Friday, July 29, 2011

When I weed a section of my garden, I leave no proverbial stone unturned – unless I can’t identify the weed and it looks, for one reason or another, like like one that has garden potential. Such has been the case with the mounds of moss-like leaves that sprouted and have been slowly growing at the ends of some beds in the vegetable garden.

 The plant hardly seemed menacing. And it wasn’t.

The plant graduated out of the “weed” or “potential weed” category as a scattering of lemon-yellow flowers opened atop the mounds. Aha! I looked back on my early autumn notebook entry of last year and identified this year’s plant as Goldilocks Rocks (Bidens ferulifolia), one of a few annual flowers that I received last year for testing. The plant bloomed nonstop all last summer, and has returned for an encore.
The plant is sometimes billed as an annual, blooming from “planting until hard frost,” yet last fall, my plant kept blooming until temperatures dropped to 24° F. Sometimes the plant is billed as a warm climate perennial, hardy to 30° F., yet temperatures dipped to -18° F. in my garden last January. For one reason another, the plant returned without my doing. Snow cover may have kept the plant warm enough to act like a perennial that overwintered from last fall. Or new plants sprouted from self-sown seeds. In the latter case, which is more likely, I will add Goldilocks Rocks to my list – along with mache, dill, cilantro, breadseed poppy, dame’s rocket, cleome, and bush balsam – of friendly volunteers that annually show up in my garden.

Pears in July? On July 11th, I was weeding around the base of a pear tree and came upon a few small pears on the ground beneath Blanquet Precoce (an old pear variety probably originating in Germany about 200 years ago). And they were ripe, overripe, in fact.

I gathered them up from the ground and picked the few that remained on the tree. The worst of them was mealy, with pear flavor that was on the “sleepy” side. The best of them had firm texture and more lively pear flavor.

Even at its best, Blanquet Precoce is not a very flavorful pear. Surely not one that would be worth growing if it ripened in late summer of fall, when other pear varieties are abundant. And, did I mention the fruit size? Very small, the size of a very small plum.

Still, Blanquet Precoce is notable for, if nothing else, being a pear that is ripe in July. The flavor would probably be improved if it was picked at just the right moment. That moment is before it is fully ripe, after which it can finish ripening in a bowl indoors, off the tree. Some pears – and perhaps Blanquet Precoce is one of them – need a period of cool, refrigerator temperatures before they can be ripened at room temperature. Skill is needed to harvest and ripen a pear to perfection, and then, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat.” I’ll give Blanquet Precoce another chance, next year.

Diligence in weeding the vegetable garden throughout spring and early summer has paid off. The garden has few weeds now, and just a few minutes pulling a weed here and there now and then is all that’s needed to keep the garden free of weed problems.

Without weed problems, the garden looks nicer, is more productive, and – very important – is ready to fill baskets, salad bowls, and the freezer with fresh vegetables from late summer on into autumn. As tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and other warm-weather vegetables of summer exit stage left in a couple of months, lush leaves of cabbage, kale, endive, and lettuce, and crisp roots of turnips, winter radishes, and beets enter stage right. The change is gradual, like a developing photographic film with the late summer and fall vegetables gradually coming into focus from among the fading tangle of summer vegetables.

Enjoying the late summer and fall vegetable garden is like having a whole other vegetable garden with little more effort and no additional garden area; but it takes planning and planting. Endive, broccoli, kale, and cabbage seedlings are on their way, ready for planting out in couple of weeks. At that time, I’ll also be sowing turnips and winter radishes and, a couple of weeks later, spinach and small (spring) radishes. From now until early September, I’ll also be sowing and transplanting lettuce.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

I will be spreading the blueberry gospel with a BLUEBERRY GROWING WORKSHOP at my farmden on July 30th, from 9:30 to 11:30 am. This workshop will cover everything you need to know to be on your way to picking your own blueberries, including soil preparation, obtaining plants, watering, fertilizing, pruning, and, or course, eating (and tasting). The cost is $40. Space is limited so reservations are a must. Contact me through my website "contact" (at right) for more information.

One small, red flower caused quite a bit of excitement last week. It was a pomegranate blossom, which is quite flamboyant in and of itself, but the real excitement was because I’d been waiting for this one for 6 years.

Pomegranate would normally freeze, dead, in our cold winters. It’s a Mediterranean plant that calls Western Asia home, just like figs. And, like figs, it can be grown in pots that can be carried to a cool place (a barely heated garage, an unheated room, or my cool basement) in winter, and then put outside during the growing season to bask in sunlight and warmth. One big difference with figs is that many fig varieties bear fruit on new shoots each season. So figs bear well even if old stems are cut back by pruning shears or winter cold, as long as the growing season is sufficiently long. Pomegranates stems need to be 2 to 3 years old before they’ll bear fruit.

So every spring and early summer for the past few years I’ve been anxiously eyeing the stems, looking and hoping for signs of blossoms. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I saw a red swelling and finally, last week, that swelling unfolded into a beautiful, fire engine red blossom. Such beauty! Pomegranates are sometimes grown as ornamentals for their blossoms alone.

Not here, though. I want fruit. I dabbed an artist’s brush into the blossom just to make sure it got pollinated, and it soon started swelling into the beginnings of a fruit. Or, so I thought. Today, I touched the fruitlet, and it dropped to the ground.

No matter, because a few other blossoms have also begun to form and open on that and my three other pomegranate plants. Last week’s bout of rainy weather – very un-Mediterranean-like – could have been responsible for the poor fruit set. I have high hopes with this week’s dry, sunny weather.

Another delectable fruit of Mediterranean climates, pineapple guava, has been in bloom for the past couple of weeks. This plant is native to South America but I’ve seen it planted and thriving as an edible, ornamental shrub in California and Italy. The leaves, silvery green on their upper sides and almost white on their undersides, look right at home under intense Mediterranean sunlight, and also look pretty good on the plants at the end of my driveway.

Like my pomegranates, my pineapple guavas are in pots so they can be carried down to the basement for winter. In years past, I’ve harvested a few of the torpedo-shaped, velvety green fruits; they are delicious, with a minty pineapple flavor and smooth, soft-gritty texture.

The flowers are as much a culinary treat as are the fruits. The fleshy petals are intensely sweet with a refreshing hint of mint. I’m careful to pinch off the petals without damaging the rest of the flower so that the flower can then go on to become a fruit. I also brush my fingers from the bottlebrush of carmine stamens to the central stigma to effect pollination since the petal-stripped flowers will no longer be attractive to insect pollinators (although I’ve never seen any insects playing on the flowers anyway).

Once fruits begin to swell on the pomegranate and guava plants, the race begins for the fruits to ripen before the growing season ends. Both fruits require a long season from the time they first set until they mature. I may have to bring them indoors to finish ripening. Even better would be to move them into the greenhouse so that warmth and bright sunlight there can bring out the best flavor in these fruits. Sunlight should be adequate in the greenhouse because the latitude here in the Hudson Valley is about the same as that of Tuscany, Italy.

Hanging on the brick wall near my Mediterranean fruits is a Mediterranean flower, or one that also thrives in climates with hot, dry summers. The flower, moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), is, in fact, native to Argentina. It’s powdery seeds germinate quickly and easily and the plants are as care-free as any plant can be as long as given sun and well-drained soil.

An old pair of Crocs garden shoes that I no longer wear seemed like they would be a perfect home for a few of the moss rose seedlings I grew in spring. So I lined the inside of the hole-y footwear with coir (coconut fibre) and filled it with potting soil. I also embedded a small loop of wire near the heel so the Crocs could be hung. Soil drainage: Taken care of.

The brick wall near my front door bathes in unobstructed sunlight from early morning until about 2 pm, and that’s where the portulaca-ed Crocs now hang. For the occasional watering the plants require, I get day after day of the cheeriest, colorful blossoms you can imagine.

Friday, July 15, 2011

In 1810, English essayist Charles Lamb wrote: “Nothing puzzles me more than time and space; and yet nothing troubles me less, as I never think of them.” Obviously, Charles was not a gardener. I spend a lot of time thinking about time and space in the garden, and out there this morning was particularly proud of one result of that “trouble.”

That source of pride is a bed 20 feet long by 3 feet wide that’s overbrimming with luscious greenery. I planted it back in April, 4 rows, one of radishes, one of mustard and arugula, and two of various varieties of leaf lettuce. The radishes are long gone and the mustard and arugula are just now going to seed, but the lettuces have a little more time left in them. The bed is packed so full of garden plants that hardly a weed peeks through anywhere.

As the lettuce passes its prime, all will not be over for that bed. I could wait, pull the lettuce, and then plant a later crop of, say, bush beans or endive. But, with a nod not to Mr. Lamb, I meshed space and time 3 weeks ago, removed a clump of plants every 2 feet down 2 rows in the bed, and planted sweet corn. Now, the sweet corn is looking tall among the waning other plants and, in a few weeks, the bed will be lush with only corn stalks.

The growing season here isn’t long enough to squeeze another crop in after the sweet corn in harvested in September. But maybe, if I plant some quick-maturing radishes in amongst the stalks in the beginning of September . . .
Plants that are too easy to grow are sometimes not given their due, and nasturtiums are, I think, one such plant. Wherever you poke the pea-size seed into the ground, you get, just a few weeks later, a nice, sprawling patch of round, blue-green leaves and colorful flowers. That’s what I do here and there in the bed near my terrace and near my garden gates every year.

That small amount of effort gets me not only beauty but also something tasty to eat. The leaves and flowers are edible. Most edible flowers have a subtle flavor, if that; nasturtiums have a strong – a nice, zippy – flavor. The name nasturtium means “nose twist,” sort of like what horseradish does, a relative. Nasturtium flavor is more mellow and the plant doesn’t spread, at least not year after year. Nasturtium’s bright color also adds visual appeal to any salad or spread.

Mulberry is another plant that’s not usually given its due. Sure, wild plants abound; except in deep woods, I could probably find at least one mulberry tree within a quarter of a mile from wherever you put me. (It’s the second most common “weed” tree in New York City.) And yes, the fruit is usually very sweet but lacking in character. But nobody’s knocking marshmallows, which are even sweeter.

Not all mulberries taste the same. Check out the taste of a number of wild ones and they’ll run the spectrum from almost pure sweetness to those with a bit of tang. They also vary in size. Both size and sweetness depend also on growing conditions.

Named varieties of mulberries, with bigger and/or better tasting fruits, exist although they are not well-known. I grow four of them. Illinois Everbearing has been around for over a half a century and is one of the best. I have on good authority that Oscar (a funny name for a mulberry) and Kokuso taste very good, and ordered (from a plant of each this past spring. I also ordered a Gerardi Dwarf tree, now with about a dozen fruits ripening on 2 foot tall plant still in its pot.

The flavor of Gerardi Dwarf fruits are said to taste almost as good as those of yet another mulberry, the black mulberry (Morus nigra) which, in my opinion and that of many other fruit lovers, may be the best-tasting of all fruits. Lest you believe that all black-colored wild mulberries you’ve seen are Morus nigra, they’re not. Fruit color and species names of mulberries are unrelated. Illinois Everbearing, which is a natural hybrid of white mulberry (M. alba), from eastern Asia, and our native red mulberry (Morus rubra), bears jet black fruits. (For more on mulberries, see my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)

Black mulberry is native to the mild climates of southwestern Asia and grows well only in Mediterranean climates. Unless, that is, it’s in a pot, which is how I grow black mulberry, bringing it down in winter to my cool basement, along with figs, pomegranates, and other fruits native to southwestern Asia.

I’m looking forward to tasting Gerardi Dwarf mulberries, which should make a cold-hardy, decorative plant that, like other mulberries, is easy to grow.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Many years ago, at this time of the year, I was hiking in Minnewaska State Park when a most delectable, spicy-sweet aroma wafted past my nose. I followed my nose off the trail and into the woods. After stepping over and around fallen stumps in boggy soil and ducking under low-hanging branches, I came upon the source of that aroma: the white flowers of a large swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum).

Last night as I lay in the comfort of my my bed and was about to drift off to sleep, that very same scent drifted into the open bedroom window. I immediately knew the source of that aroma: a swamp azalea that I had planted in a bed along the north side of my home back in 2006.

My yard is obviously quite a different habitat from that of Minnewaska woods, and especially where that wild swamp azalea grew. Besides shade and moist ground, that forested site‘s soil is very acidic, relatively poor in nutrients, and rich in humus.

The bed near my window emulates those conditions. It’s on the north side of the house, so it’s shady. I added sulfur, a naturally mined mineral, to bring the pH down to about 5. I dug in abundant sawdust to build up humus in the soil, and mulch each year with more sawdust or autumn leaves to maintain it. Drip irrigation tubes running through the bed automatically provide daily watering to maintain a moist soil.
Besides aroma, swamp azalea doesn’t have much going for it. The plant is deciduous, so fades out of view in winter. I’ve read that fall leaf color can be very nice, but never noticed it. The white flowers are nice enough, but nothing spectacular to look at. For me, this plant is all about scent.

Scent alone from one swamp azalea plant wouldn’t justify drip irrigation, annual mulching, and periodic additions of sulfur. So that bed near my bedroom window was developed as a home also for other plants that enjoy the same special soil conditions as swamp azalea. Mostly, these are plants in the heath family (Ericaceae), which includes blueberry, lingonberry, mountain laurel, rhododendron, other kinds of azaleas, and, of course, heath and heather.

Most of the above family members are growing in that bed. Right after the swamp azalea blossoms say goodbye for the season, lowbush blueberries will ripen, then huckleberries, and then lingonberries. Earlier in the season, rhododendron blossoms were followed by mountain laurel blossoms, which have just finished blooming.

Even beyond blossoms and fruits, this bed offers a visual symphony of harmonies and contrasts. The rhododendrons and mountain laurels are mostly dwarf varieties that are 3 foot high mounds of glossy greenery year-round. The lingonberries and lowbush blueberries knit together everything right at ground level; both plants spread via underground runners to intertwine for a dense ground cover. In fall, blueberry’s crimson leaves and then, through winter, its reddish stems, contrast pleasantly with lingonberry’s mouse-ear-sized, evergreen leaves.

I’ve invited a few non-family members into the bed. Most notable are a witchhazel that’s covered in fragrant, yellow blossoms in late winter and a stewartia that just now is spreading open the white petals of its camellia-like blossoms.

My friend Deb has a new vegetable garden which she has been planting and planting all spring. She has two beds not yet planted and asked me if and what she could still plant there for this season. “Plenty,” I told her.

For starters, how about a late crop of bush beans and/or zucchini? Bush beans start to peter out after bearing for a couple of weeks, which is why I make 3 plantings each season, the first in the middle of May. Zucchini typically succumbs to borers or mildew by midsummer; a fresh planting keeps zucchini coming on all season long. Deb, a warning: Don’t plant too much zucchini! Any more than a few plants and you’ll be forced to come up with concoctions such as zucchini bread to use up excess.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Upcoming lectures - "Luscious Landscaping, with Fruits! - by Lee Reich:
•July 9th, 11am at the Mountain Top Arboretum, Tannersville, NY
•July 10th, 10am at the Phantom Gardener, Rhinebeck, NY
•July 22nd at Permaculture Convergence, High Falls, NY
(I will host a tour of my farmden on July 21st for the Convergence)

Friday, July 1, 2011

The hardest part has been getting the caterpillar to smile. This caterpillar is about 20 feet long and 3 feet high, 5 feet to the top of its antennae, and it lives near a wall along the front of my house. It’s green. It’s a yew.

The caterpillar started out conventionally enough. Like so many gardeners and new homeowners, I succumbed to the enticement of inexpensive evergreens – in this case, 5 innocent-looking, small yew bushes – to dress up the bare front of my house. Once planted, they would contribute to the ubiquitous gumdrop school of landscape design. That was over 25 years ago.

Well, at least I decided not to shear them into exacting gumdrops. Pruning with a hand shears once or twice a year kept them informal. My plants never suffered neglect, a good thing because too many innocent-looking, small evergreens get neglected, outgrow their surroundings, and gobble up homes. I can still look out from my windows.

A couple of years ago, inspired by local plant sculptor and stone artist Keith Buesing, I decided to morph my informal gumdrops into a giant caterpillar. Repeated shearing has finally released a caterpillar from the mass of greenery. Not that my caterpillar is anatomically correct: I carved out two eyes from the foliage and am still working on the big smile, the latter to keep the creature looking friendly.

After “smiling” and trimming the caterpillar today, I put away my hedge shears, reached for my pruning shears, and set to work on the grapes. With many varieties of table grapes – including seedless Vanessa, Mars, Jupiter, Somerset, and Glenora as well as seeded Lorelei, Briana, Alden, Swenson Red, Edelweiss, Swenson White, Campbell Early, and New York Muscat – there will be plenty of flavors. But I want to make sure each variety tastes its very best, for which pruning is key. Pruning balances the crop load so enough leaves pump each berry with flavor and keeps the plant bathed in sunlight.

In this part of the country, most grapes, including my own, are trained to the traditional 4-Arm Kniffin system, with a central trunk and two fruiting arms running off in opposite directions at 3 feet and 5 feet above ground level. My grapes got a makeover this year because of my visit, last summer, to Purdue University’s experimental grape plantings.

Now my grapes are emulating Dr. Bordelon’s “high-wire cordon” grapes, each of whose vines has a trunk rising to almost 7 feet, then splitting off into two permanent arms (“cordons”) running in opposite directions along a wire at that height. Fruiting shoots grow downward off those arms. (I train my plants with two trunks, each topped by a single cordon, as insurance against losing a trunk to our more severe winter cold.) My job is to position those shoots and prune them so that none originate closer that 6 inches apart along the cordon, so that they don’t tangle, and so that the bunches don’t get shaded by more than 4 layers of leaves. I’ve done that and everything looks tidy, airy, and drenched in sunlight.

One more job with the pruning shears, and that is to get to work on the bay laurel. This tree is 20 years old this year and, if never pruned, would be 30, or more, feet tall. It’s only 5 feet tall.

Planted outdoors, the bay laurel would also be dead. Our winters are much too cold for this native of the Mediterranean region. My bay laurel calls an 18 inch diameter flower pot home so it can move indoors in autumn to spend winter near a sunny window in a cool room.

Every couple of years or so, I slide the root ball out of the flower pot and cut 2 to 3 inches off all around the ball to make room for new potting soil when I put the plant back into its pot.

Each and every year, though, I cut back the top. The plant is pruned as a “standard,” that is, in the shape of a small, idealized tree with a straight trunk capped by a ball of foliage. Sort of like a lollipop. I take my hand shears and shorten some branches and, where growth is too dense, completely remove other branches. A hedge shears is not the tool to use for this job because they would leave mangled the big leaves of a plant like bay laurel.

Besides looking very pretty, this lollipop of a tree offers fresh bay leaves, which have a delicate flavor that hints of olive oil, another Mediterranean plant.