Thursday, June 26, 2014

Chickens & Gooseberries, A Bad Combination

Good gardening is not religion. Balancing and rebalancing is what’s needed, not the constraints of dogma. You want to garden naturally? Dogma would dictate doing nothing, in which case you wouldn’t have a garden. You want to grow only native plants? Then forget about tomatoes, apples, and tulips. And are the plants you want to grow truly native on your “back forty,” or down the road where the soil is slightly wetter in summer?

Gooseberries and chickens are what turned my thoughts to the need for balance today. I grow over a dozen varieties of gooseberries, dessert gooseberries with flavors akin to those of grape, plum, and apricot. I also “grow” seven Bantam chickens; they provide decoration, insect control, eggs, and some degree of entertainment.

On the downside, chickens’ scratching in my garden beds in search of insects and seeds messes up what could be a very neat and orderly space. (Or, looked at in a more positive light, the chickens’ scratching adds a cottage-y blowsiness to the scene.) A four-foot-high fence surrounding the two vegetable gardens keeps out the chickens and those gardens productive. An eighteen-inch-high fence around some other garden areas was meant to, if not to definitely keep the poultry out of those areas, at least to make them do their own balancing, weighing the benefit of entering the fenced area against having to vault the fence. (Clipped wings tips the balance somewhat more in favor of not vaulting the fence, but not enough.)

A few days ago I noticed that this year’s especially good crop of gooseberries in the making were no longer in the making; most were gone. Gooseberries rarely suffer from late frost, at least here, so that could not be the reason. Gooseberries do not need cross-pollination, and, anyway, I have plenty of varieties for cross-pollination and bumblebees were buzzing all over the bushes in bloom. So pollination issues could not be the problem either.
Chicken and young, gooseberry bandits

I lay blame for the paltry crop of gooseberries squarely on the shoulders of the chickens, who have been hopping the low fence around the planting for weeks. Mostly, they seemed to be scratching the ground beneath and around the gooseberry plants but I wouldn’t put it past them to help themselves to berries also.

So, what to do? Putting a four-foot-high fence around the gooseberry beds would keep the chickens at bay but, with all the other fencing here, the scene could begin to look like a prison. The chickens could become soup. Or I could allow the chickens their indulgence.

Another balancing act: Roses, now in bloom, look great either on the plant or in a vase. For roses that bloom all season long, cutting the blossoms coaxes new ones forth. A win-win situation. Except that towards the end of the season, it’s best that plants get ready for winter by slowing down and toughening up. Letting rose blossoms remain on the plant and go on to make fruits -- rose hips -- helps slow them down.

A couple of weeks ago, a visitor looking at my asparagus patch commented on how nice it was that I still had asparagus to harvest. Of course asparagus was still coming on strong; it was only early June!Balance again.

Asparagus is a perennial vegetable whose spring spears are fueled by energy stored over winter in the plants’ roots. For a good asparagus harvest, the goal is to balance spear harvest against the plants’ need to pack away extra energy, created by photosynthesis, in their roots.

Greenery is needed for photosynthesis. If spears are harvested all season long or even for too much of the season, roots are left with insufficient energy reserves going into winter. The result: Plants either die or push forth few, spindly spears the following spring.

So the tack is to harvest for a period in spring short enough to let plants start packing away fuel for winter and the following spring. A good balance is struck by allowing about eight weeks for harvest. After the end of June, spears emerge and then unfold into those ferny fronds which, left untouched until they turn brown in autumn, have time to create energy and store away energy in the roots for another eight weeks of harvest the following year.

With warm weather, asparagus needs to be harvest every couple of days or so. At each harvest, I cut down each and every spear, including those that are too skinny for eating or those that escaped previous harvest and have begun to unfold ferny foliage. Thorough harvest not only keeps new, fat spears emerging but also helps control asparagus beetles. These beetles feed on those early emerging spears. Cut all the spears early in the season and the beetles starve.

If you have never seen the beetles, look on the spears for small, black specks. Those are beetle eggs. Just wipe or hose them off, or go ahead and eat them with the spears. Asparagus and eggs is a classic combination -- admittedly, the eggs for this combination are chicken eggs. Perhaps the chickens should stay.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Of Poppies, Snow, & Herbicides

Oriental poppies, now in bloom with large, floppy, flaming red blossoms, are worth ooh-ing and ah-ing about. Likewise for Snow in Summer (Cerastium tomentosum), with small gray-green leaves and small white flowers, except that too few people know or grow this plant.  Here, the two plants look especially congenial together with Snow in Summer hugging the ground at the feet of the poppies and spilling over the rock wall that supports the bed in which these plants grow.

No skill is needed to grow Snow in Summer, or to propagate it. Plant it and it will spread, rooting as it creeps but never with frightening speed.

Alas, the show from either plant is all too transient. Poppy foliage is soon to yellow and melt slowly back into the ground. And by the time you read this, blossoms of Snow in Summer will have tapered off and its leaves will have lost their exuberance of spring. The show’s transience makes it all the more appreciated.

A narrow, yellow strip of vegetation -- dead vegetation --  sits at the bottom of the rock wall supporting the poppy and Snow in Summer bed (also home to espaliered pears, rugose rose, alliums, and other perennials) and at the its upper border with lawn. I can’t say that I’m proud of the yellowing strips of lawn and weeds, but the weedkiller I applied is very effective at keeping errant weeds and grass out of beds, paths, from climbing the rock wall and growing in between bricks of my terrace, and away from the bases of young trees. Weedkiller??!!

Yes, I am spraying weedkiller . . . but the weedkiller I’m spraying is very benign. I take straight household vinegar, which is 5 to 6 percent acetic acid, and add to it, per gallon, 2 tablespoons of canola oil and 1 tablespoon of dish detergent. The detergent and oil help the vinegar spread out on and stick to the leaves.

The USDA also has been researching the use of acetic acid as an organic spray to control weeds. They found 20 percent acetic acid to be very effective, which is not surprising. Twenty percent acetic acid, though, is neither very safe to use nor readily available.

My vinegar concoction, at 5 to 6 percent acetic acid, is, of course, not as effective as the USDA’s 20 percent. Nor is it nearly as effective as the widely used chemical weedkiller Roundup. My mix only kills green leaves; Roundup is translocated throughout a plant to kill roots, stems, and leaves. Plants store energy in roots and stems so can recover from my spray to grow new leaves. Eventually, with repeated spraying, vinegar-sprayed weeds run out of energy and die. Plus, my mix is not much different from salad dressing (except that it would need more oil, some herbs, and no detergent).

My aim is to spray frequently enough to kill each emerging round of greenery while it’s still drawing on energy reserves, before the leaves start socking away excess energy in roots and stems. Early in the season weekly sprays are needed; later, every two weeks or so.

Because vinegar only kills greenery by direct hit, it is most effective on smaller weeds where there is no “shadow effect.” The vinegar spray’s effectiveness drops at temperatures below 70° F.

My farmden necessitates the application of about 8 gallons of vinegar mix per session, most easily applied using a backpack sprayer. Mixing up and spraying the mix is no fun but has become less unenjoyable with my new Jatco sprayer.

Anyone who has used a backpack sprayer will appreciate Jatco’s rather unique qualities: a carrying handle, clips for holding the pumping lever and spray wand during storage or carrying, a large mouth for easy filling and cleaning, a mixing paddle that moves with each pump of the handle, and the totally internal pump that eliminates that awful sensation of spray material dripping down your lower back (even if it is just vinegar). The sprayer is almost perfect, two very minor shortcomings being the difficult-to-read volume indicator embossed on the tank and the lack of a bottom handle to grab when inverting the sprayer when cleaning it.

The best thing about the Jatco sprayer is the good leverage afforded by the way the pump handle is connected to the pump. Less pumping means less work. Carrying 3 or 4 gallons of liquid on your back in the hot sun is work enough.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Lawn Nouveau & Gooseberry Trees

Come visit my farmden on June 21st between 12 pm and 4 pm as part of the Open Days program of the Garden Conservancy. Admission is $5, the proceeds of which go to the Garden Conservancy, whose "mission is to preserve America's exceptional gardens for the education and enjoyment of the public." For more information about the Conservancy, go to; for more about the June 21st visit, go to

Some people contend that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. I disagree, and especially this year. I’m acting on the belief that if more than three people mention the same thing to me, something is amiss. More than three people have commented on the beauty of their lawns this year, that is, the greenness of the grass on their side of the fence. And these are not people who tend to puff up their chests about their lawns. Nor do any of them hire Chemlawn or some other specialized lawn care company to douse their lawns with various potions to try to create a uniform, lush, verdant greensward.

If lawns are, in fact, greener on these sides of the fences this year, I would attribute it to the cool temperatures and regular rainfall experienced throughout the Northeast this spring. Not, as a radio “expert” contended, to carbon dioxide enrichment of our atmosphere. (Carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and also, as one ingredient of photosynthesis, can spur plant growth. But if it was responsible for this year’s greener lawns, it also would have been responsible for greener lawns for the past few years.)
Anyone desirous of a lawn to reliably brag about year in and year out should move to Britain or some other country of northern Europe. That’s where the climate is ideal for lawns, and where the fad originated.
A nice lawn, but not mine

Lawns had their beginnings in manor estates where the turf was shorn by livestock and the swing of the scythe. Things became more democratic beginning about 1830, when Edwin Budding conceived of the first incarnation of the lawn mower. In the decades that followed, a rising middle class, suburbanization, improvements in lawn mowers and water supplies, and more leisure time afforded by the 40 hour work week all contributed to the spread of lawn culture, which really took off in this country with the housing boom following World War II. Abraham Levitt, creator of Levittowns in that period, wrote "No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns.”
A lawn is a nice surface for children to play on and provides a homogeneous, calming backdrop to a garden and home. A lawn also can be a source of pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, provide food for grubs that become Japanese beetles, and can, if sufficiently expansive, be homogeneous backdrop to the point of boredom.

I choose a middle way with my lawn: Lawn Nouveau (as featured in my book The Pruning Book). The more civilized area, that is, the area around my home, is mowed regularly. Further out, the grass or whatever else pops up is allowed to grow unfettered, except for being mowed once a year with either scythe or tractor. Two paths into this meadow are mowed as regularly as is the shorn lawn to provide enticement to walk into the meadow to get to the other side or to appreciate it up close or from other vantage points. Depending on the time of year, the weather, and when it gets its yearly mowing, the meadow might be awash in such colors as yellow from goldenrods or buttercups, or pastel blue from bee balm.
My Lawn Nouveau

I’m wondering if the shorn part of my lawn appears any different to anyone this year than in years past. To me, the grass is neither greener nor less green than on the other side of any fence. It looks the same as every year at this time: thick and lush.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the imported currant worm, a bothersome pest that chomps all the leaves from gooseberry plants in spring. Oddly, it often ignores currants . . . but what’s in a name? I also wrote that one potential control for this pest might be to grow gooseberries as miniature trees. The worm lacks either the smarts or the energy to climb the leafless trunk to get at the leaves, or so my reasoning goes.

Thus far, my reasoning seems sound; nary a leaf has been touched on the “trees.”

My gooseberry tree in the making
I am training my tree gooseberry by pruning away all but the most vigorous, upright shoot and then pruning off the bottom-most two feet of leafy side-branches on that remaining trunk-to-be. I also pinched back the tip of that trunk-to-be at about 2-1/2 feet from ground level to stimulate branching, which has happened.

Over time, the plant will attempt to send up new shoots from near the ground and along the trunk; I’ll cut them off. The cluster of stems up high will need annual pruning, just the same as if they were all growing from ground level.

Another option would have been to graft a gooseberry variety onto the stem of a compatible plant that is more upright growing than gooseberry. European gardeners frequently grow their gooseberries as mini-trees, and create them by grafting on Ribes aureum, the golden currant, a native American plant. I grow golden currant and perhaps I’ll also try to make gooseberry trees by grafting.

Tree gooseberries have their downsides and upsides. On the downside, gooseberries really prefer to grow as bushes. As bushes, they naturally grow new shoots at or near ground level, and those stems tend not to be long-lived. However, a new trunk can quickly replace a dead or dying one.

The upsides to tree gooseberries are that the currant worm is thwarted, the fruit is held up off the ground, and -- to me, at least -- the plants look really cool.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Holly Needs a Male, and Cold Peppers

Connecting the drip irrigation to the spigot behind my compost pile today, my eyes fell on five nearby Meserve holly bushes. Which brought my thoughts back to last fall, when I realized that I’ve never seen berries on those shrubs.

Hollies are dioecious plants (“two houses”): some are male, others are female. Only the female plants bear the bright, red fruits that, along with spiny, shiny leaves, are so essential a decoration for the winter solstice. To bear fruits (which are ripened ovaries, the female flowers must be dusted with pollen from male flowers.

Last fall, I reasoned that the lack of berries could be that the plants were too young (no, I planted them over 15 years ago), that the plants were too shaded (if so, there would have been at least a few berries), that late frosts were killing the blossoms (unlikely every year), or that the planting lacked a male stud. Except that I do remember making sure to plant one male holly for the harem of females.
A female holly flower

As luck would have it, coincidental with my connecting the drip irrigation, the hollies were in bloom. The blossoms are ornamentally insignificant but did provide the opportunity to confirm each plant’s sexual orientation. No magnifier was needed to see a swollen, green ovary at the base of the petals of each flower on all my plants. All my hollies are females. 
Right away, I started thinking of where, locally, I’ve seen hollies from which I could beg a few male blossoms, assuming other plantings have some males loitering about. Male flowers on a branch with its base in water would stay viable long enough for bees or me to effect pollination.

Once the drip irrigation was connected, I broke tradition, neglected my own advice, and planted out tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants transplants. The date was May 19th rather than my usual end of May planting date. These plants allegedly shudder at a temperature below 50°F., which was predicted and sure to occur again. I did offer them some protection in the form of light, air, and water-permeable “row covers” held up over the plants by double metal hoops (from or, as concrete block truss reinforcing wire, from a building supply store). A single hoop over the row cover at each double hoop holds the row cover in place while allowing it to slide up and down for access to the bed.

Like holly berries, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants are ripened ovaries -- that is, fruits (botanically speaking; horticulturally and legally, they are considered vegetables. As fruits, they need pollination to develop. The flowers, in this case, are monoecious (“one house”), with male and female parts on the same plant. More than that, male and female parts are on the same flower; the flowers are all bisexual.

Pollen still has to move from the male parts of the flower to the female parts, and mostly, it’s bees that get that job done. Bees can’t get at plants within the row cover tunnels so once cold weather is reliably past I plan to uncover the rows and let bees work the blossoms.

Row covers can also offer protection from certain pests. Anyone who grows eggplant eventually becomes familiar with flea beetles and the holiness they impart to the plants’ leaves. New growth on vigorous plants can more than offset older leaves’ loss of greenery but flea beetles can kill weak plants.

So the tack here is to keep eggplant plants under row cover until their flowers begin to open. In addition to fending off flea beetles, the additional warmth and calmer environment beneath the covering spurs growth for earlier harvest and for a plant better able to fend off flea beetles once uncovered.

With peppers, it’s especially important to pull off the cover just as soon as plants blossom. The atmosphere within a row cover tunnel is a few degrees warmer than ambient, which is helpful now, when some protection from cold nights might be needed. Fruit set for peppers is poor at temperatures below 58°F., so a little extra heat can improve early season fruit set.

As days grow warmer, the even warmer environment beneath a row cover can have the opposite effect. Fruit set is also poor when daytime temperatures rise above 85°F.

Tomatoes could remain covered throughout the season because bees are not necessary for pollination. Abetted with just a little movement -- from wind for example -- the mere opening of the flowers effects pollination. Night temperatures from 59 to 68°F. are best for tomato fruit set. Once night temperatures go higher than 70°F., fruit set suffers, but that’s not going to happen for a long time, even beneath a row cover.