A Bad Rap

The word foxy has not been complimentary to grapes. It refers to the dominant flavor in one of our native species, the fox grape (Vitis labrusca). Around 1880, the botanist William Bartram went so far as to suggest that the epithet foxy was applied to this grape because of the “strong, rancid smell of its ripe fruit, very like the effluvia from the body of a fox.” (Others more generously suggested the epithet came about because foxes ate the grapes, or because the leaves resembled fox tracks.)

Glenora and Vanessa seedless grapes

Glenora and Vanessa seedless grapes

Although native Americans ate this grape, early white settlers, well before the time of Bartram, had been unimpressed by the flavor. In 1672, John Josselyn wrote that fox grapes had “a taste of gunpowder.” Two Dutchmen visiting New York in 1679 recounted how they “went along the shore to Coney Island . . . and discovered on the roads several kinds of grapes still on the vines, called speck [fox] grapes, which are not always good, and these were not; although they were sweet in the mouth at first, they made it disagreeable and stinking.”

Fox grapes

Fox grapes

Wherever white settlers landed in America, they attempted to establish plantings of the grape with which they were familiar, the European wine or vinifera grape (V. vinifera), which was the grape cultivated in the Old World since biblical times. In America, vinifera culture began as long ago as 1619, when the best vines and skilled growers were brought from France to establish a vineyard in Virginia. That planting and virtually all subsequent plantings in the East failed because vinifera grapes can’t tolerate the cold winters or the insects and diseases to which our native grapes are accustomed.

What’s the Difference?

In spite of repeated, futile attempts at growing vinifera grapes in the East, few people considered growing our tougher, native grapes before the nineteenth century. Only then were superior varieties developed, beginning with Catawba about 1820.
Picking grapes
One reason for the delayed interest in fox grapes was because vinifera is the better fruit for wine, and it was not until the nineteenth century that fruits generally were appreciated for fresh eating. (“Wine” recalls another possible source for the epithet foxy; horticulturalist Liberty Hyde Bailey suggested in 1898 that the name arose due to “the lively foxing or intoxicating quality of the poor wine which was made from the wild grape.”)

As you might imagine, fruits of vinifera and fox grapes are quite different. You can pick out the difference from the grocer’s shelf today. The fox grape is represented by Concord: bite into a berry and the thick skin slips off the jelly-like meat, releasing a strong, aromatic, though not excessively sweet, flavor. The vinifera grape is represented by Thompson Seedless: eat the whole berry, tender skin and all; the fruit is sweet, with a neutral flavor. Vinifera berries are less apt to shake off the bunches, so ship better, which is one reason why Concord grapes usually show up in markets only near where they are grown.

Concord grape

Concord grape

I Like Foxiness

All this verbiage isn’t an academic exercise in grape history. If you grow grapes, as I do, survival of the vines and taste of the fruits is important. Vinifera are occasionally grown with success in the Northeast, but 300 years of mostly failure should teach something.

For those gardeners who strive for a grape akin to vinifera, there are hybrids between vinifera and fox grapes. Actually, most grape varieties these days are hybrids of vinifera, labrusca, and often some other species. Hybrids exhibit the full spectrum in flavor, hardiness, and pest tolerance, depending on which varieties were used as their parents. 

If you live in a environment inimical to vinifera grapes and you’re interested in growing grapes closer in flavor (or lack thereof, in my opinion) to Thompson Seedless, hybrids such as Himrod and Lakemont are fairly cold hardy and can be grown at favorable sites, preferably south facing slopes in full sun. A bit more foxy, unfortunately only fairly cold hardy, is Vanessa, a delectable small berry which is pale red, crisp, sweet and flavorful.

Vanessa grapes

Vanessa grapes

I have grown one vinifera variety, thus far in a large pot in my greenhouse. This one, Perle de Csaba, and I’m sure some other viniferas, does have a distinctive, delicate flavor, besides being sweet and seedless, and wrapped in a tender skin.

Notwithstanding the previous testimony against foxiness in grapes, I happen to like my grapes foxy. And I’m not alone: Ulysses P. Hedrick, who wrote The Grapes of New York early in the last century, conceded that many vinifera grapes “are without character of flavor” compared to American grapes, which are “more refreshing . . . do not cloy the appetite,” and make a better juice. My taste preference is fortunate, because in my farmden, here in the bottom of the bottom of a frost pocket, grapes are particularly prone to both cold injury and disease.

Edelweiss grape

Edelweiss grape

Despite my affection for foxy grapes, for many years my farmden lacked a good ol’ Concord vine. I finally planted one about 6 years  ago, ate the fruit for a couple of years, then decided the flavor didn’t warrant my growing it. Yesterday I tasted a friend’s Concord grapes and they were delicious. What’s up? Did my nursery source for my Concord vine mix up labels? Could the difference be due to terroir, a concept that takes into account almost everything: soil, climate, slope, sunlight, the geology and geography of a particular region, and as much more as needed to lend it a certain mystical quality? (I delve into terroir in depth in my book The Ever Curious Gardener.) I took a cutting to make a plant and in a few years will check out the flavor of that “Concord” here.

For the past few weeks, I have Elmer Swenson, a dairy farmer and grape breeder who lived near the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, to thank for the grapes I am eating. Some of my favorite varieties reflect his skill as a breeder. Swenson Red berries are medium sized, sweet, fairly foxy, and just slightly slipskin. I do wish that Edelweiss was not so vigorous, but the berries are deliciously sweet and foxy. Also delicious and foxy is Brianna. And for a variety leaning towards the vinifera end of the gustatory spectrum, there’s Somerset Seedless. Thanks Elmer.

Fruit bowl with fig, grape, persimmon, nashi

Fruit bowl with fig, grape, persimmon, nashi


Soil That is Too Good?

 I don’t expect to elicit much sympathy from moaning about the problem with my soil here on the farmden; the problem is that it’s too good. Wait! Don’t roll your eyes or, worse, stop reading. Allow me to present my case.
Aerial view of farmden
The setting: A valley cut through with a small river (the Wallkill River) in New York’s Hudson Valley. River bottom soil, specifically young alluvial soil, rich in nutrients, a silty clay loam with perfect drainage. Also naturally rich in nutrients. No rocks.

So what’s the problem? One problem is too much growth from plants that I’m not cultivating — weeds, everything from stilt grass and garlic mustard to wild blackberries and poison ivy to ash and cherry trees. Every minute of every day they are making the most of this rich ground and trying to insinuate themselves into my plantings. They creep into the edges of the vegetable gardens, settling in especially well right at the bottom of any fencing, where they are hard to weed out. 

My land is backed by forest running up to hills, then mountains, with soil that’s pretty much the opposite of what I have down here in the valley. It feels like that forest is just waiting for me to let up weeding and mowing, ready to spring down here and engulf my plantings.

That feeling is pretty much borne out in the one-third of an acre meadow to the south. Once a year mowing keeps the meadow a meadow. Yet even in the few months of each growing season, joe-pye-weed and ragweed stand almost 9 feet high and goldenrod, monarda, and grasses grow densely.

Looking at the herbage more closely I see multiflora rose, staghorn sumac, grapevines, and other woody plants elbowing their ways in here and there. And cherry, red maple, red oak, and poplar trees keep trying to introduce their progeny into the meadow to morph it into forest. Which isn’t a bad thing except that I scythe parts of that meadow for harvesting the herbage, not woody plants, to feed my compost, and grow apples, kiwis, pawpaws, hazelnuts, and other fruits and nuts that I cultivate in and around the meadow.

Errant and Robust

Even some cultivated plants grow a bit too well here.

Crocosmia, for example.  Towards the end of summer, this South African, summer-flowering bulb sprouts a tall, thin flower shoot about four feet high. The shoot curves over and then fire-engine red flowers open sequentially along the upper portion of the curve.
Crocosmia up close
Many years ago I planted crocosmia here and, as directed, dug the corms up at the end of the season for winter storage, just as I would do for dahlias. Those first few seasons, the plants hardly bloomed before frost killed the tops.

Long story short is that the original planting, which has since grown to a clump of plants, now blooms reliably each August, and does so without my having to ever dig the corms up for winter. Good so far, except that the plant evidently also now ripens seeds, and these seeds find their way elsewhere on the property. That would not be so bad except that in this rich soil one little seedling soon multiplies into a clump of vigorous plants that can threaten the existence of other plants.
My tack in reining in crocosmia is lopping off all spent flower heads wherever I spot them with a hedge shears, and digging out seedlings where they are not wanted.

This summer I even noticed a crocosmia seedling in the meadow. Hmmm. I recently saw, in a video documentary about color in the natural world (Life in Color with David Attenborough, highly recommended), a field of crocosmia in its native habitat, the flowers hovering over the field like a red mist. Do I want that in my meadow? Should I transplant some corms there? Would my rich soil and the apparent footloose habit of crocosmia create a future nightmare? If so, could I awaken from that nightmare with one whole season of mowing that portion of the field? Grasses are pretty much the only plants that tolerate repeated mowing.

Permaculture Ideals

All this is part of the reason I wince when I’m accused of practicing permaculture (although my agricultural perspective and much of what I do does happen to align with those of permies). Permaculture’s origins are in the poor soils and dry climate of Australia. Plant a tree there, give it water, nutrients, mulch, and you’re not inviting half the plant world in as too-close neighbors. But try this here on my farmden — or in any other place with hot summers and sufficient natural rainfall — and those “neighbors” will be at the door.

Even among cultivated plants grown cheek to jowl in the various “guilds,” growth eventually becomes so rampant that it’s a major job to keep growth among plants balanced so each plant gets what it needs in terms of light and air.

Most permaculture sites outside of climates such as Australia, our Southwest, and the Mediterranean, that I have seen mingle plants nicely on paper and look good when first planted. After a few years, though, they become a tangled mess of plants with low yields of poor-quality fruits and vegetables.

Permaculture seems to encompass a broad philosophy, broad enough so a well-known local permaculturalist once told me, contrary to my opinion, that I was practicing permaculture. I asked him, “Ok, then; what isn’t permaculture?” He replied, “Everything is permaculture! (Except commercial agriculture).”

All this is not to say that I don’t side with permaculturalists in certain key practices. Like them, I minimize soil disturbance. I also practice interplanting, such as the blackcurrants and pawpaws, favor pest resistant species, such as hardy kiwifruit and gooseberries, and let my ducks have almost free rein here. I also have my requisite shiitake logs, fire wood pile, and solar cells.


Spring Readiness

  I’m frantically getting ready for spring. A large portion of that readying means making compost. Compost piles assembled now, while temperatures are still relatively warm, have plenty of time to heat up right to their edges, quickly cooking and killing most resident weed seeds, pests, and diseases.
My compost binsI like to think of my compost pile as a pet (really, many pets, the population of which changes over time as the compost ripens) that needs, as do our ducks, dogs and cat, food, water, and air. Today I’ll feeding my pet — my compost pet — corn stalks, lettuce plants that have gone to seed, rotten tomatoes and peppers, and other garden refuse. Plenty of organic materials are available to feed compost piles this time of year.

  In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not taking a close look at each leaf, stalk, and fruit to make sure it’s free of pests before getting tossed on the growing pile, as is suggested by some people. Look closely enough, and you’d find that just about everything would have some hostile organism on it. But given some combination of time and heat, a well-fed compost pile will take care of such potential problems.
Compost, in the makingJoseph Jenkins, in his excellent (and fun-to-read) book, The Humanure Handbook, quotes research showing complete destruction of human pathogens in humanure composts that reach 145°F for one hour, 122°F for one day, or 109° F for one week. The same should be true for plant pathogens and pests. For decades, I’ve tossed everything and anything into my compost piles and never noticed any carry over of pest or disease problems.

  Heat and time also do in weed seeds. Survival depends on the kind of weed: Research shows that a couple of weeks at 114°F kills pigweed seeds, while only about a week at that temperature kills seeds of tomatoes, peppers and their other kin in the nightshade family. Generally temperatures of 131°F for a couple of weeks kills most weed seeds.

  Heat and time aren’t the only threats faced by pathogens, pests, and weed seeds in the innards of my compost piles. In addition to heat, various antagonistic organisms — including friendly (to us) bacteria, fungi, and nematodes — stand ready to inhibit their growth or gobble them up.
Compost thermometerThis time of year, my compost piles dial the heat up to around 140°F, and hold that temperature for a couple of weeks, or more, before slowly cooling down.

Weedy Revenge

  Speaking of weeds, they also make excellent food for my compost pet. What sweet revenge I get tossing mugwort, creeping Charlie, and woodsorrel onto a growing compost pile and then get them back transmuted as dark, rich compost.

  Other organic materials that go into my compost piles are a mix of goldenrod, bee balm, grasses, yarrow, and whatever else is growing in my south field. I cut parts of it with a scythe, let the scythings wilt for a day, then rake and pitchfork them up.
Haystacks and compost pilesAlso on the menu is some horse manure from a nearby stable, which I like mostly for the wood shavings that provide bedding for the horses. The manure itself furnishes nitrogen, which compost pets need for a balanced diet — 20 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen but no need to be overly exacting because it all balances out in the finished compost. Lacking manure, soybean meal is another nitrogen-rich feed, as are grass clippings and kitchen waste.
Organic materials feed compost pile.Feeding a variety of compost foods provides a smorgasbord of macro- and micronutrients to the composting organisms and, hence, to my plants. Every few inches I also sprinkle on some soil, to help absorb nutrients and odors, and some ground limestone, to lower acidity of our naturally increasingly acidic soils, and to improve the texture of the finished compost.

The Annual Cycle of Compost Here

  Compost made this time of year typically gets turned next spring, then, later in the growing season, pitchforked into the garden cart for spreading on vegetable beds. 

Turning compost

A one-inch depth of ripened compost supplies all that bed needs to grow intensively planted vegetables there for the whole growing season.Spreading compostIt was too late to plant a late vegetable crop in the bed I just cleared of old corn stalks, so I blanketed that bed an inch deep in compost. The same goes for a bed in which grew an early planting of zucchini.

  Any beds that get cleared before the end of this month will get, before I lay down that blanket of compost, a dense sprinkling of oat seeds. The seeds will germinate and the seedlings will thrive in the cool weather of autumn and early winter.

Cover crop, 3 beds with cabbage

This “cover crop,” as it is called, protects the soil surface from pounding rain and insulates the lower layers. The oat roots latch onto nutrients that might otherwise wash down through the soil. And as the roots grow, they nudge soil particles this way and that, giving the ground a nice, crumbly structure that garden plants like so well.

  Beds cleared after October 1st get only compost, no oats, which is almost as good. In all honesty, I’ve never noted any difference in the soil or in vegetable plant growth from using compost alone as opposed to compost plus a cover crop. That much compost, year after year, probably way overshadows the effect of a cover crop. The green cover does look nice going into winter, though.

(I deal more in-depth with composting, using compost, and cover crops in my book Weedless Gardening.)Oat cover crop