Old pear tree and barn


Avoid Extremes

A week or so ago, fruit trees were so full of blossoms that they looked like giant snowballs, foreshadowing a heavy crop of fruit later this season. Too heavy, perhaps, for the branches to support. Too heavy, perhaps, for fruits that are large and luscious. Surely so heavy that next year’s harvest could be paltry.Pears in bloom

Some fruit trees are more prone than others to getting into a feast and famine cycle of a heavy crop one year and a light crop the next. My Macoun apple tree, although it bears delectable fruits, is the worst in this regard among the few apple varieties that I grow. Read more

Espalier in Normandy, France


Espalier Goals

Espalier (es-pal-YAY) is the training of a plant, usually a fruit plant, to an orderly, two-dimensional form. The word is derived from the Old French aspau, meaning a prop, and most espaliers must, in fact, be propped up with stakes or wires. This method of training and pruning plants had its formal beginnings in Europe in the 16th century, when fruit trees were trained on walls to take advantage of the strip of earth and extra warmth near those walls.

Espalier in Normandy, France

Espalier in Normandy, France

Why go to all the trouble of erecting a trellis and then having to pinch and snip a tree frequently to keep it in shape? Because a well-grown espalier represents a happy commingling of art and science, resulting in a plant that pleases eyes and, if a fruit plant, also palates. You apply this science artfully (or your art scientifically) with manipulations such as pulling exuberant stems downward to slow their growth, by cutting notches where stems threaten to remain bare, and by pruning back stems in summer to keep growth neat and fruitful.  Read more

Persimmons (not growing) on a branch


Take a Moment for Forethought

Luscious photos now splash pages of mail-order catalogs, the web, and plant tags at local nurseries. It’s hard to remain rational about planting this time of year, and more so the colder the last winter’s climate.

What I’m suggesting is to give plantings some forethought and, rather than looking for either ornamental or edible trees and shrubs, considering plants that fulfill both functions. That is, trees and shrubs that earn their keep year-‘round with leaves that remain lush and verdant all summer, then light up with fall color, and, of course, bear fruit, and perhaps unfold with eye-catching blossoms in spring.

Persimmons ripening

Persimmons ripening

Lots of trees and shrubs fill this bill, but here I’d like to restrict consideration to fruits that I would pop into my mouth right out in the garden; doctoring up as jam or in a pie is not obligatory.  Read more

Dwarf Liberty apple tree & Sammy


Popular Though They May Be . . .

Apples may be a common fruit, second worldwide and in the U.S., bested only by bananas, but they surely are not the easiest ones to grow. At least not over much of this country east of the Rocky Mountains, and here on my farmden. Throughout this area, insects and diseases are ready to pounce on virtually every unsuspecting apple tree.

Pesticides will control these pests but, if needed, are effective only if used rigorously: trees must be regularly and thoroughly doused with the correct material, used at the correct concentration, and applied at the correct times. No wonder the average gardener is daunted at the thought of growing apples!

Dwarf Liberty apple tree & Sammy

Dwarf Liberty apple tree & Sammy

The prospects for backyard apples, organic apples, even in pest-prone regions brightened a few decades ago. Not all apple varieties are equally susceptible to diseases, and apple breeders went to work. Read more

Persimmon fruit perched on branch


Watch for Road Blocks

If you’re considering growing fruits, good idea. You’re probably dreaming about, in a few years, being able to reach for a ripe red apple, a peach, a cherry, or a plum from a fruit laden branch. To a large degree depending on where you garden, you could be paving the way for disappointment. Insect and disease pests, and specific pruning needs, are potential road blocks for many of the more common fruits. Peach fruit on branch

Yet, luscious fruits plucked from a backyard plants are such a delicacy. What else but a fruit could have tempted Adam and Eve? Fortunately, many fruits need only a minimum amount of care. What follows are easy-to-grow fruit plants, grouped into three categories, from the very easiest to the “hardest easiest.”

Easiest Peasiest

The first category includes plants that you merely set in the ground, then come back in a couple of years for the first of many years of harvest. Well, almost nothing else to do. You may recognize in this category some plants commonly grown as ornamentals. Read more

Poncirus Flying Dragon with fruits


Frightening, Beautiful, Edible

Right now, my hardy orange tree might look at its finest, standing at the head of my driveway against a pure white, snowy backdrop. An orange tree!? Outdoors with a snowy backdrop?! Okay, in all honesty, it’s a bush, not a tree. But it is an orange plant, and it does survive into Zone 5 outdoors. (Temperatures plummeted to 2° F a week ago, and coldest temperatures typically arrive around the end of this month.)

Botanically, the plant was Poncirus trifoliata. I write “was” because a few years ago, this citrus relative was welcomed closer into the citrus fold, with a new official name, Citrus trifoliata. Not all botanists recognize this closer kinship, and insist on keeping the plant in the Poncirus genus.

The kinship of hardy orange with other citrus is obvious from its glossy, forest green leaves, the sweet (but very slight) aroma of its flowers, and its fruits, which are pale orange. Poncirus Flying Dragon with fruitsThe fruits are edible but I wouldn’t bite into one; the flavor is orangish, but also sour and bitter. Perhaps I’d squeeze the pulp to add a hint of citrus flavor to some other cooked fruit or a baked good. Perhaps not.

What I like best about this plant are its stems, which are most evident now, when bared in winter. Read more

Banana plant in summer

YES, WE HAVE NO BANANAS (title of 100-yr-old song)

I Receive a Giant Teardrop

Since I don’t live in the tropics, I bring a bit of it into my house. Hence, the banana tree that, years ago, tropicalized my living room for a number of winters. The plant made a nice houseplant for awhile, its large leaves jutting into the air like velvety, soft, green wings. Pests never bothered it. It even signaled to me when it was thirsty by drooping its leaf blades down along its midribs.

Banana plant in summer

Banana plant in summer

But mind you, I was not growing this plant only for show. I also wanted to harvest bananas. In the warm tropics, bananas fruit when they are only ten to fifteen months old; in a warm greenhouse, plants fruit in two or three years; in my sixty to seventy degree, sometimes colder, house . . . well, fruit was a goal, but I was in no particular hurry. 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

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