Thursday, August 29, 2013

Plums and Pears

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Whoosh! Summer is speeding past. Cicadas have come and gone. Same goes for Japanese beetles. Temperatures have cooled dramatically.

And now it’s raining plums. That’s a good thing, and something not easily achieved in this part of the world without, at least, some sprays. The main threats come from plum curculio, Oriental fruit moth, black knot, and brown knot. The first and the last are my most serious plum pests, curculio causing young fruits to plummet to the ground early in the season and brown rot turning nearly ripe fruit into masses of gray fuzz.

Although a few early season sprays, the last in June, knocked out many curculios and reduced inoculum for later infections of brown rot, pruning is all-important in my arsenal against pests. In late winter, I clipped off or partially back enough branches so that remaining ones would be bathed in light and air for quick drying
-- and less diseases -- following rain or dew. While pruning, I also kept my eyes out for any thick, tarry coatings (black knot) or dark, sunken areas (valsa canker) on stems; such stems got lopped back 6 inches into healthy wood.

I do all this every year and some years I still get no plums; this year, as I wrote, it’s raining plums. Raining??!! Yes. That’s because we harvest daily by giving branches a slight shake, which brings ripe plums raining down. Once we’ve gathered the good drops into a basket and infested and infected ones into a compost bucket, the chickens move in to clean up any missed drops, which also helps keep pests in check.

The variety is Imperial Épineuse, which originated in France about 1870 and made it stateside in 1883. It’s a prune plum, so can also be dried. The fresh flavor is so good that I’m more than willing to accept a crop 2 out of every 5 years.

A certain amount of luck is involved, especially here, in getting a plum crop because my site is less than ideal as far as temperatures and humidity. I credit this past spring’s perfect temperatures for my current luscious harvest. Fingers crossed for next year.

As I was harvesting the first pears of the season (also a very nice crop this year, thank you) -- the variety Harrow Delight -- I noticed a lot of columbine plants colonizing the mulched ground beneath the pear trees. As a matter of fact, columbine and an occasional thistle are the main weeds there. These columbines aren’t our dainty, native columbines but, rather, hybrids of cultivated columbines. They’re not flowering now, but the robust leaves are telling.

My columbines aren’t necessarily weeds. They started out as cultivated hybrids that I planted many years ago. Year after year of cross-pollination has jumbled the genes to create new hybrids, natural ones. They’re somewhat different from the originals and from each other but I’ve never seen one that wasn’t attractive. The flowers are long past, of course, having morphed into dry seed heads that rattle down seeds every time I brush them, sowing more plants. The whorl of leaves are still green and lush with the delicate look of maidenhair fern.

At some point, the number of columbines tips the scales into weediness. Some, I see, have the audacity to be edging their way into the vegetable garden. My plan is to maintain a fluid and, hopefully, not too tenuous balance between columbine-the-flower and columbine-the-weed. I can’t imagine ever having to plant columbine again.

Looking up from the columbines, I continue to pick pears -- not an easy job. The difficulty comes from trying to figure out when to do it. Pears must be harvested underripe because they ripen from the inside outward. Allowed to fully ripen on the tree, their insides become brown mush. The fruit must, however, be sufficiently along on the road to maturity before harvest if it is to ripen well.

A few clues help tell when to pick: A lightening of the skin’s background color; the raised pores on the skin becoming brown and corky; the stalk separating easily from the stem when the fruit is lifted and twisted. These changes are subtle and require judgement. Last year I harvested too late so this year I’m scrapping judgement and picking by calendar date gleaned from various sources after taking into account their locations.

The story doesn’t end with harvest, though. Before the early pears are ready to eat, they need a few days refrigeration. (Outdoor temperatures are sufficiently cool to chill late-ripening pears.) After that, small batches can be sequentially taken from the refrigerator to finish ripening at  room temperature. A short window, then, presents itself when flavor is at its best. “There are only 10 minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. But what a sensuous 10 minutes.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Blueberry Challenge and Aromas Good and Bad

Book Giveaway: AND THE WINNER IS: Andrea Jilling. Andrea, please contact me about mailing out the book. Everyone, stay tuned for more book giveaways in future weeks.


Blueberry-growing used to be so boring. Each autumn I’d spread soybean meal beneath the plants as fertilizer and top it with 3 inches of leaves, wood shavings, or other mulch. Late each winter I’d prune. In late June, netting would go over the top of the plants and from then on, into September, I’d harvest oodles of blueberries.

Earlier this year I knew things could get interesting. Spotted wing drosophila (SWD), a new pest fond of many fruits, showed up last year in the area and an encore was predicted. And then, starting in early August, my harvested blueberries began to soften quickly and were soon swimming in their own juice. The culprit, SWD, was here, in numbers, with plenty of enticing berries still weighing down the branches.

“Drosophila” might sound familiar from experiments in your high school biology class; it’s a fruit fly. SWD differs from other fruit flies in not waiting for fruit to be ripe or overrripe. This impatient bugger lays eggs in unripe fruit.

Blueberry harvest is an almost daily affair and my blueberries are organic, sustainable, green, artisanal, (very) local, etc., etc., so I couldn’t just start spraying any old pesticide. Fortunately, there is one pesticide, called Entrust (derived from a bacterium collected from the soil of an abandoned sugar mill in the Virgin Isles), that is “organic” and effective against SWD. I did spray and now, despite the mildness of this material, we have to wait 3 days for the spray to dissipate before harvesting berries. Restraint is needed with Entrust because one generation to the next for SWD can take less than 2 weeks, leaving ample opportunity for resistant strains to evolve, especially if the pest overwinters locally (which is not known at this time).

After two sprays of Entrust one week apart, I should and will try something else, in this case a 1% oil spray -- also “organic” and relatively benign. In laboratory settings, at least, oil has been effective.

What about all the berries on the plant with SWD eggs in them that are and will hatch into adults? Harvesting them and whisking them into a refrigerator at 34° for 72 hours will kill eggs and larvae. Same goes, of course for freezing them. Another option is to immerse them in that 1% oil mix for 5 to 10 minutes.

The battle against SWD should not -- does not -- end there. Fine netting encasing the plants could keep flies at bay, as long as it’s put on before SWD arrives or, if resident ones exist, after an early spray of Entrust. Thorough cleanup of infested fruits will keep populations down. We’re throwing soft fruits into a bag which goes into the freezer, and then it’s a dish of fresh frozen eggs and larvae and blueberries for my chickens. Mmmmm.

You might detect some flippancy in my attitude towards this serious pest. That’s because we already have 69 quarts of sound blueberries in the freezer.

(Thanks to Peter Jentsch and Cornell’s Hudson Valley information for much of this information.) 

        UPDATE: Two sprays of Entrust and one spray of horticultural oil, each spray a week apart, seem to have brought SWD under control. Once the berry harvest is over, we'll let our free-range chickens access into the "Blueberry Temple" too clean up fallen fruit and resident SWD larvae.


Garlic has been harvested and, as usual, my yields and bulb sizes are nothing to brag about. “You should have cut off the scapes,” suggested more than one person, the scapes referring to the curly, bulbil-topped stalks that emerge from the centers of hardneck garlic plants.

I’m skeptical about scape removal. After all, that greenery does photosynthesize and, hence, help nourish the plant. And while seed development can drain a plant of energy, a scape is capped by small bulbils, not seeds.

A little research yielded widespread recommendations for scape removal, but hard data backing up that
recommendation was generally lacking. What I did learn was: 1) benefits of scape removal depend on the soil and variety of garlic; 2) benefits are greatest in poor soils; 3) benefits may be in terms of yield or bulb size. The most consistent reason to remove the scapes is that they are edible if harvested when just developing.

I don’t like the taste of the scapes so won’t bother removing them. I’m also not a big fan of garlic flavor so tend to plant them outside the garden in out-of-the-way locations where they’re never watered and the soil is not particularly rich. Hence, my poor showing of garlic.

The garlic is now curing as it hangs from the rafters of my front porch where it, fortunately, keeps its aroma to itself. Along the path leading up to the porch are a few plants whose aromas are a lot more welcome on the way to the front door. Those plants have clustered there not by some grand plan of mine, but just by chance.

Let’s see, first on the way to the door is Jasmine ‘Maid of Orleans’ (Jasminum sambac) whose flowers emit a pure, sweet aroma. The plant has been blooming more or less all summer but you do need to put your nose right up to the flower to smell it. Next comes jimson weed (Datura spp.) and angel’s trumpets
(Brugmansia spp.), both vespertine plants with 6-inch long, trumpet-shaped blossoms that appear sporadically. I’m always enjoying rose geranium, mint, and rosemary, next in line, because its their leaves that are aromatic; a pinch can send me to olfactory heaven anytime I wish, day or night.

Nestled in among these last-named plants is one small pot of alyssum. Alyssum blooms nonstop through summer and into autumn so the honeyed scent can be enjoyed whenever I pass, as long as I stick my nose down into the flowers.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Book Giveaway, Goji, and Gardener's (Not) Delight

A book giveaway, a copy of my book GROW FRUIT NATURALLY. Check out my new video Life on the Farmden and reply to this post with what other plants, aside from those mentioned or shown, you think I should be growing here on the farmden. I'll choose a winner randomly from all the replies.


Two plants have been disappointments this year.

Goji berry (Lycium barbarum), the first, has been touted as a wonder food, effective for diabetes, high blood pressure, poor circulation, fever, malaria, cancer, erectile dysfunction, dizziness, and ringing in the ears, and for reducing fever, sweating, irritability, thirst, nosebleeds, cough, and wheezing. It’s also used -- this Chinese plant has a long history of use in Chinese medicine -- to strengthen muscles and bone, and as a blood, liver, and kidney tonic. Wow!

As amazing as this plant is purported to be, it’s easy to grow. Too easy, in fact, which is one of the problems growing it. Lanky, arching, thorny canes grow from the base of the plant, taking root wherever they touch ground. Turn your back on a planting it soon becomes a tangled mass of thorny canes.

But that must be worth it, considering the miraculous benefits of the berries, right? Like so many miracles, this miracle is pretty much unsubstantiated.

The flavor, then, must make the plant worth growing, right? Wrong. The berries taste awful. Worse, they taste poisonous. And, in fact, like other members of the deadly nightshade family, which does admittedly, include tomato, pepper, potato, and eggplant, goji does contain some toxins that cause adverse reactions in some people.

Still, if you believe in miracles and happen to like the flavor, goji is easy enough to grow and bears the first season, so may be worth growing. Not for me, though.

Back in 1975. I wrote a short piece -- my first garden writing, in fact -- for Organic Gardening magazine about Gardener’s Delight cherry tomato. “It brings back the tangy flavor of [tomatoes of] a century ago,” I wrote (and it’s now a century and a quarter, and then some), “ . . . their tangy, sweet-tart flavor explodes in your mouth.”

Now, here in the 21st century, we have better tomatoes than were available back in 1975, mostly in the form of a lot of excellent heirloom varieties. And because of one relatively new, hybrid cherry tomato, Sungold, that tops all other cherry tomatoes as far as I’m concerned.

This year, after many decades without it, I decided to grow Gardener’s Delight again to see how it compared. The plants grew well and bore quickly. The fruits, however were awful, with mushy texture and bland, mushy flavor. “Blame it on the weather” would be a convenient explanation. In my experience, weather’s effect is not that significant on tomato flavor. My more discriminating taste buds? I don’t think so; the difference between what I remember (and wrote) and what I now taste is too great.

I feel bad, like an old friend has gone to pot.

One more explanation might bring hope. Gardener’s Delight is an open-pollinated variety. Whoever supplied the seed could have accidentally allowed some cross-pollination with another tomato variety. The tomato gets rave reviews from some web reports; other reports concur with me. I’ll try again, with a different seed source.

Every gardening season has it’s quirks, but this year has been the quirkiest yet, a perspective reflecting decades of gardening in four different states.

Oddly enough, the season started off being quirky by being so conventional, or, at least, by being what was supposed to be so conventional. That is, temperatures gradually and steadily warmed in spring, without intervening freezing or torrid spells.

Okay, cicadas were predicted. Still, they were strange and right here, at least, much more abundant than they were last time around, 17 years ago.  They’ve left a legacy of  browned ends of stems dangling from trees along roadsides. I look forward to not seeing that again for 17 years.

Japanese beetles are surely no strangers around here, making there entrance, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, just as the cicadas were making their exit. But the strange -- and very welcome -- quirkiness of this year’s beetle invasion is that it pretty much ended soon after it began. Stink bugs, likewise expected by now, have yet to make their entrance.

Perhaps this summer’s Japanese beetle quirk is related to the weather quirk. No, not the nice (for humans) spring temperatures which, being below ground, the beetles hardly would have noticed. Weather quirks included June’s incessant rainfall, more than twice the average, followed by July’s throbbing heat, more than 5°F above the average (which would have been higher had not the last week in July been so comfortable).

Another pest that hardly reared its head here was Mexican bean beetle, which I’ve battled for the past 20 or more years. The reason might be the biological sprays I tried, a mix of Entrust (derived from a bacterium collected from the soil of an abandoned sugar mill in the Virgin isles), Azamax (an extract from the tropical neem tree), along with commercial extracts of hot pepper and garlic. Dense bean foliage and my attempts to limit the sprays only to the bean plants made for less than thorough coverage, leading me to guess that something else might also be a factor. The weather again?

Another quirk: dragonflies. I’ve never seen so many of them as this year.

The final quirk concerns breadseed poppy, a self-seeding annual flower that has showed up reliably every year at various locations of its own choosing around my gardens and beyond. This year: almost none. My guess is that the reason has something to do with something I did. But what? Who knows?

The above observations are very casual and very local, mostly right here on my farmden along the Wallkill River in the Hudson Valley. I wonder: Cicadas notwithstanding, has anyone else experienced garden strangeness this year?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Grass and Blueberries and Kin

The plants I grow best are generally the ones that I like the most. I’m not good at growing grass (lawngrass, that is; more on the other “grass” when it becomes legal). That’s why most of my farmden is given over to wild plants, cultivated plants, and meadow. Still, grass definitely has it’s place, in my view, as long as that place is not too expansive. It’s nice underfoot, provides a soothing expanse of background greenery, and is easy to care for.

I’ll admit that some of my previous attempts to grow grass have been failures. The seedlings dried out or never sprouted, birds ate the seed, the soil wasn’t receptive . . . all sorts of glitches exist on the road between bare ground and a nice bit of lawn.

Recent removal of a two-foot diameter rotted stump of boxelder and renovation of a deck with steps that led down to that vacated spot necessitated a patch of lawn. Thickly and quickly, so the new steps could
be used.

The soil was moderately fertile and well drained but had been compacted by my constant footsteps during stair construction. I loosened the ground by, every few inches over the thankfully small area (8 by 8 feet, approximately), sliding the tines of a garden fork straight down into the dirt and wiggling the handle. Then I raked the surface smooth, sprinkled on some grass seed, and raked again.

That was the easy part. The next job was to keep the ground moist and to keep birds, especially my chickens, at bay. For moisture retention, I covered the prepared, planted ground with a thin layer of hay. For even more moisture retention and to keep birds at bay, I covered the hay with a single layer of cheesecloth, weighted down at edges and corners. The grass will grow up through the cheesecloth which, being cotton, can be left in place to rot away. For even more bird protection, I enclosed the area with a temporary, chicken-wire fence.

Daily watering has already brought on patches of bright green, thin sprouts. Once seedlings are growing in earnest, I’ll taper off on watering to every few days.

The delicate, young grass sprouts evoke such fond memories, not of large lawns but of a toy I had as a child. It was a miniature farm, a couple of square feet, with a little barn, silo, coral, and house. The farmette came with soil, which, as directed, I spread on the field, and grass seed, which I planted and watered. I was awed and delighted by the small sprouts greening the brown field.

I don’t remember ever mowing (with a scissors?) that field, but once my new grass gets firm footing, I will be mowing it -- not one of my favorite activities, although I do like the result.

In contrast to my horticultural skill with lawn, I am very good at growing blueberries. And this is an especially good year for me and other blueberry growers. Our 16 plants have yielded, as of July 22nd, about 80 quarts. Bushes are still going strong and others have yet to begin ripening their berries.

One can only guess at the reasons for such a good year. Lack of any late spring frosts could be a factor, except that my blueberries have never been damaged by late frosts. Abundant rain in June -- to say the
least, with 12 inches rather than the usual 4 inches -- could be a factor, but every year my blueberries’ thirst is quenched automatically with drip irrigation. (Note to myself: Consider irrigating more in the future.) Heat in July? Who knows?
Blueberry plants do have an odd growth habit this year, with branches arching down low to the ground. A heavier than usual crop could be the cause. Or, perhaps, overly succulent new shoots because of abundant rain and limited sunlight in June, and excessive heat in July. Except that many of those recumbent branches are of older wood, from previous seasons. So many questions; so few definitive answers.

A recent bike ride in the Shawangunk Mountains, where blueberries and their relatives are abundant, revealed a relatively sparse crop there. With all the berries at home, it was no great loss for me. I did slam on my brakes for some ripe huckleberries, though.

Many people use the words “blueberry” and “huckleberry” interchangeably. In fact, they are different, but closely related, fruits. Put simply, blueberries are species of Vaccinium, and huckleberries are species of Gaylussacia. Put even more simply, if, when you eat the berry, you feel the small seeds crackling between your teeth, you’ve got a huckleberry in your mouth.

I didn’t screech to a stop just to eat huckleberries. I also wanted seeds to plant and increase my current huckleberry “plantation” of two plants. The berries not only taste good, very similar to blueberries, but also are very pretty, especially in autumn with their fiery, red leaves.

Back home, I mashed the berries in a glass of water, then let the mix sit for a day. The small seeds settled to the bottom of the glass. Stirring, then pouring off whatever floated most easily, cleaned the seed.

What’s needed next is patience. Reports indicate that huckleberry seeds germinate poorly and that germination is slow. And that’s after giving them a warm, moist stratification for about a month, to soften the tough seed coat, followed by a couple of months of cool, moist stratification, to let the plants know that “winter” is over. This is what you might expect for a seed from a berry ripening in cold climates in midsummer; if the seed germinated immediately, the small seedling -- and huckleberry seedlings grow very slowly -- would succumb to winter cold.

My plan is to sprinkle the tiny seeds on some potting soil in a pot, water, cover, with a pane of glass, and leave the covered pot outdoors in partial shade. When and if seedlings appear, I’ll uncover the pot. I like huckleberries. Perhaps I’ll get them to grow.