Friday, June 24, 2011

A trip through Pennsylvania last week, on the way back from a lecture at the Millersville Native Plant Symposium, finally afforded me a convenient opportunity to stop in for a visit with David Jackson at KiwiBerry Organics ( David was not easy to find, as he’s nestled deep in the hills and back roads of rural Pennsylvania near Danville. Finally, after driving past acres and acres of forest alternating with corn and soybean fields, I came upon a hillside beribboned with neatly trellised hardy kiwi plants (Actinidia arguta).

What’s a hardy kiwi, you wonder? These fruits are cousin to our fuzzy supermarket kiwifruits, with a few notable differences. Hardy kiwifruits – or “kiwiberries,” as David and his partner Holly Laubach call them – are grape-sized and have smooth skins, so can be popped into your mouth just like grapes. Inside, they’re green with black seeds, just like fuzzy kiwifruits, except that hardy kiwifruits’ flavor is much sweeter and more aromatic. (I know this from what others say and because I have about a dozen fruiting vines myself; I devoted a chapter to kiwifruits in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, available at

What really dazzled me on this visit was the beauty of the plants and the care that is lavished on each one of them. The beauty was no surprise because hardy kiwifruits, since their introduction into North America from Asia at the end of the 19th century, have been grown mostly as ornamental vines for clothing arbors and pergolas.

Lavish care further enhanced Kiwiberry Organics plants plants’ natural beauty, starting right at ground level with the neat, weed-free strips in which the plants were growing. Weeds were not kept at bay with herbicides, but with careful use of a grape hoe, pulled by a tractor, that rolls over the soil to bury weeds in the soil ridges beneath the plants. From the ground, each plant rose as a sturdy trunk up the the center of a T-trellis whose 8-foot-wide arms are joined by wires running down the length of the trellis. At trellis height, the trunks branch into two permanent arms that run along and are supported by the middle wire. Fruiting arms growing off the two fruiting arms reach perpendicularly out to the outside wires.

I’ve tasted David’s kiwiberries and can attest to their especially fine flavor, the result of careful training and pruning that lets the plants bathe in sunlight. Excess growth is pruned off throughout the growing season to reduce congestion. Fruiting shoots draping down over the ends of the outside wires are repeatedly shortened. Stems that will yield fruit-bearing shoots for the following year are positioned in readiness. All this pruning is in addition to dormant pruning in winter.

My only regret with this visit was that the plants were in flower – very pretty, but I would rather have been tasting fruit.

June 6th: My third planting of sweet corn went into the ground this morning. Rumor has it that backyard gardens are too small to make sweet corn worth planting, especially when supersweet corn is so available at farmstands and markets. Not so!

This latest corn planting went in between lettuce plants in a bed that has been home to 4 rows of early season salad fixings, including arugula, radishes, mustard, erba stella, and 4 varieties of lettuce. That bed now yields more than can be eaten on a daily basis, plus I have other beds of greenery.

So I sighted out 2 rows in the bed and every 2 ft. in each row yanked out a clump of greenery to make space for a clump – a “hill” (cluster) of 8 seeds – of sweet corn. Once those corn seeds sprout, I’ll thin the seedlings out to the best 4 plants. Once those “best 4 plants” start growing strongly, the salad fixings between them will be well past their prime and I’ll just pull them out, leaving the corn to thrive alone in the bed.

All sweet corns are not created equal, and planting sweet corn lets me choose which varieties to grow. I’m partial to old-fashioned sweet corn. It’s not nearly as sweet as modern supersweets but has a rich, corny flavor. My favorite variety, Golden Bantam, was the standard of excellence for sweet corn a hundred years ago.

Not everyone is a fan of Golden Bantam today; my friend Kit says it tastes like “horse corn.” Still growing your own corn lets you seek out and grow whatever variety you like best.

David Austin (, rose breeder extraordinaire, has done it again, with Strawberry Hill rose. Two plants of this variety went in last spring near two south-facing, brick walls. One of them, the one in more sun, is now drenched in soft, pink blooms. As with many of Mr. Austin’s roses, the flowers have the shape of old-fashioned, cottage garden roses and the bushes are full bodied and robust. I was a little disappointed in the lightness of the fragrance, “fine myrrh” for this variety. But “every rose (and even Strawberry Hill) has its thorns.” Everything else about the bush makes it a winner.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Events with Lee Reich:

VEGETABLE GARDENING WORKSHOP: How to grow lots of vegetables with little space, time, and effort. June 26th from 9-11:30. Cost is $40 and pre-registration is necessary. For registration or more information, contact me through my website.

Come and visit my garden on June 25th as well as five other local gardens as part of the “Open Days” program of the Garden Conservancy. For times, locations, and other information, contact the Garden Conservancy (

July 9th, 11 am, “Luscious Landscaping-With Fruiting Trees, Shrubs, and Vines”: Lecture at the Mountain Top Arboretum, Tannersville, NY (

July 10th, 10 am, “Luscious Landscaping”: Lecture at the Phantom Gardener, Rhinebeck, NY (

September 10, 12-2 pm, “Backyard Apple Production” at the Rodale Institute, Kutztown, PA (


It’s poppy season! Oriental poppies and Shirley poppies and California poppies. Unfortunately, no Himalayan poppies. And no bread seed poppies, yet. Each species has similarly delicate petals, yet each species also has its own character.

The Oriental poppies (Papaver orientalis), the first to open in my garden, have enormous heads of tissue paper thin petals in traffic-stopping red. I visited a garden last weekend in which were growing Oriental poppies with petals in soft pink, with white petals, or with, even more traffic-stopping than my fire engine red poppies, orange-red blossoms.

Corn poppies (P. rhoeas) are waiting their turn right next to my Oriental poppies. They have similarly fuzzy foliage but the foliage is more upright growing. And the flower heads, still closed in bud, are hanging downwards from the ends of thin, upright flower stalks. They will soon open to an intense red suggestive of blood, which is why paper reproductions of them are passed out on Memorial Day in remembrance of soldiers killed in war. These are the poppies that naturally populated the World War I battlefields and cemeteries, as immortalized in John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
On to the more cheery California poppies (Eschscholtzis californica), which blanket California hillsides with yellow flowers having just a hint of orange. These poppies grows near ground level and also keeps their flowers there.

Like corn poppies, California poppies are easily grown from seed scattered on the ground in late winter. Growing either poppy requires faith because their seeds are almost as fine as dust. Yet the plants transplant poorly, so in situ sowing is the only way to grow them. I always get an abundance of Shirley poppies sprouting. The California ones also probably sprout but most get shaded out by the surrounding, more exuberant flowers and weeds.

Bread seed poppies (P. somniferum) are also annuals, but need no sowing. They self-sow profusely on their own, so this week I spent some time un-sowing them, i.e. weeding out excess. They grow quickly, rising to cap the 2 to 3 foot high flower stalks with what look like balls of crepe paper in pink, white, and lavender, with occasion flowers having only single rows of petals.

I forgot to mention Welsh poppies (Meconopsis cambrica), which actually started to bloom a little before the Oriental poppies. I originally grew Welsh poppies only to try my hand with its genus, Meconposis. Welsh poppy is easy, even self-seeding to some degree.

Himalayan poppy (M. betonicifoliais) the Meconopsis I’ve really wanted to grow. Unfortunately, it needs cool summer temperatures. Both times I raised plants from seed, they grew well until July, when they collapsed, dead, from the heat and humidity.

Welsh poppy produces a whorl of gray-green leaves from the center of which rises a flower stalk capped by a flower whose pale salmon flowers stare straight ahead, right at you. They’re not as pretty as the clear blue of Himalayan poppies, but pretty enough, especially considering the non-effort needed to grow them.

Black locust trees burst into bloom at the end of May, in a particularly profuse display this year. Much better than the show of the blossoms was their sweet perfume suffusing the air all over the countryside.

Abundant rain and warm weather have made for a good crop of weeds this season. Their abundance was a little daunting, at first. (Yes, even to the guy that wrote a book titled Weedless Gardening. “Weedless” in, this case, means free from weed problems; I do do some weeding.)

The thing to do is to take a deep, calming breath, and do what you have to do: weed. In my garden, weeds release easily from the soft soil so I pull the few deep-rooted ones out, roots and all.

I use a hoe where a bunch of small weed seedlings are popping up, but – very important – a hoe with a sharp blade that I can skim along a fraction of an inch beneath the soil surface to separate the roots from the tops of small weeds. Being too small to have stored any energy yet, the plants die.

A number of hoes do this job well, including the colinear hoe, push hoe, scuffle hoe, pointed action hoe, stirrup hoe, wire weeder, and (the one I use) winged weeder. The thing all these hoes have in common is a sharp blade that sits parallel to the surface of the ground when you hold the handle in hoeing position. I recently realized a need for a hoe with a smaller blade that I could squeeze into the 4” row spacings in some of my vegetable beds so I bent the blade of a cheap steak knife at almost a right angle and taped and screwed its handle to a 5 foot length of bamboo.

Any of these hoes make quick and pleasant work of weeds if used regularly, which means before weeds grow big. Sometimes I’ll even run the hoe quickly down some rows before weeds even appear. This preemptive move snuffs out any weeds starting to germinate and keeps the soil surface loose.

As the season progresses, weeds will have a harder time of it because of drier soil and stiff competition from garden plants – if you and I keep on top of them now.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Have I ever mentioned my fondness for my scythe? Of course I have, but it bears repeating, now that scything season is upon us. This scythe is not the heavy, picturesque tool with a curved handle that you often see, and is best used, for decorating an outdoor wall. And it’s also not a tool best suited to the gentleman farmer with acres of land and oodles of time.

No, the scythe of present interest is a sleek, lightweight, razor sharp – dare I say “modern” – tool that would be useful around many a home and garden. The blade is sharp and light because it’s hammered out thinly, rather than stamped out like the one on an old-fashioned scythe. The razor-sharp edge needs to be touched up, which means about 30 seconds of swiping with a whetstone, after about every 15 minutes of use, and a hammering out of the edge every year.

My scythe has a straight snath, or handle, although some modern ones have curved snaths. Making a curved handle would have required more expertise and time than I had available when the curved snath I once had needed replacement. Maple wood, rather than the previous hickory wood, keeps the tool lightweight.

I use my scythe for much the same purpose as most people use a weed whacker. After years of practice, I can trim grass and weeds right up to the bases of trees and rock walls, as well as neaten up the lawn at the edge of the flower and vegetable garden. The sharp blade makes cutting possible even when the tool has to be moved slowly on those occasions where care is needed as to exactly where the end of the blade is – right up against a young tree, for example.

In contrast to the weed whacker, the scythe is quiet and gentle. Earplugs and goggles are unnecessary, and scything can be done any hour of the day without disturbing neighbors. Larger patches of grass can be mowed in weather that would bog down a lawnmower. And finally, scything is a very pleasant (and useful) physical exercise.

(I get my scything goods at

The scythe has traditionally been used to mow whole fields of grain or hay. Besides using my scythe in a weed wackeresque manner, I do use it also for a little hay, which I mow from odd corners of the property where I let the grasses and wildflowers grow tall. Last week was my first scything of the season. Depending on rainfall, the grasses and wildflowers might grow tall enough for an addition 2 or 3 mowings.

My hay doesn’t feed a flock of cows or sheep or any other domestic animal; it feeds a flock of bacteria, fungi, and other creatures in my compost piles. With air, moisture, and time, this hay, along with kitchen waste, old garden plants, and an occasional load of manure from a local stable, metamorphoses into dark, crumbly compost. The resulting witch’s brew of goodies that makes up the compost includes friendly organisms that help feed my plants and fend off plant diseases, as well as compounds that help the ground hold both water and air for plant use.

By my calculations, a one-inch depth of ripe compost should provide sufficient nutrition to keep plants happily chugging along for a whole year. A couple of years ago, I finally had enough faith in my calculations to abandon use of any other fertilizer. The compost does it all.

I’m keeping my eyes out for what flowers bloom around Memorial Day because someone I know (more on that some other time) will be getting married next year on Memorial Day and I, of course, will be growing the flowers. There’s surely no dearth of flowers – wild and cultivated – this time of year.

First to make their appearance for Memorial day were some alliums (ornamental onions) and, in the garden and in the wild, dame’s rocket. As I write, floppy stems of Oriental poppies are spreading their first of many bright red flowers with petals as fine as fairy’s shawls, and the pastel blossoms of bearded irises are unfolding in sequence along their upright stems. Columbines, wild and cultivated, are hovering above the plants on thin stalks like butterflies. Stems of cerastrium, aptly known as snow-in-summer, are spilling over a rock wall along with their small, white flowers and hoary leaves, and, at the base of another rock wall, pure yellow Stella d’Oro daylily blossoms open daily. (Individual daylily blossoms bloom for only one day.)

Moist fields are awash with yellow buttercups and pink geraniums stare out from the partially shaded edges of woods. (These geraniums are true geraniums in contrast to the potted plants which, despite being called geraniums, are really pelargoniums.)

Among shrubs, at least two of the viburnums are prominently in bloom: doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum) and American cranberrybush (V. trilobum), both with starry clusters of white flowers, flowers. In the center of each flower cluster are nonshowy, fertile flowers and around the rim lie sterile flowers that open with broad, showy petals.

One of the best flowers for vases that is now open looks to me like bachelor’s buttons. It comes up spontaneously in my garden every year; perhaps it self-seeds, perhaps its a perennial.

I’m not sure what the flower is, but it’s clear blue and produced in abundance. If it is a bachelor’s button, it was so named because the flowers lasted so long in buttonholes when bachelors when a-courting. So it may be a good cut flower but perhaps not best in a wedding bouquet.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

I broke my own rule and planted tomatoes out in the garden on May 13th. The weather was warm, the tomatoes were ready to pop out of their containers, and the bare ground seemed to cry out to be finally clothed with plants.

The correct planting date for tomatoes around here is during the last week in May, not May13th. Warm weather before the end of May can be deceiving and often, in the past (last year, for instance, has been followed by night temperatures that plummeted. That’s why I try never to go with my gut as to when to plant.

But this year seemed different. The weather had been warm for days, so the ground was warm. The weather report (not that, judging from experience, it could be trusted) didn’t call for any day or night temperatures dropping below even 50° F. Rain was forecast for the following few days, which would spare me the need to water the young plants for the few days while their roots had reached out into surrounding soil. And if low temperatures did threaten, I could quickly throw a cover over the plants or, with extended cold weather, quickly erect a wire-hoop supported tunnel of plastic over the beds.

So the tomatoes have been in the ground for a few days. The rain fell -- over 2 inches! With cloudy weather, temperatures have remained cool, in the 50s and 60s. Tomatoes are native to moderate elevations in the Andes mountains, so perhaps are enjoying this weather.

As long as I was planting tomatoes, I got on a role and started planting myriad other seedlings – zinnias, cosmos, leeks, morning glories, and sunflowers – in the ground also. Yes, it was raining, which normally makes for goopy soil that if clayey, is unpleasant for planting. Digging around in goopy clay soil also can also ruin its structure so it becomes poorly aerated.

My appreciation for being able to plant in rainy weather sends me back decades, when I visited 90 year old Scott Nearing, radical economist, political activist, and advocate of simple living, and helped out in his coastal Maine garden. Although I had just begun my agricultural education, academic and hands-on, I marveled at the feel of his soil. Planting and weeding were sheer pleasure, in spite of the rain, in soil of such good tilth. I was told that the soil there used to be a goopy clay but was transformed into that heavenly stuff in which I was working with years of copious additions of compost.

If only, I thought, I could someday have garden soil like that. I do! Every year I have blanketed the ground with an inch or more of compost so that the surface, rain or shine, presents a soft, water absorbent yet workable, nutrient and biologically-rich home to hands and plant roots.
May 16, I mark on my calendar the day that Korean mountain ash (Sorbus alnifolia) is blooming. This relatively rare plant is notable for its sprays of clear, white blossoms, for its warm, coppery-bronze autumn leaf color, and for it showy – perhaps the showiest of all plants! – display of small, flaming red berries. The fruits are also a tasty nibble (which warranted the plant a place in my recent book Landscaping with Fruits).

I first met this plant “in person” at the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College 5 years ago in October. As I stood there admiring the tree, I nibbled at the fruits. And, of course, I couldn’t bring myself to spit out the small seeds. Not because of propriety but I because each seed had such potential.

Long story short: I took the seeds home, mixed them with moist potting soil in a bag which went into my refrigerator for 3 months of stratification (fooling the seeds into thinking winter was over and it was safe to sprout), potted them up, and ended up with 2 good seedlings.

One of my two seedlings is now about 10 feet tall, and that’s the one now in flower. What’s amazing is that the plant bloomed at such a young age. Ten years might go by before an apple tree makes the physiological transition from juvenility to maturity – that is, reproductive and, hence, flowering age. Grafted trees, which are made by grafting mature stems onto rootstocks, bloom much quicker. Ten feet of growth and 5 years till first blossoming from seed is quick.

I’m looking forward to seeing and tasting the fruit of my own Korean mountain ash seedling in October.