Cardoon & Fig


Here’s a backward story and a forward story.

About plants, of course. And the plants are linked in that both of them are native to the Mediterranean region. But for centuries, both plants have been grown world-wide wherever winters are mild. And, with some special attention, by enthusiast (such as me), in gardens where winters are frigid.

Perhaps you’ve already guessed the two plants. If not, they are cardoon and fig. Let’s start with the backward story, which is the one about cardoon.

Cardoon & Fig

Cardoon & Fig

A Florific Season in the Offing (I Know It’s not a Word)

The end of the cardoon story begins with my memory of last summer’s very bold plant whose whorl of glaucous, spiny leaves rose three feet or more above ground level. Read more


Optimizing Winter for a Fig Plant

For those of us who grow figs in cold climates, where winter lows reliably plummet below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, this time of year brings some nervous expectation. You want the buds to pop out and start growing, but not too, too soon.

Fig stem beginning growth


Except for maritime climates, such as in the Pacific Northwest, where winters are what I term “coldish” rather than “cold,” figs need some sort of protection in truly cold winter climates. The challenge in maritime climates is using variety choice, pruning, and site selection to get fruit to ripen in the relatively cool summers. In these climates fig buds gradually unfold usually in synch with the gradual warming weather in spring.

Not so for protected figs in truly cold winter climates, whether plants are in a pot or in the ground, wrapped or buried. For directions here, allow me to excerpt my recent book, Growing Figs in Cold Climates: Read more

Hardy cyclamen in pot


Elbow Room and Food

What’s happening in the soil beneath your potted plants? Over time, roots fill up the pot so there’s little more room left for them to grow. And nutrients get sucked out of the soil or washed out by water.

I keep my potted plants hale and hardy with periodic repotting. This also gives me a look at the roots, which I always find interesting. (It was one area of my research when I worked for Cornell University.) If I see roots are pressed around the outside of the rootball, especially if traveling around and around it, they’re telling me they want out. A plant might also indicate its roots need more elbow room by looking like it’s ready to topple over. More subtle signs are potting soil that dries out very quickly, a plant hardly growing, or roots attempting escape out a pot’s drainage holes.

Rapidly growing plants need repotting yearly, especially when they are young; older plants and slow growers can get by with being repotting every two or three years. Some plants hardly ever need repotting, such as — looking around my collection — my amaryllis (Hippeastrum), bay laurel, hardy cyclamen, jade plant, aloe, and cactus.

Amaryllis and my dog

Amaryllis & Sammy

I wait to repot my ponytail palm until its bulbous base breaks open the pot it’s growing in; this happens about every 15 years. Same goes for my clivia.
Read more



As flaming red petals drop to the ground beneath my pomegranate bush, I’m not hopeful. Sure, the flowers are beautiful, but the plant is here to give me fruit.

To survive winters here in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley (Zone 5), my plant’s home is in a large flowerpot which I cart into cold storage in late December and back outdoors or into the greenhouse in late winter or early spring. Even my cold-hardy variety, Salatavski, from western Asia, would die to ground level if planted outdoors. The roots would survive that much cold because of moderated below ground temperatures, but new stems that would rise from ground level would need to be more than a year old before flowering.

Potted pomegranate, but NOT mine

Potted pomegranate, but NOT mine

Growing in a pot, my pomegranate (and other potted fruit plants) need regular pruning and repotting. To prune the pomegranate, I snip off young suckers growing from ground level, shorten lanky stems, and thin out stems where congested. I repot the plant every 2 or 3 years, cutting off roots and potting soil from around the root ball to make room for new potting soil.

When flowers do appear, which they do over the course of a few weeks, I dab their faces with an artists’ brush. Going from flower to flower spreads the pollen from male flowers to the female parts (stigmas) of the  hermaphroditic flowers.

Male pomegranate flowers

Male pomegranate flowers

Hermaphroditic pomegranate flower

Hermaphroditic pomegranate flower

Then I wait, my eyes concentrating on each flower and hoping to see the base swelling. Problem is most, some year all, the flowers open and then drop. Occasionally, in past years, a flower or two has swelled into a mini-pomegranate. Then also dropped.

Swelling pomegranate fruitlet

Swelling pomegranate fruitlet

I’ve ministered to this plant for years and it has never rewarded me with a single fruit. Help! Any suggestions?

Not So Idle Threats

Every summer, as my pomegranate drops its last flowers, I’ve threatened it with the same fate I wrought upon another of my subtropical fruit plants, pineapple guava. Beneath the thin, green skin of this torpedo-shaped fruit lies a gelatinous center with a minty pineapple flavor.

Pollinating pineapple guava

Pollinating pineapple guava

Over the course of growing this fruit for many years, I did harvest a few, small fruits from this plant, but not enough to keep me from reincarnating it as compost. (The flowers, however, reliably produced, sport the most delicious, fleshy petals of any that I’ve taste, with a strong, sweet minty flavor.)

A Most Delicious Fruit

Not all has been failure with my growing subtropical fruits. 

My most recent success has been with Pakistani mulberry, Morus macroura, native to Tibet, the Himalayas, and mountainous regions of Indochina. I first tasted this fruit a few years ago at a nursery in Washington State and was swept away by the delicious flavor, sweet with enough tartness to make it interesting, and a strong berry undertone. (Yes, mulberry does have “berry” in its name, but botanically, it’s not a berry; it’s a “multiple fruit.”)

Besides having great flavor, Pakistani fruit is also notable for its enormous size, each one elongating, when ripe, to between three and five inches!Pakistani mulberry fruit

Pakistani mulberry is easy to grow and needs no particular coaxing to bear plenty of fruit, which it does over the course of a few weeks. Mine grows in a pot measuring a little over a foot wide, with the tree rising about four feet high. Fruits are borne on new shoots that grow off older stems, which keeps the tree very manageable. Shortening those older stems each year makes it easier to muscle the plant through doorways to move it indoors for winter and then back outdoors when weather warms a little.

Very Easy, Very Successful, Very Delicious

My longest term and greatest success with subtropical plants has been, of course, with figs. (I write “of course” because I’ve written a whole book whose content is described by its title, Growing Figs in Cold Climates, and now is available as a video of a webinar I have presented on that topic.)Fig book cover

Like mulberries, to which they are related, figs — most varieties — can bear fruit on new shoots that grow off older branches. Figlets on new shootSo, like mulberry, the plants can be pruned back some so they’re more manageable to be protected from bitter winter cold. An in-ground plant, then, could be protected from bitter winter cold by being swaddled upright or lowered to the ground, even trained to grow along the ground; a potted plant is more easily maneuvered into a garage, unheated basement, or other cool location for its winter rest.

Right now, there’s nothing for me to do with my figs except watch them grow. Small figlets now sit in the plants’ leaf nodes. They’ll just sit there, doing nothing, for a seemingly long time. Once ripening time draws near, the figs suddenly puff up, becoming soft and juicy and developing a honey sweet, rich flavor.Bowl of figs


Stay Asleep Please

If you garden in a cold winter climate, as do I, I hope you’re growing figs. Despite being tropical plants, figs are relatively easy for us to grow, as attested to by other gardeners, from Moscow to Montreal, Minneapolis and beyond.

San Piero fig, ripe

San Piero fig, ripe

If you garden in a cold winter climate, I also hope that your fig plant is NOT growing now (unless you’re in the Southern Hemisphere). The way we cold-climate fig growers help our plants face winter cold is by protecting them from it. A usual method is to grow a plant in a pot that gets moved to a sheltered location to wait out winter. (Growing in pots plus four other methods of overwintering figs are described in my recent book Growing Figs in Cold Climates.)Fig book cover

Sometimes — too often — a fig jumps the gun on spring and starts growing in its sheltered location. Figs shed their leaves when they feel cold is just around the corner, so don’t need bright light in winter. But once buds awaken, they need all the light it can get.

Fig starting to wake up

Fig starting to wake up

Don’t fool yourself that a sunny window is sufficient light. The light there typically ranges from 2,000 to 5,000 foot-candles, while full sunlight outdoors is over 10,000 foot-candles. With insufficient light, growth becomes etiolated, that is, stretched out and pale as if reaching for light. And when the time comes for the plant to move outdoors, strong sunlight and drying winds will burn those etiolated stems. 

Sleep Recipes

So the goal is to retard growth until outdoor conditions are more fig-friendly. If fully dormant, the plant can tolerate temperatures down into the low 20s Fahrenheit, even colder in a large enough pot. (Cold penetrates more deeply into smaller pots, and fig roots, like those of all temperate-zone plants, can’t tolerate as much cold as stems.)

Fig stems, dormant

Fig stems, dormant

The ideal situation is to be able to move a fully dormant fig plant outdoors while temperatures are still cold, but not cold enough to injure the stems or roots. Then buds gradually unfurl in synch with warming temperatures and increasingly intense sunlight.

My potted plants are fully dormant, the result, all winter, of keeping the pots in a cold room with minimal watering. Ideal winter temperatures for a fig are between the high 20s and low 40s. A barely or unheated garage, a cold basement, an unheated mudroom or attic, perhaps even a shed can all keep a fig asleep long enough.

Most of my plants get watered just once in winter. I lift the pots and can tell by experience from their weight whether water is needed. A soil moisture meter probe also works. They are in humid locations, either in my basement or in a walk-in cooler. Sealing each pot and soil, not the stems, in a plastic bag could cut down or eliminate any need for water.

Only one of my potted figs has already started growing. (I let it do so for this photograph.) My one growing fig is actually doing quite well, with new growth expanding slowly and robustly. Fig stem beginning growthBesides having its thirst quenched just enough to prevent wilting, it sits in front of a large, unobstructed window facing due south in a room whose temperatures range from the 50s and 60s. (That’s why I’m writing while sitting here in a down jacket!)

Shock Treatment

Okay, so you can’t provide ideal enough conditions, and your plant is overenthusiastic about winter’s end. Give it a little shock. Potted figs do need repotting every year or two to refresh soil nutrients and give roots new room to grow. If the plant is in as large a pot as you wish, the root ball needs to be slid out of the pots and sliced back to afford space for fresh potting soil.Repotting The larger the plant, the more roots can be removed. I go around the edge of the root ball with a kitchen knife slicing an inch or two off around the edge of the root ball. That should tell Ms. Fig to chillax!

Stem pruning is another way to put the brakes on growth. And figs anyway benefit from annual pruning. How much to prune depends on the bearing habit of the fig, some varieties bearing best on new growth, some on one-year-old growth, and still others on both types of growth. (I refer you to my book for details about pruning figs.)

Fig fruits developing on new growth

Fig fruits developing on new growth

Not to Worry

Perhaps you haven’t provided ideal winter conditions, you have no sun drenched windows, your home is warm, and you already repotted and pruned last fall. Don’t give up. Worst case scenario is that sappy, etiolated stems have emerged on your fig plant. Once outdoor temperatures moderate, you have three choices. 

Gradually acclimate the plant to the great outdoors in much the same way as is done with tomato seedlings. Start the plant with a week or so in an outdoor location protected from full sunlight, wind, and freezing temperatures, moving it periodically indoors if conditions make it necessary. Gradually move it to the more exposed location of its summer home.

Second choice. Move the plant immediately to its summer home, but prune back growing stems, which, anyway, will likely burn.

Third, and easiest, choice, is to move the plant immediately to its summer home. Period. You’ll see some dieback and burning, but the plant should survive unless it’s very young or very weak.

The nice thing about growing figs, and one of the thinks that makes it possible to grow them in cold climates, is that they are very forgiving plants. More so than you might imagine.Bowl of ripe figs


Roots Do It

Some people get their kicks from hang gliding; some from racing cars. Call me mundane, but I get a similar thrill, minus the fear, from seeing cuttings of some new varieties of figs that I am propagating take root. The cool thing about hang gliding, racing cars, and rooting cuttings is also the sense of satisfaction you get from doing it well.

The current batch of cuttings provides special satisfaction because the method I used, gleaned from the web (see, for instance, what turns up with a search for “fig pops”), permit me to check and observe progress frequently. Usually, I stick a cutting into a rooting mix and learn that rooting has taken place by the resistance of the stick to an upward tug or by roots escaping through the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot. With fig pops, I get to see each cuttings wiry, white roots wending their way through the rooting mix soon after they first start to develop. Fig pops are also a way to root lots of cuttings in a small space.
A fig pop
The current figs are rooting in 3” by 8” clear, thin plastic bags filled with my usual 1:1 mix of moist peat moss and perlite.  I pushed the cuttings, fig “sticks” of last year’s growth 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick, into the mix almost to the bottom, then sealed the top closed with a twist-tie. One cutting per bag. Roots need to breathe, so I poked each bag full of holes with a toothpick. That’s it, except when the bags seemed too dry I stood them in a pan with a couple of inches of water for awhile.

(Dipping the cuttings in a commercially available rooting hormone would probably improve rooting, but I don’t use them. To me, the health precautions needed when dealing with them takes the fun out of gardening.)

All that, and time, would have been enough. But to speed things up, I moved the cuttings to a place where they’d get some warmth on their bottoms. That could have been atop a refrigerator, above, but not on a radiator, or, in the case of my cuttings, on a seedling heating mat.
Fig pops
Fig pops together in tubNo light is needed until cuttings start to leaf out. Which is an exciting moment, because roots might — or might not — begin to show about then. All that’s needed is to lift a fig pop and take a look. Some of mine showed roots after only 3 weeks! But it’s good to let them get well rooted before disturbing them.
Rooted figs
When the time came to move a well rooted cutting, I sliced the plastic on the bottom and up along one side of its bag and put the whole root ball in a bona fide pot, filling in with bona fide potting soil around it.

That’s it. Growth will pick up with increasing warmth and sunlight. And then fruit, which could arrive on the branches even this growing season. Figs are admittedly easy to root by any method. As with any cutting, an important ingredient for success is patience.

Graft (Nonpolitical) is Good

Moving on, next week, to another perennial source of excitement here in the garden: grafting. I do this every year about now? Why every year? Because I’m always getting scions (1-year-old stems for grafting) of new varieties of fruits, mostly pears, to try out or to replace existing varieties. Or I might want another tree or two of a variety particularly worth growing here.

If I’m replacing an existing variety, I do a Henry the Eighth on the tree, lopping off its head, low, to graft a new variety onto the remaining stump. With the established root system underfoot, these grafts grow very vigorously and bear relatively quickly — sometimes the year after grafting. 

Alternatively, I make a whole new tree by grafting a scion onto a one-year-old rootstock that I purchase or grow. These small trees will take longer to come into bearing, how long depending on the kind and variety of fruit, and the rootstock.

Stump of older graft

Stump of older graft

A rootstock, whether the remaining stump of a lopped back mature tree or a pencil-thick young plant, has to be closely related to the scion that will be grafted atop it for the graft to be successful. Rootstock and scion in the same genus generally do well together, so pear on pear, apple on apple, even peach on plum are compatible. Occasionally, plants in the same family but different genus, such as pear and quince, also join well.

Whip graft close up

Whip graft

One way to create a rootstock would be to just plant a seed, giving rise to the appropriately named “seedling” rootstock. A seedling rootstock’s main claims to fame might be its general toughness and its genetic diversity from other seedlings. That genetic diversity is a downside if you want to plant an orchard of uniform trees; it’s an asset if you don’t want some pest all of a sudden wiping out all your plants with genetically the same rootstocks.

Rootstocks have been selected or bred that impart special qualities to a tree, and these rootstocks are propagated not by seed, but by any one of a number of methods of cloning (cuttings, tissue culture, mound layering, etc). Most dramatic might be the effect on plant size. The Malling 27 variety of apple rootstock, for instance results in a tree that matures at about 7 feet high. As with many dwarfing rootstocks, the tree also yields its first harvest quickly with, although less fruit per tree than a larger tree, more fruit per sure foot of space. And you can plant many dwarf trees in the same space as one full-size tree.
Apple rootstocks
Dwarf trees also have the advantage that pruning, harvesting, and other needs can be met with your feet planted on terra firma. Any disadvantages? Yes: more finicky about growing conditions, much shorter lifespan, and often needing staking throughout their lives. But there are many rootstocks from which to choose, especially with apples and pears, so you can choose what suits you from a fully dwarfing tree on up to full-size tree. A rootstock might also be selected for its tolerance for certain soil conditions, hardiness, and other environmental hazards.

Most important: The rootstock, for all its effects, has little or no influence on the flavor of fruit grafted upon it.

I’ll be grafting next week. Stay tuned for the 2 or 3 easy grafts I use to make trees.


Olives Galore

Now I feel foolish buying olives. I recently returned from visiting Israel where there were olive trees everywhere. Irrigated plots of greenery thrived in the broad expanses of the otherwise grays and browns of the desert. Trees popped up here and there in backyards and front yards of homes in streets lined with apartment buildings as well as along cobblestone streets in rural areas. Trees were even prominent in city parks, either as self-sown wildings in less tended areas or as formal plantings.
Woman harvesting olives in Jerusalem park
And oodles of ripe or ripening olives were clinging to branches or littering the ground. Need some hand lotion? Just pluck a ripe olive, squeeze it gently, and spread out the fresh oil that drips onto your hand. 

Want some olives for eating? Not so fast. Fresh-picked ripe or green olives are extremely bitter (due to oleuropein). That bitterness is removed with brine, multiple changes of water or lye solution followed by fermentation. My favorite olives are “naturally, sun-cured,” which, I imagine, means left hanging on the tree a long, long time. The dried, ripe olives I found still-clinging to branches tasted awful!
Green olive fruits
I was tempted to harvest some olives to bring home. A few other people had similar ideas, as evidenced by one woman on a ladder in a park in Jerusalem. Of course, these people were only miles or less from home; I was 5,000 plus miles from home. I let the olives be.

I actually grow olives here in the Hudson Valley, in a large container that spends summers outdoors basking in sunlight and winters in my cold basement near a large window. I should say that I grow an olive tree, rather than olives. My maximum harvest has been a half-dozen olives — which I did let hang for a long, long time, at which point they tasted delicious.
My potted olive treeMy olive harest-3 fruits
Olive fruits are borne on one-year-old shoots. This year, before moving my tree to the basement, I pruned more severely than usual. That should stimulate more one-year-old shoots this spring, to, I hope, yield more fruit.


Another of my favorite Mediterranean fruits also growing in abundance in as many guises as olive in Israel was pomegranate. Unfortunately, I just missed the harvest of this fruit. All that remained on wild plants were a few red arils still clinging to darkened portions of skins.  Fruits must have been ripe somewhere because ripe fruits and fresh squeezed juice were available in markets and and street carts everywhere. 
Pomegranate espalier, IsraelPomegranate display, Israel
I, of course, also grow pomegranate, similarly to olive except that, being deciduous, this plant does not need light in winter. It spends those months in a dark, walk-in cooler. 

Sad to admit, my yields of pomegranate fruits have been even less than my yields of olive. As in zip, zilch, zero. The plants flower every spring and with a small brush I’ve transferred pollen from the anthers of male blossoms to the stigmas of female blossoms. (Plants each have separate male and female blossoms.) Bases of female blossoms begin to swell hopefully. Then they drop.

Every year I threaten my plant with a walk to the compost pile — to no avail.


The third plant of the triumvirate of my favorite Mediterranean fruits is, of course, figs, which I saw in abundance in Israel mostly in wild settings. The plants lacked fruit, except for a few with small, green figlets that will either drop or ripen next spring. Fig is rather unique in its fruiting habit, able to bear fruit on one-year-old wood as well as on new, growing shoots, and the latter crop just keeps forming and ripening as long as growing conditions are to its liking.
Wild olive tree in Israel
One old tree growing in a courtyard in charming town of Sfad was hosting an old friend  — or, rather, enemy — of mine, fig scale insects. I’ve battled it one my greenhouse figs.

Figs were available in the markets but I was reluctant to even try them knowing that figs must be dead ripe to taste good. At that, stage they can hardly be transported more than arm’s length from hand to mouth.
Figs for sale, Israel
Figs are one Mediterranean fruit that I grow with great success, both in my greenhouse (minimum winter temperature 37°F) and, wintering in my walk-in cooler and summering outdoors, in pots like my pomegranate. Figs are generally easy to grow because of their unique bearing habit, their lack of need for pollination, and their general tolerance for abuse.

My last day I broke down and, against my better judgement, bought some figs. Mine are better.
Me eating one of my figs

Greenhouse Happenings, Figs and Lettuce and . . .

Darkness Descending

Plant growth has come screeching (almost) to a halt. Lettuces just sit, hardly growing. No wonder, you are no doubt thinking. It’s getting colder and colder outside. I know that, but I’m writing about lettuces in my greenhouse. The issue isn’t lack of heat. It’s lack of light.Planting greenhouse lettuce

For more evidence that light is the issue, look to good vegetable gardens in southern Europe. In that mild climate, harvest from a well-planned vegetable garden continues year ‘round. But year ‘round harvest there takes planning — lack of light also makes for very slow growth over there in these darkest months. Unprotected plants survive because the winter weather never gets that cold over there. (And cool-season vegetables, such as spinach, radish, and turnips, that we plan for sprig or fall, are what do well in Mediterranean winters.)

My garden here in the Hudson Valley, at about the 42nd parallel, experiences winter day lengths the same as Rome, Italy or the island of Corsica — all on about the same 42nd degree of latitude. If lettuce plants grow slowly in Rome and Corsica, then the slow growth of lettuce in my greenhouse should come as no surprise. But it always does surprise me, and the brakes seem to start getting applied back in October, with full pressure about now.

All this came to the forefront of my attention back in 1992, when I read Eliot Coleman’s excellent book Four-Season Harvest. After highlighting the similar insolation of much of our “northern regions” with much of balmy Europe, he went on to describe various ways of protecting winter vegetable from our winter cold, which would kill most of them. Keeping the plants a bit warmer also gets them growing sooner once days become longer and brighter.

My goal, in the greenhouse, is to get a good share of the plants almost fully grown going into December. With lettuces, I try to plan to have enough of them to fill salad bowls through January and February, after which smaller plants are starting to grow fast enough to fill those bowls.

The 42nd Parallel

The reason Corsica and Rome remain relatively balmy all winter while winters here, with both locations at the 42nd parallel, get so frigid is that Corsica is bathed by the Gulf Stream, that warm mass of air that flows up from the Caribbean and across the Atlantic to wash over western Europe.

The warm touch of the Gulf Stream is lost as you move further east across Europe and into western Asia. Kazakhstan, parts of which also lie at the 42nd parallel, experience average annual temperatures from -60°F to 104°F!! The climate of nearby Turkey, whose north end touches that latitude, is moderated by the Caspian Sea. Moving further east to parts of Inner Mongolia, still within the 42nd parallel, winter temperatures might dip to -90°F.

A Greenhouse is not a Hothouse

If you were to join me in my greenhouse today, don’t forget your hat and gloves. The greenhouse is heated, but only minimally, enough to keep the temperature from falling below 37°F. That temperature provides a nice balance between energy use and reasonable year ‘round harvest. (Expotentially more energy is needed for incrementally increasing temperatures.)

Today is rainy and very cool, but not cool enough to kick on the greenhouse heater. So it’s pretty much the same temperature inside the greenhouse as outside the greenhouse — in the 40s. Most of what’s growing — kale, celery, mâche, claytonia, Swiss chard, mustard greens, parsley, and arugula — do fine with these conditions.

Leafy vegetables require less energy (i.e. sunlight) than do fruiting vegetables, so the low light is also fine to keep them happy even if only slowly growing, just as they would be planted (outdoors) in a garden in Corsica or Rome.

That’s also home to my baby, hardy cyclamens (about which I recently wrote), in a seed flat, until they decide to lose their leaves and go dormant. And two cardoon plants, also native to Mediterranean regions.

One Mediterranean plant that is very unhappy this year, even in the greenhouse, is fig. Figs are still ripening but, with the high humidity and low light, each is soon covered with fuzzy, gray mold. Figs rotting in greenhouseSplitting figRoots of Rabbi Samuel fig, near the endwall, spread under the wall and outside the greenhouse, soaking up so much water that the figs split before ripening. Yet, a few fig fruits escape both afflictions and ripen to juicy sweetness.

I wonder if fig gardeners in the Mediterranean share my fig problems.Eating a fig

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.


Arnold, You’re Too Big

Witchhazel, a few weeks ago

Witchhazel, a few weeks ago

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

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

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

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

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

Witchhazel, partially pruned

Witchhazel, partially pruned

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

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

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

A Reprieve For Arnold

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

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

Breba Figs are Swell(ing)

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

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

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

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