Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Good Gifts for Gardeners

What would be a good gift for a gardener at this gift-giving time of year? Every gardener has his or her special inclinations, gardenwise, so each of us warrants a special set of gift possibilities.

Still, certain expendable items are sure to please any and every gardener. Tops on my list would be a big ball of twine. Twine is useful for everything from lashing blue spires of delphinium and floppy tomato vines to stakes to tying pea vines to a trellis or grape vines to support wires. Not just any twine will do; best is twine made of natural fibre, such as hemp or sisal, so that it can be gathered up to be composted along with the plants it supported at season’s end.

Gloves are another expendable item great for gifts. Gloves made from leather and some synthetics last for years. Among my favorite gloves for everything from detail work like transplanting small seedlings to grabbing a pitchfork to pitch manure onto the compost pile are knit gloves with nitrile or latex coated palms and fingers. With rough use, the gloves only last a couple of seasons, if that, but they’re worth it for their grippiness, comfort, and hand protection. I save my leather gloves for colder weather or for rougher work such as pruning thorny rose and gooseberry bushes and grabbing firewood.

Organic gardening (a good idea and the essence of good gardening in general) conjures up its own special gifts. Straw, manure, hay, leaves, wood chips, and other organic (that is, living or once-living) materials are what put the “organic” into organic gardening. A pitchfork is the perfect tool for moving organic materials to the compost pile or on top of the soil. But choosing a pitchfork is not all that straightforward. I am the proud owner and frequent user of 4-, 5-, 6-, and 10-tine pitchforks. Each has its special use but if I were to own just one pitchfork, it would be the  6-tine fork.

If you’re going to use a pitchfork, you’re probably going to need something with which to move around all those bulky organic materials. A garden cart. Stoked full, a sturdy cart with high wooden sides and two large-diameter tires can move over 10 cubic feet or 1/3 cubic yard of material, up to about 400 pounds of weight. Please don’t buy me one; I own three.

A few other essential, welcome tools are a trowel, which any but a beginning gardener is sure to have, and hand pruning shears (my favorite is ARS although Felco and Pica are also very, very good). A rain gauge is also essential to know whether what sounded like an earth-drenching downpour really contributed to the one inch per week needed for best plant growth. Good sources for tools are Gemplers, A. M. Leonard, Charleys Greenhouse, Orchard Equipment Supply Co., and Gardener’s Supply Co.

Beginning gardeners will appreciate packets of basic seeds such as Black Seeded Simpson and Buttercrunch lettuce, Bush Blue Lake and Romano beans, French Breakfast radishes, and Green Arrow peas. More advanced gardeners start their own transplants so might appreciate especially good, but hard to find as transplants, varieties of tomatoes, such as Blue Beech, Belgian Giant, San Marzano, and Black Krim. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds, High Mowing, Pinetree Garden Seeds, Tomato Growers Supply Company, and Totally Tomatoes are among my favorite seed companies. For growing transplants, I recommend Gardener’s Supply APS, which waters seedlings automatically and gives each seedling its own home so they hardly realize when they’ve been transplanted. I already own about a dozen of them so don’t buy one for me, thanks. 
How about a gift of some of the above catalogues? How about including some good nursery catalogues also? Some of my favorite nurseries are Hartmann’s, Raintree, One Green World, Cummins, Burnt Ridge, and Nourse. 

The best gift for the beginning gardener or for the seasoned gardener who wants to grow better is, in my opinion, a good book. Among my favorites are any of Elliot Coleman’s books about vegetable gardening, any of Michael Dirr’s books about trees and shrubs, Steven Still’s Manual of Herbaceous Plants, Hartmann & Kester's Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices, my bible on plant propagation, and, for general gardening, Roy Biles’ The Complete Book of Garden Magic and Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer. For entertaining and informative essays, there’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perenyi and The Principles of Gardening: A Guide to the Art, History, Science, and Practice of Gardening by Hugh Johnson.

Oh, and did I mention my books?: A Northeast Gardener’s Year (the what, when, and how for a wide range of gardening topics arranged, as appropriate, through the year), Weedless Gardening (especially good for vegetable gardening), Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, Landscaping with Fruit, and Grow Fruit Naturally.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Jump on Spring

I got a jump on spring yesterday and started pruning hardy kiwifruit vines. The fruit is a kissing cousin of fuzzy, market kiwis, except, with smooth skins and small size, they can be popped whole in your mouth like grapes. Hardy kiwis are also cold-hardy, which their cousins are not.

The vines need yearly pruning to let light and air in among the stems for productivity and plant health, to keep fruiting stems within easy reach, and to stimulate new stem growth each year off which grow fruiting shoots the following year.

My plants are trained on 5 wires strung between T-trellises, one wire down the middle of the trellis flanked by 2 wires on either side of that central wire. Each plant’s trunk rises up to the middle wire and then divides into two cordons, or permanent arms, that run in opposite directions along the middle wire. Fruiting arms, which are 1-year-old stems, grow off perpendicularly to the cordon to drape down over the outside wires.

As I approached the vines with shears, lopper, and small saw in hand, the vines looked back at me like an intimidating, tangled mess. Three steps in pruning brought everything in order. I first cut back all fruiting arms to within a foot or so of the outside wire and shortened each cordon back to where it began growth last year. Arms bear fruiting shoots near their bases so don’t need the whole of their lanky stems. As to the cordons, if they were allowed to grow longer and longer, one plant would tangle into the next plant down the row.

Next, the hardest part: I reached into the remaining tangle to cut back fruiting arms that have, over the years, begun to originate further and further off the cordons. These got shortened so that new shoots, for fruit 2 years hence, would originate closer in to the cordons. Left to their own devices, as they are in the wild on the edges of Asian forests, the vines would be climbing 100 ft. high on anything on which they could grab hold.

Finally, I thinned out most of the remaining fruiting arms so that they are about a foot apart. I’ll do a final pruning in spring, thinning more where needed and shortening all fruiting arms to their final length of about 18 inches long.

I’m left now with a pile of prunings. Their intertwining stems make nice decoration. I could also save some for my cat. Kiwi stems have a pleasing effect on the cats, similar to catnip. In Asian zoos, they have been used to calm “large cats.”
What joy a mere sprout can foreshadow! Late last summer a gardening friend gave me some sprouts from her Maid of OrlĂ©ans jasmine (Jasminum sambac). By the end of summer, a few of the cuttings had rooted and even flowered.  The plant or its flower wouldn’t win (or lose) any beauty contests, but is well worth growing for its unabashed fragrance. The aroma is sweet and rich and not at all cloying, even after the flowers fade.

What’s more, this jasmine flowers freely. As a matter of fact, it just finished its second round of flowering. Contrast this behavior with my two plants of common jasmine (Jasminium officinale). These latter plants occasionally cough forth a few flowers in late winter but nothing like the profusion of white blossoms they once did. I’ve tried everything, from starting new plants from cuttings to pinching shoots all summer until August to keeping them cool in until late winter to keeping them dryish until late winter to keeping them cool and dryish until late winter to keeping them in the greenhouse to . . .  you get the picture.

The only dark cloud hovering over my Maid of Orleans was the potting mix. Something seemed not quite right with it, having me worried that the plant might not grow or, worse, expire (as did the plant from the gardening friend from whom I got the cuttings). Not that this is a time of year to expect growth from any plant.

But now, that cloud has moved on. The new sprout looks happy and healthy and foretells of a fragrant future.

I mixed up a new batch of potting soil, which I’ll need anyway in a couple of months for indoor sowing of the first seeds of next season. Into a 5 gallon bucket went finished compost and soil, equal parts, sifted. Into another 5 gallon bucket went peat moss and perlite, equal parts, sifted. I tipped the contents of both buckets together into the garden cart, sprinkled on 1 cup of soybean meal and a handful of kelp, and repeatedly slid a flat-bladed shovel under the pile and turned it over and over. Once everything was thoroughly mixed, I shook and forced it again through the 1/2-inch sieve and packed it away into buckets.

This potting mix will be home to the roots of seedlings and houseplants, as well as large, potted fig trees, roses, and pomegranates. Also, to Maid of Orleans, as soon as she outgrows her present quarters.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Simplify, Simplify

People are funny. Take, for instance, a fellow gardener who, a couple of months ago, shared with me her excitement about a biochar workshop she had attended. “I can’t wait to get back into my garden and start making and using biochar,” she said. Biochar, one of gardening’s new wunderkind, is what remains after you burn wood with insufficient air -- charcoal, that is. Stirred into the soil, its myriad nooks and crannies provide an expansive adsorptive surface for microbes and chemicals, natural and otherwise. Biochar, being black, darkens the soil, and dark soil is generally associated with fertility, although that’s not always the case. Because biochar is mostly elementary carbon, it resists microbial decomposition, so it’s carbon is less apt to end up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

But raw wood, as opposed to biochar, added to soil feeds microbes and then plants as it decomposes, eventually turning to organic matter, or humus, which is a witch’s brew of compounds with positive effect on soil’s nutritional, biological, and physical properties. So is cooking up a batch of biochar and digging it into your soil really worth the effort? The same might be asked of aerated compost tea, another “rare and wondrous” product touted for everything from preventing plant diseases to breaking up impermeable soil layers. Or “nutrient dense farming,” which, with its questionable assessments of plants’ nutrient status and even more questionable soil additives, aims to reverse the drop in mineral concentrations noted in our vegetables over the past few decades. (Even though the drop has been shown to be simply a dilution effect from increased yields due to breeding, fertilizers, and water.)

Thoreau wrote, “Simplify, simplify.” But people are funny; they want to complicate, complicate. Something about using some apparatus, whether it’s a biochar burner or a compost tea aerator, or a measuring device, such as the refractometers used by nutrient dense farmers, that draws people in. People are wowed by numbers, dials, and other bells and whistles of science.

Bells and whistles do not science make. Or good gardening. Some of the most elegant experiments in the science of gardening involved not much more than a human mind and some pea seeds: the 19th century discoveries of heritable traits by Gregor Mendel, which became the foundation of modern genetics, and the elucidation of why plants bend towards light by Charles Darwin, as examples.

Ninety percent of good gardening could be summed up in two words: organic matter. Enrich your soil with plenty of compost, the Cadillac of organic matter, and/or other organic materials, such as leaves, straw, and wood chips, and you’re well on the way to plants that are healthy, healthful, and productive. I wish I could offer some gimmick or catch-phrase. No need.

I finally cut enough hay to snuggle down along my row of dwarf apple trees. Right now, it looks like a billowing, beige blanket. By spring, snow and rain will have compressed it to ground level. By this time next year, it will be mostly gone. That’s okay.

During it’s tenure, the mulch will smother weeds and insulate the soil against winter cold and summer heat. Bacteria, fungi, and other soil organisms are what will make it vanish, but in so doing nutrients within those stems and leaves will move into the soil for plant use and what’ll be left behind is humus, which makes the soil dark and, in this case, is an indicator of good soil.

Some garden faddists would fault me for using hay beneath my apple trees, alleging that the trees would prefer a mulch of wood chips. And not just any old wood chips, but those from branches less than two and a half inches across (“ramial” wood chips). Devotees cite Laval University Publication N 83, “Regenerating Soils with Ramial Wood Chips” as providing evidence for the benefits of ramial wood chips but this publication is actually very weak on evidence and very strong on boosterism. Perhaps they are correct, although there’s no evidence for benefits one way or another. Depending on availability, I’ll sometimes use wood chips, any kind. Simplify, simplify.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Rice, Corn, & Barley Harvest

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It’s been awhile since the grains have been harvested so it’s time to prepare them for consumption. Longest in preparation will be barley.
The barley is from last year’s harvest, and the grain-laden stalks have been bundled together and hanging from a kitchen rafter since then. I’ve procrastinated processing because of last year’s frustrations in trying to thresh wheat, also grown last year; the grains clung tenaciously to their stalks and no amount of battering would thoroughly separate them. I’ve also procrastinated because the bundle of barley’s tawny brown stems, with long, delicate, spiky awns emerging from the heads, look so decorative dangling upside down near the kitchen ceiling.

A bare spot now remains where the barley once hung. Earlier today, after being stuffed into a pillowcase and batted against a brick wall, the stalks easily released their plump grains. I separated the grain rom the chaff by pouring the grains back and forth between two buckets in a slight breeze, and soon had the whole crop cleaned.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, my barley crop wasn’t measured in tons or even bushels. I had planted a 3 foot by 3 foot area and reaped a quarter of a pound. Consulting my 1914 “Farmer’s Cyclopedia of Agriculture,” an acre of barley (back then and in Iowa) averaged 45 bushels of barley, or 1,800 pounds, which would translate to a bit over one-third of a pound for my 9 square foot plot. Respectable for my first try.

The end-product for my crop will be beer. More specifically, the goal was to find out how much barley to grow to make a 6-pack. My next step, then, is to malt the barley. More on that at a later date . . .

I “hauled in” the rice harvest back in early October, all 40 grams of it. That 40 grams was not a bad yield considering that I got the seedlings started late; that I only planted a 2 foot by 3 foot bed of it; that it was growing under dryland conditions, which yields less than wetland rice; and the variety I planted, Hayayuki, is a wetland variety. Still, it was fun.

The aforementioned limitations are nothing compared to the limitation in preparing the rice for consumption. Like most other grains, rice has a hull that needs to be removed before the grain can be eaten. (The hull is no impediment with barley for malting because what’s used for beer is maltose-laden water that is leached through the sprouted, cracked grain.) Hullers are available for small-scale grain processing, but are neither economical nor capable of handling nano-yields such as my 40 grams.

A conversation with Ben Falk (, who had given me the seeds and has harvested over 100 pounds of rice in Vermont, did not leave me optimistic about getting off those hulls. (He has a small huller.) No need for me to try cracking them off with a rolling pin, boiling them and hoping they would float up to be skimmed off, or toasting -- he’d already tried all that.

Years ago, I got a Solis coffee grinder that does an adjustable grind. How about setting the Solis to barely grind the rice, just enough to crack off the hulls? The problem is that the largest setting was a bit too small for the rice grains. Still, no other options presented themselves. What I now have is cracked rice. I cooked some; the flavor was very bland, even for rice.

It isn’t only a lot more growing experience that is responsible for my much more successful crop of a third grain: corn. Corn is easier to grow, to harvest, and to process than other grains on a home garden scale. I grow popcorn and polenta corn in addition to, of course, sweet corn, the latter considered a vegetable because it’s eaten “green,” that is, before full maturity.

It’s with good reason that corn has been such a success for so long here in the Americas. The grains are large, they come packed together in a single ear, and that ear is covered by one easily shucked husk. Corn is such a successful cultivated grain that it can’t even survive in the wild. An ear dropped to the ground would sprout too many seedlings so close together that they would be stunted fighting each other for water, light, and nutrients.

Processing popcorn and polenta corn entails nothing more than picking it, pulling back the husk, and hanging it from kitchen rafters until ready for use. Giving a ear an “indian burn” snaps off kernels for popping or grinding.

One more home-grown grain rounds out my larder. Chestnuts. They’re not actually a grain but are a uniquely starchy nut so fulfill much the same purpose as any grain in the diet. Chestnuts have the advantages of being perennial, borne on an attractive tree, and, because they bloom late and have few pests, bearing reliably.

Chestnut preparation is easy: One cut crosswise about half way through each nut, then roasting in a hot oven for about 30 minutes. Delicious.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


Now is generally not a good time for pruning outdoor plants. Too bad. With the lawn nicely trimmed and vegetable and flower beds tidied up, it’s all the more difficult to resist the urge to lop back at least some misplaced or congested stems on trees, shrubs, and vines.

Redosier dogwood, neglected
I can’t resist. I figure little or no harm should come as long as I choose carefully what to cut. One reason not to prune now is that any wounding -- and pruning does wound -- stimulates a certain amount of cellular activity near the cut at a time when plants should be hunkering down for winter. Resulting cold injury can be minimized or nonexistent if pruning is restricted to the most cold-hardy plants. Also, gaping wounds won’t heal until spring so are open to pests. Here I rationalize that problems will be, again, minimal or nonexistent if only naturally tough plants are pruned now.

I’ve been eyeing an ungainly redosier dogwood since leaves have dropped. Redosiers are super-hardy, shrubby plants that liven up the winter scene with their bright red or yellow stems. The time to prune these plants is in early spring, after enjoying the plant’s colorful stems all winter.

The problem is that my redosier dogwood has been neglected for years. Only the one-year old stems are colorful and, with years of neglect, few are evident amongst the older wood. The right way to prune this plant is to lop the whole shebang to the ground every year or two in spring. Doing so coaxes a slew of vigorous, new sprouts near or just below ground level. Come autumn, these sprouts are officially one-year old (that is, they’ve completed a whole season of growth) and need only crisp weather to bring out their brightest color.

I’m lopping my whole plant to the ground this week (in addition to the boxelder and other weedy plants that have sprouted up among it). The plant is very hardy, has nothing to show for winter, and pruning now leaves one less thing to do in spring.

Black & red currants, pruned
Likewise very cold-hardy and likewise soon to feel the steel of my pruning shears are my currant and gooseberry plants. Gooseberries and red currants bear fruit on one-, two-, and three-year-old stems so I’ll be cutting down any stems older than three-years-old and thinning out the youngest stems so that they don’t crowd as they age. Black currants fruit best on one-year-old stems so I’ll cut down any stems that bore fruit this past summer and thin out young stems if they crowd too much. All these plants start growth very early in spring, which is one more reason to prune them now.

Redosier dogwood, pruned & very red
Stems don’t speak to me or bear age labels, so how do I know which ones are one- or two-years-old, or older? I look at them. With some plants, it’s very easy to tell. As I wrote, only the very youngest redosier dogwood stems turn red or yellow, with the help of cold weather. Kerria, also known as Japanese rose, blooms best on one-year-old wood, which broadcasts its age with its bright, green color; older stems are brown.

Other plants’ stems offer hints of their age even if they don’t colorfully broadcast it. Oldest stems generally are those that are the thickest. Stems also show their age in bark that starts to peel or gets bumpy or warty; that is, it looks old.

I’m not yet finished cutting. Lanky stems lash out and grab me as I pass across my terrace beneath the grape arbor, or walk down the field near the trellised kiwi vines. I’d like to prune them now, and I will, to some degree at least.

Kiwi expert Dave Jackson, who grows some of the best hardy kiwifruits I’ve ever tasted (, has 20 acres of the plants. He tells me that he prunes in autumn with no ill effect, so I’m tempted to do so also. Kiwis require more pruning that most plants and one reason he prunes in autumn could be because he wouldn’t have time to prune everything if he waited until spring.

Temperatures and airflow here at my farmden are not nearly as congenial for the plants as at Dave’s farm, which makes me wary of pruning my vines now. So I’ll prune a couple of my kiwi vines now and see how they fare. The rest will get pruned in spring. 

But I’m going to shorten lanky stems on all the kiwi plants, as well as those on my grapes. Plants pack away food for winter in stems, so cutting stems does remove some winter stores; still, many stems, trunks, and roots will be left intact. Right near pruning cuts is where plants are most susceptible to damage. Shortening stems partially, rather than to their full length, avoids  problems near the cuts. Final cuts can wait until spring.

Some plants needn’t feel even slightly threatened by my pruning shears -- now, at least. Pruning butterfly bush in autumn, in my experience and that of many other gardeners, results in increased winter cold injury. Come spring, though, all their stems get lopped to the ground. I also won’t touch spring bloomers, such as lilac, forsythia, and mockorange bushes. Pruning would remove stems slated to bloom this spring. The time to prune these plants is right after they finish their flowery shows.

Want more on pruning? See my book, The Pruning Book (Taunton Press, 2010).

Thursday, November 22, 2012


I’ve always wanted to oil the eye of a fig, and finally got around to it a couple of weeks ago. Not that oiling a fig’s eye is something new or something that I came up with; fig lovers have been oiling their eyes at least since 300 B.C.E. And our reason for doing it is to speed ripening.

My oiled fig is the variety Kadota, which grows in a pot sitting in a sunny, south-facing window. Still, the amount of light streaming through those panes this time of year is around 500 foot-candles, as compared with a 10,000 foot-candle bath from summer sunlight, which figs do love. Light intensity and duration dropping daily justified a little oiling to speed up ripening. All that’s required is a drop of oil placed on the eye -- the ostiole -- of the fruit. Because olives and figs share Mediterranean origins, olive oil seemed most appropriate for fig-oiling.

Although fig-oiling has been practiced for centuries, it’s not some peasant tradition without scientific underpinnings. In fact, oiling releases ethylene; this simple hydrocarbon, comprised merely of two carbon and 4 hydrogen atoms, also happens to be a plant hormone. Present at the right time at the right concentration, ethylene stimulates ripening of fruit.

Not that I had to use olive oil. Other vegetable oils also speed ripening. The more refined they are, the greater the effect. 

You can’t oil just any old fig fruit and expect it to ripen. The fruit must be near enough to the time of natural ripening. The two fruit that I oiled were among the four that were large enough to be deemed by me to be ripe for ripening. In the past couple of days, the oiled fruits suddenly swelled and one is hanging flaccidly, ready to be harvested.

Ethylene’s magic is not restricted only to fig fruits, or even to fruits in general. Depending on timing and concentration, effects of this simple compound are far-ranging. For instance, ethylene was partially responsible for initiating the colorful display of autumn leaves a few weeks ago. Perhaps you have a houseplant whose leaves look uncharacteristically clenched and in pain. Ethylene again. Excessive watering could be the cause; roots gasping for air release a natural chemical that is transported to the leaves where it’s converted to ethylene. There, ethylene disrupts normal cell growth, with curling the result of cells in the upper part of the leaf outgrowing those that are below.

The swaying of stems under windy conditions -- picture a pine growing on an exposed cliffside -- also stimulates ethylene release which, in this case, results in stockier growth. I lightly brush the tops of my tomato seedlings in spring for the same effect.

This time of year, I’m paying most attention to ethylene’s effect on fruits, figs and otherwise. Apples, bananas, pears, and avocados put out a burst of ethylene just before ripening on or off the plant, and this ethylene stimulates further ripening with a snowballing effect. I keep my eye out for any damaged fruit in a bin or bag of fruits, because injuries further stoke the ethylene “fires,” speeding the transition from ripe to over-ripe. That’s why one rotten apple really can spoil the whole barrel.

“Ripe,” for a fruit, can mean different things to different people. Some people leave rock-hard peaches and plums on their kitchen counters to “ripen.” But not every fruit ripens off the plant, even if picked at a near ripe state.

That burst of ethylene just before ripening is not characteristic of all fruits; just so-called climacteric fruits. With non-climacteric fruits, ethylene production just gradually increases as ripening occurs. Non-climacteric fruits, which include raspberries, sweet cherries, and strawberries, definitely do not ripen at all after being harvested.

Climacteric fruits do allegedly ripen -- or, at least, soften, sweeten, and change color -- after being harvested, as long as ripening is sufficiently imminent at harvest time. But is softening, sweetening, and color change all that a ripe fruit has to offer? No. A whole spectrum of flavorful aromatics is also waiting. Although some fruits might ripen to perfection harvested before fully ripe (tomatoes and late apples, for instance), and other fruits must be harvested underripe for ripening off the plant (European pears and avocados, for instance), many fruits, climacteric and non-climacteric, taste best if fully ripened on the plant.

Fig is a climacteric fruit but one that I believe tastes flat if harvested anytime before it’s dead ripe. All of which made me most interested to taste my oiled fig. Would ethylene-induced premature ripening, from a single drop of oil in the eye of the fruit, result in a syrupy sweet, richly flavored Kadota fruit, such as I’ve harvested from my greenhouse tree in summer and fall, or would the fruit look and feel ripe, but lack full flavor. Drum roll . . . flavor is flat. (That flat flavor could also reflect the seasonal cooler and less bright conditions of this time of year.)

Friday, November 16, 2012


Lest anyone believe that everything is always rosy here on the farmden, it ain’t so. True, right now, vegetable beds are brimming over with crisp, tender heads of delicious lettuce, broccoli, endive, and cabbage, and upright stalks of aromatic celery and leek. And, yes, the floor of the greenhouse is verdant with developing, young lettuce, large, leafy kale and Swiss chard plants, and 10 foot tall fig trees bearing fruits

But let’s start with those figs, three different varieties of which live with their roots right in the ground in the greenhouse. Green Ischia has been bearing large, copper-colored, firm, sweet fruits for weeks and weeks. No problem here.

About 8 feet from the Green Ischia grows a Brown Turkey fig. It kicked off the season as usual, loaded with fruit that started ripening in early September. Then scale insects moved in, dotting stems and eventually the fruits with their gray bodies, and sucking the life out of everything until the harvest petered away to almost nothing

About 8 feet from the Brown Turkey tree grows another fig tree, Kadota, with fruits lined up along its stems also. From past experience, I expected problems with Kadota. It’s a delectable and heavy yielder that thrives in hot, dry climates. The greenhouse is hot but hardly dry. With the high humidity in there, almost every Kadota fig has turned to a fuzzy, white ball just before ripening.

The Kadota problem is the one most easily solved. That white fuzz is fungal, and the fungal culprit is probably Botrytis cinerea, a cosmopolitan fungus boasting a slew of host plants. Botrytis claims credit, for example, for a wet spring’s fuzzy, gray strawberries, for a wet summer’s fuzzy, gray raspberries, and, in a more benevolent form, for “noble rot” of grapes, which makes for a sought-after wine. All sorts of ominous chemicals can control botrytis. More benignly, on stored fruits at least, it has been controlled with a 1% solution of baking soda, or an atmosphere of either 15 ppm acetic acid (i.e. vinegar) or 75 ppm cinnamaldehyde, the natural flavoring of cinnamon

Trying to control disease on my Kadota figs with sprays would be an uphill battle considering the perfect conditions for botrytis: a very susceptible variety of fig, a very humid environment, and presence of the fungus. My approach is straightforward, and that is to dig up Kadota and plant a more disease-resistant variety in its place

On to Brown Turkey . . . Scale insects get up into plants and move around with the help of ants. Stopping the ants goes a long way to putting the brakes on scale. Stopping the ants is easy: Masking tape wrapped around the trunk and coated with a continuous ring of sticky Tanglefoot Tangle-Trap Insect Trap Coating. I also, of course, have to make sure there are no leafy, stemmy, or other bridges around which ants can detour. Next year

One other possibility for reining in scale insects is to spray “summer oil” in spring after the plants have leafed out and greenhouse beds are clear of lettuce, kale, and other vegetables. Summer oil is highly refined so as not to damage plants while it’s smothering the scale insects.

Another problem I notice in the greenhouse is that developing lettuce heads have some hole-y leaves and a few gobs of insect poop. Slugs are the usual, occasional problem in my greenhouse, but they don’t leave green, gobby, poopy calling cards. (No less unpleasant are the silvery trails they do leave, from their dried slime.) With more than usual grasshoppers this year, that was also a possibility. Nix on that. I just haven’t seen enough of them for all that poop, and they chew beginning at the edges of leaves. Attacked lettuce leaves were pocked with holes

The feeding resembles the handiwork of cabbageworms or cabbage loopers. They’ve never before indicated a liking for my lettuce but are known to include lettuce in their diet. Yet another possibility is another caterpillar, armyworm. This one feeds at night and, because I haven’t seen any caterpillars, is now the most likely culprit

The natural insecticide, Bt (sold under such trade names as Dipel and Thuricide), that I mentioned last week is very effective against the cabbageworms and loopers, as well as young armyworms. Larger armyworms are finished or just about finished feeding anyway.

These few problems notwithstanding, things are still rose-y, or at least carnation-y, in the greenhouse. The big, fat, fragrant ‘Enfant de Nice’ carnations that I grew this summer . . . well, I couldn’t just leave them out to die from cold. So I dug up some plants to grow in the greenhouse. They add a nice spot of red, white, or pink color, and the fragrance is, as billed, “intoxicating spicy-sweet clove.”

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Autumn weather has been stellar this year, with a welcome number of crystal clear, sunny days, balmy temperatures, and enough rain to keep plants happy. Imported cabbageworms are evidently also happy, judging from the holes with which broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage leaves are now riddled. Even worse, looking more closely I see dark, green caterpillar poop down in among the leaves. And even worse than that, all that feeding weakens the plants and -- I think -- ruins their flavors (even after they’ve been thoroughly washed).

Problems from imported cabbage worms, as well as two other leaf-munching caterpillars, diamondback moth and cabbage looper, are easily dispatched. All three pests are members of the insect order Lepidoptera, which includes moths and butterflies; the organic insecticide B.t., short for Bacillus thuringienses and commercially sold under such trade names as Thuricide and Dipel, kills them while doing essentially no harm to just about everything else, including humans.

So I got out my hand-pumped sprayer this afternoon, measured out enough B.t. to make up a couple of quarts of spray solution, and thoroughly spritzed the cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli plants. I didn’t bother spraying kale, collards, and Chinese cabbages, which the cabbageworms evidently find less tasty, surely not enough to warrant their spraying.

My other approach to keeping cabbageworms in check is, I find, useful for many perceived gardening problems: Don’t look too closely. This advice may sound counterintuitive because attention to detail and keeping a close eye on plants are earmarks of good husbandry. Perhaps the advice should be restated as “Don’t look too closely if you’re going to panic and think that every hole in a leaf warrants action.” Today, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli plants had too many holes.

B.t. is pretty much the only thing I spray on my vegetables and, as I said, only on cabbage and its kin. It’s derived from a naturally-occurring bacteria that lives in the soil, first discovered in 1901 in Japan and used since 1925. Once more potent insecticides, such as DDT, were developed after World War II, “lightweight,” highly specific killers like B.t. fell by the wayside.

B.t. became popular among organic gardeners in the 1970s and, unfortunately, among genetic engineers in the 1980s. During the latter period, scientists developed techniques with which to insert foreign genes into organisms. Insect-resistant tobacco, with B.t. built into its genetics, was developed in 1985 and the first genetically engineered crop plant, potato, was put on the market in 1995. Yummy. (Tobacco and potato -- and tomato -- fall prey to another lepidopterous caterpillar, the tobacco hornworm.) 

So what’s wrong with genetically engineering plants with built-in resistance to insects? A lot! First of all, pleiotropy. As Carol Deppe states in her excellent book Breed Your own Vegetable Varieties, “pleiotropy is a genetic version of the ancient Taoist understanding that you cannot do just one thing.” Inserting a foreign gene (that is, one that could never have gotten there through natural processes, such as the fish gene that was inserted into tomatoes for cold hardiness) into a plant can have effects beyond the desired primary effect. That secondary effect may be good (unlikely), bad, or neutral in terms of nutrition, health, flavor, and anything else.

But that’s not all. In some cases, plants with built-in B.t. experience increased attacks from insects other than those for which B.t. has effect. Commercially, this has resulted in increased pesticide use to control those other insect pests.

And finally, having whole fields of plants uniformly oozing B.t. to kill lepidopterous predators sets up a Darwinian experiment: A very few of those caterpillars are going to be somewhat resistant to B.t. and over time, they will be the ones that will thrive and multiply. Eventually, then, we’ll have whole armies of caterpillars that can laugh off B.t. and just keep munching away. Which will be bad also for us backyard gardeners.

Here on my farmden, I don’t spray B.t. at the first sign of caterpillar damage. That’s another reason I don’t spray all cabbage kin. I’d like to keep a healthy population of B.t. susceptible caterpillars alive.

The warm, sunny weather has also been a boon to cool weather weeds, especially quackgrass and oxalis. I usually clear and cover with compost any vegetable beds just as soon as I am through with them for the season. Clearing a bed rids it of most perennial weeds and the 1 inch deep icing of more or less weed-free compost snuffs out any small annual or perennial weed roots or seedlings that try to grow. That’s the theory, at least.

This past spring, beds were weedier than usual. I reasoned that weeds were sneaking in during autumn’s warm spells, before weather turned frigid. So this autumn, I waited until this week to clean up most beds and ice them with compost, leaving little time before cold weather for weeds to sneak in. Finally, everything looks neat and pretty.

Pepper, like tomato, cabbage, and some other vegetables, has its caterpillar predators, in this case the corn earworm which, as you may guess, also attacks corn. In decades of growing peppers, damage has never been severe enough to warrant spraying peppers or, for that matter, corn with B.t. for that pest.

My attention turned to peppers this week because a few plants were still green thanks to the blanket over them during recent severe frosts. The pepper plants’ days are numbered though, and the beds need cleaning up, so I pulled the plants but harvested any full-sized fruits. Green peppers are immature, not ripe. Some people enjoy them at this stage; I don’t. If sufficiently mature, though, sound green peppers will ripen, turning yellow, red, or purple, depending on the variety, on a kitchen counter. That’s where mine went.

(Quoting from an old Jimmy Rushing blues song, "there's a change in the weather, there's a change in the sea"  . . . I'll say. As I wrote this post, Hurricane Sandy was storming nearer. The weather was still balmy, but with lots of wind and, soon, rain. The landscape swayed. The hurricane took a left turn as it headed up the Hudson Valley and the farmden was spared, experiencing only fairly strong winds and a half an inch of rain. I was ready, though.)

Thursday, November 1, 2012


In the wee hours of the night of October 12th, temperatures here plummeted to 24°F, and it’s about time. Not that some garden plants wouldn’t have enjoyed a few more weeks of frost-free weather, but in the recent past, that depth of cold would typically arrive on the scene a couple of weeks or more earlier.

So I had plenty of time to prepare everything for the frigid night. Drip irrigation timers, filters, and pressure reducers are safely stowed away in the basement until next April. Frost-tender houseplants are lounging near sunny windows. The extra vents on the greenhouse have been sealed shut for winter. And the near-final cleanup is well underway.

Tidying up the garden is a very satisfying job, especially in a no-till garden like mine. (I detail the benefits of no-till to plants and humans in my book Weedless Gardening, whose title hints at one of those benefits.)

Take the okra bed, for instance, the ground strewn with old leaves above which rose stalky plants capped with a few leaves and an occasional flower or pod. Or the pepper bed. Yesterday it was a jumble of flopped over, old plants still coughing forth a few peppers here and there. Peeking out between the overlapping leaves of the double row of pepper plants was a row of golden beets, planted in spring before the peppers went into the ground.

We cleared the beds by digging around at the base of each plant with a hori-hori knife, a most useful tool that results from the mating of a trowel with a garden knife. With roots cut, the plant is yanked out of the soil and tossed into the garden cart for composting. The comes the finer work. Starting at one end of the bed, we pull each and every weed, roots and all, and pick up every leaf.

What’s left, then, is a smooth expanse of ground, 3 feet wide by 10 or 20 feet long, in the case of my garden beds. The pepper bed is not yet a smooth expanse. Up its center runs that row of golden orbs, each with a dark green, leafy topknot; the spring-planted beets are quite cold-hardy and can remain in place longer.

The thorough cleanup is for more than just aesthetics. Some pests overwinter in old plant debris. Crop rotation, that is, not planting a crop or its kin where it’s been grown for the past 3 years, is one way to move that particular crop away from next year’s potential source of the pest problem (for immobile pests). Thorough cleanup is another way. I opt for both ways.

Cleaning up my bed of crocosmia, a plant with sword-like leaves though which rises an arching stalk of traffic-stopping, orange-red flowers, is for tidiness and for more flowers. Crocosmia was once deemed not hardy here; it was a “summer bulb” planted in spring, flowering in late summer, then dug up a stored until the following spring.

I stopped digging it up each autumn years ago, and these days the plant flowers profusely as early as July. Global warming.

I’ve been digging up crocosmia this week because it grows -- and multiplies -- too well. The bulbs (actually “corms,” which are underground, thickened stems) have crowded so much that the plants are taking over a corner of the garden. Flowering has suffered. The plants grow mostly leaves.

So I’m digging up every crocosmia corm I can find for replanting somewhere new. I am sure I’ll have missed enough corms so that crocosmia will also appear again in its present location.

The garden looks neater every day. Quoting and agreeing with Charles Dudley Warner, writing in 1898 in My Summer in a Garden, “The closing scenes are not necessarily funereal. A garden should be got ready for winter as well as for summer. When one goes into winter-quarters he wants everything neat and trim . . . so that its last days shall not present a scene of  melancholy ruin and decay.”

Friday, October 26, 2012


Cooler weather and moister conditions are keeping the lawn happily lush, and still growing. I figure we’ll need to do one or two more mowings before the season ends. That is, unless you count yourself a member of the anti-lawn movement.

The vendetta against lawns is two-fold. First, those lawn areas could be used for growing food. “Food not lawns” is the calling cry (and the website, for those who have repurposed their front and/or back yards for food production. And second, lawns often are ecological disasters, especially those maintained lush and weed-free no matter what the summer weather. But even a lackadaisical lawn needs regular mowing, or it becomes something other than lawn. One hour of mowing with a gasoline-powered mower spews as much fumes into the air as does driving a couple of hundred miles.

I choose a middle ground, and enjoy the appearance, the convenience, and feel of some well-placed turf. Many years ago I gave over some of that lawn to growing all our vegetables and much of our fruits.

My original property of 3/4 of an acre has grown to almost 2 and a half acres, much of it was once regularly mowed (by previous owners). I originally maintained it with a scythe but have since acquired a tractor for giving most of the fields once-a-year haircut, with more frequent cutting around orchard and vegetable gardens.

But just suppose I had a smaller property, a much smaller property, say 1/8 of an acre with a smooth lawn. An environmentally-friendly and pleasant option for this lawn would be a push mower. Newer materials and newer engineering bumped weighty, clunker push mowers of yore into modern sleek, lightweight grass eaters.

An excellent choice among the many push mowers offered today is one of Fiskars Reel Mowers. They’re relatively easy to push and sing a pleasant tappity-tap beat as they roll along spewing cut grass in front.

The only caveat with a push mower is that mowing grass that has grown too long is very difficult. The solution? Mow frequently enough. It’s also better for the grass.

No need for the roar of exploding gasoline for a bigger lawn. For three-quarters of an acre, perhaps more, I’d opt for an electric mower, a cordless one. Battery technology has greatly improved in recent years, giving contemporary cordless mowers a lot more power and longer running times.

My choice among these mowers is Stihl. The cutting width is a bit narrow but the mower is extremely light and very spry to push around. With a mere push of a button and squeeze of a bar needed to start it, this mower won’t make you give a second thought to stopping to move a lawn chair or dog bowl out of the way. This mower plows through even long grass. Run time is 25 minutes on a charge but charging (with the more expensive of the two chargers available) takes only 45 minutes. Take a break; have a cup of tea.

The Stihl mower has just one downside: price. The mower, the battery, the charger, and the mulching attachment (better for the lawn) require a hefty layout of hundreds of dollars. But think long term. When you consider the cost of running and repair, over the long term this mower is cheaper to run than a gasoline-powered mower. And it’s a lot quieter and lighter.

An even bigger lawn? A larger area, even a few acres, can be eco-friendly by converting it to what I call, in my book The Pruning Book (which has a chapter on “pruning” grass), “Lawn Nouveau.”

With Lawn Nouveau, you sculpt out two layers of grassy growth. The low grass is just like any other lawn, and kept that way with, depending on the expanse of low grass, either the push mower or the cordless electric mower. The taller portions are mowed infrequently -- one to three times a year, depending on the desired look. “Clippings” from the tall grass portions are good material for mulch or compost.

A crisp boundary between tall and low grass keeps everything neat and avoids the appearance of an unmown lawn. That boundary itself becomes a landscape element. No need for straight edges and 90° corners; instead, carve out curves in bold sweeps that can carry you along, then pull you forward and push you backward, as you look upon them. Avenues of low grass cut into the tall grass invite exploration, and, like the broad sweeps, can be varied from year to year.

That tall grass portion could be mowed with a tractor, but more fun and better for the environment is to use a scythe. Not just any old scythe, though, surely not those heavy, dull ones you sometimes find at garage sales. I use a lightweight, European-style scythe with a razor-sharp “Austrian blade.” Scything in early morning (the swooshing of the blade doesn’t disturb neighbors) when the grass is dewy on the outside and plump with moisture inside, plant cells practically pop apart when touched by the sharp blade.

Quoting one-time Congressional candidate, homesteader, and swinger of a scythe into his nineties, Scott Nearing: “It is a first-class, fresh-air exercise, that stirs the blood and flexes the muscles, while it clears the meadows." And helps maintain Lawn Nouveau.

So there you have it: Three expanses of grass to mow; three environmentally friendly tools for the job. The push mower (Fiskars), the cordless electric mower (Stihl), and the scythe (available from and