Large, potted figs


Not a Hot, Dry Desert, but No Matter

Today’s cool temperatures, along with this overcast sky that’s periodically sneezing raindrops, doesn’t conjure up weather we usually associate with fig harvest. Still, I just returned from the greenhouse with near overflowing handfuls of dead ripe figs.Bowl of figs

This harvest does highlight one of the many characteristics of figs that makes it possible to grow them in cold climates. The particular characteristic, in this case, is the plant’s rather unique way of bearing fruit. Read more

White alpine strawberries


Subtle Messaging

I grow a kind of strawberry — the white alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca) — whose flavor, when it is fully ripe, is an ambrosial melding of strawberry and pineapple. But if it’s even slightly underripe, it tastes like cotton soaked in lemon juice. How do I know when to pick a white strawberry? One way is with my nose, by the delectable aroma of a fully ripe fruit. The seeds also darken when the fruit is ripe.White alpine strawberries

Other types of fruits have their own ways of signaling when they are ripe, and to taste at their best, they must also be harvested at just the right moment. Many people mistakenly believe that any fruit can be picked underripe, then ripened on a kitchen counter. Softening does occur, and perhaps some changes in color and sweetness, but, with few exceptions, fruit picked underripe is no match for fruit fully ripened on the plant. That softening and sweetening is more akin to incipient rot than ripening. Read more

Summer pruned black raspberries


Good Stuff

What an unexpected treat this year. Black brambles galore. I choose my words carefully. 

Over twenty years ago I grew blackberries, the variety Chester because it was the most cold-hardy variety of the thornless varieties, available at the time. Chester blackberryI finally gave up on Chester because winter cold would snuff out many of its canes down to ground level. If I remember correctly, surviving canes bore fruit that was too late in the season to ripen fully or in sufficient quantity. Read more

Pakistani mulberry


Exotic Grapes

You’d think that I’d be over and done with the greenhouse this time of year. Spring vegetables and flowers have been germinated, pricked out, grown on, and all established in their homes in the garden.

But no, the greenhouse is still chock full of goodies, plants that tolerate heat. The first plant to jump out at you (visually) as you pass through the greenhouse door is a grape vine. Not just any old grape vine, but a vinifera grape vine (Vitis vinifera). “Vinifera” is the species of European wine and table grapes. They’re generally neither cold-hardy here, nor can they fend off attacks of our native insects and diseases, so have been hybridized with hardier and tougher American grape species, such as the fox grape (V. labrusca).

Point is, the grapevine in my greenhouse could not survive outdoors here. The variety I’m growing is Perle de Csaba, a table variety, which first fruited here a couple years ago; it’s seedless and sweet, with a strong aroma.Greenhouse grape

I grew it in a large pot, then didn’t move the pot, so it’s roots have sneaked out the pot’s drainage holes and into the moist, compost-enriched soil below. That’s fine. It’s in a good place, it’s stem now trained to climb up a chain to one of the greenhouse rafters. Short, fruiting shoots grow off up and down on either side of that permanent stem, a perfect bunch of grapes dangling from each of those shoots. 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

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

Apple blossom and spur


Too Many Blossoms, Too Many Fruits

I winced with almost every snip of the pruning shears yesterday. My apple trees needed pruning and they were loaded with buds showing pink and about to pop open. Pruning was late this year, not that it would matter to the trees, but I had hoped to get it done a month or more ago, before the vegetable garden started beckoning.Me pruning my apple tree

What was making me wince was all the blossoms I was removing, blossoms that, after pollination, could swell into luscious apples. I kept reassuring myself that removing blossoms and, hence, fruit was one of the reasons to prune an apple tree.

Left to its own devices, an apple tree tends to set too many fruits, too many for best quality, that is. With the number of fruits reduced, the tree can 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

Cardoon & Fig


Here’s a backward story and a forward story.

About plants, of course. And the plants are linked in that both of them are native to the Mediterranean region. But for centuries, both plants have been grown world-wide wherever winters are mild. And, with some special attention, by enthusiast (such as me), in gardens where winters are frigid.

Perhaps you’ve already guessed the two plants. If not, they are cardoon and fig. Let’s start with the backward story, which is the one about cardoon.

Cardoon & Fig

Cardoon & Fig

A Florific Season in the Offing (I Know It’s not a Word)

The end of the cardoon story begins with my memory of last summer’s very bold plant whose whorl of glaucous, spiny leaves rose three feet or more above ground level. Read more