Friday, June 29, 2012


A recent visit to the garden of Margaret Roach ( inspired me to makeover a flower bed. Margaret’s garden is all ornamental, a sometimes lively, sometimes subdued interplay of plant shapes with leaf textures and spots of color. My garden is mostly for eating, although I balance that functionality with rustic arbors, shrubbery (some of it edible and ornamental), and interplay of sight lines. And I do have a couple of flower beds.

My flower bed 10 years ago.
Looking at photos of one of my beds from years past highlighted for me just how much in need it was for a makeover.

The attack began on ‘Miss Kim’ lilac. She was supposed to be a dwarf lilac (a different species, Syringa patula, than the common lilac, S. vulgaris), and I suppose she is a dwarf, comparatively speaking. But she’d grown too big and too dense for the flower bed so I did an extensive renovation, cutting to the ground a few of the oldest stems, thinning out some of the youngest ones so that those that remain would have room to develop, and then shortening or removing any other stem that was creating congestion or was in my way. The new ‘Miss Kim’ took some getting used to, like a new haircut, but now I’m pleased and other plants in the bed have more light and space.

I was more brutal with the butterfly bush. Butterfly bush is one of my favorite shrubs but this one takes over the bed each summer. And I’d just received a sample plant of a new series  -- the Flutterby series -- of butterfly bushes, notable for their small stature and long bloom period. The humongous root system of the old butterfly bush was no match for a chain and the Kubota tractor. Into the waiting hole went a Flutterby.

Next, I took a shovel to the Siberian irises, wonderful plants with pleasant, blue blossoms and spiky, green foliage -- until the plants become overcrowded, at which point they become mostly just foliage. The plants need dividing every 3 years or so to prevent overcrowding. Dividing them was actually the hardest job because of the tough root systems. I probably removed about half the plants.

Finally, more herbaceous interlopers -- which included a lot of garlic, jewelweed, and errant irises and daffodils -- got cleaned up. What’s left is a clean palette, some patches of bare soil ready for some new plants. Thus far: an orange osteospermum off to one side, and deep pink rose campion with purple-pink coneflower on the other side.

Digging in the flower bed unearthed some golfball-sized tubers connected together like a chain of beads. I immediately recognized them as tubers of Apios americana, sometimes called Indian potato or groundnut (not to be confused with that other groundnut, the peanut). How did I recognize them so quickly? Because I planted groundnuts about 25 years ago!

Groundnuts should be more famous; they are the unsung heroes of Thanksgiving. The Wampanoaga Indians introduced the Pilgrims to this plant, and the Pilgrims' diet during one of those first winters was supplemented by an Indian cache of groundnuts and corn discovered by Miles Standish. The Pilgrims soon coveted this food for themselves, to the extent of issuing an edict in 1654 ordering that: "if an Indian dug Groundnuts on English land, he was to be set in stocks, and for a second offense, be whipped."

Native Americans didn’t really cultivate groundnuts, but merely coaxed them along where they grew naturally. Modern Americans became interested in domesticating groundnuts a few decades ago. Hence my groundnuts, sent to me by one of those modern Americans.

Groundnut can be weedy, spreading all over the place via those tuberous chains. I’ve been half-heartedly weeding groundnuts out of my flower bed for 23 years, looking in vain for tubers each time I weeded. Evidently, I didn’t dig deeply enough -- until this flower bed makeover.

Clematis 'Piilu'
The flower bed is also home to a couple of clematis vines that climb up 5-foot-high wire towers, and beyond. No clematis vines will be touched by a shovel for the makeover, especially since this has been such a spectacular year for those two and other clematis vines I grow. Why this year? Who knows? Clematis are generally winter hardy and not particularly at the beck and call of the weather.

My favorite clematis, named Piilu, arrived here a couple of years ago from Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery ( Piilu grows only about 5 feet high to make a very densely flowering column (with support) of flowers. The flowers have pale lavender petals whose intensity deepens towards their bases, at which also sits a dense bottlebrush of creamy white stamens. The plant blooms all season, with later flowers, borne on new stems, having double rows of petals.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Every time I go near my apple and plum trees, I feel like my Nanking cherry, mulberry, pawpaw, and persimmon plants are laughing and flaunting their fruits at me. Nanking cherry and company are just a few of the fruits that I grow that require virtually no care.
Apples, on the other hand: If you wanted to come up with the most difficult fruit to grow east of the Rocky Mountains, it would be apple. Or plum, or apricot, peach, nectarine, or sweet cherry. The plants actually grow fine; getting fruit is another story. Organically grown fruit, that is.
Apple fruit, already damaged by plum curculio
The reason these common tree fruits are so difficult to grow around here is because of insect and disease problems (and, in the case of apricot, peach, and nectarine, winter cold and late spring frosts). For an insect or disease to cause a problem, three conditions need fulfillment: The presence of the insect or disease, a susceptible host plant, and an environment congenial to the insect or disease. I mulch my apples and plums with wood chips, prune away diseased stems, grow nectar-producing flowers to attract beneficial insects, spray organic concoctions such as kaolin clay, let chickens run loose beneath the plants, blah, blah, blah; and for all that effort, still often reap little or nothing. 
Problem is that the northeast is home to some serious insect and disease problems of apples and company and the environment is much to these pests’ liking, as are the plants. Resistant varieties might be resistant to diseases but not insects or to one disease but not another. No variety is resistant to all the insect and disease pests lurking in forest and field.
Nanking cherries, no need to spray or even prune!
Still, most people, when they consider growing fruit, think first of apples, and then plums, peaches, and other tree fruits familiar on supermarket shelves. In fact, though, there are a slew of other fruits, many of them, like Nanking cherry and company, very easy to grow. As I point out in my new book, GROW FRUIT NATURALLY (Taunton Press, 2011), the first step in growing fruits naturally/organically/holistically is to select those that are naturally well-adapted to the local climate and insect and disease pressures.
This all-important planning step does not preclude growing many common fruits. Pears, for example, both European and Asian varieties, are relatively easy to grow around here. The trees do need pruning but usually can be grown without the need for any sprays, organic or otherwise. With thousands of varieties, pears alone could round out your larder. I grow about 20 varieties.
Berries are also relatively easy to grow. Pruning is important both for good production and to help keep diseases and insects in check. My berry plantings include raspberries, blackberries, black raspberries, gooseberries (more than a dozen varieties!), red currants, black currants, clove currants, elderberries gumis, seaberries, lingonberries, lowbush blueberries, and, my favorite, highbush blueberries. Pest control? I spray insecticidal soap on my gooseberries once, just as the leaves unfold to kill any imported currantworms that may be starting their leafy feast. I mulch my blueberries late each fall to bury any infected berries that could spread mummy berry disease the following spring. And that’s about it for pest control on all my berries.
Still not enough fruit? Well, there are the mulberries. Not run-of-the-mill mulberries, such as grow wild all over the place. But named varieties -- Illinois Everbearing, Oscar, and Geraldi Dwarf -- selected for their high quality fruits. And cornelian cherries, an excellent stand-in for tart cherries, except much, much easier to grow. They bloom around the first day of spring yet never fail to set a good crop of fruit. The same can be said for Nanking cherries, a hedge of which lines my driveway and is now yielding many more sweet-tart cherries than I, birds, squirrels, and chipmunks could possibly eat. Total effort involved for all these fruits? None.
And the list goes on: pawpaws, persimmons, hardy kiwifruits, juneberries, grapes . . . so many fruits, so little space. The grapes get bagged to keep insects, diseases, and birds and bay.
(Actually, in my microenvironment, juneberries do not bear well because of various insect and disease problems. The solution? I don’t grow them. But as I wrote, that still leaves plenty of fruits that can be grown easily and without any significant pest problems.)
So why do I grow apples and plums? I grow them because I frequently write about fruit growing. I grow them to supplement my “book learning” with what I observe “in the field” (in other people’s “fields” also). I grow them because when I apply all the right sprays at just the right time and the weather cooperates and insect and disease pressures aren’t too, too bad and all the stars align just right, I harvest some very tasty apples.
My pawpaws and hardy kiwifruits
Would I suggest others to plant apples, plums, or possibly peaches, apricots, nectarines, or sweet cherries? Probably not, unless said person was interested in learning a lot about fruit pests, spending a lot of time and no small amount of money dealing with them, and then was willing to accept the fact, as Charles Dudley Warner wrote, tongue-in-cheek and over a hundred years ago in MY SUMMER IN THE GARDEN, that “the principle value of the garden . . . is to teach . . . patience and philosophy, and the higher virtue – hope deferred, and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation, and sometimes to alienation. The garden thus becomes a moral agent, a test of character, as it was in the beginning.” All well and good if that’s what you want from planting fruit.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


A garden cart improves any garden, and I’m especially enjoying using my cart, now in its third decade of use. This cart has hauled hay, manure, weeds, and old vegetable plants to the compost bins, and finished compost from the bins to vegetable beds and fruit trees. It’s hauled stones for wall building and heavy locust posts that get notched and bolted together to become arbors and trellises.
Look closely: Hardware cloth in bed
A good cart has two heavy duty, bicycle-sized tires sitting just about midway across a sturdy plywood bed surrounded by three sturdy plywood walls. Tossed rocks, the scraping of a shovel, and an occasional jab with the pitchfork have eaten away that plywood over the years. Not anymore, and that’s why I’m especially enjoying using the cart.
A few months ago, I decided to replace the plywood bed, which by then had few plies left. Instead of replaying the scenario from the last replacement, about 15 years ago with exterior grade plywood, I used pressure-treated plywood, which is more rot-resistant. And next, to fend off the constant scraping of shovels, rocks, and other tools and materials, I laid 1/4 inch mesh “hardware cloth” over the plywood base and screwed it down.
Today, shoveling wood chip mulch out of the cart to spread around the base of newly planted mulberry trees, no little voice in the back of my mind was reminding me that each shovelful was also scraping off a bit of plywood. I’m expecting to get good mileage with the new bed. Stay tuned; I’ll report back in 30 years.
Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis), a wildflower often mistakenly thought to be phlox (which has 5 petals instead of the 4 of dame’s rocket, has put on a great show of white, lilac, and pale purple blossoms this year. Now a dark cloud has passed over those cheery flowers.
Dame’s rocket, a European native that used to be cultivated in American gardens, escaped from our gardens many years ago to invade road sides, meadows, and cultivated fields. In some places, this comely flower is billed as “invasive.” "Left unchecked, this beautiful, yet lethal plant will wreak havoc on the natural environment, threatening the survival of native plants and degrading habitat and water quality," writes restoration ecologist Steve Apfelbaum.
Call me irresponsible, but I still like dame’s rocket. I welcome it into my flower beds and into my meadow. In addition to beauty, the flower perfumes the air with a delicious, sweet aroma.
I have been too blasé about some other invasive plants in the past. I remember praising garlic mustard for its flavor. What was I thinking? The plant is now all over the place and doesn’t even really taste very good. Garlic mustard gets ripped out of the ground wherever I see it, in and around my garden at least. Perhaps I’ll eventually feel the same about autumn olive, which I enjoy for its fragrant blossoms in spring, its silvery leaves in summer, and the oodles of tasty, small red berries it bears in autumn. Thus far, I find Japanese stilt grass, yet another invader, attractive.
Sweet, pretty dame’s rocket is allegedly going to contribute to the alleged $200 billion of damage for which invasive plants are responsible. It’s even suggested that the plant might have some resistance to the herbicide Roundup.
The whole invasive plant threat has, in my opinion, been blown way out of proportion. Our landscapes, wild and cultivated, are not -- and should not -- be static. Over time, extant species might become more or less prevalent and new species might move in.
And just what does “native” mean? A few hundred feet from the alluvial soil of my garden in the Walkill River valley, the ground slopes up sharply to the craggy, rocky outcroppings of the Shawangunk Ridge. Plants native up there, such as mountain laurel, aren’t native down here. Furthermore, research has shown that non-native species sometimes have a positive environmental impact (see, for example, Mark Davis et al in Nature 474, 153–154, 2011).
Obviously, we need to try and control invasive plants, whether they are native or non-native, when they cause intolerable disruption of the environment or threaten our well-being. But change is inevitable and usually not bad. Quoting Michael Pollan, turning the “ecological clock to 1492 [or any other date] is a fool’s errand, futile and pointless to boot.”
Rose de Rescht
What a great year for roses, even if I’ve always contended that I didn’t like the roses. Actually, I didn’t and don’t like the roses that are most commonly grown, which are hybrid tea roses. The plants are gawky, something you’d plant out of sight just for cut blossoms, and the flowers are stiff, formal, and jarring in color. They’re also very susceptible to all sorts of pests.
William Baffin
I do like the roses I have growing and which are presently drenched with blossoms. The super-hardy William Baffin rose, from Canada is sporting single, large, bright red flowers. Amber Sunblaze is notable for salmon-pink blossoms on a plant whose foliage stays glossy, green, and healthy all summer long. A couple of David Austin rose blossoms look like cupfuls of pastel-colored crêpe paper.
My favorite of all the roses, one given to me as a cutting many years ago by herbalist Ann Solomon, is Rose de Rescht. At least that’s what it’s alleged to be. Rose de Rescht is supposed to have more than one bloom period each season, though, and mine has never rebloomed. Then again, mine never flowered as well as it has this year, a couple of years since I moved it to its new and more congenial surroundings.
Whether or not my Rose de Rescht really is Rose de Rescht, it’s now covered with blowsy, soft pink blossoms that send their fragrance a few feet from the bush. Everyone that smells the blossoms says something to the effect “Now that is a real rose smell.” And the rose blossomed just in time this year to provide abundant flowers for a very special wedding.

Friday, June 8, 2012


Who would look at a lilac bush, just leaves and flowers morphed to browning seed capsules, and even prune it this time of year? I would! Pruning a couple of months ago would have cut off many blossoms before they even unfolded. Pruning now, after enjoying the blossoms, is a way to keep the shrub shapely and queue up blossoms for next year. Next year’s flowers are formed on buds this summer so we can’t wait too long to prune or there won’t be enough time for the new flower buds to develop.

My lilac has suffered years of pruning neglect (quite an admission from the author of The Pruning Book, especially as relates to a plant that looks best with annual or at least biannual pruning). Every year my lilac has grown uglier and uglier, its flowers fewer and fewer, and the task of pruning it more and more daunting. On the flip side, the plant has been harder and harder to ignore.

So this week I attacked. A scythe made quick work of clearing old daffodil foliage, and weeds from around the base of the plant. Moving on to the bush itself, the most dramatic cuts came first, with a hand saw lopping a few of the thickest stems right down at or near ground level. Other thick stems got less severe treatment. Where branching was making parts of the shrub too dense, I cut off some of the branches. Down at the base of the plant, I thinned out some young sprouts so that those that remained could develop with sufficient elbow room. I also carefully unravelled and cut back as low as could be reached some poison ivy that had insinuated itself in amongst the lilac stems.

My lilac in bloom a few years ago.
The work was slow but worth it. Like building a stone wall, pruning a neglected, old lilac is a job that can’t be rushed. Trimmed, the lilac shrub now rises up from the soil like a graceful fountain of water. Increased light within the shrub and removal of much old wood and developing seedpods should make for a good show next May.

A friend told me that his wife was rather frantic about aphids on some of their shrubs. Yes, aphids are plant pests, but they also are so interesting. For instance, the females -- which most aphids that you see are -- give birth to live young that are clones of themselves. No males or sex is needed to make those babies. 

Unfettered, a single female could give rise to thousands of offspring over the course of a season, which could result in crowded conditions or having to settle for to poorer quality food. No problem. When that happens, Ms. Aphid gives birth to babies with wings so they can fly off in search of greener pastures. Come autumn, it’s time for some sex. Females then produce a few males, mating occurs, and eggs are laid that remain dormant until spring.

We’re not knee-deep in aphids, so something is keeping aphid populations in check. Cold, heat, and rain all take their toll. Aphids also have many natural predators, including fungi, lacewings, and, most familiarly, ladybird beetles. 

Outdoors, I sometimes see aphids on plants but usually just wait for them to naturally die out. Their most dramatic damage effect is the red puckering they leave on a few red currant leaves. Plants can compensate for some leaf damage; I do nothing and the red currants have always been none the worse for wear. Many pesticides are especially toxic to aphid predators and I credit much of my lack of aphid problems to my avoidance of pesticides.

But my friend said aphids were killing his shrubs. He sprayed horticultural oil, a light oil formulated to smother pests but not damage plants. That’s a reasonable and benign strategy, effective if the spray thoroughly coats the plant. Other environmentally sound sprays are insecticidal soap or -- my favorite -- strong blasts of water. On small plants, aphids, which mostly congregate on new growth, can be merely rubbed off with your fingers.

My friend asked about buying in some ladybird beetles. That works, if the ladybird beetles stick around. Green lacewings are another aphid predator that can be purchased. An often more effective and cheaper alternative to buying in aphid predators is to create habitats that attract them. At some points in their life cycles, many predators feed on plant nectar, which is especially abundant in small, wide-opening flowers such as cilantro, dill, coneflower, coreopsis, alyssum, goldenrod, cosmos, sunflower, and other members of the carrot or daisy family.

This year is the first year that I see no evidence of aphid attack on my red currants. My guess is that the late frosts did in the buggers.

I’d rather not have had those frosts and had more aphids because those frosts also knocked out some developing fruits. Hardest hit were apples, Asian pears, European pears, and hardy kiwifruits. Least affected were grapes and super-hardy kiwifruits, both of which fruit on secondary buds if primary buds are killed, persimmons, pawpaws, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, and black, clove, red, pink, and white currants. A variety of plants is a good hedge against bad weather and other calamities.

Another WORKSHOP: BACKYARD COMPOSTING. The why and the how of backyard composting, everything from designing an enclosure to what to add (and what not to add) to what can go wrong (and how to right it). Also, how to make best use of compost. Workshop will be held 9-11:30 on June 23rd at my farmden. Space is limited. Contact me for registration or other information.

Friday, June 1, 2012


Bamboo is a plant that can strike up admiration as well as terror. Right now, my planting is leaning towards terror.

Most cold hardy bamboos are so-called running types for their ability to spread via underground runners. A few hardy bamboos behave like tropical bamboos, forming neat clumps whose spread is hardly noticeable. These cold-hardy temperate kinds (Fargesia spp.) have relatively thin canes that create picturesque, delicate-looking fountains of greenery. 

But 20 years ago I wanted (and still want) bamboo with robust canes thickening to an inch or more across, a bamboo on which can climb tomato or bean plants, that I can use for making trellises, even for eating. And the grove itself, with some pruning out of crowded canes, becomes a mysterious forest.

This spring's new growth of bamboo towering above last year's.
Yellow grove bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata) is among the hardiest of the “timber” bamboos. Within a half-hour’s drive from here, into cold hardiness Zone 6, this species grows over 20 feet tall, with 2-inch-thick canes. In this cold spot where I live, yellow grove bamboo grows only about 15 feet high, with canes just a little more than an inch across -- nice, but not quite as “mysterious” or “foresty” as I had hoped. Except for recent winters, the canes of my planting have always died back to the ground so that each year the plant had to grow all new canes, something it does with much enthusiasm. I’ve measured 6 inches of growth per day for the month or so it elongates in spring!

In recent winters, my planting has held its green leaves all through winter, just like plants further south. The result is thicker and longer canes. That extra energy saved also infuses the whole planting with even more vigor -- and that is what incites terror.

I had the foresight 20 years ago to hem in most of my planting with an impenetrable barrier to stop the future spread of the roots. The thick plastic barrier reaches down a couple of feet deep into the ground and is usually used to prevent tree roots from creeping beneath and heaving up nearby sidewalks.

I lacked the foresight 20 years ago to appreciate how relentlessly the roots would seek escape from said barrier. Some roots evidently briefly braved sunshine long enough to hop over the lip and then dive back into the ground, reappearing across an 8 foot strip of mown grass in among some raspberry and gooseberry plants. My plan for the latter escapees is to cut down shoots as relentlessly as they appear, and eat them. And then, close inspection of the barrier and severing of errant escapees right there should starve out the root network that has entered the garden.

I never put a barrier to the rear of my planting. There, woods have pretty much kept the spread of bamboo roots in check. But with warmer winters, less so in recent years.
I just don’t get all the hubbub about garlic. I was recently looking at a friend’s very small vegetable garden, almost half of which was devoted to garlic. It’s not that garlic tastes bad (although in the past it was used more as medicine or for warding off witches than for eating). It’s just that the area devoted to garlic could have been devoted to asparagus, tomatoes, lettuce, or beans. Even small fruit bushes, such as gooseberries, currants, or blueberries could have used that real estate instead. 

I’d choose any of these vegetables or berries over garlic (for eating, not sorcery). Home-grown asparagus, tomatoes, lettuce, or beans taste vastly better than what you can buy. Same goes for the berries, and you can’t usually even buy gooseberries or currants, especially of the better varieties. Garlic from a store or farmer’s market tastes as good as what you can grow, and fresh-picked is not a consideration for this storage bulb.

I grow garlic as an afterthought in out of the way places. It does get its needed full sunlight and rich soil, though. In fact, around here, I spend more time weeding out garlic than planting it. Clumps sprout in my flower beds, in amongst my berry bushes, and at the base of a rose bush. Garlic does not make seeds so I can’t imagine how it gets to all these places.

I’m glad that the one place where it does not appear spontaneously is in my vegetable garden.