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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Oiling a fig


I’ve always wanted to oil the eye of a fig, and finally got around to it a couple of weeks ago. Not that oiling a fig’s eye is something new or something that I came up with; fig lovers have been oiling their eyes at least since 300 B.C.E. And our reason for doing it is to speed ripening.
My oiled fig is the variety Kadota, which grows in a pot sitting in a sunny, south-facing window. Still, the amount of light streaming through those panes this time of year is around 500 foot-candles, as compared with a 10,000 foot-candle bath from summer sunlight, which figs do love. Light intensity and duration dropping daily justified a little oiling to speed up ripening. All that’s required is a drop of oil placed on the eye — the ostiole — of the fruit. Because olives and figs share Mediterranean origins, olive oil seemed most appropriate for fig-oiling.
Although fig-oiling has been practiced for centuries, it’s not some peasant tradition without scientific underpinnings. In fact, oiling releases ethylene; this simple hydrocarbon, comprised merely of two carbon and 4 hydrogen atoms, also happens to be a plant hormone. Present at the right time at the right concentration, ethylene stimulates ripening of fruit.
Not that I had to use olive oil. Other vegetable oils also speed ripening. The more refined they are, the greater the effect. 

You can’t oil just any old fig fruit and expect it to ripen. The fruit must be near enough to the time of natural ripening. The two fruit that I oiled were among the four that were large enough to be deemed by me to be ripe for ripening. In the past couple of days, the oiled fruits suddenly swelled and one is hanging flaccidly, ready to be harvested.
Ethylene’s magic is not restricted only to fig fruits, or even to fruits in general. Depending on timing and concentration, effects of this simple compound are far-ranging. For instance, ethylene was partially responsible for initiating the colorful display of autumn leaves a few weeks ago. Perhaps you have a houseplant whose leaves look uncharacteristically clenched and in pain. Ethylene again. Excessive watering could be the cause; roots gasping for air release a natural chemical that is transported to the leaves where it’s converted to ethylene. There, ethylene disrupts normal cell growth, with curling the result of cells in the upper part of the leaf outgrowing those that are below.
The swaying of stems under windy conditions — picture a pine growing on an exposed cliffside — also stimulates ethylene release which, in this case, results in stockier growth. I lightly brush the tops of my tomato seedlings in spring for the same effect.
This time of year, I’m paying most attention to ethylene’s effect on fruits, figs and otherwise. Apples, bananas, pears, and avocados put out a burst of ethylene just before ripening on or off the plant, and this ethylene stimulates further ripening with a snowballing effect. I keep my eye out for any damaged fruit in a bin or bag of fruits, because injuries further stoke the ethylene “fires,” speeding the transition from ripe to over-ripe. That’s why one rotten apple really can spoil the whole barrel.
“Ripe,” for a fruit, can mean different things to different people. Some people leave rock-hard peaches and plums on their kitchen counters to “ripen.” But not every fruit ripens off the plant, even if picked at a near ripe state.
That burst of ethylene just before ripening is not characteristic of all fruits; just so-called climacteric fruits. With non-climacteric fruits, ethylene production just gradually increases as ripening occurs. Non-climacteric fruits, which include raspberries, sweet cherries, and strawberries, definitely do not ripen at all after being harvested.
Climacteric fruits do allegedly ripen — or, at least, soften, sweeten, and change color — after being harvested, as long as ripening is sufficiently imminent at harvest time. But is softening, sweetening, and color change all that a ripe fruit has to offer? No. A whole spectrum of flavorful aromatics is also waiting. Although some fruits might ripen to perfection harvested before fully ripe (tomatoes and late apples, for instance), and other fruits must be harvested underripe for ripening off the plant (European pears and avocados, for instance), many fruits, climacteric and non-climacteric, taste best if fully ripened on the plant.
Fig is a climacteric fruit but one that I believe tastes flat if harvested anytime before it’s dead ripe. All of which made me most interested to taste my oiled fig. Would ethylene-induced premature ripening, from a single drop of oil in the eye of the fruit, result in a syrupy sweet, richly flavored Kadota fruit, such as I’ve harvested from my greenhouse tree in summer and fall, or would the fruit look and feel ripe, but lack full flavor. Drum roll . . . flavor is flat. (That flat flavor could also reflect the seasonal cooler and less bright conditions of this time of year.)
Fig scale


Lest anyone believe that everything is always rosy here on the farmden, it ain’t so. True, right now, vegetable beds are brimming over with crisp, tender heads of delicious lettuce, broccoli, endive, and cabbage, and upright stalks of aromatic celery and leek. And, yes, the floor of the greenhouse is verdant with developing, young lettuce, large, leafy kale and Swiss chard plants, and 10 foot tall fig trees bearing fruits
But let’s start with those figs, three different varieties of which live with their roots right in the ground in the greenhouse. Green Ischia has been bearing large, copper-colored, firm, sweet fruits for weeks and weeks. No problem here.
About 8 feet from the Green Ischia grows a Brown Turkey fig. It kicked off the season as usual, loaded with fruit that started ripening in early September. Then scale insects moved in, dotting stems and eventually the fruits with their gray bodies, and sucking the life out of everything until the harvest petered away to almost nothing
About 8 feet from the Brown Turkey tree grows another fig tree, Kadota, with fruits lined up along its stems also. From past experience, I expected problems with Kadota. It’s a delectable and heavy yielder that thrives in hot, dry climates. The greenhouse is hot but hardly dry. With the high humidity in there, almost every Kadota fig has turned to a fuzzy, white ball just before ripening.
The Kadota problem is the one most easily solved. That white fuzz is fungal, and the fungal culprit is probably Botrytis cinerea, a cosmopolitan fungus boasting a slew of host plants. Botrytis claims credit, for example, for a wet spring’s fuzzy, gray strawberries, for a wet summer’s fuzzy, gray raspberries, and, in a more benevolent form, for “noble rot” of grapes, which makes for a sought-after wine. All sorts of ominous chemicals can control botrytis. More benignly, on stored fruits at least, it has been controlled with a 1% solution of baking soda, or an atmosphere of either 15 ppm acetic acid (i.e. vinegar) or 75 ppm cinnamaldehyde, the natural flavoring of cinnamon
Trying to control disease on my Kadota figs with sprays would be an uphill battle considering the perfect conditions for botrytis: a very susceptible variety of fig, a very humid environment, and presence of the fungus. My approach is straightforward, and that is to dig up Kadota and plant a more disease-resistant variety in its place
On to Brown Turkey . . . Scale insects get up into plants and move around with the help of ants. Stopping the ants goes a long way to putting the brakes on scale. Stopping the ants is easy: Masking tape wrapped around the trunk and coated with a continuous ring of sticky Tanglefoot Tangle-Trap Insect Trap Coating. I also, of course, have to make sure there are no leafy, stemmy, or other bridges around which ants can detour. Next year
One other possibility for reining in scale insects is to spray “summer oil” in spring after the plants have leafed out and greenhouse beds are clear of lettuce, kale, and other vegetables. Summer oil is highly refined so as not to damage plants while it’s smothering the scale insects.
Another problem I notice in the greenhouse is that developing lettuce heads have some hole-y leaves and a few gobs of insect poop. Slugs are the usual, occasional problem in my greenhouse, but they don’t leave green, gobby, poopy calling cards. (No less unpleasant are the silvery trails they do leave, from their dried slime.) With more than usual grasshoppers this year, that was also a possibility. Nix on that. I just haven’t seen enough of them for all that poop, and they chew beginning at the edges of leaves. Attacked lettuce leaves were pocked with holes
The feeding resembles the handiwork of cabbageworms or cabbage loopers. They’ve never before indicated a liking for my lettuce but are known to include lettuce in their diet. Yet another possibility is another caterpillar, armyworm. This one feeds at night and, because I haven’t seen any caterpillars, is now the most likely culprit
The natural insecticide, Bt (sold under such trade names as Dipel and Thuricide), that I mentioned last week is very effective against the cabbageworms and loopers, as well as young armyworms. Larger armyworms are finished or just about finished feeding anyway.
These few problems notwithstanding, things are still rose-y, or at least carnation-y, in the greenhouse. The big, fat, fragrant ‘Enfant de Nice’ carnations that I grew this summer . . . well, I couldn’t just leave them out to die from cold. So I dug up some plants to grow in the greenhouse. They add a nice spot of red, white, or pink color, and the fragrance is, as billed, “intoxicating spicy-sweet clove.”