April 26th, 2014: “Pruning Nuts”, New York Nut Growers Association spring meeting at the Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, 423 Griffing Avenue, Riverhead, NY, on Saturday, April 26, 2014 from 9:30 until 3:00,

April 27th, 2014: 2-5:30, “Pruning workshop” with Lee Reich, at my farmden in New Paltz, NY. Contact me for more information. This hands-on (my hands) workshop will cover: The best time to prune; the “tools of the trade”; Plant response to various kinds of pruning cuts; pruning demonstrations. Contact me for registration and more information. 

May 3rd, 2014: 2-5:30, Make your own trees at the “Grafting workshop, at my New Paltz, NY farmden. The how, why, and when of grafting; demonstration of 2 easy kinds of grafts; and then make your own pear tree to take home. Contact me for registration and more information.

May 10th, 2014: “Weed-less Gardening”, in conjunction with Garden Conservancy Open Day at Margaaret Roach’s garden in Copake Falls, NY, 11 am,

And now, on to the post . . .

  Are the 6,000 acres of forest preserve behind my farmden mocking me? Almost every day, weather permitting, I grab pruning shears, a lopper, and a pruning saw, and head outdoors to snip, lop, or saw at least some stems or limbs from my trees, shrubs, and vines. Up there in the forest, no one is doing any pruning yet everything seems copacetic.
Let the forest laugh. My efforts here aren’t for naught. If a large limb crashes down from a forest tree, the forest as a whole is none the worse for wear. If a limb cracks off the honeylocust that is supposed to shade my deck . . . well, that’s not good for the deck, for the health of the tree, or for the desired shade. Similarly, a forest doesn’t feel the loss of one tree to pests or diseases. Not so for the stately crabapple gracing a front lawn.

So I prune to help keep my trees healthy. A tree with good form is stronger, less likely to lose a limb. And if a limb does surrender to the weight of snow, a crisp pruning cut of the frayed stub leads to quick healing of the wound. I prune off any tarry, black growths on my plum trees so that they can’t further the spread of black knot disease. I prune my kiwi and grape vines so that each remaining stem can bathe in the sunlight and air that is inimical to the spread of fungal diseases.
As gardeners, farmdeners, and farmers, we demand more from our plants in terms of flowers, fruit, and/or form that a forest does from its individual trees. Pruning, in removing some potential buds, directs a plant’s energy into fewer buds, making for more spectacular blossoms and more luscious fruits.
I prune also because it’s fun. Gardening is more than just good food, pretty plants, and a chance to “work” outside with the sun warming my back. It’s also, for me at least, about watching plants respond to my ministrations, rewarding me if the response is positive, and providing a learning experience if the response is negative.

Last year’s invasion of cicadas has thrown a monkey wrench into my usual pruning. Cicadas didn’t feed on stems, but use them as a nursery in which to lay eggs. Ms. Cicada prefers 1/3-1/2” inch thick stems which is, unfortunately, the thickness of many stems on my fruit trees, most of which show at least some damage. The slits weaken the stems so they are more likely to break off and have less energy for new growth so can support less fruit, physically and physiologically.
Mostly, I’m going to wait to prune these plants to see what they have planned in terms of flowers. If they flower heavily, which is doubtful, I’ll shorten stems enough so that they don’t break under their weight of fruit. I’ll also reduce the number of fruits to the number I estimate the weakened plants can support.

I’ll go ahead more or less with my normal pruning on stems or trees that don’t flower. Probably a little less severely than usual so that the plants can put all their energy into growing as much as possible to build up their energy reserves.
In either case, good soil enriched with plenty of compost, mulching, and timely watering will provide good growing conditions to put injured plants on the road to recovery.
What of the future? Those slitted stems no longer house eggs. The eggs hatched last summer a month and a half after being laid, and then, the nymphs dropped to the ground. After burrowing in the soil, the next 16 years will be spent growing and feeding on roots.
Roots! My poor trees. Perhaps I should have cut off all the slitted stems last year and burned them before the eggs hatched. But that would have severely debilitated the plants. Oh well, nothing’s to be done except give the plants good growing conditions and hope for the best. As always, Mother Nature has the upper hand.
A lot of gardeners sow their tomato seeds too early and the result is spindly plants. The time to sow the seeds is about 6 weeks before the average date of the last killing frost, which, around here, is April 1st. No joke.

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.