Sad, Then Happy

A sad day here on the farmden: the end of blueberry season. Frozen blueberries, that is. Seventy quarts went into the freezer last summer, and a lot more than that into bellies, and now they’re all finished.

A happy day here on the farmden: the first of this season’s blueberries are ripening. These blueberries, and those that were in the freezer, are the large “highbush” (Vaccinium corymbosum) varieties commonly found fresh on market shelves. Also ripening now are “lowbush” (V. angustifolium) blueberries, growing as a decorative, edible ground cover on the east-facing slope near my home.
Blueberries ripening
I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. After many, many years of growing fruits in my not-particularly-good-for-fruit-growing site, blueberries — a native fruit — have always yielded well. Two most important things are adapting the soil to blueberries’ unique requirements, and keeping birds at bay. Birds at bay? Best is a walk-in, netted area.
Blueberry, netted
Soil for blueberries needs to be very acidic, with a pH between 4 and 5.5, made so, if needed, with the addition of sulfur, a naturally mined mineral. The pelletized form is best because it’s not dusty. Blueberry roots need good drainage and consistent moisture. They thrive in ground rich in organic matter, maintained with an annual three-inch topping of some weed-free, organic material such as wood shavings, wood chips, straw, pine needles, and autumn leaves.

(That’s the bare bones for success with blueberries. For a deeper dive into growing this healthful, delicious, reliable fruit, stay tuned for my soon-to-be-aired blueberry webinar.)

And More Berry-Like Fruits Coming Along

Just as last year’s apples were losing their crispness and tang and I needed a change from oranges, other berries, in addition to blueberries have started changing color, softening, and turning flavorful.

Black currants are another one of my favorites now ripening. They admittedly have an intense flavor not to everyone’s liking. But everyone likes black currants conjured up into juices, pastries, or jam. Variety matters. My favorites are Belaruskaja, Minaj Smyrev, and Titania. 
Belaruskaja black currants
Don’t think black currants taste anything like “dried” or “Zante” currants. Those are raisins, originally made from “Black Corinth” grapes, a name then bastardized to “black currant.”

Like blueberries, black currants are easy to grow. But they have no special soil requirements, they fruit well even in some shade, and deer rarely eat the bushes, and birds rarely eat the berries.

Another tasty morsel now ripe is gumi (Elaeagnus multiflora). Birds usually strip this shrub clean of fruit, except this year the crop is so abundant that neither I nor the birds can make much of a dent in it. The berries are a little astringent if not dead ripe. And not at all if the fruit is processed; last year I cooked them slightly, strained out the seeds (which are edible), and blended it before drying it into a “leather.”
Gumi fruit
The gumi shrub itself has silver leaves, providing an attractive backdrop for the red fruits. The flowers are extremely fragrant, and the roots enrich the soil by taking nitrogen from the air (with the help of an actinomycete microorganism.)

Also now abundant, with plenty for all, is Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa), a favorite of mine for beauty and easy-to-grow cherries. The cherries are small, usually no larger than about 3/8 inch. But the single pit is also small. Flavor lies somewhere on the spectrum between sweet and sour cherries, very refreshing especially when chilled.

Nanking cherry fruit and bloom

Nanking cherry fruit and bloom

Another Chance, and Then Another

All is not rosy in the berry-size fruit world. Over the years, I had heard about and tried a new fruit in town, edible honeysuckles. In the past, the plants I tried either died over winter or bore very few, very mediocre berries. Since then, edible honeysuckles have come up in the world, with serious breeding work, and I was given the opportunity to try them again. (As Maria Schinz said, “Gardening is an exercise in optimism.”)

But first, what is an edible honeysuckle, which now goes under better names. If called “honeyberry,” it usually refers to Russian species such as Lonicera caerulea app. kamtshatica or edulis. Haskap is a Japanese name applied the Japanese species L. caerulea spp. emphylocalyx, or to hybrids of this species with Russian species. Pure Japanese species varieties are sometimes called Yezberry, after the Island of Hokkaido, called Yez or Yezo Island where they are found. The Japanese species and hybrids are less susceptible to spring frosts than the honeyberries.

This spring I planted out two Yezberry varieties, Solo and Sugar Mountain Blue. The small, blue berries ripen early, and I was eager to give this fruit another try. Solo is bearing. The taste? Awful! Sour, with no other flavor.

Solo yezberry

Solo yezberry

But I’m not abandoning edible honeysuckles. I’ve learned that the berries need to hang on the branches for a long time before developing full flavor and sweetness. A number of varieties are available, some of which are, according to others, “Delicious when eaten fresh from the plant” and “a bit like a cross between a raspberry and a blueberry. . . sweetness of a raspberry with a hint of pleasant tartness.” Really?!

Many blue berries are still hanging on my Solo bush. I’ll leave them to hang longer there and perhaps morph from “awful” to “delicious,” and will report back. I have hope for this new fruit, not yet high hopes.

At the very least, honeyberries or haskaps might be able to tide me over from the end of frozen blueberries to the first of fresh blueberries.

Some You Win, Some You Lose. Why?

Mo’ Better Berries

Because I’ve grown a number of varieties of blueberries for a long time, I’m often asked what variety I would recommend planting. Or whether you need to plant two varieties for cross-pollination in order to get fruit.

The answers to both questions are intertwined. First of all, blueberries are partially self-fertile so one variety will bear fruit all by itself.
Large blueberries
But — and this is important — berries will be both more plentiful and larger if two different varieties cross-pollinate each other. (Apples, in contrast, are self-sterile so, with few exceptions, won’t bear any fruit at all without cross-pollination.)

Benefits of cross-pollination aside, why plant just one variety of blueberry? Different varieties ripen their fruits at different times during the blueberry harvest season. With a good selection of varieties, that season can be very long.

Here on the farmden, the season opens with Duke and Earliblue, both usually ready for picking (in Zone 5) at the end of June. The season moves on, with Blueray, Berkeley, and Bluecrop ripening in July, and Jersey, Toro, and Nelson in August.Blueberries galore As I write, in September, the variety Elliot is still bearing ripe berries.

So if you’re going to plant blueberries, which I highly recommend doing, plant more than one variety, and choose the varieties that let you enjoy berries with your morning cereal or your after dinner ice cream over a long season.

Soil Matters

I pay special attention to the soil when I plant blueberries, and it pays off. Blueberries have rather unique soil requirements among cultivated plants, demanding those that are very acidic, high in organic matter, low in nutrients, and consistently moist and well-aerated. (Most cultivated plants like soils that are only slightly acidic and have moderate to high fertility.) No matter if a soil is not naturally to blueberry’s liking; it can be made so.

The soil where I planted my blueberries drains well. If it did not, I would either choose a better location or else create mounds on which to plant.

Next in importance is soil acidity; I test it before planting. If it’s not at the required pH of 4 to 5.5, I spread pelletized sulfur, a naturally mined mineral, over the ground. (Pelletizing the sulfur makes it less dusty to work with.) Mulched blueberry planting
The amount of sulfur, per 100 square feet, needed to lower the pH by one unit would be a pound in a sandy soil and three pounds in a clay soil. My clay loam’s initial pH was about 6.5, so I needed 3 pounds of sulfur per hundred square feet to lower that pH to 5.5, that upper limit enjoyed by blueberries.

Now, for planting. I mix a bucketful of peat moss with the soil in each planting hole and then tuck the plants and soil into the hole, setting the plants slightly deeper than they stood in the nursery. Peat moss is a long-lasting source of organic matter, unique among organic matters in also being low in nutrients.

Right after planting, I spread a 2 to 3 inch depth of some weed-free, fluffy organic material, such as wood shavings, wood chips, straw, pine needles, or autumn leaves, as mulch. The mulch snuffs out weeds, which are more adept than blueberry at soaking up water and nutrients, and keeps the soil cool and moist, just as it is in blueberry’s natural habitats.

With regular watering, as needed, pruning, and annual mulching and attention to soil acidity, blueberry leaves should maintain a healthy, green color, and stems should grow a couple of feet or so each year. My planting of 16 plants yields almost 200 quarts per year of delicious, organic blueberries.

Celeriac Failure, Again

Blueberries have been a great success; now for a failure. Celeriac, a celery relative that puts that flavor  into its softball-sized, white root, isn’t well-known as a vegetable, but I’d like to grow it. I’ve tried, for the past couple of years, without success. The problem is some sort of celery blight that kills the top growth so there’s no greenery to feed the root.

Both early blight and late blight, fungal diseases, could cause problems. They arrived in gardens on infected celery seed and/or infected celery debris from the previous cropping season. Celery bacterial blightLast fall I thoroughly cleaned up diseased plants, even planted some celeriac this year in the greenhouse. Failure occurred both outdoors and in the greenhouse, although lots of rain and heat could have helped (the fungi or bacteria, not me).

I’m not giving up. Perhaps the seed is the problem. Seed can harbor the disease, but can be “cleaned” up with a heat treatment: 30 minutes at 118°F. As a last resort, I could spray an organic fungicide such as one of the organically approved materials based on copper or hydrogen peroxide. Perhaps this time next year I’ll be eating celeriac.

Doing Good with Saw and Lopper

Fruitful Pruning

To begin, I gave the bush in front of me a once over, eyeing it from top to bottom and assuring it that the next few minutes would be all to its good. It was time for my blueberries’ annual pruning, the goals of which were to keep them youthful (the stems, at least), fecund, and healthy.

Blueberries galore

Blueberries galore

I peered in at the base of the plant, eyeing now the thickest stems. Blueberry bushes bear best on stems up to 6 years old, so the next move was to lop or saw any of these stems — usually only 3 or 4 of them, more on a neglected plant — as low as possible.

Sammy & me, pruning blueberries

Sammy & me, pruning blueberries

To keep track of the ages of individual stems, I mark off the age of them each year with a Sharpie. Just kidding! The thickest ones are the oldest ones, and 6-year-old stems are generally an inch or more in diameter on healthy bushes.

Removing those stems that are over the hill frees up space for younger stems to develop. Each year blueberry bushes send up new sprouts from ground level, usually a few too many of them. They need to be thinned out so they don’t crowd each other as they age. I leave a half dozen or so of the most vigorous new sprouts, lopping all others to the ground.

That’s pretty much all there is to pruning a blueberry bush. With the very oldest and some of the very youngest stems cut to the ground, the bulk of pruning the bush is finished.

Blueberry bush, before & after pruning

Blueberry bush, before & after pruning

  I’ll also snip off any dead stems, remove a branch here and there where they are congested, and shorten any stems that will arch to the ground when laden with fruit.

That’s it. Finished, except to step back and admire my handiwork.

And Now, For Other Shrubs

The same pruning done on blueberry could, in essence, be applied to lilac,Lilac in flower forsythia, mockorange, hydrangea, and any other informal shrub. This technique is known as rejuvenation pruning because, over time, the above ground portion of the shrub is annually rejuvenated. In the case of blueberry, the roots live unfettered year after year but the bush never sports stems more than 6 years old. A perennially youthful blueberry bush can go on like this, bearing well, for decades like this.

Not all shrubs perform best on stems up to 6 years old. Some, such as kerria, snowberry, rambling roses, and summer-bearing raspberries perform best on 1-year-old stems. So every year those 1-year-old stems are lopped to the ground and the youngest stems are thinned out.

Some shrubs, such as butterfly bush, everbearing raspberries, and red twigged dogwood, perform best on new stems. In this case, the whole plant gets lopped to ground level each year. (Everbearing raspberries actually bear on both new stems and on 1-year-old stems, so could be pruned as in the previous paragraph. That takes more time but does yield a midsummer crop on the 1-year-old stems and a late summer and fall crop on the new stems.)

At the other end of the spectrum in shrub pruning are witch hazel, tree peonyTree peony blossoms, rose-of-sharon, climbing roses, and flowering quince. These shrubs are among those that perform well year after year on the same old, and always growing older, stems. They also grow few or no suckers each year. The upshot is that thesis shrubs are the easiest to prune: Don’t.

I detail the ages of stems that are “keepers” for every shrub, plus other details in pruning all kinds of plants, in my book The Pruning Book.

Getting Formal

All this pruning refers to informal shrubs. For formal shrubs, such as the privet hedge near one edge of my yard, I put aside the lopper, pruning shears, and pruning saw, and get out the hedge trimmer. Shearing all the youngest twigs, working, this time, higher in the bushes rather than down near ground level, elicits repeated branching which results in dense growth.

To keep this formal hedge clothed from head to toe in leaves, I keep the row of plants narrower towards their upper portions. This lets sunlight beam down on the shrubs from top to bottom.

Some Fruits and a Ornamental Veggie

Happy Blueberries, Happy Me

My sixteen blueberry plants make me happy, so I make them happy. (They made me happy this year to the tune of 190 quarts of berries, half of which are in the freezer.) I don’t know how much work bearing all those berries was for them, but I just finished my annual fall ritual of lugging bag upon bag of leaves over to the berry patch to spread beneath the whole 750 square foot planted area.Blueberry fruit cluster

I don’t begin this ritual spreading until the blueberries’ leaves drop. Then, old leaves and dried up, old fruits are on the ground and get buried beneath the mulch, preventing any disease spores lurking in these fallen leaves or fruits from lofting back up into the plants next spring. Rainy, overcast summers or hot, dry summers or any weather in between — my bushes have never had any disease problems.

In past years, I did do two things before spreading that mulch. First, I spread some nitrogen fertilizer: my universal pabulum, soybean meal, at the rate of 2 pounds per hundred square feet. And second, I spread some sulfur, at about the same rate, to keep the soil acidic. After many years of mulching, the soil has built up an ample reserve of organic nitrogen — evidenced by the plants’ 2 to 4 feet of new stem growth each year. So I no longer add extra nitrogen.

With all those years of mulching, levels of decomposed and decomposing soil organic matter have greatly increased the soil’s buffering capacity for acidity. That means that I no longer have to pay such close attention to acidity, so I rarely add sulfur anymore.

Sammy also likes the mulch

Sammy also likes the mulch

Besides all these other benefit, the mulch has created a soft root run that retains moisture, just what blueberries’ thin roots really like. Fruit is borne on shoots that grew the previous season, so each year’s vigorous new growth translates into a good crop in the offing for the next year.

New York Bananas

Although the crop seemed paltry at first this year, by the time autumn came around, pawpaws were in abundance. This uncommon fruit is the northernmost member of the tropical custard apple family, and the fruit does indeed taste very tropical — a flavor mix of banana, mango, avocado, and vanilla custard — even though it’s easy to grow and native throughout much of the eastern U.S..Pawpaw, like crème brûlée

Two trees would be adequate for most households; I have about 20, just so I can learn more about them and their individual differences. That makes for a lot of pawpaws! (I test market most of them.)Row of pawpaw & black currant

Pawpaw fruits are very variable in both size and flavor even among the branches of a single tree. One year, I tried thinning the fruits to see if that would increase size of remaining fruits, as it does with apples and peaches. Pawpaw has a multiple ovary so each blossom can give rise to as many as 9 fruits. The small fruits are hard to see because they match so closely the green color of the leaves, so I didn’t thin as many as I had hoped. That said, at season’s end, fruits on thinned clusters seemed no larger than fruits on unthinned clusters.

Beginning around the middle of September, I began harvesting the first fruits. I picked some up from the ground and picked some softening ones from the trees, all of which continued through October. By putting them immediately in a cooler at 40°F, I still had good fruit into the middle of November.

Scarlet Runners

Every year I fear that at season’s end I’ll remember something I forgot to plant. This year it was scarlet runner beans.Scarlet runner bean flower

Despite the “bean” in the name, I’ve grown this vining bean, as do most people, primarily as an ornamental, for its scarlet blossoms. I occasionally eat the fat, hairy, yet delectable green beans.

Every year I collect some of the matured black and pale purple, calico seeds for replanting the following year. One year, I decided to cook up some of these seeds and taste them. Scarlet runner bean seeds are quite tasty (and, I learned prior to eating, nonpoisonous). Scarlet runner beans
Next year I’ll remember the scarlet runners. My yard will be aflame in scarlet flowers and, because the plant is pest-free  —  even to Mexican bean beetles — I expect to reap a bumper crop of beans.


Out With The Old, In With The New

“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did,” wrote a Dr. Boteler about the strawberry (as quoted in Izaak Walton’s 17th century classic The Compleat Angler). I disagree. I also don’t like to crawl for my fruit. With that said, I’ll agree that strawberries do taste very good, more so for being, usually, the first fruits of the season.

I just took a look at my strawberry bed; weeds are making inroads and the plants look pretty puny. Dispatching the weeds is no problem. As far as the puny plants, it was to be expected. Although strawberries are perennial plants, over time they pick up diseases, including some virus diseases lacking dramatic symptoms except that they reduce productivity. So a strawberry bed should be replanted — at a new location — every 5 years. My garden notes tell me my strawberry bed is 8 years old.

My strawberry bed in its prime

My strawberry bed in its prime

Strawberries send out shoots, called runners, at the ends of which develop new plants which, in turn, send out runners that also develop new plants, ad infinitum. So an untended bed can become very weedy, with strawberries. Even a well-tended bed sneaks in a few extra plants here and there. None of these plants should be used to start a new strawberry bed! Viruses are systemic, so all these new plants will also carry any virus infection.

I’ll be ordering my new strawberry plants from a nursery that sells certified disease and virus free strawberry plants. Then, at least, the plants start off “clean.”

The Best Berry Of All

If I had authored that quote by Dr. Boteler, I would have applied it to highbush blueberries. Not only are they, in my opinion, the best tasting berry, but the plants are truly perennial, remaining productive for 50 years or more. And I can harvest them standing up.Bunch of blueberries

No one is sure just how long a blueberry bush will thrive because they haven’t been cultivated for very long. It was only about a hundred years ago that Dr. Frank Coville of the USDA started studying blueberries in an effort to learn how to grow them. Previous to that, harvests were from wild plants. Even 50 years ago, fresh blueberries rarely appeared on grocer’s shelves.

Of Strawberries And Intrigue

Strawberries, also, have come into cultivation relatively recently, in this case over the past 200 years. Garden strawberries, that is, which owe their origin to a chance mating of two American species of strawberry in a garden in France.

One parent of the modern garden strawberry is the Virginia strawberry of eastern North America. Plants of this tasty, small-fruited species were brought over to Europe and planted in gardens there as early as the 17th century.

Intrigue enters the story in the arrival of the other parent of the modern, garden strawberry, the Chilean strawberry, to Europe. Moving the clock forward to the beginning of the 18th century, we find the French King Louis XIV needing a spy to observe Spanish fortifications in Concepcion, Chile. For this task, he chooses Amédée Francois Frezier, a young lieutenant colonel who had already distinguished himself with an aptitude for foreign languages and science. Amédée set sail on an armed merchant marine ship in 1712.

Upon his arrival in Concepcion, Chile, Amédée posed as a merchant marine captain, which enabled him to visit Spanish fortifications as a tourist. Secretly, he kept notes and made sketches of ammunition stores and escape routes. Besides military reports, Amédée also wrote about the indigenous peoples, the physical geography, and agriculture of the region. One of the plants that caught the lieutenant colonel’s fancy was the Chilean strawberry, which bore fruits larger than those that were known in Europe. Amédée included descriptions and sketches of the Chilean strawberry in his notes, and when it finally came time to leave Chile in 1714, he packed up five plants to smuggle back for his return voyage.

The marriage of the two species finally took place in a strawberry field near Brest, France as a bee carried pollen from the flower of a Virginia strawberry to the female flower of a Chilean strawberry. A seed from the fruit that developed germinated and grew into a plant that was the first modern, hybrid strawberry, combining the large size of one with the high flavor and intense red color of the other.

Better Strawberries

Since Dr. Boteler and Izaak Walton were writing in the 17th century, that “better berry” to which they referred could not have been the modern, garden strawberry. But other species were enjoyed before the modern species came into being: the alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca), and the musk strawberry (Fragaria moschata). Both species yield delectable, though small, fruits, and are still available today. I’ve grown both.

Musk strawberry

Musk strawberry

Musk strawberry might be the best tasting of all, but yielded very little for me.White alpine strawberries

I’ve grown, and still grow, alpine strawberries, white ones that have a pineapple-y flavor and are ignored, because of their lack of color, by birds. The plants are cold-hardy, don’t make runners, and bear all season long. The fruits are a nice, little treat, but not ones with which you’d fill your freezer. For that, the one to plant is  some variety of the modern, garden strawberry. I’ll be ordering plants of Earliglow.


Soil is Key

    Last week I described my foray into the New Jersey Pine Barrens, culminating in a visit to the USDA research station there to experience many new, interesting, and tasty varieties of blueberry. The soils of the Pine Barrens, as I wrote provide ideal conditions for the rather specific and unique requirements of this fruit.
    That’s not to say that blueberries can’t be grown successfully beyond the Pine Barrens. In fact, they can be grown just about everywhere — if the right varieties are chosen and the soil is amended to suit the plants. The soil here at my farmden, for instance, is very different from that of the Pine Barrens. Mine is a naturally rich silt loam that is slightly acidic; the Pine Barrens are naturally poor sands that are very acidic.
    Both soils are well-drained, which is the first requirement for a blueberry soil. The way to make soils that are less than perfectly drained suitable is to plant the bushes atop mounds or carry water away in ditches or in buried, perforated pipes.
    Next, acidity. The pH for blueberries needs to be between 4 and 5.5, which is very acidic (and is what blueberry relatives such as rhododendrons and mountain laurels also demand). I acidifed my soil with elemental sulfur, a naturally mined mineral, before planting and do so periodically over the years, as needed. Many gardeners pile oak leaves or pine needles on their ground, or dig these materials into soil, to make a soil more acidic — that doesn’t do the trick; sulfur is what’s needed, 3/4 to 2 pounds per hundred square feet for sandy and clay soils, respectively, for each unit of pH change needed.Netted, healthy blueberries
    Blueberries like their roots coursing through soils that are high in organic materials, not rich organic materials such as manure or compost, though. Peat moss is good; I mixed a bucket full of peat with the soil in each planting hole when I planted. To maintain, even increase, levels of organic matter over the years, the ground beneath my bushes, every year, gets blanketed with a 3 inch depth of some weed-free organic material, such as autumn leaves, wood chips, wood shavings, sawdust, pine needles . . . whatever I can get my hands on.
    And finally, blueberries need water, especially when young. That initial dose of peat moss along with yearly, organic mulches, helps the soil hold moisture (in addition to many other benefits).
    Oh, one more thing: Ninety percent of blueberry roots are in the top 6 inches of soil. Hence their need for moisture. Those shallow roots also compete poorly with weeds. My 900 square foot of 16 blueberry plants is, essentially, a “no weed” zone, thanks to the mulch and occasional weeding.

Tastiest Turnips

    Pushing open the gate to exit the blueberry planting, I walk over and pull open the gate to the vegetable garden. There lies a beautiful (to me) row of sweet, succulent turnips. Not just any old turnip, but the variety Hakurei, the best (to me, and many others gardeners and farmers).
    Turnips are an underrated vegetable, perhaps because most that you can buy just don’t taste that good and because most that are grown in home gardens are not the best-flavored. The highest praise I know of for turnips is in the novel Tobacco Road, when Lov Bensey walks seven and a half miles to get a sack of winter turnips for fifty cents, which is half of his daily wage. (Admittedly, he was starving.)
    So here’s at least the second written accolade for the turnip. When a good variety is planted and it is well grown, it is a sweet, flavorful vegetable excellent raw, pickled, or cooked. The variety to grow is Hakurei and the way to grow them is in rich, well-drained soil with a steady supply of moisture, the latter of which mine get automatically via drip irrigation.

Hakurei turnip

Hakurei turnip

    In the past I planted turnips only in late summer for a crop that ripened during the cool weather of autumn. This year I planted an early crop in the greenhouse; that crop was harvested and eaten by mid-June. I had plenty of seed and space in later in spring, so I planted some outdoors then. We’re still harvesting that crop and, despite the hot days, the flavor is excellent. (Cool nights might be helping to maintain flavor.)
    Sometime in the next two weeks, I plan to sow seeds for fall harvest. Last year, that crop, harvested before the weather turned too bitterly cold and the soil froze, went into wooden boxes for cold storage, first just sitting outdoors, then carried into the garage, and, finally, carried down to the cool basement. The last of them, still tasty, were eaten March.


Small Plants

Weeding. Planting. Harvesting. Making compost. Spreading compost. Staking. Pruning. Mowing. These are some of the activities I share with my plants this time of year. But, as Charles Dudley Warner wrote in his 1870 classic, My Summer in a Garden, “Blessed be agriculture! If one does not have too much of it.” Which prompts me to weed, plant, harvest, etc. most efficiently.

Bush cherry, 1 month after planting

Bush cherry, 1 month after planting

    Let’s take a look at some of the trees and shrubs I’ve planted this spring: Romeo and Carmen Jewel bush cherries, aronia, Grainger shellbark hickory, Great Wall Asian persimmon, Rosa canina, and Hidcote St. Johnswort. Just getting all those plants through their first season could entail lugging around many buckets of water. But it doesn’t.
    Large plants of any of these could possibly be sourced but I chose small plants. And that was the first step to making sure that, paraphrasing C. W., I wasn’t overburdened with my agriculture.
    With smaller root systems, small plants establish more quickly than large plants. In fact, establishing more quickly, smaller plants usually outgrow their larger counterparts after a few years.
    A tree or shrub with a two-foot diameter root ball might require 3 gallons of water weekly until enough roots foraged out into surrounding soil to make the plant self-sufficient water-wise. Two cups of water weekly is enough to keep my newly planted Romeo bush cherry alive since its move from the 4-inch-diameter pot it previously called home.
    By the end of this growing season, all these small plants will be firmly established and pretty much water independent. They’ll get supplemental water only if there’s any extended dry spells in their second season.

Small Planting Holes

    Water for these young plants isn’t all about watering per se.
    Site preparation is also important. Not that, as older gardening books used to suggest, it’s “better to dig a $50 hole for a $5 tree than a $5 hole for a $50 tree,” the dollar amounts reflecting the size of the tree and the hole. No need for such heroic measures. Digging that large a hole breaks up the capillary channels in a large volume of soil, leaving large air gaps in the soil through which water just runs down and out. Capillary channels can move water, down, up, and sideways.

Shellbark hickory, 1 mo. after planting

Shellbark hickory, 1 mo. after planting

   Better — and easier — is to dig a hole only twice as wide as the spread of the roots or root ball (if potted), and only as deep as needed so a plants sits at the same depth as it did its pot or the nursery.
    With few exceptions, no need to add compost, peat moss, fertilizer, or anything else to the soil in the planting hole. After all, the expectation is for roots to eventually extend well beyond the planting hole. Create excessively posh conditions in the hole and roots have no incentive to leave. Then roots grow only in their planting hole, not beyond.
    All soil goodies are best lathered on top of the ground. My first choice is for compost. Nutrients and beneficial soil organisms within the compost, over time, meld with the soil below. Compost also softens impact of raindrops so that water can percolate down into the ground rather than running off in rivulets — lessening my need for watering.
    A mulch is the final icing on this layer cake. I’ll top the compost with wood chips, leaves, straw — any weed-free, organic material. This top layer further softens the impact of raindrops, keeps compost moist and vibrant, and slowly decomposes to nourish soil microorganisms and then  the tree or shrub.
    Yesternight’s rain or 1.25” did a week’s watering for me. A good rule of thumb is to apply one-inch of water once a week, or, equivalently, three-quarters of a gallon per estimated square foot spread of the roots. Potted trees and shrubs need that one-inch of water spread over 2 or 3 days of the week for a couple of weeks after being planted, until their roots begin to spread into surrounding soil. Larger tree and shrub transplants need more water, more frequently, for a longer period of time.

Followup on Drastic, and Less Drastic Pruning

    I recently wrote of “renovating” my old lilac shrub, a no-brainer as far as pruning. You just lop each and every part of the plant right to the ground. My fears that such drastic pruning might also kill the plant were unfounded. Already, new sprouts are growing from the sawed off remains of the plant as well as from some distance away. All that’s needed now is to choose which sprouts to keep to grow into a whole new shrub.

Lilac regrowth from stump

Lilac regrowth from stump

    My blueberry shrubs also received more drastic pruning than usual. To lower their height and to encourage and make space for younger, more fruitful stems, I lopped a few of the oldest stems of each bush right to ground level. Like the lilac, new sprouts soon rose from ground level.

Blueberry, new sprouts

Blueberry, new sprouts

    Late next winter, I’ll save the most vigorous of these new sprouts and lop the rest of them all the way to the ground. And, of course, again lop to ground level some of next year’s oldest stems.
    Such pruning (covered in my book The Pruning Book) keeps blueberry and lilacs perennially renewed, without any stems that are too old to flower or fruit well as well as plenty, but not too many, young replacement stems for the future.


Close Your Eyes, If Necessary

   “A crabby looking, brownish green truncated little spheroid of unsympathetic appearance.” That’s how a British writer of almost 75 years ago described one of my favorite fruits, medlar (Mespilus germanica). True, the fruit is no beauty to some eyes. To me, the fruit has an authentic, old-fashioned, unvarnished look to it, like that of a small, russeted apple whose calyx end (opposite the stem) is flared open.

Medlars, ready for harvest

Medlars, ready for harvest

    Medlar is truly an old-fashioned fruit, whose popularity peaked in the Middle Ages. Chaucer mentioned it, indecorously referring to it as “open arse.” Even Shakespeare got his digs in, more discretely call it “open et cetera.”
    This past season was a good season for fruits, including medlar. Yesterday, I harvested the crop from the leafless tree. But no, I couldn’t yet sink my teeth into one. Besides its odd appearance, medlar has one more quirk: The fruit needs to be bletted before being eaten. During the bletting process, at cool room temperatures for a couple of weeks, the white, rock-hard interior of the fruit turns to brown mush. A delectable brown mush, much like a very rich applesauce with wine-y overtones.
Harvesting medlars    Past writers have also gotten their digs in mocking the required bletting, as if it was akin to rotting. But banana, avocado, and European pears also require post-harvest softening before they are ready to eat. Admittedly, not softening AND browning, which might look like rot, but actually, with medlar, indicates an increase in sweetness and a decrease in acids and tannins. British wine connoisseur George Saintsbury considered medlar the ideal fruit to accompany wine; D. H. Lawrence considered medlars “wineskins of brown morbidity.”
    I like the fruit and look forward to drawing out the season by refrigerating portions to delay bletting.

Now Open Your Eyes

    Whether or not the fruit is considered ugly and uncouth, the medlar plant has much to recommend it. It’s the perfect multi-use tree for a small yard.
    Where space is limited, no need to choose between whether to plant an ornamental or a fruit tree, because medlar is both. The elbowed contortions of the branches, more evident now that the plant has dropped its leaves, lend an air of rusticity. Come spring, white blossoms, each a couple of inches across and every bit as showy as a wild rose, unfold after the plant has pushed out a few inches of growth. A whorl of dark green leaves behind each flower contrasts and frames the blossom.
    Each of those blossoms will generally morph into a fruit. No additional tree is needed for pollination — another plus for small yards.
    And this is a small tree, so fits well into a small yard. My tree, in rich soil and over ten years old, is only about eight feet high and wide.
    (For more on the history, cultivation, and varieties of medlar, see the chapter on this fruit in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden).

More Eye Candy

    As I walked back to my medlar tree, harvest basket in hand, other fruit plants, my blueberry bushes, caught my attention, these solely for their beauty. Blueberries offer some kind of “eye candy” in every season, with sprays of urn-shaped, white flowers in spring and slightly bluish, green leaves that look spry all season long.Fall color on blueberries
    Autumn is blueberry’s showiest season, when the leaves usually come alive with a crimson color that rivals that of burning bush, a shrub grown solely for its autumn show. This month, the blueberry bushes look finer than they ever have, with some of each bush sporting golden yellow leaves, some orange leaves, and some crimson leaves.
    I’m going to attribute this year’s blueberry spectacular to the weather. Leaves’ crimson color is due to anthocyanins, which need sugars to develop. Warm, sunny days foster photosynthesis and sugar production but the relatively warm night’s of this season burn up those sugars. Carotenoids are responsible for the oranges and yellows of leaves. They’re always present, and my theory is that, with warm nights, less anthocyanin was present to mask them.
    Even after leaf drop, blueberries have something to offer, visually, when cold weather turns the stems red (perhaps less this year because of less anthocyanins?). This winter, I’ll enjoy whatever the plants have to offer, along with last season’s berries, now in the freezer.


More Citrus in the Making

You wouldn’t think that a couple of small, green sprouts could elicit so much excitement. Especially this time of year, with vigorous, green shoots sprouting up all over the place. But they did, in me. Not that anyone else would notice the two sprouts.
    The sprouts were from grafts I made a couple of months ago. Over the years I’ve done hundreds of successful grafts; these two were special.
    The first was citrus, special because the trees are subtropical and evergreen. The many apples, pears, and plums that I’ve grafted over the years are deciduous. I graft them when they are leafless and just about ready to start growing. Because the grafts are leafless, the wood, as long as the graft union is sealed, won’t dry out.
    Not so for citrus, more specifically for the stems I clipped off my potted Golden Nugget tangerine tree. What was needed, then was a rootstock on which to graft that stem. The result would be a Golden Nugget plant above the graft (which stays right where it is no matter how much the plant grows). Clipping all the leaves from the stem forestalled moisture loss.
    My home is also home to kumquat, another citrus that lives in a pot here, outdoors in summer and in a sunny window in winter. A couple of February’s ago, I glanced down at the kumquat seeds I had just spit out from fruits I harvested and ate. Not being able to squander their potential, I planted them in pots. A decade might have gone by before they were old enough to bear fruit but, after two years, the pencil-thick stems were large enough for grafting.

Citrus graft, a success

Citrus graft, a success

   With kumquat rootstocks poised for the operation and Golden Nugget scions (the stem to be grafted atop the rootstock) stripped of leaves and also ready, the procedure was the same as for apple trees and other deciduous plants: matching, sloping cuts on rootstock and scion held in place by a wrapping with a rubber strip; covering the wound to prevent moisture loss. My usual choice of covering is Tree-Kote, which gets painted on, or Parafilm, a stretchy film that adheres to itself.
    The citrus scion was fleshy enough to also lose moisture right through the bark. To prevent this, I wrapped the whole scion in the Parafilm. A blackened scion had followed previous attempts at grafting citrus without wrapping the stem.
    A week or so ago, it was time to unwrap the Parafilm from around the stem. If the grafted parts were going to knit together, they should have done so by then. Lo and behold, a small, green sprout soon pushed out from the top bud of the scion.

 Nutty Grafting

    Not all deciduous trees are as easy to graft as apple and pear. Nut trees in the Juglandaceae family, which includes black walnuts, English walnuts, butternuts, pecans, and hickories, are notoriously difficult. Part of the reason is because cutting a stem in spring, which is, of course, unavoidable when grafting, makes these trees bleed, messing up the works.
    With a slew of failures at grafting this family under my belt, I needed to try again. The candidate this year was a nut tree called buartnut, and hybrid tree with a hybrid name, the latter a non-euphonious combination of the words “heartnut” and “butternut.” Heartnut is a Japanese species of walnut, notable mostly for how easily it cracks to yield two heart-shaped nutmeats. Butternut is a richly flavored nut borne on a native tree that is becoming increasingly rare because of a blight disease.
    Buartnuts allegedly need cross-pollination to bear nuts. My tree, large and spreading though only about 15 years old, lacked a mate. The mate needn’t be a whole other tree; a branch from another tree, grafted on my tree, would suffice and avoid the need to plant a whole new tree or wait the years it would take to flower. Grafted branches bear much more quickly than new trees.
    Fortunately, I knew of another buartnut tree that could provide pollination. Last winter, I clipped off a few of its stems, packed them in a plastic bag, wrapped the bag in a wet towel, and then packed that whole mess into another plastic bag and then into the refrigerator. There, they remained hydrated and dormant until needed.

Heartnut graft, one sprout

Heartnut graft, one sprout

    The key, I’ve been told, to grafting Juglandaceae, is to wait in spring until a spate of 80 degree plus weather is predicted. Conditions seemed right on a day last May. Because of past failures, I attempted numerous grafts, three different kinds: the bark graft, the banana graft, and the whip graft. To promote bleeding off-site rather than at the grafts, I slit stems below the grafts. I covered one of the bark grafts with a plastic bag and then, for shade so the stems wouldn’t cook, a paper bag.
    Almost all the grafts failed. Except one. Just one stem of just one of the bark grafts (each of these bark grafts carries 4 or 5 stems) sprouted. How exciting!

Temple Disruption

    Exciting goings-on in the blueberry patch also. Birds are flitting about every morning, enjoying a few berries despite our repeated efforts to secure any openings in the walk-in “Blueberry Temple.” I threaded some string to more tightly join the top and side netting. As previously, I think this will solve the problem.
    Then again, this may be a Darwinian experiment. Birds never used to work their way into the Temple. Openings in the top netting are 1” across; I fear the net is breeding for smaller models of cedar waxwings and catbirds. Or perhaps smarter ones better at finagling their way to the blueberries


On My Knees for  Blueberries

    For the last few years, my blueberries have had a problem. Perhaps yours also. Rather than grow upright, the stems arch downward, some so drastically that they actually rest on the ground.

Blueberries galore

Blueberries galore

    A few years ago, I pinned blame on the weather. Not that it was evident just how the weather could be responsible, but it’s always convenient, in gardening, to blame things on the weather. But this explanation is hardly convincing. Spring and summer weather have not been consistent enough over the years to be able point my finger at too much rain and/or not enough sunlight (the combination of which could lead to those bowing branches).
    How about pruning or fertilization? Too much of either could promote lush growth that couldn’t support itself. Except that my pruning has been consistent over many years. And Dr. Marvin Pritts, berry specialist at Cornell, confirmed that he and others saw the same problem, without definitive explanation, a couple of years ago.
    I like the green thumb explanation best: That is, that I’m such a good blueberry grower that the branches can hardly support the prodigious crops I’ve coaxed from them. So I’m not really complaining. Just curious. And having to get on my knees to harvest low hanging fruit.

Remember Fruit Flies?

    There is one fly in the green thumb ointment. A fly, literately. A tiny fruit fly called the spotted wing drosophila or, quicker to say, which is necessary for this fly that’s getting a lot of buzz lately, SWD. The fly attacks many small fruit, starting the season with honeysuckle berries, then moving on to raspberries, blackberries, and . . . blueberries.
    Most fruit flies lay their eggs in overripe, or at least ripe fruit. Not SWD. She lays her eggs in unripe fruit. The eggs are small and what hatches from them are small; their being “maggots” sort of takes the appeal from the berries.
    SWD is a new pest, so new ways of thwarting them are being tried. Covering the plants with fine netting very early in the season is effective but would be very bothersome, for my planting, at least. Various organic sprays are another possibility: Entrust, which is derived from a soil bacterium, is effective if used STRICTLY according to directions; horticultural oil might prove effective. Traps are also under test.
    One way to bypass the problem is to grow only earlier varieties of blueberries. SWD has not showed up here and at many other sites until early August. Plenty of varieties — Duke, Earliblue, Toro, and Blueray, for example — are finished before then.
    But I want fresh blueberries on into September. Harvesting blueberries (or raspberries or other berries) and whisking them into a refrigerator at 34 degrees for 72 hours will kill eggs and larvae. Freezing, the destiny of about half our harvest, also kills the eggs and any hatched larvae. A little egg and meat boosts the protein content of the berries.

I Backpedal, Sort Of

    It may be time for me to eat pie. Not blueberry pie, but humble pie. Regular readers of my words probably realize that I take a certain amount of pleasure in iconoclasm. And one recipient of my eye-rolling has been compost tea, something that many gardeners and farmers love to love even though there’s little theoretical or empirical support for its efficacy.

Compost tea, quick mix

Compost tea, quick mix

   “Little” but not “none.” A number of peer-reviewed articles describe benefits from using NON-AERATED compost tea to thwart root diseases. (The relatively recent interest in compost tea is for AERATED compost tea, often sprayed on leaves. Aerated compost tea, the brainchild and business of Dr. Elaine Ingham, is compost tea that’s bubbled with air for en extended period, often with molasses or other additions. Generally, experiments have not supported touted benefits of aerated compost tea.)
    For the past number of years, my pea crops have been failures, the plants yellowing and dying soon after harvest begins. Fusarium or some other root disease is the probable cause.
    In desperation, five times this spring, at about weekly intervals, I put a shovelful of compost into a 5 gallon bucket and filled the bucket with water. After one day of steeping, the tea was strained, put it into a watering can, and drenched on the soil beneath of my thirty foot, double rows of peas.
    Lo and behold: The peas look healthy and have been yielding good crops!

A healthy row of peas

A healthy row of peas

    I won’t say for sure it was the compost tea or what in the tea, if it was the tea, did the trick. But nothing else jumps out this year as the savior of my peas. For a more definitive tea endorsement, next year I should grow a row or two without the tea, and a row or two with the tea. I might try that, although it presents the possibility of my ending up with a row or two of unproductive vines.
    For now, I’ll just have humble pie. And tea.