[tomato sdlg, small bulbs, cacao]

Finally, after a couple of weeks of restraining myself, I’m sowing tomato seeds. Every bit of warm weather and bright sunshine made it harder to hold back, but the time has come.
The problem – if it could be called a problem – is that tomatoes grow pretty much like weeds. The seeds germinate quickly and the seedlings grow fast. So what typically happens is that seeds are sown too soon and the seedlings get too big for their pots before transplanting time. Too big, that is, unless you keep repotting them. Repotting becomes a space issue when you grow 50 or more tomato plants, as I do.
I grow my plants in my greenhouse but for anyone who raises tomato seedlings on a windowsill, plants seeded too early tend to get too leggy. It’s hard to grow nice, stocky seedlings in the limited light of even a sunny window. Not impossible, though, if the room is kept cool (mid 60s), if the plants are near the window, which is south-facing and unobstructed, and if you pet the plants daily.


Yes, pet the plants! Running your fingers or a short length of plastic pipe gently over the tops of the plants a dozen times or so daily does the same thing that wind does to plants on wind-swept, craggy, cliffs: It stimulates release of a plant hormone, ethylene, which inhibits stem elongation. Breezes from the ventilation fan and bright sunlight in my greenhouse keep my plants stocky; I still occasionally pet them.
April 1st is my tomato-seed-sowing date, which allows 6 to 7 weeks of growth before transplanting time. The plants start off slowly, then pick up steam quicker and quicker as temperatures warm and sunshine grows brighter. Last year, I grew 80 plants, which provided plenty of tomatoes for fresh eating, sauce, salsa, and ketchup (the last item a failure, but it did use up a lot of tomatoes). This year, 50 plants should suffice.
What could be cheerier than the flowers of crocuses, dwarf irises, and other small bulbs popping up out of the ground now? These flowers, no matter how small, are really appreciated after a colorless winter.
Five years ago, I planted a slew of these small bulbs, also including species tulips, chionodoxa, muscari, puschkinia, galanthus, and scilla. Some went into mulched ground beneath the apple trees, others went into the soil in beds where I’ll soon be planting vegetables, and still others were planted right into lawn.
The bulbs that went into vegetable beds and mulched ground have, as expected, grown most vigorously and are now tight clumps of flowers. Plants “plugged” into lawngrass are less vigorous because of competition for nutrients. Water is not a factor because the soil stays plenty moist during the few weeks in spring that these small bulbs are flowering and then growing leaves to feed next year’s flowers.
A number of bulbs seeded in lawn have died out. Perhaps it was the competition. In the front yard, our annual floods, which have been deeper than usual over the past few years, probably snuffed out already weakened plants. Especially missed is the rectangular planting of Iris ‘George’ (a hybrid of Iris histrioides and I. reticulata) and crocus ‘Clothe of Gold’ (a variety of C. angustifolius dating back to 1587) that marked the grave of our old dog Stick.
Turning to warmer thoughts . . . Joining me on my return from last week’s trip to Puerto Rico was a chocolate pod. The orange pod dangling from a branch at the USDA research station was too irresistable to leave hanging. After much effort climbing branches and whacking at the pod, I finally landed it on the ground.


I’ve cut the pod open to reveal the seeds, some of which I planned to sprout and others of which I planned to process into a primitive chocolate. Now I’m having second thoughts.

The trees are truly tropical, needing constant heat, ideally over 68° F. Neither my house nor my greenhouse temperatures remain consistently that high. The plants do, at least, tolerate some shade. Even if I got the seedlings to grow to their 5 foot fruiting height, making chocolate involves a rather complicated process of fermentation, drying, cleaning, roasting, and pressing. I think I’ll just buy some finished chocolate instead. But what to do with this intriguing pod and seeds?
Night temperatures are still usually dropping well below freezing, as they will for the next few weeks. No matter, because where I am, it’s like summer. Puer-r-r-r-to Rico! Here day temperatures hover in the low 80s, night temperatures in the 70s. Gentle breezes rustle the leaves of palm trees and make these temperatures even more comfortable.

It’s the dry season, especially here in the southeastern portion of the the island, with daily chances of thundershowers meaning nothing more than brief cloudbursts after which beaches, roads, plants – everything – dries quickly. Still, grasses in pastures have that bluish, dry look. Majestic mango trees weighed down with unripe fruit await wet weather in coming months to burst into flowers in preparation for another load of fruit.

This winter’s low of minus 20° F. killed off the tops of my bamboo so I expect this year’s growth from the roots, which do survive, won’t match the 20 foot culms that grew last year. Even at 20 feet, these tall culms don’t hold a candle to some of the tropical bamboos down here in Puerto Rico. A tour of the U. S. Department of Agriculture research station in Mayaguez let me see a number of tropical bamboo species all in one place.

Most dramatically impressive were a couple of the larger species. I’m happy with inch-thick culms from my Phyllostachis aureosculcata plants, a species that is among the hardiest of what I call “timber bamboos.” What a joke, my calling these “timber bamboos.” Bambus vulgaris and Guadua angustifolia culms reach about a half a foot across here in P.R. I would estimate their culm height at about 60 feet.

Ah, the things I could do with such plants. I use my P. aureosculcata canes for some building projects such as lightweight fencing and poles for climbing beans or tomatoes. With those tropical bamboos, I could build a whole house, or, at least, a very decorative garden hut. In fact, Guadua angustifolia is used for construction.

Bamboos generally are fast growing plants. A major difference between most tropical bamboos and most temperate bamboos is that the temperate species spread aggressively via underground runners that scoot along horizontally just a couple of inches or so beneath the ground. I’ve seen culms pop up from runners that have spread 5 feet away from my plants in just a few weeks. Thoroughly digging up these runners is not easy because they are as tough as the culms. I contain my bamboo with a plastic barrier that extends from a couple of inches above ground to 2 feet down into the ground. Still, the runners sometimes creep over the top of the barrier after which I have to pull and dig up the tough lacework that quickly develops just beneath the ground surface.

These topical species would be downright frightening if they spread like the temperate species. Instead of spreading, they grow in well behaved clumps. Clumping makes that impressive Bambus vulgaris even more impressive, the culms soaring skyward and then fanning out like a fountain. As if that wasn’t enough, the variety Vitatta that I saw has yellow culms with forest green lines seemingly brush-stroked – one, two, or three of them – vertically between some of the nodes.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture research station here in Mayaguez also houses the collection of temperate zone bamboo species, including my own Phyllostachis aureosculcata. What a sorry site! The culms were 8 to 10 feet high and looked somewhat piqued. These bamboos, like most other temperate plants – perhaps even some people – don’t thrive with perennially hot weather. They (and we) need their (and our) dose of cold weather each year. Easy for me to say, down here in La Isla Encantada.

PRUNING WORKSHOP, April 3rd, at my garden!!

Contact me thru my website for more details.

Summer cole slaws, steaming plates of broccoli, and kale cooked and drizzled with some olive oil, lemon juice, and toasted sesame seeds are now on their way. Seeds are sown, sprouts should be up within a few days, and a few days after that I’ll lift enough sprouts from their mini-furrows in a seed flat to fill a 40 cell tray. By May 1st, the seedlings will be big enough and will be planted out in the garden.

An early start is important with most of these plants in the cabbage family, the so-called cole crops, or crucifers. (“Crucifer” because everyone in the family bears 4-petalled, cross – “cruc” – shaped flowers.) These are plants that thrive in and taste best with cool, moist weather. The one exception is kale, which to me has a rich, sweetish, nourishing flavor even in the heat of summer. I see some still out in the garden now that the snow is receding, and will harvest it the first chance I can get through the garden gate, which, as I write, is still locked close with snow.

The cabbages and broccolis I just sowed are for early summer; the kale for spring, summer, fall, and, as long as I can get to it, winter. Fortunately, I grow backup kale, a dozen plants that enjoy the cool temperatures of the greenhouse all winter long.

Kale for this year is Dwarf Blue Scotch and Winterbor. For cabbage, I’m growing the tasty, small and pointy-headed, heirloom variety Early Jersey Wakefield. With broccoli, I’m hedging my bets. I bought a packet of mixed seed, including varieties with different harvest times, some notable for making large main head, and some notable for prolific side shoots.

Receding snow makes it easier to get to some low bushes and see what to prune. Like my currant and gooseberry bushes, which will be the first to get pruned. The reason they are first in line is because they are the first to begin growing. A few days of warm weather and their buds will all of a sudden turn green with nascent leaves about to unfold.

I prune most of these plants by a renewal method. Being shrubs, they’re always sending new sprouts, called suckers, up from ground level. Old stems do not stay virile very long, typically not bearing well after about 3 years. With renewal pruning, all stems more than 3 years old get lopped back to ground level or to low-growing vigorous, upright side branches. The stems that are the oldest are obvious because they are fattest and have the peelingest bark.

Next, I turn to the suckers. Each year, these bushes typically send up a lot of new suckers from ground level, too many, so many that they would crowd each other with age. So the other pruning needed is to reduce the number of new suckers to a half-dozen or so, saving those that are most vigorous, healthy, and upright. Finally, I shorten lanky stems that would otherwise droop to the ground, especially when loaded with a crop of berries.

What’s left after pruning, then, are a half-dozen new suckers, a half-dozen 1-year-old stems left from last year, a half-dozen 2-year-old stems form the year before last, and a half-dozen 3-year-old stems from the year before that. That’s about how the bush looks every year after being pruned, in theory, at least. Nothing’s too old and the young ‘uns have room to grow.

Pruning gooseberries is a thorny affair that demands use of leather gloves.

Most people on this side of the Atlantic (excepting Canada) don’t really know gooseberries. If they’ve experienced the fruit, they consider them all to be small, green, and tart, which, unfortunately, those most commonly offered are. In fact, gooseberries come in a wide spectrum of flavors, colors, and size.

For starters, and most importantly, gooseberries can be divided into culinary and dessert varieties. Many dessert varieties can be used for cooking, for which use they’re harvested slightly underripe.

Dessert varieties have a sweet or sweet-tart flavor. My Hinnonmakis Yellow berries are small, yellow, and sweetly reminiscent of apricot. Black Satin gooseberries are wine-red in color with a flavor much like a sweet, rich wine. Colossal, which I’ll be planting again after a 15 year hiatus, has humongous fruits with a cracking texture: the skin is firm but explodes into your mouth with an ambrosial, sweet juice when you bite into it.

Generally, gooseberries are tough plants that are easy to grow. They’ll tolerate any amount of cold and deer leave them alone. I’m looking forward to enjoying fruits of the dozen varieties I grow in July.