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.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Along with tens of thousands of other people, I descended this past weekend upon the small town of Unity, Maine, population 555. The attraction that drew all of us to this little town a half hour inland from the coast was the Common Ground Fair, sponsored and on the grounds of MOFGA, the Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association (

The Common Ground Fair is a real old-time country fair focusing on farming, gardening, and rural skills such as timber frame construction, weaving, and tanning hides. No glitzy midway or bumper car rides at this fair. Instead, there are horse-drawn rides and demonstrations such as mowing with oxen, natural hoof care, and border collies herding ducks and sheep. Garden and farming talks covered everything from starting a vegetable garden to growing grain to – my own presentations – landscaping with fruit plants and weedless gardening.

When night falls at the Common Ground Fair, no stings of bare bulbs come to life. Instead, darkness descends, save for the flickering light of a few campfires and or the searching beams from headlamps of those who camp at the site. The sound of crickets is punctuated by occasional sounds of home-made music.

Just about everything at the fair is produced in Maine. You can buy everything from a silky soft alpaca sweater to a buttery croissant (Tuva Bakery’s croissants – note the plural -- were my favorite food there) to a split ash basket to seed packets and gardening tools from Johnny’s Selected Seeds or Fedco. The signature offering at the fair, and the aroma that is most pervasive, is that o f the fragrant herbsweet Annie, bunches of which were available from many farm stands.


After a day at the Fair, I wended my way along a back road off a back road on one of the Maine’s coastal peninsulas to visit Four Season Farm, the small farm of Elliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch. Eliot is an innovative farmer perhaps best known for techniques he developed for growing vegetables year ‘round in northern climates with minimal artificial heating.

Too many gardeners believe that lack of sunlight limits winter growing in the north. One look at a world globe, though, shows that the latitude even the northern parts of the U.S. is on a par with that of southern Europe. In southern Europe, vegetables that enjoy cool growing conditions are planted in late summer and fall. So all we have to do, as Eliot has shown, is capture some extra heat with various heat-retentive coverings over our plants. Hence the plastic covered tunnels soon to be sprouting in my garden.

This visit was my fourth visit to Eliot’s farm, the first one dating way back to June of 1973! Back then, I had just dug my first garden and had entered graduate school to study soil science and horticulture. The visit reminds me of the passage of time; it’s been a long row to hoe, a most interesting, pleasurable, and fruitful one.


Upon my return from the Common Ground Fair, I was inundated here on my farmden with a crop of “northern bananas.” Not really bananas, of course, but pawpaws (Asimina triloba), a cold-hardy fruit with many tropical aspirations (not to be confused with papayas, a truly tropical fruit that sometimes also is called pawpaw).

These northern bananas are about the size and shape of mangoes except that inside is a creamy, pale yellow flesh with flavor and texture reminiscent of banana and vanilla custard along with hints of avocado and mango. The fruits dangle from the branches singly or in clusters of up to nine fruits and they can finish ripening and softening after picking. Like bananas – those tropical aspirations again.

Dropped fruit is usually perfectly ripe and ready to eat. A few fruits dropped before I left for Maine; many more were on the ground upon my return. So into cold storage go fruits I’ve been picking up from the ground as well as those from trees those whose slight change in color and softening shows they’re ready to begin ripening.

Pawpaw is among the easiest of all tree fruit trees to grow. Pretty much the only care my trees get is mulch and removal of suckers that sprout from the spreading roots. And the trees don’t even need that, as evidenced by a tree I gave my cousin. Her tree grows in her front lawn and bears good crops without any spraying, pruning, mulching, or anything else.

My cousin constantly gets compliments from passersby on her tree’s appearance. That’s because pawpaw trees also show their tropical aspirations with large, lush leaves, which look very attractive and maintain their healthy appearance all season long.

All these tropical aspirations are not just show: Pawpaw is a native fruits that is, in fact, the northernmost member of the tropical custard apple family.

Lurid, violet flowers have sprouted in the wood chip mulch beneath my row of dwarf apple trees. The flowers are autumn crocuses, the first part of the two-part flowery show that takes place each autumn in that piece of ground.

The second part of that flowery show, soon to follow, will be autumn crocuses. “But,” you exclaim, “autumn crocuses were the first part of the show!” Let me explain.

This first show is from a flower called autumn crocus but which is botanically a Colchicum species. It’s not really a crocus, not even related. Colchicum flowers do resemble true crocus flowers, on steroids. The second show will be from true crocuses (that is, Crocus species) that happen to bloom in autumn. The Crocus autumn crocuses are dainty and in colors like our spring crocuses.

What’s really unique about the colchicum flowers, and what makes them so striking, is that, first, they emerge from the soil this time of year, and second, that they do so without any leaves, making the contrast between the mulched ground and the flowers all the more dramatic.

Cochicums, like every other plant, need to photosynthesize, and, like every other plant, need leaves to do so. Those leaves, which are wide, long, and fairly large, appear for awhile in spring and look nothing like true crocus leaves. Not only do the plants not need leaves in autumn, they also don’t need soil. Colchicum bulbs will sprout their lurid violet flowers even if just left sitting on a bench or table!


Aside from spots of bright color, the dominant color in my garden is green. That verdure is especially evident in my vegetable garden, now in its autumn glory – lush and green – and becoming more so every day. I’ve been sowing and planting with almost the same fervor as in spring.

Yesterday, September 22nd, I made my last planting of outdoor lettuce, using transplants that had been growing in seed flats for about the last month. I’m not sure how large they’ll grow before stopped or turned to mush by really cold weather. Protection beneath a tunnel of clear plastic with, later, an additional covering of some spun-bonded row cover material, should keep them and me happy into December.

Lettuces that I transplanted into another bed a couple of weeks ago have swelled into almost full-sized heads. The varying textures and colors of the different varieties make a pretty tapestry on the ground, so pretty that it seems almost a shame to pick any of the tender, tasty heads and ruin the picture.

Other beds display yet more shades of green with varying textures. There’s a bed of kale, which has been pumping out deep green leaves for good eating since spring. Another bed has endive – frilly-leafed Très Fine Maraîchère and Broad-Leaved Batavian – along with some Indigo radicchio, tightening up into wine-red heads. All this contrasts nicely with a nearby bed lush with blue-green leaves of broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage plants.


Lushest green of all beds in my garden are those sprouting oats. Yes, that’s the same oats that we (and horses) eat, except that I didn’t plant these oats for eating. I plant oats as so-called cover crops, which are plants grown to improve and protect the soil.

I can only eat just so much lettuce, endive, broccoli, and other greens. If I’ve filled this quota for planting and no longer have further use for a bed this season, I plant it with oats. September 30th is my deadline for planting oats because after this date -- around here, at least -- days are too short and weather becomes too cold to expect much growth.

Oats, just one of a number of potential cover crops, thrive in the cool weather of autumn and early winter. Their roots, pushing through the soil, crumble it and latch onto nutrients that might otherwise wash down below the root zone. After the roots die, they enrich the soil with humus and leave behind channels through which air and water can move within the soil. Above ground, the stems and leaves protect the soil surface from being washed around by pounding raindrops.

Most of all, I like the look of that green carpet of grassy oat leaves. Both I and Mother Nature abhor bare ground.

Friday, October 2, 2009

I’m hunkering down for winter, which includes capturing what I can of summer’s bounty in jars and dried and frozen garden produce. With this year’s rainy weather, tomato yields fell far short of expectations. Still, I have 19 shiny quart jars lined up on a shelf in the basement so far, and plan to eke out a few more before the season of summer vegetables comes to an end.

A past neighbor of mine used to begin the process of canning tomatoes by alternating layers of tomatoes with salt in tall, half-bushel baskets. Other gardeners begin by peeling, perhaps seeding, their tomatoes. As for myself, I opt for the quickest method possible, which is: Cut off any bad spots and drop the tomatoes into a large pot with just a half inch of water in the bottom; bring to a boil and then simmer until the volume is reduced by one-half; blend with an immersion blender; pack into canning jars and process in a pressure canner for 15 minutes at 5 pounds pressure. I figure that I can chop up and sprinkle in any flavorings for sauces or soups later, in winter, when I have more time and I know the jar’s end use.

My quick-canning method does not sacrifice flavor. Why? Because I use only the best-tasting varieties of tomato, mostly San Marzano, so revered in Italy that it’s presence is touted on the label when used in commercially canned tomatoes.


I’m a little late this year in readying my houseplants for winter. I know from seasons past that when the plants come indoors, so do occasional pests. The pests that are most troublesome, the only ones about which I do something, are scale insects.

I never see scale insects now; they are there, though, on my citrus, kumquat, bay laurel, gardenia, and staghorn fern plants. By early winter, the pest starts showing up as occasional, small brown nodules on stems and leaves. That’s the protective “scale,” beneath which the scale insect is happily sucking away plant sap. Scale insects have never killed my plants but do weaken them and – perhaps worse – exude a sugary “honeydew” as they suck sap. This sticky honeydew gets all over floors, furniture, or whatever is beneath the plant. And then a fungus arrives to feed on that honeydew, giving it a dark, smoky, haze.

My tack for scale insects is to line susceptible plants up in my driveway, then spray them with relatively benign insecticide, Ced-o-flora (, which I did yesterday, September 14th. I’ll spray again in about a week, then again a week later, the goal being to catch all the buggers as they reach the stage when they are most susceptible to the spray.

After the last spray, in come all my houseplants, which should be while windows are still open at least some days and indoor air is not too different from outdoor air, easing the transition for the plants.


My zinnia’s are making their last hurrah before cold shuts them down. These zinnias aren’t your usual small pompoms on foot-foot high plants. No, these are aptly named Scarlet Flame zinnias, the stems rising now to 3 to 4 feet in height, each capped by a fiery 3 to 4 inch in diameter head of loosely packed petals. That color really jumps out among the abundant greens and now muted colors of the late summer garden. Seeds started in seed flats in early May have been blossoming nonstop all summer.


Reminder: BACKYARD FRUIT GROWING AND TASTING workshop in my garden on October 4th, from 2-5 pm. Come and taste and learn to grow delectable pawpaws, persimmons, hardy kiwifruits, and more! Email me or call 255-0417 for details.