As The World Turns…

Over the years, gardening has made me more and more aware of our planet’s annual track around the sun. How quaint. It gives me a certain kinship with the peasants at work in the 15th century painting for the month of September of Les Très Riches Heures de Duc de Berry.

Picking grapes, 15th and 21st century

Picking grapes, 15th and 21st century

As with those peasants, September is a month when I have abundant fruits for harvest. Like the peasants, I’m harvesting grapes; it’s been a bumper year. Unlike the peasants, my grapes are destined for fresh eating rather than being sullied by fermentation into wine. (Okay, okay, just kidding, although I am not a fan of drinking wine.)

First to ripen here were the varieties Somerset Seedless and Alden. With an abundance of varieties and fruits, I can afford to be picky, so this will be the last season here for Somerset Seedless. It’s too prone to pest problems and the fruit never loses enough of its tannin-y taste for my palate.

Alden grape

Alden grape

Alden is also threatened with my saw and shovel because it bears lightly and is also plagued with pest problems. But excellent taste and texture make it worth keeping.

Following on the heals of those earlier varieties are Swenson Red, Lorelei, Glenora, and Vanessa. The latter two are very good but would not be worth keeping if they weren’t seedless. In my experience, the most flavorful grapes are those with seeds. Swenson’s Red is a variety that pretty much everyone loves. They’d also love Lorelei if they got to taste this not very common variety.

Finally come Edelweiss, Wapanuka, Brianna, and, bearing for the first time, Cayuga White. The first three are not yet quite ripe. Even at this stage, they are delectable. Cayuga White is still proving itself, or not.

Edelweiss grape


Looking to the future, newly planted Bluebell, Alpenglow, and Dr. Goode should yield a few berries next year. Also an unknown variety that I propagated from an old vine growing at a friend’s Orchard.

With their bold flavors, you’re not likely to find any of the varieties I mentioned at a supermarket, possibly even a farmer’s market. Plant them!

Variety Choices

A few caveats: The Wallkill River Valley, site of my farmden, is far from ideal for fruit growing. As a valley, it’s colder than surrounding land (zone 5) and is laden with damper air that encourages disease. An abundance of wild grapevines in the bordering 6000 acres of forest provides a place for insects and disease to get their start.

Nonetheless, I get good crops without resorting to sprays. This is possible by providing a sunny site with good air circulation and making the best of it with trellises, and — very important — annual pruning. Also by choosing varieties to plant based on pest, disease, and cold resistance. 

Many grape varieties are hybrids of European and American species, the Europeans chosen for their flavor (flavor, that is, from a Eurocentric perspective), the Americans for their toughness to pests and more rigorous growing conditions. American varieties have a unique flavor, called foxiness and typified by that of Concord, as well as a slip skin. European varieties are sweet with a crunchy texture.

As far as flavor and texture, varieties span the spectrum from those that are more like European grapes to those more like American grapes. My final, but very important, consideration in choosing a variety is flavor, and I mostly prefer the flavors of varieties toward the American end of the spectrum.

Of course, the choice widens for grape enthusiasts in more Mediterranean climates, where European varieties can also be grown, and in the Southeast, where the native muscadine grapes grow wild and are cultivated.

Bagging, for Pests

Many birds and insects, especially yellow jackets and European hornets, also enjoy my grapes. They leave plenty for me, but crucial to harvesting the best of the best tasting grapes here is bagging.

Years ago I figured that the longer a bunch of grapes hangs on the plant, the tastier it gets (to a point), but also the more chance of attack by insects and birds. So I bought 1000 bakery bags that happened to have “Wholesome Fresh Delicious Baked Goods” printed on them. Paper bagged grapesPerhaps the label made the bags even less attractive to grape-hungry birds and insects; at any rate, they worked very well, usually yielding almost 100 late harvest, delectably sweet and flavorful, perfect bunches of bagged grapes each year.

This year, I thought organza bags might work well. Bagged grapes, organzaOrganza is an open weave fabric often made from synthetic fiber. Small organza bags typically enclose wedding favors; the bags come in many sizes. Organza bags have the advantage over paper bags of letting in more light. A mere pull of the two drawstrings makes bagging the fruit very easy; paper bags involve cutting, folding, and stapling. Organza bags also re-usable. (The bags also work well with apples which, in contrast to grapes, require sunlight to color up.)

In the15th century painting, peasants just pile bunches of their grapes into large, wooden tubs. I gently set only enough bunches for immediate consumption into a woven basket. Different methods, but we’re all tuned to the progress of our planet around its sun.

More details about growing grapes — and lots of other fruits — in my book Grow Fruit Naturally.Apples, bagged with organza

Flowers and Grapes

I thought the reason for the bags was obvious, but the eyes of just about everyone who steps out on my terrace turn upwards and then a quizzical look comes on their face. “Why are those bags up there,” they

ask. The bags enclose bunches of grapes hanging from the vines, and their purpose is to fend off birds, bees and other insects, and disease.

The payoff for tediously fitting slit paper bags around individual bunches, then stapling the folded over opening down around the stem, has come. Usually, not always; sometimes I open a bag and find nothing inside. But while many unbagged bunches are marred with bird pecking and black rot, the bagged bunches, at their best, reveal perfect bunches of plump, juicy grapes. We bag about 100 bunches each spring.
The longer grapes hang on the vines, the more apt they are to have a run in with birds or other ills. Bagged grapes, on the other hand, can be left hanging until they are dead, dead ripe, at their flavorful best.
How about flowers? I seem to have been ignoring them. In fact, the longer I garden, the more I look upon flowers in the same way as icing on a cake. They are a nice addition, but they are not the main show. Center stage around here is given to stone walls, arbors, trellises, fencing, the bark and tracery of branches of trees, and leaf shapes, colors, and textures. Their statements are bolder, less frivolous, and endure throughout the year .
Still, every year I do try out a few new flowers, and three annuals brought both beauty and endurance (for a flower) here this summer. All three have been blooming nonstop since late spring, and should keep up the show until weather turns frosty.
First is petunia. Not just any old petunia but new hybrids called Supertunias. These hybrids come in a


number of pastel colors, just like traditional petunias. They part ways with traditional petunias in their profusion of nonstop blossom. The blossoms always have an attractive backdrop because they are self cleaning — spent blossoms disappear into nothingness.

The second floral winner for the season is Xerochrysum bracteatum, sometimes classified as a Bracteantha species and sometimes called golden everlasting, or strawflower. I am growing the hybrid called Sundaze Blaze.
Bracteantha is, in fact, closely related to, and resembles, the more familiar strawflower (Helichrysum), looking like one that’s spreads its wings (petals, in this case) wider and larger. This native of Australia grows in just about all habitats there, except those that are shaded, so, as you might imagine, it’s a tough plant.
One more plus for Bracteantha is that it provides food for various butterflies, hoverflies, and native bees. Hoverflies are beneficial insects, so the bracteanthas indirectly may have


offered some protection to my grape bunches that were not bagged.

And finally, there’s Begonia benariensis, the variety Surefire Rose. I’m not a big fan of begonias, except for the Mandarin series, with their elongated, lance-shaped flowers and leaves all drooping decoratively from their pots. Surefire Rose, in contrast, is rounded: the leaves are rounded, the flowers are rounded, and the overall shape of the plant is rounded. With little enthusiasm, I plopped a few small plants I had been sent to try out into holes I made beneath a witchhazel shrub on the north side of my house.
Sometime around midsummer a critical mass of blossoms was reached. The red color of these flowers spilling out from beneath the witchhazel and onto the wall containing that bed would stop me in my track as I walked by. The show has increased in the intervening weeks.
As good as the show was from these annuals, they are, after all, annuals, destined to collapse in death with the first hard frost.


The begonias are tender perennials, so could be carried through the winter indoors if I dug up the plants and potted them up, or rooted cuttings. Easiest to preserve, literally, would be the bracteantha; like strawflowers, bracteantha dries well. I’ll give it a try.

Observation and note-taking are crucial to good gardening. Some gardeners have the observation part down, fewer write them down. Observations are pretty much useless once forgotten or mixed up.
One benefit of my writing this “Gardener’s Notebook” is that it affords me the opportunity — sometimes forces me — to write things down. I’m always trying to get my timing right for planting the greenhouse to ensure a steady supply of fresh greenery all winter long. With that in mind, two notes to myself: 
•Sow parsley on July 7th for transplanting into the greenhouse on September 17th.
•Sow kale and Swiss chard in the greenhouse for transplanting in the greenhouse on September 17th.