Tulips in a vase


Big Bulbs Uneaten

Chomping down on a rosette of freshly emerging tulip leaves is just the thing to drive away winter’s doldrums — for a deer. Tulips in a vaseCrocuses probably taste almost as good to these creatures. There’s no need, though, for you or me to forsake the blossoms of spring bulbs; plenty of plants don’t appeal to deer palates. Read more

Cherry blossoms


Was He a Bad Boy?

Washington’s birthday is a proper time to think about cherry trees. Rather than question whether or not George did chop down the tree, and whether or not he had the honesty to admit to the act, I wonder what kind of a cherry it could have been. (The story, incidentally, is apocryphal, having been fabricated by Mason Locke Weems for his 1802 book, Life of George Washington; With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to his Young Countrymen. “Parson” Weems also wrote of Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Delaware River).

That cherry tree could very well have been something akin to the sweet cherries we can buy or grow today. Sweet cherrySweet cherries (Prunus avium), sometimes called bird cherries or, in their more wild state, mazzard cherries, were amongst the plants ordered from Europe by the Massachusetts colony in 1629. By 1650, there was a cherry orchard in Yonkers, New York, and before the end of that century, there were plantings in Rhode Island, Maryland, and Virginia. Trees became so abundant that in 1749, Peter Kalm wrote that “all travellers are allowed to pluck ripe fruit in any garden which they pass by, provided they do not break any branches; and not even the most covetous farmer hindered them from so doing.” So it is not unlikely that Papa Washington had a few sweet cherry trees planted at his farmstead along the shores of the Rappahannock River.

That abundance of cherry trees and cherries is interesting because here in the Hudson Valley, in Eastern US in general, sweet cherries are not an easy crop. Read more

Espalier pear tree


Suppression & Stimulation

“Apical dominance” sounds sadomasochistic, but no reason to shudder: it’s practiced by plants and, even when carried to an extreme, results in something as agreeable as a head of cabbage. True, we gardeners sometimes have a hand in apical dominance, but it’s still just good, clean fun.

Look upon it as hormones gone awry or as hormones doing what they’re supposed to do; either way, apical dominance is the result of a hormone, called auxin (AWK-sin), that is produced in the tips of growing shoots or at the high point of stems. Traveling down inside the stem, auxin sets off a chain of reactions that puts the brakes, to some degree, on growth of side shoots, giving the uppermost growing point (the apical point) of any stem the upper hand in growth.

Side shoots mostly arise from buds along a stem, and whether or not a bud grows out into a shoot depends on how close the bud is to the source of auxin; the closer to the source, the greater the inhibition, how far and to what degree depend on the genetics of the plant. ‘Mammoth Russian’ is a variety of sunflower that grows just as a single stem capped by a large flowering disk; with no side branches at all, this variety demonstrates an extreme example of apical dominance. SunflowersAt the other extreme would be one of the shrubby species of willows that keeps sprouting side branches freely all along their growing shoots.

Even within a single species of plants, individuals vary in their tendency to express apical dominance. A fuchsia variety Read more

Fruit in hand and on stem


Sweet, Juicy, & Tolerant

Nanking cherries (Prunus tomentosa) are now at their peak of perfection, sweet and sprightly flavored, brilliant red in color, still firm, and, as usual, abundant. Nanking cherries are very juicy and not stingy to release the juice. Straight up, it’s the most refreshing juice imaginable.Picking Nanking cherries

You’ve never heard of Nanking cherries? Understandable since they are an uncommon fruit. (And warranted a whole chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, now out of print but in the works for updating and expanding.) As the name tells you, they are native to China, more generally to the cold, semi-arid regions of Asia. This provenance tells you something about the toughness of the plant, where it weathers winter temperatures below minus 20 degrees F. and summer temperatures as high as 110 degrees F. Read more

Wisteria flowers


Shoots vs. Flowers

Around this time of year, few plants are as dramatically beautiful as a well-grown wisteria, whose chains of lavender flowers drip like little waterfalls from the branches. I’ve always wanted one, and now I have one. Wisteria flowersBut I’ll keep in mind a common complaint people have with wisteria: The frustration when a wisteria plant is all shoots and no flowers!

This problem has some causes and some solutions. The common complaint can often be traced to something as simple as a poor plant or a poor site. Perhaps Read more

Heath bed from NE


A Little History

Walking down the path alongside my home first thing this morning, I looked to my right and was wowed. What I saw warranted bragging rights. Flowers in red, pink, white, and a touch of purple against a backdrop of varying shades of green leaves, some sparkling with reflected light, others mat, holding onto any reflections. Heart-shaped leaves, lance-shaped leaves, and compound leaves livened the backdrop. All of it set off against the solid backdrop of the red brick wall.Heath bed from NE

Although I chose and planted all that I admired, not too much credit for it was mine. This was no carefully planned design laid out on paper with squiggly shapes representing plants and their locations, each shape labeled with plant names and varieties, perhaps even a note to flower colors.

Twenty plus years ago, the site was a strip of sloping lawn on the east and north sides of my home. Imagining myself one day slipping while mowing with my foot sliding beneath the mower that birthed a plan for building a rock wall at the base of the slope which would be backfilled with soil. No more slope and no more mowing.

The Heath Family Stays Together for a Reason

And so was borne my “heath bed,” a bed of various plants in the Heath Family, Ericaceae. Grouping such plants together was not just a botanical plaything; it had function. Read more

Apricot trees in bloom


High Hopes

Apple, pear, and plum branches frothing in white blooms this spring foretold of bountiful crops of these fruits. Wrong. They foretold of the potential for bountiful crops. I’ve mentioned before the abundance of insect and disease pests that lurk here, ready for action, and the potential for late spring frosts. So I don’t get my hopes too, too high with these fruits, except for the pears, European and Asian, which are naturally pest-free here.

Lots of things can be blamed for a barren fruit tree, bringing disappointment no matter what the cause.

Apricot trees in bloom

Apricot trees in bloom

If the tree is young and not yet of flowering age, fruitlessness can be forgiven. Pears, for all their qualities, are typically slow to come into bearing.

Who Needs a Mate?

There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. Read more

Cardinal flower


A Plant’s Perspective

No matter what you’re growing, and especially if you’re growing most fruits or vegetables, you need to know what “full sun” and “part shade” mean. People with shady yards often have their own definitions.

The tall trees that surrounded my father’s yard created lots of shade; he once planted a grapevine in what he called a sunny spot, which was where the leafy tree canopy spread open enough to let a ray of sunlight peek through for about an hour at 12:30. The grape vine did grow, but bore a paltry crop, and those grapes it did bear were sour.

Grapes need “full sun. “Full sun” to a plant means direct, unobstructed sunlight for at least five or six hours a day. Besides vegetable gardens and most fruit trees, many flowers also require this exposure.

Sometimes Shade is Tolerable

There are plants that are well adapted to, even need, shade in their youth, but require more sunlight as they age. Maples and beeches, for example, as well as other forest trees which start out as seedlings in the shade of existing forests, but eventually reach light and become the canopy itself.Forests of maples in autumn color

Pawpaw, which is a forest tree native throughout the eastern part of this country, is also in this category. That applies to seedling trees, that is, trees Read more

Climbing hydrangea


Get hip. Hydrangeas are all the rage these days. If you do have a plant or plants, you may have to prune them. But hydrangea isn’t just one kind of plants; a number of species are popular. Before you approach your hydrangea or hydrangeas, pruning shears in hand, you’ve got to know what species you are growing. They differ in their pruning needs.Climbing hydrangea

Adapting the text from my book, The Pruning Book, I’m going to give you a (figurative) hand by explaining how to identify each commonly  grown species, and then guiding your hand holding the shears.

You’re Probably Growing…

If you grow just one hydrangea, I’ll bet that it’s Bigleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla). This species is most recognizable for sporting electric blue or lively pink flower heads, blue when the soil pH is below 5.5 and pink when the pH is above 6.5. Read more

Juvenile oak trees


Old Skirts

Looking at trees that usually drop their leaves in winter, you might notice that some of them — especially beeches and oaks — wear skirts of foliage all winter long. I say “skirts” because if the trees were human, the leaves would all be at skirt-level. Rather than being lush and green, these skirts are dried and brown or gray, just like their counterparts on the ground.

These trees, still clinging to their leaves, aren’t out of synch with the environment. Nor does this habit reflect the effect of climate change or nighttime lighting. The oak and beech branches cling to their leaves because the branches are “juvenile,” and reluctance to drop leaves is one sign of juvenility in plants.

Juvenile oak trees

Juvenile oak trees

(Artificial lighting and a warming climate have been shown, though, to delay leaf drop in autumn and advance the time when leaves unfold in spring, just how much depending on the tree species and the duration and the color of the light.)

Changes with Maturity

Juvenility in plants is akin to prepuberty in humans: during this period plants grow but are incapable of sexual reproduction, that is, flowering, then setting seed. Read more