Thursday, February 27, 2014

Bananas, No, Yes.

Yes, we have no bananas. We do have a banana tree.

Decades ago I was in a similar situation. How could I resist a catalog ad for a dwarf banana tree, one that wouldn’t grow more than 6 to 8 feet high, so could be accommodated within the confines of a standard room? I bought the small pup, which is what small, plantable offshoots from the mother tree are called, and planted it in a large pot. The pup grew. And grew. And grew. The plant topped out at 6 to 8 feet but the developing leaves, rolled up and pointing skyward before unrolling and flopping down, reached a lot higher. Banana isn’t really a tree; it’s a giant herb whose “trunk” is, in fact, made up of concentric layers of rolled up leaves that don’t flop down to a more horizontal position until they unroll.

“A mature tree only gets 6-8 feet tall, but provides up to 90 bananas per year!” states a contemporary web ad for Cavendish dwarf banana. As for the 90 bananas, yes, I had no bananas. Bananas are tropical
plants, thriving best in full sunlight with average annual temperatures around 80°. A sunny room in winter is no home for a banana. The room was cool, not tropical, and, though bright, its light paled against a sunny day in the tropics.

Besides delaying or voiding any possibility of fruiting, indoor conditions left my plant looking forlorn, even if it did perk up each summer outdoors. Upon my return from a winter trip to the tropics where I had seen banana plants reveling in sun, heat, and humidity, I took pity on my Dwarf Cavendish and granted it eternal afterlife in my compost pile.

Last spring, my friend Sara (of last week’s grafted tomato fame) stopped by with a gift: A banana plant, evidently another a Dwarf Cavendish Banana judging from the decorative reddish splotches on the leaves. How could I refuse such a plant, recently removed from a greenhouse, in all its lushness.

In the decades since my old banana’s passing, banana plants have become more popular as ornamentals. The plants grow rapidly, so a non-dwarf variety, once summer heat kicks in, will soar quickly to 10 feet or more to create the focal point of a tropical oasis. You’d need a big pot to fuel such growth. Or you could plant Mekong Giant Banana (Musa itinerans var. xishuangbannaensis) or Golden Lotus Flower (Musella lasiocarpa), both closely related to the edible banana but -- and here’s a big difference -- very winter cold-hardy (for bananas). Either plant (available from and could remain outdoors, with mulch, through winters with temperatures well below zero degrees . The tops die back but the roots survive to resprout each year. Who wants to see a tropical oasis in the snow anyhow?

Dwarf Cavendish is not a hardy banana and does not reach proportions to create anything more than a mini-oasis. Still, my new one is weathering winter well. My original plan was to bring the potted plant down
to remain semi-comatose in the cold basement. But it started out in autumn near a sunny window in a cool room and never made it down the steps. It looks forlorn but ready to perk up after conditions change. And small, because it’s cramped into an undersized pot. I haven’t watered it for months! I don’t want it to grow -- yet.

Come spring, Dwarf Cavendish will get repotted, pups removed and potted, and given good growing conditions. One pup will get planted outdoors to get as big as it can before cold weather, then dug up and put in the basement. Even if “Yes, we have no bananas,” there will be leaves aplenty for cooking, wrapping, serving food, and general tropical lushness.

Not that New York bananas are an impossibility without a old-fashioned, energy-guzzling  hothouse. Given an early start in my barely heated greenhouse, a short-season banana might actually ripen its fruit this far north. A guy in Georgia has found that the variety Veinte Cohol ( will ripen its fruit in October if it’s 2 to 3 feet tall going into summer. My greenhouse is something like Georgia, without the drawl.

All this talk of bananas is admittedly odd with morning temperatures here hovering below zero degrees. This winter has been interesting, seemingly cold but only in comparison with the relatively warm winters of the past decade or so.

The low here, so far, has been minus 14 degrees. The effect is already evident on my bamboo, Phyllostachys aureosulcata, whose leaves, though still attached, are dry and muted green. They were
supposed to remain alive, looking shiny and lush green, down to minus 20°. But the cold came on quickly this season, before plants had a chance to acclimate, and there were extended periods of it. Rainfall, snowfall, and humidity also have direct and indirect effects on how well plants face cold. For plants “it’s not how cold it gets, it’s how it gets cold.”

Friday, February 21, 2014

Graft, the Good Kind

My friend Sara had a question about graft, which made me immediately think of a recent news item stating that, for the first time, more than half of the members of Congress are millionaires. You rarely hear about graft these days, perhaps because dollars are so ubiquitous a lubricant for our political machinery. No need anymore to elevate the practice with a special word.

But Sara was talking about grafting, not graft, and it was for tomatoes. Apples, peaches, and other fruit trees have been grafted for centuries. Tomato grafting is relatively recent, at least in this country. Sara wanted to know my thoughts about grafting tomatoes and whether we should pool our resources to get some plants.

Grafted tomatoes might grow more vigorously, might be resistant to soil-borne diseases, and/or might be more tolerant of salty, wet, or cold soils. A grafted plant has a specially chosen rootstock -- Maxifort, Beaufort, and Emperador are some common ones -- upon which is grafted a good-eating variety, often an
heirloom variety. Whether or not, and which, positive traits the resulting composite plant possesses depends on the choice of rootstock. Grafted plants have allowed farmers to keep growing tomatoes in greenhouses and soils where the plants would have otherwise petered out from nutrient problems or buildup of disease.

With decades of grafting fruit trees under my belt, I’d feel confident grafting tomatoes. There are a few differences, of course: tomatoes are grafted when small (with 2 to 4 leaves); they are succulent and in leaf so need to be kept in high humidity until the graft heals; and, best of all, you see results quickly, within a week or two. You start by sowing seed of the rootstock variety followed, a week later, by sowing the scion (eating) variety. Once rootstock and scion plants are large enough to graft, you lay their stems side by side and make an angled cut into both at the same time with a straight-edge razor. Set the bottom cut of the scion atop the top cut of the rootstock and then hold the stems aligned with a tomato grafting clip or piece of tape. After a week or so of warmth, high humidity, and indirect light, the graft should be healed and the composite plant ready to acclimate to brighter light, cooler temperatures, and lower humidity and -- eventually -- outdoor growing conditions.

An easier but more expensive route would be to purchase grafted tomato plants. Sources such as and sell grafted plants as well as rootstock seeds and grafting clips.

Do I want to grow grafted tomatoes? Yes, I’d give the plants a try -- if grafted plants of an heirloom variety landed in my lap. Which is to say that I’m not ready to spend much money or effort on grafted tomatoes.

One reason is vigor. Grafted tomatoes grow more vigorously, but my ungrafted, staked  tomatoes always start to grow out of reach by the end of August. More vigor? No thanks. Also, there’s often an inverse relationship between vigor and fruitfulness.

As far as diseases, I avoid planting tomatoes where they’ve grown for the past three years, clean up old stems, leaves, and fruit thoroughly at the end of the season, and mulch each year. In so doing, buildup of soil pests is avoided, overwintering inoculum at the beginning of each season is reduced, and spores of overlooked diseased tissue are buried.

When asking me about grafted tomatoes, Sara probably had in mind late blight disease, which has devastated tomatoes in recent years. Grafted tomatoes offer direct protection only against soil-borne diseases, such as verticillium and fusarium wilt. Around here, at least, early blight, septoria leaf spot, anthracnose, and late blight are what strip plants of leaves and pockmark the fruits. Grafted plants would not be resistant to these diseases.

Increased vigor might help a plant pump out extra fruits in spite of disease -- or not. I’m not going to any special efforts to plant grafted tomatoes.

Apples are another story, one for which I am turning to rootstocks and grafting.

First, a little background: I have an especially poor site for growing apples. Cold or cool, moist air collects in this low spot, making plants prone to disease and frost, and the 6,000 acres of woods fifty feet away provide haven for insect pests. The site is also wetter than I realized. Still, when I do get to harvest apples, their delectable flavor makes them worth the effort.

As with tomatoes, an apple rootstock can impart certain desirable characteristics to the resulting composite tree. My present planting is a row of superdwarf trees. These small trees, although early bearing and productive, need codling with perfect soil. My plan is to make new trees that are more tolerant of less-than-perfect soil conditions and, being taller, might hold their heads in slightly more buoyant air to reduce disease pressure.

Apple has been grown so widely and for so long that many rootstocks have been developed. Thus far in
A young pear graft
my research, a rootstock named G.30 seems the best option, creating a mostly self-supporting (except with certain varieties and heavy crop load when young), medium-sized tree tolerant to wet soil and fire blight disease. Best of all, it promotes of early bearing of the scion variety grafted on it.


I'll be lecturing at the NOFA-CT winter conference on March 1st in Danbury, CT. The topics? "Growing Figs in Cold Climates" and "Multi-Dimensional Vegetable Gardening/ Farming."

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Season Begins

Gentlemen (and ladies, and kids), start your engines. The 2014 gardening season has begun, here on the farmden, at least.

The day began with my lugging the big pail of potting soil from the cold garage to a warm spot near the woodstove. My home-made potting soil -- equal parts peat, compost, garden soil, and perlite, with some soybean meal thrown in -- is moist when I make it, so was frozen solid. Not usable or suitable for germinating seeds.

Once the potting soil defrosts and warms, I scoop it into a seed flat and a small plastic tub into which I’ve drilled drainage holes. Firming the soil in place with my Furrow Maker, a small board with spaced out,
The Furrow Maker in action
1/4-inch dowels glued to its underbelly, creates a miniature farm field. Into the tub’s “field” go rows of fresh onion and leek seeds (fresh is important with these seeds, which lose viability after a year or two), about 7 seeds per inch, which is enough to well populate the “field” without causing crowding. After the seeds are covered with soil and gently and thoroughly watered, the tub gets covered with a pane of glass and placed on a heating mat that provides gentle warmth of between 70 and 80 degrees F.

I could sow onion seeds outdoors in early spring. The onions I’m growing, and the ones all northern gardeners should be growing, are so-called long day (in fact, short night) varieties. Their leaf growth comes screeching to a stop in early summer’s 15 or
16 hour days. The plants shift gears and redirect their energy into pumping up growing bulbs. More leaves at that time means more stored energy available to swell up sweet, juicy bulbs. That’s what I want and why I go through the trouble(?) of early, indoor sowing. I’ll plant out the seedlings in early May.

The small seed flat gets similarly filled with potting soil and sown with seeds, lettuce seeds in this case. Greenhouse lettuce is still going strong but I want to have some transplants ready for when the older stuff peters out. A 4 by 6 inch flat with four furrows of lettuce seeds should provide all the lettuce transplants I need for many weeks.

A greenhouse full of only lettuce could get boring. Other sorts of edible greenery currently share the space, and will continue to do so in the coming weeks. Some has been planted, and some has planted itself.

Among the planted greenery is a whole bed of kale and Swiss chard livened up with a couple of fennel plants. Also mâche, which usually plants itself except that overly diligent weeding in the greenhouse
Fennel, chard, lettuce, and kale in this bed
necessitated transplanting self-sown mâche from outdoor garden beds into the greenhouse last September.

Self-sown greenery includes claytonia (miner’s lettuce), minutina, and -- more familiar to most people -- celery. Claytonia doesn’t have much flavor but adds texture and color to a winter salad. The same goes for minutina, which is actually an edible species of plantain (the common lawn weed, not the banana relative). Celery plants are in various stages of growth. We’ve been eating the mature ones for months and the smallest seedlings will be ready for transplanting out into the garden in early May.

So my friend Bob is over for a visit. It’s near lunchtime and he beelines for the freshly baked loaf
Celery for eating and celery babies for transplanting
of bread sitting innocently on the kitchen counter. Bob grabs a knife and already has a sandwich in mind. “Do you have any tomatoes,” he says. What? Tomatoes? It’s midwinter!

I guess he’s made the link gardening-greenhouse-tomatoes. Never mind winter. Sorry, not in my greenhouse in winter, for a few reasons.

Fruiting demands a lot of a plant’s energy. That energy comes from the sunlight. Even though the sun has been rising higher in the sky and for longer periods daily, its light is still paltry compared to midsummer sunlight. A bright summer day bathes the garden with about 10,000 foot-candles of light. My greenhouse, according to measurements taken at high noon on this crystal clear day, is bathed  with about 6,400 foot-candles of sunlight.

Natural sunlight could be supplemented with artificial light. Not a table lamp or even a bank of fluorescents, though. Light intensity falls off as the inverse square of distance from the light source; double the distance and you’ve got only one-quarter the intensity. So plants need to be close to the light source, which then will shade natural sunlight. Special high intensity bulbs are needed to make a dent in winter’s relative darkness.

And then there’s the temperature needed to raise a crop of tomatoes in February. For tomatoes, I wouldn’t want temperatures lower than in the 50s. My greenhouse heater kicks on at 37°F. Each degree of warming increases heating costs about three percent.

Winter tomatoes don’t seem worth the extra cost in dollars and to the environment from increased usage of gas or electricity. And they don’t taste that good. I can wait.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Thank You.

Thank you to everyone who offered to send me seeds of 'Gardener's Delight' tomato from Britain. I have some seeds, and will of course, post the results of my little experiment -- in August.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Capillatron & A Bit of Alyssum

Alyssum’s problem may be that it’s too easy to grow. Sprinkle some alyssum seeds on the ground or plug in some transplants, water, and forget about them. Soon you have a mound of tiny, white flowers. That also might be alyssum’s problem. No traffic-stopping colors or humungous or odd-shaped blossoms.

But why think about alyssum (Lobularia maritima) this time of year? Because my alyssum just opened the first of its tiny blossoms. Let’s backtrack, to last spring.

As usual, I was going to sprinkle alyssum seeds on the ground to fill in some areas along the edge of a flower bed where, in all honesty, the plants would probably go unnoticed. Then I realized how much I actually like alyssum if I stop to look at it, and I especially love the blossoms’ honey-like aroma. So instead of
sowing seeds in the ground, I sowed them in a pot. And I placed said pot on the low wall along the walkway leading to my front door. All summer and well into autumn, I’d stop and admire the potted mound of tiny, white blossoms and bend down to drink in their aroma. (Angel’s trumpets, Maid of Orleans jasmine, rose geranium, and mint were among other potted, olfactory delights sharing that low wall.)

Alyssum is a cold hardy annual or short-lived perennial. Winters here are too cold for it to survive outdoors but rather than be sacrificed to winter’s fury, the potted plant found a new home indoors near a sunny window. The plant, native to beaches and fields of the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands, the Azores, and France’s Atlantic coast, tolerates heat, drought, and some shade. Perhaps my indoor plant could be coaxed to flower through winter.

Annual plants expend a lot of energy flowering nonstop through summer. They need periodic rests. My alyssum was pretty much spent by the time I brought it indoors. I should have sheared it back in late August, which would have stimulated and allowed some time for new growth while the growing was good. Because I neglected to do this, not having planned on bringing the plant indoors, it just sat in a state of suspended animation through late fall and early winter. 

“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” Okay, the times weren’t particularly desperate, just short days and cool, indoor temperatures. And the measures weren’t that desperate. I sheared back the alyssum about a month ago.

And now came the first of many white blossoms. Unless the plant decides to show its annual-ness and just peter out.

Clay. Plants. Soil. Pots. Depending on perspective, some of these associations are positive; some negative. Clay, soil. Although many gardeners bemoan having such soils, most clay soils are fertile. Clay, plants. The organic spray called ‘Surround’ is nothing more than kaolin clay, which turns out to be a very effective at convincing pestiferous insects to go elsewhere.

Clay, pots. Nice. Sculpted and then fired in a kiln turns even the stickiest, most infertile clay into an object of utility and beauty. Lucky for me, my wife Deb is a potter (, so I occasionally reap marital rewards in the form of pots for plants.

More recently, ceramic marital rewards went further, with the fabrication of an idea I had for an automatic pot watering device, which I’m calling a capillitron. Picture an upside down soda bottle with its bottom end (now up) closed with a removable lid and its top end (now down) tapering to a narrow cone closed off at its end. The whole thing is glazed except for the bottom few inches of tapered cone.

The unglazed portion of the capillatron gets pushed into the soil of a potted plant. The capillatron
reservoir is filled with water, then covered with the lid to prevent evaporation. As the potting soil dries, it draws moisture through the capillary channels of the unglazed, tapered portion of the capillatron, the water in which is continually replaced with the water within the reservoir. The reservoir portion, up out of the soil, is glazed to cut short any capillary migration of water from there to the outside of the pot where it would evaporate.

Within the flower pot, any portion of potting soil that dries will draw moisture from elsewhere in the pot, eventually leading back to right around the capillatron. Theoretically, then, the entire volume of potting soil remains consistently moist as long as the capillatron reservoir holds water. The capillarity within the potting soil, which moves moisture up, down, or sideways, as needed, comes from the organic matter in the mix (compost plus peat moss or coir in mine) and -- you guessed it -- clay in the garden soil that I add to the potting mix.