The Onion Cycle Begins Again

Early February, February 6th to be exact, was the official opening of my 2017 gardening season. No fireworks, waving flags, or other fanfare marked this opening. Just the whoosh of my trowel scooping potting soil into a seed flat, and then the hushed rattle of seeds in their paper packets. And the grand opening was not for a flamboyant, who-can-reap-the-earliest-meal of a vegetable like peas or tomatoes.

No, the grand opening for the season is rather sedate: I sowed onion seeds in mini-furrows in a seed flat. Why onions? In addition to the fact that I love the flavor of onions raw and cooked, onions need a long growing season. The summer growing season is cut short because the plants stop growing new leaves to put their energy into swelling up their bulbs when daylengths grow sufficiently long, 14 hours long, to be exact. Around here, that happens sometime in May. The more leaves the plants make before then, the bigger the bulbs. Hence my early planting.Sowing onions indoors

So I poured about a 3-inch depth of potting soil into an 18 by 24 inch plastic tub in which I had drilled drainage holes, and then made seven parallel furrows in the soil into which I dropped onion seeds. This year I’m growing New York Early, Patterson, and Ailsa Craig. (I also sowed leeks in one of the furrows.) After closing up the furrows, I watered, covered the tub with a pane of glass, and put the tub on a heating mat set at 75 to 80° F.

Done. The season has begun.


Other Beginnings

There are so many ways to grow onions. Let me count the ways, some other ways.

1, and easiest, is to just plant onion sets, those mini-onions you can buy to plant as soon as the ground outside warms and dries up a bit. One downside to sets is that the variety selection is very limited. Not only limited, but also restricted to so-called “American-type” varieties, which keep very well but are very pungent and not very sweet. Onion sets that are too large — larger than a dime — tend to go to seed. Plants going to seed look very pretty but don’t make bulbs for eating.

Number 2 method overcomes one of the limitations of method number 1: Purchase onion plants, which are growing plants, with leaves. The sweet “European-types” — Ailsa Craig, Sweet Spanish, and Granex, for example — are available in this form. The plants are grown in fields in the South, and there’s the potential to bring a disease into the garden on these plants. Also, “organic” onion plants might be hard to find.

Setting out onion transplants

Setting out onion transplants

Method number 3 is the most involved. (I’ve never tried it.) Grow your own onion sets. The trick is to sow the seeds outdoors densely enough so that they bulb up while still small — dime size. Once bulbs mature, their harvested to store for winter, and then planted in spring just like the sets in Method 1.

Method number 4 is fairly easy, and that is to sow seeds of the Evergreen variety onions right in the ground in spring. This variety never forms bulbs but makes tasty green onions, or scallions. It’s also perennial, so any scallions left in the ground will multiply year after year. The downside here is that you don’t get onions for winter. I grow these every year and do get them for winter use also, in my greenhouse. 

Method number 5 is easiest of all. Grow Egyptian, or Walking, onions. This is another perennial onion. It “walks” by forming bulblets on top of some stalks. The weight of the bulblets pulls down the stalk, and when the bulblets touch ground, they root to make new plants. The new plants eventually send up bulblet-topped stalks which likewise bend to the ground, etc., etc., walking the plants around. To me, Egyptian onions are all hotness with little other flavor. I no longer grow them.

Walking onions

Walking onions

I learned of method number 5 from Jay at Four Winds Farm. Simple enough. Just sow the seeds outdoors as soon as the ground is warm enough and dry enough for a nice seedbed. A nice seedbed is key here, because onions compete very poorly with weeds and the goal is to get the seeds to germinate as fast as possible. I tried this last year and the bulbs ended up pretty much the same size as those from the plants I sowed last February and then transplanted into the garden in April. So I get a wide choice of varieties without having to start the seeds in February. Thanks Jay. (I’m growing transplants and direct seeding this year, just to make sure.)

My Pea Planting Will Not Be On St. Pat’s Day!

My early February onion-sowing date isn’t some magical date. My greenhouse is only minimally heated, making for very slow growth early in the season. Growth picks up as sunlight grows more intense and further warms the greenhouse. A week or more difference in sowing date early in the season doesn’t translate into that much difference in growth near harvest time.

The same goes for pea-planting, which is attended by more fanfare than onion planting. Many gardeners rush to get their pea seeds planted by St. Patrick’s day, but planting a week later doesn’t delay that harvest by a week. Perhaps by a couple of days or by a few hours, depending on the season. And anyway, St. Patrick’s day might be the traditional date for planting peas in Ireland, but it would be way too early in Maine and way too late in Georgia. I plant peas here in Zone 5 on April 1st, give or take a few days.

In my book Weedless Gardening, I have a chart that shows what and when to plant, whether as seeds, indoors or out, or as transplants, for all regions. All you have to do is plug in your average date for the last killing frost of spring and the first killing frost of autumn. This date is available from your local Cooperative Extension Office. 


Reader Alert: Invasive Plant

    The sweet scent practically bowled me over. My friend, walking with me along the nearby rail trail, characterized the aroma as citrus-y rather than sweet. Either way, the aroma was delicious and welcome. Too bad the source of the scent, autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), is a plant so reviled.Autumn olive blossoms
    “Too bad” because the plant also has other qualities. The olive-green leaves lend a Mediterranean feel to any setting. Microorganisms associated with the shrub’s roots garner nitrogen from the air to enrich the soil. And come early fall, the plants are loaded with delicious and nutritious, small, red (sometimes yellow) berries.
    Alas, this non-native plant grows too easily, frequenting fields and waysides. It’s deemed invasive, which it is . . .  but?
  Autumn olive fruit  (Autumn olive is often confused with Russian olive, E. angustifolium, a close relative that is more tree-like, less invasive, and with sweet, olive-green fruits. Another equally attractive, fragrant, tasty, and soil-building plant is gumi, E. multiflora, not well known but closely related to the other “olives.”)

And Yet Another Invasive

    Soon, by the time you read this, the rail trail and elsewhere will be suffused by another pleasant aroma, that of honeysuckle. These flowers are also followed by red berries, but they’re not edible. (Other honeysuckle species do yield edible berries, an up and coming fruit called haskaps.)Honeysuckle flower
    How could anyone not like a plant with a name like “honeysuckle?” A lot of people don’t like honeysuckle because it too, despite its qualities, is invasive.

You Call This Renovation

    Before anyone attacks me for heaping praise on invasive plants, let’s sidle off the rail trail and back to the home front, where yet another delicious scent fills the air. This one wafts from a plant that, unlike autumn olive, Russian olive, and gumi, is not invasive and is truly in the olive family: lilac (Syringa vulgaris).
    Actually, for years now, my lilac bush has not been perfuming the air as much as it should. The plant is old, my guess is over 50 years old. Not that age alone is responsible for its poor showing. Lilac, like other shrubs, have long-lived root systems. No stem ever develops into a permanent, long-lived trunk and — important for all flowering and fruiting shrubs — after a certain age stems can’t keep up the flower production of its youth.
    The way to prune any flowering or fruiting shrub is by a renewal method. You cut down some of the oldest stems that are no longer performing well. And then you thin out — that is, reduce the number of — some of the youngest stems so that each can develop to its fullest potential without being crowded.
    How long an old stem is worth keeping and how many new stems spring up each year from ground level depends on the kind of shrub and the growing conditions. A highbush blueberry stem, for example, retains its youthful fecundity for about 6 years; a raspberry, for two years.

Young lilac, old lilac, renovated lilac

Young lilac, old lilac, renovated lilac

    I’ve pruned my lilac over the years, but — I have to admit — never cut the old stems close enough to the ground nor thinned out the many young stems sufficiently. (My excuse is that the dense crowding of 5-inch-diameter stems made cutting difficult, the difficulty made more so by the haven they provided for poison ivy vines.)
    A non-blooming lilac shrub isn’t worth keeping, so drastic renovation was in order. This treatment can be applied to any old, decrepit shrub. It’s easy. All that’s needed is to cut everything to the ground. Which I did.
    My lilac’s stumps gave evidence to the shrub’s poor showings over the years with their many thick yet half-rotten, old stubs. Shrubby stems, as I wrote, just aren’t meant to live that long, and over time can’t support good flowering.
    If all goes well, new sprouts should soon poke up from ground level, vigorous new sprouts because they’ll be fueled by a large, old root system. It’ll be a few years before any of those sprouts get old enough to start flowering. But I’ll make sure to thin them out so each has room to develop. I promise.

Win a Copy of My Book

A few weeks ago my plum tree was in full bloom, actually only part of it was in full bloom. Winter’s wacky weather? Spring’s wacky weather? Plum, blossoming branchOffer an explanation and, if correct, you’ll be in the pool of readers, one of whom, randomly selected, gets sent a free copy of my book Grow Fruit Naturally. Respond by midnight, May 31st.
GFN Front Cover


How Can Something So Nutritious Taste So Good?

    Black currants are a berry brimming with vitamin C (in comparison, oranges are like water) and other health goodies, with an intense, rich, to me resin-y flavor that pairs well with dark chocolate or, on bread, with peanut or any other nut butter. Not everyone enjoys the fresh flavor, but that’s okay. Not everyone needs to enjoy every kind of fruit.

Belaruskaja black currants

Belaruskaja black currants

    What the doyen of horticulture, Liberty Hyde Bailey, wrote almost 100 years ago about apple varieties also applies to fruits in general: “Why do we need so many kinds of [fruits]? Because there are so many folks. A person has a right to gratify his legitimate tastes . . .  There is merit in variety itself.”
    With that said, just about everyone does like black currants once they’ve been cooked and sweetened to make jam, juice, pie, and the like, or soaked in alcohol to make a liqueur (créme de cassis). My preference is for the raw berries, eaten straight up, in my cereal, or smooshed on bread as an instant jam.
    Black currants have more to recommend them than only good flavor. In contrast to most fruit plants, they fruit well in shade. Look down my row of pawpaw trees, and in the shade between every two of them you’ll see a black currant bush thriving. In contrast to just about every other plant, black currants are deer resistant. My ducks and chickens, as well as wild birds, leave the berries alone.

Row of pawpaw & black currant

Row of pawpaw & black currant

   In fact, few significant pests attack the plant or the fruit — except for a disease called white pine blister rust. This disease needs two different host plants to complete its life cycle, a susceptible variety of currant or gooseberry, and a white pine. Because the disease can kill white pines, an important timber crop, gooseberries and currants were once banned by federal law. That’s no longer the case, one reason being that most cultivated varieties of gooseberries and currents are not very susceptible to the disease.
    Black currant is very susceptible to the blister rust disease — except for some rust-resistant or immune varieties. The first of these, Consort, Crusader, and Coronet, developed in the middle of the 20th century, were not very tasty just popped into your mouth raw. Newer rust-resistant varieties, such as Belaruskaja and Titania, are delicious any which way, and along with blueberry are my favorite fruits.

Bye, Bye, Black Currants

    Sad to say, black currants are finished for the season. That’s their one deficiency: They come and go too quickly. Still, bags stuffed full of black currants are now in the freezer, not to be opened until Christmas.
    And I can’t complain. Branches of blueberry bushes are bowed to the ground under their weight of fruit, and will continue to do so until almost the end of summer. And gooseberries still have a a week or so more of fruiting.  Mulberries, too, have a few more weeks, except that the birds are eating most of them.

Red and white currants

Red and white currants

    Red, pink, and white currants started fruiting with the black currants, and will hang in good eating condition for weeks to come. Red, pink, and white currants are different varieties of the same fruit (like Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples), a different species and quite different in flavor and bearing habit from black currants. Most of the reds, whites, and pinks will hang from the branches for weeks because the berries, looking like shiny, translucent chains of beads, the seeds visible seemingly floating within when backlit by the sun, are almost too pretty to harvest. Also, not being my favorite fruits, they get to hang without being picked, especially with the abundance of other, tastier (to me), berries, an opinion that might change if I had some skill in jelly-making.

Red currant espalier

Red currant espalier

I’m an Amateur, for Sure

    Liberty Hyde Bailey would be proud of the abundance and variety of fruit here. That’s one great advantage of planting your own: You get to choose what pleases your palate as far as kinds of fruits and varieties of fruits, and you get a hedge against a poor harvest from one or a couple of fruits any year. Hence the Macoun and Hudson’s Golden Gem apples here, the grapes, and gooseberries (a dozen varieties of each), gumis, raspberries, kiwis, seaberries, and elderberries, among many other fruits.
    Again, quoting Liberty Hyde Bailey: “We give the public indifferent fruits, and thereby neither educate the taste nor stimulate the desire for more . . . Just now [1922] we are trying to increase the consumption of apples . . . it cannot be accomplished by customary commercial methods. To eat an apple a day is a question of affections and emotions.”

Summer berries

Summer berries

    Professor Bailey had great faith in the role of the hobbyist, the amateur (in the true meaning of the word, the lover) in fruit growing. Try it.
    One route to cultivating a greater appreciation for fruit and know-how for growing them is to join North American Fruit Explorers, a band of fruit “nuts” drawn from both academia and backyards, but all amateurs. For more information about some lesser know fruits, including black currant, I recommend my own book, Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.


 The Eternal (Fruit) Optimist

   We fruit growers get especially excited this time of year. On the one hand, there’s the anticipation of the upcoming season. And on the other hand, we don’t want to rush things along at all.
    Ideally, late winter segues into the middle of spring with gradually warming days and nights. Unfortunately, here, as in most of continental U.S., temperatures fluctuate wildly this time of year. Warm weather accelerates development of flower buds and flowers. While early blossoms are a welcome sight after winter’s achromatic landscapes, late frosts can snuff them out. Except for with everbearing strawberries, figs, and a couple of other fruits that bloom more than once each season, we fruit lovers get only one shot at a successful crop each season.Some berries of summer
    How did all these fruits ever survive in the wild? They did so by not growing here — in the wild. Apples, peaches, cherries — most of our familiar fruits — were never wild here, but come from climates with more equable temperatures, mostly eastern Europe and western Asia. We favor them because they are part of our mostly European heritage.
    The fruits that I never worry about here are the few that are native: pawpaw, persimmon, grape, mulberry, lingonberry, and blueberry, to name a few. (Also raspberry, gooseberry, and currants, cultivated varieties of which are hybrids of native and European species.) After decades of fruit growing, I’ve hardly missed a harvest, no matter what the weather, from any of these native fruits. (I cover native, non-native, common, and uncommon fruits in my books Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden and Grow Fruit Naturally.)
 Some fruits of fall   Still, I can’t deny the delicious flavor of apples, peaches, and other non-native fruits, especially those I grow myself. So I do grow them, do what I can for them, and hope for the best. I may even put a thin coat of white kaolin spray on these trees to reflect the sun’s warmth and further delay awakening of the buds.
    Last year was a very poor year for many tree fruits, and I’m not sure why. (Recovery from the previous years cicada attacks could be part of the reason.) Nonetheless, every year about this time I’m bursting with optimism for a bountiful fruit harvest.

Veggies, As Usual, Chugging Along Nicely

    I consider vegetables relatively easy to grow because most are annuals and because, with most of them, I can sow and harvest repeatedly throughout the growing season. Let cold or some pest snuff them out, and I can just replant.
    The first of my lettuces, sown early last month in little seed trays, are up and growing strongly, each seedling transplanted into its own APS cell (available from Ninety-six seedlings take up little more than a couple of square feet and, with capillary watering from a reservoir beneath the APS trays, I need check the water only about every week.Seedlings in APS trays
    My next wave of indoor seed-sowing will take place in the middle of this month. That’s when I’ll sprinkle pepper, eggplant, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage seeds into the miniature furrows of miniature fields of my seed flats.
    I’ll also sow another batch of lettuce seeds indoors, this batch for eventual transplanting outdoors. The first batch is soon to be transplanted into greenhouse beds.

Fig Prophylaxis

    Buds on fig trees planted in the ground in the greenhouse are showing hints of green and swelling ever so slightly in spite of the cool night temperatures in there. The scale insects that I battled last year  are undoubtedly also coming to life on those plants. In the past, I’ve kept these insects at bay by scrubbing the bark in winter with soapy water or by spraying it with insecticidal soap, or, during the growing season, wrapping the trunk with a sticky Tanglefoot barrier to stop travel of ants that herd the insects.
    I’ve never gotten rid of scale insects, only kept them from gaining the upper hand. And some years it’s been a neck and neck race as to who would win out before the end of the season.
  Spraying oil on dormant fig tree  I’ve already begun this season with prophylactic sprays of oil. Oil has a long history of controlling insects and some diseases, with the advantage of causing little collateral damage to the environment, including beneficial insects. Because it’s main effect is to clog insect breathing ports (spiracles), there’s little danger of insects developing resistance.
    Oil’s major hazard is its potential to injure plants, mitigated by spraying when temperatures aren’t too hot or below freezing, or when rain is likely, all easily avoided in a greenhouse. Various kinds and formulations of oil — kinds include vegetable, mineral, and neem oils — differ in their hazard to plants. I’m using a high-purity mineral oil (Sunspray) from which I expect no damage, especially since the plants are still leafless.
    Scale insect eggs should be hatching about now. Brutal as it may sound, I hope to suffocate the crawlers before they settle down to one spot to cover themselves with their protective armor and literally suck the life from the plants. Weekly sprays should cover successive hatches.

New Video

Check out my new video on “pricking out” seedlings!

Free Book!

Book giveaway! Write a comment here telling us which is the most difficult fruit you grow, and why, and why you grow it, and you’ll be entered in a drawing to get a free copy of my most recent book Grow Fruit Naturally. Comments must be submitted no later than noon, March 23rd.Grow Fruit Naturally, front cover of book

Upcoming Lectures

Check out the “Lectures” page of my website for some lectures I’ll be giving in the next few weeks.


One Book = Years of Experience

    I’ve been gardening for over 30 years. Don’t be impressed. The number of years spent with hands in the dirt doesn’t necessarily confer any particular expertise in the field (pun intended). Some gardeners do the same foolish things year in and year out, or never sufficiently investigate other, perhaps better, ways of doing what they’ve been doing. Or not appreciate cause and effect. (Was it really the compost tea spray that led to bountiful yields last year, or was it reliable rainfall interspersed with bright, sunny days? The tendency is to hold the former responsible.) Or, the wizened, old gardener’s wealth of knowledge might not extend beyond what they’ve grown on their own “back forty,” severely limiting the benefit of any wisdom passed on to others with a shorter history of gardening.
    Reading is a efficient way to squeeze wisdom of others, reflecting decades of digging, pruning, and seed-sowing, into just a few years, for yourself — depending, of course, on the weight of the words. The fact that so many gardeners have always gotten by with little or no reading is testimonial to millions of years of evolution that makes every pea seed naturally want to grow and every apple tree naturally want to bear fruit.
    So, in the spirit of becoming better gardeners, especially this time of year with nothing to do in the garden, let’s thumb through the pages of three worthy books that recently found a place on my desk.

Good Tools are a Help

    Did you know that the hose was invented by Jan van der Heijden in the 17th century? Tarred canvass, linen, and hand-stitched lengths of leather pipe were all predecessors of the modern garden hose, all of which I learned from Bill Laws’ A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools. It wasn’t until near the end of the 19th century that technology and marketing brought hoses into more general use in gardens.
 History of Garden in Fifty Tools   Just imagine having to water your garden with repeated trips to the spigot with your watering can, another of Mr. Laws’ “Fifty Tools.” Not that the garden hose has displaced watering cans, which have been around in various incarnations for hundreds of years and may have reached their peak in functional and visual elegance with the work of John and Arthur Haws. Haws cans are still made; my 2 gallon, galvanized Haws watering cans have served me and my plants well for over 20 years.
    . . . Fifty Tools will not, admittedly, make anyone a better gardener. Instead, it’s a very interesting history of 50 gardening tools with — okay, this might be some help in the garden — sidebars, “Tools in Action,” telling of the best use of each tool.

Haws watering can

Haws watering can

Some listing are a stretch of the word “tool:” a radio, a scarecrow, separate entries for plant container, terracotta pot, and stoneware urn? I would have included the garden cart, pitchfork, and hori-hori knife as necessary garden accoutrements.

Inspiration from Paris

    In and Out of Paris: Gardens of Secret Delight by Zahid Sardar, with photographs by Marion Brenner is slightly more practical than A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools, even if I’m not planning to garden in Paris or like a king. The first section, eye candy, has the usual gardens of a literally majestic scale: Versailles, the Tuileries, Vaux-le-Vicomte, etc.
Paris Gardens    Sections on private gardens are more inspirational for us non-royalty. Most of the gardens, whether majestic or small, are typically French, with long views or symmetric arrangements. Not one of the gardens, though, the 1000 square foot Japanese garden near the Bastille, with carefully placed, but not seemingly so, boulders nestled into mosses, lichen bordering a koi pond. Walls shield the garden from the sight and sound of the surrounding city, the effect softened with clumps of bamboo and a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees.
    One of the most interesting gardens is the Experimental Parc Méry-sur-Oise, which started life as the historic Renaissance-era Chateau de Méry-sur-Oise. More recently, in 1999, the grounds were re-done, this time with water features, not Paris, Pervergne gardentraditional fountains, but misty, hot, cold, brackish, and mineralized water that rains down from above or tumbles over waterfalls. Long-term goals, the “Experimental” part of the garden, include observations of the effects of the various waters on plants and the ecosystem over time. Elsewhere are free-standing gabion walls planned for vertical gardens. That never happened. Money ran out and the gardens have been neglected since 2003 — a modern, neglected garden!
    In all honesty, I mostly just looked at the beautiful photographs of In and Out of Paris: Gardens of Secret Delight.

Grow Vegetables? Study this Book

    Even if you are a backyard gardener rather than a market gardener, The Market Gardener, by Jean-Martin Fortier, will have you harvesting more and better tomatoes, and with less effort. Two themes of this book, as I see it, are planning and record-keeping. The author is a successful market gardener in Quebec, grossing over $100,000 from a mere acre and a half of land.The Market Gardener
    The growing units on Jean-Martin’s farm are raised beds 100 feet long by 30 inches wide. Having all beds the same makes it easy for him to calculate the amount of compost needed and keep track of yields. The latter are spelled out in a handy chart showing days to maturity and yield of individual vegetables per 100 foot bed. I haven’t calculated yields from my 17 foot by 36 inch wide beds, but do know that I need to plant 4 beds at two week intervals to harvest our fill of sweet corn to enjoy during summer and, frozen, through winter.
    Another useful table spells out spacing of transplants, in flats and in beds, and another lists dollars reaped per bed from various vegetables. The only other gardening book that quantifies small-scale vegetable growing so well, in this case strictly backyard growing, is Burrage on Vegetables, from 1954, by Albert Burrage. How times have changed: Burrage is pictured in his garden in sport coat and bow tie; farmers in Jean-Martin’s book are pictured dressed as, well, farmers.

1950s vs the present: Different look but 2 good gardeners

1950s vs the present: Different look but 2 good gardeners

    The book also has the requisite listing of each vegetable along with growing information as well as useful chapters on soil care (generally good but with some misconceptions) and microclimate. One particularly simple, cheap yet innovative technique described for weed control after harvest, between plantings, is covering a bed for 2 weeks with a reusable 6mm thick, black silage tarp.
    Jean-Martin emphasizes that it is possible for farming and gardening to be, at the same time, productive and bucolic only with planning and organization to avoid wasting time. In so doing, he can be a farmer who can put in a workday from a reasonable 8 to 5. Charles Dudley Warner wrote in his 1870 classic My Summer in the Garden, “Blessed be agriculture! If one does not have too much of it.” I agree.

Talks in Pennsylvania & Vermont Coming Up

Some good conferences and lectures coming up. I’ll be in Pennsylvania and Vermont talking about espalier fruits, weedless(!) gardening, growing hardy kiwifruit, pawpaws, and blueberries, the efficacy of compost tea, and pruning fruits. For details, see my “Lectures” page.

To Every Thing There is a Season

Pruning is reduced to small steps, in time & process

So many branches, so little time. Or so it seems. Annual pruning is needed to get the best out of most trees, shrubs, and vines, of which there are many here on my farmden.

But wait. My brother once remarked — and the remark rang true — that a large part of feeling overburdened from so much to do comes from thinking about it, rather than doing it. And now that I think about it — if I may be allowed a bit more thought — many trees, shrubs, and vines do not need annual pruning except for size control, in which case a different plant or dwarfer variety could have been planted. My witch hazel shrub is in that hardly-ever-needs-pruning category, as is fothergilla, goumi (an attractive shrub with tasty fruits), mountain laurel, and rhododendron. 

Witch hazel is a shrub needing little or no pruning

Witch hazel is a shrub needing little or no pruning

Most ornamental trees do not need annual pruning, and the same can be said for ornamental vines, except when they threaten to take down an arbor, fence, or trellis that is lending them support.

Mostly, what needs annual pruning are flowering shrubs, and trees, shrubs, and vines that bear tasty (to us humans) fruit. But exceptions exist even among those edibles. Fruit plants that hardly ever needing pruning include such delicacies as pawpaw, persimmon, huckleberry, juneberry, Nanking cherry, elderberry, and lingonberry.

All shrubs are pruned the same, sort of

I already feel like pruning is under control, without even lifting a finger. And usually I don’t lift a finger to prune until, as is commonly recommended to avoid winter cold damage, after early February, when the coldest part of winter has passed. The last couple of years, though, I decided to go ahead and get a jump on pruning my rather extensive collection of gooseberries and currants. These plants are very cold-hardy so would be expected to laugh off winter cold, even following a December pruning, and they have.

Pruning currants and gooseberries captures the essence of pruning any flowering or fruiting shrub. Shrubs are shrubs because they are shrubby (duh!). That is, their stems are not long-lived but new stems, called suckers, are always popping up through the ground to replace old, decrepit ones. So these shrubs are “renewal pruned.” Old stems are cut away and the number of new stems, if too many, are reduced so that they don’t become crowded as they age.

Gooseberry bush, before & after pruning

Gooseberry bush, before & after pruning

The questions then become, “How old is too old for a stem, and how many new stems is too many?” The questions are related because shrubs whose old stems perform well in terms of fruit or flowers also tend to make fewer suckers, and vice versa. The easiest way to approach shrub pruning (and the way it’s detailed in my book The Pruning Book) is to group shrubs into one of four categories. At one end of the spectrum are shrubs that flower or fruit well on very old wood and make few suckers — and, hence, are in the aforementioned hardly-ever-needs-pruning category. At the other end of the spectrum are shrubs that flower or fruit only on new stems, such as butterfly bush, so can have every one of their stems lopped to ground level every year.

A now I do it, prune currants & gooseberries

The other day I stopped thinking about pruning my gooseberry shrubs and, instead, approached them with lopper and hand shears and a new-found sense of having all the time in the world. Gooseberries fruit best on stems that are 2 and 3 years old. Pruning is straightforward. Merely lop to the ground any stems more than 3-years-old (they were 3-years-old last season and bore fruit) and reduce the number of new stems to about a half-dozen of the sturdiest, most upright ones. The ideal, pruned gooseberry shrub, then has about a half-dozen each of 1, 2, and 3-year old stems. A shrub never becomes a tangle of stems nor has old, decrepit, unproductive ones.

Black currant, before pruning

Black currant, before pruning

Red, white, and pink currants get pruned exactly the same as gooseberries; black currants, though, are a whole ‘nother animal. They bear best on 1-year-old stems and, to a lesser degree, 2-year old stems. So for the black currants, I lopped back to the ground any stems more than 2-years-old as well as some 2 year olds and thinned out new, 1-year old stems, again to the best half-dozen.

How do I know the age of any shrub’s stem? I could count back the age of the various side branches starting at their tips. That would be tedious. The thickness of the base of a stem and the appearance of the bark are just as telling. Old bark is darker and, often, peeling.

After pruning any shrub I go over the plant to remove or shorten stems that will droop so low as to set their fruits on the ground. Especially with strictly ornamental shrubs, I also lop back any stems shooting gawkily skyward or otherwise looking out of place. And then, for any shrub, ornamental or fruiting, I step back to evaluate and admire my handiwork.

Black currant, after pruning

Black currant, after pruning

The why, how, and details of pruning any plant

For more about how to prune everything from houseplants to delphiniums to maples to raspberries, check out my book, The Pruning Book.

Live, On Stage Now!!!

I’ll be giving a number of lectures at various venues over the next few weeks. For a listing of what and where, see Lectures.

Hormones Get Pumping

More Brussels Sprouts, Cabbages, & Pears with Hormones

It’s time to get the hormones pumping. No, not by me embarking on some testosterone-fueled, garden-related feat of strength or endurance. Not even my own hormones, but the ones in my plants, more specifically my brussels sprouts plants. And actually, quashing the action of one hormone so that other hormones can come to the fore.

Let me explain: Brussels sprouts are not only a member of the cabbage family but are the same genus and species as cabbage, as are broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and kale. Differences in these plants lie in the way growth of the stems and leaves are expressed. Cabbage has a single stem that’s been telescoped down to very short internodes, resulting in a tight head of overlapping leaves. With kale, internodes along the stem are further apart, allowing each leaf to unfold fully on its own. They also look different from those of cabbage.

In every plant, a shoot bud develops in the upper part of the crotch where a leaf joins a stem. Most brussels sprouts buds each start to develop enough to form a small, cabbage like head. But I — and probably you also — want large brussels sprouts sprouts (and more of them, so I also want tall brussels sprouts plants on which to attach the sprouts).

Pinching makes Brussels Sprouts sprouts bigger

Pinching makes Brussels Sprouts sprouts bigger

The sprouts are retarded somewhat in their development by a hormone called auxin. Auxin is one of many plant hormones coursing about within leaves, fruits, shoots, and roots, their effect dependent on such variables as plant part, plant age, and what other hormones they are reacting with. One place of auxin synthesis is in the tips of stems, and their effect is to suppress growth of buds down along the stem, with more suppression the closer a bud is to the tip of the stem. I just looked at my brussels sprouts plants; yes, the largest sprouts are those nearest ground level. It’s still too early to harvest and too many of the upper sprouts, at present, are too small to be worth picking.

Suppressing auxin production in the tip of the stem releases their hold on the buds — that is, the sprouts — along the stem, so they can grow larger. Suppressing auxin production is simple, requiring only two fingers: Just snap off the tip of the stem. No tip, no auxin production, for a while, at least. The time to do this “operation” is the beginning of September. Done too soon, and a developing sprout might grow so bold as to grow out into, at worst, shoots or, less worse, loose heads. Plus, earlier in the season, I want to keep the stem elongating to provide real estate along which to hang more sprouts.

A Three-Headed Cabbage!

As I wrote, every plant develops buds in its leaf axils, and in every plant growth of those buds is mediated, in part, by auxin. Harvest the main head of broccoli and side shoots start to grow for eventual harvest.

Even tight heads of cabbage have those buds and they also respond to auxin’s influence. I used to plant cabbage in the spring for harvest in summer. Rather than pulling out the spent cabbage plants, as is usually done, I would leave the cut stump with a few bottom leaves for nourishment. Harvesting the cabbage dramatically removes the tip of the stem, which was buried within the head.

Cabbage plants left after harvest develop multiple heads

Cabbage left after harvest = multiple heads

Within a couple of weeks, new sprouts would develop in the crotches where leaves were or had been. In the ideal world, I’d get one to three new cabbage heads from each plant, ready for autumn harvest. A certain amount of art was needed to get it right. Depending on growing conditions and the number of new heads I allowed to develop, they might end up too small or too loose-leaved.

I’ve abandoned that chancy cabbage habit and now do a second sowing of cabbage in early June for a reliable autumn harvest of firm heads.

Pears — More, Please

I fiddled around with hormones earlier this season also, with longer term goals in mind. Auxin keeps the tip of a stem or the upper portions of a plant growing most vigorously. Vigorous growth, though, is at odds with making fruit. After all, both require a lot of a plant’s energy, so the plant has to partition the energy efficiently between growing and fruiting.

Fruiting pear branchPear trees are famous for growing vigorous shoots skyward. Yes, shoot growth is needed on which to hang fruit and for adequate leaves for photosynthesis. But enough is enough. Rather than pinch out shoot tips, which would likely just pass on the vigor to nearby lower buds, I bent ranches down and held them there with string. Changing stem orientation from vertical to at or near horizontal quells auxin production, slows growth, and promotes the formation of fruit buds along the stem. (Fruit buds form the year before flowers open.)

Fruits now dangle from some of the stems that I pulled down a year ago last spring. The response can take more than a year as energy reserves are redistributed within the stem. Response also depends on a tree’s inherent vigor, growing conditions for the season, the pear variety, the degree of stem bending, and other knowns and unknowns. It’s takes a mix of science, art, and experience, and that’s what makes gardening so interesting for me. 

Good Gifts for Gardeners

What would be a good gift for a gardener at this gift-giving time of year? Every gardener has his or her special inclinations, gardenwise, so each of us warrants a special set of gift possibilities.
Still, certain expendable items are sure to please any and every gardener. Tops on my list would be a big ball of twine. Twine is useful for everything from lashing blue spires of delphinium and floppy tomato vines to stakes to tying pea vines to a trellis or grape vines to support wires. Not just any twine will do; best is twine made of natural fibre, such as hemp or sisal, so that it can be gathered up to be composted along with the plants it supported at season’s end.
Gloves are another expendable item great for gifts. Gloves made from leather and some synthetics last for years. Among my favorite gloves for everything from detail work like transplanting small seedlings to grabbing a pitchfork to pitch manure onto the compost pile are knit gloves with nitrile or latex coated palms and fingers. With rough use, the gloves only last a couple of seasons, if that, but they’re worth it for their grippiness, comfort, and hand protection. I save my leather gloves for colder weather or for rougher work such as pruning thorny rose and gooseberry bushes and grabbing firewood.
Organic gardening (a good idea and the essence of good gardening in general) conjures up its own special gifts. Straw, manure, hay, leaves, wood chips, and other organic (that is, living or once-living) materials are what put the “organic” into organic gardening. A pitchfork is the perfect tool for moving organic materials to the compost pile or on top of the soil. But choosing a pitchfork is not all that straightforward. I am the proud owner and frequent user of 4-, 5-, 6-, and 10-tine pitchforks. Each has its special use but if I were to own just one pitchfork, it would be the  6-tine fork.
If you’re going to use a pitchfork, you’re probably going to need something with which to move around all those bulky organic materials. A garden cart. Stoked full, a sturdy cart with high wooden sides and two large-diameter tires can move over 10 cubic feet or 1/3 cubic yard of material, up to about 400 pounds of weight. Please don’t buy me one; I own three.
A few other essential, welcome tools are a trowel, which any but a beginning gardener is sure to have, and hand pruning shears (my favorite is ARS although Felco and Pica are also very, very good). A rain gauge is also essential to know whether what sounded like an earth-drenching downpour really contributed to the one inch per week needed for best plant growth. Good sources for tools are Gemplers, A. M. Leonard, Charleys Greenhouse, Orchard Equipment Supply Co., and Gardener’s Supply Co.
Beginning gardeners will appreciate packets of basic seeds such as Black Seeded Simpson and Buttercrunch lettuce, Bush Blue Lake and Romano beans, French Breakfast radishes, and Green Arrow peas. More advanced gardeners start their own transplants so might appreciate especially good, but hard to find as transplants, varieties of tomatoes, such as Blue Beech, Belgian Giant, San Marzano, and Black Krim. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds, High Mowing, Pinetree Garden Seeds, Tomato Growers Supply Company, and Totally Tomatoes are among my favorite seed companies. For growing transplants, I recommend Gardener’s Supply APS, which waters seedlings automatically and gives each seedling its own home so they hardly realize when they’ve been transplanted. I already own about a dozen of them so don’t buy one for me, thanks. 
How about a gift of some of the above catalogues? How about including some good nursery catalogues also? Some of my favorite nurseries are Hartmann’s, Raintree, One Green World, Cummins, Burnt Ridge, and Nourse. 
The best gift for the beginning gardener or for the seasoned gardener who wants to grow better is, in my opinion, a good book. Among my favorites are any of Elliot Coleman’s books about vegetable gardening, any of Michael Dirr’s books about trees and shrubs, Steven Still’s Manual of Herbaceous Plants, Hartmann & Kester’s Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices, my bible on plant propagation, and, for general gardening, Roy Biles’ The Complete Book of Garden Magic and Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer. For entertaining and informative essays, there’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perenyi and The Principles of Gardening: A Guide to the Art, History, Science, and Practice of Gardening by Hugh Johnson.
Oh, and did I mention my books?: A Northeast Gardener’s Year (the what, when, and how for a wide range of gardening topics arranged, as appropriate, through the year), Weedless Gardening (especially good for vegetable gardening), Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, Landscaping with Fruit, and Grow Fruit Naturally.