Friday, September 24, 2010

Hot and dry -- what great summer weather we’ve had for grapes. Every morning for the past few weeks I’ve gone out and picked bunches for fresh eating, and I’ll continue to do so for weeks to come. The bunches aren’t those of just any old varieties; they are varieties chosen from among the 5,000 or so existing grape varieties.

Well, not really. I couldn’t choose from among all 5,000 varieties because many varieties would not grow here. The grapes that grow best here are those derived from fox grapes (Vitis labrusca) and other species native to this part of the world. Concord is the archetype fox grape, with a slip skin, a jelly-like flesh, and that distinctive, foxy flavor. Muscadine grapes (V. rotundifolia) are native to the Southeast, so aren’t hardy here. European wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) also can’t stand up to our winter cold, and if that doesn’t do them in, grape diseases (such as black rot) and insects (such as phylloxera, as bad as it sounds) found in the Northeast do.

Still, breeding and selection have resulted in plenty of grape varieties adapted here and everywhere, and, over the years, I’ve planted some of the best candidates, ripping out any that didn’t make the grade and planting new ones. Many of my favorites come from the amateur breeding work of Minnesota dairy farmer Elmer Swenson: Edelweiss (very foxy, and pictured at right); Swenson’s Red (crunchy, sweet); Swenson’s White; and Brianna. My garden is in a cold spot, so my Vanessa vine froze back this year, but this variety, which also happens to be seedless, is so delectable and beautiful, that I have the new sprouts in training again for, hopefully, return engagements. Campbell’s Early is similar to Concord, but much earlier, with robust leaves, stems, berry clusters, and flavor. And finally, Alden is a favorite for its sweet flavor and meaty texture. Just about all these varieties have some amount of European wine grape in their predominantly fox grape heritage.

This year was the last chance I gave Duchess and Winchell grapes. Both are reasonably good but Duchess died back this winter, and its new sprouts are not going to be back in training, Winchell berries are too small with seeds too large. Their space along my grape trellis could be better used by some better grapes.

I’m looking forward to next year, when some newer varieties should come into bearing. I have high hopes for Mars, Somerset Seedless, New York Muscat, and Reliance, and am hoping for a similar hot, dry, grape-friendly summer.


Where there are grapes, there are bees, and bald-faced hornets have been having a grand old time with the grapes this summer. Every time I reach into the foliage to pick a bunch I’m also expecting to get stung. So I was relieved to discover yet another use for one of my pruning tools, the ARS Rose Pruner with Branch Grip.

I am generally a big fan of ARS pruners, both for their design and for the quality of their materials and workmanship. Their Rose Pruner with Branch Grip has a 2-foot-long handle that’s useful for reaching into a bed for a flowering stem -- even if its not a rose -- to snip it off and then hold on

to it.

That tool is, I’ve discovered, just what I need to pick and hold bunches of grapes without fear of getting stung. An added benefit is that I can more easily pick off bunches buried deep within the foliage as well as some of those on my arbor for which I would otherwise need a ladder.


The hot, dry weather this summer has also been kind to plants other than grapes. One recipient of this heavenly beneficence has been Bibi Mazoon, a modern rose with old fashioned charm.

Bibi Mazoon has sat on the north side of the rustic arbor entry to my vegetable garden for over a decade and, in all honesty, hasn’t done much. Some years she hasn’t bloomed at all. Other years she coughed up perhaps 2 or 3 blooms.

I’ve kept Bibi Mazoon around because every bloom that does appear is so glorious. Each bud expands into a ball of petals that slowly unravels into a loose, open blossom in a soft shade of pink. The aroma is pure rose, leaving nothing olfactory to be desired. (I also keep Bibi because I subsequently planted a polyantha rose right against her, so even if Bibi does nothing, the polyantha fills the space with its abundant small leaves and pink blossoms.)

This week, 3 tall shoots of Bibi Mazoon reared their flowering heads above the polyantha rose. I might use my ARS Rose Pruner with Branch Grip to pluck off one of those blossoms for a vase indoors.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

On September 25th, from 2-5 pm, I’ll be conducting a “Workshop & Tasting: Autumn's Delectable Fruits” 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, hardy kiwifruit, many varieties of heirloom apples, and more. Space is limited, and the cost is $35 per person. Contact me for more information and to register. Please see my website for contact information.

It’s 10 am and I just came in from the garden where a temperature already 85 degrees and bright sun bode for a scorcher today. Out there, I sowed seeds of spinach, arugula, mache, and Buttercrunch, Romaine, and Red Deer Tongue lettuce directly in vegetable beds and in the cold-frame. Despite today’s heat and the sun, and predictions for more of the same, I hope I’m not too late in planting.

This time of year, if you want salad fixings for the next couple of months and on into winter, the race is on. On the one hand, you have to get seeds into the ground early enough for them to sprout and grow. Today’s weather notwithstanding, each day the sun drops lower in the sky, cutting back on growth-fueling photosyntheses. And cooler, then colder, temperatures are just around the corner. My plants have to grow big enough to eat before cold weather and relative darkness bring growth nearly to a halt.

On the other hand, sow seeds too early and all the cool-weather-loving vegetables that I planted will bolt, that is, send up flower stalks rendering them inedible. The problem is exacerbated in the warmer conditions of the greenhouse. One year I planted too much lettuce too early and, come December, we ended up with too many plants developing seed stalks and small, bitter leaves.

Warmth will linger progressively longer in the greenhouse (which is minimally heated and I’ll be planting very soon) as compared to the cold-frame as compared to the outdoor beds. When needed, the outdoor beds will get some protection from cold with the plastic tunnels I’ll put over them. So we’ll see how my sowing dates and fall and early winter weather translate into what ends up in the salad bowl in the coming weeks. I’ll report back.


After weeks of dry weather, the rains of a couple of weeks ago duped some plants. Perhaps the few weeks of cool weather following on the heels of weeks of searing temperatures also had a hand in the trick. Most dramatically evident are the white blossoms now open on a dwarf rhododendron.

This particular plant’s blooming at this time of year is especially odd because it’s growing in a partially shaded bed near the east side of the house. The bed is also drip irrigated. So yes, the summer was mostly hot and dry, but the rhododendron plant was in a relatively cool location and did receive some water, at least.

More intriguingly, there are two rhododendrons of the same variety growing very near to each other; only one bloomed. Then again, the plant with blossoms hasn’t exactly burst (yet) into bloom. Just a few flowers have unfolded here and there. My guess is that most of the flower buds will remain asleep until next spring.


I also noticed small, blue flowers along the stems of my goji berry plant, a condition that may be de rigeur for goji. In past years, the plant has blossomed anytime from spring through late summer.

Goji berry (Lycium barbarum and L. chinense) is billed as a “superfruit,” high in nutrients and antioxidants. The plants are native to southeastern Europe and China, and the Chinese have planted over 2 million acres of them in recent years. I just had to put in a couple of plants to see what the buzz was all about. I once tasted some dried ones, which were awful, with the texture and flavor of bits of balsa wood. I wanted to see how the plants grow and how they would taste fresh.

Goji berry plants do not come as clones, with varietal names (as in McIntosh apple, or Elberta Peach), so there should be variability from plant to plant. That is probably why winter weather killed one of my two gojis, each of which came from a different nursery. Goji is allegedly hardy down to about 5 degrees F. Both of mine had extra protection from being planted near a sunny, south-facing, brick wall. That protection evidently was not enough for one of the plants.

Goji plants are not fun to manage. The long canes root as they arch down to touch ground, as do black raspberries. And, like black raspberries, the canes are covered with thorns. Without diligent pruning, an impenetrable, thorny mess results.

I did get a taste of the fresh, red berries from one of my plants a couple of years ago. They were sweet and tasty. Still, I have some reservations about eating them. Goji is a member of the deadly nightshade family and has also gone under the name wolfberry. Then again, tomato is a member of this same family, and its botanical name Lycopersicum translates as “wolf peach.”

Saturday, September 11, 2010

On September 25th, from 2-5 pm, I’ll be conducting a “Workshop & Tasting: Autumn's Delectable Fruits” 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, hardy kiwifruit, many varieties of heirloom apples, and more. Space is limited, and the cost is $35 per person. Contact me for more information and to register. Please see my website for contact information.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Looking around at my fruit trees and bushes, flowers, vegetable beds, and ornamental and fruiting vines makes me wish I had a catchy name for the kind of gardening I do. A catchy name like, for example, “permaculture,” which is all the craze these days.

Everyone loves permaculture. Many budding young as well as experienced permaculturalists have visited my garden to see what I’ve been doing here for the last 25 years. Yes, I have integrated edibles right into the landscape, as do permaculturalists. And, again like permaculturalists, I try to maximize use of the 3 dimensional space in my garden, with, for example, my shade-loving black currants growing beneath my pawpaw trees. I am also permaculturalistic in maintaining the integrity of my soil never tilling it, and by utilizing mulches. And we all try to grow plants adapted to the setting so as to minimize pest problems. And . . . I could go on.

Yet I am not a permaculturalist. I part ways with permaculturalists by growing my vegetables rectilinearly, in straight rows within rectangular 3-foot-wide beds. Ah yes, the idea of organically-shaped beds and keyhole-shaped beds is so appealing – on paper. Same goes for the idea of tucking lettuce plants beneath fruiting shrubs and trees. But I eat a lot of vegetables and there’s nothing like straight rows running down straight beds for packing a lot of vegetables into a given area, and making it quicker and easier to plant, weed, and harvest. When I go out to pick some vegetables for a meal, I don’t want to have to remember where I tucked the lettuce and then crawl beneath some shrub to get at it.

Permaculture originated and thrives in the dry climates of Australia and our Southwest. Over much of the country, and especially here in the Northeast, rainfall coaxes very exuberant growth of both crop plants and weeds. Growth is quite exuberant here even in a dry summer such as we’ve had this year; rains eventually come. Too many permaculturalists are liable to spend their first few permaculture years admiring their efficient and attractive use of space and all the years hence cursing all the cutting and weeding needed to keep growth of various plants in balance. What I need are some straight lines and a little elbow room.

“Forest gardening,” growing and eating from your planted forest, is receiving growing interest within permaculture circles. As you might guess, I’m also not a forest gardener, despite my integration of fruiting trees, which do come from forests somewhere, as well as chestnuts, English walnuts, black walnuts, buartnuts, and other nutty things, into my landscape. But a forest I have not. And the ground beneath my trees is not planted with herbs and vegetables on which I can nibble. It’s mowed grass or mulch.

I grow my own fruits and vegetables because I want quality, quality in flavor and quality in nutrition. I’m growing my own fruits and vegetables because I think it’s not environmentally sound to grow these foods on distant farms, often in monocultures, and then ship them to stores where they sit before being purchased and eaten. I grow my own fruits and vegetables so that I can eat them fresh, very fresh. (Lettuce left over from dinner? Into the compost pile it goes.) I don’t even want to have to drive to a local farm for my produce. I want to grow enough to be able to heap my plate. I don’t want to grow a nibble here and there.

So what could I call my method of gardening? “Pitchfork gardening?” A large part of what I do begins with my soil, and the secret to good soil is plenty of organic materials, such as compost, straw, leaves, and kitchen scraps. These materials and the humus they become feed soil microorganisms, act like a sponge to cling to moisture, clump together soil particles to help aerate the soil, decompose to release nutrients to feed the plants, release compounds that release nutrients from native minerals to feed the plants, and have other wondrous and beneficial effects known and unknown.

Some people like to use compost tea and various “liquid humus” products. Fuhget about it! Much of the benefits of organic materials come from their bulk, and the way to move these materials, on a garden scale, at least, is with a pitchfork. Now, if only “pitchfork gardening” was more euphonious and didn’t sound like work. Suggestions for other names are welcomed.

Friday, September 3, 2010

And the winner is . . . Cherokee Purple. At my recent tomato growing workshop, we also did a tomato tasting. I cut tomatoes, passed out slices, and everyone rated each variety on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being best. The rating was strictly for flavor, to me the most important quality in a home-grown tomato. I try to grow only the best-tasting varieties each year; we tasted some of these varieties as well as a few others I got from Four Winds Farm in Gardiner, NY, a farm that specializes in heirloom varieties.

Here are the ratings, representing a rough average of workshop attendees’ opinions with, I admit, a heavier weighting from me, because I plan to use the ratings to determine which varieties to grow and not to grow next year. Soldacki and Yellow Brandywine: 3; Carmello: 5; Goldie Yellow and Krim: 6; Blue Beech and Belgian Giant: 7: Black Brandywine, Prudens Purple, Rose de Berne, and Black Cherry: 8; and Anna Russian and Cherokee Purple: 9.

Next year, I am only planting 7s or better. Why 7s and 8s, and not only 9s? Because I know that Blue Beech (7) makes a very good sauce and the Belgian Giant (7) we tasted was perhaps not quite up to its usual snuff. As for the 8s, they might not be quite as good as the 9s but they are nonetheless excellent varieties. I’ll also grow Sun Gold cherry tomato, which is so good as to not even require testing, and San Marzano, which I know tastes awful fresh but is heavenly cooked. I’ve grown Amish Paste for years but, for some reason, forgot to include it in this survey. No matter, it’s a flavorful tomato both fresh and cooked.

This informal survey does, of course, reflect opinions. Interestingly, the testers were divided into those who enjoy sweet tomatoes and those who enjoy tomatoes with more of a bite. I’m mostly in the latter group.


It’s becoming a fruitful time of year in the garden, literally. The second crop of Caroline “everbearing” raspberries started to ripen around the middle of this month. (So-called everbearing raspberries, in fact, bear two crops each ear, the first one on 2-year-old canes in midsummer and the second crop at the ends of new, growing canes in late summer and on into fall.) In the greenhouse, figs also have begun to ripen. This crop is the first and only one for Brown Turkey and Kadota figs, and the second, or main crop, for Green Ischia. Fig ripening will continue through September.

Everything got off to an early start this year, and ripening has been hastened by abundant heat and sunlight, so other fruits are ripening earlier than usual. Grapes, including Swenson’s Red, Alden, Briana, Campbell’s Early (of course), and possibly mislabeled Lorelei and Reliance, have begun ripening. We have even been eating our ripe first apples of the season, the variety Ellison’s Orange, which originated in England about 1890. The flesh is a bit mushy unless picked just before full ripeness but has a very pleasant, yet not overpowering, flavor of anise in amongst its sweet-tartness.

We also had our first good pear of the season, the variety Harrow Delight, which it is. (Harrow is an agricultural research station in Canada.) The flavor is very similar to Bartlett, which ripens 2 weeks after Harrow Delight. In previous years, we have had pears in July, from Doyenne du Juillet, but those pears were tiny and mostly of interest for ripening in July.


(This) man cannot live by bread alone, so I was pleasantly surprised when mowing the lawn, something I haven’t had to do for weeks, to come upon some spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa). It was as if someone had dropped a large patch of fresh-looking, pale, pinkish purple blossoms with feathery petals right on top of the browned grass. Okay, it’s a weed, described as an “aggressive,

introduced weed species that rapidly invades pasture, rangeland and fallow land and causes a serious decline in forage and crop production.” But that description was from North Dakota and I’m not interested in forage and crop production from my lawn.

Nobody has anything bad to say about New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), which is not invasive here in New York or anywhere else. It’s a tall weed branching into many stems, each capped with pretty tufts of deep purple flowers. The plant is growing in a wet area home to another another purple flower, purple loosestrife, which is invasive. I’m proud to have New York ironweed growing here because although widespread, it’s not common, typically showing up in patches here and there across its native range throughout eastern U.S.