[berries, strawberries, aps]

For me, berries are the essence of summer. So summer has officially begun: Just before the end of June I began eating blueberries and blackcurrants, and now there are plenty.

Blueberries are familiar, blackcurrants are not, but deserve to be better known. With a strong, distinctive flavor and not a whole lot of sweetness, blackcurrants are a fruit that only some of us enjoy fresh. Apply a little heat and some sweetener, perhaps a pastry shell (or not), or just squeeze the berries to make juice, sweetened or mixed with other juices, and you have a fruit that just about everyone enjoys. I’m much more adept at growing fruits than cooking fruits, but I’ll bet blackcurrants would be heavenly paired in various ways with dark chocolate.

Blackcurrants are very easy to grow. They fruit well even in shade and pretty much the only care they need is relatively straightforward annual pruning. Deer are not particularly fond of the bushes and birds are not fond of the fruits.

Lest anyone thinks I’m talking about those dried fruits sold as “dried currants,” those are totally different creatures. They are dried “Black Corinthe” grapes whose name has been bastardized to “black currant.”

Ever since I started growing berries, blackcurrants have been among my favorites. These berries are generally unknown in this country because they can host a disease of white pines, a valuable timber crop, so were banned until recently, when disease-resistant varieties where developed. Consort is one such variety, which I liked fine, but a few years ago I got my hands on some Russian varieties, which are disease resistant and have much finer flavor. Eating fruits of the varieties Kirovchanka, Belaruskaja, and Minaj Shmyrev moved blackcurrant up the scale to my favorite fruits, along with blueberries.


“What about strawberries?” you might ask. They’ve been ripe for weeks now. They’re berries also.

I like strawberries but they are not among my favorite fruits. I don’t like crawling on the ground to harvest fruits, and, although strawberries are technically perennial plants, a bed starts to decline after 5 years or so due to encroachment of weeds and diseases. Even before that 5-year mark, a bed needs annual renovation if it’s going to remain healthy and productive.

Take a look at my strawberry bed today and you’d think that I didn’t like the fruits at all. I renovated the bed, something that looks brutal and is needed every year soon after the harvest is over. Step one is to go through the bed and thin out the plants so that each has almost a square foot of space all to itself, with preference given to younger plants. Two rows of plants run the length of each 3-foot-wide bed. While thinning plants is also an opportune time for thorough weeding and pulling off runners.

Next, I used grass shears to shear all leaves from all the plants, then gathered up all the cut leaves to cart off to the compost pile. This step lessens disease buildup.

And finally, the bed got blanketed with an inch-thick icing of compost or, alternatively, some organic mulch such as straw, pine needles, or wood shavings along with a bit of fertilizer. This mulch feeds the soil, enriches it with humus, conserves soil moisture (not needed this year! – yet), and keeps roots cool.

There are other ways to manage a strawberry bed but the system described, called the “hill system,” works well in intensive, closely managed gardens. No matter what growing system is used, though, any strawberry bed needs weeding, thinning, periodic rejuvenation, and eventual replanting.


We can’t forget about vegetables in our (very) local harvest backyard harvesting. Looking ahead to autumn, I sowed seeds of endive and radicchio along with more broccoli and cabbage, recently sown seedlings of which got flattened during a recent deluge. I also sowed my biweekly pinch of lettuce seeds to keep us in big salads right through summer.

Once up, all these seedlings can grow in self-watering APS seed flats (from Gardener’s Supply Company) for about a month before being planted out in the garden. Then there will be space available from which peas and early beans and corn have been harvested and cleared away. Later, harvested onions will free up more space.

Looking ahead to two springs hence, small spears are now appearing in the flat in which I sowed asparagus seed a couple of weeks ago. They’re so cute; they look like miniature asparagii.

[bean beetles, seed sowing for fall]

A reader wrote asking if I had any suggestions for thwarting Mexican bean beetle, a voracious pest of beans that resembles a ladybug except for being larger and yellow, rather than red, with black spots? The reader “tried ignoring them” (doesn’t work well) and then resorted to a spray made from pipe tobacco “tea” with a few drops of dish detergent added. She wrote that it “may have helped a little, but the bean plants eventually succumbed. It did smell good though.”

First off, nix on tobacco tea sprays. Tobacco tea sprays, like their commercially available pesticide counterpart, sold under the name Black Leaf 40, are highly toxic.

I deal with bean beetles by growing successive crops of bush beans. The beetles don’t cause much damage until after a couple of weeks of harvesting beans, at which point I just move on to harvesting from another bed that I had planted a few weeks after the first bed. I usually do three plantings a season, each sown as far from each other as possible and about a month apart. I thoroughly clean up infested beds once I start harvesting from a younger bed, packing the old plants into the compost pile and then piling on a layer of some other material, such as straw or manure, to get the bean leaves, stems, and old pods composting as fast as possible.

Because of the beetles, I no longer grow pole beans, which would stay in place to bear — and feed bean beetles — all season long. I don’t grow the usual pole beans, that is. I grow Scarlet Runner beans, which are a different species that is unappealing to the little buggers, and which bear beautiful, scarlet blossoms. The edible pods are fat, hairy, and ugly — but delicious.


I’m now in a flurry of seed planting. And no, it’s not because I forgot to plant everything beginning about two months ago.

Some of the seeds I’m now planting are for the fall vegetable garden. That would be Scotch kale, Fiesta broccoli, early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, beets, and Swiss chard. Other fall vegetables also need to be sown, but not yet.

I’m also sowing asparagus seeds for asparagus harvest the year after next and then for decades to come. Most people plant asparagus roots but the plants are very easy from seed, requiring mostly patience for the seed to sprout and then for first harvest. Growing from seed rather than from purchased roots adds a year until first harvest. If you decide this time of year to plant more asparagus, you anyway have to wait until next spring to get roots for planting, then another year until the first harvest, so it all comes out the same.

Last night’s soaking of asparagus seed in a small cup of water will speed their germination and today I’ll sow the seeds in a flat of potting soil, where the seedlings will grow through summer. Next spring, it’s out into the garden with them.

Some of the seeds I’m sowing this week are for perennial flowers for next year and beyond. Sown now, perennial flowers probably won’t flower this year but they’ll be poised and ready to flower beginning next year. Perennials are available in much greater variety in seed than plants, especially if the seed search includes mail order companies. And for the mere cost of the packet of seeds, I can grow more plants of any perennial than I could possibly find a place to plant.

I already count 56 seedlings, sprouting and ready to “prick out” into individual cells, in the flat of butterfly weed seeds I planted on June 1st.


[mockorange, watering can, poppies]

Up until last week, every time I looked at my mockorange, I wondered why I would have planted such a bush so prominently right next to the greenhouse door. The bush looked like nothing more than a blob of greenery, a not especially graceful blob of greenery.

This week I did an about-face on my mockorange; I’m enthralled with it as it sits there draped in large, lily-white, semi-double flowers. And if those flowers weren’t enough just to look at, they fill the air with a most delicious, fresh scent that is vaguely reminiscent of orange blossoms.

Mine is not just any old mockorange. It’s a named variety, perhaps Flora Plena. Blossoms on run-of-the-mill mock oranges open earlier and are smaller and have single rows of petals.

It’s sad, but I know I won’t be looking fondly upon my mockorange again in another week or so. Until next year.


You’d think it was a simple enough question from my brother: “I want to get a good watering can. What would you recommend that’s reasonable?”

Let me begin by stating that I own, not one but two (one for each hand), of what I consider to be the Cadillac (Prius?) of watering cans: The Haw’s Classic Long Reach Galvanized watering can. Each has a nice balance, holds a reasonable amount of water, and has a rose – the thing that breaks the stream of water into many, gentler streams – from which water falls like a gentle rain, but not too slowly.

Yet I wouldn’t recommend this watering can to my brother. I paid

about $60 twenty or so years ago, but now they cost more than twice that! You can get a similar plastic watering can for about $20. I had one. It only lasted a couple of seasons. So what would I recommend? First and foremost: No plastic. Plastic watering cans don’t last.

No sooner had I started asking whether the can was for houseplants or outdoor plants than my brother rolled his eyes and suggested that perhaps he should have started with a simpler question, like what kind of pencil I’d recommend for keeping garden notes. Ha, ha. But if a watering can is for watering just houseplants, you don’t want it to have a rose. For general watering, indoors and out, a watering can should have a removable rose. (My Haw’s does.)

Okay, I’ll make it simple. For general, outdoor use, I suggest a can that holds about 2 gallons of water, is made of heavy metal (hot-dipped galvanized ones usually are), and, unless decoration is also to be one of its functions, is not in the cutesy shape of a snail, elephant, pig, or other animal.

A good hardware store might have what’s needed, as well as web retailers, for 20 or 30 dollars. Haws does makes “SlimCan Galvanized Watering Can” that sells for about $70. It that might work a tad better than the others.


I may have gone overboard with poppies this year. But can any garden have too many poppies?

The overboarded poppies to which I refer may seem, at first glance, to be the usual Oriental poppies (Papaver orientalis). But no, these poppies are corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas). Both poppy species have petals that are as delicate as fairy shawls and usually vivid red, but the red of corn poppies is more pure. And rather than unfolding on the ends of sprawling, clunky stems like Oriental poppies, corn poppy flowers perch high on the ends of delicate, upright, 3-foot-high stalks. A most significant difference between the two species is that corn poppies are annuals, while Oriental poppies are perennials.

Like most poppies, corn poppies transplant poorly so are best sown where they are to grow. The seeds are almost as fine as dust so there’s a natural tendency to doubt that they could amount to anything, especially just sprinkled on bare ground. With such doubts in mind, in early April I sprinkled two packets of the fine seed over a bed soon that I knew would be dense with various fritillaria and allium species, as well as licorice mint (Agastache), snow-in-summer, soapwort (Saponaria), and espaliered Asian pears.

I should have had faith. After all, corn poppy is called corn poppy because it once dotted (i.e. was a weed in) Europe’s corn fields, “corn” meaning any “grain” in the Queen’s English. My corn poppies sprouted with vigor, as did some seeds from last year’s corn poppies, so that now parts of that bed are happy riots of scarlet blossoms.

I had also sprinkled on that bed seeds another annual poppy, California poppy, a low-growing plant with ferny leaves and buttery yellow flowers. There’s no sign of these poppies, which were evidently overrun by the corn poppies.