Most Important, to Me at Least

Hints of summer already are here, not outside, but in the seed catalogues in my mailbox, on seed racks in stores, and from emails from seed companies. Look how many different varieties of each vegetable are offered! Thumbing through one (paper) catalogue, for example, I see twenty-eight varieties of tomato, seventeen varieties of peas, and eleven varieties of radishes. Anyone who has gardened for at least a few years has their most and least favorite varieties of vegetables. Here’s a sampling of mine.

Right from the start, I admit that most important to me in choosing a vegetable variety is flavor. I’ll grow a low-yielding variety, even one that’s not particularly resistant to insects or diseases, if it is particularly delectable. Within reason, of course.

Let’s start with one of the most widely-grown backyard vegetables, tomatoes.

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watering African Violet


Only for Gray-Haired Ladies?

I’m coming out. Today. Let me explain.

Decades ago, when just starting getting my hands in the dirt, I — perhaps other people, perhaps it was even true — thought it was only gray-haired ladies who grew African violets. As it turns out, a number of years after I had started gardening, I was offered an African violet plant (by a gray-haired lady). Back then, before I had accumulated too many plants, I was less discriminating than I am these days. I accepted.

I figured I could provide the special conditions African violets demand, according to what I read in numerous publications. “Proper watering and soil moisture is critical to your success,” I was told by one publication. I could provide the needed consistently moist soil with a potting mix especially rich in peat, compost, or some other organic material. I could monitor the plants thirst by lifting the pot to feel its weight or by periodic probing its soil with my electronic moisture meter. watering African VioletI could of course be careful to avoid leaf spotting by not spilling any water, especially cold water, on the leaves. Watering from below would do the trick, with periodic leaching from above to prevent buildup of salts. They also like high humidity.Pebble tray of African violets

Other requirements of African violets that were and are stated are temperatures 70-90 degrees (F) by day and 65-70  degrees at night. I was also admonished to keep an eye out for pests, including aphids, cyclamen mites, and mealybugs, and symptoms of disease. Root rot, for example.

Oh, and regular feeding should be administered except when resting (to the plants, not me).

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Asexual Propagation

One of my great enjoyments in gardening is propagating plants. So many ways to do it! You can take stem cuttings or root cuttings, or you can serpentine layer, tip layer, or stool layer. And then there’s grafting, of which, as with layering and cuttage, many, many variations exist. Whole books have been written on plant propagation, even solely on grafting. My favorites for these two topics are Hartmann and Kester’s Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices and R. J. Garner’s Grafter’s Handbook.

The above mentioned methods of propagation are asexual. New plants are made from mother tissue of an existing plant. As such, all the new plants are clones of the mother plant. Not always, though.

Grapefruit chimera

Grapefruit chimera

A plant chimera, analogous to the lion-goat-dragon of mythology, is a plant made up of two genetically different cells, a plant mosaic. Depending on what part of the plant you take for propagation, you end up with a clone of one or the other cell type, or, perhaps, both (the chimera). A plant usually broadcasts that it’s a chimera with splotches or lines of color different from the surrounding color of the leaves, flowers, or fruits. (Splotches or lines of color can also be caused by viruses.)

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So Much From Which to Choose

Pear espalier in Mt. Vernon, WA

Pear espalier in Mt. Vernon, WA

Of all the common tree fruits, pears are the easiest to grow — and not just here in New York’s Hudson Valley. My site is admittedly poor for tree fruits, the flat lowland acting like a reservoir into which cold, damp air flows, leading to increased threats from diseases and late frosts. Proximity to acres and acres of forest provides haven for insect pests.

But I’m not complaining; the air might be bad for apples, peaches, cherries, plums, and apricots, but underfoot is rich, well-drained, rock-free river bottom soil that grows very nice vegetables, berries, and many uncommon fruits such as persimmons, cornelian cherries, and kiwifruits. And pears.

Of the more than 3,000 varieties of pears, only a handful are well-known. I figured, as with apples, there must be many varieties better or as good-tasting as the few usually offered in markets. Back in 2004, twenty dwarf apple trees that I’d planted were nearing the end of their productive life. So I dug them out, which left me with space for a number of dwarf or semi-dwarf pear trees. But what varieties to plant? I sought suggestions from other fruit growers, from nursery websites and catalogues (especially Raintree Nursery and Cummins Nursery), from the USDA Pear Germplasm Repository, and books such as the 100-year-old tome The Pears of New York, finally settling on sixteen varieties (listed at the end of this blog post to avoid boring you if you don’t want such detail).

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Mulching chestnut trees


Biochar vs. Wood Chips

People are funny. Take, for instance, a fellow gardener who, a couple of months ago, shared with me her excitement about a biochar workshop she had attended. “I can’t wait to get back into my garden and start making and using biochar,” she said.

Biochar, one of gardening’s relatively new wunderkind, is what remains after you burn wood with insufficient air. It’s charcoal. Stirred into the soil, its myriad nooks and crannies provide an expansive adsorptive surface for microbes and chemicals, natural and otherwise. Biochar, being black, darkens the soil, and dark soil is generally associated with fertility, although that’s not always the case. Because biochar is mostly elementary carbon, it resists microbial decomposition, so it’s carbon is less apt to end up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.Biochar

In contrast, when raw wood — wood chips or sawdust, as examples — are added to soil, it feeds microbes and then plants as it decomposes, eventually turning to organic matter, sometimes called humus. Humus is a witch’s brew of compounds with beneficial effects on soil’s nutritional, biological, and physical properties. So is cooking up a batch of biochar and digging it into your soil better for the soil and really worth the effort?

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The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Supporting Artists?!

I’ve been thumbing through my latest book, Fruit: From the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection. Most of the book is illustrations of many kinds and varieties of fruits painted by 20 artists over the years from 1892 to 1946. Most obvious is the beauty of the paintings. Less obvious is what they tell of fruit growing and marketing in this country.Book cover

For instance, why were the watercolors commissioned — by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no less? To answer that question let’s first backtrack to before the middle of the 19th century. Up until then,  fruit trees were planted mostly for cider, brandy, or to feed pigs. Fermented beverages were a more healthful drink than water at the time. (Just imagine all the tipsy kids wandering around!) 

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Spreading Limestone!

Visiting Clyde (not his real name), a farmer friend, one summer day a few years ago, I came upon him sprinkling some white powder along a row in preparation for planting. In response to my wondering what he was doing, he said he was spreading limestone. I was surprised.

In much of the eastern part of the U.S., unless you grow only native plants, or a rather narrow spectrum of exotic plants, you probably do have to do something to make the soil less acidic. And remember, tomato, apple, peach, marigold, rose, and many other plants in our gardens are exotics. Not only are many soils in the East naturally too acidic for most of what we grow in our gardens and farms, but soils here always are becoming more so.

Acid rain is one reason for this, but even before acid rain, the abundant rain that falls in this part of the country has been leaching soils and making them more acidic since time immemorial. As a general rule, areas where rainfall — not necessarily acid rain — exceeds about 30 inches per year, enough base-forming ions such as those of calcium, magnesium, and potassium get leached down and out of the ground to make soils more acidic.

But that’s not all. Calcium, magnesium, and potassium are plant nutrients, so harvesting crops takes them off site, increasing soil acidity. Some fertilizers, such as those that contain nitrogen in the form of ammonium, also make soils more acidic.

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Fishing, Gardening

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” How true, also in gardening. Not to mention the emotional and intellectual gratification, the “companionship with gently growing things . . . [and] exercise which soothes the spirit and develops the deltoid muscles” (C. D. Warner, 1870).

Let’s take teaching the man — or woman — to fish one step further, gardenwise. Lot’s of people wow others with the expertise they have allegedly accrued as evidenced from the mere fact that they’ve spent a number of years, perhaps decades, with their hands in the dirt. I roll my eyes. Flowering plants originated at least 130 million years ago, which is plenty of time to let the trial and error of evolution teach them to grow. Tuck a seed into the ground and it will probably grow.

Better gardening comes from having some understanding of what’s going on beneath the ground and up in the plant. This comes from growing and observing a variety of plants growing in a variety of soils and climates — which is more than is possible in a lifetime.Gardening books

There’s a shortcut: books, a nice adjunct to getting your hands in the dirt. All of which is a roundabout way of my offering recommendations for books about gardening. The right book is also a great gift idea.

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Popcorn Traditions

I was surprised at the different colors of my ears this fall — popcorn ears, that is. ‘Pink Pearl’ popcorn lived up to its name, yielding short ears with shiny, pink kernels. Peeling back each dry husk of ‘Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavored’ popcorn revealed rows of creamy white kernels. The surprise came from some ears from either bed whose kernels were multi-colored, each in a different way, with some kernels mahogany-red, some pale pink, some dark pink, and some lemon yellow.Popcorn mixes

I plan to bring some of these popped kernels to Thanksgiving dinner, just as Native American chief Massasoit’s brother, Quadequina, brought along a sack of popped popcorn to the first Thanksgiving feast almost four centuries ago.

Popcorn predates that first Thanksgiving in America by thousands of years. Kernels have been found in the remains of Central American settlements of almost 7000 years ago. The Quichas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico grew red, yellow, and white popcorns. Even after that first Thanksgiving dinner, popcorn was eaten by settlers in the Northeast as a breakfast staple with milk and maple sugar, or floated on soup (very good!). Beginning in the last century, movie  and television viewing caused a resurgence in popcorn consumption.

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Potted Figs, but First a “Haircut”

Temperatures here have dipped into the lower 20s a few nights and still dip readily to around freezing, which might lead some of you to believe I have been neglectful of my fig trees, which are still outdoors. Not so! They are subtropical plants that can take temperatures down into the ‘teens.

Today I moved all my potted figs to their winter home. As I wrote in my book Growing Figs in Cold Climates, fig, being a subtropical plant, likes cold winters, just not those that are too, too cold. My plants went either into my basement, where winter temperatures hover in the 40s, or into my walk-in cooler (also used for storing fruits and vegetables) whose temperature is nailed at 39°.

Potted fig

One of my friend Sara’s figs in summer

I always prune my figs before nestling them into the basement or the cooler. Then they can be carried without errant stems slapping my face, and the pots can be stored without undo elbowing neighboring potted figs. 

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It’s a Gas

Ethylene is so simple. It’s a gas made up of merely two atoms of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen. Simple gases are generally not the kinds of molecules that make plant hormones which, like human hormones, are generally complex molecules with dramatic effects at extremely low concentrations. Nonetheless, ethylene is a plant hormone. I thought of ethylene as I sunk my teeth into the last garden-fresh peppers of the season a couple of weeks ago. Note that I wrote “fresh,” not “fresh-picked.” 

Those peppers were picked week or two before being eaten. I picked any green peppers showing the slightest hints of red, then spread them out on a tray. Many gardeners do this with tomatoes. I like peppers a lot more than tomatoes so only occasionally try to prolonging the season of fresh tomatoes.Peppers, ripening indoors

It’s ethylene that’s responsible for the transformations from unripe to ripe. Ethylene is produced naturally in ripening fruits, and its very presence — even at concentrations as low as 0.001 percent — stimulates, in turn, further ripening. The ethylene given off by ripe apples can be used to hurry along ripening of peppers or tomatoes, by placing an apple in a closed bag with them.
Ethylene structure
If the fruits are left too long in the bag, ethylene will stimulate ripening which will stimulate more ethylene which will stimulate even more ripening which will stimulate more ethylene which will stimulate still more ripening, ad infinitum, until what is left is a bag of mushy, rotten fruit. Apples can do this to each other, so one rotten apple really can spoil a whole barrel of them. 

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My newly published Fruit: From the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection (Abbeville Press, 2022), now available here as well as from the usual sources, is a fusion of art, science and history in a 4.4” x 4.7” hardcover volume of 288 pages.Tiny Folio book cover The pocket-sized folio is like a miniature coffee table book, a celebration of fruit-growing in an earlier America with a wealth of historical context and scientific information. The first half of the book is devoted to a range of apple varieties, many with unfamiliar and quaint names; most of these cultivars now lost to time. Subsequent chapters cover pears and other pomes, stone fruits, citrus, berries and miscellaneous fruits such as avocados, pomegranates, persimmons and nuts.

Here are some details:

Between 1886 and 1942, the US Department of Agriculture employed a total of 20 artists, mostly women, to paint watercolors of various fruit varieties. The seventy-five hundred luscious watercolors were used for educational and promotional purposes. And they are beautiful.

I selected 250 of the watercolors for their beauty, historical interest, and/or quaintness, and compiled them into this tiny folio. Would you reach for a Peasgood Nonesuch or Peck’s Pleasant apple, a Neva Myss peach, or (dare one say it?) a Nun’s Thigh pear from a supermarket shelf? 

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Free Eats, and Delicious

After last year’s bumper crop of black walnuts, filberts, and acorns, I didn’t expect much this year, nutwise. As I looked up into the few black walnut trees bordering the farmden, my low expectations seemed justified. In desperation of securing my annual supply of black walnuts, I gave a shoutout to the local community for black walnuts. I got good feedback — of trees, trees that, as the nut season approached, proved to be barren.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a few black walnuts on the ground beneath a couple of my favorite trees right here. A few days later, the ground was littered with nuts, perhaps not as much as in previous years, but still plenty. So it was time to get to work (details a few paragraphs ahead).

Walnuts in tree

Too many people have never tasted a black walnut. That’s too bad. The nuts are distinctively delicious (if you like them). I much prefer them to English walnuts, the nut usually referred to when anyone says“walnut.” Black walnut trees grow and bear relatively quickly, casting a pleasant dappled shade beneath their limbs. Just don’t plant one or allow one to grow where tennis ball size fruits littering the ground each fall would be objectionable.

Black walnut trees are abundant over much of central and eastern North America. The nuts are free for the picking, and usually yield more than enough to satisfy humans and squirrels alike. Many a homeowner who’d like to get rid of the nuts strewn over their front lawn will let you come and pick them up. A homeowner once even gathered them up for me!

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I Almost Become Very, Very Rich

My vision became blurred with dollar signs as I looked out the car window at mile after mile of bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) clambering over trees along a stretch of parkway. That was a few years ago, as I was driving away from a visit to New York City. While there, I had wandered into a florists’ shop, where I had been stunned by the price for a few sprigs of bittersweet. A quick mental calculation as I gazed out the car window told me there was gold in them thar’ trees.Bittersweet on trees

My financial empire crumbled before it even had a chance to grow. In some states, bittersweet is a protected plant. Anyone harvesting a protected plant from private property without the landowner’s permission may be subject to a fine.

To look at bittersweet, you might very well mistake it for a weed. The plant is a rampant, fast-growing vine. Given support, it will climb skyward twenty feet or more. Bittersweet can engulf small trees and shrubs, even kill them by twining around, then strangling them.

And bittersweet isn’t found in restricted ecological niches over a small geographic area. The plant grows wild in thickets and along roadsides over an area bounded by southeastern Canada across to the Dakotas, south to Texas, and then back across to North Carolina.

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Weeping Fig, Growth in Check

My little fig tree put on a lot of new growth this year. Let me qualify this statement. By “fig,” in this case, I mean my weeping fig (Ficus benjamina). It’s a relative of edible fig, also edible (but rarely eaten), and a common houseplant, valued for its relaxed appearance, its small, glossy green leaves, and its tolerance for indoor environments. By “a lot of new growth,” I mean a half an inch or so.Fig bonsai

Despite that meager growth, the plant has grown too large. Nothing like it would have grown outdoors in open ground in the tropics, where this trees’ branches quickly soar skyward and sideways to the size of our sugar maples. From those branches drip aerial roots which anchor themselves in the ground, the ones nearest the trunk eventually merging together to become part of a fattening trunk.Weeping fig in Puerto Rico

My little fig, you probably guessed by now, is a bonsai. The tree, if I may call a four-inch-high plant a “tree,” began life here as one of a clump of what evidently were rooted cuttings in a small, plastic pot I purchased on impulse from a big box store. 

Back here at the farmden, I got to work on it, first teasing the plants apart from each other, selecting one as keeper. The road to bonsai-dom began as I trimmed back the roots to be able to fit the plant into its new home, a 3 by 4-1/2 inch shallow pot about an inch deep. There was little to prune aboveground, but I made any cuts necessary, with the future in mind.

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Saying It is Easy; Naming It, Not so Easy

Pinch your nose with your fingers and say “on.” Follow that with a long, drawn out, “d-e-e-e-e-v,” your mouth in a smile to get emphasis on the e’s. Endive. I once considered endive to be lackluster in flavor, so needed to be offset with this highfalutin pronunciation. After many years of growing endive, I’ve come to recognize a more distinct flavor, nutty and just slightly bitter.

Endive, frisee & escarole

Endive, frisee & escarole

(This is the first time I’ve used “nutty” to describe a flavor, having recently figured out what it means. Nut-like. Duh. Hints of nuttiness are found in the flavors of many foods, including seeds, wines, beans oils, cheeses, fish, and, of course, almonds, hazelnuts, and other actual nuts. Since writing the above description of endive flavor, I learned that others have also described its flavor as nutty. QED)

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Ode to Sungold

As the curtain closes on the summer garden and the autumn garden edges towards its glory, I’d like to offer thanks. No, not a religious thanks for a summer of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, okra, and other warm weather vegetables. But thanks to a person, the person who bred Sungold cherry tomato.Sungold near season's end

Anyone not familiar with Sungold tomato should be. It’s sweet and tangy, not at all cloying, enveloped in persimmon-orange skin. I once grew over 20 varieties of cherry tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme), including Sungold, for a magazine article. As a friend walked down the row, sampling fruit from each plant, she proclaimed, “That’s one row of lousy tomatoes.”

Agreed, excepting a few varieties, one of which was, of course, Sungold. The other exceptions were Gardener’s Delight, Sweet Million, and Suncherry, all three of which are rarely seen these days, probably because Sungold eclipsed the others with its distinctive appearance and, I think, even better flavor.

(My cherry tomato row didn’t include marble-size, so-called currant tomatoes, botanically, S. pimpinellifolium. They are very sweet, very small, and very tasty. I don’t grow them anymore because, for me, they’re too messy, dropping fruits all over the place. The following year, seedlings can grow to become a tomato jungle.)

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The Birds and the B . . . Vespids

Hot and dry. What great summer weather it’s been here for grapes. Most years around this date, I’d go out every morning and pick bunches for fresh eating, continuing to do so for weeks to come.Basket of grapes

Alas, where there are grapes, you’ll find the birds and the be. . . vespids (the family of wasps and hornets, not bees). No raccoons or foxes, here on my grapes, at least. Here you’ll also find paper bags stapled around about a hundred bunches.

The bags are meant to protect the enclosed bunches from birds and insects. This year was a first: Thirsty birds pecked holes in the bags through which they could reach, then peck at the grapes hanging within. By my estimate, about three-quarters of the bagged bunches suffered damage or were finished off in toto. 

In addition to the damage inflicted by the birds, the resulting holey bags provide easy entrance to wasps and hornets, who further tear up the bag and finish off the fruit repast started by birds.

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Not a Research Station, but I do Test

It seems that every couple of years or so, some kind gardener offers me seeds, plants, or just a recommendation for the best-tasting, earliest ripening, or longest keeping tomato. I’m appreciative, but these days usually refuse the offer or ignore the recommendation.

True, In addition to providing a year ’round supply of fruits and vegetables, my farmden provides a testing ground for innovative techniques in growing fruits and vegetables, and provides a site for workshops and training. All this would surely include trying out new kinds and varieties of fruits and vegetables.

But I want to avoid having my plantings become like those described by Charles Dudley Warner in his 1887 classic My Summer in the Garden: “I have seen gardens which were all experiment, given over to every new thing, and which produced little or nothing to the owners, except the pleasure of expectation.”

Still, I have studied plants and soils in both academic settings and in my own “back forty” (actually, my own back 2 and 3/4). I’m in New York’s Hudson Valley, Hardiness Zone 5, more specifically the Wallkill River Valley. This low spot is notable for good soil and bad air. The soil is fertile, perfectly drained, and pretty much free of any rocks or stones. But cold, damp air, being heavier than warm air, pours down hillsides into this valley. It suits disease-causing fungi and bacteria of plants just fine.Aerial view of farmden

The above paragraph is a preamble to my offering a few recommendations on species and varieties worth growing in similar settings, but also, in many cases, where conditions don’t match those here on the farmden. I’ve also gardened in the Upper Midwest and in the South, and I think these recommendations would be well received over a large swath of our country. Some may be worth a spin in your own “back forty.”

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Your Pet Needs:

As the bumper sticker on my truck reads, “COMPOST HAPPENS.” Even so, problems sometimes arise along the way.Compost happens bumper sticker

Is your main complaint that your compost “happens,” but too slowly. I like to picture my compost pile as a pet, except this pet is made up of many different kinds of macro- and microorganisms, and the population changes over time. Like other pets, my compost pet and your compost pet need food, air, and water.

Compost piles work quickest when their two most important foodstuffs — nitrogen and carbon — are in balance. (All this, by the way, also applies to us humans; our nitrogen comes mostly from proteins, and our carbon comes mostly from carbohydrates.) Old, usually brown and dry plant materials, such as autumn leaves, straw, hay, and sawdust, are the carbon-rich foods for a compost pile. Carbon-rich compost foodThe older the plant material, the richer it is in carbon. Nitrogen-rich materials include young, green plant parts, such as tomato stalks, vegetable waste from the kitchen, and grass clippings, as well as manures.Nitrogen-rich compost food

Nitrogen fertilizers are concentrated sources of nitrogen. They commonly are the active ingredients of commercially available compost “activators.” “Activator” has a nice ring to it, but it is overpriced, unnecessary, candy for any compost. Sometimes they also contain microorganisms, also unnecessary.

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