This summer has been one of the hottest and driest ever — and it’s been one of the best ever in the vegetable garden. Baskets of red, ripe tomatoes and peppers sit on the kitchen floor awaiting metamorphosis into sauces and salsas, dehydration, or just plain being eaten.
What about water? My garden plants are plump with water thanks to drip irrigation. In addition to benefits to the plant, drip is also good for the environment, typically using only about 40 percent of the amount of water used by sprinkling. That’s because the more pinpointed water avoids wasting water in paths and other places it’s not needed. Also because little water is lost to evaporation.
The “drip” in drip irrigation tells you that water is applied at a very slow rate, which is especially appealing to those of us whose water comes from a well. With drip, the well has plenty of time to recharge between waterings.
Drip is also better for plants. Leaves stay dry, lessening the chance for disease. And rather than flooding the ground, which a sprinkler does at each watering, drip keep soil moisture within that happy window when larger pores remain filled with air, and water is held within smaller pores so that roots can both breathe and draw in water. (This is one reason for the more efficient water use of drip irrigation.)
First Step, Identification
A few years ago I went to a nearby permaculture convergence. (Actually a “permaculture conference; those people have the best terms for what they do). I’ve grown plants in what I learned was a permie way for many decades, so I’ve been accused of being a permaculturalist. I was even invited to do a presentation and host a farmden tour for the convergence.
While there, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by someone who has been billed as the diva of dirt, or, at least, of compost tea, specifically aerated compost tea (ACT), Dr. Elaine Ingham. You’ve never heard of ACT!? It became the hot, new thing years ago, perhaps still is, as an alleged cure for poor soil and plant pests. I’d been skeptical and thought that hearing and speaking to Dr. Ingham in person could entice me into the fold.
Dr. Ingham showed myriad images of fungi, nematodes, and other creatures that you might find in compost piles and teas. We saw many “bad guys” that lurk in poorly aerated composts and teas. The “bad guys” are bad, she asserted, because they release toxins into the soil and puff away valuable nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus in various forms as gases.
Dr. Ingham suggested monitoring our compost piles and tea happenings by purchasing a microscope and, with the help of her workshops, identifying resident microorganisms. Hmmm; interesting, but is it really necessary for a green thumb?
While the panoply of microorganisms discussed was impressive, I contend that even a well-aerated compost pile or tea is bound to have some poorly aerated pockets. It’s not a “bad guys” vs. “good guys” situation, but a question of generally favoring an excess of “good guys.” Also, once compost is spread on the ground, the large surface area presented is going to tip the balance even more in favor of aerobic conditions.
To identify what organisms are in a compost pile, you have to get them out of the pile and onto a microscope slide. Easy. Just soak some compost in water and strain it. Or use a compost teabag. But wait! Is that really the spectrum of microorganisms that call that compost home? Not necessarily. What are staring up at you from that microscope slide are creatures that can be leached most readily into water. What you see also might depend on how long you steeped the teabag and who can squeeze out into the water through whatever size holes are offered by the strainer or the teabag.
Will Compost Microbes be Happy Far from their Compost Home? More fundamentally, I question basic assumptions underlying the use of compost tea. Even if you have beneficial organisms in hand (figuratively) and sprinkle them on the ground, they’re bound to expire unless the environment is suitable. Microorganisms in the tea might have enjoyed life within the dark, moist innards of a compost pile; the soil environment ain’t nothin’ like home for them.
Spraying ACT or any compost tea on plant leaves should likewise have little or no effect on plant diseases; again, conditions on a leaf surface aren’t conducive to their survival. In the evolutionary scheme of things, why would a microorganism that thrives in the dark, moist, nutrient-rich innards of a compost pile survive on the sunny, dry, nutrient-poor surface of a plant leaf, let alone provide any benefits?
Over the last few decades, people have spritzed plants and sprinkled soils with compost tea, looking for effects such as improved soil structure or drainage or increased plant resistance to pests. Independent well-designed, vetted studies do not generally support claims made for compost tea.
True, there are some studies that show some benefits. I contend that if you spray just about anything on a plant leaf and have enough plants in the study along with sufficiently detailed measurements, some statistically significant effect might be noted. But every statistically significant effect isn’t also biologically significant. And looking over a number of studies, some few show a benefit from compost tea, many demonstrate no effect, and for a number of them, the effect of compost tea is detrimental.
Soluble nutrients do leach out of a compost teabag into water. The resulting compost tea, then, becomes a liquid feed for plants, effective either poured on the ground or even sprayed on leaves. So there can be some benefit from compost tea, a nutrient effect, not a microbial one.
Bulk is Good
Except in special situations, soil environments naturally host microorganisms that thrive best in them. A similar situation exists with earthworms. Years ago, perhaps still, advertisements in the back pages of gardening magazines would offer earthworms for sale. The reasoning went that good soils are teeming with earthworms, so purchasing and importing these creatures to you garden will make your soil better. Not true. The earthworms will die out if conditions and food are not to their liking. The same goes for microorganisms.
(An example of an exception to what I wrote in the previous paragraph is a study that was done in Puerto Rico back in 1950. THE USDA was trying, with little success to introduce a more useful, but non-native pine, to the island territory. Mycorrhizae are fungal symbionts that infect practically all plants; the fungus gets some foods manufactured by the plant in return for moving more nutrients and water to the plant for improved growth. The appropriate fungal symbiont was lacking in Puerto Rican soils. After inoculating plants with an appropriate fungus, the inoculated, introduced pines grew six times more than their introduced brethren that had not been inoculated.)
Except in rare situations, as in the example above, earthworms, microorganisms, and other creatures generally inhabit environments most congenial to their flourishing. Perhaps not enough of them, and what they really need is food to give their populations a boost, and food means some form of organic material. That is, bulky organic materials, such as compost, manure, leaves, and straw.
Good gardening comes form using a pitchfork, not an elixir. Does anybody still make and use compost tea?
If you’re not growing figs because you think your cold winter climate is wrong for them, you’re wrong and you’re missing out on an exotic treat. Figs can be grown just about everywhere. If you are growing figs and you’re in a cold winter climate, the fruits should be nearly or already ripening.
Impatience is the affliction of the cold climate fig grower. I’m feeling it right now, as I write. That impatience comes from watching little figlets forming and expanding early in the season and then just sitting on the branches, doing nothing, seemingly forever. Knowing something of how fig fruits develop and grow, and ways that ripening can be hastened along helps soothe my affliction.
Let Me Know Thy Ways (of Fruiting)
Most varieties of figs bear fruit on new, growing shoots. This bearing habit is very different from that of most common fruits, such as apples, peaches, and blueberries, which bear fruit on stems that are one-year-old or older. (Some fig varieties do bear on one-year-old stems, and some bear on both one-year-old and new, growing shoots.) Figs’ bearing habit is a boon to cold climate fig growers because that means that a fig tree can still bear fruit even if its stems freeze back or are pruned back rather severely.
But it takes time for fruits on young fig stems to develop and ripen, which they do sequentially from the bottom (the oldest) part of the growing stem to the top. The closer a stem originates to the roots, the longer it takes for fruit on that stem to develop and ripen. That time could be too long, depending on how severely the plant was pruned or froze back and the length of the growing season. I like to develop and leave one or more permanent trunks at least two feet long, letting sprouts grow from or at their tops.
Some so-called “hardy” figs sprout new shoots from ground level after dying back from winter cold. Actually, since ground temperatures in winter are milder than air temperatures, many figs will do this. Problem is that figs will form on those sprouts from ground level but may not have time to ripen.
Quicken the Pace
Assuming a portion of trunk or trunks have survived winter, perhaps because the plant was potted and moved to shelter, the trunk was insulated, or the trunk was buried, etc., impatience still lurks. (I detail a number of ways to get figs through winter in my book Growing Figs in Cold Climates.) The problem — for us, not the figs — is that fruit growth follows a sigmoidal (S-shaped) curve over time. That is, the fruits swell up rapidly early in the season, then just sit for a long time.
But hang tight. If all else is in order, fruit growth leaves the flat part of the curve, and figs start to rapidly swell, at the same time softening and developing a rich, sweet flavor. How long before ripening begins depends on the where the fruiting shoot originated, the variety, and the growing season.
Fortunately, you can hasten along ripening to some degree. The first way is earlier in the season, when a shoot has just a few leaves, say about five. If you pinch out the growing tip, that could stimulate figs down along the stem to start developing sooner than if the stem was left alone. However, doing so also might reduce total yield because shoot growth is at least temporarily stalled.
As fruits near ripening, they can be hurried along by “oiling.” Do this by putting a drop of olive oil in the eye of a fruit; I just dip a chopstick in the oil and then let the oil drip off onto the eye. Very important: Don’t try this on a fruit very far from ripening, which is, of course, hard to tell until the fruit starts ripening. But if you really love your fig tree, you’ve been staring at it a lot. As you do so you’ll begin to notice subtle changes. I’ve typically used this method towards the end of the growing season when fig ripening slows with waning sunlight and cooling temperatures.
Whatever you do, don’t harvest any figs before they are fully ripe. Figs, like many other fruits do not ripen at all once they have been harvested. Incipient rot might make harvested, underripe fruits a bit sweeter, but that’s different from ripe. Commercial figs are harvested just short of full ripeness because then they can be shipped without damage.
When your fig is fully ripe, the fruit is soft and perhaps has a “tear” in its eye. The flavor will be sweet and rich.
From Alaska & the White Mountains to my Garden
Lingonberry a plant of harsh, cold climates. I’ve seen the plants poking out of rocky crevices in Alaska and high in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, all of which makes all the more surprising the stellar performance of my plants in this hot summer. For years they sat quietly, growing slowly and slowly spreading; this summer, the plants took off, their underground stems reaching further than usual and aboveground stems sporting a very respectable crop. Or, I should say, crops, plural; more on that later.
Here in the U.S., lingonberries are little known and, when they are known, it’s as jars of jam. But merely utter the word “lingonberry” to someone Scandinavian and watch for a smile on their lips and a dreamy look in their eyes. Each year, thousands of tons of lingonberries are harvested from the wild throughout Scandinavia, destined for sauce, juice, jam, wine, and baked goods. A fair number of these berries are, of course, just popped posthaste into appreciative mouths.
Lingonberries have often been compared to their close relative, our Thanksgiving cranberries. But lingonberry fruits meld just enough sweetness with a rich, unique aroma so that the fruits — if picked dead ripe — are delicious plucked right off the plants into your mouth or mixed with, say, your morning cereal. As far as I’m concerned, cranberries are never palatable until doctored up with plenty of sugar and heat.
More Than Just Good Looks
As tasty as lingonberry is, I don’t grow it only for its fruit. Lingonberry also outshines its stateside relative in looks. The plants are pretty enough to have garnered a rating of 3, the highest possible, in my book Landscaping with Fruit.
Like cranberry, lingonberry grows only a few inches high and spreads horizontally to blanket the ground with evergreen leaves the size of mouse ears. While the onset of cold weather in fall turns Thanksgiving cranberry’s evergreen leaves muddy purple color, lingonberry leaves retain their glossy, green appearance, like holly’s, right through winter. Lingonberry could stand in well for low-growing boxwood — in a parterre, for example, a use first suggested in 1651 by André Mollet, the French gardener to Queen Christina of Sweden
Cute, urn-shaped blossoms dangle singly or in clusters near the ends of lingonberry’s thin, semi-woody stems. These urns hang upside down (upside down for an urn, that is) and are white, blushed with pink. They’re not the kind of blossoms that are going to stop street traffic, but are best appreciated where plants can be looked at frequently and up close — such as in the beds along the path to the front of my house.
If you miss the spring floral show, you get another chance because lingonberries blossom twice each season. That second show has now morphed into clusters of developing fruits that hang right next to clusters of fruits ripening from the first round of blossoms. Fruit yields are greater from the second flowering than from the first.
The pea-sized fruits a show in themselves, the bright red berries hanging on the plants for a long time, well into winter. Backed by the shiny, green leaves, they making a perfect Christmas season decoration in situ.
Soil Prep & Management: Obligatory but Easy
Lingonberry plants do need some special care. Hot summer temperatures aren’t ideal. My plants were originally near the east and north sides of my house. Those on the east side are now few and far between, perhaps helped along on the way out by the scratching of the ground beneath them by my chickens, now gone (replaced by ducks, who don’t scratch). The north side of the house, not as welcoming to the chickens because it’s my dogs’ hangout, is, of course, cooler.
All the soils that lingonberries naturally inhabit have good drainage and are extremely rich in humus (decomposed organic material), which clings to moisture. In addition to good drainage and abundant organic matter, lingonberries enjoy the same very acidic conditions — with a pH ideally between 4.5 and 5.5 — required by blueberries, mountain laurel, rhododendron and other kin in the Heath Family. These conditions are easily reproduced in a garden.
I created my bed of lingonberries, which is also home to lingonberry kin, by first checking the soil pH. If the pH is too high, digging elemental sulfur into the top six inches of ground can make it right. Three-quarters of a pound per 100 square feet in sandy soils, or 2 pounds per 100 square feet in heavier soils will lower the pH by one unit. Where soils are naturally very alkaline (pH higher than 8), such as in many parts of the western United States, soil needs to be excavated at the planting site and replaced with a fifty-fifty mix of peat moss and sand. Alternatively, this mix could go into containers plunged into the ground up to their rims. In wet areas, build up mounds of soil and peat, and plant the lingonberries on the mounds, which keeps their shallow roots above water level.
I set my plants at two foot by two foot spacings which plants fill in to form a solid mat over the ground. Every year, in late fall, I scatter wood chips, sawdust, or shredded leaves over the plants, enough for an inch or two depth. Sifting down through the leaves and stems to keep the ground cool and moist, to prevent frost from heaving plants in winter, to maintain high humus levels in the soil, to provide some nutrients, and to buffer soil acidity. Every few years I check acidity, and sprinkle sulfur on the soil, as needed.
Beyond needing mulching and having their soil acidity monitored, lingonberries are carefree plants. My main “job” is harvesting the berries. No need even to rush picking or eating them. They keep well on or off the bush, in part because they contain benzoic acid, a natural preservative. Refrigerated, the harvested berries keep for at least eight weeks. In nineteenth-century Sweden, lingonberries were kept from one year to the next as “water lingon,” made by merely filling a jar with the berries, then pouring water over them.
My main problem with lingonberries is, at the end of the growing season, deciding whether to harvest and enjoy the berries immediately and enjoy only the glossy, green groundcover or whether to leave the berries on into winter and enjoy the look of the glossy green groundcover livened up with red berries. Or to split the different, occasionally harvesting some of the fresh berries all through winter.
A Tree Takes a Plane Ride
I managed to pack lightly for a journey, many years ago, to the West Coast, toting along only an extra pair of pants, a couple of shirts, and a few other essentials. But on the return trip, how could I resist carrying back such bits of California as orange-flavored olive oil and chestnut-fig preserves? The most obvious bit of California that I brought back was a potted bay laurel plant (Lauris nobilis), its single stem poking out of my small backpack and brushing fragrant leaves against the faces of my fellow travelers.
Not only did the bay laurel bring a bit of California to my home, but also traditions dating back thousands of years from its native home along the Mediterranean coast. Ancient Romans crowned victors with wreaths of laurel and bestowed berried branches upon doctors passing their final examinations. (The word “baccalaureate” comes from bacca laureus, Latin for “laurel berry”.) Bay laurel was sacred to Apollo, so was planted near temples.
Although bay laurel can grow fifty feet tall, my plan was to develop this plant into a small tree with a single, upright trunk capped by a pompom of leaves. The Mediterranean climate is characterized by hot, dry summers, and cool, moist winters. Since the plant is hardy only to about fifteen degrees Fahrenheit, I had to grow it in a pot. The plant is allegedly a rich feeder, but my plants grows fine in my homemade potting mix which contains a healthy portion of compost and — for some extra oomph — some soybean meal.
The potted tree decorates the house in winter, the terrace in summer, and provides fresh bay leaves for soups and other dishes year-round.
A Winter Home
It is in winter that my plant realizes just how far it is from its Mediterranean home. Winters in its home lands are typically cool and moist. Winters inside a northern home are typically warm and dry. Since cool rooms are moister than warm rooms in winter, the cooler the room the better, preferably below fifty degrees. My bay laurel has wintered well either in sunny window in a cool room or near a bright window in my basement, where temperatures are very cool. The warmer the temperatures, the more light bay laurel needs.
The other challenge to my bay tree has been scale insects. They sit along leaves and stems under their protective shell as they suck sap from the plant. Actually, it’s more of a challenge to me because the plant tolerates scale reasonably well. Once moved outdoors in spring, the plant soon recovers from the attack and its resident scale population, either from the changed environment or from predators, subsides.
The problem for me is that the insects exude a sticky honeydew that drips onto furniture and the floor. A sooty black fungus then feeds on the honeydew.
This summer I’ve taken a more active role in thwarting scale by spraying the plant weekly with horticultural oil, which is nontoxic to humans and soon evaporates.
Bay laurel can be trained to any number of shapes such as a pyramid, cone, or globe, with these shapes beginning at ground level or capping a long or short piece of trunk.
Right from the get go, I chose to grow my tree as a “standard.” “Standard” has many meanings both in and out of horticulture, so let’s first get straight which kind of “standard” we are dealing with: Here, I mean a naturally bushy, small plant trained to have a clear, upright stem capped by a mop of leaves. A miniature tree. In the world of gardening, people are divided over how they feel about “standards.” Some gardeners love them, others will have nothing to do with them.
(A “standard” apple tree is one grafted to a rootstock that does not confer any dwarfing.)
For training my lollipop-shaped bay tree, I allowed only a single stem to grow straight upward, and then pinched off any side shoots that developed. When the trunk reached three feet in height, I pinched out the tip to cause branches to form high on the stem. I kept this up, pinching branches and then their branches, to cause further branching, thus forming a dense head. (I devote a whole chapter to standards in my book The Pruning Book.)
Or, in an illustration (from The Pruning Book):
Ongoing care of the tree entails pruning and pinching to keep the mop head to size, and root pruning and repotting the plant every couple of years or so. The time to do any trimming to keep a plant in shape is mostly just as soon as the new shoots mature and stop growing in early summer.
A few years ago, I decided that my tree was too tall and unwieldy; I wanted a shorter standard. Easy: I just lopped the whole plant to the ground and started again. With an established root system fueling new growth, I was able to develop the new lollipop quickly.
All this pinching and pruning yields fresh bay leaves, which find their way into the kitchen. The fresh leaf has a strong flavor, and one cookbook suggests (and I now confirm this) using one leaf for a dish to serve four people. The aroma of the fresh leaf is more than just strong; it actually has a different quality than that of the dried leaf. The fresh aroma is almost oily, to me somewhat reminiscent of olive oil — how California-ish!
A Cabbageworm is a Cabbageworm is a . . . Not!
A few weeks ago, one or more of the few species of “cabbageworms” began munching the leaves of my cabbage and Brussels sprouts plants. They ignored kale leaves, thankfully, because it’s my favorite of the three.
A laissez fair approach would have left the cabbages and Brussels sprouts mere skeletons, so I had to take some sort of action.
For the record, “cabbageworms” are actually not worms, but a few species of caterpillars all classified — and this is important — in the order Lepidoptera. Here’s the lineup: A cabbage looper arches its back when moving, and is light green with a pale white stripe along each of its sides and two thin white stripes down its back.
A diamondback moth larvae is 5/16 inch long, yellowish-green, and spindle shaped with a forked tail.
A cabbageworm (yes, one kind of cabbageworm is named “cabbageworm”) is one-and-a-quarter inches long, velvety green, and has a narrow, light yellow stripe down the middle of its back.
A cross-striped cabbageworm is 3/4 inch long and bluish-gray in color with many black stripes running cross-wise on its back, below which a black and yellow stripe runs along the length of its body.
I put an end to whichever “worms” were the culprits, and was able to do so without resorting to any chemical spray, by spraying the plants with Bt. Bt is the commonly used abbreviation for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that causes disease in certain insects. After ingesting Bt, a cabbageworm becomes sick, stops eating, and dies. Since the Bt I sprayed is toxic only to lepidopterous insects, it doesn’t pose any danger to other creatures, such as birds, cats, dogs, humans, and even other insects.
The insecticidal properties of Bt have been known since early in the twentieth century, when the bacterium was discovered as a silkworm pest by Japanese researchers. (Silkworms are also Lepidoptera.) The originally discovered strain of this bacteria is toxic only to caterpillars, which are larvae of butterflies and moths, and was first used purposefully to control the European corn borer in Europe in the 1930s. Interest in Bt waned in the late 1940s, when nerve gases used during World War II led to the development of new types of chemical pesticides. In the 1960s, agricultural scientists finally began to take a second look at Bt.
Many strains of Bt have been isolated. The ones for cabbageworms and other Lepidoptera are Bt aizawai and Bt kurstaki. The strain Bt var. israelensis is toxic to larvae of black flies and mosquitoes. Another strain, Bt var. san diego, is toxic to Colorado potato beetle larvae.
All these strains of Bt are available commercially. The bacteria are packaged in a dormant condition either as a dry powder, a liquid suspension, or, in the case of Bt var. israelensis, a slow release ring that is floated on water to kill mosquito larvae. Bt goes under a number of brand names which don’t give a hint of the pesticide’s ingredients, so read the label to make sure of what you are buying. The product I use goes under the trade name Thuricide.
Bt is a living organism, so I store it in such a way as to prolong its viability. (Here on the farmden, Bt resides in the back of the refrigerator, which is generally a strong no-no for pesticides. (But Bt is nontoxic, and there are no children in the house.) Kept cool and dry, the bacteria will remain viable in its container for two or three years. Bt works quickly enough so I can check for discolored, blackened, or shriveled larvae the next day to see if the spray is still viable.
But . . .
Is there some trade-off that must be made when using this apparently benign pesticide? Yes, insect pests can develop resistance to Bt, just as they do to chemical pesticides. Resistance is most likely from continuous, repetitive use of any single pesticide, or different ones with the same mode of action.
This problem, with Bt, has been exacerbated since almost 500 million acres of crops, mostly field corn and cotton, have been genetically engineered with insecticidal Bt genes. It’s equivalent to the field being constantly sprayed with Bt. Some resistance has been found.
In my garden, I apply Bt at the recommended rate, only to afflicted plants, and only when a pest problem gets sufficiently out of hand to warrant treatment.
There’s another good reason for careful use of at least the original strain of Bt. Since this strain is toxic to caterpillars, indiscriminate use could substantially decrease the caterpillar population and, hence, the numbers of moths and butterflies. My distaste for the celeryworm, which has a voracious appetite for carrot, celery, and parsley leaves, is tempered by the beauty of its adult form.
Surely the elegance and grace of the adult form, the black swallowtail butterfly fluttering about the garden, adds as much beauty as a marigold or rose.
Portulaca is a genus that gives us a vegetable, a weed, and a flower. All flourish undaunted by heat or drought, a comforting thought as I drag the hose or lug a watering can around to keep beebalm, an Edelweiss grapevine, and some marigolds and zinnias — all planted within the last couple of weeks — alive.
Portulaca employ a special trick for dealing with hot, dry weather, which presents most plants with a conundrum. On the one hand, should a plant open the pores of its leaves to let water escape to cool the plant, as well as take in carbon dioxide which, along with sunlight, is needed for photosynthesis. On the other hand, the soil might not be sufficiently moist or the pores might end up jettisoning water faster than roots can drink it in, in which case closing the pores would be the ticket.
Portulaca gets around this conundrum by working the night shift, opening its pores only in darkness, when little water is lost, and latching onto carbon dioxide at night by incorporating it into malic acid, which is stored until the next day. Come daylight, the pores close up, conserving water, and malic acid comes apart to release carbon dioxide within the plant. I describe this specialized type of metabolism in my book The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden.
From the Pampas to my Garden
Let’s start with the flower Portulaca, P. grandiflora, which goes either by a common name that is the same as the generic name, or by the name “moss rose.” In truth, the plant is neither a moss nor a rose. But the tufts of lanceolate leaves do bear some resemblance to moss, a very large moss. And portulaca’s flowers, which are an inch across, with single or double rows of petals in colors from white to yellow to rose, scarlet, and deep red, are definitely rose-like. The plant grows to a half-foot-wide mound, with stems that are just barely able to pull themselves up off the ground under the weight of their fleshy leaves.
Moss rose is native to sunny, dry foothills that rise up along the western boundary of the South American pampas. As might be inferred from its native habitat, this plant not only tolerates, but absolutely requires, full sun and well-drained soil. Such requirements, and low stature, make the plant ideal for dry rock gardens and for edging.
Moss rose is easy to grow from seeds sown at their final home, or started in flats for transplanting. Some gardeners mix the extremely fine seed with dry sand before sowing, to ensure uniform distribution.
Once blossoming begins, it continues nonstop until plants are snuffed out by frost. Moss rose is an annual, but sometimes will seed itself the next season. However, double varieties (plants with double rows of petals) grown this year will self-seed single varieties (plants with a row of petals) “volunteers” next year.
Plant It or Not, It Will Be There
The vegetable and the weedy Portulaca can be dealt with together; they are one and the same plant, P. oleracea. Somewhere in your garden now, you surely have this plant, whose succulent, reddish stems and succulent, spoon-shaped leaves hug the ground and creep outward in an ever-enlarging circle.
The common name is purslane, though it has many aliases, including pussley, Indian cress, and the descriptive Malawi moniker of “the buttocks of the wife of a chief.”
Tenacity to life and fecundity accord purslane weed status. Pull out a plant and toss it on the ground, and it will retain turgidity long enough to re-root. Chop the stems with a hoe, and each piece will take root. Even without roots, the inconspicuous flowers stay alive long enough to make and spread seeds.
My one consolation with having this weed in my garden is that it’s easy to remove, robs little nutrients or water from surrounding plants, and, being low-growing, casts little or no shade. Perhaps it even protects the soil surface from sun beating down on it or pounding raindrops from washing away soil. On the other hand, left unattended, it could take over a garden this time of year.
You Could Eat It
What about purslane, the vegetable? Take a bite. The young stems and leaves are tender and juicy, with a slight, yet refreshing, tartness. Purslane is delicious (to some people, admittedly not to me) raw or cooked, and is much appreciated as a vegetable in many places around the world besides its native India.
I have actually tasted the result of the plant’s specialized metabolism in summer by nibbling a leaf of purslane at night and then another one in the afternoon. Malic acid makes the night-harvested purslane more tart than the one harvested in daylight.
There are cultivated varieties of purslane for planting(!) in the vegetable garden. These varieties have yellowish leaves and a more upright growth habit than the wild forms. Wild or cultivated, the plants can be grown from seed or, of course, by rooting cuttings from established plants.
As far as actually planting purslane in my garden, I agree with the view of another garden writer who said “it is a reckless gardener who would plant purslane.” That does not mean that I do not grow purslane, though, for plenty keeps appearing despite my weeding.
Every once in a while, I again try eating it. I have enjoyed it in salads in restaurants to such accompaniments (or taste and texture disguisers) as feta cheese, olive oil, vinegar, and other strong flavors.
If you do opt to plant purslane, you must replant it yearly. Like the moss rose, purslane is an annual plant. Once established in the spring, both purslane and moss rose need no further care. Now, if only moss rose were a bit more weedy . . .
Watch, listen, and learn — on your own time — about GROWING FIGS IN COLD CLIMATES, with a recording of a webinar with Lee Reich. Now available online.
Learn about the nice quirks of figs, subtropical plants native to hot, dry climates, that make it possible to grow and harvest fruit from them even in cold climates. With that covered, I detail some practical applications of this information. Winter care, pruning, varieties, and speeding up ripening will all be covered. If you already grow figs, this webinar will help you grow more or better figs, and be able to manage them more easily. If you haven’t yet experienced the rewards of growing figs, you have a treat in store.
To access this video, go to www.leereich.com/video
As flaming red petals drop to the ground beneath my pomegranate bush, I’m not hopeful. Sure, the flowers are beautiful, but the plant is here to give me fruit.
To survive winters here in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley (Zone 5), my plant’s home is in a large flowerpot which I cart into cold storage in late December and back outdoors or into the greenhouse in late winter or early spring. Even my cold-hardy variety, Salatavski, from western Asia, would die to ground level if planted outdoors. The roots would survive that much cold because of moderated below ground temperatures, but new stems that would rise from ground level would need to be more than a year old before flowering.
Growing in a pot, my pomegranate (and other potted fruit plants) need regular pruning and repotting. To prune the pomegranate, I snip off young suckers growing from ground level, shorten lanky stems, and thin out stems where congested. I repot the plant every 2 or 3 years, cutting off roots and potting soil from around the root ball to make room for new potting soil.
When flowers do appear, which they do over the course of a few weeks, I dab their faces with an artists’ brush. Going from flower to flower spreads the pollen from male flowers to the female parts (stigmas) of the hermaphroditic flowers.
Then I wait, my eyes concentrating on each flower and hoping to see the base swelling. Problem is most, some year all, the flowers open and then drop. Occasionally, in past years, a flower or two has swelled into a mini-pomegranate. Then also dropped.
I’ve ministered to this plant for years and it has never rewarded me with a single fruit. Help! Any suggestions?
Not So Idle Threats
Every summer, as my pomegranate drops its last flowers, I’ve threatened it with the same fate I wrought upon another of my subtropical fruit plants, pineapple guava. Beneath the thin, green skin of this torpedo-shaped fruit lies a gelatinous center with a minty pineapple flavor.
Over the course of growing this fruit for many years, I did harvest a few, small fruits from this plant, but not enough to keep me from reincarnating it as compost. (The flowers, however, reliably produced, sport the most delicious, fleshy petals of any that I’ve taste, with a strong, sweet minty flavor.)
A Most Delicious Fruit
Not all has been failure with my growing subtropical fruits.
My most recent success has been with Pakistani mulberry, Morus macroura, native to Tibet, the Himalayas, and mountainous regions of Indochina. I first tasted this fruit a few years ago at a nursery in Washington State and was swept away by the delicious flavor, sweet with enough tartness to make it interesting, and a strong berry undertone. (Yes, mulberry does have “berry” in its name, but botanically, it’s not a berry; it’s a “multiple fruit.”)
Besides having great flavor, Pakistani fruit is also notable for its enormous size, each one elongating, when ripe, to between three and five inches!
Pakistani mulberry is easy to grow and needs no particular coaxing to bear plenty of fruit, which it does over the course of a few weeks. Mine grows in a pot measuring a little over a foot wide, with the tree rising about four feet high. Fruits are borne on new shoots that grow off older stems, which keeps the tree very manageable. Shortening those older stems each year makes it easier to muscle the plant through doorways to move it indoors for winter and then back outdoors when weather warms a little.
Very Easy, Very Successful, Very Delicious
My longest term and greatest success with subtropical plants has been, of course, with figs. (I write “of course” because I’ve written a whole book whose content is described by its title, Growing Figs in Cold Climates, and now is available as a video of a webinar I have presented on that topic.)
Like mulberries, to which they are related, figs — most varieties — can bear fruit on new shoots that grow off older branches. So, like mulberry, the plants can be pruned back some so they’re more manageable to be protected from bitter winter cold. An in-ground plant, then, could be protected from bitter winter cold by being swaddled upright or lowered to the ground, even trained to grow along the ground; a potted plant is more easily maneuvered into a garage, unheated basement, or other cool location for its winter rest.
Right now, there’s nothing for me to do with my figs except watch them grow. Small figlets now sit in the plants’ leaf nodes. They’ll just sit there, doing nothing, for a seemingly long time. Once ripening time draws near, the figs suddenly puff up, becoming soft and juicy and developing a honey sweet, rich flavor.
“No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, & no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such a variety of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another, & instead of one harvest a continued one thro’ the year. Under a total want of demand except for our family table I am still devoted to the garden. But tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener.”
That’s what Thomas Jefferson wrote to Charles Willson Peal on August 20, 1811. Mr. Jefferson had it right. One thing, among many other, that makes gardening so rewarding for me is that there’s always something new to learn about plants and their cultivation.
Take basil, for instance, which I, like many of you, have grown for many years. I’ve always been satisfied with a good harvest, enough for adding pizazz to summer salads and for preserving — dried, or frozen as pesto — for winter. But basil growing became more involved some years ago after a seed company sent me sample packets of a few varieties of basil, and then I spoke with some commercial herb growers.
In spring, I planted short rows of all the varieties I had, with a plastic tag at the head of each row. The tags were unnecessary, for no two varieties looked alike and I could have deduced the variety names by the catalogue descriptions.
Flavor has always been my reason for growing basil, and I wondered just how different each variety would taste from its neighbor one row over. So I picked leaves of each variety and nibbled them. I rubbed their leaves between my palms, then inhaled deeply their aromas. I invited visitors to sample each variety, and as they sampled I badgered them with questions and jotted down notes. A pasta dinner was needed so we could evaluate each type of basil made into a pesto sauce. What torture!
There actually were differences in taste between the basils. The variety called Sweet lived up to its name with a mild flavor. The similarly mild flavor of Napolitano had the slightest hint of licorice; that of Spicy Globe, the slightest suggestion of mint. Progressively stronger in flavor were Lettuce Leaf, then Fino Verde. The taste of Genova was strong, bordering on acrid. Syracusa was one of the best — strongly aromatic, yet smooth to the palate.
I also grew some of the newer varieties resistant to downy mildew disease. Basil downy mildew is a relatively newcomer here, making itself seen by causing a slight yellowing of the leaves, with purple fungal spores on leaf undersides.
I’ve got little more to say about those varieties because none of their flavors were notably better or as good as the non-resistant varieties, because the disease rarely shows up here, and because it can be controlled with abundant sunlight and good air circulation, and by avoiding infected plants, leaves, or seeds. What’s more, disease resistance is a matter of degree, and various degrees might also exist among the varieties not bred as such.
So, Which to Grow
Honestly, though, the differences in flavor among the tasty varieties were not dramatic; rather, they were subtle nuances of the familiar basil flavor. And tasting a few varieties does put objectivity on shaky ground. Maybe even the order of tasting is important.
So which is the best variety of basil? This brings us back to the striking difference in appearance between the varieties. Since the differences in taste were not that great, I usually choose a basil variety on the basis of plant size, and the size, color, shape, and texture of its leaves. If I want a basil with a very large leaf — perhaps large enough to wrap around a piece of fish to bake — I’ll grow Mammoth.
For drying or pesto, I like a variety with a lot of leaf and a minimum of stem. (The dried stems are useless; they’re basil-flavored twigs.) So any variety except small-leaved Fino Verde or Spicy Globe would be suitable for pesto.
For eating fresh in salads, even the small-leaved varieties are okay, since the fresh, young stems are tender. One of the purple-leaved varieties could be used fresh to add a splash of color in salads.
I might grow some basils just for decoration, even if they had no culinary use. Spicy Globe basil, planted close together, makes soft, green mounds resembling a miniature boxwood hedge — a nice border for a terrace or a flower garden. The deep purple color of Dark Opal would contrast nicely with bright yellow and orange zinnias in a sunny flower border. Purple Ruffles could be used for a more frilly effect. The large-leaved, green basils make an island of lime-green if massed together, with a texture dictated by the leaves of the variety chosen: smooth and shiny, wrinkled, or ruffled.
And who knows, maybe I’ll grow certain basil varieties just for the musical sounds of their names. When someone innocently asks, “What kind of basil is that?” I might gesticulate and sing, “Genova Profumatissima,” “Syracusa,” or “Fino Verde Compatto.”
A lot about this year’s vegetable garden warrants my patting myself on my back; other things warrant a nuggy (virtually impossible unless I was double-jointed). Let’s start with the pat-worthy stuff. Perhaps you’ll find some of it useful in your vegetable garden. Perhaps you’ll want to comment on it.
Sweet corn is one of my favorite vegetables, both fresh in summer, and frozen in winter. Evidently, chipmunks are also fans. I plant sweet corn — the old variety Golden Bantam — in hills (clumps) of three stalks per hill, the hills eighteen inches apart in the row, with two rows running the length of each three-foot-wide bed. I spread out the harvest with four plantings, the first on about the average date of the last frost, mid-May, and the last planting the end of June.
With a variation on traditional corn planting — “one for the rook, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow” goes the old saw — I drop five rather than four seeds per hole. Seed is cheap. Unfortunately, those extra seeds merely gave chipmunks more to eat in that first planting. So . . .
For subsequent plantings I sprinkled a mixture of cayenne pepper and cinnamon over the seeds in each planting hole. Although birds can eat hot pepper, furry animals generally, my dog Daisy excepted, cannot. I figured the chipmunks wouldn’t like the taste of cinnamon and/or it would mask any aroma from the corn seeds. The result: success.
Pests threatening my onions and leeks arrived here on the farmden just a few years ago. Leek moth is one of them and thrips possibly another. Leek moth flies to lay its eggs in early spring, and thrips overwinter in debris. Another pest severely stunted last year’s onions, but neither I nor a university vegetable specialist could find anything odd about the roots, tiny bulbs, or leaves on which to lay blame.
Thoroughly cleaning up debris, which I do for all beds anyway, and covering the bed with fine mesh should keep leek moth, thrips, and possibly other pests at bay. A wire frame to support a large piece of organza fabric, with the organza clothespinned tightly near ground level did the trick. The leeks and onions look healthy and vigorous.
A Successful Makeover
The need for a bold makeover of my south vegetable garden is embarrassing, but I’ll come clean. For some reason I oriented beds in that garden, created in 1997, east and west. I should have know better. It was a more favorable location for the two gates, but that’s not a good excuse. Tall plants in east-west beds shade shorter plants in those and nearby beds throughout the day. So whenever possible, north-south, or nearly north-south, beds are best.
Last fall, with some help from friends, I raked soil in the beds and wood chipped paths as level as possible. (My beds aren’t raised beds, but they do slowly rise after decades of annual slatherings of an inch or more of compost.) We rolled out gray resin paper to suppress weeds sure to sprout in the newly disturbed soil, then topped the paper with compost in the beds and wood chips in the paths.
It’s a young garden again! Sort of. When planting, I can feel the difference in the ground from where a bed crosses regions that were once paths versus those that were beds. But the soil will get better every year, and the beds now run the better direction. Only one garden gate now, though.
Everything Not Always Rosy
Not all is always rosy down here on the farmden. Flea beetles, as expected, attacked my eggplants. I could have netted the eggplants also, but I was foolishly banking on hope. I’ll admit to spraying the organic pesticide Pyganic while waiting for the eggplants to outgrow the damage.
The other pest here is a weed, creeping woodsorrel (Oxalis corniculata). The straight species grows tall and is very easy to weed out. No problem.
The problem child is the purple-leaved variety (Oxalis corniculata var. atropurpurea) which blends in with the soil and hugs the ground in spreading mats. It responds favorably (for me, not it) to sprays of household strength vinegar or any of the other organic herbicides whose active ingredient is ammonium nonanoate, such as Ortho® GroundClear® Weed & Grass Killer or the more benign sounding BioSafe Weed & Grass Killer.
And finally, we come to drip irrigation, a watering technique on which I’ve heaped tons of praise for saving water, for limiting weeds, for healthier plants, and for being easily automated. This last quality can cause a problem. A few years ago I thought a spring had sprung it my field; it was an old main line that was still in line and spewing out water below ground. Another year plants in a couple of beds seemed to languish as drier weather moved in; the underground connection of some drip lines had disconnect from the main line. Yet another time, water was pouring out of an unplugged end of a drip line. Or, last year the battery died on one of the timers; most affected were two small rosemary plants, trained as small trees, many of whose leaves and stems dried up, dead.
This spring, it was, first, the main water source, which is from a shallow well, clogging the filter. And then, a piece of hose running from the well pump to the main line developing a kink.
All these irrigation glitches were easily fixed once I noticed them. And there’s the key. My very smart phone now reminds me to spend the few minutes required to check the drip irrigation system every Monday.
Note 1: I have some plants leftover from this past weekend’s plant sale here at the farmden. Contact me by June 24, 2022 if you’re interested in purchasing to pick up any white currant, black currant, fig, or gooseberry plants (a number of varieties of the latter two).They’re all discounted at 25% off.
Note 2: My farmden is open for a Garden Conservancy Open Day on Saturday, June 18, 2022 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Registration is required, here.
Shoots versus Fruits
I’ve been playing around with the orientation of some of my trees’ branches to influence how they grow. Branches pointed skyward generally are inherently vigorous, giving rise to long shoots, especially from their topmost buds. At the other extreme are branches oriented horizontally. They’re generally weak-growing, and tend to produce fruit buds rather than vigorous shoots and leaves. The cool thing is that if you or I change branch orientation, it changes the growth and fruiting habit of that branch.
Bending and tying branches is a good way to balance shoot growth and fruiting, especially of apple and pear trees. Both types of growth are needed. The fruits for us to eat, and the shoots to “feed” the fruit and to provide places on which to hang the fruits. Shoot growth is also needed to periodically replace old wood.
Branch bending to regulate growth and fruiting is especially evident with an espalier, which is a tree grown in an orderly, usually two dimensional form. Lurking behind the many forms, fanciful and otherwise, for espaliers is an appreciation for their effects on growth and fruiting.
Backyard apple and pear trees commonly put too much of their energy into shoot growth, a problem that can be exacerbated by overly enthusiastic pruning and over-fertilization. One way to coax an overly vigorous tree into bearing is by pulling upright branches downward, affixing them in that direction. This may seem an unnatural way to treat a plant, but it does help a tree to get started fruiting. Once fruiting begins, the weight of the fruit will keep branches down.
Sometimes fruit pulls a branch down so much that it’s too fruitful and needs invigoration. Asian pears are prone to bearing too heavily too early in their life, especially if grafted on dwarfing rootstocks; the result is a stunted tree. The cure is to drastically cut drooping branches back to more upward growing — and, hence, vigorous — side shoots. Or to stake branches into more upright positions.
Bending down branches spreads them, which, along with correct pruning, also lets all branches bathe in sunlight. With many upright growing branches, the interior of a tree becomes too shaded to produce fruit buds or even leaves.
Branches that are spread at an early age make wide angles with the trunk. That wide angle attachment becomes a strong juncture, one that will not break when eventually weighted down with fruit, as often occurs with branches having narrow crotch angles.
Practical Matters: How to Do It
On very young trees which are still forming their main branches around the trunk, I start spreading the new shoots when they are just a few inches long. After bending a shoot carefully so as not to break it, I hold it in that position by snapping a spring-type clothespin on the trunk with the tail of the clothespin holding the shoot down. Another way to hold this wide angle is to press one end of a toothpick into the shoot and the other into the trunk, just enough to keep the toothpick in place.
For older branches, I use either a stiff wire or a length of wood with a brad driven in each end. (I’ve previously removed the brad’s head and sharpened what remains.) Tying a string around a branch, and then to a weight on the ground or to the tree’s trunk is another way to pull a branch down. Or, you can affix a weight right to the branch. For instance, glue a clothespin to a rock, then clip it to the branch.
After a few weeks, the ties or weights or clothespins can be removed. The branches will stay in place.
Ideally, re-orienting the branches of apple and pear trees achieves a favorable balance between shoots and fruits. To this end, strive for about a sixty degree angle to the trunk. I try to keep the branch straight as it is oriented to this angle. If the branch has a bow in it when pulled down, overly vigorous shoots are apt to grow from buds at the topmost part of the bow.
Don’t expect immediate payback for all this care and effort. A year or more might elapse before an apple or a pear tree forms fruit buds, and fruit buds form fruit buds the season prior to actual fruit production. It’s worth the effort in the long term.
•This year the 14th(?) Annual Plant Sale will be held live, here at Springtown Farmden in New Paltz, NY.
•Plants, available in limited quantities
•Here’s a not necessarily complete list of what’s available (pricing not yet determined):
BLUEBERRY (lowbush, Berkeley highbush)
BLACK CURRANT (Belaruskaja, Titania)
RED/WHITE CURRANT (Red Lake, Primus)
FIGS (Sicilian, LSU Purple, Brown Turkey, Rabbi Samuel, San Piero, Unknown)
GOOSEBERRY (Captivator, Chief, Glendale, Poorman, Red Jacket
GRAPE (Glenora, Brianna)
HARDY KIWIFRUIT (2 species)
HARDY ORANGE (Poncirus trifoliata)
HAZELNUTS (blight resistant Somerset, Raritan)
MEDLAR (Breda Giant, Puciu Mol)
PEAR (Asian Tsu Li, European Harrow Delight)
TOMATOES (heirloom varieties Valencia, Nepal, Pink Brandywine)
This year, there’ll also be lots of books (in addition to the ones I wrote), some for sale and some free. The books cover a wide range of gardening topics.
Date and Time: June 12, 2022, 9:30 AM – 1:00 PM
Location: Springtown Farmden in New Paltz, NY
•Parking is available on the street, in the two driveways at the sale, and at the DEC boat launch a few hundred feet north on the opposite side of the street.
•To prevent overcrowding with cars or people, please plan on staying no longer than 15-30 minutes. Thank you.
•You must be (correctly) masked to attend this live sale, Again, thank you.
What’s Better: Loosy Goosy or Soldier Straight?
I wonder how much our gardens reflect our personalities? Some gardeners clip their yew bushes “plumb and square;” other gardeners clip or shear away at their plants more haphazardly. Even in the vegetable patch, a temperament may be reflected in the way tomatoes are grown: Do the plants sprawl over the ground with abandon, are they contained within strings woven up and down the row, or are they neatly staked? (Woven tomatoes or those grown in wire cages are more or less sprawling plants, held aloft.)
Whatever your temperament, a good case can be made for staking tomatoes. Tomatoes on a staked plant are larger and ripen earlier than those on a sprawling plant. Good air circulation around leaves and fruits of upright plants lessens disease problems. And fruits held high above the ground also are free from dirt and slug bites. You’ll harvest less fruit from each staked plant, but since staking makes best use of the third dimension, up, staked plants can be set as close as eighteen inches apart. So staking gives the best yields per square foot — especially important in small gardens.
Tomato varieties suitable for staking are so-called “indeterminate” types, which form fruit clusters at intervals along their ever-elongating stems. “Determinate” varieties, in contrast, bearsfruits at the ends of their branches, so if a plant was pruned for staking would be reduced to a single short stem capped by a single cluster of fruits. Seed catalogues and packets usually indicate which varieties are suitable for staking.
Determinate varieties are bushy plants that need little regimenting. They also ripen their fruits within a shorter window of time.
So what’s not to like about determinate varieties? Flavor! With fewer leaves per fruit than indeterminate varieties, flavor suffers. That concentrated ripening period also can stress the plants, making them more prone to disease.
As you might guess, I grow only indeterminate varieties of tomatoes. Flavor is my main criterion in selecting a variety to grow.
When choosing a suitable stake for staking (indeterminate, of course) tomato plants, don’t be misled by the puniness of tomato transplants. A tomato stake needs to be be six to eight feet long and metal or at least one by two inches thick if made of wood. I use EMT (electrical metallic tubing) conduit, 5/8 inch diameter and 10 feet long, cut down to 7 feet. It’s easy to pound into the ground (okay, I’ll admit that here on the floodplain there are no rocks), easy to remove, and reusable for years and years.
Most books and other sources of information suggest “planting” your stake along with your tomato plant to avoid root damage later on. Not true. My established tomato plants never bat an eyelash (figuratively speaking) as I pound in metal stakes only a couple of inches from their stems. And there’s a good reason to wait until the plants are well-established; by then, chance of cold damage is reliably history. Early planted stakes would interfere with my trying to throw a protective blanket over a row of staked tomatoes should cold threaten.
With the base of a stake set a couple of inches from a plant and a 3 foot length of iron pipe, capped at one end and slid over the conduit’s free end, the stake pounds in easily with repeated lifting and forcefully lowering.
Indeterminate tomatoes are vines, but not vines that can climb by themselves. So they need to be tied to their stakes. Material for ties should be strong enough to hold the plants the whole season, and bulky enough so as not to cut into plants’ stems. Coarse twine or cotton rags, torn into strips, are good materials. I use sisal binder twine.
The usual recommendation, when tying, is to first tie a knot around the stake tightly enough to prevent downward slipping, then use the free ends of the rag strip or twine to tie a loose loop around the plant’s stem. False! With every foot or so of growth, I tie a single loop loosely around stem and stake above a node; the string can’t slip down lower than the node.
Now for the pruning: Confine each plant to a single stem by removing all suckers, ideally before any are an inch long. A sucker is a shoot that grows from a bud originating at the juncture of a leaf and the main stem.
Go over your plants at least weekly, using your fingers to snap off each side shoot. (Cutting the shoots with a knife or pruning shear may transmit disease between plants as a blade touches cut surfaces.) Occasionally step back and refocus your eyes on the plant as a whole; I find that I sometimes overlook a sucker that has snuck up with two feet of growth I missed as I focussed on still small shoots just appearing from buds.
One final bit of pruning that some gardeners practice is to pinch out the growing tip of the plant when the stem reaches the top of the stake, then continue to remove any new leaves or flowers that form. This is a little chancy, since the effect depends on the maturity of a plant’s leaves and fruits. At worst, you reduce yield to a few clusters of fruit. But at best, your tomatoes are even earlier and larger. It may be worth a try on a couple of plants.
How do your tomatoes grow, up or sprawling. A case can be made for “up.” But you need the right variety, stake, and method of pruning.
Last reminder for GROWING FIGS IN COLD CLIMATES webinar.
Monday, June 6, 2022, 7-9 pm Eastern Time
Registration is necessary; register and pay (credit card or Paypal) at:
Contact me if you prefer to pay by check.
Learn what makes this subtropical plant so adaptable that you can harvest fresh fruit from it even in cold climates, and practical applications of this information. I’ll cover a few of the methods for being on your way to fig-dom, including winter care, pruning, varieties, and speeding up ripening. There’ll be plenty of time for questions.
What and Why?
The Month of May has ended, as has “No Mow May.” If you’ve never heard of “No Mow May,” it’s the rallying cry of a movement that began in the UK, suggesting that all of us who nurture greenswards abandon our efforts for the month of May. In so doing, habitat and food, in the form of early blooming wildflowers such as dandelions, clover, creeping Charlie, and violets, would become more available to early season pollinating insects.
Let’s dive deeper into what “No Mow May” accomplishes, whether this movement has any drawbacks, and, finally, possible alternatives.
A lawn is typically a monoculture, or nearly so. Not mowing during this month when heat and rainfall spur rapid plant growth encourages more diversity, which makes environments more resilient.
Gasoline-powered mowers spew out great quantities of carbon dioxide and pollutants. Over the course of a year, one such machine pollutes the same amount as 43 new cars, each driven 12,000 miles! And all that noise. Not to also mention toxic pollutants entering the environment (13 billion pounds per year from lawns) and our collective lawns thirst for copious amount of water.
“No Mow May” puts a hold on all these environmental affronts, at least for the month.
Does It Fill The Bill?
Take a closer look at what this deliberate neglect has fostered. Peer at a no mow lawn, perhaps yours, and you’ll see some of the aforementioned wildflowers. Wait, though. Plants such as dandelion and creeping Charlie, are not native. And dandelion, for one, can negatively impact animals and even other plants. Its pollen is nutritionally poor for bees, low in valine, isoleucine, leucine and arginine, all essential amino acids for honey bees. Problem is that bees can become faithful to one plant, so might fail to sufficiently pollinate other plants or ignore more nutritious pollen sources if they get started on dandelions. And dandelion’s allelopathic pollen inhibits seed development of some other plants.
Leaving the mower parked in the garage or barn for May will, of course, change the appearance of your lawn, a look that has been part of our collective aesthetic from the past. Local ordinances might even prohibit “No Mow May.”
Despite certain drawbacks, mown lawn is functional, providing a soft, inviting surface for lounging, for playing, for picnicking, and other civilized activities.
Tall grass is not nearly so inviting, especially as mice and other rodents feel more secure from predators scampering beneath the cover of long grass. Ticks enjoy such habitat, and are carried around by the mice, increasing threat of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.
Okay, so it’s the end of the month and you’re ready to mow. It’s not going to be easy to plow through all that vegetation. And all those clumps of grass clippings? You’ll probably have to rake them up so the lawn doesn’t get smothered.
The grass itself isn’t going to fair well with the drastic end-of-the-month pruning. Grasses are healthiest if blades are cut back by no more than one-third their length. So two mowings may be in order to bring grass down to mown height. If you wait a few days between mowings , then clippings from the first cut have time to dry out, so you may be able to forgo having to rake them up.
When all is said and done, does one month of not mowing an established lawn really encourage a burst of wildflowers or other biological changes? Probably not. The “No Mow May” lawns that I see look mostly just like unmown grass.
Probably the easiest way to get the best of both worlds, or at least some of both worlds, would be with “One Mow May” or “Less Mow May” rather than “No Mow May.”
Or, replace part of the lawn with a garden, perhaps a wildflower garden, or even just areas with groundcovers rather than lawn.
My top alternative to “No Mow May” is what I’ve called Lawn Nouveau, an idea I had years ago that reflected my lack of time and enthusiasm for mowing the lawn. Here’s an adaptation of Lawn Nouveau, as I described it in the mowing chapter — yes, mowing is a type of pruning — of my book The Pruning Book (available here, signed, or from the usual sources):
The low grass is just like any other lawn, and kept that way with a lawnmower. Other portions are allowed to grow, and are mowed infrequently –- one to three times a year, depending on the desired look. Mowings from the tall grass portions must be raked up after mowing or else they’d leave unsightly clumps and smother regrowth, but they are good material for mulch or compost.
A crisp boundary between tall and low grass keeps everything neat and avoids the appearance of an unmown lawn. Tall and short grass can help define areas. Rather than straight edges and 90° corners, curves in bold sweeps can carry you along, then pull you forward and push you backward, as you look upon them. Avenues of low grass cut into the tall grass invite exploration, and, like the broad sweeps, can be altered throughout the season.
The “tall grass” becomes more than just grass as other plant species gradually elbow their way in. Which ones gain foothold depends on the weather and frequency of mowing. An attractive mix of Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod, chicory, and red clover might mingle with the grasses in a dry, sunny area, with ferns, sedges, and buttercups mixing with the grasses in a wetter portion.
I now have a one-and-a half acre meadow which, along with some lawn around my home, constitutes Lawn Nouveau here. No need for large property, though; my original property was 3/4 acre, and that’s where Lawn Nouveau began way back when.
In Praise of the (Austrian) Scythe
My preferred implement for mowing the tall grass is a scythe. Not the so-called American type scythe, with a curved handle and stamped blade, which is put to best use decorating the wall of a barn. I use a so-called Austrian type scythe (purchased from www.scythesupply.com), which usually has a straight handle and is lightweight with a razor sharp, hammered-thin blade.
Much of my one acre meadow gets a once-a-year mowing with my tractor, but you’ll still find me out there early summer mornings with my scythe. It’s a joy to step out in the dewy coolness and swing my scythe, the only sounds being that of birds singing and the scythe blade whooshing through the turgid, green stalks of meadow plants.
(For a short scything video, see https://leereich.com/video.)
A recent telephone call to my sister caught her setting zucchini transplants in her garden. “Transplanting zucchini?” I queried. “Have some faith in nature.” Transplants on sale this time of year too often entice gardeners to set out set them out in the garden rather than drop seeds into furrows.
I pointed out that not every plant likes to be transplanted. Tomato plants yanked out of the soil will resume growth in a few days if their roots are covered with moist dirt. Roots will sprout even if just a stem is in moist soil. But the roots of plants like corn, poppies, melons, cucumbers, and squashes (zucchini included) resent disturbance. Carrots, parsnips, and many other root crops also transplant poorly. Their taproots become the harvested roots. If bent or broken while young, forked, rather than straight, smooth carrots and parsnips result.
This is not to say that it is impossible to successfully transplant squash, poppies, and the like. Any plant can be transplanted if enough care is taken not to damage the roots. A plant doesn’t even know it has been moved when a large enough ball of soil is carried along with the roots. (To paraphrase Archimedes, “Give me a big enough shovel and I can transplant any plant.”) Enormous trees can be, and are, relocated if taken with sufficient roots (and money).
My sister told me that her zucchini plants were growing in plastic cell packs. If the roots were not yet crowding each other against the plastic, and if the plants were gently slid out of their containers, the transplants will survive. I’ve even heard of gardeners even transplanting carrots — very carefully, no doubt.
Is It Worth It?
Many vegetables could be easily transplanted, yet aren’t worth the effort. A friend transplanted peas one year. Granted, his peas were a foot high indoors when mine were just breaking through the ground out in the garden. But how many pea transplants can a gardener care for? I grow about sixty feet of double rows of peas in my garden, from which I expect about twelve pounds of peas. Each pea plant, though, yields only about a quarter of an ounce of peas. Who has enough space and time to sow, water, then transplant even two dozen pea plants for the paltry six ounces of peas those plants would yield?
Generally, plants whose seeds are sown closely spaced in the garden are not worth transplanting. In the flower garden, this would include alyssum, portulaca, and pot marigolds (though I admit to starting a few alyssum plants indoors so they would spread and flower sooner).
In addition to peas, some other vegetables not worth growing as transplants include spinach, mustard, and beans. Black Seeded Simpson and other leaf lettuces (sometimes referred to as “cutting lettuces”) are generally sown directly in the ground. While the plants are still small, I’ll run a knife near ground level every couple of feet or so slicing off their tops. For the next salad, I’ll choose new groups of plants to cut. Within a couple of weeks, plants are again ready for harvest.
Heading lettuces such as iceberg, bibb, and romaine are worth transplanting because each plant needs space in order to head up well. Alternatively, heading lettuce could be sown directly in the garden, then thinned to the appropriate spacing.
Exceptions to Prove the Rule
“Trust nature,” I told my sister. “Sow seeds on the correct planting date in good garden soil, and they’ll germinate. Save transplanting efforts for vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, which need to be started early indoors in order to ripen their fruits in a reasonable amount of time. Or broccoli and cabbage, because individual plants yield a substantial amount to eat. Tomato, broccoli, and cabbage plants don’t object to being transplanted, and not too many transplants are required since they are set a couple of feet or more apart in the garden.”
Seeds which are particularly finicky or valuable (due either to scarcity or cost) also are worth growing initially in pots. Although hardy cyclamens (Cyclamen heredifolium) do self-seed under ideal conditions, I wanted to greatly increase my holdings. They’re a little finicky to sprout, so I collected seeds from one of my plants and planted them in a seed flat, where I could watch and nurture them individually, then transplant them to individual pots. Here it is, three years later, and later this summer, delicate pink flowers will hover like small butterflies above each of the ten fat tubers.
Sure, it may be worthwhile to start a few corn plants indoors, because fresh sweet corn is one of the ultimate gustatory pleasures of the vegetable garden. But is zucchini that toothsome?
Not My Usual Approach
I couldn’t help myself, so yesterday I broke protocol. After quite a few days of bright sunshine with daytime temperatures in the 70s, even the 80s a couple of days, I went ahead and planted all the tomato and pepper plants that I’ve been nurturing since their birth a few weeks ago — six weeks for the tomatoes, ten weeks for the peppers. Looking ahead, warm sunny days should follow, with night temperatures are predicted to dip down only into the 50s.
My usual protocol has been to plant not with my gut, but with the calendar date. Over the years I’m come up with a detailed chart of when to sow and transplant different kinds of vegetables based on the average dates of the last killing frost. Here, that date is around May 21st. Or, it used to be. (That chart — which I included in my book Weedless Gardening — allows anyone anywhere to determine sowing and planting dates merely by plugging in the average date for the last killing frost for their garden. Last frost dates for specific locations are available online.)
As with other global warming trends, the average date of the last killing frost right here — meaning specifically in my garden, which is in a frost pocket — has been pushed back a week or more. In the past, I would wait until a week, even two weeks, after that last frost date to set tomato and pepper plants in the garden. The average frost date is just an average; that week or two made sure my plants wouldn’t be caught off guard by a clear, cold night that didn’t hew to averages and charts.
When it comes right down to it, early planting is a gamble. The odds were good, so I took the gamble. My actions were also shaded by my not wanting to repot all the seedlings that were soon to outgrow their containers, and my hankering to see my garden with lots of plants in it.
Frost or Freeze
The word “frost” allows for some wiggle room. You’d think it meant any temperature below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Not so. Temperatures between 29 and 32 degrees could be called a “light freeze.” Peppers and tomatoes sufficiently toughened up (“hardened off”) with some exposure to bright sunlight, cool temperatures, and wind can cruise right through a light freeze unscathed.
Moderate freezes, 25 to 28 degrees F., would cause some damage. A severe freeze, with temperatures below 24 degrees F. spells trouble for any tender vegetables plant. Sufficiently hardened off cool season plants, such as cabbage and its kin, lettuce, and chard, are usually fine even at those temperatures.
In all this, whether or not damage or death occur must factor in how fast cold descends on the garden, and how long it sits around.
At this point, I’m confident that my plants will be fine. If Ol’ Man Winter decides to peek in again, I can always throw a cover — flower pots, sheets, row cover — over the plants to protect them from cold.
Upright Pepper Plants
Let’s shift gears and take a look at growing peppers, specifically, keeping them upright. My pepper plants, and perhaps yours, become top heavy with their weight of maturing fruit. Mine especially so because I don’t pick any until they have fully matured, turning red or whatever other color they sport at full maturity. Especially prone to toppling is the variety Sweet Italia, which I grow because of its especially luscious fruits which also ripen early.
I’ve tried various methods of keeping Sweet Italia’s fruit laden stems up. In the past, I grew them in those cone shaped, wire cages often sold for tomatoes, for which they are useless. Those cages get tangled together in storage and make weeding very difficult. My bamboo provides an excess of stakes of various thickness; three stakes next to a plant does keep the plant upright, but not its fruit-laden arms.
Twine woven in among the plants and tied to metal stakes set a few feet apart along the row held plants and most arms up, but scrunched everything together too much, cutting down light penetration.
This year my plants are going to stand up with the help of livestock fencing panels, cattle panels with 6×8 inch openings, and goat and sheep panels with 4×4 inch openings. With a bolt cutter I clipped them into one-square-wide strips. Each bed is home to two rows, about 20 inches apart, of peppers, with plants set 16 inches apart in the row. Sixteen inch spacing allows me to set the panel strips centered over the plants. For now the strips are on the ground beneath the plants.
Once the plants grow large and start extending their arms, I’ll raise the strips with some bricks set every few feet as high as needed to do their job.
I hope this works, and welcome any comments on the prognosis. Do you have a method for successfully keeping your peppers from toppling or resting too many fruits on the ground? Perhaps your peppers grow unaided?
Webinar: GROWING FIGS IN COLD CLIMATES
Harvesting your own fresh figs, which offer a very different gustatory experience from dried figs, is possible and easy even if you live where winters are cold. Even where summers remain cool. Once you know why fig allows this, various methods can lead you to fig-dom. I’ll cover the why, some of the methods, and detail the all-important methods of pruning.
Date and Time: Monday, June 6, 2022, 7-9 pm Eastern Time
Space is limited and registration is necessary. Register and pay (credit card or Paypal) here, or at:
Contact me if you’d prefer to pay by check.
This year the 14th(?) Annual Plant Sale will be held live, here at Springtown Farmden. Plants, available in limited quantities, include mostly fruit plants, including Nanking cherries, grapes, hardy kiwifruit, lowbush blueberry, highbush blueberry, hardy orange, and, of course, figs.
This year, there’ll also be lots of books (in addition to the ones I wrote), some for sale and some free. The books cover a wide range of gardening topics.
Date and Time: June 12, 2022, 9:30 AM – 1:00 PM
Location: Springtown Farmden in New Paltz, NY
Note: You must be (correctly) masked to attend this live sale.
Truth From a Thermometer
Stop by my vegetable garden this time of year and you might see one or more thermometers poking out of the ground. No, I’m not experimenting with a new way to monitor the soil’s health. Soil temperature can serve as a guide for timely sowing of seeds outdoors. Seed sown in soil that is too cold won’t germinate; just sitting there waiting for warmer weather, ungerminated seeds are liable to rot or be eaten by animals.
Lettuce, onion, parsnip, and spinach seeds can be planted earliest. They’ll germinate just about as soon as ice in the soil thaws. At the other end of the spectrum are seeds of melons and squash, which won’t germinate until the soil temperature reaches sixty-five degrees. The minimum temperature required for germination of other vegetable seeds is as follows: forty degrees for beets, cabbage and its kin, carrots, peas, chard, parsley, celery, and radishes; fifty degrees for sweet corn and turnips; and sixty degrees for beans, cucumbers, and okra.
The above listing gives minimum, not optimum, temperatures for germination. Optimum temperatures might be even thirty degrees higher than the minimums, as in the case of celery which germinates quickest at seventy degrees. Waiting for the optimum temperature isn’t advisable, though. To delay sowing until the soil temperature reached the optimum temperature for pea germination (seventy-five degrees) would result in a midsummer harvest, when hot, dry weather turns peas coarse in taste and texture.
But What Temperature is Best?
For indoor seeding in seed flats, I use an electric, thermostatically controlled heating mat, waterproof and made for seed germination. With so many different kinds of seeds to grow, I can’t be twisting the thermostat dial up and down to suit each seed’s optimum. The temperature remains set at about 80 degrees. Which is why lettuce sown a couple of weeks ago still hasn’t sprouted.
Each kind of seed also has a maximum temperature at which it will sprout. For lettuce, that’s about 80 degrees. I resowed a few days ago, setting the lettuce flat on the cooler greenhouse bench instead of the mat, and green leaves have already shown their faces. Other vegetable seeds notorious for sulking in the heat are parsnip, celery, and pea. Turnip is interesting for being eager to sprout anywhere in the broad range of 60 to 105 degrees!
For more details on temperatures needed for seed germination, as well as plant growing and charts and tables with lots of other stuff about growing vegetables, I highly recommend Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers, available in hard copy or online.
Tips to Advance the Season
No need to twiddle your thumbs waiting for the soil to warm; the warming process can be speeded up. (I detail a number of ways to do this in my book Weedless Gardening.) A thick, organic mulch, though generally beneficial to the soil, insulates the soil and hence delays warming this time of year. So for early sowings, rake back the mulch to expose the soil to the sun. Once the soil is warm — about mid-June — replace the mulch to recoup its benefits.
Where soil is not blanketed with mulch, warming can be hastened by forming small ridges oriented east and west. You plant seeds on the south faces of these ridges. With sunlight beaming directly down on these south-facing ridges, the soil there warms a bit faster than the surrounding soil. (For the same reason, here in the Northern Hemisphere, south-facing slopes are warmer than north-facing slopes. North-facing slopes ideal for planting peaches and apricots to delay their flowers to when there’s less possibility of a later spring frost snuffing them out.)
Another way to warm the ground for early spring planting is to grow plants in raised beds. In raised beds the soil warms early because it’s more exposed to ambient air temperatures. Raised beds are well-drained, so dry more quickly; it takes more heat to warm a wet soil than a dry soil.
Changing the color of the soil surface affects its temperature. Black plastic mulch is unsightly, but it does warm the soil. Hide the plastic’s ugliness with a layer of bark chips and the plastic’s warming effect will be lost. In climates such as ours, where the soil is just marginally warm enough for vegetables like peppers, melons, and eggplants even in summer, the plastic mulch improves growth if left in place the whole season.
A top layer of compost on the ground darkens the soil in a more attractive manner than black plastic, though the effect on soil temperature is less dramatic. Compost does, of course, confer other benefits to the soil, such as improving the soil’s physical structure and providing essential nutrients. These benefits are lacking with black plastic.
All these techniques warm the soil a little faster than it would otherwise. You can measure the effect with a soil thermometer, but a thermometer is not mandatory for determining when to sow seeds. The soil slowly but surely warms up at about the same rate each spring, so you can sow by calendar dates, subtracting a few days if you deliberately hasten soil-warming.
Since the soil temperature and spring blossoms are influenced by the same general warming trend, even better is to sow seeds according to what perennial or woody plants are in bloom. For instance, you might plant peas just as the forsythias blossom, and corn according to the traditional indicator — when oak leaves are the size of mouse ears. A soil thermometer should register about forty degrees in the first case, and fifty degrees in the second.