Visual Delight, and some Aroma

I once grew a rose, Bibi Maizoon, that I considered to be as close to perfection as any rose could be. Its blooms, that is. They were cup-shaped and filled with loosely defined row upon row of pastel pink petals, nothing like the pointed, stiff blossoms of hybrid tea roses. Completing the old-fashioned feel of Bibi Maizoon blossoms is the flowers’ strong, fruity fragrance.
Bibi Maizoon rose
(In case you don’t know who Bibi Maizoon was, she was a member of the royal family of Oman. The Bibi Maizoon rose was bred by British rose breeder David Austin.)

The bush itself was as imperfect as the blossom were perfect. Where to begin? For starters, the thin stems could hardly support the corpulent blossoms. Couldn’t, in fact, so the blossoms usually dangle upside down. Upside down blossoms were not that bad because I considered Bibi best when cut for vases indoors to better appreciate her rare appearances and fragrance.

Top those deficiencies with the fact that Bibi Maizoon was also only borderline cold hardy in my garden and you would rightly guess that I no longer grow this rose.

I haven’t abandoned David Austin roses. I generally like them for their old-fashioned look: the bushes are, well, bushy and full; the blossoms have softer colors than those of traffic-stopping hybrid tea roses; and they are disease resistan and strong-growing.

I’ve previously praised the variety L. D. Braithwaite for its almost nonstop, dark red blossoms, red tinted leaves, and ability to laugh off any amount of cold. Three other varieties — Golden Celebration, Lady of Shallot, and Dame Judi Dench — came into my garden in the last year, their blossoms with varying degrees of yellow, the first a pure golden yellow, the second apricot-yellow, and the third apricot orange. Delicious. They all seem, so far, near-perfect.

Golden Celebration rose

Golden Celebration rose

Lady of Shallot rose

Lady of Shallot rose

Organoleptic Delight, and also Beautiful

Ellison’s Orange is as unknown to most people as is Bibi Maizoon. It’s an apple, an old and very delicious apple, and, oddly enough, ripening right now. Everywhere else I read that this apple is supposed to ripen later in September and on into October, yet every year my Ellison’s Orange fruits ripen about this time of year.

Like Bibi Maizoon, Ellison’s Orange has its good and bad sides. On the plus side, it bears very well and at a young age. It also seems to be somewhat resistant to scab and cedar apple rust diseases, contradicting other sources on this point also. And what a beauty the fruit is, with its orange blush over a yellow background.

For me, the downside of this variety is the absolute necessity to pick it at just the right moment. One day an apple seems puckery underripe; the next day it might be sleepy and soft. If I harvest very carefully, I catch an apple at its delectable best, which is sprightly with an intense flavor that hints of anise seed.
Ellison's Orange apple
I made my tree from a piece of stem whose cells trace back over a hundred years, to the garden of a Reverend Ellison in Lincolnshire in the east of England. The parents of the reverend’s new apple weren’t lightweights. One parent, Cox’s Orange Pippin, the king of British apples, has an intense flavor that sometimes hints of anise seed. The other parent, Calville Blanc, an old French apple popular in the court of King Louis XIII, has a spicy flavor with just a hint of banana. No wonder Ellison’s Orange tastes so good – as long as I catch it at the right moment.

Another Tasty Delight

If you buy corn at a farmstand or market these days, no need to have boiling water ready, as gardeners did in the past to stop enzymes from starting the conversion of kernels from sugary sweet to starchy bland. Two genes incorporated into modern corn varieties dramatically slow this flavor decline. They also ratchet up the sugars, making modern corns supersweet to begin with.

Call me old-fashioned, but my favorite variety of sweet corn, the only variety that I grow, is the old variety Golden Bantam, which lacks those modern corn genes. Although not nearly as sweet as modern hybrids, Golden Bantam has a very rich corny flavor with – to some tastes — just the right amount of sweetness.

 Golden Bantam, a hit since 1906

Golden Bantam, a hit since 1906

Golden Bantam was introduced into the seed trade in 1902 by W. Atlee Burpee Company, who got their original 2 quarts of seed from New York farmer William Coy, who had tasted and enjoyed eating some ears at his cousin’s house in Massachusetts. Long story short: Everyone fell in love with Golden Bantam and it became the most popular corn of its day. An article in The Boston Transcript of 1926 states that “In the twenty-four years since [1902] it has made more friends than anyone else could make outside the movies. Which proves that popularity does sometimes follow real merit.” It’s an odd way to compliment but you get the picture.

Golden Bantam pre-dates hybrid varieties, the latter of which, in addition to other characteristics, ripen very uniformly. In a backyard garden, a whole bed of corn ripening at once isn’t necessarily a plus. I want to eat some corn every day, with a little extra each day for freezing.
Corn hills
My four beds of corn, the first planted in mid-May (around the date of our last-killing frost of spring)  and the subsequent beds staggered every two weeks, provides just that. We’ve eaten corn almost every day since each mid-August and Golden Bantam shows no signs of slowing down or boring us.

Picked At Peak Of Perfection

Tomatoes Vs. Sweet Corn

Some gardeners sit tapping their fingers waiting for the first tomato of the season to finally ripen. I don’t. I’m waiting to sink my teeth into my first-picked ear of sweet corn.

Not that my tomatoes don’t taste really good, but they’re also good all winter dried or canned, as is or as sauce. Or just frozen.

An ear of sweet corn, though, captures the essence of summer. Not just for flavor and texture. It’s the whole ritual of peeling back the husks and snapping them off at their bases, brushing away the silk before steaming the ears, and then, holding an ear at each end, biting off kernels from one end to the other like an old fashioned typewriter carriage. (An image perhaps unknown to readers below a certain age.)

An art to harvesting corn at the just-ripe stage, and anxiousness for that first taste, make harvesting, especially early in the season rather tenuous. I do early planning for that first taste by counting the days-to-maturity from when I planted. Problem is that the days listed on seed packets vary: One seed company lists days to maturity for Golden Bantam, the variety I grow, at 75 days; another lists it at 85 days; another at 78 days; and yet another, more realistically, at 70 to 85 days. It depends on where the variety is grown and how the season develops.

The real countdown begins when tassels first appear atop the stalks. Harvest will be about 3 weeks hence.

Then it’s time to keep an eye out for drying tassels at the end of an ear. Once that happens, the time is near. That right moment is critical because harvested too soon, and the kernels have little taste. And this is among those fruits — yes, corn is a fruit, botanically — that will not ripen at all following harvest. Harvested too late, and the kernels are tough and starchy.

That exact right moment for harvest is when the ear feels “full” when grasped in my hand and a kernel on the peeled-back husk, with the ear still attached to the stalk, oozes a milky fluid when pressed with the thumbnail. If all these systems are go, it’s time to snap off the ear and whisk it to the waiting pot of steaming water.Corn, testing for ripeness
Golden Bantam is a non-hybrid variety. Like other non-hybrids, a planting does not ripen all at once, which is not a good commercial characteristic. It’s fine for me, though, because between staggered plantings and a wide window for harvest for each planting, I intend to be eating Golden Bantam corn, a favorite for many gardeners since its introduction in 1906, for weeks to come.

Watermelon, Are You Ripe

Besides the first harvest of Golden Bantam, which I’ll be enjoying by the time you read this, I’m also eagerly awaiting the first harvest of watermelon, which, according to days-to-maturity listed on the seed packet, 65-75 days, I should have already been eating. (I sowed seeds indoors in pots in mid-May but it’s been a relatively cool growing season.)

While I’m confident in harvesting sweet corn at just the right moment, not so for harvesting watermelon, another fruit that will not ripen at all once harvested. Yes, I know all the published indicators of ripeness: drying up of the tendril closest where the fruit is attached to the vine; a dull thud, rather than a tighter, ringing or hollow sound, when rapped with my knuckles; and a yellow or cream-color of the fruit where it rests against the ground, and a toughening of the skin there, enough to resist indentation with a thumbnail. (The thumbnail is evidently a useful harvest tool.)

A ripe watermelon?

A ripe watermelon?

Still, I’m not confident about harvesting watermelons on time, and not even just the first ones to ripen. The trial and tribulation is worth it. I hope to be harvesting and eating ripe watermelon also by the time you read this. (Update: I did and it was.)

Tomatoes, You Are Ripe

In contrast to harvesting Golden Bantam corn and watermelon (I grow the variety Blacktail Mountain), tomatoes are cinch to harvest. Except for some green-ripe varieties, which I don’t grow, tomatoes turn their characteristic shade of red when ripe.

Tomatoes can even be harvested underripe to ripen off the vine. Research has shown that when a tomato is about half green and half pinkish-red on the vine, a layer of cells form across the stem of the tomato sealing it off from the main vine. Then nothing that can move from the plant into the fruit, so the fruit can ripen to perfection.Ripe tomatoes

I came across some older research (J. Amer. Hort. Soc. 102:724-731. 1977) showing that the best-tasting tomatoes are those thoroughly vine-ripened. Duh. I knew that, and will harvest only vine-ripened tomatoes.

Controversial Garlic & Corn

When to Plant & Whether to Plant, Corn & Garlic

Into the ground goes the stinking rose. That’s garlic. As a matter of fact, by the time you read this my garlic cloves will have been in the ground for awhile, since the beginning of the month, already sending roots out into the soft earth.

Planting garlic this early is sacrilege in most garlic circles. But it may make sense.

Garlic needs a period of cool weather, with temperatures in the 40s, to develop heads. Without that cool period, a planted clove merely grows larger, without multiplying. Which is why it’s planted in fall. Spring-planted garlic might still get sufficiently chilled or needs to be artificially chilled, but yields are generally are lower than fall-planted garlic. Garlic cloves planted 4 inches apart in a furrow.

Lower yields could also be because the cloves, planted in spring, must put energy into growing both leaves and roots. Roots grow whenever soil temperatures are above 40 degrees F., so fall-planted cloves start growing roots immediately. And for quite a while because, with the ground cooling more slowly than the air, balmy weather lingers long in the soil in fall, especially when it’s covered with an insulating layer of wood chips, compost, straw, or other organic mulch.

My reasoning for late summer planting rather than fall planting is that the sooner the bulbs are in the ground, the more time roots have to grow before temperatures drop consistently below 40 degrees. More root growth now means more roots to fuel leaf growth in spring which, in turn, means bigger heads to harvest next summer. More root growth also means that cloves are more firmly anchored into the ground through winter, so are less likely to heave up and out of the ground as it freezes and thaws.

The caution against planting as early as I suggest is that leaves might awaken and push up through the ground in fall, only to be snuffed out by winter cold. True. But garlic is a monocotyledenous plant, so its growing point, like that of other “monocots” (such as lilies, onions, grasses, orchids, and bananas), lies beneath the ground, protected from cold. The usual recommendation for garlic planting is to plant early enough to allow time for some root growth but late enough so leaves don’t appear aboveground.

Leaves peering above ground in fall might even help spur root growth, at least once they start exporting energy. (Their initial growth is fueled by energy reserves in the planted clove.) Even if winter cold kills the leaves, they will have done some good if they begin growth soon enough. The sloppy mess of frozen leaves could, admittedly, breed unwelcome bacteria or fungi.

Biological systems are complex, and plants don’t read what I write and may not follow my reasoning. Just to check, I planted only half of my garlic bed; I’ll plant the other half in a month, the recommended planting time. Next summer I’ll know if my garlic cloves followed my reasoning.

Corn, Worth Planting

Garlic is for the future; sweet corn is for the present. Whoever it was — and there were plenty of those “whoevers” — that recommended against growing sweet corn in a small garden because it wasn’t worth the space did a disservice to gardeners. My garden isn’t all that big yet we’ve been harvesting all the sweet corn we can eat and freeze since early August and will continue to do so for much of this month.

Sweet corn can share a bed with other vegetables, lettuce here.

Sweet corn can share a bed with other vegetables, lettuce here.

My vegetable garden is in 18 foot long, 3 foot wide beds, and I planted 4 beds at two week intervals from early May until the third week in June. I sowed the seeds sown in hills (clumps) to end up with 3 to 4 plants every two feet in a double row running down each bed. Planting in hills provides better pollination and resistance to wind than planting rows of single, more closely spaced plants.

Each stalk yields one or two ears, so a conservative 1.5 ears per stalk and 3 plants per hill computes to yields of 81 ears of corn from each of four beds. That’s a lot of sweet corn! And not just any sweet corn, but Golden Bantam Sweet corn, the standard of excellence in sweet corn a hundred years ago. You can’t buy ears of this variety these days. It’s the only one I grow.

Corn, densely planted, and ready for harvest

Corn, densely planted, and ready for harvest

Pumping out all those delectable ears requires good growing conditions. To whit: Very fertile, well drained soil; water as needed; and little competition from weeds. I slathered the beds with an inch or more of compost in spring and all summer plants’ thirst has been daily and automatically quenched with drip irrigation.

I didn’t even have to devote those beds to only sweet corn for the whole season. Earliest plantings were preceded and are followed by quickly maturing vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, and radishes. Turnips, winter radishes, and bush beans are other possibilities to follow harvest of those first sowings of sweet corn. A row of carrots and beets was sown

Delectable Golden Bantam, a hit since 1906

Delectable Golden Bantam, a hit since 1906

up the middle of the second planting shortly after the corn emerged and is doing fine now that the corn has been harvested and those plants cleared away. I’m still trying to figure out what to plant to follow the third planting, which is just finishing up.

I also grow popcorn, but that’s another, also delectable story.

A corn bed, a few weeks after harvest & cleanup

A corn bed, a few weeks after harvest & cleanup

Demise of Miss Kim, Sweet corn

Aug 30, 2012 #34
by Lee Reich
I killed Miss Kim. Sure, she was pretty enough, with lilac purple flowers late each spring. In fact, she is  . . .  I mean “was” . . . a lilac, although she was Syringa patula, a different species from the common lilac (S. vulgaris). 
The very reason that I had planted Miss Kim was because she was different. She would blossom later than the common lilac, extending the season when lilac blossoms and their fragrance could be enjoyed. Later in summer, her leaves were never to be marred by the powdery, white coating — powdery mildew disease — that mars the leaves of common lilacs. And her expected stature, no more than 6 feet high, would be fitting for the bed of perennial flowers that she would call home. 
The relationship did not work out. Her later blossoms did not extend the fragrance of lilac blossoms, at least not the heavenly aroma of the common lilac. Miss Kim’s flowers were fragrant but not pleasantly so. Her growth was my oversight: I should have predicted that the rich soil here in the Wallkill River floodplain would coax Miss Kim to new and greater proportions, proportions that overpowered other plants in the flowerbed. 
So Miss Kim had to go. After an initial effort with shovels, I, along with helpers David and Jonathan, coaxed her root ball out of the ground by adding a tractor and chain to the tool mix. Unfortunately, this is not the ideal time of year to dig up a large shrub for replanting. Miss Kim is now in some kind of lilac heaven.
Perennial bed, minus Miss Kim
The spot vacated by Miss Kim is thankfully open now to light and air. A bit too open, in fact, so a replacement shrub is waiting in the wings. My probable choice this time around: summersweet clethra (Clethra alnifolia), a native shrub that is adorned with fragrant, usually white bottlebrushes of blossoms in late July. 
Clethra usually grows to about 6 feet tall (uh-oh) but some varieties are more compact. I’ll be on the lookout for the variety Hummingbird (to 4 feet tall, heavy flowering, shiny leaves), Pink Spice (dwarf height unspecified, pink blossoms, dark, shiny leaves), or September Beauty (dwarf height unspecified, blossoms 2 weeks later than others). 
Clethra grows in sun or shade, in either case needing a moist, acidic soil. My site is in full sun; I’ll bank on plenty of mulch for keeping the soil moist. 
There’s time until fall to ponder which clethra to plant, or even whether to plant something else. Fall is particularly good for planting because the soil is just right for digging, warm and moist, not sodden, and because roots will grow in their new home but shoots won’t grow until after they’ve experienced sufficient cool weather between fall and spring. I like to plant on October 14th.
Not that Walmart is the go to place for good sweet corn but Walmart is, after all, the largest retailer of organic foods. Now there’s one more reason to grow your own sweet corn (in addition, of course, to at least some others of your own vegetables and fruits). Soon to be found on Walmart’s produce shelves: GMO sweet corn,”GMO” as in “genetically modified” sweet corn. 
Most corn grown in this country is, unfortunately, GMO corn. That corn is field corn, destined for animal feed, ethanol, and processed foods. Allergens, pesticide-resistant pests, adverse health effects to animals fed such crops, genetic contamination of wild plants and non-GMO crop plants, questionable economic advantages, increase pesticide use, and a host of unknowns are among the reasons that GMO crops should be banned. (For more, see GMO Myths and Truths at
Golden Bantam corn, grown here on the farmden

Most aggregious is the fact that GMO foods and feeds are not required to be labeled as such. 
I find comfort in knowing that the sweet corn I’ve been harvesting for the past few weeks, and for a few more to come, is non-GMO (the variety Golden Bantam, the standard of excellence in sweet corn 100 years ago) and has not even been sprayed with pesticides. I plant in “hills” (clumps of 3 plants), 2 rows of hills spaced 2 feet apart in the row down each bed. With good soil and water as needed, a 20 foot long bed yields 90 plus ears of scrumptious, healthful sweet corn.
I will be giving a workshop “Grow Fruit Naturally” at Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, NY on September 9th. For more information:
Do you want to grow fruit but think you don’t have room? I’ll be giving a workshop “Fruit for Small Gardens,” covering the fruits and growing techniques needed to reap delectable rewards from spaces as small as a balcony to as “large” as a small suburban yard. The venue is Stone Barns inn Pocantico Hills, NY on September 22nd from 1-3 pm. For more information, see