Friday, November 26, 2010

And I thought I was just about finished for the year. Ha! The long farmden “to do” list I made early this morning makes a mockery of such thinking. No particular rush for any one thing on the list although once snow falls almost everything will need to be pushed forward to next spring. Shudder the thought. I know what spring is like.

Perhaps today I’ll begin with the small meadow on the south side. It -- or part of it -- needs mowing, which I used to do with a scythe. That much mowing of the dense mix of grasses and perennials was a bit much for a scythe, resulting in tennis elbow (scythe elbow?) a few years ago. Nowadays a tractor and brush hog make quick work of the mowing.

People sometimes ask if I’m going to expand my plantings into the meadow, to which I reply with an emphatic, “No!” The meadow is already home to a row of dwarf apple trees, a row of hardy kiwis and grapes, a row of pawpaws and black currants, a row of filberts, and a few chestnut trees. Any more planting and this will be a farm rather than a farmden.

I’m also leaving most of the meadow intact because of a promise I made to my daughter when she was 8 years old and enthralled with Laura Ingalls Wilder. That meadow had to stay as Genevieve’s prairie.

Anyway, leaving a bit of wildness seems like a good thing, a foil for all the coaxing and manipulating of plants I cultivate. "In wildness is the preservation of the world," wrote Thoreau. I agree.

The meadow does get some care in the form of a once a year mowing. Mowing keeps vines and shrubs from invading, the first step to becoming a forest. Although it would be nice to have the mowing out of the way before spring, the tawny, old grasses and dried seed heads of goldenrods and bee balm are nice to look at through winter. So the portion in view from the dining table remains unmowed except for some welcoming paths I’ll cut through the chest high sea of dry stems.


American persimmon fruits would never sell, especially this time of year when the golfball sized orbs hang shriveling on branches. Even their bright, persimmon orange color has faded on its way to an unappealing purplish gray. “Americans eat with their eyes,” bemoaned Cornell’s apple breeder to me many years ago.

The taste of American persimmons and the effort needed to grow them should put this tree near the top of anyone’s must-grow plant list. Southerners familiar with this native plant might turn their noses up at persimmons if they’ve tasted only wild ones. The secret to a delectable persimmon is to grow a named variety and, this far north, one that will reliably ripen its fruit within our growing season. My two choices are the varieties Szukis and Mohler. Mohler started ripening in August and Szukis, which began in September, will be good for a few more weeks. Neither variety needs the separate male pollinator tree that wild persimmons need in order to fruit.

These top-notch American persimmons are kin to Asian persimmons seen in markets, with a few notable differences. American persimmons are smaller, softer (much too soft to ship commercially), and richer in flavor. Imagine a dried apricot that’s been soaked in water, dipped in honey, then given a dash of spice. That’s American persimmon at its best. All this from a tree that’s pretty, doesn’t need pruning, and has no pests worth bothering about.

(For more about both Asian and American persimmons, their history, their cultivation, their propagation, their use, and their varieties, see my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” . . . this year in the garden for peppers (with apologies to Charles Dickens).

For best reliability and flavor, and early ripening to red, Sweet Italia has, for decades been the pepper to grow. This year, fruit set was poor and many peppers rotted before they ripened. Intense heat at critical moments this summer could have hampered fruit set. Sweet Italia is a floppy plant and, for the first time this year, I neglected to prop the plants upright in conical tomato cages. Flowers too hidden from insect pollinators and fruits close to or on the ground are also likely contributors to this year’s problems.

It was the best of times for a couple of new pepper varieties I grew: Big Red and Mariachi, both semi-hot peppers, the first one long and thin and the second one cone-shaped, both ripening to red. These two varieties did get staked.

Big Red was the big winner, ripening oodles of peppers, enough to eat, to freeze, to hang up indoors and dry, and to have ripe and “fresh,” even now, from almost ripe fruit brought indoors a couple of weeks ago. The same could be said for Mariachi, but yields were lower. Both taste very good and the hotness can be regulated by including more or less of the seeds and inner membrane, the seat of hotness, when eating or cooking them. Ar-r-r-r-iba.

Friday, November 19, 2010

For better or worse, nurseries and seed companies each year send me a few plants or seeds to try out and perhaps write about. The “for better” part is that I get to grow a lot of worthwhile plants. The “for worse part” is that I have to grow some garden “dogs.” (I use the word “dogs” disparagingly, with apologies to Leila and Scooter, my good and true canines.) Before my memory fades, let me jot down impressions of a quartet of low, mounded annuals that I trialed this year.

Calibrachoa Superbells Blackberry Punch was billed as heat and drought tolerant, which it was. As billed, it also was smothered in flowers all summer long. It’s a petunia relative and look-alike. Still, I give it thumbs down. But that’s just me; I don’t particularly like purple flowers, and especially those that are purple with dark purple centers.

I’ll have to give Verbena Superbena Royale Chambray a similar thumbs down. It’s that purple again, light purple in this case. Also, the plants weren’t exactly smothered with flowers and most prominent, then, were the leaves which were not particularly attractive.

Golddust (Mecardonia hybrid) made tight mounds of small yellow flowers nestled among small yellow leaves. I give this one a partial thumbs up. The flowers were too small and there weren’t enough of them even if the leaves alone did make pleasant, lime green mounds.

And finally, a rousing thumbs up for Goldilocks Rocks (Bidens ferulifolia). This plant also was a low mound of tiny leaves, needle-shaped this time. Sprinkled generously on top of the leaves all summer long were sunny yellow blooms, each about an inch across and resembling single marigolds. Flowering was nonstop, even up through the many recent frosts here, right down to 24° F.

Bidens in the the’ botanical name caused me slight pause when I planted Goldilocks, not because of any political reservations, but because the common name for this genus is sticktight, or beggartick. You know those half-inch, flat, 2-pronged burrs that attach to animals -- and, inconveniently, your socks -- when you walk through wild meadows? Those are Bidens, trying to spread. (Not to be confused with the round, marble-size burs of burdock.) No problem with Goldilocks Rocks that lined my vegetable garden paths. The flowers were too low to reach any higher than my shoes.


I’m always amazed at how much cold plants can tolerate this time of year. Even with last night’s low of 18° F., unprotected plants are still hanging on. They look frosty this morning but will defrost gradually as the sun rises higher in the sky, and by afternoon look as perky as they did a month ago. Not cucumber, tomato, or pepper plants, of course; they’ve been cleared out of the garden for a couple of weeks.

Still looking and tasting good are arugula, spinach, leaf lettuces, turnips, radishes, and, of course, mâche. Mâche, although tasting and appearing delicate, will last all winter, even growing whenever temperatures warm up a little. Pot marigolds and snapdragons have also been unfazed by the cold, and, besides being alive, actually look the part. ‘Mums also would be unfazed, if I grew them, which I don’t because they look frozen in time rather than alive.


There’s even fruit still out in the garden. I found a few overlooked hardy kiwifruits (Actinidia arguta) still hanging on the vines. Most people are surprised that I can grow kiwifruits. I can’t; it’s too cold here. But I can grow hardy kiwifruits, which are very cold hardy.

The vines, originally from Asia, were introduced into this country about a hundred years ago as ornamentals. Apple-green leaves with red stalks and peeling, gray bark were enough to wow gardeners. For decades, people admired the beauty of the vines without noticing the fruits.

About 30 years ago, people began to realize that there were edible fruits among them thar’ leaves. The fruits are diminutive cousins to the fuzzy kiwifruits seen in markets. Hardy kiwifruits, though, have smooth, edible skins, and everyone who tastes them agree that they have better flavor. You just pop them into your mouth as you do grapes.

Hardy kiwifruits also are easy to grow. They are vigorous vines so need to climb a trellis or arbor. You also need a male plant to pollinate up to 8 females. Annual pruning, similar to grape pruning, is needed to keep the plants in bounds and make the fruits bountiful and easy to pick.

I consider the plants so worthy of attention that I devoted a chapter to the history, growing, propagation, and varieties of them and their kin in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.

Friday, November 12, 2010

“It ain't over 'til it's over” said Yogi Berra, and so says I. Yes, the outdoor gardening season is drawing to a close around here, but I have a checklist (in my head) of things to do before finally closing the figurative garden gate.

Trees, shrubs, and woody vines can be planted as long as the ground remains unfrozen. To whit, I lifted a few Belaruskaja black currant bushes from my nursery row and replanted them in the partial shade between pawpaw trees. A Reliance grape vine, also in the nursery row, is now where the Dutchess grape -- berries too small and with ho-hum flavor -- grew a couple of months ago. And today a couple of black tupelos are moving out from the nursery row to the edge of the woods, where their crimson leaves, the first to turn color, can welcome in autumn each year.

Kale, lettuce, endive, turnips, radishes, leeks, and celery still grow in the vegetable garden, but many beds are vacated for the season. Any remaining old plants will become food for the compost pile and the cleared off beds will then get a one-inch dressing of crumbly, brown compost from last year.

Freezing weather would burst the filter, pressure regulator, and timer for the drip irrigation system, so these components have been brought indoors. The rest of the system stays in place.

The drip system may now be out of commission but plants still need occasional water. Especially on a day like today, with bright sunlight and temperatures rising to 75° F. This meant hand watering or reconnecting the drip system, minus the timer and company, and turning it on and off manually. A half an hour every day or two should quench plants’ thirsts in these bursts of warm weather.


Making compost for use next year, same time, same place, is also on my checklist. Especially today, so the compost creatures within the pile can take advantage of lingering warmth in the air to work overtime. A pile that gets hot cooks to death all the weed seeds and pests that hitchhike into the pile on what I throw in. And I throw in everything, in spite of admonitions from “experts” to keep diseased or insect-ridden leaves, stems, or fruits out of compost piles.

So today, after loading horse manure, with wood shavings bedding, into my truck pitchforkful by pitchforkful, I drove home and unloaded everything pitchforkful by pitchforkful into my compost bins. Each bin got a lot more than a restricted died of just the horse manure mix, though. I alternated layers of manure with mowings (scythings, in fact) from my small hayfield, wetting down each layer well and sprinkling occasional layers with soil, for bulk, and ground limestone, to counteract soil acidity.

Manure is not a necessity for good compost. The manure furnishes nitrogen, one of the two main foods of compost microorganisms. Some of my piles get that nitrogen from soybean meal, an animal feed usually meant for creatures that you don’t need a microscope to see. Early in the season, young grasses and weeds, which are high in nitrogen, do the same. And truth be told, any pile of plant material, if left long enough, will turn to compost. The nitrogen helps the material chug along faster on its way to compost, and the faster they work, the hotter it gets.


Actually, I’ll be feeding my last compost pile of the season all winter long. Just a little at a time, mostly scarps and vegetable trimmings from the kitchen with occasional toppings of leftover hay. Adding stuff slowly to a compost pile doesn’t let enough critical mass build up for heat, and especially not in winter’s cold.

No matter. I just let piles that don’t heat up sit longer before I use them. It’s the combination of time and temperature that does in all the bad guys that hitchhike into my compost piles. So 1 hour at 140° F. might have the same deadly effect as a week at 115° F. My hot piles sit for a year before I use them; the cold piles cook longer. It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

In? Out? In? Out? I can’t decide where to grow the two pitcher plants that I got at Broken Arrow Nursery a few weeks ago. One of them, purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), is quite cold hardy so could -- should -- survive outdoors in the ground. The other, Scarlet Belle (S. wrigleyana), is less cold hardy, but could probably rough it through our winters. Both plants, and especially Scarlet Belle, with pale white leaves having prominent, deep-purple veins, are so spectacular that I’d hate to lose either one.

These plants are as fascinating as they are attractive. Their leaves are long, vertical tubes that, with their purplish color and nectar, entice insects within. Once inside, insects can’t climb out because of the stiff, downward-pointing hairs on the sidewalls. Eventually the insects drown in the pool of water that collects inside the tube, to be digested by enzymes from the flower, helped along, especially as a leaf ages, by resident bacteria, rotifers, and other organisms. Once everything has been pre-digested, the plant can eat.

So, where to plant these gems? Indoors, in pots in a cool, sunny room? Or outdoors, in the ground?

I think my two plants will be happier outside as long as I long can find the proper spot for these rather site-finicky plants. Their needs: full to partial sunlight and a very acidic soil that is consistently wet, high in humus, and low in nutrients. Well, that turns out to be just the conditions in the bed along the east side of my house that is home to lowbush blueberry, lingonberry, mountain laurel, huckleberry. and rhododendron.

The bed is not quite wet enough for the pitcher plants so I’m going to bury a saucer, such as used beneath potted plants, a foot or so in the ground beneath each plant. The saucers will act as in-ground reservoirs to collect and hold water. The veined leaves of the pitcher plants should echo nicely the speckled flowers of hellebore that bloom further back in that bed. Both kinds of flowers are eerily beautiful.


Call me a cotton pickin’ fool if you want. Yes, I did try to grow cotton in this cotton-unfriendly climate. I won’t admit to the “fool” part, but I surely am “cotton pickin”. Harvest has begun. Four plants, four ripe bolls. I could easily triple that yield if I brought the 18-inch-high plants indoors or into the greenhouse to finish ripening the rest of their bolls. And this is no fish story, of which cotton has had its share. In medieval Europe, cotton was imported but people had no idea from whence the fibers came. That was clarified in 1350 by John Mandeville, who explained: “There grew there [India] a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie.”

To be of use, my cotton will need to be processed. First, I’ll pluck out the seeds, something that would be easier if I had a cotton gin. I can do without; four bolls won’t be too much trouble. Then comes carding, to clean and align the fibers. Card clothing, as the tool for carding is called, is made from closely spaced wire pins embedded in a sturdy rubber backing. I remember, as a child, seeing women in white cotton caps pulling cotton strands apart with such tools at historic colonial sites. The wire brushes I have for cleaning sheddings from my dogs might the perfect stand-in for card clothing.

(Even more authentic would be to card using teasel plants, which occasionally grow wild along sunny roadsides. The word “carding” comes from carduus, Latin for teasel.)

Once carded, the fibers can be twisted and pulled into one, continuous strand. Finally, weave. Sounds like a lot of work for an organic, home-grown handkerchief!


Remember my bagged grapes, the ones in bags on which happens to be stamped the words “Fresh Delicious Wholesome Baked Goods?” Those bags have done their job well of fending off insects, diseases, and birds so the bunches can hang a really long time.

I thought the grapes were all eaten, but yesterday, discovered an overlooked, bagged bunch. The red Reliance grapes within didn’t have a lot of eye appeal, having started to shrivel and turned very dark. But their flavor was supreme, the result of being very ripe and, perhaps, exposure to a few frosts.