Friday, October 29, 2010

Saturday night, October 9th, while I was enjoying myself at a friend’s party around a bonfire, my garden experienced it’s first autumn frost. Temperatures plummeted to about 28 degrees F. The frost was not unexpected, so basil and pepper plants had been draped with old blankets and other pieces of cloth, the two pressure regulators and filters for drip irrigation lines had been swaddled in additional scraps of cloth, and any tender houseplants had been brought indoors or moved to protected places.

My low lying patch of ground in the Wallkill River Valley is a particularly cold spot. Still, twenty-eight degrees was colder than I expected; many nearby gardens didn’t even experience light frost. Despite the covers, peppers and basil were blackened by frost.

Yet I wasn’t disappointed. On average, the first killing frost of fall strikes even earlier than October 9th around here. (The date for Albany, NY, for which temperature records have been compiled for decades, is around September 19th; adding a degree or two for my more southerly garden still puts the average first frost date back more than a week.) So my garden got an extra couple of weeks or so of frost-free weather.

Also, with cooler weather and lowering sun, peppers, tomatoes, basil, and other summer vegetables have been petering out anyway. I’ve had my fill of summer vegetables, helped along by knowing about 40 quarts of canned tomatoes, half a dozen quart jars stuffed with dried tomatoes, and the few quarts of canned salsa on shelves in the basement.

The garden is far from over. I’m now reaping what I sowed, beginning back in July and continuing into September, of lettuce, endive, radishes, turnips, spinach, and other vegetables that enjoy this cool, even frosty, weather. Last night we enjoyed a delicious stir fry including kale and leeks, and a salad overflowing with lettuces, arugula, radishes, parsley, and carrots.


The now sad-looking tomato vines, the result of the October 9th freeze, and another one on the 12th, just have to go. Not only do they cast a funereal pall on the otherwise lush scene, but also could provide inoculum for tomato diseases next year. Not the blackened vines per se, but any old tomato vines, leaves, and fruits.

So one one by one I cut the vines free of their bamboo or metal stakes and toss every bit of tomato debris into the garden cart. The ground is littered with fallen and rotting fruits; they also get gathered up. Even any dried, old leaves that catch my eye.

The leaf spotting diseases, septoria and early blight, wait out winter on tomato debris -- not tomato roots, though -- and then awaken in spring to lob spores of these infections onto new plants. Besides a thorough cleanup, blanketing the ground each fall, after cleanup, with a 1 inch depth of compost also limits new infections by putting a barrier between spores and next year’s plant. And next year, as I do each year, I’ll plant tomatoes where tomatoes haven’t grown for the previous two years.

All these machinations do nothing for late blight disease, which devastated tomato plants throughout the Northeast last year. Spores of late blight hitchhike up here from overwintering sites in the South when winds, temperatures, and humidity are just right.


A new bad boy has turned up “on the block:” Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum). It’s been slowly invading the Eastern half of the country for awhile, first documented in Tennessee in 1919, probably after arriving from Asia in some packing material for porcelain.

You don’t have to search far to find this bad boy. Just look for a sprawling grass that typically grows on the edges of and within the woods. It would grow a couple of feet or more high if it didn’t sprawl. Look more closely and you’ll see that the 3-inch-long leaf blades each has a distinct, silvery midrib. Flower spikes rise in late summer, which is also when the whole plants begin to develop a purple tinge.

Stiltgrass is an annual (like beloved crabgrass, native to Europe) so one way to control it is by mowing in late summer, just when it flowers, to prevent its re-seeding. Mowing earlier in the season just lets it regrow and flower -- and make seed -- more quickly. In small patches, the plant is easy to just grab and rip out of the ground, especially later in summer.

Friday, October 22, 2010

I don’t know if was a case of green thumbness or the weather, but my bed of endive is now almost as frightening as a zucchini planting in summer. That bed, 3 feet wide by 20 feet long, is solid green with endive plants, each and every plant looking as if it’s been pumped up on steroids.

I sowed seeds in 4 by 6 inch seed trays around August 1st, “pricked” out the seedlings into individual growing cells filled with homemade potting soil about a week later, and thence transplanted into the garden in the beginning of September. That bed had been home to one of this summer’s planting of sweet corn (Golden Bantam), a heavy feeder, so after clearing the corn I slathered the bed with an inch depth of pure compost.

Perhaps the vigor of these plants also reflects the extra space I gave them. In years past I would cram 3 rows into a 3-foot-wide bed. Because we never can eat all the endive I plant, this year I planted only 2 rows down that bed. Hating to see any wasted space in the garden, I set a row of lettuce transplants, now eaten, up the middle of the bed. The endive plants have opportunistically expanded to fill whatever space they can.

Fortunately, there’s no rush to eat all that greenery. The bigger they get, the more the endives’ leaves fold in on themselves to create blanched, succulent leaves of a loose head. Upcoming cooler weather also brings out the best flavor in these plants. After being covered with clear plastic, which I’ll support with a series of metal hoops, the endive should remain flavorful for weeks to come. That’s assuming the muscular plants can be fit beneath the hoops and plastic.

I do have a Plan B: Just as zucchini bread was invented as a way to deal with zucchini excess, white bean and escarole soup might be just the ticket for my escarole “problem.”


Another bed, planted from seed sown on August 15th, is also full of greenery. Not nearly as dense, though, which is okay because that bed is planted for its roots. Up that bed run 2 rows of turnips and one row of winter radishes.

I hardly ever see the turnip and radish bed because it’s hidden beneath a “floating row cover” (from Johnny’s Selected Seeds) to block the root maggots that typically tunnel into many -- too many -- of my turnip and radish roots. Beneficial nematodes, purchased in spring, provided no protection against these pests in my spring plantings.

Floating row covers, which let water, light, and air pass through, are so lightweight that they can be just laid on top of the ground to be pushed up by growing plants. I made it even easier on my plants by propping the covers up with the same kinds of metal hoops that will hold the clear plastic over the endive bed. With its present white cover, the bed looks like a sleeping, giant, white caterpillar.

Peaking beneath the cover, I see that the turnip and radish greenery looks very healthy, absent even from flea beetle holes that usually pock some of the leaves. But poking my finger into the ground beneath the leaves, I have yet to feel any large roots. Shouldn’t they be there by now? The weather has begun to cool and sunlight is at a premium. I’ll check back in a couple of weeks.


Every morning I look down from my second story bedroom window at the garden. Closest in view is the bed of endive; looking further back, across where that giant, white caterpillar sleeps, my eyes come to the back of the garden, where a row of tall, thin evergreens stand sentry to block the view of the compost piles. Those evergreens, spires of the Emerald variety of arborvitae, are mundane. I like them.

These trees are at their upper limit of 15 feet high and 5 feet wide, and create a perfect screen without needing too much elbow room. They’re also perfect for injecting a bit of civility to an otherwise disheveled scene. Some arborvitaes turn a muddy green in winter but Emerald keeps its vibrant green color.

A recent visit to a nursery inspired me to expand my spires. I had a plant credit as partial payment for a presentation I did at Broken Arrow Nursery (in Hamden, CT), and among their very interesting plants was a juniper variety called Gold Cone. This plant matures at 10 feet tall with a spread of a mere 3 feet. Livening things up is the gold coloration at the tips of it branches.

The 5 Gold Cone plants already have a home slated for them. No, where can I plant the 4 Graham Blandy boxwoods, another spire-y plant, this one rising slowly grow to 9 feet tall without spreading more than a couple of feet wide.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I had a most fruitful -- and I mean this very literally -- experience. I visited one of the USDA’s germplasm repositories. A “germplasm repository” doesn’t sound like the kind of place anyone would want to be, but these USDA repositories are, in fact, sunny, colorful places, often redolent with enticing aromas. In the case of the one I visited, the aroma was of ripening apples.

Germplasm is the stuff that gives rise to an organism, and the USDA has set up repositories around the country to house various kinds of plants. Each repository is situated where a particular group of plants grows well. So Davis, California is home to the repository for figs, pomegranates, and Asian persimmons; Corvallis, Oregon is the repository for pears, gooseberries, and mint; and Geneva, New York, where I visited, houses the collections of apples and American-type grapes. (My own gooseberry collection helped build the gooseberry collection at Corvallis about 20 years ago.) Taking into account seed collections and other, related work, these repositories maintain over 20,000 accessions of plants representing over 300 species. Germplasm from these collections is available to scientist and other interested citizens, which is how I obtained grafting wood to make most of the approximately 2 dozen varieties of apples that I grow.

So there I was -- a fruitophile -- standing with clipboard in hand and camera slung around my neck in in a field of apple trees, each one a different variety. My mission: Photograph and collect 3 to 4 samples of a couple of dozen varieties. What sweet labor! (I had previously contacted the repository staff and received permission).

Up and down the rows I went, photographing, collecting, and, of course, tasting. Apples have been cultivated for so long and are so popular a fruit that it’s no wonder that such great variation exists in the fruits’ appearances and flavors. Flavors include anise-flavored Ellison’s Orange, sweet Mollie’s Delicious, spicy-tart Cox’s Orange Pippin, and everything in between and beyond. The range in color goes from gray-brown Pomme Grise to cheery red-splashed yellow King of the Pippin. And then there are variations in fruit size and shape and, less obvious, characteristics such as pest resistance, productivity, and cold tolerance.

Most important, to me, is flavor. I should have brought a palate cleanser because after a while all the varieties were beginning to taste like . . . well . . . apples. Nonetheless, two varieties that I do not grow did stand out for flavor; I’ll be ordering grafting wood of Chestnut Crab and King of the Pippins to graft onto trunks of my Ingrid Marie trees once I lop her top off.

After the apples, there were grapes to photograph and sample.


Boy, would I love to tidy things up with some pruning now. The lilac bush would look nicer in coming months with those couple of tall, gawky stems cut off or back. Grape and hardy kiwi stems are reaching out all over the place, grabbing onto each other and anything else they can wrap around. The pear trees are developing a nice spreading form -- except for watersprouts shooting vigorously skyward from the uppersides of some of the spreading branches. How nice it would be to cut these plants back now rather than in spring.

But I’m going to restrain myself from doing any pruning. As stated in The Pruning Book (by me!), “Although immediate regrowth rarely occurs after late summer or autumn pruning, cells right at the cut are stirred into activity to close off the wound. Active cells are liable to be injured by cold weather, which is a reason to avoid pruning in late summer or autumn except in climates with mild winters or with plants that are very hardy to cold.”

The gooseberries and currants are very cold hardy plants and begin growth relatively early in spring. All of which makes a good case for pruning those plants now.


Rather than prune, a good place to re-channel that “tidy everything up” energy is in the vegetable and flower garden.

Cleaning up is one way to lessen pest problems next year. As I pulled out spent bush bean plants, I gingerly placed them into the garden cart and, from there, onto the compost pile, trying not to disturb the resident bean beetles. Those bean beetles had hoped to spend the winter on site, to emerge next spring and lay eggs on next year’s bean plants. I’m hoping to “cook” as many of them as possible in the compost pile.

Tomato plants are looking a bit ragged even though they’re still bearing plenty of tomatoes for fresh eating. Gathering up all stems, leaves, and old fruits and composting them reduces the inoculum load out in the garden ready to infect next year’s plants. It’s not a question of eradication, which isn’t possible, but of balance.

Cutting down old peony stems and composting them takes inoculum for next years botrytis disease off-site. Left to infect plants next spring, botrytis could keep peony flower buds from unraveling.

As Charles Dudley Warner wrote over a hundred years ago (in My Summer in the Garden, which I highly recommend and is much more than a gardening book), “the closing scenes are not necessarily funereal . . . a garden . . . goes into winter-quarters . . . neat and trim . . . so that its last days shall not present a scene of melancholy ruin and decay.” Not everyone would agree. There’s also something to be said for the garden left a little wilder. It’s not for me, though.

Friday, October 8, 2010

This year, I’m determined minimize the number of scale insects that hitchhike into my home as I bring potted citrus, gardenia, and orchid plants indoors. So beginning 3 weeks ago, every Monday I started dousing the plants with a relatively nontoxic spray, soap. (Nontoxic to just about everything except those scale insects, that is.)

Soap is a contact killer for insects, causing death by collapsing cell membranes, resulting in contents leaking out of cells and dehydration. Sounds gruesome, eh? It’s that or letting the scale insects weaken plants and drip their sticky honeydew, which they exude, on leaves, furniture, and carpet through winter. Fungi then move in to gobble up the honeydew, casting a dark shadow wherever it has dripped. Sounds worse, eh?

Scales are tough little critters protected for much of their life beneath a protective shell while they sit in place sucking the sap out of a plant. They’re most susceptible to the effects of soap before they find a place to settle down, put up their shell, and eat. That’s why I’ve sprayed every week. I want to get newly hatched ones while they are in transit looking for a new home.

Traditionally, gardeners have used various kinds of hand soaps for killing insects. Commercially available “insecticidal soaps” have a slightly different and more effective formulation. I couldn’t find my commercial insecticidal soap, so I just mixed up some liquid castille soap (similar to Dr. Bronner’s) at two and a half tablespoons per gallon and sprayed that instead. I finally found my container of commercial ‘Safer Insecticidal Soap’ this week and will use it for these last couple of sprays.

After the next spray, I’ll thoroughly drench the leaves and stems of the plants with water and then move the plants indoors. Scale insects are hard to eradicate, so I’ll keep an eye on the plants in the coming months and spritz them with more soap if needed.


Mexican bean beetles are one immigrant that should have been deemed illegal and not been allowed to cross our borders. Of course, beetles are hard to stop. And they’ve been around a long time -- they were in the Southwest back in 1850 -- so could be considered naturalized.

This year I may have neglected this problem, which shows up every year in my garden, for too long. Or, perhaps the beetles have been more voracious than most years. Either way, leaves of my bean plants are lacy from beetle banquets.

All because of the beetles, I had to give up growing pole beans years ago. Pole beans’ long season provided too continuous a food supply for the beetles. So these days I grow bush beans, making 3 or 4 plantings at intervals through the growing season, pulling out and composting older plantings as soon as they get too many beetles on them. This year’s especially bad infestations of bean beetles also might be the result of my sowing new plantings too close to older plantings.

Beetles notwithstanding, I have not yet had my fill of beans. It’s too late for another sowing, of course, but a couple of weeks ago thought it might still be worth trying to kill the pest. Back again to that ‘Safer Insecticidal Soap.’ The soap is most effective against soft-bodied insects so should shrivel up the voracious, soft-bodied yellow larvae. Perhaps it would also kill the adult beetles.

Too late. This late in the season, there’s not enough light and some days not enough warmth to get the bean plants to sprout new leaves and beans. Into the compost pile they go -- along with the beetles.

One nice thing about growing a diversity of fruits and vegetables in a home garden is that, despite bugs, drought, or other agricultural calamities, there’s always plenty of something to harvest. Even with the worst case scenario of a beetle-induced end to this year’s bush beans, my scarlet runner beans, a different species of bean and planted mostly as ornamentals, are still bearing plenty of ugly but tasty green beans.


Some people are intimidated by orchids; I was once. Then, about 20 years ago, a local orchid enthusiast gave me some orchid plants, what must have been easy to grow orchids with the not so easy to

speak name of Odontoglossum pulchellum. Every winter, slender flower stalks emerge from among the fat pseudobulbs of these dainty plants, which I have multiplied over the years. Along those stems unfold elegant, small, whit

e flowers, fragrant and seemingly sculpted from porcelain. The flowers stay around to brighten up winter days for almost 2 months!

My orchids is just one of the over 25,000 species of orchids, from which there’s something for anyyone according to your floral likes and green thumb.

Friday, October 1, 2010

I may have committed sacrilege with the “stinking rose” last week: I planted it. The stinking rose is another name for garlic, and the recommended time for planting is around the time of autumn’s first frost, which hasn’t yet happened and isn’t in the immediate offing. In fact, to my way of thinking, I got my garlic in a little too late this year, only because I couldn’t decide where to plant it.

Once a garlic clove is planted, it starts to grow roots and usually pushes a few leaves up out of the soil. Come winter, those leaves might die back; then again, with snow cover, they might not. Other gardeners fear that dieback of leaves in winter will hurt the plants but I’ve never noticed any such bad effect. A little mulch over the plants in early winter should allay any such fears.

The more leaf growth you get from garlic before long summer days initiate bulbing, the bigger the resulting bulbs. And the more root growth that garlic makes, the more nutrients can be taken up to fuel more leaf growth. That’s why I plant garlic as early as possible, often in August. I want my plants to get started making roots as soon as possible.

Come spring, roots are in place and ready to nourish new leaves. The earlier I plant the year before, the more roots the cloves have in spring and the bigger the bulbs I harvest in summer.


Speaking of hardy bulbs possibly brings me to amaryllis, that gaudy, humongous flower more correctly called by its true botanical name, Hippeastrum, and so popular around Christmas-time. About now is when we are directed to let our potted amaryllises (I might as well use the common name) dry out and experience some cool temperatures for a few weeks. Kept thi way for a few weeks, the bulbs can be awakened in a couple of months with warmth and water to bloom again for Christmas.

Amaryllis Myth Number One is that the leaves dry out once watering ceases. The leaves never dry down, despite the assertion of so many “authorities.” I’ve let my amaryllises go without water for weeks; the leaves become flacid but remain as green as ever.

I learned what seems to be Amaryllis Myth Number Two when another gardener recently showed me his lush-growing amaryllises growing as perennials amongst other greenery blanketing a slope. Amaryllis is not supposed to be hardy outdoors where winter temperatures drop lower than zero or 10 degrees F. These were (and true Amaryllises, as opposed to Hippeastrum, definitely are). Ground cover, whether snow, mulch, or other vegetation, as well as microclimate can have great influence on how cold temperatures plummet to just a few inches below the ground.

I’m not a big fan large-flowered amaryllis so am more than willing to risk planting mine outdoors. I have a bed along the sunny, south wall of my house which has become a dumping ground for miscellaneous plants. Perhaps I’ll plant it there. Perhaps I’ll plant it in my blueberry bed in which also allegedly non-hardy gladiolus bulbs have been coming back year after year for over two decades. Either way, I won’t be seeing those gaudy, large amaryllis blooms at Christmas-time; if they survive, they’ll bloom in spring.


I had pretty much given up on fresh blueberries for the season -- after all, it’s past the middle of September. And especially this year, since everything began early, with the first blueberries ripening about the middle of June. Yet Deb came strutting into the kitchen this morning, especially proud of the overflowing bowl of blueberries and raspberries she was carrying.

The blueberries were of the variety Elliot, and they were delicious. The secret to nonstop blueberries all summer long is to plant a few varieties ripening at different intervals throughout the season.

I’ve sometimes asserted that anyone with some sunny ground who does not plant blueberries is a fool; I’d like now to extend that assertion also to raspberries. Like blueberries, the raspberries you can grow taste better than any you can buy because they can be picked truly ripe and can be of varieties selected for flavor rather than for commercial attributes. My favorite varieties are Caroline, Fallgold, and Cuthbert. Another plus for backyard raspberries and blueberries is that they needn’t be doused with the pesticide sprays to which most commercial raspberries and blueberries are exposed.

One more reason to grow raspberries and blueberries: They’re easy. Mine get mulched in autumn and pruned in spring. To fend off birds, I also cover my blueberry planting with a net, which I’ll remove within a couple of weeks, by which time I expect the blueberries really will be finished for the season.