Figs and Peppers and . . .

Fig Frustrations and Joys

Over the years I’ve shared the joys and frustrations of growing figs in my minimally heated greenhouse. The joys, of course, have been in sinking my teeth into fruits of the various varieties. Also, more recently, the neat appearance of the plants which are trained as espaliers. Fig espalierLeft to its own devices, a fig can grow into a tangled mess. In part, that’s because fig trees can’t decide if they want to be small trees, with single or a few trunks, or large shrubs, with sprouts and side branches popping out all over the place.

A major frustration in my greenhouse fig journey has been insects, both scale insects and mealybugs. These pests never attack my potted figs which summer outdoors and winter indoors in my barely heated basement. In the greenhouse the problem each year became more and more severe, eventually rendering many of the ripe fruits inedible.More fig espaliers All that despite my attempts at control by going over plants with a toothbrush dipped in alcohol, oil sprays, and sticky barriers to keep ants, which “farm” these pests, from climbing up the trunks.

Scale and mealybugs are hard to control, let alone eradicate. Yet I am now secure enough in my victory to have claimed success in the battle.

Success began last year, when research pointed me to two predators of these pests, Chrysoperla rufilabris and Cryptolaemus montrouzieri, both of which I ordered online and released into the greenhouse. They were expensive, bringing the cost of my fresh figs to about one dollar each. Still worth it, though.

I got to thinking, “Perhaps I could perennialize these predators in the greenhouse so that additional annual purchases would be unnecessary.” As a first step to creating a home (or a jail, depending on your perspective) for them, I covered all greenhouse openings to the outdoors with window screening. These predators also like moisture, so I periodically spritzed the greenhouse and laid some absorbent wads of paper here and there on the branches.

I further thought, “How does the greenhouse environment differ from the great outdoors, where my figs are pest-free?” Rainfall! Although the greenhouse environment is humid, water never falls on the plants’ leaves and stems. So rather than period spritzing, almost every day since early spring I have blasted leaves, stems, and developing fruits with water.

The result: I haven’t seen one mealybug or scale insect all season!

Success, Who Knows Why?

I have to restrain myself from the usual gardener’s hubris in thinking that what I did cured the problem. Perhaps the “rainfall” favored the predators, of which there’s been nary a sign, by knocking the pest insects off the plant, or by creating a moist environment inimical to the pests, or . . .  Perhaps my screening the greenhouse cured the problem. Perhaps the pest problem disappeared for none of these reasons. Or from some combination of these reasons.

If I had a full-blown experimental station and was willing to sacrifice some fresh figs to science, I could possible sleuth out the answer with control plants to what happened. But I don’t, so I’ll just keep enjoying and be thankful for the fresh figs — and keep a close eye on what’s going on.

Dondé Está la Salsa?

I have a lot of faith in natural systems (aka Mother Nature), but sometimes she gets things mixed up. Case in point relates to peppers. The pepper crop this year is excellent, mostly because I staked each plant, weeded well, and grew varieties that do well here (Escamillo, Carmen, Perperoncini, and, best of all for flavor and production, Sweet Italia). 

What can be done with excess peppers? Salsa, of course. 

But a key ingredient for salsa is cilantro, which enjoys cool weather both for germination and growth. Self-seeded cilantro plants were sprouting and growing all over the place a few months ago. The dried stems topped by BB-sized seeds is all that remains of them. Cilantro seedsThose seeds will drop and germinate in the cooler temperature a few weeks hence. But I need cilantro now.

With foresight, I could have collected and sown these seeds a few weeks ago. The plants would have bolted (put energy into flowers rather than leaves) rather quickly but repeated sowings would have kept me in fresh new plants.

Belatedly, I have sown those seeds. To speed germination, I soaked them, then planted them in seed flats I kept in the refrigerator for a day and then moved to a cool, shaded area. Optimum temperatures for germination and growing of cilantro is 50-85° F. As I write, the temperature is in the mid-90s.

Fig Redux, One Week Later, A Bummer

Yes, mealybugs are still not to be seen. But now I see closely related scale insects. And plenty of them. Fig scaleSo I started the water sprays again, which have the potential problem of creating so much humidity and moisture that ripening figs rot. On the other hand, it might set back the scale, perhaps by knocking off ants, who “farm” scale. I also ordered a new predator, one for scale, Aphytis melinus.

Playing Around With Stems

Top Doggery

My pear trees look as if a giant spider went on a drunken frolic among the branches. Rather than fine silk spun in an orderly web, strings run vertically from branch to branch and branch to ground. Yet there is method in this madness. Mine.
As I spell out in my new book, The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden, plants produce a natural hormone, called auxin, at the tips of their stems or at high points along a downward curving stems. This hormone suppresses growth of side branches along the stem, allowing growth from a bud at the stem tip or high point be the “top dog,” that is, the most vigorous shoot.

Within any plant a push and pull goes on between fruiting an stem growth. Both require energy, which the plant has to apportion between the two. The more vigorously growing a stem, the less fruitful it is.

All this talk of hormones and inherent stem vigor is more than academic; it can translate into delicious fruits.

Pear trees tend to grow very vigorously, especially in their youth, with many vertically oriented branches. A certain amount of stem growth is, of course, desirable; leaves are needed for harvesting sunlight for energy and stems are needed on which to hang fruit.
Tied branches in British orchard

Tied branches in British orchard

But pear trees, especially in the youth, tend to put too much of their energies, too much for me, at least, into stem growth. The result is that they can take long time to settle down and begin bearing fruit.

Hence, the strings. I can change my pear trees’ habits by merely tying down branches, reducing the effect of that auxin so that growth is more uniform along a length of the stem. And, as important, slowing growth nudges the energy balance in the direction of fruiting.

Branch bending

The one branch on each young tree that I do not tie down is the main vertical stem, which is the still developing trunk off which grow the main side branches. I want this stem to keep growing upward. Also, I have to be careful not to create a downward arch when tying down any stem. You know why: a very vigorous shoot pops up from the high point in that arch.

More Fruit or More Growth?

Branch bending is not only for coaxing a tree into fruiting. On young branches, it creates a wide angle between a branch and the developing trunk. Wide angles here have been shown to result in good anchorage, sturdy side branches that can carry a weight of fruit.

Suppressing the vigor of side branches also ensures that they won’t compete with the developing trunk, which needs to be top dog.

And using string to play around with plant hormones isn’t needed on every fruit tree. At the other extreme from pear in its growth and fruiting habits is peach. Peach is naturally very fecund, and becomes naturally so at a very young age.

One reason for peach’s fecundity is that it bears all its flowers and fruits along stems that grew the previous season. Every year new stems grow that bear flowers and fruits.             

Beauty, Fruit, and Fun

All this concern with auxin, vigor, and fruiting comes most prominently into play with espalier, which is the training of a tree to an orderly, often two dimensional form. The tracery of the branches themselves adds to the decorative value of the plant.Pear espalier

Fruiting espaliers, besides being decorative, produce very high quality fruit. Pruning and branch bending maintain a  careful balance between yield and stem growth, and the form of the plant allows leaves and fruits to bathe in sunlight and air.

Asian pear espalier flowering


Korean Giant Pear, In Training

    Stepping down the two stones at one end of my bluestone wall, a friend looked up and asked, “Are you torturing or training this tree?” He was referring to the tree on one side of the the stairway, one long stem of which was arching overhead, held in that position with a string tied to a stone on the opposite side of the stairway.
    “Training,” I replied. The stem was being coaxed into this seemingly submissive position both for form and function. Not to inflict pain.Pear branch, bent in training
    But first, something about this tree. It is an Asian pear, the variety Seuri Li that I created many years ago by grafting a Seuri Li stem on a semi-dwarfing rootstock (OH x F 513). It’s initial training was as an en arcure espalier. Deer found the young pear trees sitting high enough on the backfilled soil behind the wall a convenient smorgasbord; they didn’t even have to bend down to nibble at them. So the espalier became a deer-modified en arcure.
    Seuri Li never bore as well as the other Asian pears — Yoinashi, Yakumo, and Chojuro — trained above that wall. Last year I lopped back one major stem of Seuri Li and grafted a stem of the variety Korean Giant onto the stump. The graft “took,” and fueled by the established root system, buds from the grafted stem soared skyward.
    Growth from the graft was vigorous enough to start a large arch over the two stone stairway. A very big en arcure.

Hormonal Control

    Training to en arcure entails bending the single stem of a young fruit tree over to its neighbor. Typically, a bud near the high point of the arch will grow out into a vigorous shoot which is then bent in an arch in the opposite direction, to its neighbor on the other side. The vigorous shoot growing from the high point of that second arch is trained back to the next tier of arch  of first neighbor. And so on, as high as desired.
    The end result is a flat plane of adjacent trees decoratively linked as a living fence.
    The fence might be considered functional, but the truly functional aspect of en arcure is physiological. Enhanced vigor of the highest buds can be traced to a plant hormone, auxin. Auxin, present in all plants, is synthesized in the uppermost growing points of a plant, either the tip of a vertical stem or the high point of an arched stem. But this auxin also puts the brakes, to some degree, on growth from buds below that high point.
    Growing fruit takes energy, as does growing stems; more fruit means less stem growth, and vice versa. (Left to their own devices, plants more or less balance these needs themselves, although not always to our satisfaction, which is why you have to pluck off peach fruitlets so that a peach tree can pump more energy into the fewer — and resulting — tastier fruits that remain.) Bending a branch over quells its growth, coaxing it to divert more energy to making fruit — except for the uppermost bud, which puts out a vigorous shoot.
    My plan, then, is to have that long stem of Korean Giant pear festooned with flowers in spring and fruits in autumn as it arches over the stone stairs. Plants don’t read plant physiology books and tow the line to all this theory, but I’m confident in a fruitful, decorative future for my plant because Asian pears generally are very eager to bear fruit.

Uncommon Autumn Color

    Speaking of physiology, I wrote last week about the carotenoids, tannins, and anthocyanins that make autumn so warmly colorful, and especially so this year here in the Hudson Valley. A few plants, not commonly planted, are contributing boldly to that warmth.
    •Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) earns its keep year-round, with rich, red autumn leaf color right now, bark mottled in hues of gray and brown in winter, and camellia-like flowers in early summer.

Stewartia in autumn

Stewartia in autumn

    •Fothergilla (Fothergilla major) also earns its keep for much of the year, with bottlebrush clusters of fragrant, white flowers in spring and leaves that turn brilliant shades of yellow, orange and red in autumn.

Fothergilla in autumn

Fothergilla in autumn

    •Korean mountainash (Sorbus aucuparia) bears flat-topped clusters of white flowers in spring. In autumn, leaves take on a yellow color enriched with some brown and hints of red. Clusters of red fruits also ripen in fall. They’re small, but edible, a nice nibble.

Korean mountainash in auatumn

Korean mountainash in auatumn

    •Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) bears large leaves that have lost their summer-y, tropical look and have turned a clear yellow. The large fruits, also with tropical aspirations, have been ripe for a few weeks, with flavors akin to vanilla custard, banana, or crème brûlée. Take your pick.

Pawpaw, autumn leaf color

Pawpaw, autumn leaf color


Goodbye to Figs (For Now)

   With yellowing leaves and dropping leaves, my greenhouse figs are looking sickly. But all is well in figdom. A common misconception is that figs are tropical trees. They’re not. They’re subtropical, generally tolerating cold down to near 20°F.. And their leaves are deciduous, naturally yellowing and dropping this time of year, just like maples, ashes, and other deciduous trees.The last of figs ripening
    My greenhouse thermostat kicks on when the temperature inside drops to about 35°F. Daytime temperatures depend on sunlight; they might soar to 80° before awakening the exhaust fan on a sunny day in January, or hover around 35°F. on an overcast day that month. All of which is to say that the weather inside my greenhouse matches pretty well that of Barcelona and Rome, with hot dry summers and cool, moist winters. And figs grow very well in those Mediterranean climates. And go dormant.
    I harvested my last good fig — from the variety ‘Rabbi Samuel’ — around the middle of this month. Can figophiles enjoy the fruits that late in the season in Barcelona and Rome, I wonder? Many apparently ripe fruits were still hanging from the stems after that date. With cool weather and/or less sunshine from shorter days, the fruits developed an overripe, off flavor. I can’t complain; harvest began in July and I picked enough to periodically have to dry the excess.

Next Year: Go Fig(ure)

    I didn’t turn my back on my plants after harvesting my last fig. I jumped right into readying the plants for next year’s harvest.
    The first step was hurrying the plants along into dormancy by actually pulling off all remaining leaves.
 Pruning Rabbi Samuel espalier   Next, pruning. Two of my varieties, Bethlehem Black and Brown Turkey, bear fruit only on new shoots of the current season. Unpruned, new shoots would originate further and further up and out from the trunk — a problem in the limited confines of my greenhouse. Severity of pruning needs to be balanced against when ripening begins. More severe pruning would be more dramatic in its effect, but delays ripening. (Which is why fig trees — their roots, at least — might survive outdoors here under mulch or snow, but when the plant dies back that close to the ground, new sprouts don’t have time to ripen their fruits the following season.)Rabbi Samuel, pruned
    Pruning these trees back to stubs between 3 and 4 feet from the ground keeps them to size and stimulates plenty of new shoots next spring on which fruit ripens from late summer on.
    Rabbi Samuel and San Piero fig varieties ripen a July crop on one-year-old stems as well as a second crop, onward from September, on new shoots. So with these varieties, I pruned some stems severely and others enough to leave some year-old wood for the early crop.
    Easiest was Rabbi Samuel because it’s trained as an espalier in the form of a T, with a permanent short trunk and two permanent arms emanating in opposite directions from atop the trunk.
    Fruiting shoots grow vertically 6 to 12 inches apart from the arms. Today I cut every other fruiting shoot to a stub from which I’ll allow just one new, vertical shoot, for the September crop. I cut each of the other shoots down to about a foot long; they’ll bear the early crop and then, if fruiting stems are crowding each other, can be cut back right after the early harvest. If not crowded, I’ll allow one side shoot to grow on to bear the September crop.
    It’s all simpler that it reads, and looks very tidy in the greenhouse now overcrowded with lettuce, celery, arugula, mâche, claytonia, parsley, and Swiss chard. All of which are staples of the Mediterranean vegetable garden in winter.

And More form the Mediterranean

    Like figs, citrus also are subtropical plants. Depending on the kind of citrus fruit, they’ll tolerate winter cold into the ‘teens (kumquat) or just below freezing (lime). The plants neither grow as vigorously nor bear as heavily as do figs, so you don’t get much bang for your buck with a potted citrus without choosing carefully what to grow. I grow mine in pots: kumquat, because you can eat the whole fruit, sweet skin and tart flesh, wasting nothing; and, the newest addition to my citrus family (genus, actually), Meyer lemon.
 Meyer lemon, rooted and flowering already   A squeeze of lemon goes a long way in flavoring a salad, livening a cup of tea, and adding pizazz to a cobbler. Growing my own lemons lets me make use also of a rind, for zest, that is free of pesticides.
    Meyer lemon is an orange x lemon hybrid, so is somewhat sweeter than lemon. This variety roots readily from cuttings, so I could have an indoor orchard in short order if I wanted, and bears quickly. A recently-rooted 3-inch-high cutting has already flowered and set a fruit.
    Citrus are evergreen and much prettier and more fragrant, when in bloom, than figs. Mine spend winter in sunny windows in a cool room rather than in the greenhouse.

Finally, Chill

    A friend recently gave me a lawn chair. My plan is, on sunny winter days, to take my post-prandial siesta on that chair, basking in warm, winter light on the shores of the Mediterranean; that is, in my greenhouse. “…and fair Italia’s sunny shores, where the Mediterranean sea roars…”


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.


2 Contenders for Hips and Rabbi Samuel Redux

As I walked along the beach, I took a look and my first thought was “Nice hips.” But what about the flowers? I’d have to return to the plant next summer to find out, a problem since I was 4 hours from home visiting a relative in Rhode Island.

Most of the roses you see growing seaside are Rosa rugosa. Common names for this plant are Japanese rose, indicating its origin, saltspray rose, indicating its tolerance to beach sand, and rugose rose. “Rugose” means “wrinkled,” which is what leaves of R. rugosa are.

The particular planting of nice-hipped roses staring back at me did not have rugose leaves. What’s more, the hips were about 3/4 of an inch across and bright red. Hips of rugose rose are usually an inch or more across and orangish-red. With this slightly different morphology and the fact that rugose rose is listed as an invasive plant, I assumed that the nice-hipped roses, recently installed as landscape plants, were another species.

Those are Rosa rugosa hips on the left, Rosa canine(?) hips on the right

Those are Rosa rugosa hips on the left, Rosa canine(?) hips on the right

With such nice hips, the plants could possibly be dog rose, R. canina, the other rose species valued for its hips. The lack of sepals on the hips also pointed the finger at dog rose. (Rugose rose hips have persistent sepals.) A even closer look would have nailed it; rugose rose’s stems have numerous prickles throughout their length while bold, large, wide, downward-facing thorns line dog rose stems. But I didn’t look closer.

Dog rose, although much less frequently seen, is also considered invasive in some places.

Sowing Seeds for More Hips (and Flowers)

As potentially invasive plants, rugose rose or dog rose should be easy to grow from seed. But no. I’ve propagated roses from seed, and it’s a slow process.

Last summer's Rosa rugosa blossoms

Last summer’s Rosa rugosa blossoms

Rose seeds, like those of most other fall-ripening seeds of temperate zone plants, have a physiological dormancy that prevents their immediate sprouting, the consequence of which would be death from cold. So they just sit in moist earth until they have experienced a number of hours of chilly temperatures — 30 to 45° F is ideal — before sprouting, at which time winter has presumably given way to spring weather. Instead of moist earth, that chilly habitat could be within the refrigerator in a plastic bag filled with peat moss and perlite.

But rose seeds have another impediment to germination: a tough seed coat. Plant the seed outdoors and shoots might not poke through the surface of the ground for 2 years. The first winter and summer are spent softening the seed coat, making it permeable to moisture. Beginning the second fall, chilling hours begin to accumulate so that by the second spring, the seed can awaken and grow.

I did pluck a few fruits from that Rhode Island, nice-hipped rose bush, and plan to make new bushes. But I’m too impatient to wait 2 years. “Scarifying” the seeds is a quick way to make the seed coats more permeable. Nicking them with a wire cutter does the trick but would be difficult with such small seeds. An hour or so in warm, concentrated sulfuric acid — followed by a thorough rinsing in water — is likewise effective but a bit dangerous. I’ll follow Mother Nature’s lead and soften the seed coats by keeping the seeds warm and moist. No matter how the seed coat is softened, subsequent cool, moist conditions are still needed before the seeds will sprout.

There’s barely time to get those seeds growing this spring. Two months in moist warmth followed by 2 to 3 months in moist peat and perlite in the refrigerator should awaken them. It’s exciting to check the bag in the refrigerator because, once mechanical and chemical barriers to germination have been overcome, a bag of seeds is usually transformed to a bag of white root sprouts, all at once, as if a switch had been turned on.

The Rabbi Multiplies

I’ll have to make up some extra peat-perlite mix. Cutting all the vertical shoots of Rabbi Samuel fig espalier back to the horizontal arms of the permanent “T” framework have yielded a pile of long stems. I can’t bear to throw them away because every foot-long section has the potential to make a whole new plant.

Rabbi Samuel fig, pruned

Rabbi Samuel fig, pruned

The rooting media for these hardwood cuttings? Peat and perlite again. A bunch of the stems in a deep pot with just their top buds up out of the peat mix should sprout and root by spring.

Not sure what I’ll do with all the resulting fig plants.

So Many Roses, I Hope

I’m also not sure what I’ll do with all the anticipated rose seedlings, especially since I’m not even sure of their species. I did telephone the public works department of the Rhode Island town where the roses were planted and was told that they were Rosa rugosa. I think they are wrong.

Fig cuttings

Fig cuttings

No matter: Rosa rugosa is one of the most fragrant roses with deep pink, sometimes white, flowers that are borne all summer long. Also, like dog rose, with nice, fleshy hips, good enough fresh and excellent for jam and tea.


Who Says I Can’t Grow Figs? A Mouse?

Crisp weather notwithstanding, almost every day I can reach up into the branches of my fig trees and walk away clutching a handful of soft, dead-ripe fruits. That’s because the trees, the ones bearing fruit, are in the greenhouse, where nights are chilly but daytime temperatures, especially on sunny days, are balmy or hot.

I’m not gloating. Those greenhouse figs take some work beyond normal routines of keeping heating, cooling, and watering systems chugging along harmoniously in the greenhouse. Earlier in the season I battled cottony cushion scale insects with toothbrush and soapy water, with oil sprays, and with sticky band traps (for ants, which “farm” scale insects) on trunks. Now I see the insects are staging a comeback at a time when the trees are too big to scrub with a toothbrush and too big, too laden with fruit, and surrounded too closely by lettuce, celery, and other winter edibles to spray oil. I’m hoping natural conditions keep scale insects in check until cold weather and lack of leaves or fruit finally puts them asleep for a few months.

A few weeks ago, some creature — a mouse is my guess — discovered the figs, and liked them. He, or she, chewed the bottoms of some fruits as they hung from branches and gathered others to cache in shallow tunnels. Traps, poison bait, and wide girths of sticky Tangle-Trap returned fruits to their rightful owner, me.

All this effort is worthwhile. Especially on sunny days, the figs are delectable, soft and sweet like dollops of jam hanging from the branches.

So Many Varieties, So Little Space

A bowl of figs, Rabbi Samuel, Millrock, San Piero, & Black Bethlehem

A bowl of figs, Rabbi Samuel, Millrock, San Piero, & Black Bethlehem

Growing a few varieties of figs makes fig-eating even more pleasurable. People wonder, on hearing that I grow figs, whether I grow “brown figs or white figs,” at which point I bring attention to the fact that there are hundreds of varieties of figs, with many of each color.

I keep trying to pare down my collection to the best. Instead, I seem to be adding varieties either deliberately or gifted. It’s hard, virtually impossible, to tell what variety you have until it fruits. Figs have been cultivated for thousands of years, along the way of which an older variety may have picked up many names. For instance, I have a variety I purchased as Verte (syn. Green Ischia); with brown fruit, I knew it was mislabeled. Its bearing habit and the appearance of the fruit nailed it down as San Piero, also known as Negro Largo, Douro Black, Aubique Noir, Large Blue, Lee’s Perpetual, and California Brown Turkey, among other names. The name California Brown Turkey distinguishes it from Eastern Brown Turkey, a totally different variety that I also grow and which itself is also known as English Brown Turkey, Everbearing, and Texas Everbearing,.

Espalier fig in greenhouse in July

Espalier fig in greenhouse in July

A few years ago, a woman on Millrock Road here in town, offered me her potted fig tree; she was moving and didn’t want to take it with her. (Understandable: I also didn’t take all my 35 varieties of fig from my garden in Maryland when I moved up here to the Hudson Valley.) Still hers was an offer I could not refuse; perhaps that potted plant would bear the best fig ever. In a pot in the greenhouse this year, the tree finally bore fruit, greenish yellow and round, with the insides bursting to split the skin. It’s a keeper, and I’m adding to the nomenclature confusion by calling it Millrock fig until I learn otherwise.

Another fig, this one named by Jack Algiere, the farmer at Stone Barns farm, is bearing heavily and looks to keep doing so for weeks to come. I have espaliered this tree, Rabbi Samuel, against a greenhouse wall in the form of a permanent, low T. Fruiting shoots rise vertically about 6 inches apart from the upper side of each arm. This variety bears best on new shoots so my plan is to each winter cut all vertical stems down near the arms and then thin out new growth so vertical shoots are no closer that 6 inches apart. The Rabbi’s fruits are humongous, as big as small apples.

Subtropical, But Thankfully Adaptable

What makes figs so popular a fruit, even in climates far removed from the hot summers and mild winters it calls home? Perhaps a love for this ancient fruit, whose provenance is in one cradle of civilization, is coded into our DNA. And, of course, the flavor, sweet and juicy without being cloying.

Espalier fig in October, with ripe fruits

Espalier fig in October, with ripe fruits

Although a subtropical plant, fig is accommodating to colder climates. You can hack back its roots — useful when providing new potting soil for pot-grown plants. It’s deciduous, so doesn’t need light in winter — useful in northern climates when looking for a cold, but not too cold, place to store the dormant plant. Most varieties do not need pollination to set fruit. And figs bear quickly and propagate easily.

Most important, in contrast to most temperate-zone fruits, fig plants can bear on new wood. Some varieties bear on one-year-old wood and some bear on both old and new wood. Bearing on new wood — as does Rabbi Samuel — makes it convenient to cut back a potted plant when maneuvering it indoors for winter. Or if winter cold kills part of the top of an outdoor plant. In either case, a plant that loses too much of its top requires a longer growing season before fruits start ripening.

Fruits keep ripening along new shoots, as they grow, until arrested by cold. Hence, my prediction for a few more weeks of fruit from Rabbi Samuel in the greenhouse. Those fruits hang in stark contrast to the scene outdoors, where leaves of tomato, pepper, and other tender plants have been blackened by the first killing frost here of 25°F, on October 19th.



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.