After about twenty years of waiting, I happened to look at the ground and see a pine cone. The only pine tree nearby is a Korean pine (Pinus koreanensis) that I planted that many years ago, a tree that liked its new home and has soared, in that time, to fifty feet in height. My problem with the tree is that all it has done is grow; I planted the tree for its pine nuts.

A few years ago I did see a few cones way up near the top of the tree. Would the cones fall, carrying down the nuts, or would the nuts fall out, to be lost in the high grass? Would squirrels make all this moot?

I picked up the cone and clawed back its scales to see if any nuts were hiding within. Zut alors! Nuts! Most nuts need some curing before tasting good so I laid the cone in the sun for a few days.
Pinus koreansis cone and nuts
Tasting was next. First they needed to be cracked out of their shells, which was surprisingly easy with a pair of pliers. The first two nuts cracked were well filled and yielded delicious nuts. The next ten nuts, which comprised the rest of the harvest, when cracked, yielded nothing.

Many Nut Pines

The pine nuts you see for sale are generally one of the piñon pines native to the Southwest, the pignolia native to Italy and other Mediterranean countries, or Chinese white pine (Pinus armandii). In fact, though, a number of pine species provide edible nuts.

One of my favorites, the Digger pine (P. sabiniana), yields nuts the size of lima beans and is native to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Driving west down those mountains many years ago, I came to a screeching stop (well, not really screeching) upon seeing the giant cone of this tree on the ground. I picked it up and must have provided entertainment, perhaps elicited fear, in passerbys seeing some guy smashing open a pine cone on the guard rail.

My Korean pine is a dead ringer for our native white pine, the latter of which does not yield edible nuts. Korean pine is only one of a number of nut pines that grows well in cold winter climates, such as Zone 5 here in this part of New York’s Hudson Valley. Swiss Stone pine (P. cembra) and Siberian pine (P. sibirico) are also reliable nut-producers for cold climates, but are very slow growing.

Many other pine species potentially could produce pine nuts outside their native range, though their adaptability to very cold winters climate is not thoroughly tested. The closely related Colorado Pinyon (P. edulis) and Singleleaf Pinyon (P. monophylla) pines are bushy trees that become flat-topped with age. I planted a Singleleaf pine years ago and though it tolerated the cold winters here, it’s annual growth measured in inches. With the slow growth and lack of nuts, I eventually tired of it.

Over the years, my pinetum (yes, that is a word) has expanded. A Lacebark pine ((P. bungeana), after five years or so in the ground, has finally taken off and is growing over a foot a year. This species is especially worth growing also for its decorative bark, which is a patchwork of muted colors.
Pinus bungeana, bark


Back to the blank shells borne by my Korean pine. One possibility is that this pine needs cross-pollination from another tree of the same species to bear nuts or, at least, to bear them well. The cone that I found lying on the ground was pretty soggy and might have been lying there for a year or more. Perhaps nuts within dried up and/or rotted away. I subsequently found three more soggy cones, all devoid even of nut shells.

I recently planted pollinators for the pine. They’re small, but after a couple of years of nurturing are finally growing well, the largest of the two now two feet tall. I’ll report back, hopefully in less than 20 years.
Pinus koreansis, young

Survival of Fittest and Tastiest

On the bountiful side of the fruit and nut ledger this year are my tree fruits, especially the more common tree fruits. (Berries and uncommon tree fruits such as persimmon, mulberry, and cornelian cherry always do well here.) Winter and then spring weather were all  perfect for a good set of fruit. Once that usually fraught time in fruit growing was passed, Mother Nature took over and the trees naturally shed fruits that had been poorly pollinated or insect ridden. That lets a tree channel its energies into making bigger and more flavorful the fruits that remained hanging on branches.
Pear fruitlets before thinning
Nature’s aim in growing fruit is to make it appealing to all sorts of animals that incidentally spread the seeds as they eat the fruit. We humans are more discerning (would “finicky” be a better word?) when it comes to fruit quality. So once that natural fruit drop, “June drop” as it is appropriately called, is finished, we step in to remove even more fruit.

Pruning branches, on which some fruit would have been borne, in late winter and early spring already did some of that work. This week it was time to finish the job, by hand. This means putting some distance between each fruit and its neighbor, about five inches, always saving the largest and most pest free of the lot. Hand thinning would be tedious with smaller fruits, such as cherries and plums, so fortunately is unnecessary with them.

I ended up with a bucketful of cute apple and pear fruitlets. Cute, but into the compost they went where heat and time would cook any insect or disease pests lurking within that might have awakened to attack next year’s crop.
Apple and pear fruitlets on compost pile



Great Asparagus Does Not Require A Green Thumb

Not to be an ingrate or a braggart, but the asparagus some friends recently brought over for our shared dinner didn’t compare with my home-grown asparagus. Not that the friends’ asparagus wasn’t good. Theirs came from a local farm, so I assume harvest was within the previous 24 hours. Asparagus harvestBut the stalks of my asparagus are snapped off the plants within 100 feet of the kitchen door, clocking in at anywhere from a few minutes to an hour of time before they’re eaten. It’s not my green thumb that makes my asparagus taste so good. It’s the fact that I can harvest it within 100 feet of my kitchen door.

But don’t take my word for it. Research has shown that asparagus spears begin to age as soon as they’re picked, the stalks toughening and sugars disappearing, and bitterness, sourness, and off-flavors beginning to develop. Yum.

Taste is just one of the many reasons to plant asparagus. Here’s more: Deer and other wildlife leave it alone so it doesn’t need to be corralled within a fence; the ferny foliage that needs to be let grow after harvest ends in early July makes a soft green backdrop for colorful flowers; a planting can pump out stalks from the end of April till the end of June (around here) for decades.Asparagus in August

Asparagus’s two potential problems are relatively minor. The first is asparagus beetle, a beetle whose eggs, which look like black specks on the stalks, hatch into slug-like young that feed on the stalks. I keep this bugger in check by picking every single stalk — even spindly, inedible ones — every time the bed is harvested. The beetle, then, has nowhere to lay her eggs. (Not in my bed, least; she can seek out some wild asparagus here and there.) And then, at the end of the season, I cut down all the browned, ferny foliage and cart it over to the compost pile, in whose depths the adults, some of which overwinter in the old stalks, meet their demise.

No pesticides, organic or otherwise, have ever been sprayed on my asparagus, so natural predators also can do their share of making asparagus beetles a non-issue. Hand-picking beetles and larvae, which I’ve never had to resort to, is another way to keep the beetles in check. (My ducks may have a “hand” in that.)

Weeds are the other potential problem in an asparagus bed. One of the worst weeds in any bed is  . . . asparagus! Each red berry dangling from the stems of a female asparagus plant houses a number of seeds that, once they hit ground level, can sprout to make new plants. The cure is to plant an all male variety of asparagus, such as Jersey Giant or Jersey Prince.

Unfortunately, a package of an all male variety can contain a few females. So, in addition to planting an all male variety, the cure for weeds is straightforward: Weed! I keep my bed regularly weeded during harvest season, then only occasionally weeded once fronds start to make the bed almost impenetrable.

Off With The Fruitlets (Some, At Least)

The slow but steadily increasing warmth this spring has been ideal for tree fruits (not so much the rainy weather). A bumper crop of fruitlets perch on branches of my apple and pear trees. It’s time to remove most of them.

These plants are genetically programmed to set more fruits than they could possibly have the energy to ripen. Spring presents many hazards to those blossoms, including killing freezes and insect pests. So, come June, when some of these threats have passed, fruit trees naturally shed excess developing fruitlets. But not enough.

The trees’ goals are to make seeds to make new trees. The seeds are enclosed within fruits that appeal to wildlife, who then help disperse the seeds. Those fruits might be good enough for wildlife, but not for you and me. For larger and more flavorful fruits, even more need to be removed than are shed by the “June drop.” Only 5 to 10 percent of apple blossoms need to set fruit for a full crop.

So I’m spending some time pinching or snipping off excess fruitlets, saving those that are largest and most free from blemishes, with a few inches between those that are left.Thinning apples

Fruit thinning is not only for flavor. A large crop one year bodes for a small crop the following; fruit thinning evens out any feast and famine cycle. The thinning also reduces some pest problems caused by fruits hanging too close to each other.

Pros And Cons Of Bad Weather (For Humans)

The recent spate of rainy weather has been accompanied by cool temperatures, which some plants enjoy and others wait out. Peas, cabbage, kale, and radishes are having a grand old time; sweet corn and beans wait out the cool weather. Flowering alliumsThe most dramatic response has been in the delphiniums, dames rockets, and giant alliums. With cool temperatures, their colorful displays go on and on.

Asparagus doesn’t mind hot or cool weather. The cool weather does slow down spear production, which made for insufficient harvest to share the day my friends came to dinner.Delphinium at back of garden