Identity Crisis?

For the past couple of months, I’m not so sure that my duck knows that she’s a duck. She and another female duck once shared a drake, and they all lived together in their own “duckingham palace.”

  Sometime after the other female and the drake were taken by a predator, probably a fox or coyote, I thought our remaining female might enjoy some company at night. So I coaxed her to take up nightly residence with our three chickens — a rooster and two hens — who have their own house (“chickingham palace?,” actually more palatial than duckingham palace).
Chicken & duck, off to work
Not only has Ms. Duck moved in with the chickens at night but she also wanders around with the flock by day. Her special companion is the rooster, especially since the two chicken hens decided to spend much of their days sitting on imaginary eggs. Neither hen has laid a real egg for over a month. So the female duck and the rooster stroll together each day, gobbling up insects, weed seeds, and some vegetation, except, of course, within the fenced confines of the vegetable gardens. I’ve even caught them in flagrante delicto.

  The duck, being a duck, enjoys water. Her idea of a pond is the 3-foot-diameter children’s sandbox repurposed with water that we’ve provided for her bathing pleasure. During the bath, the rooster stands nearby, watching and seemingly trying to figure out what’s going on with his water-loving belle.

Beetles and Vespids

This season has seen both an abundance and a lack of some other, smaller creatures here on the farmden. In July, I saw a few Japanese beetles and braced for an onslaught, ready to repel them with a spray of neem extract or kaolin clay if things got ugly. Although I heard about the beetles descending in hordes on some other gardens near and far, I’ve hardly seen any all summer since then.
Japanese beetles
This beetle-less trend has been going on here for a few years. I’m not sure exactly why. Japanese beetles do have some natural predators and diseases, including beneficial nematodes. Whatever’s helping out, I’m thankful that they’re doing their job.

  Making up for a lack of Japanese beetles has been an abundance of yellowjackets, reflecting, perhaps, good weather conditions, for them, in spring. In contrast to honeybees, yellowjacket colonies do not overwinter; only the queens do. But the bigger the colony this summer, the more young queens develop to fly off and find winter quarters to build up colonies next summer. These insects start out the season feasting on high protein foods but have now shifted to sweets.

European hornets are also in abundance, with their large size looking more frightening than the yellowjackets but, in fact, not nearly so aggressive. They do have a bigger appetite for fruits, though, often hollowing out whole apples to leave nothing but most of the skin, intact.
Apple being damaged by European hornet
Yellowjackets and European hornets have made me more cautious when berry-picking. The insects are capable of breaking through thin skins so are actually robbing a significant part of the late summer raspberries. A close eye is needed to avoid harvesting an angry yellowjacket along with a berry. Early in the morning, they are especially grumpy when wakened from their resident berry. 
Yellow jacket on raspberry
Yellowjackets and European hornets are also a problem on compost piles in progress. Fresh additions to the pile, especially sweet ones such as melon rinds, quickly need covering with a layer of hay or manure. This hides the food and gets it composting.

  Although yellow jackets are beneficial in the garden for eating plant pests, their present habits mostly outweigh the good, for me, at least. (I’m allergic to their stings.) I destroy any nests I happen upon with torch or insecticide. Insecticides with mint as their active ingredients are very effective.

A Bag for Protection

  Grapes have tougher skins than raspberries, skins that can resist yellowjackets. That is, until a bird takes a peck or a couple of diseased berries split open.

  In anticipation of problems with yellowjackets, European hornets, honeybees, birds, insects, and diseases, earlier this summer we enclosed 100 bunches of grapes in white delicatessen bags. Not that all unbagged grapes get attacked. But the bagged bunches can be left hanging the longest to develop fullest flavor. Most of the time, we tear open the bags to reveal perfect bunches of grapes.
Bagged vs unbagged grapes
For the first time, this year, I enclosed some grape bunches in organza bags. (Organza is a fine mesh fabric often used to enclose such items as wedding favors.) These bags were working really well until the European hornets got hungry enough to poke feeding holes in them. This ruined some of the berries and allowed access to fruit flies.
Organza bagged grapesThe first grapes of the season, Somerset Seedless and Glenora, started ripening towards the end of August. The first of these varieties is one of many bred by the late Wisconsin dairy farmer cum grape breeder Elmer Swenson. The fruits of his labors literally run the gamut from varieties, such as Edelweiss, having strong, foxy flavor (the characteristic flavor component of Concord grapes and many American-type grapes) to those with mild, fruity flavor reminiscent of European-type grapes. Somerset Seedless is more toward the latter end of the spectrum and, of course, it’s seedless. Swenson red and Briana, which are ripe as you read this, are more in the middle of the spectrum.

  As you might guess from Elmer’s location, all the varieties that he bred are very cold-hardy.

Thanks, Elmer.


My Discerning Ducks

    Every morning when I throw open the door to my Duckingham Palace (a name coined by vegetable farmer Elliot Coleman, for his duck house), my four ducks step out, lower their heads as if to reduce air resistance, and race to the persimmon tree. They trace a large circle around the base of the tree, scooping up any fallen persimmons and, still running, gulping them down quickly enough so no other member of the brood snatches it.Duck eyeing my persimmon fruits
    The circle is wide because of the low, temporary fence I’ve set up around the tree. Within the fenced area, I gather up most of the fallen fruit for myself. The ducks, can’t, or haven’t figured out how to, fly over an 18 inch high fence.
    My tree is an American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), native to eastern U.S. from Florida to northern Pennsylvania. Until they are dead ripe, most American persimmons taste awful, with an astringency that dries out your mouth. (As Captain John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, wrote, “When a persimmon is not ripe, it will draw a man’s mouth awrie with much torment.”) Some persimmons never lose that astringency, even when ripe, and here, in the northern reaches of persimmon growing, the season isn’t long enough to ripen most persimmons.Ducks not sharing persimmon fruits
    But good persimmons, when ripe, taste like dried apricots that have been soaked in water, dipped in honey, and given a dash of spice. Mine are selected varieties that ripen this far north, the first, Mohler, beginning in early September, and the second, Szukis, beginning in early October. (I grafted both varieties on one tree.) They also set fruit without the need for the separate male pollinator that most American persimmons require.
    I highly recommend planting an American persimmon tree. Besides bearing delicious fruit, the tree is attractive all season long and shows off its pretty bark in winter. All this, without the need for spraying or pruning. (I wrote about American persimmon in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)Persimmon fruits on tree

And the Winning Tomatoes Are . . .

    As of this writing, tomato plants have not been killed by cold. But with cool weather and disease, they’re pretty much done for the season, bearing few or no fruits. That is, except for Sungold, the most tasty variety of cherry tomato. It just keeps pumping out ropes of orange fruits.
    I grew over 20 varieties of tomatoes this year, all heirlooms, except for Sungold. My main criterion for planting any variety is flavor, which was very similar for certain varieties of tomato. They did differ in productivity, my second criterion for choosing a variety. So next year I plan to pare down the number of varieties I grow to the best tasting, most productive ones.
    Topping that list will be San Marzano. Right off the plant, eating one is like eating bland cotton. Thrown into pot with a little water to prevent burning and simmered till soft, and the flavor morphs to tart, tomato-y richness. No wonder, canned San Marzano tomatoes are labeled as such in Italy.
    Moving on to fresh eating tomatoes . . . Sungold, of course, with eight plants supplying enough for grazing outdoors and salads indoors. Anna Russian, Paul Robeson, and Red Brandywine all have excellent flavor and bore well and late into the season. Anna Russian is also quite good for paste.
    Carmello and Valencia are good-tasting tomatoes, although not as good as Anna Russian and company. I’ll grow these two because they’re also very productive, and their fruits are almost perfect spheres. Many heirloom fruits are interesting for their convoluted shapes but sometimes I want just a standard issue, round tomato (that also tastes good).
    One more possible variety is from seed a reader sent me a few years ago, a variety labeled Winterkeeper. The fruits allegedly store very well. The plants are still growing well; soon I’ll see how long into fall I’ll be eating tomato sandwiches. Ones I’ve already sampled have pretty good flavor.

Persistent, Young, and Vigorous

    Every time I walk back to the compost bin and see the volunteer tomato vine insinuating itself out of a gap in the slats of the bin, I’m reminded of the importance of crop rotation. This vine is still lush and green, and laden with perfect, red, pear-shaped tomatoes.
    Sure, the vine could be healthy because its roots are running through the rich, brown compost within the bin. Perhaps the vine is so healthy because, as a random seedling, its genetics, by lucky chance, makes it so.
    Most likely, this plant is so healthy and productive because it’s growing where no tomato has grown before. No disease spores linger there from previous crops of tomatoes. (The plant got a late start for the season, so its youthful vigor could also have a hand in its health.) Compost pile tomato
    I rotate my tomato beds every year, but that only puts them 10 feet or so from beds of the previous year. That’s the problem with home gardens; it’s hard to get plants far enough away from where they recently were. Thorough cleanup and mulching help, but go only so far.
    I have the luxury of two vegetable gardens separated by 50 feet of lawn, one of which hasn’t been home to tomatoes for over a year. Next year it will be.
    The flavor of the compost-grown tomato? Good enough, not great.



   My ducks told me that the hardy kiwifruits were ripe. No, they’re not trained to give a specialized “hardy kiwifruit ripe” quack. Instead, they’ve taken to hanging out beneath the vines to scoop up dropped fruits. No training needed for this.

Hardy kiwifruits trained for easy harvest

Hardy kiwifruits trained for easy harvest

    Those dropped fruits are one reason that these vines — Actinidia kolomikta — are not as popular for fruit as another species, Actinidia arguta. Ripening, and dropping, is fast in the heat of July. Arguta kiwis ripen in late summer and early fall, and possibly cling to the vines more reliably then because cooler weather slows ripening.
    Not that either of the fruits are well known. Both are cousins to the fuzzy kiwis (A. deliciosa), ubiquitous in supermarkets. Both hardy kiwis differ from the fuzzies in being cold-hardy (only to 0°F for the fuzzy as compared to minus 30°F for A. arguta and to minus 40°F for A. kolomikta), grape-sized, with smooth, edible skins, and better flavor than the fuzzies.
    In addition to ripening earlier and dropping more readily, kolomikta kiwis differ from arguta kiwis in coming into bearing much sooner, often in their second year, and growing much less rampantly. Argutas are hard vines to tame. Ornamental vines of both species gracing historic gardens for decades before their fruits were noticed and appreciated is testimonial to their beauty. Kolomikta’s leaves are brushed silvery white with random pink blushes.

Variegated leaves of A. kolomikta

Variegated leaves of A. kolomikta

   Back to harvest. Harvest from the ground is unfeasible because the green fruits are too hard to find among the blades of green grass. And unhealthy because of all the processed kiwifruits — poop — the ducks eject at their far end as they gobble up the berries. A ground cloth to catch the berries would become similarly soiled unless I went to the trouble of spreading it, shaking the vines, then gathering up the cloth after gathering up the fruits.

Hardy kiwifruit harvest into inverted umbrella

Hardy kiwifruit harvest into inverted umbrella

    Instead, I’ve taken to walking beneath the vines with a large umbrella, upturned, and shaking portions of the vines right above the umbrella. Ripe fruit drop into the waiting “funnel.” Sure, many fruits are lost, but the vine bears more than enough to share with the ducks, who can enjoy the missed fruits.


    Like apples, bananas, and avocados, kiwifruits of all stripes are climacteric fruits. Instead of steady ripening, climacteric fruits, just before they are ready to eat, go through a burst of ripening with sugar levels and carbon dioxide production all of a sudden rapidly increasing. Fruit quality begins to decline right after this burst.
    Ethylene, a simple gas that is also a naturally occurring plant hormone, also spikes during this burst. And ethylene further accelerates ripening, which increases ethylene production even more, which increases ripening even more, and . . .  Disease, wounds, and decay also stimulate ethylene production, which is why “one rotten apple spoils the barrel.”
    If picked when sufficiently mature, but not dead ripe, kiwifruits store well for a few weeks. They’ll ripen during storage, slower under refrigeration, faster at room temperature. From experience, I know that “sufficiently mature” for kiwis is when the first fruits start ripening. So, in addition to my umbrella harvesting, I’m harvesting a bunch of the unripe fruits and refrigerating them to extend their season. Don’t worry; there’ll still be plenty for the ducks.


    Every time I walk back to the kiwi vines, I pass a perennial flower bed. Or, at least, what was supposed to be a flower bed and now is bordering on half flowers and half weeds. The major two weeds, I admit, are my own doing.
    The first of these weeds is dayflower, which arrived here with some bee balm plants from a friend. It’s actually a pretty plant with small, blue flowers, and it’s easy and satisfying to pull out. To a point.

Groundnut tubers, in years' past

Groundnut tubers, in years’ past

    The other weed, groundnut, was a deliberate planting, by me, about 20 years ago. It seemed interesting, bearing edible, golf-ball-sized tubers that string along underground like beads. Groundnut reputedly is the food that got the pilgrim’s through their first winter. Occasionally the plant, a vine, flowers, bearing chains of pale chocolate-colored blossoms. Do I remember them smelling like chocolate also? Perhaps. With all the other vegetation in the bed, the plants haven’t flowered in a long time.

Groundnut flowers

Groundnut flowers

 The problem is that those chains of tubers spread to make more chains of tubers which, in turn, do likewise, ad infinitum. The vines now creep over almost every plant in that bed but rarely get enough space to themselves to make tubers anymore. No matter. They didn’t taste that good anyway.
    I wasn’t as foolish as might seem planting groundnut in that flower bed. Twenty years ago that flower bed wasn’t a flower bed, but just a place for interesting plants in my then small garden.


Have Fun, You Silly Ducks

    Wouldn’t you know it: I write about the extended dry spell one week, and the next week, which is now, the rain comes and doesn’t let up. Not that all this rain makes me regret having a drip irrigation system watering my garden. Rainfall could come screeching to a halt and send us into another dry spell.

Ducks, off to work and play

Ducks, off to work and play

     My five Indian runner ducks offer many advantages here on the farmden, not the least of which is affording me the pleasure of watching creatures that actually enjoy cool, rainy weather. The ducks also are entertaining and decorative, spend much of their days scooping insects and slugs out of the lawn and meadow and into their bills, and, especially when living on that diet of insects, slugs, and greenery, lay very tasty eggs. The downside to ducks is that they are dumb, and don’t know to stay out of the road.
    My four chickens offer many of the same advantages as the ducks, except they never seem as at peace with the world as do the ducks. Also, chickens scratch. Scratching at the bases of mulched trees and shrubs exposes roots; scratching elsewhere wrenches young transplants out of the ground.
    Chickens abhor rainy weather.

You ‘Shrooms, Also Enjoy This Weather

    Mushrooms I “planted” last spring are, like the ducks, reveling in this rainy change. “Planting” these mushrooms involved nothing more than pounding short lengths of wooden dowels, purchased with shiitake mushroom spawn growing in them, into numerous holes drilled in freshly cut pin oak logs. A cap of hot wax over each plug sealed in moisture. The 4-foot-long by 4” diameter logs lay in a shady place through summer while being colonized by thin threads of fungal hyphae growing out from the plugs.

Shiitake logs fruiting

Shiitake logs fruiting

   This spring was to be the start of a few years of “fruiting,” that is, making mushrooms, the spore bearing structures of fungi that taste so good sautéed with some onions and butter or olive oil. Dry weather of the past few weeks was slowing the mushrooms’ first appearance, so I decided to shock them. Just bouncing the end of a log against a hard surface, such as a sidewalk, sometimes wakes them up. I opted for a water shock treatment, giving the logs a 24 hour soak in a shallow kiddie pool.
    Right on schedule, within a week of being soaked, mushrooms began popping out all over the logs. With their ends levered into the horizontal openings of a metal fence gate tipped on its side against a tree, the logs and their attendant mushrooms are cantilevered out, perched above slugs and other organisms that might have enjoyed nibbling the fruits of my labor.
    The shock treatment has resulted in a mushroom tsunami. Excess go into the dehydrator, which has them crispy dry and ready for long term storage in about 4 hours. Once the tsunami ends, the fungi need to rest for a month and a half before they’re ready for another shock. Or I can do nothing, and let nature pump out mushrooms more slowly over a longer period of time. Of course, if this rain keeps up — 3 inches in the last couple of days — another tsunami might anyway be in the offing.

And I Can Plant . . . White Strawberries

    With the ground thoroughly soaked, it’s a good time to get plants in the ground . . . except in wet, clay soils. Working a wet clay ruins the almost crystalline structure that develops when it is well managed. Then, instead of the small particles aggregating together to make larger particles with larger pores in between them, letting air into the soil, the structure is reduced to only small unaggregated particles. Spaces between these small particles are so small that they draw in water by capillary action, and there’s no room available for air, which plant roots need. Good for pottery, bad for plants. Wait for any clay soil to dry a bit before digging in it, until it crumbles between your fingers with just a little pressure.
    My soil is a silt loam that’s been enriched with plenty of compost, which helps aggregation, so I can plant now, even right after rain.

'Pineapple Crush' strawberries

‘Pineapple Crush’ strawberries

    Among the plants I’ll be setting in the ground will be strawberries, right in a garden bed. Strawberries, you wonder? Big deal. But these are alpine strawberries. Okay, many people grow alpine strawberries. But these are white alpine strawberries, white, that is, even when dead ripe.
    Alpine strawberries are different from common garden strawberries in that they are a different species (Fragaria vesca), they don’t make runners, and both the plants and fruits are small, the latter about the size of a nickel. Previously, I’ve put a few in pots sitting along my front path for a nibble on the way to the door, or a few at the foot of garden beds, again, for a nibble, here while working in the garden. I want to see how the plants do under the better growing conditions of compost-enriched soil and drip irrigation right in a garden bed.
    Alpine strawberries are small but have very intense flavor, which needs to be fully developed before being picked. I especially like the white ones’ flavor, which can develop fully because, being white when ripe, they’re ignored by birds. The variety name Pineapple Crush gives a good approximation of the flavor.