But Do I Want Flowers Now?

    The season has been “chill,” literally and figuratively, the former predicted by weather experts based on a this year’s strong El Niño.
    Because of El Niño, the West was pounded with rain; here in the Northeast, except for an occasional night, temperatures have been mild over the past few months, much milder than I remember for any other fall. It is those chilly, but not frigid, temperatures — in the range from 30 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit — that signal to plants that winter is over and it’s safe to begin unfolding flower buds or pushing new shoots from dormant buds. A certain number of hours within this temperature range does the trick, typically about a thousand hours, the exact requirements varying from plant to plant. Temperatures below 30 or above 45 degrees don’t contribute to the needed hours, can even set the clock back and increase the number of hours still needed.

Witchhazel blooming in autumn

Witchhazel blooming in autumn

    Typically, in the Northeast, required chilling hours are not fulfilled in autumn. Some are, but then temperatures typically plummet. The “chilling bank” is finally topped up in late winter or early spring. Growth then only awaits favorable growing conditions, which mostly means sufficiently warm temperatures.
    This fall, however, some or all chilling hours have been fulfilled — not a good thing, for humans. Flowers on fruit trees and bushes will probably unfold earlier than usual, at time when they are then threatened by subsequent frosts that could wipe out next season’s harvest. Ornamentals also will probably flower earlier — no big deal if all we want from them is flowers. My Arnold’s Promise witchhazel usually flowers in March. This year’s October flowering means no flowers this coming spring.
    Buds that grow into shoots will also awaken earlier next year.  Shoots begin growth after the earliest flowers so aren’t as threatened by subsequent cold snaps. Even if they get burned by frost, they usually just push out new stems from undamaged buds that otherwise might have remained dormant for the season.

Native Fruits Fare Better

    One plus for growing native plants is that they are more adapted to the vagaries of our climate than non-natives. Apricots, for instance, present a challenge because they need relatively few hours of chilling to awaken. They are one of the first trees to bloom.

Apricots after a good winter & spring

Apricots after a good winter & spring

   Low chilling requirement is no problem in apricots’ native haunts, where winters are cold but springs warm steadily. Around here, though, wild temperature fluctuations in winter and spring fulfill chilling requirements early; blossoms appear so early that they’re almost sure to be nipped out by subsequent drops in temperature. A warm fall gets the flower buds ready for opening even earlier.
    I am more optimistic about my American persimmons, pawpaws, highbush and lowbush blueberries, and grapes for next year. These natives are accustomed to our variable temperatures, so rarely fail. Perhaps they won’t fail even after this wacky fall weather.

Plants Chillin’ Indoors

    Just chillin’, figuratively, are houseplants. As tropical and subtropical plants, they can remain somewhat aloof to the weather, except to grow when the weather is warm, and “chill out” — that is, just sit still — when temperatures cool. “Warm” and “cool,” in this case, span a narrow range, either outdoors in summer or indoors in winter.

Windowsill fruits- avocado, Rhpsalis, lemon

Windowsill fruits- avocado, Rhpsalis, lemon

    Still, sunlight and perhaps other subtle, seasonal changes in houseplants’ sheltered environment have their effects. So right now, houseplants mostly just “chill out.”  I’m drumming my fingers, waiting. All these plants need now is water, when thirsty.
    Once we get over the hump (trough?) of the shortest day and light becomes stronger and longer, houseplants will perk up and begin growing. Then, they might need some fertilizer, commensurate with growth, in addition to water.
    Right now, I’m awaiting blossoms from Odontoglossum pulchellum (that’s an orchid, no common name), blossoms and fruit set from Meyer lemon and Golden Nugget mandarin, and fruits to finish ripening on Meiwa kumquat and Abraco olive.

Book Giveaway, and Trees Large and Small

A book giveaway, a copy of my book GROW FRUIT NATURALLY. Reply to this post with what fruits are most and least successful in your garden or farmden. Also tell us what state you are in (as in NY, OH, CA, etc., not happiness, wistfulness, etc.). I’ll choose a winner randomly from all replies received by March 23rd.
A coming bout of colder weather notwithstanding, my weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) knows and shows that spring is around the corner. Buds along and at the tips of stems are stretching and showing some green of new leaves beneath their folds. I’m called to action.
The reason for this call is that my weeping fig, although it could soar to 75 feet outdoors in tropical climates, is in a small pot being trained as a bonsai. Now that the plant is just about ready to grow is the time to cut it back so that new growth remains proportional to the size of the pot, the roots, and the dictates of design.
At three and a half years old, my tree is only 6 inches high — and I want to keep it that small. Its pot, after all is only 4 inches long by 3 inches wide, and an inch deep.
Before I even get to the stems, I cut off all the leaves. True, this is not good for a plant, but my plant is healthy so can tolerate the stress. I go through the trouble of snipping off each leaf because that dwarfs, to some degree, new leaves that are about to emerge, keeping them more in proportion to the size of the plant.

Whoops, I just checked a book (The Pruning Book by Lee Reich) which states that the leaf pruning is best done after new leaves fully emerge. Oh well, I’ll leaf prune again as soon as the next flush of growth finishes. (Tropical plants, in contrast to plants of cold climates, typically have multiple growth flushes each year.)
With leaves pruned off, time to move on to the roots. Since the plant was last re-potted, a year ago, roots have thoroughly filled the soil in the small pot. There’s little or no room for new root growth, and new roots are the ones that drink in water and what few nutrients are left in the old soil.

The only way to make room for new soil and root growth is to get rid of some old soil and roots. I tease out old soil from among the roots and then prune away about a third of the old roots. With that done, I pack new soil into the pot, just enough to put the plant, with its surface mat of moss still in tow, sitting at the same level as before the root pruning.
The stems need little pruning. I snip off a crossing stem here, one reaching too far over the edge of the pot there, and another that threatens to extend too far skyward. Although stems made little growth over the past year, they, and especially the trunk, did thicken, helping to give the little tree an appearance venerable beyond its years.
I haven’t looked, but my guess is that my fruit trees are also beginning to feel the effects of impending spring. Bouts of warm weather are the driving force in this case. One week we have highs in the ‘teens or twenties, another week highs are in the 40s or 50s. Back and forth through winter.
Plants went into winter well able to resist enticements of warm weather. That’s because until they’ve experienced a certain number of hours at chilly, not frigid, temperatures, they remain dormant and unwilling to grow. Once reaching about 1,000 hours total accumulated exposure to temperatures between 30 and 45°F., they begin to de-harden, that is, become less resistant to cold and more ready to grow.
Plants vary in the number of hours they need to fill their “chilling” bank, some needing a couple of hundred hours, others needing over 1,000 hours. The gut reaction would be to surmise that plants from colder climates would naturally require more chilling hours before they would begin to grow. That’s generally

true, but it ain’t necessarily so. In some very cold regions, spring comes on quickly without looking back, and the growing season is short. Fruit plants adapted to such regions must be ready to grow at the first breath of spring if they’re going to have time to ripen their fruits within the growing season. Just a little chilling at the beginning and/or end of the season is all they need.

With most fruit trees, flowers are the first evidence of awakened growth. But if they open too early, subsequent cold turns their colorful petals to brown mush. Dead flowers also cannot go on to become fruits.
I admit to being somewhat foolish for planting an apricot tree, a tree native to Manchuria, a region that experiences those cold winters and quick, steadily warming springs. The climate here in the Hudson Valley (and over most of continental U.S.), and especially at my less than perfect site for fruit-growing, has a good chance of fooling apricot trees into acting as if cold weather is past long before it actually is. My foolishness won’t be in evidence this year, though, because the tree is still too young to flower.

Nuts for Fruits

What a fool I am; I can’t even follow my own advice! A couple of days ago I planted an apricot tree that I had ordered a few weeks previously. All of which compounds my foolishness because I had plenty of time to ponder the purchase, even cancel it if I came to my senses before it’s arrival mail-order.
Planting an apricot tree may not seem foolish to you. But it is, as I’ve advised many people. The reason is that here in the northeast, perhaps even east of the Rocky Mountains, an apricot is unlikely to bear fruit. The plant hails from regions where winters are steadily cold and spring temperatures creep steadily upward. Over most of continental U.S., winter temperatures fluctuate wildly up and down, predisposing the plants to

My apricot hope for the future.

disease such as ominous-sounding, and truly debilitating, valsa canker. Trees typically die either quickly or slowly.

If only that were all . . . Apricot blossoms open at the first hint of spring warmth. The pinkish buds unfolding against the brownish red stems are a beautiful and welcome sight on the heels of winter, but those early blooms could — usually are — knocked out by subsequent frosty weather. Damaging, late frosts are least likely to occur near large bodies of water, such as the ocean and Great Lakes. Late frosts are most likely to occur in low-lying regions into which cold air sinks on still, spring nights; that would be here on my farmden in the valley of the Wallkill River.
If only that were all . . . Even if the trees stay alive through winters and their blossoms escape spring frosts, the fruits themselves are the target of a number of insects and diseases. Plum curculio, oriental fruit moth, brown rot, black knot . . . the list goes on of afflictions that can reduce the crop to zero. Oh, and did I mention squirrels. My father had a tree that every Father’s Day was stripped of every one of its small, green developing fruits by squirrels.
Did you ever taste a perfectly ripened apricot, one that’s soft and ready to travel no more than arm’s length from the branch to your mouth? I have (when I worked at the USDA Fruit Laboratory and at a friend’s orchard; he has a good site). Perfectly ripe, the fruit tastes nothing like a lemon, as market apricots usually do, but has just a hint of tartness to offset its rich, sweet flavor. For that, I planted the tree.
My friend Lev with his apricot trees
I wrote that “apricot is unlikely to bear fruit.” “Unlikely” does not mean “never.” A crop of apricots even one year out of — say — every five years will justify, for me, the space and trouble the tree will entail.
I was smart in a couple of ways with my apricot tree. I bought it from a nursery that specializes in fruit trees ( and I planted in full sun in well-drained, moderately fertile soil. And the variety is Jerseycot, one of the varieties most resistant to some of the pests and the vagaries of our winter and spring weather.
More foolishness: I just received a confirmation for a nursery order, soon to arrive, that includes a camellia bush. Let me explain. I love living in the northeast but do bemoan the inability to grow certain plants not hardy here, among them southern magnolia, citrus, and camellia. I’ve been tempted to plant the hardiest southern magnolia, Edith Bogue, but

My “citrus” plantation.

restrain myself realizing that the plant might survive but would never become a majestic specimen the tree is meant to be. Citrus? I resign myself to growing some citrus in pots, indoors in winter and outdoors in summer.

The last few years have seen the development of hardier camellias. Long Island Pink is one of the hardiest, with compact stature, glossy evergreen leaves, and single pink flowers in autumn. Still, it’s not really hardy here. I’ll plant it in the partial shade near the northeast corner of my home, protect it through winter its first few years as it develops cold-hardiness, and perhaps my foolishness will pay off.

What’s New, Or Going to Be

Some white tomatoes, grown
years ago

Two or three people have already asked me, “Are you growing anything special this year?” Each time I had to stop and think: Am I? Then I  feel, yes, I should be growing something new each year. Then, on the other hand, I feel, what with the vagaries of the weather and pest problems, that it’s interesting enough just to grow every year what I’ve grown in previous years. Reinforcing that last thought is a quote from Charles Dudley Warner (My Summer in a Garden, 1870): “I have seen gardens which were all experiment, given over to every new thing, and which produced little or nothing to the owners, except the pleasure of expectation.”

I’ve surely paid my dues in the “experiment” department. I’ve grown garden huckleberries, an annual that, cooked with lemon and sugar, is alleged to rival blueberries for pie. False! Garden huckleberries are tasteless. The pie would taste like a lemon-and-sugar pie. I’ve grown white tomatoes, touted as being sweeter than red tomatoes. One taste made me realize how welcome is the refreshing tang of red tomatoes. And then there was celtuce, supposedly combining the leafy qualities of lettuce and crunchy stalk of celery in one plant. Not so! It tasted like bad celery and bad lettuce. Celtuce is essentially a lettuce going to seed, the seedstalk trying to stand-in for celery.
Okay, now that I think about it, I am growing some things that are sort of new this year. Normally I would shy away from planting apricots, even though biting into a tree-ripened apricot — sweet, soft, and rich in flavor — is a heavenly experience. But apricot trees have serious insect and disease problems, their early blossoms usually succumb to late spring frost, and our fluctuating winter temperatures increase disease susceptibility so that the trees die either quickly or slowly.
Still, I couldn’t resist, while perusing Cummins Nursery ( website and happening upon the variety Jerseycot, the most reliable apricot for apricot-unfriendly regions of the northeast. Planting an apricot tree may represent a 20 year cycle for me; about 20 years ago I finally gave up and cut down an apricot tree I had planted a few years earlier. (The wood is beautiful and I reincarnated it as a coat rack. I hope this year’s tree sees many productive years before becoming a coat rack also.)
Apricots, in my future — I hope.

Another “new” plant for this year is honeyberry (Lonicera edulis), sometimes called edible blue honeysuckle. This is another plant I grew many years ago. It performed poorly because of the poor care I gave it which was mostly because of the poor flavor of the one berry I tasted. But honeyberry is a new fruit, in the same place, development-wise, as the apple might have been 2,000 years ago. New varieties have come down the pike and I’m ready to try these newbies.

A couple of other sort-of-new plants here are artichoke and citrus. The artichokes I planted last summer did nothing except grow leaves. I dug up the two plants, potted them, and have grown them through winter in sunny window. Age and last autumn’s exposure to cool temperature should get me some ‘chokes to eat this year. (Artichokes need a cold spell before they decide to make ‘chokes instead of just leaves.)
New citrus will expand my current collection. I’m deciding between Satsuma mandarin and Clementine which, in either case. will join the rest of the (citrus) family in pots here that winter indoors in sunny windows and summer outdoors in full sun.
I’ve gardened for decades, but with a mere 12 years of greenhouse growing under my belt, feel like a novice trying to keep the greenhouse green and productive all winter. The basic routine is to sow salad and cooking greens in late summer and autumn for late autumn, winter, and early spring harvest. Timing is key. Planted too early, some greens go to seed before winter even gets underway; planted too late, short days and cool temperatures don’t allow enough growth for reasonable harvest.
This year, all went smoothly, keeping our salad bowls amply filled right up until a couple of weeks ago. Here, for the record, is some of what worked well:
•Direct sown Green Fortune bok choy, Aug. 30th;
•Direct sown Oregon Giant spinach, Sept. 6th;
•Direct sown Runway arugula; Aug. 28th;
•Direct sown Rhapsody and other lettuces; Aug. 28th.
Lettuce sown in seed flats at the end of December and transplanted out in the greenhouse in mid-February is now big enough to contribute some leaves to salads and, in a few weeks, whole heads. I’ll round out those pickings with recent sowings of spinach, arugula, erba stella, and mustard greens in the greenhouse.
More record-keeping along with fine-tuning sowing times and what varieties to grow will make the greenhouse even more productive in years to come.