Thursday, March 31, 2011

Another workshop -- GRAFTING -- with farmdener* and writer Lee Reich . . .

Joyce Kilmer wrote: Poems are made by fools like me; But only God can make a tree. Not so!! You and I can also make trees, by grafting.

Learn how to make your own fruit tree by the ancient art of grafting.
•The how, why, and when of grafting
•A demonstration of two types of easy and useful grafts
Topworking, which is a way to change the variety of,
or add varieties to, an established tree.
Whip-grafting, which is a way to make your own fruit tree from the start.
•Then it's your turn . . . whip graft a pear or apple tree to take home.

Date: April 17, 2011
Time: 2-5:30 pm
Place: Lee's farmden in New Paltz, NY 12561
Cost: $55 per person
Limited space so pre-registration is necessary.
For more information, contact me (Lee) through my website.
I trace my present obsession with growing carnations – big, fat, fragrant carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus) – to a movie, Jean de Florette, that I saw back in 1986. Not that I aspire to labor under the weight of hauling water long distances to care for my plants, as did Ugolin. And not that I’m hoping to get good money selling the cut flowers at a local market.

Actually, my only memories of the film are of the charming countryside of Provence, of Ugolin crouching over the plants and lavishing them with care, and of the pretty pink flowers. Come to think of it, I’m not sure Ugolin’s carnations even got as far as the flowering stage. Anyway, in my mind’s eye I see those pink blossoms and smell their spicy perfume.

With good soil and ample water, my carnations will have an easier time of it that did Ugolin’s. Too easy, perhaps. Carnations don’t need or like overly rich or wet soil. When it comes time to plant out my seedlings, I’ll recall those scenes in Jean de Florette. The ledge of soil held up by a stone retaining wall along the south side of my house will provide the good soil drainage and sunlight that suits carnations. Lavender, another plant of southern Europe that’s been growing atop that wall, will make the carnations feel right at home.

At this point, like Ugolin, I’m still carefully nurturing my young plants. They’ve just been “pricked out” of seed flats into individual cells where they’ll grow until transplant time. Forty of them!! That should provide me with plenty of seedlings to also plant other places around my yard to see how they perform.

The biggest threat to my carnations will be winter cold and wetness. And even then, these carnations, although technically perennials, are typically short-live perennials that peter out after a couple of years. Luckily, they are easy to root from cuttings, which I’ll take, as insurance, this fall.

Whether planting, picking, taking cuttings, or preparing them for winter, I’ll be hunched over my carnations and lavishing them with care, in the months ahead.

What is the attraction of southern Europe? The climate there is so different from here in the Wallkill River valley, yet I am attracted to and keep trying to grow Mediterranean plants such as carnations, figs, pomegranates, lavender, black mulberry (more about this delectable plant some other time), and rosemary. All these plants thrive in dry summers and cool, not frigid, winters; minus 18° F. was last winter’s low here.

And now artichokes. Not Jerusalem artichoke, which is a native plant bearing small, sunflower-like flowers, and tubers that some people (not I) consider tasty. I’m growing real artichokes (Cynara cardunculus).

Artichokes grow as a whorl of spiny leaves from the center of which rises a main flower stalk with smaller flower stalks branching off lower down. Like carnations, artichokes are short-lived perennials. Like carnations, they are easily propagated, in the case of artichokes by offshoots that grow at the base of the plant, so one way or another, you can have plants year after year once you have one plant.

Like carnations, the biggest threat to artichokes around here is winter wetness and cold. In the case of artichoke, cold is more than a threat. Winter cold will assuredly kill the plant unless it is protected in some way. My plan is to cover the cut-down top with a large, inverted clay flowerpot on which I’ll pile leaves or hay for insulation. That’s if the plants earn their keep before this December.

I’m growing Imperial Star artichoke which, in contrast to most artichoke varieties, will make buds its first season, especially if exposed to a week or two of temperatures around 50°F early in the season. No problem. The problem with my previous attempts with artichoke, many years ago, was that the plants bore so little and the buds were so small that I could hardly justify space for the relatively large, thistle-y plant.

One Mediterranean plant that should survive winter here is French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus). It hasn’t, even though is was growing on the sunny ledge above that wall on the south side of my house. Note to myself: Get more plants of French tarragon to try and grow again.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

PRUNING WORKSHOP, April 3rd, at my garden!!

Contact me thru my website for more details.

Summer cole slaws, steaming plates of broccoli, and kale cooked and drizzled with some olive oil, lemon juice, and toasted sesame seeds are now on their way. Seeds are sown, sprouts should be up within a few days, and a few days after that I’ll lift enough sprouts from their mini-furrows in a seed flat to fill a 40 cell tray. By May 1st, the seedlings will be big enough and will be planted out in the garden.

An early start is important with most of these plants in the cabbage family, the so-called cole crops, or crucifers. (“Crucifer” because everyone in the family bears 4-petalled, cross – “cruc” – shaped flowers.) These are plants that thrive in and taste best with cool, moist weather. The one exception is kale, which to me has a rich, sweetish, nourishing flavor even in the heat of summer. I see some still out in the garden now that the snow is receding, and will harvest it the first chance I can get through the garden gate, which, as I write, is still locked close with snow.

The cabbages and broccolis I just sowed are for early summer; the kale for spring, summer, fall, and, as long as I can get to it, winter. Fortunately, I grow backup kale, a dozen plants that enjoy the cool temperatures of the greenhouse all winter long.

Kale for this year is Dwarf Blue Scotch and Winterbor. For cabbage, I’m growing the tasty, small and pointy-headed, heirloom variety Early Jersey Wakefield. With broccoli, I’m hedging my bets. I bought a packet of mixed seed, including varieties with different harvest times, some notable for making large main head, and some notable for prolific side shoots.

Receding snow makes it easier to get to some low bushes and see what to prune. Like my currant and gooseberry bushes, which will be the first to get pruned. The reason they are first in line is because they are the first to begin growing. A few days of warm weather and their buds will all of a sudden turn green with nascent leaves about to unfold.

I prune most of these plants by a renewal method. Being shrubs, they’re always sending new sprouts, called suckers, up from ground level. Old stems do not stay virile very long, typically not bearing well after about 3 years. With renewal pruning, all stems more than 3 years old get lopped back to ground level or to low-growing vigorous, upright side branches. The stems that are the oldest are obvious because they are fattest and have the peelingest bark.

Next, I turn to the suckers. Each year, these bushes typically send up a lot of new suckers from ground level, too many, so many that they would crowd each other with age. So the other pruning needed is to reduce the number of new suckers to a half-dozen or so, saving those that are most vigorous, healthy, and upright. Finally, I shorten lanky stems that would otherwise droop to the ground, especially when loaded with a crop of berries.

What’s left after pruning, then, are a half-dozen new suckers, a half-dozen 1-year-old stems left from last year, a half-dozen 2-year-old stems form the year before last, and a half-dozen 3-year-old stems from the year before that. That’s about how the bush looks every year after being pruned, in theory, at least. Nothing’s too old and the young ‘uns have room to grow.

Pruning gooseberries is a thorny affair that demands use of leather gloves.

Most people on this side of the Atlantic (excepting Canada) don’t really know gooseberries. If they’ve experienced the fruit, they consider them all to be small, green, and tart, which, unfortunately, those most commonly offered are. In fact, gooseberries come in a wide spectrum of flavors, colors, and size.

For starters, and most importantly, gooseberries can be divided into culinary and dessert varieties. Many dessert varieties can be used for cooking, for which use they’re harvested slightly underripe.

Dessert varieties have a sweet or sweet-tart flavor. My Hinnonmakis Yellow berries are small, yellow, and sweetly reminiscent of apricot. Black Satin gooseberries are wine-red in color with a flavor much like a sweet, rich wine. Colossal, which I’ll be planting again after a 15 year hiatus, has humongous fruits with a cracking texture: the skin is firm but explodes into your mouth with an ambrosial, sweet juice when you bite into it.

Generally, gooseberries are tough plants that are easy to grow. They’ll tolerate any amount of cold and deer leave them alone. I’m looking forward to enjoying fruits of the dozen varieties I grow in July.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Get your taps in. It’s syrup weather. Maple syrup. Sunny days in the 40s with nights in the 20s should get the sap flowing.

I say “should” because I haven’t yet checked sap buckets that I hung out on the trees a few weeks ago when winter temperatures suddenly turned warm. That day was hopeful: I drilled holes an inch and a half deep, lightly hammered in the spiles, hung buckets, and attached covers over the buckets. The sweet “ping, ping, pinging” of sap hitting the bottom of the metal buckets began immediately. Nights that stayed too warm for the next few days brought sap flow to a screeching halt, and then cloudy weather followed by frigid days and nights kept it that way. But sap weather is upon us again.

My “sugar bush” amounts to only three sugar maple trees. I used to have four, but a large tree that was destined to become a truly magnificent representative of its species has begun an irreversible path to its death. “Maple decline” is a disease complex brought on by some combination of drought, soil compaction, road salt, root damage, and air pollution. Upper branches are usually the first to go, and once decline begins, secondary fungi and insects speed the process along.

I’m not sure about my tree, though, because its lower branches were the first to go. Also, the tree grows along the back edge of my property, where it’s been shielded from those usual causes for decline.

One more contributor to decline is overtapping. I plead not guilty. My declining tree is larger than the 10 inch minimum diameter for tapping, and I only tapped it once, when the tree, it turned out, was already in decline. The lack of sap flow was what prompted me to stop and notice the tree’s decline.

My three other, healthy maples might yield me three quarts of finished syrup. Probably less, because their trunks are each only about a foot across. In years to come, I’ll be harvesting more sap as these trees age and also because I’ve planted more maples. Those young ‘uns are now over 10 years old and should be big enough to tap in 10 or 20 years.

I don’t need to see the small, pebbly-skinned, orange orbs on grocers’ shelves to know that it’s kumquat season. My own Meiwa kumquat is looking very pretty, with a good crop of fruit staring out from their backdrop of glossy, forest-green leaves. I’ve trained the plant as a “standard,” that is, as a miniature tree with a crown of branches perched atop a four foot trunk.

The present crop is my best ever, and traces its success back to last spring. In previous years, I was too timid with pruning. And pruning is necessary, every year. Pruning keeps the plant from growing disproportionately large for its pot – or my house. Pruning also balances out each year’s loss of roots, needed to make space for new potting soil. The seemingly brutal treatment took place last year just as the garden awoke in yellow blossoms from daffodils.

In that daffodil-time, I shortened all the kumquat’s branches, some more dramatically than others, and removed still others completely. Then I slid the plant out of its pot and, with a sharp knife, sliced an inch of soil and roots from around the outer edge of the18-inch-wide root ball. Back into the pot the plant went, with new potting soil packed into the space between the root ball and the inner edge of the pot.

As soon as weather warmed, new sprouts began to grow. By midsummer, the plant was fragrant with blossoms. By late summer, little, green fruits were forming which, with careful watering, survived the environment change as the plant moved indoors in October. The plant stood at attention in a sunny window in the cool bedroom for weeks, and a couple of months ago, the fruits started turning orange. They are now ripe and delicious!

Don’t be surprised if you see me sporting a pink carnation in my buttonhole this summer. I want big, fat, fragrant, florists’ carnations, and I think I finally found one: Enfant de Nice. I’ve grown many “pinks,” another name for carnations, in the past, but they were always too demur. Enfant de Nice, from its descriptions, should have corpulent blooms in white and various shades of pastel pink. The fragrance, billed as “intoxicating spicy-sweet clove perfume,” sounds heady enough that it might have me unable to walk a straight line with one of those in my buttonhole.

For now, the practical must be dealt with: sowing seeds 1/2 inch deep in seed flats kept cool and moist, then moving sprouted seedlings to individual cells, and finally, after the last average frost date (mid-May), out to the garden. Pruning back stems after blossoming should keep me in boutonnières through July and August.

I just checked my maple syrup buckets. They were all full.

Friday, March 11, 2011

I’m always on the lookout for volunteers in my garden, whether they’re people, fungi, plants, or any other organisms. The relationship is usually symbiotic. Human volunteers gain some knowledge and experience; I get some help in my ever-growing farmden. Fungal volunteers work with my plants, drinking in some of the sugars and other goodies plants produce. In return, the fungi protect plants agains certain pests and, in the case of mycorrhizal fungi, fungal threads ramifying through the soil act like extensions of plants’ roots so plants can absorb more nutrients.

But what do plant volunteers get out of our arrangement? Plant volunteers usually arrive in droves so only some can stay. Those that stay get to enjoy especially good growing conditions.

Which brings me to celery. For the past few years, I’ve allowed celery in the greenhouse to go to seed each fall. The seeds drop and, within a few months, sprout to furnish plenty of seedlings for early summer celery in the greenhouse and later celery out in the garden. All of which is most welcome because celery seedlings are very slow to germinate and grow. Before celery volunteered around here, I had to sow seeds in early February in seed flats, keep the flats warm and moist until the seeds sprouted, transplant the sprouts into individual cells in another flat, and finally transplant the seedlings, after about 10 weeks of care, out into their permanent homes.

Robust celery seedling have sprouted and are now growing in a greenhouse bed and in the paths near near that bed, all without any help at all from me. I just lifted clumps of them, separated the seedlings carefully to minimize root disturbance, and “plugged” them back into the ground 8 inches apart. Pest problems are minimized because their new home is a greenhouse bed where celery hasn’t grown for the past two years. Seedlings from another clump when into individual cells of the APS Propagator; they’ll go outside into the garden in late April. I pulled a few leaves off all these transplanted seedlings so that they don’t lose too much moisture while waiting for their roots to settle into their new homes and get to work.

A lot of celery volunteers are still standing there in the paths and old celery bed. They are now weeds.

Slow germination and growth, along with the need for a very rich and constantly moist soil, make celery more of a challenge to grow than most other vegetables. Which is one reason that I grow it!

And there’s more. If seedling are exposed to temperatures that are too cold for too long (55° or less for 10 days or more), the plants bolt, sending up seed stalks instead of growing thick, succulent leaves. Older books also talk about blanching celery, that is, piling soil up around the leaf stalks so they turn pale and tender from lack of sunlight. My celery has only rarely bolted, and I never blanche it.

One reason for my success with celery (besides, I hope, a greenish thumb) is the variety I grow: Ventura, available from This variety doesn’t need blanching and is said to grow “beautiful thick crisp stalks with rich, but never harsh, flavor even in less than ideal conditions.” True.

The best celeries I’ve grown were fairly large volunteers that I moved from the greenhouse path into a greenhouse bed last fall. I covered the plants for a few days to increase humidity while the roots were taking hold. All winter, those plants have made the juiciest, longest, tastiest celery stalks ever.

Ventura has always been very good but that was the best.

Clementines are as tasty as the boxes they come in are useful. I can’t bear to throw those boxes out so have a stack of them waiting to be of use.

One box is home to my seed starting supplies: various dibbles and spatulas for lifting small seedlings to replant into larger flats; various sized pieces of plywood for firming soil in seed flats, some with dowels glued to their bottoms to lay out mini-furrows; tape and marking pens for labeling flats; popsicle sticks, also for labeling.

Two other boxes are now being used as seedling flats – for onions and leeks, sown in early February and now well on their way. Each box has 5 mini-furrows in which I sprinkled about 7 fresh onion or leek seeds per inch. The seedlings will grow in those boxes until transplant time, which is a couple of weeks before I’ll be planting out the Ventura celery.

Friday, March 4, 2011

“Make hay while the sun shines” is fine advice in its season. For winter, how about? “Prune while the snow is high and firm.”

My apple and pear trees are dwarf, ranging from seven to eleven feet tall. Even though I have a pole pruner and various long-reach pruning tools, I still carry a small stepladder out to the trees with me to work on their upper branches. Sometimes you have to get your eyes and arms and hands right up near where you’re actually cutting.

As I was looking out the window and admiring the foot and a half of snow on the ground, I realized that all that snow would give me a literal leg up on pruning. If I stayed on top of the snow, that is. So I called a friend to ask if I could borrow his snowshoes. Before I heard back the weather turned frigid and an icy crust developed sufficiently strong to support my weight. Perfect. I gathered my tools – minus the stepladder – and walked tall out to the trees.

Plants, like other creatures, have hormones, and a hormone (called auxin) in every plant generally coaxes uppermost portions to grow most vigorously. Which is why old apple trees become topheavy, with most shoot growth high up. The upshot of this habit is that most fruit is borne high in the branches, out of reach, and lower branches are shaded so are nonproductive and prone to disease.

Ideally, then, the best place to start pruning is with the most vigorous branches, highest in the tree. That’s also the last place you want to start if you’re standing at ground level. Perched atop a foot and a half of snow next to my dwarf trees, starting at the top was much easier.

I felt like I was hovering above the trees, looking at them from the perspective of ol’ Sol, which is a good perspective for a grower. I could more objectively see which branches were blocking light or otherwise cramping others for space. Letting more light and air in among the branches and, at the same time removing potential fruits with pruned branches, will channel channel more of each tree’s energy into perfecting those fruits that remain. Remaining fruits should be healthier, larger, and more flavorful.

The snow is a blank canvas that records some winter activities. My dogs’ footprints are obvious and telling. They are provincial in their travels, having beaten paths from their doghouses, where they sleep, to the driveway, where they greet humanity, and to the deck, where they lie in the sun. Less frequent are their forays out into the hay field to do their business and to see if anything interesting is creeping around out there. The small, padded footprints of the cats haven’t beaten out paths. The cats are more randomly exploring out-of-the-way nooks and crannies.

The distinctive footprints that I’m keeping the closest eye out for are those of rabbits. Now, about when I typically delude myself that all danger has past, periods of warmer weather start coaxing rabbits to wander about and eye my trees and shrubs as food. Now is also when cottontail rabbits start reproducing, the first of up to five litters for this year, with a half dozen or so bunnies per litter! Very cute, but deadly to my plants.

I expect that no aroma remains on the tree trunks from the protective coating I concocted and applied last fall. Perhaps I’ll mix up another batch of white latex paint, water, eggs, cinnamon, and hot pepper and re-apply. Rabbit traps are thoroughly and safely (for the rabbits) buried in snow. Perhaps I’ll dig them out and re-set them.

I haven’t yet seen any sign of rabbits.

The uncluttered expanse of snow makes it easy to see where I put my pruning tools as I prune the apples and pears. The snow also makes it easy to see where I drop the prunings. And why do I care where I drop my prunings? Because I can then quickly look at them to see if any bark has been gnawed off those freshly cut branches. And what would gnaw bark off those freshly cut branches. Rabbits!

No sign of rabbits – yet, at least – on those prunings as well as on tracks in the snow. I’m “blaming” the cats.