King Henry Was, And Is, Good

The good king has gone to seed. Good King Henry, that is. A plant. But no matter about that going to seed. The leaves still taste good, steamed or boiled just like spinach.

The taste similarity with spinach isn’t surprising because both plants are in the same botanical family, the Chenopodiaceae, or, more recently, the Amaranthaceae. Spinach and Good King Henry didn’t change families; their family was just taken in by, and made into a subfamily of, the Amaranthaceae.Good King Henry

Whatever its name — and it’s also paraded under such common names as poor man’s asparagus and Lincolnshire spinach — Good King Henry is a vegetable that’s been eaten for hundreds of years, except hardly ever nowadays. While spinach, beet, and some of its other kin have been improved by breeding and selection over the years, Good King Henry was neglected.

But the Good King, besides having good flavor, has a few things going for it lacking in spinach. It’s a perennial plant, it’s edible all season long, and it has no pests problems worth mentioning. This Mediterranean native made its way to my garden over 20 years ago, from seed I purchased and sowed. I haven’t had to replant it since then.

Which brings me to one possible downside of Good King Henry: It keeps trying to spread beyond the far corner of the garden where I originally planted it. Every spring I yank out errant plants, and eat them.

One of my favorite things about Good King Henry is its species name, bonus-henricus, making its whole botanical name Chenopodium bonus-henricus.

Another Perennial Oldie

Another perennial vegetable that I’ve enjoyed this spring is seakale (Crambe maritima), a relative of cabbage, broccoli, and kale. This also is an old-timey vegetable, one whose popularity peaked in the 18th century; Thomas Jefferson was a fan.

The origin of the name may trace to the leaves (kale-like) being pickled to bring aboard ships (the “sea” part of the name) to prevent scurvy.

Seakale, though perennial, does not spread. I started my plants from seed a few years ago, which is tricky only because the seeds have a low germination percentage. I’ve seen a few seedlings pop up a foot or so from the mother plant, which I welcome as an easy way to multiply my holdings.Seakale, blanched

Seakale tastes very good either cooked or raw, something like a mild cabbage with a refreshing touch of bitterness. Either way, blanching is needed to make it tasty, and that entails nothing more than covering it for a couple weeks or so, more or less depending on the weather (more warmth, less time), to keep out light and make the shoots more mild and tender.  I invert a clay flowerpot over the whole plant, with a stone or saucer over the drainage hole to keep light from wending its way in. Like asparagus, new leaves eventually need to be set free to bask in the sun to fuel the roots for the next year’s early shoots.

One more plus for seakale is that the plant is a beauty, so much so that it’s sometimes planted as an ornamental. The wavy, pale bluish green leaves have a silvery pallor reminiscent of the British seascape to which they are native. Later in the season, a seafoam of white blossoms rises from the whorl of leaves.Seakale in flower

I Give Up

Now for an about face, from European plants enjoying cool weather and sometimes dry conditions, to a tropical American plant. Awhile back I wrote about my efforts to grow avocados here in New York’s Hudson Valley. Not on a large scale; just one or two plants from which I could harvest a few fruits of some special variety.

I grew two plants from seeds I saved from locally purchased avocado fruits, and grafted onto those seedlings the stems of two varieties a gardening buddy sent up from Florida. Ungrafted, the seedling plants would bear fruit of unknown quality, if they bore at all. Grafted plants would give me improved, named varieties that would bear quickly.Avocado grafts

avocado about to flower


I failed. Only one graft took, yet two varieties are needed for fruiting. As expected, the grafted stem on the successfully grafted plant flowered within a year of grafting. For days I tried to get the pollen from the male to pollinate the female parts of the flower — to no avail. And then, for some reason, the grafted stem started to darken and turn black, and died back.Avocado with dead graft

I give up on trying to grow an indoor-outdoor avocado plant — for fruit — in a pot.



A Big, Fat, Red Flower; Perfect For Now

One spring day many years ago, my friend Bill looked out upon the daffodils blooming and other stirrings, and summed up the scene with the statement that “It’s spring and everything is wigglin’.” We haven’t yet come that far along, but things are wigglin’ — indoors. (Little did I know that 2 days after writing this, all would be buried under two feet of snow!)

Most dramatic among the wigglins is the big, fat flower bud pushing up from the big, fat amaryllis bulb. True, the goal of most people is to have the flamboyant, red blossoms open for Christmas, which requires beginning a bulb’s dormant period in the middle of August. It’s cool temperatures, around 55°F., and dry soil that puts an amaryllis bulb to sleep. Then, in early November, warm temperatures and just a little water wakens the bulb out of its slumber, with increasing watering, commensurate with its growth, bringing the bulb fully awake and ready to burst forth in bloom 6 weeks later.Amaryllis late last winter

In mid-August, I’m more focussed on harvesting tomatoes and peppers, readying endive for October harvests, making compost, and other garden goings-on than on the amaryllis bulb that I tipped out of its pot and planted in the ground in late spring. And anyway, a few red flowers, even flamboyant ones, do little to counteract December’s grayness.

So I let my amaryllis flower in its time, which should be within a couple of weeks or so, and add to the indoor late winter wrigglin.

Citruses Come Awake

Much more exciting are the less dramatic signs of growth on some of my potted subtropical trees.

As subtropical plants, citrus trees push out multiple flushes of growth through the year. The first flush is about to begin on Meyer lemon, Golden Nugget mandarin, and Meiwa kumquat.

One or more of those citrus flushes also bears flowers, which lead to fruits. The kumquat typically flowers late. My Golden Nugget mandarin hasn’t yet ever flowered for me, so I’m not sure when to expect those blossoms. Wait! Do I see the tiny beginnings of a flower bud on that nascent stem?

Golden Nugget awakening

Golden Nugget awakening

Meyer lemon is notorious for its free flowering. Looking closely, I see that some of the new growth includes flower buds. At the same time, I see that the lemon fruits that had their beginnings last year are now swelling more rapidly. I’m predicting to have new lemons forming even as I am harvesting ripe ones.Meyer lemon flower buds

Fresh-picked Avocados, in New York?

Most exciting are the fat buds expanding on my potted avocado tree, grown from a seed I planted a couple of years ago. I grafted this seedling with a stem of the Marcus Pumpkin variety of avocado that I got about this time last year from a friend in Florida.

An avocado tree grown from seed would take many years — if ever, as a houseplant this far north — to reach maturity, that is, to be old enough to be able to flower and fruit. A stem taken from a fruiting plant is already mature, though, and remains so even if grafted on a young seedling. The grafted stem of Marcus Pumpkin on my avocado tree is, in fact, about to burst into bloom.

Avocado flower buds

Avocado flower buds


Much can happen ‘twixt the bloom and the mouth; I’m guardedly hopeful to be guacamole-ing freshly plucked avocados in a few months. The problem is synchronous dichogamy, which may end up being more of a mouthful than my avocado fruit. The upshot of this mouthful is that each of an avocado plant’s gazillion flowers stays open for 2 days. When the flower first opens it is in the female phase, receptive to pollen; this phase lasts 2 to 4 hours. Day 2 has the flower in its male phase, shedding pollen. The male and female flower parts being out of synch is good for avocado evolution but bad for me as far as home-grown gucamole.

Depending on the variety, avocado flowers might be Type A or Type B. Type A flowers are not ambitious, competitive, or impatient like Type A humans. Or maybe they are, because the female parts are open and receptive only in the morning of the first day; these same flowers open as males in the afternoon of the second day. Type B flowers aren’t ready for action until the afternoon of their first day; then they open a males the next morning.

The upshot of all this is that it’s best to have two different avocado varieties, a Type A and a Type B. The morning phase of Type B, as males, can pollinate the morning phase of Type A, which are females. And vice versa.

Marcus Pumpkin is a Type B avocado. When I grafted it, I also grafted Lula, a Type A avocado, on another seedling. Although Lula failed to take, all may not be lost. My plan is to dab the Marcus Pumpkin flowers in the afternoon with an artist’s brush, tap the pollen into a petri dish, cover it, and the next morning dab the brush from the collected pollen to the Marcus Pumpkin flowers in their female phase.

Perhaps I’ll be harvesting fresh avocados in a few months. Perhaps I’ll be just buying fresh avocados in a few months. At any rate, as a northern gardener, it’s very exciting to have my avocado tree about to flower.

And Even Hints Of Spring Outdoors

All is not so quiescent outside. After a couple of warm days, I see that winter aconites have spread their cheery, yellow petals. (But not for long.)Winter aconite


New York Avocadoes!?!?

    I make no claim to be rational in my gardening — especially this time of year. This thought comes to mind as I look closely at two avocado plants sitting in a sunny window. “Nothing irrational about growing avocado plants in New York,” you might say. After all, the large seeds are fun and easy to sprout, and the resulting plant adds some tropical greenery indoors.
    My two plants were run-of-the-mill avocado houseplants until I took knife to them.
    Let’s backtrack . . . Among my regrets of not living 1,000 miles or so south of here is not being able to harvest my own citrus and avocados. (Also, no outdoor gardenia shrubs or southern magnolia trees here.) A few indoor citrus plants do call mi casa sus casa. But no avocados.Avocado grafts
    From seed, an avocado would take a long time before it bore its first fruit. And especially long under less-that-ideal northern conditions, including indoors in winter.
    And worse, when the plant does finally flower, it might not bear fruit. Avocados generally need cross-pollination because the pollen isn’t ripe at the same time that the female stigma is receptive. Avocado pollinators need to be fairly specific, so that one plant’s pollen is in synch with another plant’s stigmas.
    And even worse, after all that time and hoping for appropriate mates, fruits that do form might not taste good. They wouldn’t be selected clones, such as the delectable Haas or Mexicola, but seedlings. (Plant a seed from a good tasting apple and the resulting tree has only one in 10,000 chance of bearing a good-tasting fruit.)
    Which is why I took a knife to my two avocado seedlings, to graft them to known, good-tasting varieties that are pollination compatible. A friend in Florida overnighted me scions — pencil-thick stems, with leaves stripped — cut from his Marcus Pinkham and Lula avocado trees. One of my seedlings got a whip graft of Marcus Pinkham; the other got a side-veneer graft of Lulu.
    I coverWithed both grafts with plastic to maintain humidity, and every day peer at the scions hoping to see some swelling in preparation for growth.
    Rational gardening? No. After all, even if all goes as planned, how many avocados could I expect to harvest from two small trees? Still, it’s fun.

Warm. Plant.

    Outdoors, it’s the weather that toys with my rationality. A spate of warm days and great restraint is needed not to plant vegetables. I keep referring to my notes (and the chart I made in my book Weedless Gardening) that tell me when to plant what.
  Planting onions  With yesterday’s 75 degree temperatures, urges to plant were satisfied — for that day, at least — by my poking holes into the ground into which I dropped onion plants sown indoors on February 1st. Three-hundred of them in a 20 foot long by 36 inch wide bed. (This was later than the April 21st onion planting date specified in my book, but the weather was cold so I forgot to look at my book.)

Planting Break. Turn Compost.

    When I get tired of planting, I can always turn to turning my compost piles.
    Not that compost piles have to be turned. In contrast to other fermentations, such as bread-making and wine-making, compost always comes out right. Pile up any mix of organic (living or once-living) materials, and eventually you get compost.
    I turn my compost piles so that materials on the outside of the pile get to be on the inside of the pile, second time around. This makes for a more homogeneous finished product.Turning compost
    I turn my compost piles to better monitor their progress, so adjustments can be made, as needed, and to get some idea when they’ll be ready for use. Occasionally, a pile will have a dry region; it gets watered. Occasionally, a mass of material needs to be broken up to better expose it to moisture and microorganisms.
    I also turn my compost piles because it’s good exercise and it’s interesting. But, like I wrote, turning a compost pile is not a must.


A Long Journey to Avocado-dom

This far north, an avocado plant provides reliable entertainment and, less reliably, the makings of guacamole. The entertainment doesn’t compare with the excitement of a car chase on the silver screen; it’s slower but very engaging.

To whit: I’ve been watching roots on two avocado pits elongate and branch. I spend a lot of time with plants; here is my opportunity to spend quality time with their roots. That’s all possible because avocado pits, suspended in water, will sprout roots whose growth can be watched.  (Odd, since wet soils are the nemesis of avocado trees planted outdoors in tropical and subtropical climates, and you can’t get much wetter than water.)Avocado sprouting in water

Despite being plants of warm climates, avocados are frequently raised by us northerners, as houseplants. I could have planted the pits in potting soil in a pot, but would have missed out on root entertainment. So I stuck three toothpicks into and spaced evenly around each pit so that the pits could be suspended in a beaker with their bottoms — their fatter ends — sitting in water. Taking a thin slice off the top and bottom of the seed, which I did, reputedly speeds germination.

Roots typically sprout before the tops show any sign of growth. 

Whoops, Things Don’t Look So Good

Avocado houseplants are so common that probably none of the above is new information to most readers. I’m embarrassed, then, to admit that my two plants have faltered in their growth.

One of them sent a sprout upwards after its roots were a couple of inches long. That sprout has dried out and, of course, ceased growth.

I noticed a slime surrounding the root of the other pit. This pit was very slow to sprout, and my guess is that there’s some bacteria attacking the weak growth.

I ascribe both failures to growing conditions which, here, indoors, are a far cry from the mostly warm, humid climes avocados call home. Mine sit near a window, experiencing wide swings in temperature in a room heated with a wood stove. Starting new plants in spring should bring better luck.

Entertained by Apical Dominance

I did get to effect and observe apical dominance on one of the plants. More benign than it sounds, apical dominance is the tendency for most vigorous growth from a plant’s uppermost buds, those either at the ends of branches or spatially at the highest points.

Avocado, roots branchingThat vigor comes from suppression of buds lower down by auxin, a plant hormone that is produced in the uppermost buds and transported down the stem. Lopping off the top of a stem stops hormone production (temporarily, until the new higher buds start making it) so lower buds grow as they let go of their inhibitions. 

The taproot growing from one of the avocado pits was threatening to bump into the bottom of the beaker so I pinched off a half inch of its tip. The effect was a mirror image to what happens with branches: within a few days, branch roots began to develop. Very entertaining.

An avocado sprout typically shows strong apical dominance, developing into a gawky plant with a single, upright shoot. Cutting the growing top back by a few inches induces branching and makes for a prettier plant.

Flowers, But No Fruit

More than beauty, I’d like fruit from my avocado plant. Under good conditions, such as in the ground in Florida, a pit would need 8 years or more before it became old enough to bear fruit. And then, said fruit might not be of best quality because the seedling would reflect whatever jumbling around of chromosomes occurred when the female flower that gave rise to the fruit that begot the seed got dusted with pollen from a male flower.

Blossoms on my potted avocado

For quicker bearing and more reliable good taste, cloning is needed, in this case grafting a branch from a tree known to bear good-tasting fruits onto the young seedling. Bearing, then, occurs within 3 or 4 years, and the fruit should be identical to the mother plant from which the stem for grafting was taken.

Not so fast, though. You need two varieties for cross-pollination, and avocado has some pollination quirks. Still, my plan is to get new pits sprouting, and once their stems are large enough to graft, to get scions for grafting. Years ago, I did all this and got flowers but no fruit. I’m hopeful, this time around, to be making guacamole within 6 years.

Outside Now, For More Apical Dominance

The time is drawing near for some real gardening, which could start with pruning. I’ll be putting apical dominance to work on some young fruit trees — each a mere “whip,” single, vertical stem — planted last year. Shortening the main stem will induce side branches that will eventually become the permanent scaffold limbs of these plants. The more severely any stem is shortened, the fewer and the more enthusiastic the sprouts from the buds lower down.