and organic, local, sustainable, green, etc.)


If you buy corn at a farmstand or market these days, no need to have boiling water ready, as we did, to keep the kernels flavorsome. Two genes incorporated into modern corn varieties dramatically slow flavor decline. And, they also make modern corns supersweet to begin with.

Call me old-fashioned, but my favorite variety of sweet corn, the only variety that I grow, is the old variety Golden Bantam, which lacks those modern corn genes. Although not nearly as sweet as modern hybrids, Golden Bantam has a very rich corny flavor with – to some tastes -- just the right amount of sweetness.

Golden Bantam was introduced into the seed trade in 1902 by W. Atlee Burpee Company, who got their original 2 quarts of seed from New York farmer William Coy, who had tasted and enjoyed eating some ears at his cousin’s house in Massachusetts. Long story short: Everyone fell in love with Golden Bantam and it became the most popular corn of its day. An article in The Boston Transcript of 1926 states that “In the twenty-four years since [1902] it has made more friends than anyone else could make outside the movies. Which proves that popularity does sometimes follow real merit.” It’s an odd way to compliment but you get the picture.

Golden Bantam did not rest on its laurels. Breeders sought to continually improve it, leading to other varieties such as Golden Bantam Improved, Early Golden Bantam, Extra Early Golden Bantam, and Golden Cross Bantam (an early hybrid corn that was resistant to Stewart’s wilt disease that devastated corn in the 1930s).

Which brings me back to last night’s dinner. My Golden Bantam is not one of the hybrid ones, so a bed planted at the same time shouldn’t all ripen within a narrow window of time. Yet hot weather has hustled ears in my bed of corn from pre- to post-perfection within a mere week or so. And beds planted almost 2 weeks apart are all ripening together. The upshot is that we’re picking an awful lot of sweet corn. They’re not all perfect, but, again, they’re all good (and organic, local, sustainable, green, etc.).


And now for an update on my dumpster dive of a few weeks ago, at which time I retrieved a forlorn looking, tropical hibiscus with braided trunks from Smith & Hawkens’ store dumpster. I repotted the plant when I got it home, kept it in partial shade for a couple of weeks, watered and fed it, and felt confident that the plant would regain or surpass by next year whatever former glory it had.

Surprise! My 5-foot-high hibiscus has already grown new, glossy, green leaves and is sporting a few coaster-sized, pink blooms. It’s a beauty.

Next year will be even better when a few pinches of new growth create a more bushy head and more, albeit smaller (but more proportional to the size of the head), blooms.