Uncovering frosted tomatoes


Listen to Lee, Lee

You’d think I would have known better or, at least, listened to my own preaching. An increasing warming spell a week ago induced many fellow gardeners around here to set tomato and pepper transplants out in their gardens. The average date of the last killing freeze around here is May 21 — but temperatures were getting warmer and warmer, and what with global warming . . . I have preached not going with your gut when it comes to times for spring planting, but was swayed with the crowd and the warming weather, and planted out over 50 tomato plants and a dozen pepper plants a couple of weeks ago.

Then the weather turned cooler, with night-time lows predicted to sink into the low 30s. Here in the Wallkill River Valley, cold air, which is denser than warm air, flows downhill like water to collect in low spots. My farmden always experiences temperatures a few degrees colder than locally predicted.

No problem. I made some wire supports over which I draped a row cover which is said to retain heat, offering about six degrees more of frost protection. I went to bed that night at peace with our planet. Read more


Ode to Sungold

As the curtain closes on the summer garden and the autumn garden edges towards its glory, I’d like to offer thanks. No, not a religious thanks for a summer of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, okra, and other warm weather vegetables. But thanks to a person, the person who bred Sungold cherry tomato.Sungold near season's end

Anyone not familiar with Sungold tomato should be. It’s sweet and tangy, not at all cloying, enveloped in persimmon-orange skin. I once grew over 20 varieties of cherry tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme), including Sungold, for a magazine article. As a friend walked down the row, sampling fruit from each plant, she proclaimed, “That’s one row of lousy tomatoes.”

Agreed, excepting a few varieties, one of which was, of course, Sungold. The other exceptions were Gardener’s Delight, Sweet Million, and Suncherry, all three of which are rarely seen these days, probably because Sungold eclipsed the others with its distinctive appearance and, I think, even better flavor.

(My cherry tomato row didn’t include marble-size, so-called currant tomatoes, botanically, S. pimpinellifolium. They are very sweet, very small, and very tasty. I don’t grow them anymore because, for me, they’re too messy, dropping fruits all over the place. The following year, seedlings can grow to become a tomato jungle.)

Read more

GROWING FIGS IN COLD CLIMATES video recording now available.

Watch, listen, and learn — on your own time — about GROWING FIGS IN COLD CLIMATES, with a recording of a webinar with Lee Reich. Now available online.

Learn about the nice quirks of figs, subtropical plants native to hot, dry climates, that make it possible to grow and harvest fruit from them even in cold climates. With that covered, I detail some practical applications of this information. Winter care, pruning, varieties, and speeding up ripening will all be covered. If you already grow figs, this webinar will help you grow more or better figs, and be able to manage them more easily. If you haven’t yet experienced the rewards of growing figs, you have a treat in store.

To access this video, go to www.leereich.com/video

San Piero figEspalier figFig potted in ground


Tweaking the View

Finally, today, I’m planting seeds. “Too late to plant seeds,” you say? Or, perhaps you’re thinking that it’s way too early, with the coldest days of the year still about a month away. Well, the seeds I’m talking about aren’t vegetable or flower seeds; they’re tree and shrub seeds.

Planting seeds is a way to get lots of new plants at little or no cost. The seeds I’m going to be planting are ones that I collected this past summer, fall, and yesterday.

I already grow way too many plants but I need these plants for a barrier. The rear of my property backs up to a rail trail which, from spring through fall, is a wall of greenery in a swath about twenty feet wide. Nothing special, just whatever popped up there naturally, mostly bush honeysuckles and some viburnums nearby with black cherries and ashes further in. Grape or bittersweet vines clamber up whatever they can latch onto. Leafless, now, these plants don’t present a particularly pretty sight.

What’s needed is some winter color and greenery. Closer in, I’m planning a screen with winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Meserve holly (Ilex x meserveae), and arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis, this one purchased as plants).

A couple of larger trees — black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) and red maple (Acer rubrum) — will beef up the naturally rag tag mix of trees further in.

Nanking cherry in spring and summer

Nanking cherry in spring and summer

I’m also sowing seeds of Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa). It’s one of my favorite large bushes for its spectacular show of pinkish white blossoms in early spring and its equally spectacular show and abundance of delicious, juicy, small cherries in summer. All on a carefree, very tough and very cold-hardy plant.

Seed: Awaken

Seeds of woody plants that ripen in early summer will sprout almost as soon as they touch down to soil. Red maple (Acer rubrum) is a good example of an early-ripening seed.

Red maple seeds in early summer

Red maple seeds in early summer

A friend collected some from his trees. I sowed them, they sprouted quickly, and I now have some healthy seedlings a foot or so tall.

Red maple seedlings

Red maple seedlings

Many woody plants bear seeds that don’t ripen until late summer or early fall. If these seeds sprouted as soon as they touched soil, the resulting tender, young sprouts would succumb to winter cold. To avoid this, they sit and wait until they feel that winter has passed. They gauge this, via their hormones, by the amount of cold they’ve experienced. Levels of the hormone abscisic acid, which keeps seeds dormant, decrease as cold wears on.

Seeds typically need exposure of one to two months, or about 1,000 hours, in a moist, cold environment before they can be convinced that it’s safe to sprout. Cold temperatures, between about 30 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit, not frigid temperatures, are what flick this switch. Depending on location, such temperatures might be experienced partly in fall and partly in spring, or mostly in fall.

Other types of dormancy might also need to be overcome before a seed will sprout. Some seeds have a separate dormancy for root growth, overcome with warm, moist conditions. Root growth must precede shoot growth.

Warm, moist conditions also may be initially needed for seeds with especially tough coats, to soften them or give microbes the opportunity to erode the surface.

Practical Matters

To start, I’m soaking the winterberry, holly, black tupelo, and Nanking cherry seeds in water for a couple of days, changing the water daily. Soaking does three things: First, it makes sure the seeds are well hydrated; second, it makes fruits fall apart to release their seeds; and third, it leaches out potential sprouting inhibitors. Sprouting inhibitors prevent seeds within moist, fleshy fruits from sprouting within.

Winterberry, Nanking cherry, black tupelo, and winterberry seeds

Winterberry, Nanking cherry, black tupelo, and holly seeds

In a couple of days, I’ll plant my soaked seeds in flats of potting soil, water them, cover them, and set them in my garage. (The holly and winterberry fruits still are more or less intact so I’ll just plant the whole fruits in the potting soil.) In the garage, temperatures are somewhat moderated as compared with outdoor temperatures.

As soon as the seeds sprout — still, after many years of doing this, an exciting moment for me — I’ll move them to a bright window, the greenhouse, or, depending on outdoor temperatures, outdoors.

After a few inches of growth, individual plants get more space in their own pots or a nursery bed. And, after a year or two, they move to their permanent homes.

I took seeds for the hollies and winterberries from clonal plants, that is, plants of named varieties. Clonal plants are exact replicas of the mother plants from which they were propagated. The holly varieties were all female, the variety Blue Princess, except for one male, Blue Boy, there to provide pollen so the Princesses would bear their flashy red berries. I can’t remember the variety name of my female winterberry.

Each of the seedlings I’ll be growing will be a genetic mix, each different from each other and their mothers, although not necessarily obviously so. In the case of holly and winterberry, half of the seedlings will, theoretically, be the more desirable females. (One male can sire as many as about eight females.)

All this may seem like a lot of trouble when I could just purchase plants from a nursery. But I find looking at a mature plant that I planted very rewarding. The amount of satisfaction I get is indirectly proportional to the size of plant I started with. Hence, growing trees and shrubs from seeds is especially satisfying.

Hackberry seedlings 2013; trees now 15' tall!

Hackberry seedlings in 2013; trees are now 15′ tall!


Species Matter; Varieties Matter

You say “tomayto,” I say “tomahto.” You say “filbert,” I say “hazelnut.” (“Filbert” is from St. Philibert, to whom August 22nd, is dedicated and which is the day of first ripening of hazelnuts in England.) Although hazelnuts originally referred to native American filberts, hazelnut and filbert are now equivalent.

It’s been over twenty years since I planted my first hazelnuts. Fortunately, hazels bear quickly, often within 3 or 4 years. Unfortunately, a disease called eastern filbert blight can decimate the trees, and not begin to do so for about a decade. Our native hazels (Corylus americana), having evolved with the blight, are resistant. Not so for European hazels, which are the hazelnuts of commerce.Native hazel

My first planting was of our native hazel, which I planted for beauty and for nuts. It did turn out to be an attractive, suckering shrub that lit up fall with its boldly colored leaves. The nuts themselves were less notable: small and not very good tasting.

Next I planted a few old varieties of hybrid hazels, Graham, Gellatly, and Halls Giant, followed, a few years later by Tonda di Giffoni, Lewis, and Clark. All were billed as blight resistant and did quite well. In the 1960s eastern filbert blight made its way to the Pacific Northwest, the hotbed of commercial hazelnut production in the U.S. (providing 99 percent of domestic hazelnuts), which prompted breeding of resistant varieties. Lewis and Clark are two such varieties. Two more such varieties, Santiam and Yamhill, were added to my collection 11 years ago.MY hazel plantings

Right on schedule after about ten years, black pustules of blight began to show up on branches, which start to die, then finish. But the varieties I planted were blight resistant, you say. Resistance is a matter of degree (“immune” means no disease), and the varieties I planted evidently were not sufficiently resistant. 

Blight pustules on stems

This doesn’t at all reflect poorly on breeders of these not-quite-resistant-enough hybrids. The blight fungus is capricious, changing with location and, perhaps, over time. I dug up and out all the nonproductive, diseased plants.

But I like filberts. Enter a few breeders breeding filberts right here in the northeast. One is Dr. Tom Molnar of Rutgers University, from whom I got a few selections (with nonluscious, early selection names like CR X R03P26 and CR X R11P07), which I planted back in 2014. And Jeff Zarnowski, of Z’s Nutty Ridge Nursery. And others. So now I grow Geneva (aka Gene, from Grimo Nut Nursery), Truxton, Dorris (another selection from Oregon), Raritan (a more advanced selection from Rutgers), as well as my original Rutgers plants.

I’m ready to cull again any varieties that catch blight or whose nuts are too small. For wherever plants are culled, I have potted plants of Monmouth, Hunterdon, and Somerset — all advanced Rutgers selections — waiting in the wings. 

Streamlining Processing (On a Very Small Scale)

As with fruits in general, this year was also the best ever for nuts that I grow. Even the English walnuts (Juglans regia) bore a crop this year, their first substantial crop, all from 6 walnuts I planted back in 2006. I didn’t have high hopes for walnuts because they are susceptible to anthracnose disease, late frosts, and squirrels, which could conveniently harvest the nuts from the overhead squirrel highway along the road.

And the filberts — oodles of them. Mostly, we just shell and eat them. That’s fine. But for cooking with them or concocting a delicacy such as, say, fig-hazelnut jam, shelling nuts one at a time is too slow.Basket of filberts

A quick web search turned up a couple of very elegant, home made shellers that work reasonably well. Luckily, before I delved too deeply in how I was going to fabricate one of these out of metal, I did a web search and found one available for about $30.

(These kitchen counter hazelnut sheller are manufactured in Turkey, which grows 70 percent of the world’s hazelnuts. Want another fun fact? Twenty-five percent of the world’s production goes into making Nutella and Ferrero Rocher, both hazelnut and chocolate confections made by the Luxemburger company Ferraro.)Turkish nut sheller

One problem with the sheller is that it needs adjustment for nut size, so it is recommended to do some sorting into size ranges before running nuts through the sheller. This I could make myself, easily. Basically, it is an open wooden box whose bottom has 3/8 inch square, wooden dowels spaced 5/8 inch apart, which is pretty much the size of my largest hazelnuts in the shell. The corners of the box are joined by hinges so that the sides can be moved to deform the shape. As the box deforms increasingly to a parallelogram, the distance between the dowels decreases. A pegged slat from one side of the box to n adjacent side holds the box to the desired shape and dowel spacing.

So I just adjust the box to the smallest dowel spacing needed, about 3/8 inch apart, dump on a bunch of nuts, and shake. Then I move the spacing up to about 1/2 inch, then shake again. And finally, move spacing to 5/8 inch, and . . .  well, you know.

Hazelnut size selector

I could be on my way to hazelnut butter, chopped hazelnuts sprinkled on everything, that fig-hazelnut jam, perhaps even home made Nutella. No rush. Once sufficiently dried (to 6 percent moisture, which takes a couple of weeks), hazelnuts store well in their shells for over year. Shelled and refrigerated, they keep for for about six months


Breadcrumb Seeds?

Who’s getting stuffed for Thanksgiving this year, you or your turkey, or your tofurkey? A good stuffing (of the real or faux bird) is good enough to eat sans bird. And, for best quality, you can grow it yourself. Not by dropping seeds of a “stuffing plant” in the soil, but by planting all the ingredients you need.

The bread and butter of any stuffing is some starchy food, often bread and butter itself, the bread usually as crumbs. There’s no breadcrumb plant, so forget about growing breadcrumbs. Not that you couldn’t buy some wheat berries, plant them next spring, harvest the grain when the plants dry down, thresh and winnow out the berries, grind them into flour, make the flour into bread, then let the bread go stale and pound it into bread crumbs. Whew! Most of us are not going to do this. 

“The Bread Tree”

As an alternative to bread crumbs, might I suggest chestnuts (Castanea spp.)? Chestnut falling from its burrThey’re often billed as the “bread tree” because in contrast to other nuts, which are high in fats and protein, chestnuts are high in starch. Obviously, you’re not going to be eating home-grown chestnut stuffing this year, or next, or the next; it takes awhile for a chestnut tree to start bearing. Not that long though. I’ve had plants grown from seed begin to bear within six years, and a grafted tree from a nursery should bear even sooner than that.

(Although their nuts look similar, chestnuts should not be confused with horse chestnuts, Hippocastanum spp.. The latter are toxic. Horse chestnuts have compound leaves, very showy flowers, and their nuts are encased in a spiky capsule. Edible chestnuts have simple leaves, nonshowy flowers, and the nuts are encased in a cupule riddled with very sharp spines.)

The North American, native and majestic American chestnut (C. dentata) has been decimated by chestnut blight but there are, fortunately other species that resist the blight. A good choice for nut production would be species or hybrids of Chinese chestnut (C. mollisima). Two different varieties are needed for cross-pollination.Chestnuts in a basket

The only caution in planting chestnut trees is to avoid planting them near where people frequently walk. Each fall the ground beneath the trees is littered with the opened, spiny cupules.
Chestnut tree in summer
Chestnut tree in autumn

More Crumby Alternatives

While you are waiting to harvest chestnuts, make stuffing based on one of the more quickly grown starchy vegetables. Potatoes, for instance. The best potatoes for making stuffing will be those that are dry and mealy, russet varieties such as Goldrush, Burbank, and Idaho. 

“Dry and mealy” is also the mantra to use when choosing a winter squash variety to grow as a base for stuffing. The phrase “squash stuffing” has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? My recommendation for a dry, mealy squash is a buttercup type called Chestnut or Sweet Mama. 

If you really want a truly authentic starchy base for stuffing, the plant to grow is nu nu, a golfball-sized, starchy tuber also called makoosit or groundnut (Apios americana). Groundnut tubersNative Americans harvested and ate nu nu, and this was one of the foods crucial in helping the Pilgrims survive their first winters in Massachusetts.

Be careful planting nu nu because it can spread like a weed to give you more stuff for stuffing than you would ever need. I planted it in a perennial flower bed decades ago. That was the wrong place for it, and I’ve spent decades trying to weed it out, unsuccessfully.

On the plus side, the plants do sport decorative and sweetly fragrant, lilac colored flowers, so it is worth growing where it can be regimented. Nu nu tubers grow attached a few inches apart along underground stems.Groundnut flowers

Seasonal Seasonings

Stuffing isn’t only about the bread-y ingredient. It also needs some seasoning. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, summer savory, sweet marjoram — they’re all very easy to grow. Sage and thyme are perennials, each also available in designer flavors. Pineapple sage, caraway thyme, and lemon thyme, for instance.

Potted rosemary tree in winter

Rosemary is also a perennial, cold hardy to zone 7, possibly even zone 6. It’s is not hardy here but I grow it as a “standard” (trained as a small tree) in a pot that summers outdoors and lives indoors at a sunny kitchen window in winter to provide pretty greenery, piney fragrance, and savory snippings.

Some vegetables from the garden round out and make more interesting a stuffing. Onion, celery, and carrots are mainstays, but vegetables such as parsnips and garlic can make special — and powerful — flavor contributions. 

Have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!


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.


It’s spring, a time when a man’s thoughts turn to . . . flowers, of course. (At least this man’s thoughts, some of them, do.) Sure, I’ve been reveling in the colorful progression of blossoms beginning, this year, with cornelian cherry and hellebore on about the first day of spring, and moving on to forsythia, plum, Asian pear, flowering quince, European pear, cherry, and — probably by the time you read this — apple followed by shipova. All this is the flamboyance of spring.

This year, I’ve also been admiring a few of the more subtle flowers of spring.


Some of the maples are now in bloom. Sugar maples (Acer saccharum) is perhaps the prettiest and most useful of the maples. Unfortunately, it’s also the least tolerant of compacted or wet soils, or a warming climate. The beauty of sugar maples lies not just in the leaves’ autumn show of color or the majestic form of an older tree.

Acer, sugar maple flowers, closest

Acer, sugar maple flowers, closest

Check out sugar maple’s flowers. They dangle like pale green wisps of lace from the branches, subtly attractive in their own right viewed up close and especially so in the forest. As a prominent species in the Shawangunk Mountains here in New York’s Hudson Valley, en masse the trees suffuse the view of the mountainside from afar with a welcoming softness.
View of Shawangunk Mountains
Red maple I(Acer rubrum) is another very attractive — and very variable — maple. The showiness of its blossoms relies on color, a deep, deep red. The blossoms arrive very early, and what I’m seeing is the aftermath of the blooms, clusters of red seeds, their wings spread as if ready to fly, which they soon will.

Acer, red maple seeds

Acer, red maple seeds

Not nearly as appealing, in many ways, as a tree, but even more cosmopolitan in its environmental tolerance, is silver maple (A. saccharinum). Flowers are blah. The tree tends to drop branches. No autumn color to speak of, either. It is fast-growing, though. As expected, the roots are equally fast growing and shallow. I once lived in a house in front of which grew two giant silver maples. One day, while investigating a clogged water line in the crawlspace, I came upon what looked like a thick, half-buried leg of an elephant. It was one of the silver maple’s roots.

The last —unfortunately too common — maple around here whose flowers or fruits I’ve been noticing is Norway maple (A. platinoides). This species was once widely planted as an ornamental but is now frowned upon because it casts a lugubrious shade beneath which grass or, in the woods, many wildflowers have difficulty growing. It’s an invasive plant that can displace sugar maple in wild settings. In autumn, leaves hang on for a long time, long enough to look forlorn after being burned by a freeze or, barring that freeze, for occasional leaves to begin turning a sickly yellow before naturally dropping.

Norway maple flowers

Norway maple flowers

Norway maple’s flowers, viewed up close, are surprisingly attractive, something like those of sugar maple as clusters of them hang downward on stalks, something like a chandelier. But with none of the grace of sugar maple’s long flower stalks.


I believe I have earned the title of “phenologist.” No, I haven’t been measuring skulls to assess character, which is the realm of phrenology. Phenology, which I have been practicing, is the study of climate as reflected in the natural cycles of plants and animals.

For the past 30 plus years, I have recorded the dates on which various plants have blossomed or ripened their fruits. My interest has been horticultural: In spring, plants blossom after experiencing a certain accumulation of warm temperatures; fruit ripening reflects, to a lesser degree, further accumulation of warmth. The amount of warmth needed to bring on those flowers or ripen fruits varies with the kind of plant, sometimes even with the variety of plant. 

Forsythia in bloom

Forsythia in bloom

Depending on late winter and spring weather, blossoming dates for various plants can vary quite a bit. Microclimate also plays a role, so I’ve tried to always note blossoming on the same plant from year to year. This year, forsythia bloomed about April 9th, which is pretty early as compared with previous years although in 2010 it bloomed on April 1st and that was topped by 2012’s bloom on March 20th. Contrast that with 1984, when it bloomed on April 25th! On average, bloom dates have crept earlier and earlier over the years, a reflection of global warming.

In the garden, seeds and seedlings shouldn’t be sown or transplanted until the soil has warmed sufficiently, which likewise reflects that accumulation of warmth. Some seeds or seedlings require more warmth before they can grow (or survive) than do others. Knitting all these phenomena together, I plant, for example, lettuce seeds when forsythias blossom, broccoli transplants when pears blossom, and sweet corn when honeysuckles blossom. 

Pears in bloom

Pears in bloom

These sunny days and balmy temperatures are heavenly – except that they’re also coaxing earlier blossoms from my fruit trees, blossoms that could get burned by subsequent frosty nights. The earlier these trees bloom, the more chance for those blossoms to get burnt on a subsequent frosty night.

The historical average date of the last killing frost around here is about the middle of May. Even warming trends might accommodate a frosty night or two that can wipe out a whole season’s harvest of apples or peaches, the first of which is about to bloom and the second of which has bloomed.

Still, it’s a glorious time of year, with no small contribution from the maples.


Lesser Known

A whole slew of clear, sunny days and cool nights caused sugar maples to put on a particularly fiery show of yellow and orange leaves this fall. That’s mostly over now around here — but a number of other trees and shrubs, many not well known, are keeping my farmden and beyond colorful longer.

Little known, for instance is Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica). I planted it years ago as a shade tree. Big mistake! For shade, that is. It doesn’t grow very large and is more of a large, multistemmed shrub. I’m glad I planted it, though. The smooth, gray stems grow thick and often horizontally, then downward a little before heading skyward, sort of like a miniature beech.

Parrotia leavesBut I’m writing about color, and Persian ironwood has it, the leaves emerging purplish in spring, turning a lustrous green in summer, then morphing into variable shades of yellow, orange and red in autumn.

Also not well known is Korean mountainash (also called Korean whitebeam, Sorbus alnifolia). It’s closely related to more familiar mountainashes except in a different subgenus, Aria, with simple, rather than compound, leaves. I first saw this tree one fall at the Scott Arboretum in Pennsylvania and, knowing the tiny fruits make a good nibble, ate some. And knowing a whole tree can be grown from a tiny seed, I saved some seeds for planting.

That was in 2006, and the tree is now about 20 feet tall and draped in rusty red leaves that are splashed with yellow. As with the sugar maples, the color is particularly good this year — and fruits, which I’ll be nibbling, are also particularly abundant. As an added plus, the tree, each spring, is draped in large clusters of foamy, white flowers.
Korean mountainash
Another rare bird is Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) which I planted — was it for its bark, for its flowers, or was it for its autumn leaf color? All are outstanding. The bark exfoliates in the same way as does sycamore, leaving silvery gray and charcoal gray patches against a khaki background. Its cup-shaped, white flowers with yellow center are like camellias, a relative. Right now, the leaves are a warm terra cotta color shading, in parts, to yellow.



Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardeneii) is one more lesser known plant now aglow here. This small shrub’s leaves’ traffic-stopping, rich red color is heightened by occasional blushes of yellow and dark red. Back in spring, candles of fragrant, creamy white flowers perched atop the ends of stems.
Fothergilla leaves

Known for Their Fruits

Some plants that I grow for their fruits are also more than earning their keep with fall color. 

Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) is among the best of these, and the color makes up for its relatively poor yield of fruit. The deep red leaves look pretty highlighted among the evergreen leaves of rhododendron, mountain laurel, and lingonberry in my “heather bed.” (All are in the Heather Family, Ericaceae.) Where the plants are really spectacular is in the Shawangunk Mountains that rise up just west of here. There, whole swaths of plants paint the forest understory red.
Huckleberry leavesPawpaw (Asimina triloba) is another fruit plant here, this one with many tropical aspirations. Tropical aspirations? It’s the northernmost member of the mostly tropical Custard Apple family (Annonaceae); its fruit has taste and texture reminiscent of banana; the fruits hang in clusters like bananas; and its long, drooping leaves would be visually at home in tropical climes. Come fall, the plants shed those tropical aspirations as the leaves turn clear yellow, especially nice when backlit by sunlight.
 Pawpaw fall leaf color
I often rave about blueberry for its ease of growth, its pretty, white flowers in spring, its long season of harvest, its health benefits, and of course, its delicious fruits. I’m sure I’ve also mentioned its fall color, to me one of the best of all plants, mostly crimson but depending on the variety and the season, also with some yellow.
Blueberry leaves in fall
(I delve into the planting and use of these and other ornamental fruit plants in my book Landscaping with Fruit.)

Look Down

Perhaps it was a couple of particularly cold nights, with temperatures dropping into the low 20s, that caused leaves to all of a sudden drop all at once from certain trees. At any rate, the beautiful carpets blanketing the ground beneath these trees have caught my eye.

Pawpaws, for one, the overlapping, large leaves thoroughly hiding the grass beneath them.

Even at their best, mulberries leaves are nothing to look at in fall (but the trees do have other ornamental attributes, so did make it into Landscaping with Fruit). This year, though, the green leaves that plopped onto the ground following the cold nights did catch my eye. Perhaps it was the low angle of the sun reflecting off them; perhaps it was their shine.
Mulberry leaves on the ground
One tree whose leaves are perhaps at their best on the ground in ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). This one is edible, allegedly delicious, but did not make it into my book. The edible part is the nut (seed) inside the fruit. The problem, for me, is that the fallen fruit smell like an open sewer. Really! 
Ginkgo tree in fall
The way around this is to forgo the fruit by planting a male tree. The fan-shaped leaves of this living fossil, whose appearance dates back to the Early Jurassic, turn the clearest yellow imaginable in fall. They’re at their best when they drop, making the ground look as if a sunbeam had fallen from the sky.

I haven’t — yet? — grown ginkgo myself.


Why Now?

For the past week or so I’ve been getting parts of the garden ready for next year. Too soon, you say? No, says I.

Pole beans

Pole beans

A bed of corn and a bed of bush beans are finished for the season. Not that that’s the end of either vegetable. I planted four beds of corn, each two weeks after the previous, and the two remaining beds will be providing ears of fresh Golden Bantam — a hundred year old variety with rich, corny flavor — well into September.

The bed of bush beans will be superseded by a bed of pole beans, planted at the same time. Bush beans start bearing early but peter out after a couple of harvests. Pole beans are slower to get going, but once they do, they keep up a quickening pace until slowed, then stopped, by cold weather.

Why, you may ask, ready those beds now for eight months hence? One reason is that the garden is always such a flurry of activity in spring that I welcome one less thing that needs doing then. Also, part of garden preparation is thorough weeding (which I also keep up with, though less thoroughly, all season long). Any weeds checked now means less weed seed to spread around the garden and, in the case of perennial weeds, less opportunity to gain a foothold.

Bed of lettuce and chinese cabbage

And later in the season…

Planted bed, endive, lettuce

And, later in the season

And beds prepared now need not sit idle till spring. Right after getting the old bean bed ready for spring, I’ll plant it with vegetables that thrive in the cool weather of fall, vegetables such as lettuce, endive, turnips, Chinese cabbage, and winter radishes. The bed will be ready as soon as fall vegetables are harvested and out of the way.

And How? Simple.

No magic potions or secret techniques ready my beds now for next year. What’s needed, besides weeding and fertilizing, is to maintain or increase levels of soil organic matter. Organic matter is integral to good fertility, maintaining a diverse population of beneficial soil microbes, and improving soil aeration and moisture retention. It’s what put the “organic” into organic gardening.

The way I provide all this can be summed up in one word: compost.

Okay, there is more to it. My vegetable garden is laid out in beds that are 3 feet wide with 18 inch wide paths between them (and a 5 foot wide path up the middle of the garden for rolling in cartfuls of compost). Soil in the beds has not been tilled or otherwise unduly disturbed for decades, which has many benefits that I delve into in my book Weedless Gardening.

First step in getting the garden ready for next year is to remove all existing plants, be they corn, bean, or weed plants. I excise most plants, including weeds, by grabbing each near its base and giving it a slight twist to sever it from its fine roots, which are left in place. Coaxing with my Hori-Hori knife is sometimes needed. Corn plants definitely need coaxing, which I do by digging straight down around the base of each plant and then giving it a yank. After all this, I smooth out the ground, if necessary, with the tines of a rake or pitchfork.

A one inch depth of finished compost should provide all that intensively grown vegetables require for a whole season. That one inch of compost is laid down like a rich icing right on top of the bed. Finished!
Composted garden bed
Okay, there’s sometimes a little more to it. I noticed weak growth in one of the later corn beds, possibly due to nitrogen deficiency, although untimely, temporary malfunction of my drip irrigation system at a critical growth stage for the corn is another possibility. Just too make sure, I will sprinkle some organic nitrogen fertilizer (soybean meal) in that bed when I prepare it.

(I could test the soil for some other nutrient deficiency, but after years of using compost made from diverse feedstuffs, some other nutrient deficiency is doubtful. There’s no good test for nitrogen because of its evanescence in the soil.)

Okay, there’s sometimes even a little more to my soil prep. If a bed is finished for the season and I have enough cleared beds for all the cool season vegetables, I could just prepare the bed, as above, and that would be the end of the story. But I don’t like to look at bare ground, so beds cleared and prepared early enough in the season, which is about the end of September here in Zone 5, get planted with a cover crop. Cover crops protect soil from wind and water erosion, latch onto nutrients that would otherwise leach down and out of the ground, and crumble the soil to a fine tilth with their roots. And going into winter, I’d rather look at a lush, green cover crop than bare ground.

Cover crop in autumn

Cover crop in autumn

My usual cover crop of choice is oats or barley. Both thrive in autumn’s cool, moist weather. They mesh well with no-till because they winterkill here in Zone 5.

This year, especially for my beds of corn, which is a nitrogen-hungry plant, I’ll mix crimson clover in with the oats or barley. As a legume, the clover will enrich the ground with extra nitrogen that it extracts from the air. And the vivid crimson flower heads, sitting atop stalks like lolliopops, will look nice.
Crimson clover