I Battle Weeds and Birds, but Currants are Care-free

Part of my weedless gardening technique (which I thoroughly fleshed out in my book Weedless Gardening) involves — sad to say, for some people — weeding. After all, no garden can ever be truly weedless. Even people who spray Roundup eventually get weeds as they inadvertently “breed” for Roundup-resistant weeds, which now exist. My techniques are weed-less rather than weedless.

Which brings me to hoeing. Most years my hoe rests on its designated hook in the garage. This year, it’s hardly made it back to garage, mostly just leaning up against the garden fence alongside the gate. “And why is this?” you might ask. The answer is rain. This season, rainfall has been dropping in sufficient amounts at regular intervals, all of which has coaxed good plant growth, including that of weeds.

More importantly, the rainfall has promoted plant growth in paths and between widely spaced plants. One leg of my 4-legged “weedless gardening” stool calls for drip irrigation, which pinpoints water near plants. In a normal year, or a dry year, there’s little moisture to spur on weed growth elsewhere. This year, rainfall has democratically spurred weed growth everywhere.Comparison of the winged weeder with a conventional garden hoe.

Hence the hoe. The best hoes to snuff out young weeds without unduly disturbing the ground are ones with thin, sharp blades that lie parallel to the ground. All that’s needed is to slide such hoes back and forth a quarter of an inch or so beneath the surface, cutting the stems of hopeful, young interlopers. The work, if can be called that, is quick and easy, not calling for the “iron back with a hinge in it” recommended for a gardener by Charles Dudley Warner in his 19th century classic My Summer in the Garden. Too many people use a pull or draw hoe, whose blade lies perpendicular to the handle, to try to conquer weeds. 

The hoes I’m recommending are so-called push or thrust hoes. Some examples include the collinear hoe, the scuffle hoe, the stirrup hoe, and, my favorite, the wingèd weeder. With any of these hoes, roots aren’t damaged and lower depths of soil remain at lower depths so that inevitable weeds seeds buried there are not awakened as they are exposed to light. (Minimal soil disturbance is another leg of my 4-legged “weedless gardening” stool.)

Still, my wingèd weeder is not effective unless it is used — frequently this season, ideally once a week or within a couple of days after a rain. Used in a timely manner, the wingèd weeder does a quick, effective, and satisfying job.

Currants are an Old-Fashioned Fruit Easy to Grow

“The currant takes the same place among fruits that the mule occupies among draught animals—being modest in its demands as to feed, shelter, and care, yet doing good service,” wrote a nineteenth-century horticulturalist. Hoeing takes time, especially this year, so it’s nice to balance that with something — currants, in this case — that is “modest in its demands.”

One of my currant bushes, a Perfection (that’s the variety name) red currant, splays its stems upward and outward in an ornamental bed in front of my house. Sharing that bed, for beauty and for good eating, are huckleberries, lowbush blueberries, and lingonberries, and, for beauty alone, mountain laurels and dwarf rhododendrons.

Redcurrant espalier w-poppyThe only care my currant gets is, anytime from November until late March, pruning. The plant bears best on 2- and 3-year-old stems so I cut away anything older than 3 years old and reduce the number of new, 1-year-old stems to the half dozen or so most vigorous ones. The whole bed gets a sprinkling of either soybean meal (1# per hundred square feet) or alfalfa meal (3# per hundred square feet) in late fall, topped with a mulch of leaves or wood chips. 

The bush began bearing towards the end of June and a few clusters of the plump, jewel-like fruits still hang from the branches. Most people use red currant for jelly or sauce. I like to eat them straight up, with my morning cereal, for instance. The flavor is tart early on but has mellowed by now.

Currants were once a more popular fruit in America, and especially here in the Hudson Valley. They are one of the few fruits that tolerate shade (and deer!), and were often grown in the shade of large, old apple trees. Local folk, including children, would ride out to the orchards in hay wagons for communal picking.

Currant is, truly, among the uncommon fruits for every garden (good book title, that).

I Reluctantly Share Some Blueberries with Birds

Just a quick note about my blueberries, which are also relatively carefree. Last year’s abundance of cicadas may have upped bird populations, or at least made birds believe that lots of food would always be in the offing. Not so, birds. Perhaps, then, that’s why so many bird are fluttering all around my blueberries, mostly on the outside of the net that encloses my Blueberry Temple of 16 plants.Cardboard hawk, dangling from a string, protects my blueberries, maybe.

Right now a hawk — a cardboard one, swooping in breezes as it hangs from a string fixed to the end of an long, inclined bamboo pole — is meant to dissuade birds from even approaching the net. Calm mornings keep the hawk still enough so an occasional bird find their way through the net (where?) to venture into the Temple. 

Blueberry Challenge and Aromas Good and Bad

Book Giveaway: AND THE WINNER IS: Andrea Jilling. Andrea, please contact me about mailing out the book. Everyone, stay tuned for more book giveaways in future weeks.
Blueberry-growing used to be so boring. Each autumn I’d spread soybean meal beneath the plants as fertilizer and top it with 3 inches of leaves, wood shavings, or other mulch. Late each winter I’d prune. In late June, netting would go over the top of the plants and from then on, into September, I’d harvest oodles of blueberries.
Earlier this year I knew things could get interesting. Spotted wing drosophila (SWD), a new pest fond of many fruits, showed up last year in the area and an encore was predicted. And then, starting in early August, my harvested blueberries began to soften quickly and were soon swimming in their own juice. The culprit, SWD, was here, in numbers, with plenty of enticing berries still weighing down the branches.
“Drosophila” might sound familiar from experiments in your high school biology class; it’s a fruit fly. SWD differs from other fruit flies in not waiting for fruit to be ripe or overrripe. This impatient bugger lays eggs in unripe fruit.
Blueberry harvest is an almost daily affair and my blueberries are organic, sustainable, green, artisanal, (very) local, etc., etc., so I couldn’t just start spraying any old pesticide. Fortunately, there is one pesticide, called Entrust (derived from a bacterium collected from the soil of an abandoned sugar mill in the Virgin Isles), that is “organic” and effective against SWD. I did spray and now, despite the mildness of this material, we have to wait 3 days for the spray to dissipate before harvesting berries. Restraint is needed with Entrust because one generation to the next for SWD can take less than 2 weeks, leaving ample opportunity for resistant strains to evolve, especially if the pest overwinters locally (which is not known at this time).
After two sprays of Entrust one week apart, I should and will try something else, in this case a 1% oil spray — also “organic” and relatively benign. In laboratory settings, at least, oil has been effective.
What about all the berries on the plant with SWD eggs in them that are and will hatch into adults? Harvesting them and whisking them into a refrigerator at 34° for 72 hours will kill eggs and larvae. Same goes, of course for freezing them. Another option is to immerse them in that 1% oil mix for 5 to 10 minutes.
The battle against SWD should not — does not — end there. Fine netting encasing the plants could keep flies at bay, as long as it’s put on before SWD arrives or, if resident ones exist, after an early spray of Entrust. Thorough cleanup of infested fruits will keep populations down. We’re throwing soft fruits into a bag which goes into the freezer, and then it’s a dish of fresh frozen eggs and larvae and blueberries for my chickens. Mmmmm.
You might detect some flippancy in my attitude towards this serious pest. That’s because we already have 69 quarts of sound blueberries in the freezer.
(Thanks to Peter Jentsch and Cornell’s Hudson Valley information for much of this information.) 

        UPDATE: Two sprays of Entrust and one spray of horticultural oil, each spray a week apart, seem to have brought SWD under control. Once the berry harvest is over, we’ll let our free-range chickens access into the “Blueberry Temple” too clean up fallen fruit and resident SWD larvae.
Garlic has been harvested and, as usual, my yields and bulb sizes are nothing to brag about. “You should have cut off the scapes,” suggested more than one person, the scapes referring to the curly, bulbil-topped stalks that emerge from the centers of hardneck garlic plants.
I’m skeptical about scape removal. After all, that greenery does photosynthesize and, hence, help nourish the plant. And while seed development can drain a plant of energy, a scape is capped by small bulbils, not seeds.
A little research yielded widespread recommendations for scape removal, but hard data backing up that

recommendation was generally lacking. What I did learn was: 1) benefits of scape removal depend on the soil and variety of garlic; 2) benefits are greatest in poor soils; 3) benefits may be in terms of yield or bulb size. The most consistent reason to remove the scapes is that they are edible if harvested when just developing.

I don’t like the taste of the scapes so won’t bother removing them. I’m also not a big fan of garlic flavor so tend to plant them outside the garden in out-of-the-way locations where they’re never watered and the soil is not particularly rich. Hence, my poor showing of garlic.
The garlic is now curing as it hangs from the rafters of my front porch where it, fortunately, keeps its aroma to itself. Along the path leading up to the porch are a few plants whose aromas are a lot more welcome on the way to the front door. Those plants have clustered there not by some grand plan of mine, but just by chance.
Let’s see, first on the way to the door is Jasmine ‘Maid of Orleans’ (Jasminum sambac) whose flowers emit a pure, sweet aroma. The plant has been blooming more or less all summer but you do need to put your nose right up to the flower to smell it. Next comes jimson weed (Datura spp.) and angel’s trumpets

(Brugmansia spp.), both vespertine plants with 6-inch long, trumpet-shaped blossoms that appear sporadically. I’m always enjoying rose geranium, mint, and rosemary, next in line, because its their leaves that are aromatic; a pinch can send me to olfactory heaven anytime I wish, day or night.

Nestled in among these last-named plants is one small pot of alyssum. Alyssum blooms nonstop through summer and into autumn so the honeyed scent can be enjoyed whenever I pass, as long as I stick my nose down into the flowers.

Grass and Blueberries and Kin

The plants I grow best are generally the ones that I like the most. I’m not good at growing grass (lawngrass, that is; more on the other “grass” when it becomes legal). That’s why most of my farmden is given over to wild plants, cultivated plants, and meadow. Still, grass definitely has it’s place, in my view, as long as that place is not too expansive. It’s nice underfoot, provides a soothing expanse of background greenery, and is easy to care for.
I’ll admit that some of my previous attempts to grow grass have been failures. The seedlings dried out or never sprouted, birds ate the seed, the soil wasn’t receptive . . . all sorts of glitches exist on the road between bare ground and a nice bit of lawn.
Recent removal of a two-foot diameter rotted stump of boxelder and renovation of a deck with steps that led down to that vacated spot necessitated a patch of lawn. Thickly and quickly, so the new steps could

be used.

The soil was moderately fertile and well drained but had been compacted by my constant footsteps during stair construction. I loosened the ground by, every few inches over the thankfully small area (8 by 8 feet, approximately), sliding the tines of a garden fork straight down into the dirt and wiggling the handle. Then I raked the surface smooth, sprinkled on some grass seed, and raked again.
That was the easy part. The next job was to keep the ground moist and to keep birds, especially my chickens, at bay. For moisture retention, I covered the prepared, planted ground with a thin layer of hay. For even more moisture retention and to keep birds at bay, I covered the hay with a single layer of cheesecloth, weighted down at edges and corners. The grass will grow up through the cheesecloth which, being cotton, can be left in place to rot away. For even more bird protection, I enclosed the area with a temporary, chicken-wire fence.
Daily watering has already brought on patches of bright green, thin sprouts. Once seedlings are growing in earnest, I’ll taper off on watering to every few days.
The delicate, young grass sprouts evoke such fond memories, not of large lawns but of a toy I had as a child. It was a miniature farm, a couple of square feet, with a little barn, silo, coral, and house. The farmette came with soil, which, as directed, I spread on the field, and grass seed, which I planted and watered. I was awed and delighted by the small sprouts greening the brown field.
I don’t remember ever mowing (with a scissors?) that field, but once my new grass gets firm footing, I will be mowing it — not one of my favorite activities, although I do like the result.
In contrast to my horticultural skill with lawn, I am very good at growing blueberries. And this is an especially good year for me and other blueberry growers. Our 16 plants have yielded, as of July 22nd, about 80 quarts. Bushes are still going strong and others have yet to begin ripening their berries.
One can only guess at the reasons for such a good year. Lack of any late spring frosts could be a factor, except that my blueberries have never been damaged by late frosts. Abundant rain in June — to say the

least, with 12 inches rather than the usual 4 inches — could be a factor, but every year my blueberries’ thirst is quenched automatically with drip irrigation. (Note to myself: Consider irrigating more in the future.) Heat in July? Who knows?

Blueberry plants do have an odd growth habit this year, with branches arching down low to the ground. A heavier than usual crop could be the cause. Or, perhaps, overly succulent new shoots because of abundant rain and limited sunlight in June, and excessive heat in July. Except that many of those recumbent branches are of older wood, from previous seasons. So many questions; so few definitive answers.
A recent bike ride in the Shawangunk Mountains, where blueberries and their relatives are abundant, revealed a relatively sparse crop there. With all the berries at home, it was no great loss for me. I did slam on my brakes for some ripe huckleberries, though.
Many people use the words “blueberry” and “huckleberry” interchangeably. In fact, they are different, but closely related, fruits. Put simply, blueberries are species of Vaccinium, and huckleberries are species of Gaylussacia. Put even more simply, if, when you eat the berry, you feel the small seeds crackling between your teeth, you’ve got a huckleberry in your mouth.
I didn’t screech to a stop just to eat huckleberries. I also wanted seeds to plant and increase my current huckleberry “plantation” of two plants. The berries not only taste good, very similar to blueberries, but also are very pretty, especially in autumn with their fiery, red leaves.

Back home, I mashed the berries in a glass of water, then let the mix sit for a day. The small seeds settled to the bottom of the glass. Stirring, then pouring off whatever floated most easily, cleaned the seed.
What’s needed next is patience. Reports indicate that huckleberry seeds germinate poorly and that germination is slow. And that’s after giving them a warm, moist stratification for about a month, to soften the tough seed coat, followed by a couple of months of cool, moist stratification, to let the plants know that “winter” is over. This is what you might expect for a seed from a berry ripening in cold climates in midsummer; if the seed germinated immediately, the small seedling — and huckleberry seedlings grow very slowly — would succumb to winter cold.
My plan is to sprinkle the tiny seeds on some potting soil in a pot, water, cover, with a pane of glass, and leave the covered pot outdoors in partial shade. When and if seedlings appear, I’ll uncover the pot. I like huckleberries. Perhaps I’ll get them to grow.

Berries of July

Fruits Galore & Georgia O’Keefe

Let’s see, what’s on my plate for today? No, not what I’m planning to do, but what’s on my plate, literally. I have gumis, figs, Nanking cherries, highbush and lowbush blueberries, black raspberries, red raspberries, black currants, red currants, tart cherries, and mulberries. And what a tasty lot they are, and for

so little effort. All that’s needed, for everything except the gumis and Nanking cherries, is pruning and mulching. The gumis and Nanking cherries, both with their branches bowing to the ground under the load of red fruits, need no care at all!

Gumis (Elaeagnus multiflora) are particularly abundant this year, for the first time ever. Either the bushes have grown large enough to pump out a large crop, or birds have been distracted by all the cicadas into leaving the gumis alone. Letting the fruits, which are flecked gold and the size of small cherries, hang on the bush until dead ripe gives time for the sprightly, sweet flavor to develop and the astringency to fade. It’s also a nice ornamental shrub, with leaves silvery on one side that are a good foil for the colorful fruits. Backtracking to a few weeks ago to another asset of this plant, sweet perfume from the flowers was drifting all over the yard.
The early fig crop, known as the breba crop, is also relatively abundant. One of my figs, mislabeled Green Ischia, bears fruit on new, growing shoots as

well as on last year’s stems. The breba crop, ripening earlier, develops on last year’s stems, a few of which I saved on the large tree in the greenhouse. The rest of the plant, like my other figs, which bear only on new, growing shoots, gets lopped back each autumn to 3 or 4 feet high. This crop, and for some figs this is the only crop, is called the main crop.

So right now Green Ischia has a breba crop ripening on the 2 or 3 stems I left from last year, and a main crop developing which will begin ripening around the end of August, along with the main crop on the other varieties of figs. These crops can be harvested from plants in pots or, as is the case for my Green Ischia, plants growing in the ground in a minimally heated greenhouse. The advantage of in-ground in the greenhouse is larger plants and, hence, more figs. Some people spend their money on in-ground pools; I spent my money on a greenhouse for in-ground figs.
The other fruits on my plate, with the exception of Nanking cherries, are familiar to most people. Many visitors have been sampling the Nanking cherries, and all except one were wowed by the fine flavor. The fruits are somewhat small and soft, but, in addition to good flavor, earn their keep for their fecundity, their not needing any care, and for white blossoms that drench the stems in spring.
Soft pink, tubular swirls of calla lily (Zantedeschia spp.) flowers are like having a three dimensional Georgia O’Keefe painting right on my terrace. No, four dimensional, the added dimension being time, because the plants change day by day.
Calla lilies are also easy to grow. Put the bulbs in a pot, and water; enjoy

flowers in summer; bring the pot indoors before the weather plummets below freezing in autumn; store in cool basement through winter; bring out again in late spring.

My main problem with growing calla lilies is that I’d like more of them than the one pot now sitting on my terrace. New plants are thankfully easy to come by, besides being gifted them, in this case from my friend Sara. Beneath the ground, the plants spread by rhizomes, which are specialized, underground stems such as those found beneath ginger, banana, lowbush blueberry, and bamboo plants. Rhizomes have a segmented appearance, just like stems, with each each node sprouting feeder roots as well as an aboveground shoot. Come autumn or late winter, I’ll cut up the rhizomes and multiply my holdings.
So what’s hard to grow around here? Apples. If you wanted to know the most difficult fruit crop east of the Rocky Mountains, that’s it. Apples.
The season started out perfectly, with good fruit set. A few well-timed sprays kept the snout-nosed beetle, plum curculio, at bay, as well as codling moth (the “worm” in an apple) and the fungus responsible for apple scab, whose effect is just what it sound like. But problems don’t end there.
As curculio exits stage left, apple maggot moves in stage right (but can be controlled by trapping) and codling moth stays around. Orange blemishes from cedar-apple rust pock susceptible varieties and scab, despite the sprays, also becomes evident, the result of our incessant wet weather. Fruits are cracking from changes in soil moisture. And still in the offing are summer diseases — black rot, white rot, and bitter rot — that can ruin any fruit that survives other scourges.
I can hear my mulberries, Nanking cherries, black raspberries, and other no-care fruits chuckling at me for all the care I lavish on my apples, to little avail.
Dateline July 4: Cicadas are gone. Yeah!

It (Could Be) Cold

I see a lot of gardens under wraps this morning, plants covered with upturned buckets or flowerpots, or blanketed under . . . well . . . blankets. Day after day of balmy temperatures have made it hard to hold back finally getting vegetable and flower transplants out of their pots and into the ground.
But temperatures just below freezing were predicted for last night (May 13th) and everyone got a wakeup call: Freezing temperatures, which could kill tomato, marigold, and other tender plants, are still possible. It’s all about averages; around here, there’s about a 10 percent chance of a frost the middle of May.
The likelihood of cold, frosty, or freezing temperatures has been detailed — see — for locations throughout the country. The closest weather station connected to that site around here is in Poughkeepsie, and in mid-May that site has a 50% chance of experiencing cold weather (36°F.) and a 10% chance of of experiencing frost (32°F.). Cold air, being heavier than warm air, sinks to low-lying spots on clear still nights, such as last night, so my garden in the Wallkill River valley is usually a few degrees colder than surrounding areas, such as Poughkeepsie. Fortunately, temperatures last night here dropped only to 31° F.
Not that lower temperatures would have done my vegetables or flowers any harm. I took the advice I’ve been doling out to others for the past couple of (warm) weeks, and held off planting anything that could be harmed by frost. So tomatoes, peppers, melons, and the like are still in pots that I moved into the warmth of the greenhouse last night.
I’d like to plant out all these cold-tender seedlings but chilly temperatures are predicted for the next few night. Even chilly temperatures, let alone freezing temperatures, are not good for tender plants.
Still, anyone looking out over my garden this morning would have seen white blankets over some beds and overturned flowerpots over a few plants. Because my garden is in a cold spot, temperatures well below freezing were not out of the question for last night. Cold enough temperatures could damage cabbage and its

kin, lettuce, onions, and other cold-hardy transplants that have been growing out in the garden for the past couple of weeks. I had some row cover material readily on hand, so why not, methought, throw it over some of the beds anyway? Just in case.

Throwing covers over plants at 7 in the evening is a lot more pleasant than waking up at 3 am with the sinking feeling that temperatures have really plummeted and then, if they in fact did, running outdoors in the cold darkness to cover plants.
Fruit trees, shrubs, and vines present another story. A freeze won’t kill the plants, but low enough temperatures could kill flowers or developing fruit, as it did on many fruit plants last year. One frigid night and you have to wait a whole year for the next crop. Unfortunately, not much could be done about this situation. Fruit plants here are too many or too big to cover. My tack is to keep fingers crossed.
Critical temperatures for fruit damage vary with the kind of fruit, the stage of flower or fruit development, the depth of cold, and the duration of cold. Probably other things, too, such as humidity and plant nutrition. 

An excellent table of “Critical Temperatures for Frost Damage on Fruit Trees” can be viewed at So, put simply, 25°F would spell death to 90% of my apples, which are in full bloom, and pears, which are post-bloom, and 28% would do in 10% of their fruits. Plums, also post-bloom, tolerate a bit more cold.
In addition to crossing fingers, my tack is also to grow a variety of fruits, and especially native fruits.

Pawpaw blossom, from below.

(Apples, pears, peaches, and most plums are not native.) It’s not a chauvinistic choice; it’s just that these natives — American persimmon, pawpaw, blueberry, grape, and gooseberry, to name a few — are better adapted to our conditions. And not just the weather here. Pests also.

This spring has been the most perfect spring in a long time, with plenty of clear, sunny days and gradually warming temperatures that kept blossoms from jumping the gun. Playing the averages, the critical cold periods should be pretty much be behind us. As with the stock market, though, “Past performance is no guarantee of future returns.”
Update, May 17th: Warm days and nights that are not too chilly are predicted for the next few days, so I planted out tomatoes and peppers today. I’ll still keep an eye on temperatures because there’s still a 10% chance of temperatures dipping to 36° as late as May 28th according to records at the nearby Poughkeepsie weather monitoring station.