Arnold, You’re Too Big

Witchhazel, a few weeks ago

Witchhazel, a few weeks ago

Over the years, my Arnold’s Promise variety of witchhazel has earned its keep with branches showered in fragrant, golden flowers late each winter. Some years, like last year, part of the bush would blossom in autumn, then put on a repeat performance in late winter. (Branches that blossom in autumn don’t blossom again in later winter, but other branches, which hold off in autumn, do.)

I should have read the fine print more carefully before I selected this variety of witchhazel. My plan was for the plant to visually smooth the transition from the corner of the house to an upright stewartia tree to a moderate-sized shrub (Arnold’s Promise) to some subshrubs (lowbush blueberry) to ground level. Except that Arnold’s Promise has grown to 15 feet high. Which it’s supposed to do, according to the fine print. Which I didn’t read.

My job, now, is to bring the shrub to more comely proportions for the site, by pruning. Like other shrubs, witchhazels can be pruned by a renewal method, cutting to the ground the oldest stems and thinning out the number of youngest stems. The pruned plant, then, always has a spectrum of various aged stems, none of them too old or too overcrowded.

What makes an “old” stem for a shrub depends on its growth habit. For raspberries, two year old stems are “old,” so old that they die. And they make lots of young stems that need ruthless thinning out.

Witchhazels are at the other extreme. Very old stems keep sporting flowers, and the shrubs typically send up very few young stems. So witchhazels need very little pruning.

Witchhazel, partially pruned

Witchhazel, partially pruned

At first, I was going to renew Arnold’s Promise over the course of a few years, removing some of the oldest stems each year and hoping for younger replacements. That would let the shrub put on a nice show each year.

But once I get started pruning, restraint is difficult. I was tempted to  cut every stem, young and old, to the ground, then decide, as growth began, which young stems to save to build up the shrub again. I mostly did that, but saved a couple of small stems for a few blossoms this autumn or late next winter.

Especially this time of year, no matter what you do, you’re unlikely to kill a shrub by pruning. And, since they’re always growing new stems from ground level, even mistakes can be eventually corrected. (More about all this in my book, The Pruning Book).

A Reprieve For Arnold

Of course, I could kill Arnold’s Promise and plant a smaller variety of witchhazel, such as Little Suzie or Pallida. The latter’s flowers are reputedly especially fragrant. Then again, it reputedly grows 10 feet high — not that much smaller than Arnold’s Promise. Little Suzie, though, is billed at reaching only 5 or 6 feet tall.

For now, I’ll try pruning to cut Arnold’s Promise down to size.

Breba Figs are Swell(ing)

I can’t leave pruning yet. Figs. These plants have a most interesting and unique flowering and fruiting habit. Some varieties bear on one-year-old stems; some on new stems; and some on both.

I was pleasantly reminded of all this as I stepped into the greenhouse and looked up at the couple of full-length stems I had left after last autumn’s pruning of San Piero fig. San Piero is one of those varieties that bears on both one-year-old and new stems. New figs, the size of a quarter were already getting plump way up at at the tippy top of the full-length stems. If all goes well, these figs — called the breba crop — will ripen in midsummer.San Piero breba figs forming

To reap that breba crop, one-year-old stems must survive winter weather. Which they do in my cool-temperature greenhouse, as well as where winter temperatures hardly dip below freezing. Where winters are cold, breba figs can be harvested from plants grown in pots and moved to a cool, but not frigid, location for winter, such as a barely heated garage or a mudroom (no light necessary). Or, in late autumn, stems can be bent to the ground and covered with plastic, to shed excess moisture, and then leaves, straw, or some other insulating material. Or, in even colder climates, bent down into a covered trench. (Fig trees are very flexible, literally and figuratively.) 

My non-breba-forming figs and all except those few long stems I left on San Piero get drastic pruning. Everything, except for those one-year-old stems to save, gets pruned down to about 3 feet high. This pruning stimulates lots of new, vigorous shoots which bear the “main” crop, in late summer and on into autumn. Unlike apples, peaches, and other familiar fruits, main crop figs keep ripening over a long period, as long as the new shoots have enough light and warmth to keep growing.


Ignoring My Gut

Like other parents, I don’t hold back preparing for fall just because of hot, sun-drenched sunny days. But my preparations don’t entail trips to the store for notebooks, pencils, rulers, and other school gear. My daughter is old enough to gear up for herself. Instead, I’m preparing for a garden that becomes lush with ”cool weather” vegetables just as tomatoes, peppers, okra, and other warm weather vegetables are fading OUT.
    Much of gardening entails NOT going with your gut. If I went with my gut, I’d be planting more tomatoes and sweet corn and, perhaps, if I was really going with my gut, even banana trees on today’s ninety plus degree, bright, sunny, humid day.

Sprouting seedlings, planting seeds, and transplants

Sprouting seedlings, planting seeds, and transplants

    Although tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers presently have more appeal, fall vegetables will have their day. I have to remind myself how a lowering sun and cooler weather make more appealing the lush green leaves of cabbages, brussels sprouts, endive, lettuce, kale, celery, and, below ground, radishes, turnips, carrots, and celeriac. And anyway, I’ll have no choice because summer vegetables will have waned by then.
    That lush fall garden, almost like a whole new garden, comes about only if I do something about it now!

To Every Thing There is a Season, a Time to Plant, A Time to…

    Timing is (almost) everything for a productive fall garden. Planted too early, some leafy fall vegetables bolt — send up tough seed stalks — because of heat and long days. Right now, I’m sowing turnips and winter radishes, the especially tasty varieties Hakurei and Watermelon respectively. Among leafy, salad vegetables, lettuce, mustard (the variety Mizuna), and endive, with repeated sowing of lettuce every weeks until early September.
    It’s still a too early for spinach, arugula, mâche, short season Chinese cabbages, and spring radishes. Some time later this month would be about right for these vegetables. My book, Weedless Gardening, gives a detailed schedule for when to plant what vegetables for specific regions.
    For a truly bountiful fall garden, more advance planning was needed. For instance, I won’t be harvesting brussels sprouts until October, but for sprouts lining stalks three to four foot tall, I sowed those seeds indoors in March. Celery and celeriac seed got sprinkled in mini-furrows in seed flats way back in early February.

Zero Tolerance for Weeds, Almost

    Almost as important as timing for my fall garden is weeding. The enthusiasm of many gardeners peaks in spring and then slowly wanes as summer heats up. Not mine.
    Every time I see a lambsquarters weed, the thought of the eventual 100,000 seeds it might sow prompts be to bend down and yank it out. Same goes for purslane plants, whose seeds remain viable in the soil for decades. And spotted spurge; each plant not only spreads thousands of seeds, but those seeds sprout quickly to mature new plants that make even more baby, then adult, spotted spurges. How could I bring myself not to pull these weeds. (Yes, I know, lambsquarters and purslane are edible — if you like their flavor.)
    With weeds kept in check through June, much less effort has been needed to maintain the status quo. Mostly, this is because drier weather has limited weed growth and seed germination, and because any watering in my garden is with drip irrigation. Rather than coaxing weed growth in pathways (and also wasting water), as do sprinklers, drip irrigation pinpoints water to garden plants.

Fresh Figs Bring Me back to Summer

    Back to enjoying summer . . . we’ve been enjoying the first crop, known as the breba crop, of figs from the ‘Rabbi Samuel’ fig tree espaliered in the greenhouse.

Rabbi Samuel fig, espaliered in greenhouse

Rabbi Samuel fig, espaliered in greenhouse

   Most fruit plants bear fruits on one-year-old, or older, stems. Figs, depending on the variety, can bear on one-year-old stems, on new, growing shoots, or on both one-year-old stems and on new, growing shoots. ‘Rabbi Samuel’, I have found, bears on both.
    The tree is trained to a T, with two horizontal arms growing in either direction from atop an 18” high trunk. New shoots spring up vertically at about 6 inch spacing along the arms. Late each fall, I cut all those shoots almost back to the arms to make room for and coax new fruiting shoots for the following year.

Early, breba fig crop not ripening on old stub

Early, breba fig crop not ripening on old stub

       The stubs left after cutting back the season’s shoots are one year old, and that’s where brebas have been borne. This fall, I’ll leave some a few inches long, for a larger breba crop next July; the next year I’ll shorten them more drastically and leave others a few inches long; and so on, year after year.
    The main crop, on new, growing shoots, should begin ripening not to long after the  last of the brebas have been harvested. With sufficient sunlight and a bit of supplemental heat in the greenhouse, harvest of the main crop will continue until November’s days grow too short, soothing the transition from the summer to the fall garden.