Saying It is Easy; Naming It, Not so Easy

Pinch your nose with your fingers and say “on.” Follow that with a long, drawn out, “d-e-e-e-e-v,” your mouth in a smile to get emphasis on the e’s. Endive. I once considered endive to be lackluster in flavor, so needed to be offset with this highfalutin pronunciation. After many years of growing endive, I’ve come to recognize a more distinct flavor, nutty and just slightly bitter.

Endive, frisee & escarole

Endive, frisee & escarole

(This is the first time I’ve used “nutty” to describe a flavor, having recently figured out what it means. Nut-like. Duh. Hints of nuttiness are found in the flavors of many foods, including seeds, wines, beans oils, cheeses, fish, and, of course, almonds, hazelnuts, and other actual nuts. Since writing the above description of endive flavor, I learned that others have also described its flavor as nutty. QED)

Read more


Compressed Gardening Experience

People are so ready to sit at the feet of any long-time gardener to glean words of wisdom. I roll my eyes. Someone who has gardened for ten, twenty, even more years might make the same mistakes every year for that number of years. I, for instance, swung a scythe wrong for 20 years; I may have it right now. Even a wizened gardener who has evaluated and corrected their mistakes has garnered experience only on their own plot of land; these experience may not apply to the differing soils, climates, and resources of other sites.
Lineup of my books
When I began gardening, my agricultural knowledge and experience was nil, zip, niets, rien, nada. But — and this is important — I had easy access to a whole university library devoted solely to agriculture. Hungry to learn, I read a lot. (I also was taking classes in agriculture.) In one year I was able to garner years of, if not actual experience, much of the knowledge that comes with that experience. And my garden showed it.

I’ve now gardened many decades and still gobble up the written word.

All of which is to say that reading reputable sources about gardening can make anyone a much better gardener and do so quicker than by gardening alone. “Reputable” is a key word in the previous sentence. So here’s the, to use the phrase of Magliozzi brothers on the radio show Cartalk, Shameless Commerce Division of this blog: a plug for my books. I stand firmly by anything I’ve written and am open to criticism.

Here’s the book list, all available from the usual sources or, signed, from me through this website (good gift idea, also):

A Northeast Gardener’s Year: A month by month romp through all things garden-wise, what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.
The Pruning Book: Plant responses, pruning tools, how to prune just about every plant (indoor, outdoor), and final sections on specialized pruning techniques, such as scything and espalier.
Weedless Gardening: A four-part system, emulating Mother Nature and based on current agricultural research, that makes for less weeds and healthier plants, along with other benefits such as more efficient use of water and conservation of humus.
Landscaping with Fruit: Following introductory chapters about designing your landscape is a listing of the best fruits to use for “luscious landscaping” in various regions and how to grow each of these fruiting trees, shrubs, vines, and groundcovers.
Grow Fruit Naturally: Describes multi-faceted approaches to growing fruits without resorting to toxic sprays, starting with selecting kinds of fruits and varieties and moving on to encouraging natural predators, beefing up the soil, and more.
The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden: Knowing some of the science behind what’s going on in the garden can make you an even better gardener; here’s how.

Vegetable Finale

And now, on to some gardening . . .

I’ve said it before and Yogi Berra said it before me, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Last night’s temperature plummeting to 18°F was still not enough to put the brakes on the vegetable garden. Beneath their covered “tunnels,” arugula, mustard, endive, and napa Chinese cabbage still thrive. Along with mâche and kale, which aren’t under cover, all these greens are looking as perky as ever and, most important, taste better than ever.

Interestingly, temperatures I’ve measured within the tunnels are not that different — actually, not different at all — from temperatures I’ve measured outdoors. But something’s different. The increased humidity under the tunnels is probably at least partially responsible for the fresh tastes and appearances.
Endive in tunnel
It’s a wonder that these tender, succulent leaves tolerate such temperatures. You’d think the liquid in their cells would freeze and burst the contents to smithereens. That would have been the case if the 18°F had come on suddenly, without any precedents. 

Plants aren’t passive players in the garden. Increasingly cold weather and shortening days acclimated these plants to cold. (A month ago, temperatures dropped one night to 16°F.) Plants move water in and out of their cells, as needed, to avoid freezing injury. And increasing concentrations of dissolved minerals and sugars in the cells make the water freeze at lower temperatures. Perhaps that’s one reason why these vegetables taste so good. The tunnels also slow down swings in temperature, giving plants time to move water in and out of their cells and whatever else they do preparing for and recovering from cold.

Too many people, even gardeners(!), consider endive as nothing more than a bitter, green leaf best used as garnish. Reconsider. Given close spacing so that inner leaves of each head blanche from low light along with cool and cold temperatures, and endive takes on a wonderful, rich flavor. Blanched interior of endiveOnly the slightest hint of bitterness remains, enough to make the taste more lively — delicious in salads, soups, and sandwiches.

Fruit Finale

The last fruits of the season, Szukis American persimmon, were harvested last week after over a month of eating them. Definitely the easiest fruit I grow. No pruning, no pest control. And definitely one of the tastiest: imagine a dried apricot soaked in water, dipped in honey, then given a dash of spice.
Persimmons on tree in December
Fruits were very mushy for the final harvests — perfect for a jam. Squeezing a bunch of the fruits in a mesh bag (such as used for women’s “delicates” in a washing machine) pushed out Making persimmon jamthe pulp without seeds. No sweetener needed. Just jar it up and refrigerate (keeps about 2 weeks) or freeze. Delicious.


The Morning After

Endive Galore

I don’t know if was a case of green thumbness or the weather, but my bed of endive is now almost as frightening as a zucchini planting in summer. The bed, 3 feet wide by 20 feet long, is solid green with endive plants, each and every plant looking as if it’s been pumped up on steroids.Endive bed

I sowed seeds in 4 by 6 inch seed trays around August 1st, “pricked out” the seedlings into individual growing cells filled with homemade potting soil about a week later, and  transplanted them into the garden in the beginning of September. The bed had been home to one of this summer’s planting of sweet corn (Golden Bantam), a heavy feeder, so after clearing the corn I slathered the bed with an inch depth of pure compost.

Perhaps the vigor of these plants also reflects the extra space I gave them. In years past I would cram 3 rows into a 3-foot-wide bed. Because we never can eat all the endive I plant, this year I planted only 2 rows down the bed. Hating to see any wasted space in the garden, I set a row of lettuce transplants, now eaten, up the middle of the bed. The endive plants have opportunistically expanded to fill whatever space they can.

Fortunately, there’s no rush to eat all that greenery. The bigger they get, the more the endives’ leaves fold in on themselves to create blanched, succulent leaves of a loose head. Upcoming cooler weather also brings out the best flavor in these plants. After being covered with clear plastic, which I’ll support with a series of metal hoops, the endive should remain flavorful for weeks to come. That’s assuming the muscular plants can be fit beneath the hoops and plastic.

I do have a Plan B: Just as zucchini bread was invented as a way to deal with zucchini excess, white bean and escarole soup might be just the ticket for my escarole “problem.”

Floating Row Cover

Another bed, planted from seed sown on August 15th, is also full of greenery. Not nearly as dense, though, which is okay because the bed is planted for its roots. Up the bed run 2 rows of turnips and one row of winter radishes.

One year I couldn’t see the turnip and radish bed because I had hidden it beneath a “floating row cover.” Floating row covers, which let water, light, and air pass through, are so lightweight that they can be just laid on top of the ground to be pushed up by growing plants. That year, I made it even easier on my plants by propping the covers up with the same kinds of metal hoops that will hold the clear plastic over the endive bed once the weather turns cold.  The row of hoops propping up the plastic creates a tunnel that, every year, looks like a sleeping, giant, white caterpillar. Garden view, the morning after

The purpose of the floating row cover was to block the root maggots that typically tunnel into many — too many — of my turnip and radish roots. Beneficial nematodes are supposed to help deal with that problem, but have been — in my experience, at least — ineffectual.

This year, for no apparent reason, most of the turnips and radishes are free of maggot attack.

A View From Above

Every morning I look down from my second story bedroom window at the garden. Closest in view is the bed of endive; looking further back, my eyes come to the back of the garden, where a row of tall, thin evergreens stand sentry to block the view of the compost piles. Those evergreens, spires of the Emerald (also known as Smaragd and Emerald Green) variety of arborvitae, are among the commonest of landscape plants. I like them.Garden view from bedroom window

The trees are at their upper limit of 15 feet high and 5 feet wide, and create a perfect screen without needing too much elbow room. They’re also perfect for injecting a bit of civility to the more frowsy gooseberry bushes and overgrown (at least till I prune them) grapevines in the foreground. Some arborvitaes turn a muddy green in winter but Emerald keeps its vibrant green color.

To the north, just beyond the garden is another row of spires, five plants of a juniper variety called Gold Cone. Each plant will mature to 10 feet tall with a spread of a mere 3 feet, just enough to hide my Cool Bot walk-in cooler, now home to boxes of apples, pears, pawpaws, cabbages, carrots, and persimmons. Livening things up is the gold coloration at the tips of Gold Cone branches.



Cleanup Time Re-Starts in Veggie Garden

Warmer weather, even if it’s not all that warm, makes me feel like spring is just around the corner. The ground — in my vegetable beds, at least — isn’t even frozen, no doubt because water doesn’t linger long in the well-drained soil and because the dark-colored compost blanket I laid down in autumn sucks up the sun’s warmth.

So yesterday seemed like a perfect time to continue the garden cleanup that screeched to a halt when frigid weather struck, and some snow fell, a couple of months ago. Old cabbage heads that never quite ripened were laying on the ground like ratty, pale green tennis balls (with stalks attached). The four-foot-high stalk of one Brussels sprouts plant, stripped in autumn of its sprouts, stood sentry like a decrepit soldier in the same bed.Kale in winter

Of course, kale also still stood, except for those that flopped to the ground under their own weight. The latter were mostly the variety Tuscan (Lanciata). The Dwarf Blue Scotch plants, which I think taste better, stood more upright and compact, helped along, I’ll admit, with some bamboo stakes pushed into the ground next to them back in summer. I dug up the Tuscan kale plants and stripped yellowed and flaccid leaves from the Dwarf Blue Scotch plants. My guess is that by April they’ll be unfolding new, tasty leaves.

Stepping over to another bed, I twisted or coaxed out, with the help of my Hori-Hori knife, stumps from harvested lettuce and Chinese cabbage. A row of arugula in that bed showed enough life to awaken in spring with fresh, new leaves. I left it.

All this cleanup gets a jump on spring and removes debris that might harbor insect or disease pests that could infest or infect this season’s plants. The debris went into my garden cart and thence to the compost pile. The winter pile doesn’t heat up, so I’ll give the bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes, and earthworms two years to get their jobs done, killing off any “bad guys.”

Cursed Voles!

Stepping over to the remains of the endive bed that I planted towards the end of last summer and began harvesting in October — what havoc has been wreaked!

The bed had been covered with a tunnel of clear plastic and row cover to provide extra warmth to the plants in cold weather. Extra warmth also to some furry creatures, it seems.

Taking off the cover, I saw a bed riddled with tunnels along with the scattered remains of unharvested endive plants. This has happened in the past; something about endive seems particularly attractive to the furry creatures (and to me), which I assume are voles, which are mouse-like creatures.Endive with mouse damage

My garden must be vole heaven. The cat rarely hops the garden fence to hunt because she has to cross the DMZ zone to get to the garden, and she’s scared of our dog, Sammy. The compost-enriched soil has plenty of earthworm for good eating, as well as all the tasty, organic produce. So far, though, the voles have been satisfied with just the endive.

Short of planting the cat in the garden, which Sammy can’t enter, my plan is to do extensive trapping. One web site recommendation for a small garden is for twelve traps baited with oatmeal and peanut butter, or with apple.

As consolation, vole populations are said to decline after 3 to 5 years. It’s almost time, although the declined population might still be too many for me. And all is not bad with voles; they help stir the soil to distribute nutrients.

Pre-Season Warmup

While in the garden, I also did some pre-season weeding. Creeping Charlie, which enjoys cool weather, is always sneaking in here and there once I turn my attention away from the garden.

All this garden cleaning and straightening up isn’t all for practicality. It makes the view of the garden each morning from my second floor bedroom window prettier.



First Harvest At Season’s End

Finally, I’m harvesting endive from the garden, just as planned when I settled seeds into mini-furrows in a seed flat back in July. After leaves unfolded on the seedlings, I gently lifted them up and out of their seed flat, helping them up with a spatula slid beneath their roots, and into individual cells in a GrowEase Seed Starter.Endive seedlings

Also as planned, a bed in the vegetable garden was freed up from harvested sweet corn in early September. After removing corn stalks and slathering an inch of compost on top of the bed, the endive plants were snuggled in, 2 rows down the 3-foot-wide bed, with one foot between the plants in each row. In October, I laid row cover over the plants, plus a tunnel of clear plastic film supported by hoops, to protect plants from bitterest cold.Endive under plastic tunnel

Endive harvest could have begun earlier. But there was no need to, with so much other fresh salad fixings in the garden. And cold weather anyway helps bring out the best in endive. The inner leaves, partially blanched as they folded in among themselves from close planting, are now especially sweet, succulent, tender, and tasty. 

What Endive, Who?

Just to be clear on the identity of my endive, it’s botanically Cichorium endivia var. latifolia, also called escarole, broad-leaved endive, or Batavian endive. Besides delicious fresh, it’s a key ingredient in the classic Italian white bean and endive soup.

I used to also grow another endive, C. endivia var. crispum, also called curly endive or frisée. It’s very similar, except for frilly leaves. In my experience, it’s less succulent and more easily damaged by cold.endive and beets

We’re not yet finished with “endives.” There’s also Cichorium intybus, also known as Belgian endive or witloof chicory, with small heads that are torpedo-shaped and pale green or white.

More machinations are needed to grow this Belgian endive, beginning with sowing in spring and waiting the whole season for a large taproot to develp. At season’s end, the roots are dug up, trimmed to a foot or so long, then packed together upright in boxes of loose potting soil, sawdust, or anything else that will hold moisture. The roots resprout, and the goal is to keep the developing heads in the dark, either by putting a few inch depth of sawdust or sand over the roots or by keeping the whole box in darkness. Too much trouble for me. Plus, very little flavor. (Also, mine weren’t all that successful.)

Bye, Bye Asparagus

Speaking of pale leaves, I’m happy that my asparagus’ leaves yellowed a couple of weeks ago. The plants had been growing vigorously all season since harvest ended in July, the green stems and leaves gathering sunlight to pump energy down to the roots, to store and then fuel next year’s growth of the young spears. Finally, the plants yellowed as what nutrients were still left in the stems and leaves headed downward, to the roots.

My short-bladed brush scythe was the perfect tool to make quick work of the plants, a fluffy addition to the compost pile.

After July, germinating and growing weeds became too hard to reach and root out among the 6-foot-high forest of feathery stalks. With the asparagus shoots and leaves cleared away, I was recently able get into that bed for a final weeding. The two-inch-deep mulch of leaf mold I spread after weeding will slow weeds down next year, conserve soil moisture, and feed soil microbes and, in turn, the asparagus plants for what I predict will be a bountiful harvest.


 Beds Ready for Spring Planting, Figs and Lettuces Readied for Cold

Much colder weather has been sneaking in and out of the garden but leaving traces of its presence with some blackened leaves on frost-sensitive plants and threatening to brazenly show itself in full force sometime soon. This fall I vow to put all in order before that event rather than, on some very cold night, running around, flashlight in hand, gathering and protecting plants.

Before even getting to the plants, drip irrigation must be readied for winter. Main lines and drip lines can remain outdoors but right near the spigot, the timer, the filter, and pressure reducer must be brought indoors where they won’t freeze. I plug the inlet for the drip’s main line to keep out curious insects. At the far end of the line is a cap that I loosen enough to let water drain out. Opening all other valves along the line leaves no dead ends in which freezing water could expand to break lines.

Begonia, amaryllis, Maid of Orleans jasmine (Jasminium sambac), and other topical plants are next in importance. Being near the radiating warmth of the house has spared them recent slightly frosty nights. Colder temperatures would not be so kind. I snap the stems off the begonias right at ground level and put the pots in the basement where cool temperatures will keep the tubers dormant to wait out winter. Amaryllis plants also go into the basement. Cool temperatures and lack of water for a couple of months give these plants the rest period they need so that, brought upstairs to a warm, sunny window, their blossoms can show off their bright, red color against the achromatic winter landscape beyond.

Maid of Orleans jasmine right away gets a prominent place in a sunny window to share its nonstop, sweet fragrant blossoms.

Figs, Pomegranates, & Subtropicals Readied for Cold, But Not Too Much

Fig, pineapple guava, Chilean guava, and pomegranate are subtropical plants that tolerate temperatures down into the ‘teens so can remain outdoors for weeks to come. Still, many of these plants are in large pots, not something I want to be lugging around following at last minute threat of frigid temperatures. So I’ll gather them together in a convenient location for quick dispatch indoors when needed.

Potted subtropical plants are getting ready for colder -- but not too cold -- weather

Potted subtropical plants are getting ready for colder — but not too cold — weather

The guavas, as well as kumquat and common jasmine (Jasminium officinale), are evergreen subtropical plants. The leaves are important to these plants both for beauty and for function so they’ll make the move indoors before the other subtropicals to make sure their leaves go into winter undamaged.

Common jasmine stays out longest because some exposure to cold is needed to get blossoms in winter.

Cold Weather Vegetables for Weeks to Come

The vegetable garden is still green with endive, kale, lettuce, turnips, Brussels sprouts, arugula, and other cold-hardy vegetables. Soon, though, their cold tolerances will be tested. I’ll pre-empt that testing by covering some of the beds with tunnels of fabric (“fleece” to the Brits, “floating row covers” to us colonists) or clear plastic. No need yet to cover the plants but better to have the metal hoops which support the fleece or plastic in place and ready for the covering before that frigid night to come.

Metal hoops readied to support covers for lettuce.

Metal hoops readied to support covers for lettuce.

Not all hardy vegetables get covered; just the leafy ones — lettuce, mustard, arugula, and endive — for fresh salads in the weeks to come. Brussels sprouts and kale are so cold hardy that they can go for weeks without protection, and, anyway, they’re too tall to cover. Leeks also can stay outdoors unprotected until December, or later, then get dug up and packed together in a box or large pot to store in the basement and use as needed.

Carrots, beets, turnips, and winter radishes enjoy the protection of the earth. With a deep mulch of leaves or straw, they could remain tender and unfrozen all winter. More convenient for eating is to dig them up just before really frigid weather descends on the garden and pack them in boxes with dry leaves to store in the cool temperatures of the basement. I’m putting off deciding which option to choose.

Fresh Lettuce ‘Til When?

Someone recently told me that they gardened maniacally all summer and now they are finished for the season  . . . which reminds me of some more things that I still have to do. Plant garlic. I planted cloves back in early September; a second planting, now, will give some indication if early or late planting is better. Mulch blueberries as soon as their leaves all drop. Sift compost and garden soil into buckets to store for making potting soil in late winter. Cut down asparagus plants after the tops yellow, and mulch the bed. Clean up spent vegetable beds of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants and spread them with an inch depth of compost. Mow hayfield and lawn to expose rodents to predators and, in the hayfield, to keep blackberry, sumac, and autumn olive from taking over. Plant bulbs (a large, naturalized planting of alliums; more on that some other time).

Metal hoops readied to support covers for lettuce.

Beds readied for spring, and lettuce readied for winter

I’d also like to divide older plants in a flower bed and dig out weeds that are starting to think they’re home. And build a rustic fence to hid the propane tank for the greenhouse.

I’m not yet ready to throw in the trowel for this season.

End of Summer? Enter the Fall Garden.

Fading Summer Brings in Fall Greens, and Hollyhocks for Cheer

There’s a flurry of seed sowing and setting out of transplants going on here. Am I deluded that it’s springtime? No. Autumn is around the corner and there are vegetables to be planted.

For many gardeners, summer’s end and the garden’s end are one and the same. But planning for and planting an autumn vegetable garden bypasses the funereal look of waning tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and other vegetables that thrive only with summer heat and long days of sunshine, and puts plenty of fresh vegetables on the table. Having an autumn vegetable garden is like having a whole new garden, one that gradually fades in, like a developing photograph, as summer vegetables fade out.

Autumn vegetables come to the fore as tomatoes fade away

Autumn vegetables come to the fore as tomatoes fade away


Which is why today I tucked two dozen endive transplants into a double row of holes spaced fifteen inches apart in a three-foot-wide bed. And which is why, in a different bed two weeks ago, I sowed a row of Watermelon winter radishes (the resemblance to watermelon only in the color of their innards), a row of turnips, and a row of Chinese cabbage. Also, why back in March, seeds of Brussels sprouts were sown, the seedlings of which were transplanted to yet another bed last May.

Not that the time has passed for planting any autumn vegetables; plenty of vegetables that enjoy the cool moistness of autumn are still to be sown. This week, I plant to sow lettuce, spring radishes, arugula, mustard, and spinach. 

Edamame Out, Endive In

The question might arise as to where to plant all these autumn vegetables when the garden is already overflowing with summer vegetables. Overflowing, really?
I planted the endive transplants in a bed that I had just cleared of edamame plants; edamame bear over a period of a couple of weeks and then they’re done, which they were. Likewise, a whole bed of onions and a first planting of corn are finishing up, freeing up space for planting. Even the bed from the second planting of corn will be freed up the end of August.


Endive transplants go where edamame once grew

Endive transplants go where edamame once grew

Harvest of bush beans does not halt as abruptly as that of corn, onions, or edamame. Nonetheless, the bean harvest does begin to taper down after two or three weeks, so out went the first planting of bush beans a couple of weeks ago. A second planting, sown in a different bed three weeks after the first planting, took up the slack, and today I’m pulling even those plants out of the ground. Pole bean plants will keep green beans on our plates until frosty weather, which it what it takes to put a stop those plants.

Can’t Help But Smile With Hollyhocks

My garden isn’t only about food. I’m also sowing some flower seeds now, not to blossom in autumn but to get a jump on next spring.
This past spring I sowed seeds of Apricot-Peach Parfait hollyhocks (from Right now, the plants’ seven-foot-high spires are studded along their length with frilly blossoms in delicious shades of apricot and rosy-peach. I want more.

Spires of Apricot-Peach Parfait hollyhocks add a smile to the garden.

Spires of Apricot-Peach Parfait hollyhocks add a smile to the garden.


Hollyhock self-seeds so future population growth could be left to the vagaries of nature and weather. But overly diligent weeding or mulching might quash newcomers, so I’m going to sow more seeds. Hollyhock is a biennial or short-lived perennial so that self-seeding habit is welcome.

As either a short-lived perennial or biennial, hollyhocks tend to grow just leaves their first year and flower their second year — then die if they behave like a biennial, or go on to flower for more years if they are perennial. I was able to get flowers this season from spring-sown seeds because I planted the seed early and the seedlings spent their first few weeks of growth in the greenhouse. (Through breeding, some varieties of hollyhock behave as annuals, and bloom reliably their first year — but not as seven-foot-high spires.)

Planting the seed in late summer guarantees that the plants will bloom next year, and earlier than spring-sown plants. Cool weather of late fall and late winter helps trigger the flowering response.

Delphinium is another flower to sow this week. In addition to the advantages of enjoying spires of blue flowers earlier and more reliably next summer, delphinium seeds sprout more reliably if fresh, which they are more likely to be in autumn than the following spring. Chilling the dry seed — some sources suggest stratification, that is, chilling the moist seed — for a week or so also is said to help wake it up.

Once seedlings of hollyhocks and delphiniums get going, they’ll need special accommodations to get through winter. After all, they’ll still be tender, baby plants when the weather turns frigid. The goal is to keep them alive and growing slowly going into winter. I’ll either tuck the pots close together in the cold frame or in the slightly warmer large window in my barely heated basement.

Cold? No Problem.

Brrrr! The mercury plummeted to nine degrees Fahrenheit in my garden a couple of weeks ago. Yet I was still harvesting fresh salad greens. And I don’t mean kale and Brussels sprouts; they’re tasty and still available in my “back forty,” but tender and succulent they are not. Likewise, I don’t mean turnips, carrots, or other root crops that can nestle in the relative warmth of the earth. (My root crops anyway were pulled and packed away into a box for winter storage.)
What I am talking about is lettuce, endive, and Chinese cabbage. These vegetables, which ARE tender and succulent, must have antifreeze in their cells to be able to remain so in the face of such cold temperatures. Actually, that’s not far off: With gradual exposure to increasingly colder temperatures, cold-hardy plants are able to move water out of their cells into the spaces between the cells, where freezing would cause less damage. Moving water out of the cells also concentrates the solution within the cells and — if you remember from your high school chemistry — concentrating a solution lowers the temperature at which it freezes. Warming weather reverses the process.
Mother Nature had a little hand from me, in the form of row covers, which are diaphanous blankets thrown over plants to offer them additional frost protection. Spun-bonded row covers let light and water pass

through. I’ve used these materials in spring and autumn for many years, but looking through the Harris Seeds catalog (, I came across a “point bonded row cover” which was said to give plants an additional 8 degrees or more of cold protection. That’s a lot.

A few weeks ago, I set metal arches (made from 5-foot lengths of concrete block truss reinforcement) over the rows, cut the row cover to 6 foot widths, and laid it over the hoops secured by additional metal hoops over the row cover. The material evidently is very effective; my guess is that endive and lettuce are cold-hardy to the low 20s and the row cover would bring protection down to the low to mid ‘teens. But this was 9° F.!
Row covers represent a trade-off between cold protection and light transmittance. Generally, the  heavier the row cover material, the warmer the temperature under the cover and the less light reaches the plants.
So in early spring, I’ve use a 1.25 ounce cover to speed along growth of new plants. This cover lets about 70% of the sunlight penetrate and keeps plants about 3° warmer than outside the cover. In early summer, I use an even lighter weight material, 0.55 ounce, to cover my eggplants so flea beetles don’t ravage them. Eighty-five percent of sunlight makes it through this lightweight material.
The point-bonded row cover is a heavier material than row covers I’ve used in the past. Endive, lettuce, and Chinese cabbages are now snuggled under 2 ounce fabric. Only about 30% of the sunlight, which is sparse anyway this time of year, makes it through this material. But the plants are fully grown, so don’t need to grow. To just stay alive, now, they need cold protection more than light.
So I’m driving along here in New York’s Hudson Valley and what do I see growing wild along the

roadside? A cactus. A cactus growing wild outdoors wouldn’t be an oddity in Arizona, but New York doesn’t have the climate and soils usually associated with cactii.

The Eastern Prickly Pear or Indian Fig (Opuntia humifusa) actually grows wild throughout the eastern parts of North America. You’re most likely to come upon the plant growing in a sunny spot in well-drained soil. Not the one I found, though. This plant was growing on a rock face, which is well drained, on an east-facing slope right at the edge of woods. Not particularly sunny.
Prickly pear cactus can be oddly attractive, even edible. The pads, once the spines have been rubbed off (not with bare hands) can eaten be raw or cooked. The red fruits are also edible. The Opuntia species usually eaten is O. ficus-indica, which is not hardy in cold climates. Even that species never tasted that good to me so I wasn’t anxious to try eating any of the roadside plant.

Also, in New York, Eastern prickly pear is classified as an “‘exploitably vulnerable species,’” which is a plant likely to become threatened in the near future throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges within the state if causal factors continue unchecked.”

I lied; I did pick off one fruit for tasting. It was seedy and flavorless. All was not exploitive, though, because I am planting the seeds.
Planted "forest"

Deferred Gratification

Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent, NY, 9/9, Fruit Naturally
Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, NY, 9/22, for Small Gardens


One of the things I like least about gardening is its deferred gratification. I planted a Beurée d’Amanlis pear tree a couple of years ago and don’t expect to sink my teeth into one of its fruits until next year. I planted Indian Summer rudbeckia seeds a couple of weeks ago so that I can enjoy swaths of orange-tinged, yellow blossoms this time next year. Yesterday I transplanted endive seedlings, from seeds sown back in early July, into a garden bed to provide succulent, green leaves for salads, soups, and stews beginning this October.

My mini forest, 15 years old: sugar maple, river birch, buartnut

Not that deferred gratification is all that bad. After all, except for when I began my first garden many decades ago (Madison, Wisconsin on August 1st, and I did reap some beans and tomatoes), all the while that I’m planning for the future I am reaping other rewards of past efforts. This week for instance, I’ve harvested onions, seeds of which I sprinkled into furrows in a seed flat in a cool greenhouse back in February. I’m also enjoying tomatoes of all stripes, the result of seeds planted in early April. And I see a reasonable crop of Magness, the best-tasting of all my pears, getting ready with their final stages of ripening for harvest in a few weeks.

Now that I think of it, though, I do enjoy sowing seeds, planting trees, and other gardening activities that are ostensibly for some future reward. Not to mention the pleasure of watching and coaxing along plants as they develop, everything from a radish seedling, sown last week, to a maple seedling, planted 15 years ago and now about 20 feet high.

I’m reminded of a name I saw on a sign hanging over the entrance to a primitive cabin in the woods of Maine: Quitchyerbitchin. It was not a native American name.

There’s a flurry of deferred gratification in process: planting vegetables for the autumn garden. It’s like a whole new garden, one that begins around mid-September and continues, even here in hardiness Zone 5, into December. 

In between each of the above-mentioned endive seedlings went lettuce plants. Like the endive, the lettuce was sown in a seed flat about a month ago so, like the endive, required no garden space until it became available. That space was donated by my first planting of Golden Bantam sweet corn, sown out in the garden the first week of May and now either eaten or steamed, sliced from cobs, cooled, and packed away in the freezer. The lettuce will be harvested and out of the way by the time the heads of endive  start to spread and fill the bed solid with greenery.

How about another bed, this one just cleared of onions? Into that bed I just planted a row of turnips and a row of Black Spanish winter radishes. You might snicker at my heaping praise upon the lowly turnip, but if you’ve ever had them sown in late summer, grown quickly, and picked during the cool days of autumn, you’re in for a real treat, roasted, stewed, or sliced raw. Hakurei is one of the best for flavor; I also like the old Purple Top White Globe.

Conditions that bring out the best in turnips also do so for winter radishes, the pumped up counterparts of small spring radishes that offer the same spicy flavor but also can be stored through winter. You have to be careful not to plant winter radishes too early or they grow frighteningly large. One summer I did just that with a long, white variety of daikon radish. Very long, it turns out, given enough time. The radishes grew to look like baseball bats, their upper portions rising up out of the soil as if there was not enough room underground to house them. The experience sort of killed my taste for winter radishes for a while.

Just this morning, another batch of seeds — Chinese cabbage and cilantro — went into seed flats. Like winter radishes, Chinese cabbage should not be sown too early in summer, in this case because long days and hot weather cause the plants to make flower stalks instead of fleshy leaves. Tatsoi and Fun Jen, the two varieties I planted, each need about 45 days from seed to maturity, but no reason to rush harvest during the cool, short days of autumn. The plants just sit there waiting to be eaten.

Besides suitable soil fertility, the main requirement of all these autumn vegetables is water. Fast, succulent growth brings out the best in them. With drip irrigation, I don’t have to worry about watering established plants. But until their roots can forage out into wetting front a few inches below the surface, new transplants and seeds need regular watering from a watering can or hose.

You or I might be tempted to also quench our own thirst with water from that hose. In general, don’t! Consumer Reports magazine recently reported that some hoses can leach lead  (used to stabilize polyvinyl chloride in hoses) into the water at 10 to 100 times the level allowable by the EPA for drinking water. The workaround is, if you’re buying a new hose, to buy one specifically labelled safe for drinking water, to let the water run before taking a drink, or — best idea — walk to your kitchen to slake your thirst.