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.”