Heady Nights

It’s difficult to work outside in the garden these days, especially in early evening. No, not because of the heat. Not because of mosquitos either. The difficulty comes from the intoxicating aroma that wafts into the air each evening from the row of lilies just outside the east side of my vegetable garden.
cat and lilies
These aren’t daylilies, which are mildly and pleasantly fragrant. Wild, orange daylilies are common along roadways and yellow and hybrid daylilies, often yellow, are common in mall parking lots. (That’s not at all a dis’; the plants are tough and beautiful, and I’ve planted them also.) They’re also not tiger lilies, which lack aroma and sport downward turned, dark red speckled orange flowers with recurved petals. 

My fragrant lilies are so-called oriental hybrid lilies, which are notable for their large flowers and strong fragrance. My favorite among those I grow is Casa Blanca. The flowers are large and lily white (what’d you expect?) except for the threadlike, pale green stamens emerging from their centers, with dark red anthers capping their ends.

Casa Blanca would be worth growing just for the look of the flowers; the fragrance, very sweet and very heady make this bulb a must-grow. Not for everyone, though. A few people dislike this fragrance. For some people it’s more than just stinkiness, the aroma causing nausea, dizziness, or congestion.
Casablanca lily in the garden
Casa Blanca’s stems can rise to about four feet tall, their upper portions circled with almost a dozen of those large blossoms in various stages of ripening. Some years, staked, persimmon orange, Sungold tomatoes grow in that bed, and the tomato and lily plants looked very pretty mingling together. (Tomatoes were, after all, once grown as ornamentals.) 

This year I’m growing kale in that bed which, besides good eating, provides a frilly base from which the lily stems rise.

In Good Taste

Turning to another of the senses . . . taste. Blueberries. They are among my most successful fruits and, as usual, the plants’ stems are bowing to the ground under a heavy load of berries this time of year.
Blueberries galore
Not to brag, but the average yield of a blueberry bush is 3 to 5 quarts. My blueberry bible, Blueberry Culture (1966), states that “proper cultural practices can increase the yield to as much as 25 pints per bush.” I average about 18 pints per bush, with some bushes yielding as much as 24 pints. Organically grown, of course.

I credit my good yield to periodic additions of sulfur to maintain acidity of pH 4.0-5.5, timely watering with drip irrigation especially the plants’ first few years, topping up of existing wood chip, wood shavings, or leafy mulch each fall with an additional 3 inch depth of any organic, weed-free mulch, and pruning every spring. 
Bunch of blueberries
In year’s passed, I also added soybean meal for extra nitrogen to fuel stem growth. Blueberry flower buds develop along growing stems, with flowers open along those stems the following spring. More stem growth means more blueberries, to a point. For many years I have foregone soybean meal because the the plants were overly vigorous, creating a dense jungle that makes getting to the berries too difficult.

One other key to success and topnotch flavor is a net during the summer to fend off birds and — for best flavor — careful picking of only dead ripe fruits.

Water, Too Much or Too Little

So far, the growing season here in the Northeast has been one with both dry spells and wet spells, more than usual of each. Some recent thunderstorms fool many a gardener into thinking that the soil has been thoroughly wetted. But such rains are often only a drop in the bucket.

The only way to know for sure if enough rain has fallen for plants to really slurp up water is to check the soil or measure the actual amount of rainfall. A friend tells me he waters his plants every day. Every day! How much? It could be too much or too little, and probably is one or the other. I like to quantitate things so I measure rainfall or watering, as well as soil moisture, in a few different ways.

First, measuring water added to the soil: The ideal is about a 1 inch depth of water per week, which is equivalent to about a half a gallon per square foot of surface area. For hand watering a young tree, with an estimated root spread of only a couple of square feet, I fill the watering can with a gallon of water and sprinkle it on.
Rain gauge
Rainfall, or the water from a sprinkler, could be measured with a straight-sided container. I use a rain gauge whose tapered body can break down the measurement into tenths of an inch, readable from indoors.

Digital moisture probe.

Digital moisture probe.

I usually measure the actual moisture in the soil with a handy little meter attached to a probe that slides a half a foot down into the soil. As expected, the meter told me today that the soil is very wet. Not surprising after 3 inches of rainfall, as measure in the rain gauge, two nights ago. 

(There’s more about blueberries and water in my books Grow Fruit Naturally and The Ever Curious Gardener.)


All Good

I’ve never met a blueberry I didn’t like. Then again, I have yet to taste a rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium asheii), native to southeastern U.S. and highly acclaimed there. I also have yet to taste Cascades blueberry (V. deliciosum), native to the Pacific northwest. With “deliciosum” as its species name, how could it not taste great? And those are just two of the many species of blueberry that I’ve never tasted that are found throughout the world.

BLUEBERRY FRUITING BRANCHThe blueberries with which I am most familiar are those that I grow, which are highbush blueberry and lowbush blueberry. I grow blueberries because they are beautiful plants, because they are relatively pest free, because they are delicious, and because they fruit reliably for me year after year. 

I have to admit that highbush blueberries, at least to me, all taste pretty much the same. They have nowhere the broad flavor spectrum of apples. Tasting the same is fine with me; as I wrote, they are delicious. Depending on the variety, the berries do vary in ripening season, size, and other less obvious characteristics. One very important influence on flavor is how they are picked. Blueberries turn blue a few days before they are at their peak flavor, which is okay if you’re marketing them and just want them blue. But the best tasting tasting, dead-ripe ones are those that drop into your hand as you tickle a bunch of berries, which makes a good case for growing them near your back door.

Lowbush blueberries also taste pretty much the same from plant to plant, but their flavor is decidedly different from that of highbush blueberries, a more metallic sweetness. Few varieties of lowbush blueberry exist, so most plants are just random seedlings anyway. Not to disparage that, though; they’re also all delicious — if picked at the right moment.
Lowbush blueberry blooming

A Different Blueberry

My idea that all highbush blueberries taste pretty much the same was recently challenged. New highbush varieties have been bred or selected since this native fruit went, over the past 100 years, from being harvested from mostly from the wild to being mostly cultivated. Over the years I’ve been very pleased with the nine varieties I had been growing, spreading out the harvest season from late June until early September.

Then the new variety, Nocturne, bred by Dr. Mark Ehlenfeldt of the USDA, caught my eye. Besides being billed as having unique flavor, Nocturne was also said to be notable for its jet-black fruits which, before they turn jet black, are vivid red-orange in color. What attracted me wasn’t the fruit’s unique colors, but its allegedly unique flavor atypical, so the description read, of either rabbiteye [which is in Nocturne’s lineage] or highbush.”
Nocturne blueberry
So I called Mark to learn more about the variety. One of the original breeding goals back 25 years ago, when Nocturne’s carefully selected parents were mated, was to get a rabbiteye variety that, blooming later than most, would be less susceptible to spring frosts. Chemically, two significant differences between rabbiteye and highbush blueberries are their organic acids. Rabbiteyes have mostly malic and succinic acids, yielding a flatter taste profile than highbush fruits, whose citric acid makes for a brighter, sharper flavor. Other species were also thrown into the mix, including Constable’s blueberry (V. constablaei), a native of higher elevations in southeastern U.S., and contributing late blooming and excellent flavor.

Long story short: Nocturne is significant for being a variety with significant rabbiteye parentage that is winter hardy to well below zero degrees Fahrenheit and late blooming. It has excellent flavor, juicy sweet, and sprightly, and quite different from my other highbush varieties. Nocturne tastes even juicier than it is. Which do I like better? Neither, I like them all. Nocturne, now in its third year here on the farmden, now has a permanent place in my Blueberry Temple.

Blueberry Temple

Blueberry Temple

Learn the Ins and Outs of Growing Blueberries

If you have the space, grow blueberries. To that end, I will be holding a zoom workshop/webinar on growing blueberries on August 12, 2020 from 7-8:30 pm EST. I’ll cover everything from planting right through harvest and preservation. If you’re new to growing blueberries, you’ll learn how to grow this fruit successfully. If you already grow blueberries, you’ll be able to grow them better. If you’re an expert on growing blueberries, you don’t need this workshop/webinar. Registration ($35) is a must as space is limited; registration link is For more information, go to

Asparagus Redux

On a totally different topic, I’d like to followup on my end-of-harvest-season treatment of asparagus. Weeds have always been somewhat problematic in my asparagus bed. Harvest ceases at the end of June so plants can grow freely and feed energy to the roots which will fuel the following year’s spears in spring. Weeds quickly move into this hard-to-weed area.

As I wrote on this blog a few weeks ago, this past June, at the end of asparagus harvest season, I mowed everything, weeds as well as emerging asparagus spears, to the ground with my scythe. I then blanketed the ground with a thick mulch. I first laid down an inch depth of compost, which will feed the soil as well as smother roots, and then topped that with another inch or two of wood chips.

There was the danger of smothering the emergence of new asparagus shoots, but plenty have pushed up through the mulch.

As far as weeds, there are very few. Most of them appear at the grassy edge of the bed.

Mulched asparagus

Of Roses and Berries

Roses Come and Go

I once grew a beautiful, red rose known as Dark Lady. For all her beauty, she was borderline cold-hardy here. Many stems would die back to the graft, and the rootstock, which was cold-hardy, would send up long sprouts. Problem is that rootstocks are good for just that, their roots; their flowers, if allowed to develop, are nothing special.Dark Lady roseAfter a few years of watching the weakened plant recover each season, I made cuttings from some of the stems. The cuttings rooted and the new plants, rather than being grafted, were then growing on their own roots. Even a cold winter wouldn’t kill the roots, living in soil where temperatures are moderated. If the stems died back to ground level, new sprouts would still sport those dark, red blossoms.

I planted my new Dark Lady in a bed on the south side of my house. There, with the brick wall of the house adding a few extra degrees of warmth in winter and spring, Dark Lady might better survive winters coldest nights and get a jump on spring. What’s more, the roots had ample soil to explore rather than being restricted within the narrow, dry bed along my terrace where the mother plant had grown.

The new Dark Lady grew reasonably well in its new bed, but still not as well as I had hoped. Dark Lady is one of the many “English roses” bred by David Austin to have the blowsy look and fragrance of old-fashioned roses coupled with disease resistance and repeat blooming of contemporary roses.

Dark Lady eventually petered out. She’s been superseded by some newer creations from David Austin: L. D. Braithwaite and Golden Celebration are standouts as far a hardiness and beauty, and I expect the same of Dame Judi Dench and Lady of Shalott.

L D Braithwaite rose

L D Braithwaite rose

Global warming has, no doubt, also been a help.

No Sharing of My Highbush Blueberries

Pity the poor birds. My fat, juicy blueberries have been ripening and now there’s a net between them and them.Blueberries galorePutting up the net always brings the words of fruit breeder Dr. Elwyn Meader to mind. When I visited him back in the 1980s, the old New Englander, still active in his retirement and growing about an acre of blueberries, among other crops, recounted in his slow, New Hampshire accent, “It takes a patient man to net an acre of blueberries.” Covering my two plantings encompassing a total of about a thousand square feet always creates a little tension.Netting blueberriesI now feel like a captain setting sail on an old sailing vessel, with all the sails trim and masts set. Except rather than sails and masts, it’s a blueberry net that’s spread tightly over the permanent, 7-foot-high perimeter of locust posts and side walls of anti-bird, plastic mesh. That netting covers 16 bushes within a 25 foot by 25 foot area. Rebar through holes near the tops of the locust posts keeps that side wall mesh taught and 18” high chicken wire along the bottom keeps rabbits, which love to teethe on that plastic mesh, from doing so.Netted blueberriesDon’t worry about the birds. They get their fill of berries elsewhere. I don’t net my lowbush blueberries, nor my mulberries or gumis. Birds don’t usually share the mulberries or gumis with me. This year, for some reason, they are sharing.

Juneberry, a Blueberry Look-alike

Birds also have free access to a blueberry look-alike, juneberries, the plants of which are sometimes called serviceberry, shadbush, and, in the case of one species, saskatoon. The bushes are common in the wild and, because of their pretty flowers, fall color, and neat form, also planted in landscapes.

Juneberries are small, blue, and dead-ringers for blueberries but have a taste all their own: Sweet with the richness of sweet cherries, along with a hint of almond. The birds seem to enjoy them as much as they do blueberries.Juneberries, fruit in handJuneberries are related to apples and pears, not blueberries, and share some of their kin’s pest problems. Especially in my garden. They’re one fruit that didn’t grow well for me so, years ago, I finally dug the plants up.

Neither I nor birds need go far to find wild juneberries or bush or tree types planted for landscaping. They usually bear pretty well because of growing in microclimates more suitable than here on the farmden. In this low-lying valley, the air is too humid, cool, and conducive to disease.

With all the rain this spring, I’ve noticed that the crop on wild and cultivated juneberry plants has been hit hard by rust disease. I hear tell, though, that plants were bearing well at a nearby shopping mall: There, sunlight beating down on nearby concrete and, perhaps, less rust spores wafting about, create a microclimate conducive to good crops of berries.


Any gardening questions? Email them to me at and I’ll try answering them directly or in this column. Come visit my garden at


Bye, Bye Beetles

    So far, this growing season has been one of the most interesting ever. Could it be global warming? Perhaps. Perhaps it’s all a legacy from the relatively snowless winter with long periods of cold, but not frigid, temperatures. Perhaps it was spring’s two nights of plummeting temperature that followed a warm spell. Perhaps it was this summers extremes of dry and wet periods. Perhaps all that’s from global warming. Perhaps . . .
    All I know is that it’s all been pretty good. As I wrote previously, for the second year in a row, Japanese beetles made their entrance on time in June, and then, as if from stage fright, skittered away. Or never emerged from the soil. Or never hatched from eggs laid in the soil. Or the eggs never got laid last summer.
    For years, Mexican bean beetles would lay eggs on my bean plants, and those eggs would hatch into voracious larvae and then adults that would shred bean leaves. I was able to harvest enough beans for fresh eating and freezing only with succession planting of bush beans every couple of months.Mexican bean beetle
    For the past couple of years, only a few beetles show up here and there; nothing to worry about. So now an early sowing of bush beans provides the first plates of beans, and then passes the torch on to pole beans, which unlike bush beans, keep yielding till the end of the season. Bush beans peter out after a few pickings.
    (I did spray neem oil and the biological insecticide ‘Entrust’ a few years ago. Perhaps that broke the Mexican bean beetle cycle here. Perhaps it was the mere threat of a wall at the Mexican border . . . No, no, that can’t be it. Mexican bean beetles have established themselves north of the border for many generations, human and beetle. Throughout the country over many decades, this pest has waxed and waned in its severity, at times turning its taste to soybeans, sometimes to lima beans. My beetles never showed an appetite for my soybeans.)
    Two other pests that, I hope, can now be off my radar are scale insects on the greenhouse figs and flea beetles on the eggplants. That status comes with some effort on my part: weekly sprays, until recently, of “summer oil.” I expect to have to maintain those efforts every season. (Late update: I saw a few scale insects on the figs so did have to spray again.)

Skyrocketing Corn, De-Luscious Blueberries

    This season’s interests aren’t all about pests.
    Right now, corn stalks are as high — no, higher — than an elephant’s eye. (For journalistic accuracy, I looked up the height of an elephant’s eye. One report on the web, that fount of highly accurate information, reported the median height at 98 inches.) I just stepped away from my desk to measure the actual height of my corn, and it topped out at about 10 feet high. And that’s the variety Golden Bantam. I’ve grown it for many years, during which it always topped out at 6 or 7 feet.
    The first ears of this rich-tasting, old variety should be ready any day now. Will they also seem to be on steroids?Tall Golden Bantam corn
    No explanations for this corny behavior jump out. Year after year, the soil gets the same one-inch depth of compost, the 3-foot-wide corn bed is planted in two rows of hills, thinned to 3 stalks per hill, with each hill 2 feet apart in the row, and the bed is drip irrigated. Mislabeled seed can’t explain the phenomenon because this season’s popcorn (Dutch Buttered and Pearl) and polenta corn (Otto File) also have higher aspirations. Anyway, I’m not complaining.
    Apples never grow well here. This low lying valley is a sink for colder, moister air that, along with the backdrop of thousands of acres of forest, is a haven for apple pests. This season, with some spray assistance from me, the apple crop is relatively heavy and attractive. Apples, in those years when I do get a decent crop, are especially tasty here.Blueberry fruit cluster
    I have to tip my hat, once again, to blueberries, my favorite fruit and the most consistent performer among my many fruits. I have never not gotten a good crop of blueberries, come hell or high . . . 17 year cicadas, hurricane Irene, late frosts, etc. This season, canes are arching to the ground with a particularly heavy crop of berries.
    What will next year hold? An even better growing season?


The Kindest Cuts

    In years past, when I went outdoors this time of year, it was usually with skis strapped to my feet. Or wearing snow boots. Or snowshoes. With this snowless, warm winter, I’m mostly going outdoors these days armed with pruning shears, a lopper, and a pruning saw. Mostly, my feet trod a path to the hardy kiwifruit vines and the blueberry bushes.
    At first glance, the blueberries seem nothing more than a jumbled mass of stems of various ages. How to make order out of this jumble? Quicker to answer is why go to the trouble of making order out of this jumble. The same could be asked for my lilac bush, mockorange, hazelnuts, gooseberries, and currants.

Sammy & me, pruning blueberries

Sammy & me, pruning blueberries

    Then I remind myself that my goal is to reduce the crop — yes! reduce the potential crop — so that more of the each fruit or nut bush’s resources get channeled into fewer fruits or nuts so those that remain taste better. I also prune for future years’ harvests or, for flowering bushes, future years’ flowers. And I prune to let the stems of all bushes bathe in light and air, which reduces pest problems.
    Bushes are bushes because they are bushy, that is, they’re constantly growing new stems at or near ground level and never develop permanent trunks. (Except for daphne, fothergilla, witch hazel, PeeGee hydrangea, tree peony, and other plants of bushy stature with long-lived stems.) Blueberries and most other bushes, ornamental and fruiting, are pruned by a renewal method. As stems age, they grow decrepit, producing less flowers or fruits; pruning away these oldsters, right to the ground makes way for younger, replacement stems.

3 Steps, and Blueberries are Pruned

    My first cuts on any of my blueberry bushes are the most dramatic ones: I cut down a couple or so of the oldest stems using a lopper or pruning saw. Blueberry stems are typically worth keeping until they are about 7 years old, or about an inch in diameter. These most dramatic cuts also remove the tallest stems in one fell swoop, so the bushes never grow so tall that the berries are out of reach.
     The kind of shrub, the variety of shrub, and the previous season’s growing conditions all conspire to determine how many new stems, called suckers, grow from or near ground level. Often, it’s so many that as they mature, the bush becomes congested. So now I take pruning shears in hand, and reduce their numbers to, in the case of blueberry bushes, four or five.

Blueberry bush, before & after pruning

Blueberry bush, before & after pruning

The finished bush then — in theory — has about 4 six-year-old stems, 4 five-year-old stems, and so on, down to 4 one-year-old stems. By this time next year, each of those stems will have moved up a year in age. I’ll remove the 4 now seven-year-old stems and excess one-year-old stems, which are those that will have grown this season.
    Oh, one more step: I go over each bush with my pruning shears, removing small or dead twigs and shortening stems that are out of bounds. With 16 bushes cramped into 900 square feet, “out of bounds” is pretty close.

Early Cukes, One the Way

    As so often happens in late winter and early spring, and especially this year, weather is very variable. Today was sunny and, by winter standards, balmy — perfect for crawling in among the blueberry bushes to prune them. But no need to twiddle my thumbs on sunless days raw with cold. There are seeds to be sown.
    Some people spend the first part of summer hankering to bite into their first ripe tomato. Even more than tomato, I eagerly await my first fresh cucumbers and peppers. Like tomatoes, both get a head start indoors.Cucumber seedlings
    This year, after seeing the very early cucumber crop at Evolutionary Organics farm down the road from me, I thought I would give early cukes a try here at the farmden. On Kira, the farmer’s advice, I planted seeds a couple of weeks ago into potting soil in 4” plastic flower pots.
    Cucumbers revel in heat, both for seed germination and for growing. So, after being watered, the seeded pots went onto the greenhouse’s electrically heated seed mat that’ll keep the seeds at a cozy 80°F. Seedlings are up, their roots still still in pots and still being warmed by the heating mat.
    Within a couple of weeks, the cuke seedlings will start to outgrow their pots and need planting in the ground  — not outdoors, though, but in the greenhouse. As I wrote, I’m hankering for a very early harvest. I’ll take the soil temperature which, I hope, will stay steadily above 65°F by then.


Apples a Bust, Pears a Success, Gooseberries a Bust, etc.

Early autumn is a good time for me to find a sunny spot on the terrace with a comfortable chair, pluck a bunch of grapes from the arbor overhead, and ponder the fruits of this year’s labors. And I mean “fruits,” literally: what were my successes, what were my failures, and what do future seasons hold?

In good years, my apples are very, very good; Hudson's Golden Gem here.

In good years, my apples are very, very good; Hudson’s Golden Gem here.

To many people, to too many people, “fruit” means apples, the equivalence having deep roots since pomum is Latin for both apple and fruit. My apple crop this year, whether measured in pounds or number of fruits, is zero. Among my excuses are the wrong rootstock for the site, trees still recovering from last year’s onslaught of 17-year cicada egg-laying, apples’ pest problems making them among the most difficult fruits to grow east of the Rocky Mountains, and my low-lying valley location and surrounding forests further exacerbating pest problems.

Still, the rich flavor of the apples — when I do get some — keeps me trying. Next year I’m replanting with five new trees: Hudson’s Golden Gem, Macoun, Ashmead’s Kernel, Pitmaston Pineapple, and Liberty, all on Geneva 30 rootstocks. This year, I welcomed the time not needed in caring for the trees.

Pears did surprisingly well considering the extensive cicada damage they also endured. But pears always do well, especially the Asian pears. The challenge with European pears is ripening them to perfection. They need to be picked before they are ripe, chilled for a couple of weeks if they are an early maturing variety, then ripened in a cool room. As soon as the first fruits drop, I keep an eye out for a slight change in skin color for those fruits still hanging from branches, then take them if they separate with an easy snap when lifted and twisted from the branch.

Despite being relatively easy to grow, pears are underappreciated as  garden fruit — these days, at least. One-hundred and fifty years ago, you might have perused 70 varieties in a nursery catalog; a hundred years ago, perhaps 30 varieties; in today’s catalogs, I count a dozen or so varieties. Not all my two dozen or so varieties are bearing yet. So far, the best of the lot are the buttery sweet Magness and spicy Seckel.

And More Failures

But let me get back to my failures; get them out of the way. Hardy kiwifruits, both Actinidia arguta and A. kolomikta had uncharacteristically light crops. The same goes for pawpaws, whose branches have, except for this fall, every year been weighted down with a heavy load of fruit, some branches even breaking. It’s most convenient to point my finger at the weather, the winter cold, for barren kiwi vines and pawpaw trees. Not that it was as cold as many past winters, but it did stay cold for longer periods.

The gooseberry crop looked very promising until late June, which is when my chickens discovered them (or remembered where they were). Gooseberries are usually very reliable so I’m optimistic about the future of eating berries from the two dozen or so dessert varieties I grow. I downsized my flock from seven to three chickens (and added two ducks), and plan to erect temporary fencing during the few weeks that the berries ripen in future years.

Big crops presented themselves, as usual, on various mulberry varieties and gumi. Birds swooped in to gobble them up. Last year, with all the cicadas to feed on, birds ignored both these fruits. Geraldi Dwarf mulberry grows only a few feet high so I’ll throw a net over it next year and let birds enjoy the other mulberry varieties, if they so choose.

The Very Sweet Taste of Success(es)

Enough talk about failures. On to successes . . . blueberries, my favorite and most reliable fruit, bore in abundance, as always. Sixteen bushes; about 150 quarts. Mmmmm.

Bagged grapes next to a bunch of grapes that weren't bagged

Bagged grapes next to a bunch of grapes that weren’t bagged

Rain earlier in the season threatened grapes with disease. I enclosed about 75 bunches in white bakery bags, stapled shut, to fend off bees and wasps, diseases, and birds. The crop was in such abundance that harvest has been aplenty even from unbagged bunches. Actually, too “aplenty” from the variety Swenson’s Red, causing individual berries in bunches to ripen unevenly. Next year, I’ll prune more severely, sacrificing total yield while increasing quality and even ripening of fruits that remain.

Once unbagged grapes of a given variety have been harvested and eaten, we move on to the bagged grapes of that variety. Peeling back the white paper has generally revealed bunches that look perfect and taste delectable. Particularly tasty this year have been Glenora Seedless, Somerset Seedless, Mars, Swenson’s White, and Brianna.

Szukis American persimmon ripe on branches

Szukis American persimmon ripe on branches

And finally, another of my no-fail, no-spray, no-prune fruits: American persimmon, specifically the varieties Mohler and Szukis. Mohler has been ripening for about a month, dropping a dozen or so fruits daily, which I pick up from the ground.  My ducks are especially fond of these fruits, and waddle, staring longingly within, around the outside perimeter of the low, temporary fence that keeps them at bay. (They do get to eat fruits that drop beyond the fence.)

Frustrated ducks admiring my persimmons.

Frustrated ducks admiring my persimmons.

The soft fruits taste like dried apricots that have been plumped in water, dipped in honey, and given a dash of spice. Mohler and Szukis are almost totally lacking in the puckery astringency common to many American persimmons. To remove any last traces of astringency, I subject fruits to a treatment used in Japan with Asian persimmons: alcohol. Freshly harvest fruits go into a bowl with a tablespoon of rye (locally made Coppersea Raw Rye), covered, for a day. The alcohol finishes ripening the fruits, keeps fruit flies at bay, and adds a nice punch to the flavor.

Grow Fruit, Many Kinds!

Too many people shy away from growing fruits because they are perceived as too difficult to grow. They can be; or not. Success comes from choosing the right fruits to grow, looking beyond apples, peaches, cherries, and the other usual fare. Success also comes from growing a wide variety fruits. (All this is covered in my newest book, Grow Fruit Naturally.) This year’s apple and gooseberry failures are hardly noticed with the abundance of blueberries, persimmons, and pears. And did I mention European black currants, red currants, and strawberries?

Mulchercising with a Cat

I’m getting a lot of mulchercise here at the farmden these days. It’s good for me and good for the ground and, in turn, my plants.
Four piles of materials await me: a pile each of new and old wood chips, and a pile each of new and old leaves. The new pile of leaves is going to sit out this year’s mulchercise sessions. After a winter of settling and some decomposition, that pile will be just right for being planted with squash and melon plants. The lanky vines can run wild over the pile through summer and then, next year at this time, I’ll spread the much-reduced pile.
Last year’s leaf pile, from which I harvested this year’s squashes and melons, is part of my present mulchercise. The now dark brown material is getting hauled over to and spread beneath currant bushes, over the asparagus and flower beds, and on ground that will be home, next spring, to a new bed of Fallgold raspberries.
On to the wood chips . . . the old pile? That’ll go beneath various trees.
It’s amazing how simply spreading organic materials on top of the ground can bring so many benefits. Physically, that fluffy layer cushions the impact of raindrops so that moisture can percolate slowly into the

Me on the “abs & bicep” machine

ground rather than pound the surface, sealing it, and running off to make gullies. Mulch also insulates the ground, modulating swings in temperature to keep roots and other soil denizens happier. Next summer, the mulch will slow evaporation of water from the soil.

Biologically, mulch is food fungi, bacteria, and other soil organisms, the lion’s share of which are beneficial. As the leaves and wood chips go through cycles of being digested and excreted, what’s eventually left is humus, a witch’s brew of beneficial, organic compounds, which, in turn, is tied to nutritional benefits to plants. During decomposition, nutrients gathered up into leaves and wood are released into the soil, for plant use. Organic acids released during decomposition further nourish plants by dissolving additional nutrients from the rock matrix in which the soil was formed. And finally, organic chelates in humus grab onto some nutrients to render them more readily accessible to roots.
I didn’t forget to mention my new wood chip pile; that mulch is getting carted over to blueberry heaven, heaven for the blueberries, that is. (Also for me, during summer’s harvest.)
Each autumn, right after blueberry’s leaves drop, I spread 10 to 20 pounds of soybean meal over the thousand square feet of planted area, then top it with a fresh layer of wood chips (this year) or leaves or
George is company, but not much help

wood shavings. Some years I also spread sulfur pellets over the ground to maintain the soil acidity that blueberry plants require. Not that often, though, because another benefit of an organic mulch is that it buffers changes in soil acidity, offering plenty of wiggle room in what range keeps the plants happy. The mulch also buries any berries infected with “mummy berry” disease, a problem I never have because the mulch layer prevents any spores that might be present from wafting upward to re-infect berries next year.

Blueberry bushes have shallow root systems, most roots descending less than a foot deep, with no root hairs. Thirty years with 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch laid atop the ground has created a soft, moist, heavenly environment for blueberry roots.
I can just picture some readers “raising their hands” to point out that adding fresh, low nitrogen, organic materials to the soil results in nitrogen starvation of the plants. This science-y, oft repeated (and printed) myth needs debunking.
Soil bacteria and fungi need to eat both nitrogen and carbon. Wood chips and leaves are high in carbon

Me on the  “quads and aerobic machine”

but low in nitrogen, so these microorganisms grab at any other nitrogen in the ground to eat along with their fresh chips or leaves. Bacteria and fungi are better at garnering soil nitrogen than are plants, so plants are starved for nitrogen. Only temporarily, though, until some of the digested carbon is given off as carbon dioxide and what’s left are the higher nitrogen dead remains and excreta of bacteria and fungi.

When fresh chips or leaves are used as mulch, decomposition proceeds very slowly at the interface of soil and mulch. So slowly that nitrogen is re-released into the ground at about the rate it’s being tied up. Digging chips or leaves into the soil will definitely cause a temporary tie-up of nitrogen; mulching with these materials will not.
So here at the Springtown Farmden Health Spa, I am mulchercising away. I start at the “abs and bicep machine,” rolling what looks like a garden cart

Me on the “rotary torso machine”

over to the mulch pile and then using what looks like a pitchfork to load leaves or chips onto the cart. Then it’s on to the “quads and aerobic machine,” whence I pull what looks like a cart full of leaves or chips over to some plants in need of mulch. Next, it’s the “rotary torso machine,” which looks like I’m scooping leaves or chips from the cart, twisting around, and then dumping it beneath a plant. Finally, back to the “abs and bicep machine,” for another rep. I should be able to get a dozen or so reps in before the mulch freezes solid for the winter.

Blueberries & Cicadas, Mmmmm

“It takes a patient man to net an acre of blueberries.” The New England accent added weight to the declaration, as did the gentleman’s 80-something year old frame standing ramrod-straight and adorned with checkered jacket, a cap, and chinstrap beard. That was 30 years ago, and I was standing in the New Hampshire garden of Elwyn Meader, looking across the field at his acre of blueberries. Elwyn was a plant

breeder extraordinaire, then retired, who had developed new varieties of such plants as persimmons, chestnuts, lilacs, cucumbers, soybeans, watermelons, and everbearing strawberries. The honey-sweet Fallgold raspberry, my favorite, was Elwyn’s handiwork, incorporating genes from Korean raspberries he found while working there for the U. S. Army. 

Now, many years later, I think of Elwyn’s words as Deb and I rush to net our small plot, two-hundredths of an acre, of blueberries. (Not so small, though, to obviate a very respectable harvest of about 190 quarts of delectable, organic, sustainable, artisanal berries from 16 plants!) I append Elwyn’s words with “Covering two-hundredths of an acre of blueberries is a test of a marriage.” Nets can sag; tempers can thin; ladders can become unwieldy.
We survived. My latest incarnation of blueberry protection against birds starts with an enclosure of locust posts about 8 feet apart, with rebar running through holes a few inches from their tops. The sides, as my friend Bill calls it, my “Blueberry Temple,” are enclosed permanently in heavy duty, plastic bird netting ( Eighteen-inch-high chicken wire at the bottom keeps rabbits from chewing through the plastic. 
Now for the seasonal net, the one that tests our marriage and covers the planting while berries are

ripening, from late June until September. This net is of woven nylon, so is sturdy and drapes well (available from such sources as,, We spread the rolled up net on the ground near the entrance to the planting, then, each of us climbing a ladder at either side, lifts the roll up across the top, with either end of the roll resting on opposite sides of the rebar. Letting the free end drape a little over the entrance side, we each use a binder clip to fix the beginning of the roll near the entrance side. From then on, it’s a matter of unrolling the netting over the top, clipping and moving ladders as we go and — this is the part

that can get testy — making sure to keep the net even on both sides and sufficiently taught.

This year, the net was up in less than a half-hour, the blueberries were safe from birds, and the marriage was still intact.
Pruning tomatoes is such a pleasant garden “chore.” As I look over each plant for suckers — any shoot that originates at the upper part of juncture between a leaf and main stem — I get to monitor the swelling fruits, do a health check on the leaves and stems, and admire the plants’ neat growth habit. The latter comes from my weekly pruning off of the suckers followed by tying of the main stems to adjacent bamboo poles.
I can appreciate disorder in the garden but I also appreciate order. Disorder lends a pleasant, loosey-goosey atmosphere to the landscape. I find order more calming and an easier environment in which to satisfy the needs of each plant. For the tomatoes, pruning and staking them — which surely puts them in order — also gives greater yields (per square foot of garden space), and fruits that are cleaner and a bit earlier.
All this orderliness crumbles as August fades into September. By then, errant suckers get the best of me and the ever-elongating main stems reach the tops of their bamboo supports. Then where can they go? Sideways? Down? To an adjacent pole? No matter. By then, the end of tomato season is in sight and the plants pretty much do what they will as long as they keep pumping out juicy, red orbs.
The novelty of cicadas has worn thin. Their electronic cacophony whines in various pitches throughout the day without a moment’s respite. If you saw me walking past any one of my many infested trees or shrubs, you might see my arms flailing about to keep airborne ones at bay.
Thankfully, cicadas aren’t feeding on any plants. But their egg laying, beneath slits they make in bark, can cause damage. Young stems dying back do little damage to established trees and shrubs (gratuitous summer pruning of shoots?), but can kill young plants.
Here, the cicadas favor the lilac bush and pear trees and, to a lesser extent, the apple trees. I’ve gotten pretty good at snatching them by their wings. My chickens are very fond of the fresh, less so the frozen, catch of the day. This hand to hand combat feels good but makes but a small dent in the population.
The other afternoon I could no longer stand the sight of so many cicadas clustered on the trunks of my 8-year-old pear trees. I needed a bulk method, so ran indoors to grab a dust broom. The dust broom was quite effective, sending cicadas flying everywhere. And then back onto the trunks.
My last resort was to get out my sprayer and coat the trees and any resident cicadas with ‘Surround’, a commercially available,

organically approved pesticide made from kaolin clay. The coating makes for unpleasant footing and egg-laying for a variety of insects, and it clogs their spiracles.

The ‘Surround’, which I applied only to the apples and pears, had but little effect on the cicadas. Cicadas on plants became statuesque; a few fewer flew back on, for awhile. Of course, the incessant cacophony emanating from the woods continued. Only a couple of weeks or so to go, and then a 17 year hiatus.