[autumn olive, painting trees for winter, fritillaria propagation

Okay, I’m braced for an attack. Imagine a fruit, ripe for the past few weeks, with a pleasantly aromatic, sweet-tart flavor. My informal “surveys” have shown very positive response to plates of the fruits brought to various gatherings; the fruits disappeared. The berries are small, yellow or red, with a silvery flecking on the outside and a soft, edible seed within.


The bush bearing these fruits is no slouch in appearance. It’s got silvery leaves and pale yellow flowers that individually don’t amount to much but together suffuse the plant with a soft haze in spring, a sweetly fragrant haze. Care needed for this bush is zip, nothing, rien, nada. And with that beauty, fragrance, and lack of trouble, I get oodles of fruit, much more than I could eat.


Now I’m ready to duck for attack . . . the plant is autumn olive. There, I’ve said it. Yes, the plant, a native of Asia, is invasive, readily colonizing roadsides and abandoned meadows. Native plant purists and invasive plant police scorn this bush for its fecundity. It was introduced into this country over a hundred years ago as a plant for wildlife food and cover, and to improve soils such as those covered with mine spoils. (Microorganisms associated with the roots take nitrogen from the air and put it in a form plants can use, like fertilizer.)


I am not advocating planting autumn olive. But, as long as it’s here, I am advocating enjoying it. The fruits are also very healthful, so says USDA research touting the fruit’s high lycopene levels, research evidently done by a different branch of the USDA than the one working on invasive plants. Just think, every berry I (or you) enjoy is one less berry eaten and seed spread by birds.


On an even lighter note, I spent an hour or so over the last two days painting some of my trees. The goal was not for them to put on a better face for winter, but for them to better face winter. Cold and furry animals are what will threaten these trees in the coming months.


Cold per se is not the problem. The problem is warmth, then cold. The dark trunk of a tree, especially a young one, is warmed by direct sunlight on bright, crisp winter days. As the sun drops below the horizon, bark temperature plummets, to the chagrin of the tree.


Deer, rabbits, and mice are the furry threats, eating trees from, respectively, the top branches to the lower branches and bark to the trunk, again, especially young trees. Two dogs, a bit of fencing, and ‘Deerchaser’ (en effective electronic repellant) keep deer at bay.


The paint that I brushed onto trunks and the lower branches is for the cold (actually, the warmth), the rabbits, and the mice. I made my own concoction, starting with a goopy mix of old, unfired, porcelain clay from Deb’s studio, white latex paint, and enough water to make it all thick and creamy. The white color of the mix will reflect the sun’s rays to prevent bark warming.


I also put a few eggs into the mix to make painted trunks and lower branches unappealing to vegetarian rabbits and mice, which they all are. And finally, to further hit home the idea that these trunks and branches aren’t for eating, into the mix went some garlic powder, cinnamon, and cayenne. I’m hopeful that the clay, if the mix stays on through next summer, will also deter some boring (as in “hole making” rather than “uninteresting”) insects.


The trees don’t look at all bad with this cosmetic touch.


I’m on my way to becoming the crown king of crown imperials. That’s a plant, Fritillaria imperialis, a plant of which I am a big fan. Problem is that crown imperials are very expensive, selling for anywhere from $10 to $30 for each bulb.


About 20 years ago my father grew tired of a crown imperial plant he had purchased just a couple of years earlier. So he offered it to me, and it’s been planted and flowering every April since then in a corner of the vegetable garden.


After enjoying that solitary bulb for a few years, I got to thinking that nurseries must multiply them, so why couldn’t I? And I did. And I did. And I did. And I still am.


Propagation of crown imperial starts with removing a piece of a scale from the bulb. The scale pieces go into a bag of slightly moist potting mix that’s kept warm for a few months, then cool for a few weeks. Little bulblets soon form on the scales, which can be potted up to grow until warm spring weather arrives.


I can just imagine looking out at my gardens some April years hence, the scene a sea of 2’ high heads of green stalks, each topped with a round, leafy crown below which dangles a ring of orange blossoms. End results notwithstanding, I’m always amazed — as I was this morning — to open the bag I filled last June 29th with amorphous scales and potting soil to be now filled with roots and bulblets.


[to do, persimmon, peppers]

And I thought I was just about finished for the year. Ha! The long farmden “to do” list I made early this morning makes a mockery of such thinking. No particular rush for any one thing on the list although once snow falls almost everything will need to be pushed forward to next spring. Shudder the thought. I know what spring is like.

Perhaps today I’ll begin with the small meadow on the south side. It — or part of it — needs mowing, which I used to do with a scythe. That much mowing of the dense mix of grasses and perennials was a bit much for a scythe, resulting in tennis elbow (scythe elbow?) a few years ago. Nowadays a tractor and brush hog make quick work of the mowing.

People sometimes ask if I’m going to expand my plantings into the meadow, to which I reply with an emphatic, “No!” The meadow is already home to a row of dwarf apple trees, a row of hardy kiwis and grapes, a row of pawpaws and black currants, a row of filberts, and a few chestnut trees. Any more planting and this will be a farm rather than a farmden.

I’m also leaving most of the meadow intact because of a promise I made to my daughter when she was 8 years old and enthralled with Laura Ingalls Wilder. That meadow had to stay as Genevieve’s prairie.

Anyway, leaving a bit of wildness seems like a good thing, a foil for all the coaxing and manipulating of plants I cultivate. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau. I agree.

The meadow does get some care in the form of a once a year mowing. Mowing keeps vines and shrubs from invading, the first step to becoming a forest. Although it would be nice to have the mowing out of the way before spring, the tawny, old grasses and dried seed heads of goldenrods and bee balm are nice to look at through winter. So the portion in view from the dining table remains unmowed except for some welcoming paths I’ll cut through the chest high sea of dry stems.


American persimmon fruits would never sell, especially this time of year when the golfball sized orbs hang shriveling on branches. Even their bright, persimmon orange color has faded on its way to an unappealing purplish gray. “Americans eat with their eyes,” bemoaned Cornell’s apple breeder to me many years ago.

The taste of American persimmons and the effort needed to grow them should put this tree near the top of anyone’s must-grow plant list. Southerners familiar with this native plant might turn their noses up at persimmons if they’ve tasted only wild ones. The secret to a delectable persimmon is to grow a named variety and, this far north, one that will reliably ripen its fruit within our growing season. My two choices are the varieties Szukis and Mohler. Mohler started ripening in August and Szukis, which began in September, will be good for a few more weeks. Neither variety needs the separate male pollinator tree that wild persimmons need in order to fruit.

These top-notch American persimmons are kin to Asian persimmons seen in markets, with a few notable differences. American persimmons are smaller, softer (much too soft to ship commercially), and richer in flavor. Imagine a dried apricot that’s been soaked in water, dipped in honey, then given a dash of spice. That’s American persimmon at its best. All this from a tree that’s pretty, doesn’t need pruning, and has no pests worth bothering about.

(For more about both Asian and American persimmons, their history, their cultivation, their propagation, their use, and their varieties, see my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” . . . this year in the garden for peppers (with apologies to Charles Dickens).

For best reliability and flavor, and early ripening to red, Sweet Italia has, for decades been the pepper to grow. This year, fruit set was poor and many peppers rotted before they ripened. Intense heat at critical moments this summer could have hampered fruit set. Sweet Italia is a floppy plant and, for the first time this year, I neglected to prop the plants upright in conical tomato cages. Flowers too hidden from insect pollinators and fruits close to or on the ground are also likely contributors to this year’s problems.

It was the best of times for a couple of new pepper varieties I grew: Big Red and Mariachi, both semi-hot peppers, the first one long and thin and the second one cone-shaped, both ripening to red. These two varieties did get staked.

Big Red was the big winner, ripening oodles of peppers, enough to eat, to freeze, to hang up indoors and dry, and to have ripe and “fresh,” even now, from almost ripe fruit brought indoors a couple of weeks ago. The same could be said for Mariachi, but yields were lower. Both taste very good and the hotness can be regulated by including more or less of the seeds and inner membrane, the seat of hotness, when eating or cooking them. Ar-r-r-r-iba.


[pitcher plant, cotton, last bagged grapes]

In? Out? In? Out? I can’t decide where to grow the two pitcher plants that I got at Broken Arrow Nursery a few weeks ago. One of them, purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), is quite cold hardy so could — should — survive outdoors in the ground. The other, Scarlet Belle (S. wrigleyana), is less cold hardy, but could probably rough it through our winters. Both plants, and especially Scarlet Belle, with pale white leaves having prominent, deep-purple veins, are so spectacular that I’d hate to lose either one.

These plants are as fascinating as they are attractive. Their leaves are long, vertical tubes that, with their purplish color and nectar, entice insects within. Once inside, insects can’t climb out because of the stiff, downward-pointing hairs on the sidewalls. Eventually the insects drown in the pool of water that collects inside the tube, to be digested by enzymes from the flower, helped along, especially as a leaf ages, by resident bacteria, rotifers, and other organisms. Once everything has been pre-digested, the plant can eat.

So, where to plant these gems? Indoors, in pots in a cool, sunny room? Or outdoors, in the ground?

I think my two plants will be happier outside as long as I long can find the proper spot for these rather site-finicky plants. Their needs: full to partial sunlight and a very acidic soil that is consistently wet, high in humus, and low in nutrients. Well, that turns out to be just the conditions in the bed along the east side of my house that is home to lowbush blueberry, lingonberry, mountain laurel, huckleberry. and rhododendron.

The bed is not quite wet enough for the pitcher plants so I’m going to bury a saucer, such as used beneath potted plants, a foot or so in the ground beneath each plant. The saucers will act as in-ground reservoirs to collect and hold water. The veined leaves of the pitcher plants should echo nicely the speckled flowers of hellebore that bloom further back in that bed. Both kinds of flowers are eerily beautiful.


Call me a cotton pickin’ fool if you want. Yes, I did try to grow cotton in this cotton-unfriendly climate. I won’t admit to the “fool” part, but I surely am “cotton pickin”. Harvest has begun. Four plants, four ripe bolls. I could easily triple that yield if I brought the 18-inch-high plants indoors or into the greenhouse to finish ripening the rest of their bolls. And this is no fish story, of which cotton has had its share. In medieval Europe, cotton was imported but people had no idea from whence the fibers came. That was clarified in 1350 by John Mandeville, who explained: “There grew there [India] a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie.”

To be of use, my cotton will need to be processed. First, I’ll pluck out the seeds, something that would be easier if I had a cotton gin. I can do without; four bolls won’t be too much trouble. Then comes carding, to clean and align the fibers. Card clothing, as the tool for carding is called, is made from closely spaced wire pins embedded in a sturdy rubber backing. I remember, as a child, seeing women in white cotton caps pulling cotton strands apart with such tools at historic colonial sites. The wire brushes I have for cleaning sheddings from my dogs might the perfect stand-in for card clothing.

(Even more authentic would be to card using teasel plants, which occasionally grow wild along sunny roadsides. The word “carding” comes from carduus, Latin for teasel.)

Once carded, the fibers can be twisted and pulled into one, continuous strand. Finally, weave. Sounds like a lot of work for an organic, home-grown handkerchief!


Remember my bagged grapes, the ones in bags on which happens to be stamped the words “Fresh Delicious Wholesome Baked Goods?” Those bags have done their job well of fending off insects, diseases, and birds so the bunches can hang a really long time.

I thought the grapes were all eaten, but yesterday, discovered an overlooked, bagged bunch. The red Reliance grapes within didn’t have a lot of eye appeal, having started to shrivel and turned very dark. But their flavor was supreme, the result of being very ripe and, perhaps, exposure to a few frosts.