I Almost Become Very, Very Rich

My vision became blurred with dollar signs as I looked out the car window at mile after mile of bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) clambering over trees along a stretch of parkway. That was a few years ago, as I was driving away from a visit to New York City. While there, I had wandered into a florists’ shop, where I had been stunned by the price for a few sprigs of bittersweet. A quick mental calculation as I gazed out the car window told me there was gold in them thar’ trees.Bittersweet on trees

My financial empire crumbled before it even had a chance to grow. In some states, bittersweet is a protected plant. Anyone harvesting a protected plant from private property without the landowner’s permission may be subject to a fine.

To look at bittersweet, you might very well mistake it for a weed. The plant is a rampant, fast-growing vine. Given support, it will climb skyward twenty feet or more. Bittersweet can engulf small trees and shrubs, even kill them by twining around, then strangling them.

And bittersweet isn’t found in restricted ecological niches over a small geographic area. The plant grows wild in thickets and along roadsides over an area bounded by southeastern Canada across to the Dakotas, south to Texas, and then back across to North Carolina.

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Good Answer

When someone asks me how they should prune their hydrangea, I give them the answer that most people don’t like to any question “It depends.” What else can I say? It DOES depend. One or more of a few species of hydrangeas commonly make their home in our yards, and you have to approach each, pruning shears or loppers in hand, differently.

Let me tease apart the answer by, first, taking a look a what hydrangea or hydrangeas we may be growing, and then how they grow and flower, which, in turn, speaks to when and where to start snipping away.Climbing hydrangea at Mohonk Mountain House

Mopheads and Lacecaps, and Oakleafs

If the hydrangea plant in question is a shrub bearing blue or pink flowers, it’s a so-called Bigleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla). Mopheads types, also called hortensias, bear softball to volleyball size clusters of florets. Lacecap types bear flat-topped cluster of small, hardly conspicuous florets surrounded by rims of showy, larger, 4-petalled florets.Mophead hydrangea

Whether mophead or lacecap, Bigleaf Hydrangeas flowers open from buds they set up the previous year. Those buds are big and fat, in contrast to the skinny buds that grow out to become shoots.

Prune Bigleaf Hydrangea stems as far as the fat buds while the plants are leafless (now, for instance). Right after bloom, cut the stems further back to near ground level.

Problem is that while the plants can stand up to bitter cold, the flower buds can’t, expiring at temperatures below about minus 5° Fahrenheit. Some varieties set their flower buds lower on the stem than do others. Their buds might more reliably stand up to winter cold if plants are mulched in late fall with some loose organic material like straw or arborists’ wood chips.

Pushing Bigleaf Hydrangea growing further north are some recently developed varieties that bloom on new, growing shoots. These new varieties — the first one of which was named Endless Summer — will bloom anywhere. Blossoms on new shoots unfurl later in the season than those on older wood, too late in some gardens (like mine, some years). Cutting back older shoots after they flower fuels a better show from the young, growing shoots. 

Oakleaf Hydrangea (H. quercifolia) is another hydrangea that is very cold hardy, except for it flower buds. Flowers sit on the ends of stems in elongated clusters, like cotton candy. Oakleaf Hydrangea can be pruned just like Bigleaf Hydrangea, except that it grows as a large shrub so need not be cut back so much.Oakleaf hydrangea

Lack of a flowery show from Oakleaf Hydrangea is no loss because a billowing mound or mounds of the oak-like leaves are attractive in their own right through summer, and also in fall, when the leaves turn rich, burgundy red. Even where winter cold would test the reliability of flowering, Oak Leaf Hydrangea is often planted solely for its form and its leaves.

A Beautiful Climber

Years ago, I planted a Climbing Hydrangea (H. animal petiolaris) at the base of the north wall of my home. It took a couple of years or more to get in gear, but now completely clothes that wall. Though leafless through winter, the peeling, light mahogany bark stands prettily against the brick red backdrop. Hydrangea animala barkSoon the stems will be draped in glossy, green leaves and, a little after that, white flowers that stand proud of the wall on short stalks and glow against their dark backdrop like a starry night.

This time of year my pruning consists of shortening shorten flower stalks that reach too far out from the wall and vigorous stems that keep trying to sneak around the wall to clothe the rest of the house. Twice in summer I prune stems again to restrain the plant to only the north wall.

Perhaps I’ll plant another Climbing Hydrangea at the base of my 90 foot tall Norway spruce that with age is thinning out. The hydrangea tolerates sun or shade, and can climb a tree without causing harm.

And, Easiest of All

Rounding out this romp through pruning hydrangeas are two of the easiest to prune plants of the species. The first, Smooth Hydrangea (H. arborescens), grows long shoots from ground level, each capped in early summer with half-foot-wide clusters of of white or pastel flowers. To prune, just lop all stems right to the ground in late winter or early spring.Smooth Hydrangea

And finally, we come to PeeGee, sometimes called Panicle, Hydrangea (H. paniculata grandiflora), growing like a small tree or large shrub. This one blossoms in late summer on new growth, so if it is going to be pruned, that needs to be done before growth begins. Hydrangea paniculataWith that said, Panicle Hydrangea develops a permanent trunk or trunks, making it difficult to reach high into its dense head for pruning. No matter, because the plant flowers quite well with little or no pruning.

Hydrangea is only one group of closely related plants where species differ in how they are pruned. Roses would be another example; climbing roses are pruned very differently from rambling roses, which are pruned very differently from . . . you get the picture. Clematis also. For more details about the individual pruning needs of these as well as lots of other trees, shrubs, vines, flowers, fruits, and houseplants, and special pruning techniques like pollarding, mowing and scything (yes, that’s pruning!), and espalier, take a look at my book The Pruning Book. It’s available through the usual sources or, signed, directly from me here.The Pruning Book

Getting to the Root of Gardening

Etymological Wanderings

Sure, I’ve been dropping seeds into mini-furrows in some seed flats, and prunings are starting to litter the ground outdoors. But there’s a lot of nongardening activity going on here. What better time to ponder etymology? (Etymology, not entomology, the latter of which is the study of insects; aphids, mealybugs and whiteflies, all of which will be crawling around soon enough.) What exactly do we mean when we talk about a “garden” or “gardening?”

Garden(?) in Italy

Garden(?) in Italy

The word “gardening” is pretty much synonymous with “horticulture,” which comes from the Latin hortus meaning a garden, and cultura, to culture. According to Webster, horticulture is the “art or science of cultivating fruits, flowers, and vegetables.” The word “horticulture” was given official recognition in The New World of English Words in 1678 by E. Phillips, although though the Latin form, horticultura, first appeared as the title of a treatise of 1631. 

Horticulture, then, is about growing fruits, flowers, and vegetables; nothing is said about cultivating a field of cotton or wheat. These latter crops are in the ken of agronomy, from the Latin root ager meaning field. Once again quoting Webster, agronomy is the “science or art of crop production; the management of farm land.” Horticultural crops are more intensively cultivated than farm crops — and more apt to be threatened by neglect.

In fact, “gardening” and “horticulture” are not exactly synonymous. Horticulture is usually associated with growing plants for a livelihood, and is broken down into pomology (fruits), olericulture (vegetables), floriculture (flowers) and landscaping. Gardening usually implies something more homey and intimate.

Gardyne Styles

Over the centuries, the word “garden” has been penned in many spellings. A chronicler of the 13th century wrote “gardynes,” in the next century Chaucer wrote the word a bit differently: “Yif me a plante of thilke blessed tre And in my gardyn planted it shall be.” We see yet another spelling early in the sixteenth century: “My lord you have very good strawberries at your gardayne in Holberne.” Finally, by the time of Shakespeare, we have: “Ile fetch a turne about the Garden.” Here, “garden” at least, is spelt [sic] the moderne [sic] way.

The root of the word “garden” comes from the Old English geard, meaning fence, enclosure, or courtyard, and the Old Saxon gyrdan, meaning to enclose or gird.

Walled garden, with wall capturing heat for espliered peaches

Walled garden

These words are closely related to our modern words “yard,” “girth,” and “guard.” Medieval gardens were physically enclosed. My vegetable garden is too, but mostly as protection against rabbits that love my peas and beans, not against knights practicing their jousting or wild pigs roaming the fields. The medieval garden was against the house and protected by a high wall, or, perhaps a wattle fence.Fenced garden

Over the centuries, “garden” and “gardening” have come to mean more than the fenced medieval garden. The archetypal Persian garden is dominated by refreshing pools or fountains of water. In the Italian garden, we find trees and shrubs, and stone stairways, balustrades, and porticos.

Classic Italian garden

Classic Italian garden

Grand parterres characterize the French style of gardening.

Parterres in French garden

Parterres in French garden

About a hundred years ago, the increasingly grand style of gardening fell from favor as an Englishwoman, Gertrude Jekyll, came forward to laud and design gardens that emulated intimate, colorful, and informal cottage gardens. She wrote that the ” . . . first purpose of a garden is to give happiness and repose of mind, which is more often enjoyed in the contemplation of the homely border . . . than in any of the great gardens where the flowers lose their identity, and with it their hold on the human heart.”Cottage garden

And Today . . . ?

What does “garden” and “gardening” mean today? A few tomato and marigold plants, separated from the dwelling by an expanse of lawn? A woodland glen of ferns and bleeding hearts? More recently, “forest gardens” have incorporated edible plants in forest-ish settings.

A forest garden?

A forest garden?

How about a knot garden of herbs within a white picket fence — in the medieval style, one might say?

The World Was My Garden, the title of the book by early 20th century plant explorer and botanist David Fairchild offers another perspective on “garden.” (I’ll change the “was” to “is,” though.) I’m not sure where my garden ends and whatever else grows within my property boundaries begins.

What's the boundary of this garden?

What’s the boundary of this garden?

I pick strawberries in my vegetable garden and grow Caucasian mountain spinach among my gooseberries. Grapevines clamber on the arbor over my terrace, and a stewartia tree, mountain laurels, and lowbush blueberries snuggle near the east side of my home. 

And why stop at property boundaries?

Mountains "in" this garden

Mountains “in” this garden

Buildings as part of this garden, NYC HIghline

A row of eighty foot tall pine trees peer over the tops of my pear trees from the far end of my neighbor’s property two houses away to the north.Pines at neighbor's house To the south my meadow ends at a sweep of another neighbor’s field, the more frequently mown grass of which undulate like waves in summer sunshine in contrast to the more upright asters, fleabanes, goldenrods, and monardas that stand upright among the grasses in my meadow. View of meadow, October

Further extending the boundary are gardens revisited in my memory and those I have yet to see.

My boundless garden

My boundless garden

And Never the Twains Shall Meet

Detente, Plant Style

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” wrote Kipling a hundred years ago. Not so with respect to gardening. The Far East, spared the great sheets of ice that descended upon North America during the Ice Ages, has been a treasure trove of plants. Though distance, water, and culture kept the gardening worlds of the East and the West separate for millennia, the gap began to narrow just over two-hundred years ago.

The first plants to trickle out of China were those plants most accessible to foreigners — cultivated plants growing at and around seaport towns. It was not until the

Potted kumquat

Potted kumquat

middle of the nineteenth century that plant explorers pressed inland to open wide the treasure chest of wild and cultivated plants, many of which have found their way into my garden. These plant explorers are honored in plants that bear their names. Fortunella, or kumquats (the genus was changed recently, with kumquats now in Citrus), named for Robert Fortune. I grew kumquats, wintering them indoors at a sunny window, for many years. Citrus meyerei, the Meyer lemon, named for Frank Meyer; my two Meyer lemon plants, also at sunny windows, are just beginning to send out new shoots, soon, with flowers.

(There is a darker side to “East meets West.” Up until the middle of the 19th century, Japan was isolationist, which was not to the liking of U.S. commercial interests. President Millard Fillmore enlisted “Admiral” Matthew Perry to force his boats into Japan’s Edo Bay to intimidate the Japanese into opening their ports to American trade, as well as other concessions. This gunboat diplomacy was successful.)

Meyer lemon in bloom

Meyer lemon in bloom

Trans-Pacific Cousins

From the Far East came plants for which we had no counterparts, plants such as the gingko tree. There also came plants more, or at least equally, valuable as related plants found here. We have our redcedar (Juniperus virginiana); from China comes Chinese juniper (J. chinensis). Our redcedars turn drab brown in winter, but the Chinese species remain lush green throughout the year.

Common witchhazel (Hamemalis virginiana) and vernal witchhazel (H. vernalis) are understory shrubs of American forests; Asian forests likewise have two witchhazel

Arnold's Promise witchhazel

Arnold’s Promise witchhazel, today

species: Chinese (H. mollis) and the Japanese (H. japonica). The Asian species blossom at different times than the American species, so are useful for extending the period of witchhazel bloom. My Arnold’s Promise variety of witchhazel, a hybrid of the Chinese and the Japanese species, is in bloom right now although blooms often wait until midwinter to open

Where East really does meet West in gardening is in hybrids of Eastern and Western species. The hybrid tea rose, common in American gardens from New England to the Southwest, is one example. “Tea” in the name traces back to a tea-scented rose (Rosa gigantea) from China. For centuries, the Chinese hybridized this summer-flowering climber having huge, yellow flowers with a dwarf form of another species, R. chinensis. In the nineteenth century these hybrids were further hybridized with European roses to make hybrid tea roses.

Pest Control

American plant breeders sometimes have had to look across the Pacific to find plants with resistance to a disease originally brought to America from the East. Chestnut blight turned up at New York’s Bronx Zoo in 1906, and within fifty years, the tops of American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) were dead or dying in seven million acres of Appalachian forests. The roots, which are not affected by the blight, keep sprouting new shoots, which then die after a few years, but keep the blight fungus “fed.”

Blight on chestnut bark

Blight on chestnut bark

Japanese chestnut (C. crenata) and Chinese chestnut (C. mollisima) evolved with the blight and show some resistance to it, so have been hybridized with the American species to produce blight-resistant trees, such as the variety Sleeping Giant. These trees lack the grandeur of the American chestnut, but they do make larger nuts. My chestnuts, the varieties Colossal, Marigoule, and Precoce Marigoule, are hybrids of European chestnut (C. sativa) and Japanese chestnut. They’re all blight resistant, but resistance is a matter of degree. My Colossal is finally succumbing to blight.

Dutch elm disease entered America via Europe, but entered Europe from Asia, probably about the time of World War I. Once again, Asian elm species — Chinese elm (Ulmus parviflora) and Siberian elm (U. pumila) — are resistant to the disease. Hybridization has produced such disease-resistant varieties as Patriot and Accolade.

Plants of Asia even have been useful in providing resistance to diseases not originating in Asia. Fireblight disease of pears was first noted in New York’s Hudson Valley at the end of the eighteenth century. Some Asian pear species are resistant to fireblight. Over a hundred years ago, hybrids between Asian and European pears that showed some resistance to blight were produced, at first by accident. These original hybrids did not taste very good, but did make pear-growing possible in blight-prone southeastern U.S.

The story isn’t yet over. Expeditions still return from such areas as remote villages and forest of China and the Himalayas to yield “new” plant treasures.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (in my opinion)

For better or worse, every year nurseries and seed companies send me a few plants or seeds to try out and perhaps write about. The “for better” part is that I get to grow a lot of worthwhile plants. The “for worse part” is that I have to grow some garden “dogs.” (I use the word “dogs” disparagingly, with apologies to Sammy and Daisy, my good and true canines.) Before my memory fades, let me jot down impressions of a quartet of low, mounded annuals that I trialed this year.

Calibrachoa Superbells Blackberry Punch was billed as heat and drought tolerant, which it was. As billed, it also was smothered in flowers all summer long. It’s a petunia relative and look-alike. Still, I give it thumbs down. But that’s just me; I don’t particularly like purple flowers, and especially those that are purple with dark purple centers.

I’ll have to give Verbena Superbena Royale Chambray a similar thumbs down. superbena royale chambrayIt’s that purple again, light purple in this case. Also, the plants weren’t exactly smothered with flowers and most prominent, then, were the leaves which were not particularly attractive.

Golddust (Mecardonia hybrid) made tight mounds of small yellow flowers nestled among small yellow leaves. I give this one a partial thumbs up. The flowers were too small and there weren’t enough of them even if the leaves alone did make pleasant, lime green mounds.

And finally, a rousing thumbs up for Goldilocks Rocks (Bidens ferulifolia). This plant also was a low mound of tiny leaves, needle-shaped this time. Sprinkled generously on top of the leaves all summer long were sunny yellow blooms, each about an inch across and resembling single marigolds. Flowering was nonstop, even up through the many recent frosts here, right down to 24° F.
Goldilocks Rocks
Bidens in its botanical name caused me slight pause when I planted Goldilocks, not because of any displeasure with our president, but because the common name for this genus is sticktight, or beggartick. You know those half-inch, flat, 2-pronged burrs that attach to animals — and, inconveniently, your socks — when you walk through wild meadows? Bidens, sticktightsThose are Bidens, trying to spread. (Not to be confused with the round, marble-size burs of burdock.)

No problem with Goldilocks Rocks that lined my vegetable garden paths. The flowers were too low to reach any higher than my shoes.

Ugly, Beautiful, and Tasty

Despite the recent spate of cold temperatures, there’s still fruit out in the garden, hanging on and ready for picking at my leisure.

The first is medlar (Mespilus germanica), a fruit that was popular in the Middle Ages, but not now. Its unpopularity now is due mostly to its appearance. One writer described it as “a crabby-looking, brownish-green, truncated, little spheroid of unsympathetic appearance.” The fruits resemble small, russeted apples, tinged dull yellow or red, with their calyx ends (across from the stems) flared open. I happen to find that look attractive. Medlar fruit  in summer

The harvested fruit needs to sit on a counter a few days, like pears, before it’s ready to eat. Worse, from a commercial standpoint these days, when ready to eat the firm, white flesh turns to brown mush. Yechhh! Except that it’s delicious, with a refreshing briskness and winy overtones, like old-fashioned applesauce laced with cinnamon.Medlar ready to eat

The plant itself is quite beautiful, a small rustic-looking tree with elbowed limbs. In late spring individual white blossoms resembling wild roses festoon the branches. In autumn, medlar leaves turn warm, rich shades of yellow, orange, and russet. Medlar in fall

I would bill medlar as very easy to grow, except here on the farmden. A few years ago, a pest started attacking my fruits, turning the flesh dry, rust-colored, and inedible. I have yet to identify this pest (rust?) which is absent just about everywhere else. Do any other of you few medlar growers have anything to say about this pest, if you’ve seen it?Medlar pest

Beautiful and Tasty

Walking around my home to the bed supported by a low, stone wall along my front walkway, we come to lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea). This fruit never fails to stir a smile, a dreamy look, perhaps even a tear in the eye of Scandinavians away from their native land. Nonetheless, it’s actually is native throughout the colder zones of the northern hemisphere.

Lingonberry is an evergreen groundcover growing only a few inches high; I grow it both for its beauty and its fruit. In spring the cutest little white, urn-shaped blossoms dangle upside down (upside down for an urn, that is) singly or in clusters near the ends of thin, semi-woody stems. Lingonberry floweringThe bright red berries hang on the plants for a long time, well into winter, with their backdrop of holly-green, glossy leaves making a perfect holiday decoration in situ.Lingonberry fruiting

The key to success with lingonberries is suitable soil. Like blueberries, a close relative, they enjoy, they demand, a soil rich in organic matter, well aerated, consistently moist, and very acidic. I created these conditions with some peat moss in each planting hole, a year ‘round mulch of wood chips, leaves or sawdust, topped up annually, and sulfur applied to bring soil pH to between 4 and 5.5.

Lingonberries have been put to lots of culinary uses besides the usual lingonberry jam. I like to eat them straight from the plants. They’re not sweet, but they are delicious.

(I considered the two above-mentioned fruits so worthwhile that each warranted a chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden. This book’s out of print now, but is due to be revised and re-issued again in a couple of years. Some of the information in that book can be found in my currently available books Grow Fruit Naturally and Landscaping with Fruit.)




Why and How to Build

I’ve got to learn to look up more, you know, the way tourists do; natives generally fix their gazes straight ahead to a destination or downwards, in thought. I am reminded of this when a visitor (a “tourist” in this context) walks up my front path, smiles, and tells me, “I like your green roof.” So then I (the “native” in this context) look up and join in the appreciation.Two cats on my green roof

My green roof was born about twenty years ago. After fumbling too many times with packages or keys in the rain at the front door, the time had come build protection from the elements. Rather than cover just the area around the door, this cover would extend over a small patio. And rather than just shingle the roof, why not make it a planted roof, a “green roof?”

So my friend Bill and I built a sturdy, shallowly sloped roof supported on three corners by the walls of my house, and by an 8 x 8 white oak post in its fourth corner.Roof, ledger up The roof had enough slope so plants could be seen from the path, yet not so steep that a hard rain would wash the soil away.Roof completed

To keep the wooden structure dry, it was covered with EPDM roofing material and flashed with copper. A two-inch high lip of copper flashing along the low edge keeps plants and soil from sliding down off the roof. To prevent water from puddling at this lower end, I drilled holes and soldered short lengths of copper tubing at intervals into the lip, figuring that excess water would stream decoratively from each tube during rains. Roof drains(It streamed, but not so decoratively, because some tubes kept getting clogged and the bottom edge of the roof was not exactly horizontal so the flow burden was taken up by only a few tubes.)

How and What to Plant

Next was the gardening part of the roof. To keep the weight down, for low fertility to suppress weeds, and for good moisture retention I made a planting mix of equal parts peat moss and calcined montmorillonite clay (often sold as kitty litter).

The root environment on the roof was going to be harsh for plants. Only a two-inch depth of root run. And, in contrast to the moderated temperatures within soil out in open ground, roots on this shallow roof would experience mad swings in temperature that would closely mirror that of the air. And even though peat moss sucks up and holds moisture, there’s not much peat moss moisture to draw from in 2 inches of rooting.

The plant choice, given the conditions, became obvious: some kind of hardy, succulent plant. I chose hens-and-chicks. After filling enough 24 x 10 inch planting trays with the planting mix, I plugged in hens-and-chicks plants every 4 inches in each direction. Hens-and-chicks in traysAll this planting took place almost a year before the roof was readied for the plants, important so the hen-and-chicks could make enough “chicks” to spread and pretty much cover the planting trays, which otherwise would have left too much planting mix exposed to washing from rainfall.

Up the trays eventually went on sloping roof, laid down like tiles on a tile floor. Everything looked very neat and trim.Green roof, early on

Nature Collaborates

Despite very little intervention from me, the years have brought some changes to that green roof. This was not a garden area that I ever planned to weed, and I stuck to my plan. I figured that a green roof with a weed-free planting mix, sheltered on two sides by walls, and eight to ten feet off the ground would not harbor weeds.

I was wrong. Some weeds have moved in. Well, not weeds per se, because a “weed” is plant in the wrong place, and the roof is welcome to pretty much any plant.

Gazing up on my roof now, I see, in addition to the original hens-and-chicks, plenty of foxtail grass, quite decorative through the year with green shoots in spring and tawny, fuzzy foxtails in fall and winter. Also a single cedar tree about two feet high.Roof with weeds
More weeds on roof

I had a hand in introducing another sedum, Angelina. This sedum has borne small, yellow flowers and, just as decorative, its fleshy leaves turn a deep red color in winter. Angelina started out as a single plant I set in a nearby stone wall; over time a few plants of it appeared up on the roof. Angelina on roof

Angelina floweringShe looked good up there, especially when draped over the front lip. She also multiplied rapidly both on the wall and on the roof. To further encourage her, I grab bunches wherever in excess on the wall and toss them up on the roof to root.

One year I also planted oats left over from cover cropping in the vegetable garden. Oats’ extensive roots would be good to further knit together the rooting mix and lessen chances of rain washing it down. Planting involved nothing more than grabbing handfuls of oat seed, tossing them up on the roof, then waiting for rain.

Writing about my green roof has encouraged me to more frequently look up at it. It does bring a smile. Is that because there’s something anomalous about an aerial garden?

Brooklyn Grange

Urban farm high in the sky at Brooklyn Grange


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.


Heady Nights

It’s difficult to work outside in the garden these days, especially in early evening. No, not because of the heat. Not because of mosquitos either. The difficulty comes from the intoxicating aroma that wafts into the air each evening from the row of lilies just outside the east side of my vegetable garden.
cat and lilies
These aren’t daylilies, which are mildly and pleasantly fragrant. Wild, orange daylilies are common along roadways and yellow and hybrid daylilies, often yellow, are common in mall parking lots. (That’s not at all a dis’; the plants are tough and beautiful, and I’ve planted them also.) They’re also not tiger lilies, which lack aroma and sport downward turned, dark red speckled orange flowers with recurved petals. 

My fragrant lilies are so-called oriental hybrid lilies, which are notable for their large flowers and strong fragrance. My favorite among those I grow is Casa Blanca. The flowers are large and lily white (what’d you expect?) except for the threadlike, pale green stamens emerging from their centers, with dark red anthers capping their ends.

Casa Blanca would be worth growing just for the look of the flowers; the fragrance, very sweet and very heady make this bulb a must-grow. Not for everyone, though. A few people dislike this fragrance. For some people it’s more than just stinkiness, the aroma causing nausea, dizziness, or congestion.
Casablanca lily in the garden
Casa Blanca’s stems can rise to about four feet tall, their upper portions circled with almost a dozen of those large blossoms in various stages of ripening. Some years, staked, persimmon orange, Sungold tomatoes grow in that bed, and the tomato and lily plants looked very pretty mingling together. (Tomatoes were, after all, once grown as ornamentals.) 

This year I’m growing kale in that bed which, besides good eating, provides a frilly base from which the lily stems rise.

In Good Taste

Turning to another of the senses . . . taste. Blueberries. They are among my most successful fruits and, as usual, the plants’ stems are bowing to the ground under a heavy load of berries this time of year.
Blueberries galore
Not to brag, but the average yield of a blueberry bush is 3 to 5 quarts. My blueberry bible, Blueberry Culture (1966), states that “proper cultural practices can increase the yield to as much as 25 pints per bush.” I average about 18 pints per bush, with some bushes yielding as much as 24 pints. Organically grown, of course.

I credit my good yield to periodic additions of sulfur to maintain acidity of pH 4.0-5.5, timely watering with drip irrigation especially the plants’ first few years, topping up of existing wood chip, wood shavings, or leafy mulch each fall with an additional 3 inch depth of any organic, weed-free mulch, and pruning every spring. 
Bunch of blueberries
In year’s passed, I also added soybean meal for extra nitrogen to fuel stem growth. Blueberry flower buds develop along growing stems, with flowers open along those stems the following spring. More stem growth means more blueberries, to a point. For many years I have foregone soybean meal because the the plants were overly vigorous, creating a dense jungle that makes getting to the berries too difficult.

One other key to success and topnotch flavor is a net during the summer to fend off birds and — for best flavor — careful picking of only dead ripe fruits.

Water, Too Much or Too Little

So far, the growing season here in the Northeast has been one with both dry spells and wet spells, more than usual of each. Some recent thunderstorms fool many a gardener into thinking that the soil has been thoroughly wetted. But such rains are often only a drop in the bucket.

The only way to know for sure if enough rain has fallen for plants to really slurp up water is to check the soil or measure the actual amount of rainfall. A friend tells me he waters his plants every day. Every day! How much? It could be too much or too little, and probably is one or the other. I like to quantitate things so I measure rainfall or watering, as well as soil moisture, in a few different ways.

First, measuring water added to the soil: The ideal is about a 1 inch depth of water per week, which is equivalent to about a half a gallon per square foot of surface area. For hand watering a young tree, with an estimated root spread of only a couple of square feet, I fill the watering can with a gallon of water and sprinkle it on.
Rain gauge
Rainfall, or the water from a sprinkler, could be measured with a straight-sided container. I use a rain gauge whose tapered body can break down the measurement into tenths of an inch, readable from indoors.

Digital moisture probe.

Digital moisture probe.

I usually measure the actual moisture in the soil with a handy little meter attached to a probe that slides a half a foot down into the soil. As expected, the meter told me today that the soil is very wet. Not surprising after 3 inches of rainfall, as measure in the rain gauge, two nights ago. 

(There’s more about blueberries and water in my books Grow Fruit Naturally and The Ever Curious Gardener.)


True Accusation?

Accusations of my being a permaculturalist, that is, a practitioner of permaculture, are true, but only partially so. Yes, I grow peppers in a flower garden and persimmon as much for its beauty (see Landscaping with Fruit) as for its delicious fruits, also integrating other edibles right into the landscape. And, like permaculturalists, I do try to maximize use of the 3-dimensional space in my farmden with, for example, shade-loving black currants growing beneath my pawpaw trees.
Farmden, aerial view
I am also a permaculturalistic in maintaining the integrity of my soil by not tilling it or otherwise disrupting the structure that builds up naturally in undisturbed soils. New ground is prepared for planting by merely smothering existing mowed or stomped down vegetation. I mulch with compost, leaves, wood chips and other organic materials to keep bare ground from ever showing. 
Sammy also likes the mulch
And like permaculturalists, I try to grow plants adapted to the setting so as to minimize pest problems. And poultry — ducks here on the farmden — wander freely, except in the vegetable gardens, to minimize pest problems, to provide fresh eggs, to add to the bucolic atmosphere, and to provide entertainment. And, in the shade of a Norway spruce, a rack holds up oak logs from which pop out shiitake mushrooms. I could go on.

Why I Am Not a Full-Fledged Permy

Despite the assertion of one young, self-described “expert” permaculturalist, I am not a permaculturalist. I tend a permaculturesque farmden. Why the “-esque”? Because I part with true permaculturalists in a few critical ways.

Let’s begin with soil preparation. I smother existing vegetation beneath a few, typically four, sheets of newspaper topped with compost or some other weed-free, organic mulch. (I describe my methods in more detail in my book Weedless Gardening.) Many, perhaps most or all, permaculturalists prefer using corrugated cardboard from boxes as that first layer. The longevity of that cardboard on the ground is seen as an asset over paper. But I use paper so that soon after existing vegetation is smothered, the mulch and the soil below can begin to meld together. I don’t want any barrier to water and nutrients, or bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and myriad other soil organisms in place any longer than necessary. 
Beginning a garden
I part ways with permaculturalists by growing my vegetables rectilinearly, in straight rows within rectangular 3-foot-wide beds. Yes, the idea of organically shaped beds and keyhole gardens is very appealing –- on paper. But time, my time, is also an important element in the garden, and it takes a lot longer to maintain curved and somewhat randomly shaped bed than it does rectilinear beds.
Vegetable garden
And then there’s the permy way of tucking, say lettuce plants, beneath fruiting shrubs and trees. But I eat a lot of vegetables and there’s nothing like straight rows running down straight beds for packing a lot of vegetables into a given area, and making planting, weeding, and harvesting quicker and easier. When I go out to pick some vegetables for a meal, I don’t want to be remembering where I tucked the lettuce and wending my way through trees and then crawling beneath some shrub to get at it. 

Bed of lettuce and chinese cabbage

Permaculture originated and thrives in the dry climates of Australia and our Southwest. Over much of the country, and especially here in the Northeast, rainfall coaxes very exuberant growth from crop plants and weeds alike. Too many permaculturalists are liable to spend their first few permaculture years admiring their efficient and attractive use of space, and all the years hence cursing all the time needed cutting and weeding needed to keep growth of various plants in balance. What I need are some straight lines and a little elbow room.

(I have been hired more than once as a consultant on a property designed and planted by a true permaculturalist. I’m sure it looked great on paper and for the first few years, until it became a tangled mass of plants, more than most people could handle long term. Sometimes, the best course moving forward is to remove everything for a fresh, perhaps permaculturalesque start this time around. As one landowner told me, “a few years back I was ‘permacultured’ by some fine folks. I have been fighting my way back ever since.”)

“Forest gardening,” growing and eating from your planted forest, is receiving growing interest within permaculture circles. As you might guess, I’m also not a forest gardener, despite the fact that I have integrated fruiting trees, which do come from forests somewhere, as well as chestnuts, English walnuts, black walnuts, and other nutty things into my landscape.

Planted "forest"

Planted “forest”

I do have a miniforest in a portion of my meadow. The cool shade beneath the now large buartnut, shellbark hickory, maple, and river birch trees is not planted with herbs and vegetables for nibbling. It’s mostly a leafy mulch that fall in autumn, as in any forest floor. Oh, with a bow to forest gardening, I also planted ramps there.

I plant fruits, vegetables, and nuts to provide sustenance, not just a nibble here and there. 

I Aim for Good Food, Not a Concept

I’m growing my own fruits and vegetables because I want great-tasting food. It seems to me that permaculture is usually about making growing plants easier. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except sometimes plants that are easiest to grow aren’t those that have the best flavor. I grow elderberries (back in my more hard-core permaculture planting along with aronia, rosa rugosa, seaberry, and highbush cranberry). Could anybody claim that a fresh picked elderberry can hold a candle to, flavorwise, a fresh picked blueberry?

Elderberry harvest

Elderberry harvest

Speaking of blueberry, they are easy to grow. But, if you want best production of flavorful berries, best to put some effort into getting the soil right, pruning correctly and annually, and netting to fend off birds so you can harvest truly ripe berries. Grapes? They need abundant sunlight, not the shady but easily supplied support of a nearby tree, for best quality and easy picking. Pruning is critical for topnotch flavor and pest control. It all takes effort, but is worth it.

Today's blueberry harvest

Today’s blueberry harvest

Although I am very intimate and knowledgeable about the plants I grow, I am no expert on permaculture. Perhaps I have misconstrued certain permaculture techniques or am totally missing the concept (even though I was accused of being a permaculturalist). I welcome feedback.


Roses, Oh Yes

I bake really good bread, but “man can’t live by bread alone.” Sometimes, you’ve got to “stop to smell the roses.” Enough with the quotations! But back to the roses.
Roses in a vase
A love of roses has crept up on me over the years, due mostly to changes in kinds of roses available. Up until about 30 years ago, hybrid teas were pretty much the only roses on the block. These plants’ gangly stems are each capped by a vividly colored, fairly stiff, formal blossom whose petals wrap together into a pointy peak. You see where I’m going: hybrid teas are ugly, to me at least. 

Also available were grandiflora and floribunda roses. Grandifloras are like hybrid teas, except their stems end with clusters of a few, but smaller, blossoms. Floribunda roses have even larger flower clusters of even smaller flowers. Despite being bushes more full with flowers than hybrid teas, grandiflora and floribunda flowers are still rather prim and proper except for their traffic-stopping colors.

  Then so-called species and old-fashioned roses entered the scene, roses that are as nature made them or only slightly hybridized. These roses constitute broad groups, but generally, what they have going for them are more subdued — think pastel — colors and more blowsy blossoms on more heavily branching, fuller-bodied, shrubs. 

The downside to species and old-fashioned roses, even if you like their blossoms and their growth habits, is that many bloom only in the spring. Hybrid teas pump out blossom after blossom all summer long.

Rose d'Ipsahan blossom

Rose d’Ipsahan

Enter Rose de Rescht, my first old-fashioned rose, given to me by a local, fellow gardener. Ann told me that this rose variety had soft pink flowers and heavenly scent. She was right about the appearance and fragrance, wrong about the name. After years of sleuthing, I’ve identified the rose as Rose d’Ispahan, probably originating in Persia but first discovered in a garden in Isfahan, Iran, renowned for its gardens and roses.

If I had to grow only one variety of rose, Rose d’Ispahan would be the one, for the beauty of its flowers, for its intense fragrance, for its cold-hardiness, for its lack of large thorns, and for its pest resistance. And that’s even though it blossoms only in spring. (It does so over a long period, though.)

Rose d'Ipsahan

Rose d’Ipsahan

But I don’t have to grow only one variety of rose. My other favorites are some of rose breeder David Austin’s varieties which combine the pest resistance and repeat blooming of modern roses with the blowsy, fragrant, pastel colored blossoms and full-bodied shrubs of old fashioned roses. My currant, and perhaps all-time, favorites are Lady of Shallot and, in my opinion needing a more euphonious name, Golden Celebration.

Golden Celebration rose

Golden Celebration rose

Both sport yellow — no, Golden! — blossoms, some apricot in those of Lady of Shallot, and a rich yellow, all contained in a petal-filled cup-shape in those of Golden Celebration. Another of my favorites, Lady Judi Dench, never woke up in spring a year ago; perhaps it was the cold, perhaps something else.

 Lady of Shallot rose

Lady of Shallot rose

I also grow another David Austin Rose, LD Braithewaite, with deep red blossoms and dark green, slightly reddish leaves. Not my favorite as far as appearance but this rose is very cold hardy and pumps out tons of blossoms almost all season long.

LD Braithewaite rose

LD Braithewaite rose

And Strawberries, Oh Yes

Strawberries and rosesOn to strawberries. I’m growing three kinds: the Pineapple Crush variety of white alpine strawberries; the Earliglow variety of garden strawberry; and a few varieties of vescana strawberries, which are hybrids of garden and alpine strawberries. This also is the order, starting with the best, of flavor for the three types.

Why do I grow anything but the best? Because alpines are so small that it’s hard to fill a bowl with them. I grow vescanas, for the first time this year, because I never grew them before.

The Earliglow berries taste good and do quickly fill a bowl, ideally yielding one quart of berries per plant over the course of the season. Except this year, a problem has surfaced. Leather rot is a fungal disease (Phytophthora cactorum) that rears its ugly head — infected berries that taste bitter and have white patches that turn brown — usually following excessively wet periods from late spring to early summer, which is odd because weather has been on the dry side. Also odd because I’ve never seen the problem here before.
Strawberry leather rot1
Which brings me back to vescana and Pineapple Crush. Both are very disease resistant, and vescana berries are almost as big as garden strawberries, so I’m thankful to have them, even if they do taste like canned strawberries.

And Honeyberries, Oh NO!

After three weeks of hanging on (the berries, not me), honeyberries, which are edible honeysuckles, are ready for a fair tasting. I wrote previously about the awful flavor of this new fruit and was instructed to let the berries hang till dead ripe.
The berries sampled this year were so ripe that each had to be plucked from the branch with my palm facing upwards beneath the berry; a mere touch would cause ripe ones to drop.

Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat (a drum roll). First to be tasted was the variety Solo. Reaction: spit it out quickly. Tart with bad flavor. Second fruit tasted was Sugar Mountain Blue. Also spit out, but not quite as quickly. And finally, Sugar Mountain Eisbär. Although retained in the mouth and having a hint of sweetness, this one, like the others, had bad flavor.

The flavor of honeyberries is allegedly like a mix of blueberry and raspberry. Not so! If you have space, plant blueberries or raspberries instead.