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VIRTUAL TRIP TO MEDITERRANEAN

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…”

Luxuriating in my Greenhouse

How Cool is That (Greenhouse)?

    Having a greenhouse is a much-appreciated luxury. To avoid being profligate, I eke all that I can from its every square inch in every season.
    For starters, it’s a cool greenhouse — temperature-wise “cool,” not “ain’t this a cool greenhouse” cool. Winter temperatures are permitted inside drop to 35°F. before the propane heater kicks on. And in summer, roll-up sidewalls let in plenty of cooler, outside air to save energy (and noise) in running the cooling fan. Demands on the cooling fan are also minimized by letting summer temperatures reach almost 100°F. before the fan awakens.
    I have to choose my plants carefully for them to tolerate such conditions.Grennhouse beds in October
    Right now, lettuce, arugula, mâche, celery, parsley, kale, and Swiss chard seedlings and small transplants trace green lines up and down ground beds in the greenhouse. I sowed seed of most of these cold-loving vegetables about a month ago. They’re too small to harvest now. No matter: The outdoor vegetable garden is still replete with greenery available for harvest through November and, probably, on into December. By then, greenhouse greenery will have grown to harvest size, then continue to do so very slowly through the dark, cold days.
    And the 100° summers in the greenhouse? Above the beds spread the branches of three large fig trees, planted right into the ground (rather than pots). From those branches dangle ripe and ripening figs, as they have since July. Figs originated in the searing heat of summers in Western Asia; they can take the 100° heat of my greenhouse. Soon, cooler temperatures and lowering sun will drive the trees to stop ripening fruits, and lose their leaves and enter dormancy. (Figs are subtropical, rather than tropical, trees, so enjoy a cool — but not frigid — winter rest.) The few, leafless branches, most of them pruned back, will cast little shade to let the cool weather greenery in the ground beds below bask in what little sunlight fall and winter have to offer.
    Starting in February, my greenhouse does triple duty, becoming also a home for transplants for the upcoming season’s vegetable and flower gardens. I plant the first seeds — onions, lettuce, celery, and leek — in early February, sowing them in seed flats on the narrow bench along the greenhouse’s north wall.

(Hot) Beds in Summer

    As each spring morphs into summer in the greenhouse, fig growth begins anew and winter’s cool weather vegetables wane and are cleared away.
    How about putting the ground beds beneath the awakening fig trees to some good use? In the past, I’ve tried growing melons and cucumbers, all of which originated in hot regions of Africa and Asia, in those beds. Neither the melons nor the cucumbers did particularly well — yet.

Ginger Loved the Heat

    Which brings us to this week’s ginger harvest. Greenhouse beds this summer provide a warm, moist home in which to grow ginger, a plant indigenous to the hot, muggy climate of south China. Ginger would be hardly worth growing if all I wanted was the khaki-skinned rhizomes that I could pick off a supermarket shelf. Those tough-hided roots are mature ginger, which has a fibrous flesh.
 Digging up ginger   What I was shooting for was baby ginger, whose pink-tinged, white skin, encloses flesh that is tender, lily-white, and free of fibre.  The flavor is a little different than mature ginger, cleaner. This tropical plant I figured could — and it did — thrive in my hot greenhouse all summer.
    To get started, way back in March, I purchased a single root of mature ginger at the supermarket, broke it into four sections, and potted each section into a 4 inch pot. As I said, the plant needs heat, so I set the pots on my seed-starting mat to maintain a temperature of about 70°F. Still, it took awhile for green sprouts to show.
    The potted ginger plants were ready to plant out in a greenhouse bed just as the last of winter’s vegetables were being cleared away there. After planting, I refurbished the soil with a mulch of compost. Cool soil got the plants off to a slow start but once summer heat kicked in outdoors, and then really kicked in within the greenhouse, the ginger thrived.Harvested ginger
    The goal was to let ginger linger to eke maximum yield but not so long that the rhizome would begin to mature. I also needed space for this winter’s plantings. As it turns out, the first objective, maximum yield, was moot. Yields were prodigious, four plants yielding much more than we could possibly eat.

Pickle It

    The first order of business with the harvested baby ginger was to pickle it. All that was needed was to slice it thinly with a carrot peeler then pour boiling vinegar sweetened with a bit of maple syrup over it.

HOT DAYS, BUT PREPARING FOR FALL

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.

FRUIT BOOK GIVEAWAY, AND FRUIT FUTURES

 The Eternal (Fruit) Optimist

   We fruit growers get especially excited this time of year. On the one hand, there’s the anticipation of the upcoming season. And on the other hand, we don’t want to rush things along at all.
    Ideally, late winter segues into the middle of spring with gradually warming days and nights. Unfortunately, here, as in most of continental U.S., temperatures fluctuate wildly this time of year. Warm weather accelerates development of flower buds and flowers. While early blossoms are a welcome sight after winter’s achromatic landscapes, late frosts can snuff them out. Except for with everbearing strawberries, figs, and a couple of other fruits that bloom more than once each season, we fruit lovers get only one shot at a successful crop each season.Some berries of summer
    How did all these fruits ever survive in the wild? They did so by not growing here — in the wild. Apples, peaches, cherries — most of our familiar fruits — were never wild here, but come from climates with more equable temperatures, mostly eastern Europe and western Asia. We favor them because they are part of our mostly European heritage.
    The fruits that I never worry about here are the few that are native: pawpaw, persimmon, grape, mulberry, lingonberry, and blueberry, to name a few. (Also raspberry, gooseberry, and currants, cultivated varieties of which are hybrids of native and European species.) After decades of fruit growing, I’ve hardly missed a harvest, no matter what the weather, from any of these native fruits. (I cover native, non-native, common, and uncommon fruits in my books Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden and Grow Fruit Naturally.)
 Some fruits of fall   Still, I can’t deny the delicious flavor of apples, peaches, and other non-native fruits, especially those I grow myself. So I do grow them, do what I can for them, and hope for the best. I may even put a thin coat of white kaolin spray on these trees to reflect the sun’s warmth and further delay awakening of the buds.
    Last year was a very poor year for many tree fruits, and I’m not sure why. (Recovery from the previous years cicada attacks could be part of the reason.) Nonetheless, every year about this time I’m bursting with optimism for a bountiful fruit harvest.

Veggies, As Usual, Chugging Along Nicely

    I consider vegetables relatively easy to grow because most are annuals and because, with most of them, I can sow and harvest repeatedly throughout the growing season. Let cold or some pest snuff them out, and I can just replant.
    The first of my lettuces, sown early last month in little seed trays, are up and growing strongly, each seedling transplanted into its own APS cell (available from www.gardeners.com). Ninety-six seedlings take up little more than a couple of square feet and, with capillary watering from a reservoir beneath the APS trays, I need check the water only about every week.Seedlings in APS trays
    My next wave of indoor seed-sowing will take place in the middle of this month. That’s when I’ll sprinkle pepper, eggplant, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage seeds into the miniature furrows of miniature fields of my seed flats.
    I’ll also sow another batch of lettuce seeds indoors, this batch for eventual transplanting outdoors. The first batch is soon to be transplanted into greenhouse beds.

Fig Prophylaxis

    Buds on fig trees planted in the ground in the greenhouse are showing hints of green and swelling ever so slightly in spite of the cool night temperatures in there. The scale insects that I battled last year  are undoubtedly also coming to life on those plants. In the past, I’ve kept these insects at bay by scrubbing the bark in winter with soapy water or by spraying it with insecticidal soap, or, during the growing season, wrapping the trunk with a sticky Tanglefoot barrier to stop travel of ants that herd the insects.
    I’ve never gotten rid of scale insects, only kept them from gaining the upper hand. And some years it’s been a neck and neck race as to who would win out before the end of the season.
  Spraying oil on dormant fig tree  I’ve already begun this season with prophylactic sprays of oil. Oil has a long history of controlling insects and some diseases, with the advantage of causing little collateral damage to the environment, including beneficial insects. Because it’s main effect is to clog insect breathing ports (spiracles), there’s little danger of insects developing resistance.
    Oil’s major hazard is its potential to injure plants, mitigated by spraying when temperatures aren’t too hot or below freezing, or when rain is likely, all easily avoided in a greenhouse. Various kinds and formulations of oil — kinds include vegetable, mineral, and neem oils — differ in their hazard to plants. I’m using a high-purity mineral oil (Sunspray) from which I expect no damage, especially since the plants are still leafless.
    Scale insect eggs should be hatching about now. Brutal as it may sound, I hope to suffocate the crawlers before they settle down to one spot to cover themselves with their protective armor and literally suck the life from the plants. Weekly sprays should cover successive hatches.

New Video

Check out my new video on “pricking out” seedlings!

Free Book!

Book giveaway! Write a comment here telling us which is the most difficult fruit you grow, and why, and why you grow it, and you’ll be entered in a drawing to get a free copy of my most recent book Grow Fruit Naturally. Comments must be submitted no later than noon, March 23rd.Grow Fruit Naturally, front cover of book

Upcoming Lectures

Check out the “Lectures” page of my website for some lectures I’ll be giving in the next few weeks.

A Harvest of Mediterranean Transplants

Mediterranean Delectables & Not So Delectables

Figs thrive in heat and sunlight, nothing like the cold and frequently overcast days we now have, with only a few hours of sun when it does show itself.  Still, my figs keep my attention.
In the greenhouse, heated only enough to keep temperatures above 35°F, the fig trees still have plenty of hard, unripe fruits splayed along their stems. Nothing odd about that. Figs, unlike apples and most other fruits which ripen during a narrow window in time, keep developing and ripening new fruits all along their growing stems.
But only one of my varieties, given the name Rabbi Samuel, seems able to tap into what little sunlight and heat are still at hand. The flavor of fruits that ripen on the heels of a spate of cold, rainy weather falls flat. But whenever sunlight fuels enough photosynthesis in the leaves and warmth in the greenhouse for at least a couple of days, a few fruits will swell and soften, their rosy insides then sweet and richly flavored.

Next Year’s Fig Crop is Readied

Next year’s fig crops are also on my mind.
Greenhouse figs no longer bearing good-tasting fruits get lopped back to 3 to 4 feet high. That dramatic pruning will coax vigorous growth next spring on which new fruits will be borne. More dramatic pruning would coax even more vigorous growth, but the figs on that new growth would begin ripening too late.
Potted figs have also been pruned and moved to my barely heated basement where temperatures below 50°F will restrain growth until outdoor temperatures in spring warm enough so that the pots can be moved back out. Figs are subtropical plants that, when dormant, tolerate temperatures down into the 20s, or lower. If kept too warm in winter, new growth begins indoors. That new growth is tender and easily burned by slight frost or even bright sunlight when moved outside.
Potted figs are difficult to muscle around; mine need to be carried through three doorways and then down narrow stairs to the basement. So a potted fig needs to be kept in a reasonably sized pot even though that allows for only a reasonable amount of growth which, in turn, allows for only a reasonably sized crop.
Digging up Kadota fig

Kadota fig, dug up in November

I worked my way around this problem by taking one of my potted figs, a Kadota, out of its pot and planting it directly in the ground in spring. Theoretically, eager roots reach out into the surrounding soil, enough to support more growth — and larger crops — than if restricted within a pot. Another plus with this method is that no watering is needed beyond an initial drenching.
My success, thus far, has been limited. Kadota may requires too long a season to begin ripening any fruit outdoors here. Still, success might come once the plant gets used to its routine, or I’ll use this method with a shorter season variety such as Brown Turkey.
The time to dig up a planted out fig is anytime before temperatures dip below about 20°F. Or sooner, if the plant has lost its leaves and gone dormant.
Kadota fig stored in cold basement

Kadota fig stored in cold basement

The Hunchback of Nice Vindicates Cardoon

Continuing the Mediterranean theme (is this some primal attraction to a Garden of Eden?), I wrote back in May about growing, with reservations,  Gobbo di Nizza (Hunchback of Nice) cardoon. In my garden many years ago, cardoon proved to be an enormous, spiny, bitter-tasting vegetable. But that wasn’t Gobbo di Nizza cardoon.
First off, Gobbo di Nizza is not spiny. It looks spiny but the soft “spines” don’t bite. This is an impressive-looking plant, something like a giant thistle (which it is, as is the closely related artichoke, botanically speaking), a whorl of gray-green leaves (very Mediterranean) soaring almost 4 feet high.
I tasted Gobbo di Nizza a month or so ago and was very unimpressed with its bitter flavor.Cardoon growing in garden
Blanching, which is blocking out sunlight, is a way that the flavor of vegetables such as endive and chicory is mellowed. Some folks blanche cardoon. So I gathered together Gobbo’s leaves, secured them in a tight bundle with a wrapping of twine, and waited a few weeks. Once I had harvested the leaves, removed the blades, and pared away the stringy flesh, I was left holding large, pale leaf stalks, the stalks looking much like celery on steroids.
Chopped into 1” pieces, and drained after being boiled for 15 minutes in salted water, Gobbo di Pizza had a smooth, artichoke-y flavor, quite good. Perhaps it was the olive oil and home-grown sun-dried tomatoes I drizzled over them.Harvested cardoon

Earthy Flavor: What am I, a Worm?

Beets are too earthy in flavor for my palette, and it’s not my imagination. That earthy flavor is from geosmin, a substance that is actually also present in soil! I like my earthiness in the soil, not my food.
Varieties differ in their geosmin concentration, with cylindrical varieties and the striped variety Chioggia being highest. This past season I was duped into growing beets again. I grew the old, low geosmin variety Detroit Dark Red, but still found it too earthy. Most were given away. The few left await vinegar, horseradish, or mustard to tone down their earthiness.Beets in garden

FIGS UP NORTH

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.

FIGS, POMEGRANATES, LETTUCE, BEDS: ALL READY

 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.

Pink rock orchid

Of Orchids and Oil

Over the past few weeks, excitement was steadily mounting on the windowsill. First came the stalk that poked up from the bases of whorls of leathery leaves. Then, buds started fattening up along the stalks. Finally, after a half a decade of growing Dendrobium kingianum, the pink rock orchid, it looked like the plant might finally reward me with some blossoms. Which it did, a couple of days ago.
The actual blossoming was somewhat anticlimactic. No flamboyant shapes or colors, just small, white blossoms. And no particularly green thumb was required to get this orchid to blossom, just time.
Pink rock orchid is known to be a tough plant. While many orchids are native to lush, tropical jungles, the conditions of which are hard to  even approach, indoors except in a hothouse, this orchid is native to rocky environments of Australia. It tolerates cold below freezing and hot temperatures over 100°F., and does not demand an inordinate amount of light. I water whenever the potting mix seems dry.

The problem is that “orchid flowering” conjures up both a greater challenge and blossoms more spectacular than are offered by pink rock orchid. So I’m now just going to look upon it as an attractive houseplant with an attractive flower. It even has a pleasant, slight scent.
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I’ve waxed enthusiastic about the handfuls of ripe figs I gather up in late summer and into fall from my greenhouse. And about heads of lettuce and mâche, celery stalks, and sprigs of parsley that fill salad bowls all winter. Yet all is not always so Eden-like within the greenhouse. Last year scale insects began to attack a couple of fig trees. Innocuous-looking, small bumps on the bark — dormant scale insects — threaten to wake up in a larger outbreak this year. Action is needed. Now.
Last year at this time my weapon was an old toothbrush and a solution of soapy water. The brute force method of scrubbing the insects from the bark was effective — to a point — but tedious.
This year I’m smothering the buggers. My weapon of choice is oil, not any old oil but a specially refined oil that minimizes damage to plants while leaving insects gasping for air. It also contains an emulsifier so it readily mixes with water. Spray oil comes in two “flavors:” dormant oil and summer oil. Plants are more likely to be damaged by oil when they are in leaf and growing, so summer oils are more refined; summer oils mixed at higher concentrations can be used as dormant oils. (Summer oils are also called “horticultural oils,” “stylet oils,” or “ultrafine oils.”)
Oil sprays have been around for a long time — commercially for over a hundred years — and have the advantages of causing little harm to beneficial organisms and being relatively safe for birds, humans, and other mammals. Insects and mites (which oils also control) have little likelihood of developing resistance to oil sprays. The oils might be petroleum-, plant-, or fish-based.

So what’s not to like about oil sprays? Most importantly, they can damage plants. To avoid damage, sprays must be applied when temperatures are above freezing but not too, too hot, say above 90°F. Also, some plants, such as Japanese maple, redbud, azalea, hibiscus, and sugar maple, are readily damaged by oil; and oil will strip the blue, waxy coating from Colorado blue spruce, turning the needles green. The longer any plant is coated with oil, the more chance for damage; low humidity hastens its evaporation.  
Spray oils work by direct contact, which is advantageous unless you have a pest whose eggs are resistant to oil and keep hatching over time. Or if the pest flies in from elsewhere. Many gardeners routinely spray their fruit trees in spring with oil, with little effect because the most significant pests of fruit trees generally do not hang out on the stems or fruits for long enough for a direct hit by an oil spray.
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Back to the fig trees in my greenhouse. They’re getting weekly sprays of dormant strength summer oil until the leaves begin to unfold. Once that happens, I may mix up a batch of summer strength oil. The goal is to reduce populations drastically because, despite the innocuousness of oil sprays, I’d rather not spray anything once fruits begin to develop.
My other tack to keep scale insects at bay is to wrap the trunk with a band of masking tape coated with sticky Tangletrap, providing a Maginot line to stop ants from climbing the trees. (Hopefully, more effective than the real Maginot line.) Ants enjoy the sweet honeydew exuded by the scale insects and, in return, herd them, protecting them from predators.
Spraying and banding may seem like a lot of effort. But fresh figs are worth it. And with snow still on the ground, there’s not that much else to do, gardenwise, yet this time of year.
Berries of July

Fruits Galore & Georgia O’Keefe

Let’s see, what’s on my plate for today? No, not what I’m planning to do, but what’s on my plate, literally. I have gumis, figs, Nanking cherries, highbush and lowbush blueberries, black raspberries, red raspberries, black currants, red currants, tart cherries, and mulberries. And what a tasty lot they are, and for

so little effort. All that’s needed, for everything except the gumis and Nanking cherries, is pruning and mulching. The gumis and Nanking cherries, both with their branches bowing to the ground under the load of red fruits, need no care at all!

Gumis (Elaeagnus multiflora) are particularly abundant this year, for the first time ever. Either the bushes have grown large enough to pump out a large crop, or birds have been distracted by all the cicadas into leaving the gumis alone. Letting the fruits, which are flecked gold and the size of small cherries, hang on the bush until dead ripe gives time for the sprightly, sweet flavor to develop and the astringency to fade. It’s also a nice ornamental shrub, with leaves silvery on one side that are a good foil for the colorful fruits. Backtracking to a few weeks ago to another asset of this plant, sweet perfume from the flowers was drifting all over the yard.
The early fig crop, known as the breba crop, is also relatively abundant. One of my figs, mislabeled Green Ischia, bears fruit on new, growing shoots as

well as on last year’s stems. The breba crop, ripening earlier, develops on last year’s stems, a few of which I saved on the large tree in the greenhouse. The rest of the plant, like my other figs, which bear only on new, growing shoots, gets lopped back each autumn to 3 or 4 feet high. This crop, and for some figs this is the only crop, is called the main crop.

So right now Green Ischia has a breba crop ripening on the 2 or 3 stems I left from last year, and a main crop developing which will begin ripening around the end of August, along with the main crop on the other varieties of figs. These crops can be harvested from plants in pots or, as is the case for my Green Ischia, plants growing in the ground in a minimally heated greenhouse. The advantage of in-ground in the greenhouse is larger plants and, hence, more figs. Some people spend their money on in-ground pools; I spent my money on a greenhouse for in-ground figs.
The other fruits on my plate, with the exception of Nanking cherries, are familiar to most people. Many visitors have been sampling the Nanking cherries, and all except one were wowed by the fine flavor. The fruits are somewhat small and soft, but, in addition to good flavor, earn their keep for their fecundity, their not needing any care, and for white blossoms that drench the stems in spring.
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Soft pink, tubular swirls of calla lily (Zantedeschia spp.) flowers are like having a three dimensional Georgia O’Keefe painting right on my terrace. No, four dimensional, the added dimension being time, because the plants change day by day.
Calla lilies are also easy to grow. Put the bulbs in a pot, and water; enjoy

flowers in summer; bring the pot indoors before the weather plummets below freezing in autumn; store in cool basement through winter; bring out again in late spring.

My main problem with growing calla lilies is that I’d like more of them than the one pot now sitting on my terrace. New plants are thankfully easy to come by, besides being gifted them, in this case from my friend Sara. Beneath the ground, the plants spread by rhizomes, which are specialized, underground stems such as those found beneath ginger, banana, lowbush blueberry, and bamboo plants. Rhizomes have a segmented appearance, just like stems, with each each node sprouting feeder roots as well as an aboveground shoot. Come autumn or late winter, I’ll cut up the rhizomes and multiply my holdings.
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So what’s hard to grow around here? Apples. If you wanted to know the most difficult fruit crop east of the Rocky Mountains, that’s it. Apples.
The season started out perfectly, with good fruit set. A few well-timed sprays kept the snout-nosed beetle, plum curculio, at bay, as well as codling moth (the “worm” in an apple) and the fungus responsible for apple scab, whose effect is just what it sound like. But problems don’t end there.
As curculio exits stage left, apple maggot moves in stage right (but can be controlled by trapping) and codling moth stays around. Orange blemishes from cedar-apple rust pock susceptible varieties and scab, despite the sprays, also becomes evident, the result of our incessant wet weather. Fruits are cracking from changes in soil moisture. And still in the offing are summer diseases — black rot, white rot, and bitter rot — that can ruin any fruit that survives other scourges.
I can hear my mulberries, Nanking cherries, black raspberries, and other no-care fruits chuckling at me for all the care I lavish on my apples, to little avail.
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Dateline July 4: Cicadas are gone. Yeah!

Springtime, In My Basement

Spring is here, in my basement. Allow me to set the scene. My basement is barely heated and I replaced what once was a south-facing Bilco door with a wooden frame supporting two clear polycarbonate panels. Plants that need light and tolerate or need a winter cold period, down to near freezing, have their wishes fulfilled out there in that old Bilco entranceway.
Temperatures are more moderate there than outdoors, generally warmer except later in spring when the basement’s mass of concrete keeps things cooler than hot, sunny days outdoors. Through winter, though, the non-frigid temperatures kept pots of Welsh onions, pansies, oregano, kumquat seedlings, hellebore, olive, pineapple guavas, and bay laurel green and happy. It’s  cool Mediterranean climate down there, in winter, at least.
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As would be happening in parts of the Mediterranean, some of the plants in my basement feel spring in the air and are starting to grow; the most exciting of the plants down there are some ramps that I was gifted last spring and potted up. Ramps, sometimes called wild leeks, are a kind of wild onion much in demand in spring. They’re one of the first greens of spring, enthusiastically welcomed in with ramps festivals in some parts of the country.
I too became enthusiastic about ramps after tasting them last spring so, of course, I decided to try to grow them — no easy proposition. Ramps grow wild on the leafy floor of hardwood forests, their green leaves appearing early in the season and for only a few weeks to feed the bulbs, after which they die back to the ground and flower stalks appear. Little is known about growing them.
My ramp bulbs have sprouted! Last week I wrote about onions and their sensitivity to photoperiod; long days make northern-types stop growing leaves and channel their energy into fattening up bulbs. The more leaves plants have before the critical photoperiod that triggers that changeover, the bigger the bulbs. Methinks: Why not apply the theory to growing ramps? By starting early, the bulbs have more time for leaf growth before whatever critical photoperiod brings it to a screeching stop. The bulbs also enjoy cool conditions, which should endure in the basement window for weeks and weeks. 

If my reasoning is sound, I could get even better growth by looking to more northerly locales for ramp bulbs or seeds for planting. Because ramps originating in those parts would have to begin growth later in spring, they might need to experience even longer days before leaf growth stops. Down here, then, they’d get extra growing time before those longer days arrested leaf growth.
Ramps, now sprouting
In fact, it is short nights rather than long days that trigger that halt in leaf growth. Under natural conditions, short days and long nights go hand in hand. I could change that by throwing a light-blocking blanket over the plants for a couple of hours at the beginning or end of the lengthening days, tricking the plants into thinking the days are still short enough to keep growing leaves.
I need to build up a stock of ramps, by bulb or by seed, to get enough plants to fool around with. Ramp seeds or bulbs are available mail order from http://www.rampfarm.com.
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Sitting, waiting in darker areas of my basement away from the light are fig, pomegranate, mulberry, and che plants, also enjoying the Mediterranean winter. These plants lose their leaves for winter, and light generally isn’t needed by leafless, dormant plants. In contrast to my hopes for the ramps, I’m hoping for a late spring for these plants.
If fig and company get wind of spring in the air, their buds are apt to start swelling and then growing into new shoots. Which gives rise to two problems: First, that the plants then need light; and second, that the relatively wan indoor light leads to overly succulent shoots that will “burn” once plants are moved outdoors when the weather reliably warms. Most of these plants are in large pots and there just isn’t enough space in the Bilco opening for all them, even if light there was sufficient, which it isn’t.
My tack with these large, potted plants is to hold back growth as long as possible by keeping them on the dry side. And then, when outdoor temperatures warm up just a bit — with lows in the mid twenties — I’ll move them outside to, I hope, begin growth in synch with our spring temperatures. Of course, I can only do that if the plants have remained dormant when I move them out. And if temperatures plummet one or more nights, I’ll have to lug all the plants into the garage, keeping exposure to cold commensurate with growth stage of the plants.
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