Thursday, October 27, 2011

Deep in the hills of West Virginia, at the end of a steep, gravelly driveway, is where I found Glicksterus maximus. Sounds like a plant, doesn’t it? It’s not. It’s the self-ascribed nickname for Barry Glick of Sunshine Farm and Gardens (, a mail-order nursery offering oodles of species and varieties of mostly herbaceous plants, many of them obscure and many of them native. I’d spoken with Barry, I’d planted his plants, and I’d sat on the receiving end of one of his entertaining and informative lectures, but I’d never visited his nursery/home. My own speaking engagement last week at the International Master Gardener’s Conference in Charleston, WV afforded me the opportunity for this visit.
Let’s cut right to the chase: Barry’s deepest affections go to one genus, Helleborus. And hellebores, as they are commonly called, were everywhere. (The plants are also called Christmas rose or Lenten rose although the blossoms do not really resemble roses and the plants do not necessarily bloom at Christmas or Lent.) Steep slopes beneath towering maples and oaks were blanketed with verdant carpets of thousands of hellebore plants. Many of these plants were seed plants for Barry’s breeding program. In addition to selling thousands of hellebores, Barry also has developed some new varieties.
I had fun trying to identify some of the other plants tucked here and there all over the place, or lined out by the hundreds in pots. Ligularia was easily identified by its tall, straight, upright flower stalk even though its yellow flowers were long past. Rather than the familiar Ligularia ‘The Rocket’, Barry grows Ligularia sachalinensis. Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), a small tree whose branches burst with fringed, white blooms in spring, gracefully spread its branches; I brought home a small plant. As we walked up and down the hilly landscape past myriad plants, Barry called out their botanical names
One particularly attractive tree that I found impossible to identify was a mature sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). Rather than sweetgum’s characteristic, five-pointed, star-shaped leaves, Barry’s tree, the variety ‘Rotundifolia’, had leaves with friendly-looking, rounded lobes. This variety is sterile, so also couldn’t be identified by the species rounded, spikey fruits commonly known by such names as “gumballs,” "burr balls", "bommyknockers", or "conkleberrys.”
We can’t just leave hellebores hanging a few paragraphs back. I also am a big fan of most of this genus, and am the proud grower, for 8 years now, of some of Barry’s creations. One asset of hellebores, mentioned previously, is their verdant foliage; I didn’t mention, though, that the leaves stay green all winter. This far north, I value anything green in our mostly achromatic winter landscape.
Another plus for this genus is that deer leave the plants alone. And that the plants thrive in partial shade. And that they self-sow to make new seedlings as well as spread vegetatively. They do so with enough restraint to never become a bother or, worse, invasive.
While the flowers do not look like rose blossoms, they are beautiful, in colors from white to white suffused with purple to purple, and sometimes pale green.Wait, that’s not all! The flowers start blooming very early in spring, typically in March in my garden, and then continue to bloom for weeks and weeks.
One of my lecture topics at the master gardener conference was “Landscaping with Fruit,” and one of the premier dual-purpose plants that I touted was pawpaw (Asimina triloba). The tree has a neat, pyramidal form and all season long sports large, lush, healthy green leaves that lend a tropical air to the landscape. It’s a tree that you can plant (plant two, for cross-pollination), give some care to get it growing, and then year after year harvest fruit without giving a second thought to pests or pruning. Even deer usually leave mature trees alone. 
In addition to those lush leaves, pawpaw has other tropical aspirations. It is the northernmost member of the mostly tropical custard apple family. Each flower is a multiple ovary so can yield a cluster of up to nine fruits, similar to clusters of bananas except that pawpaws are shaped like and about the size of mangoes.
Most tropical is the flesh itself of this cold-hardy, native fruit. Pawpaw flesh is creamy and yellow, like banana. What’s more, it has flavor that also is similar to banana along with some mango, pineapple, and avocado mixed in; or vanilla custard; or creme brulee.
Pawpaw trees shed their tropical aspirations in autumn, about now, when the leaves turn a clear, bright yellow and then drop. That’s also when the fruit ripens; I’m presently inundated with this easy-to-grow “tropical” fruit.
(I devote a whole chapter to pawpaw in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)

Friday, October 21, 2011

One more sandwich of sliced tomatoes laid on home-made bread and topped with cheddar cheese, warmed until melted, and I’ll close the garden gate on fresh tomatoes for the year. Tomato season used to end more dramatically: The four years that I gardened in Wisconsin, a heavy frost would descend on the garden some night about the third week in September. Morning would present a scene of blackened, dead tomato, cucumber, and pepper plants. The same thing used to happen here, only a little later in autumn.
For many years now, killing frosts have arrived late, so much so that cool weather and short days sap the vitality from summer vegetables before frost arrives. The plants peter out so I have no qualms about clearing them out of the garden before they are dead. As a matter of fact, they look so forlorn that I’m anxious to clear them away and neaten up the garden.
Cleanup is especially important with tomatoes because a few diseases, such as early blight and leaf spot diseases, wait out winter on plant residues to infect next year’s plants. I clean up every bit of stem, leaf, and fruit possible, hand picking to begin with and then finally giving each bed a light raking to gather up remaining debris. With a garden knife, I cut into the ground around the base of each plant to make it easy to remove the stem and largest roots. Small roots stay in the soil, decomposing to become humus and to leave behind large and small channels for air and water movement. All that spent tomato stuff goes into the compost pile where time and temperature do their job defusing pathogens and creating rich compost. 
Just to make sure that pest problems are minimized next year, and to enrich and protect the ground, I cover each bed with an inch depth of finished compost from piles built last year.  Disease spores can’t get up through the compost blanket. And then, to further limit pest problems, next year’s tomatoes go in a different bed than this year’s tomatoes.
Even with the declining tomatoes and other summer vegetables, the garden generally doesn’t look forlorn. Beds of late green beans, sweet corn, and squash that were cleared, cleaned, and composted over the past few weeks look neat and weed-free. To me, something like the zen gardens at Ryōan-ji, except with compost and straight lines instead of neatly raked gravel. Grassy blades of oats are sprouting with all the youthful exuberance of spring in beds that were readied before the end of September. And long before summer vegetables started to wane, I snuck autumn vegetables into the garden, so some beds are now lush with radishes, arugula, lettuce, cabbage, and other greenery that thoroughly enjoys this cool, wet weather.
Butterscotch on a tree, that’s what Chojuro pear tastes like. Juicy butterscotch, because an explosion of juice fills your mouth with each bite,
Chojuro is one of a few Asian pears, also called nashi, that I grow; it’s my favorite as far as productivity and flavor, my others being Yoinashi, Yakumo, and Seuri-Li. Because they are generally round and crunchy, Asian pears are also sometimes called apple pears or salad pears. They have a long history in Asia, and over a thousand varieties exist.
My pears were planted 10 years ago, actually not planted but grafted on existing rootstocks to replace other, less satisfactory varieties. The rootstocks are dwarfing and the plan was to train them as a row of espaliers en arcure, that is with successive tiers of branches gently arching in curves to meet those of neighboring pear plants, all sitting in a row atop a low wall. But deer soon discovered the plants, which became a smorgasbord for which the deer didn’t even have to bend down to enjoy. 
The deer problem was eventually solved but the plants were not en arcure anymore. I could have lopped everything back to just above the grafts and started again but lacked the heart to do it because the trees were, by then, bearing fruits. So now I have an arcure-esque espaliers laden with fruit. And especially laden is the Chojuro tree, every year.
Asian pears differ from the more common European pears in a number of ways. They are generally easier to grow. With large, healthy leaves, they tend to be more decorative. They bear more heavily and at a younger age, so much so that you have to be careful not to let plants on dwarfing rootstocks bear too much too young and runt out. And while European pears must be harvested before they are ripe, then ripened off the trees, Asian pears don’t taste at their best until they are dead ripe on the tree. 
Even then, they don’t taste at their very best if the trees overbear, which they are wont to do. So beginning in June, and a few more times through summer, I kept pinching off enough fruits so that eventually remaining fruits were a couple of inches apart. It was worth it for the crunchy, juice-laden, butterscotch-flavored Chojuros.

Friday, October 14, 2011

It’s a tied score, 1 for the squirrels, 1 for me. At least since I started counting, which was last year. I had some squirrel issues in previous years, but last year is when all out war started. They cleaned out the raspberries and the gooseberries early in the season, and then started eyeing the blueberries. Anyone who reads “A Gardener’s Notebook” knows how I feel about blueberries, and the squirrels evidently picked up those vibes (with some ballistic coaxing) and left the blueberries alone. Not that they kept to their nearby forest homes; they scurried across the field in late summer to strip the hazelnut bushes of every single nut.
This year is different, very different. The squirrels didn’t eat even one raspberry or gooseberry, didn’t even eye the blueberries. And my harvest of hazelnuts is secure in bushel baskets.
In fact, I only saw a couple of squirrels the whole season. They were two young ones gamboling  in the tree tops, taunting me in full view from the back window of my bedroom.
A multifaceted approach is responsible for this year’s victory. Two excellent cats are one line of defense, although I can’t imagine how cats could keep squirrels at bay. Perhaps the squirrels also saw me practicing my marksmanship. And finally, I let the field in which I planted the hazelnuts grow up into an overgrown meadow. I’ve never seen squirrels in high grass and other herbaceous vegetation, probably because it slows them down too much. (Then again, perhaps I’ve never seen squirrels in unmown meadow because I can’t see them in unmown meadow.)
To reduce competition for water and nutrients to the hazelnut plants from the meadow, I kept vegetation scythed down in a circle around each hazelnut bush and accessed the plants via a mowed path that originates only 50 feet across mowed lawn from my deck. My two dogs, Leila and Scooter, spend a lot of time sleeping on that sunny deck, so it would take a bold squirrel indeed to make the journey across the lawn and then down that no-exit, mowed path in overgrown meadow. 

As for anyone who pooh-poohs my obsession with squirrels, mark my words: In a few years you’ll consider them much, much worse problems than deer. Some people tell me that squirrels are even eating their tomatoes. Fencing is, obviously, useless against squirrels.
Squirrels have never eaten my tomatoes. I’ve never even seen them in my vegetable gardens although black walnut seedlings that sometimes pop up here and there are evidence of their occasional trespass.
I wonder if squirrels eat lettuce; I hope not, because I have some nice heads developing in the garden and in seed flats. This is the time of year that takes advance planning with lettuce because, although the plants enjoy the cooler weather, it, along with shorter days, drastically slows growth. 
I aim to grow enough lettuce for salads all winter so must have enough plants started to slowly mature in the weeks and months ahead. If the plants are too small, they won’t size up when it’s their turn to be eaten. If the plants are too large, they bolt, that is, make seedstalks and turn bitter. Right now, I have two rows of mature heads in the garden and over 150 seedlings of various sizes. All those seedlings take up only about 4 square feet of space. The smaller seedlings will get transplanted into the greenhouse sometime soon.
Greenhouse lettuce can tolerate a little shade right now, but not in a few weeks. That works out perfectly, because right now the greenhouse is shaded by 3 large fig trees growing within. They are three different varieties, each loaded with fruit.
Kadota is the best-tasting of the three, with a sweet, rich flavor held in a chewy skin. The problem is that Kadota likes dry weather, as do all figs, to some degree. With the current humid weather and incessant rain, many of the Kadota fruits rot just as they are about to ripen.
My old standby, Brown Turkey, sweet, small, and dark purple, does better. The tree has been ripening fruits since about early September.
The best of the lot, in terms of flavor (not as good as Kadota but, still, very good) is Green Ischia, also known as Verte. This variety bears fruits on stems that grew last year as well as, like my other two varieties, stems that started growing this year. Green Ischia’s earliest figs ripen in July on last year’s stems, followed by more fruits, beginning in September, on this year’ stems. The figs are sweet and very large and juicy, so much so that they begin to burst open if harvest is delayed too long. My Green Ischia, by the way, is probably not Green Ischia; figs are notorious for having multiple names and for being mislabeled, as I think mine was in the nursery.
The fig crop will end in a few weeks, the plants’ leaves will fall, and I’ll cut back all stems, except for a few on Green Ischia for next year’s early crop, down to about 4 feet high. Greenhouse lettuce can then bask freely in whatever sunlight autumn and winter sun offers.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I didn’t need the house number to hone in on Bassem’s home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania last Saturday. The Asian persimmon, pawpaw, and fig trees rising above the front hedge distinguished the landscape from those of the neighbors’ more conventional -- and much less luscious -- home grounds. Over the years, I have corresponded with Bassem, a fellow member of North American Fruit Explorers (, and had planned to sometime stop by on one of my frequent trips to Philadelphia. Finally, I took that fruitful side step.
And what a fruitfully timely fruit step I hoped it to be: Fig season! Figs are a main interest of Bassem (, who grew up in Lebanon. His quarter acre house lot, crammed with all sizes and varieties of fig trees, makes the collection of 35 varieties that I once grew in Maryland look like child’s play.
But figs were not all of it. Everywhere I looked was an interesting fruit plant. Hardy passionfruits (Passiflora incarnata), which I also grow, covered the ground among his foundation plantings, even sprouted up in the lawn. Did I write “foundation plantings?” Lest that conjure up an image of your standard junipers and yews, Bassem’s foundation plantings were more diverse and, of course, fruitful. There was the edible cactii (Opuntia spp.), a pomegranate with ripening fruit (the fruits on my potted pomegranates, which I mentioned early in summer, fell off), and, of course, many varieties of figs.
The backyard is home to a small greenhouse, in which Bassem overwinters some tropical fruits, and more fruit plants. A few large banana trees rose right next to the greenhouse -- very decorative but not able, of course, to ripen fruit. They die to the ground each year and then sprout from overwintered roots each spring. An eight-foot-tall papaya plant, grown from seeds sown in spring, was expectantly flowering but likewise won’t have time to ripen fruits. Fruiting trees in the ground included quince (Cydonia oblonga), jujube (Ziziphus jujuba, yes, the original jujube candy was made from candied jujube fruits), and, in the back, more Asian persimmons and pawpaws.
It’s too cold here in the Wallkill River valley to plant outdoors much of what Bassem plants right in the ground even though our homes are separated by only about 80 miles of latitude. My extra few degree of cold are the result of my more rural setting, with less heat-trapping concrete, and my valley, into which cold air settles. Still, I couldn’t resist going home with 2 new fig varieties (Black Bethlehem and Pontlican) and a strawberry guava, both in pots that I’ll move indoors for winter. If the figs prove especially tasty, they might get planted in the ground in my cool temperature greenhouse.
Goldenrod in the south field has turned the landscape a glorious yellow color. The plants have been blooming there for weeks and weeks but the intensity has recently ratcheted up.

The reason for the increased color isn’t the weather; it’s the plants. There are dozens of goldenrod species not easily distinguished from each other, even by botanists. My field is, no doubt, home to a few species and the one now blooming seems to be the one in greatest abundance.
I mow most of the south field once a year, in spring, a schedule that suits the goldenrods well. Other parts of the field that I used to mow more frequently than once a year (for a volleyball court) are mostly grasses, Queen-Anne’s-lace, and chicory, but I see some goldenrod now finally creeping in. I keep a path mowed through the field that each year follows a different trajectory. The ghost of last year’s path is high with vegetation, but not goldenrod -- yet. There’s even a tropical-looking patch in the field where the large leaves of sumac seedlings shoot skyward above the surrounding goldenrods. That sumac is the legacy of a brush pile that I burned there over 10 years ago. 
It’s all very interesting and pretty.
And, for a little more fall color: Persimmons. The orange fruits -- persimmon orange fruits -- are ripening on my trees and dropping to the ground. (Isn’t it odd that a color should be named “persimmon orange” when so few people know this relatively uncommon fruit? I helped remedy that situation by devoting a chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden to persimmons.)
The persimmon fruits, as usual, are delectable, with a taste and texture of dried apricots that have been softened in water, dipped in honey, then given a dash of spice. Something like Oriental persimmons but with richer flavor and texture.
The trees, as usual, are bearing an abundant crop. In over two decades of growing this fruit, the trees have failed me only 2 years, both from a very late frost that didn’t allow time for ripening. Few fruits are easier to grow: no notable pests; no pruning; just plant and pick.
Ripening is important with American persimmon because few gustatory experiences are as horrendous as biting into an unripe persimmon. The feeling is akin to having a vacuum cleaner in your mouth, and spitting out the fruit doesn’t help. Unfortunately, fruits from some wild trees of this native plant never fully lose that awful flavor, which is why I grow named varieties that are known to have excellent flavor. Over two dozen such varieties exist. 
This far north, we’re restricted to growing ones that taste good and will ripen within our relatively short growing season. Which is fine, because my two favorite varieties, Mohler and Szukis, are both cold hardy, ripen within our growing season, and taste as good as I would hope from any persimmon. Any fruit, perhaps. Persimmon’s botanical name, Diospyros, translates to “food of the gods.