A Wizening Little Tree

Now, in its tenth year, my weeping fig is just waking up. (This plant is not one of my edible figs weeping from sadness, but a species of fig — Ficus benjamina — with naturally drooping branches.) As a tropical tree, its sleep was not natural, but induced, by me.

Bonsai fig

In its native habitat in the tropics, weeping fig grows to become a very large tree that rivals, in size, our maples. The effect is all the more dramatic due to thin aerial roots that drip from the branches, eventually fusing to create a massive, striated trunk. Because the tree tolerates low humidity, it’s often grown as a houseplant. Growth is rapid but with regular pruning the plant can be restrained below ceiling height.

At ten years old, my weeping fig is about four inches tall with a trunk about 5/8 inch in diameter and no aerial roots. Four inches was about the height of the plant when I purchased it in the houseplant section of a local lumberyard. Actually, four of these plants were growing in a 4 inch square pot. I separated them and potted one up with the idea of creating a bonsai.

The bonsai has been a success. Each year the trunk and stems have thickened to create the wizened appearance of a venerable old tree, in miniature. The soil beneath the spreading (if only 3 inch) limbs is soft with moss which has crept slowly up the lower portion of the trunk.

To Sleep, My Little Tree

Even after ten years the plant is in the same pot in which I originally planted it, a 4 by 6 inch bonsai tray only about an inch deep. Biannual repotting and pruning has been necessary to keep the stems and roots to size, and to refresh the potting soil to provide nutrients and room for roots to run (albeit very little room for a tree with such size potential).

Bonsai at one-year old
Bonsai at one-year old

Back to my tree’s sleep: A few weeks ago, the sun dipping lower in the sky for a shorter time each day seemed to me like a good time to give the plant a rest, which it surely would be taking following my operation. 

I began with the roots. After tipping the plant out of its pot, I used a fork to tease soil away from the bottom of the root ball. Roots left dangling down in mid air as I held the plant aloft were easy to trim back. I was careful to leave the top portion of the roots and soil undisturbed in order to keep the mossy blanket intact.

Root pruning bonsai

With enough fresh potting soil added to the pot so the tree (despite its size, I think I can call it a “tree”) would sit at the same height in the pot as previous to pruning, the tree was ready to return to its home. I firmed it in place.

Next, I turned to the above ground portions of the plant, beginning by pruning stems so the tree would look in proportion to the size of its container and to maintain the increasingly rugged look of a tree, in miniature, beyond its actual years.

Finally, I clipped each and every leaf from the plant. This shocks the plant to sleep and reduces water loss, important for a plant from which a fair share of its roots have been sheared off. Clipping off leaves also induces more diminutive growth in the next flush of leaves, so they are more in proportion to the size of the whole plant.

Bonsai, fig, clipping leaves, '18

After a thorough watering, the tree was back in its sunny window. And there it sat, leafless, until a few days ago, when small, new leaves emerged.

Bonsai, fig, '18, new leaves

Pruning Moves Outdoors, Prematurely Perhaps

Pruning and repotting the bonsai wasn’t enough gardening for me. A couple of sunny days couldn’t help but drive me outdoors. A pile of wood chip mulch delivered a few months ago beckoned me; I spread it in the paths between my vegetable beds, a pre-emptive move to smother next season’s weeds.

I don’t usually prune this time of year (The Pruning Book, by me, recommends against it!), but couldn’t restrain myself. I started with the gooseberries and currants, both of which are super cold hardy plants so are unlikely to suffer any damage from pruning now. Plus, they start growth very early in spring.

Any of this gardening could be postponed until late winter or early spring. But why wait? 


Breaking (Pruning) Rules

Snow squall or not, I just had to get outside. Not enough snow for a cross-country ski, but, after too much time indoors, I had to do something outside.

I was driven to break a fundamental rule of the garden. I pruned, and that’s a no-no. Pruning is best delayed until at least after the coldest part of winter is over, ideally closer to the time when warmth and sun are stirring buds to swell in preparation for their final burst. I did rationalize that any pruning now would leave me that much less to do amidst the hubbub of spring gardening activities.

I wasn’t indiscriminate in trespassing this Rule of Gardening. The plants that I pruned were gooseberries, which are very cold-hardy plants so are unlikely to suffer any cold damage as a result of untimely pruning. Also, no need to wait, as is done with peaches, for growth to begin to see which branches have died back from winter cold; none ever do so on a gooseberry bush.

Pruning without spring breathing down my back made for a very relaxed pruning session. I had plenty of time to pay attention to details and prune a little differently than in the past.

Gooseberries bear fruits on stems that are 1-, 2-, and 3-years-old, so the usual method of pruning is to cut away any stems more than 3-years-old and remove all but six of the sturdiest 1-year-old stems. The pruned bush, then, is left with a half-dozen each of 1-, 2-, and 3-year old stems. Each year a bush is renewed as oldest stems are removed, and new grow kept vigorous and healthy as excess young stems are thinned out.

Gooseberry before & after pruning

Gooseberry before & after pruning

The gooseberry bushes always bear many more berries than we can eat, and their weight bows the branches to the ground. So this year I decided to also prune each side branch on the older stems back to a couple of inches long. I’ll reap fewer berries, but those that remain should be larger and more accessible among the thorny stems.

Great Gooseberries

Is it worth mentioning such details about growing gooseberries? After all, who eats gooseberries these days? To most people, a gooseberry is a small, green, tart berry suitable only for pies, jams, and fools (a dessert made by folding cooked, sweetened, sieved gooseberries into whipped cream).A bowl of fresh gooseberries

If small, green, and tart is your idea of a gooseberry, you’ve never tasted a so-called dessert gooseberry. Dessert gooseberries are sweet and flavorful right off the bush; they are, as Edward Bunyard wrote almost a hundred years ago in The Anatomy of Dessert, “the fruit par excellence for ambulant consumption.” (He was from England, where gooseberries are more appreciated and known than here.)Gooseberry varieties on a bench

Only certain gooseberry varieties warrant the label “dessert gooseberry,’ of which I grow about a dozen varieties. My favorites include Hinonmakis Yellow, Poorman, Black Satin, Webster, Red jacket, and Captivator. Their sweet flavors carry wine-y overtones and reminiscences of plum or apricot. Some have soft skins, others have firm skins that explode with the flavorful, sweet juice when you bite into them. I devote a whole chapter to the history and varieties of gooseberries as well as how to grow them and where to get them in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden (available from the usual sources and, from me and signed, at my website).

Back Indoors, But Still Gardening

Frozen fingertips eventually drove me back indoors. But I’m now on a gardening roll, spurred on further by a box of seed packets that arrived in the mail.Lettuce seedlings

Lettuce, claytonia, and celery from the greenhouse have been filling our salad bowls all winter. As these plants wane or go to seed, we’ll need more. So today I sowed seeds of Black-Seeded Simpson, Romaine, Buttercrunch, Blushed Butter Cos, and Majestic Red lettuces. Some I sprinkled into seed flats that can be kept warm for quick germination. Some I sowed right in the ground beds in the greenhouse; they’ll germinate more slowly but hold their quality longer than those that are pricked out from seed flats into “cells” and then into the garden.

Sometime soon, I’ll grab my pruning shears and get back to the gooseberries. And then on to the grapes, the kiwis, the apples, the pears, the . . . 


 More Fruits to Plant!?

Pawpaw, tastes like crème brûlée

Pawpaw, tastes like crème brûlée

   You’d think, after so many years of gardening and a love of fruits being such a important part of said gardening, that by now I would have planted every fruit I might ever have wanted to plant. Not so!
    Hard to imagine, but even here in the 21st century, new fruits are still coming down the pike. I don’t mean apples with grape flavor (marketed as grapples), a mango nectarine (actually, just a nectarine that looks vaguely like a mango), or strawmato (actually a strawberry-shaped tomato).
    There are plenty of truly new fruits, in the sense of kinds of fruits hardly known to most people, even fruit mavens. Over the years, I’ve tried a number of them. Aronia is a beautiful fruit that makes a beautiful juice, so it’s getting more press these days. I grew it and thought it tasted awful. Goji’s another one in the public’s eye for it’s many health benefits and ease of growing; it also tasted terrible and I also escorted that plant to the compost pile.
    Some lesser known kin of raspberry had greater potential. I planted arctic raspberry, which grows as a groundcover and has been used in breeding for the good flavor it imparts to its offspring. The plant never bore for me. Salmonberry and thimbleberry similarly had gustatory potential but never bore well in my garden. I’ll give these plants another try someday.
    I’m tentative about honeyberries, which are blue-fruited, edible species of honeysuckle that bear young, fruit early in the season, and weather cold to minus 40 degrees F.. The “blueberry-like fruit” is so only in being blue. I planted a couple of bushes about 20 years ago and was not impressed with their yield or flavor — but I admit to neglecting the plants. More importantly, a lot of breeding has been done to improve the plants since I put my bushes in the ground. Stay tuned for my tastebuds’ report on the flavor of recently planted Blue Mist, Blue Moon, and Blue Sea honeyberries.

Some Fruits Are So Easy — And Tasty

    Reading what I just wrote might give the impression that planting any fruit except apples, peaches, and cherries — the usual, that is — leads to either failure or tentative flavor. Again, not so!

Persimmons, nashi, figs, and grapes

Persimmons, nashi, figs, and grapes

 Uncommon fruits adaptable over large swathes of the country that are easy to grow and have excellent flavor include pawpaw, American persimmon, gooseberry, black currant, hardy kiwifruit, Nanking cherry, and alpine strawberry — all documented in detail in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden. All these plants grow and bear with little or no intervention on my part (and are available from such nurseries as and

Seaberries on bush in fall

Seaberries on bush in fall

    Seaberry (Hippophae rhamnoides) didn’t make it into the book, which includes only “dessert fruits,” that is, those you can enjoy by just popping them into your mouth. But I’m happy I gave these bushes some of my real estate. Juiced, diluted, and sweetened, the delectable flavor is akin to rich orange juice mixed with pineapple. What’s more, the bushes are decorative and tolerate neglect, cold, drought, and deer.

New Fruits

    This spring I’m planting a new kind of a somewhat familiar fruit, back raspberries. They’re also called blackcaps, and grow wild along woodland borders, which is where I gather my harvest. (A ripe blackcap comes off the plant with a hollow core, like a thimble, in contrast to a ripe blackberry, whose core persists.)
    Blackcaps have perennial roots but their stems are typically biennial, growing only leaves their first year, fruiting in midsummer of their second year, then dying.

Blackcaps, ripe last summer

Blackcaps, ripe last summer

    Two new blackcap varieties, Niwot ( and Ohio’s Treasure (, do this one better: They start to bear on new canes towards the end of the first season, then bear again on those same canes, now one-year-old, in midsummer of the following year. You reap two crops per year, one in midsummer and one in late summer going on into fall. Or, for easier care but only one crop per year, the whole planting is mowed to the ground each year for a late summer-fall harvest.
    These two-crop blackcaps, just like two-crop (sometimes called everbearing) red and yellow raspberries, have the added advantage of bearing their first crop the same year that they are planted. My plan is to plant in mid-April, even though right now more than a foot of snow still blankets the ground.

Vegetables Are So Easy

    Snow or no snow, I’m sowing vegetable seeds, the second wave of the season. (My seed sources are,,, and Today, the lineup includes the new varieties (for me) Tuscan Baby Leaf kale, Tiburon Ancho hot pepper, and Round of Hungary and Odessa Market sweet peppers. With encores for their good past performance are Gustas Brussels sprouts, Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, Winterbor kale, and Carmen Sweet, Sweet Italia, and Italian Peperocini sweet peppers.

Lawn Nouveau & Gooseberry Trees

Come visit my farmden on June 21st between 12 pm and 4 pm as part of the Open Days program of the Garden Conservancy. Admission is $5, the proceeds of which go to the Garden Conservancy, whose “mission is to preserve America’s exceptional gardens for the education and enjoyment of the public.” For more information about the Conservancy, go to; for more about the June 21st visit, go to

Some people contend that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. I disagree, and especially this year. I’m acting on the belief that if more than three people mention the same thing to me, something is amiss. More than three people have commented on the beauty of their lawns this year, that is, the greenness of the grass on their side of the fence. And these are not people who tend to puff up their chests about their lawns. Nor do any of them hire Chemlawn or some other specialized lawn care company to douse their lawns with various potions to try to create a uniform, lush, verdant greensward.
If lawns are, in fact, greener on these sides of the fences this year, I would attribute it to the cool temperatures and regular rainfall experienced throughout the Northeast this spring. Not, as a radio “expert” contended, to carbon dioxide enrichment of our atmosphere. (Carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and also, as one ingredient of photosynthesis, can spur plant growth. But if it was responsible for this year’s greener lawns, it also would have been responsible for greener lawns for the past few years.)
Anyone desirous of a lawn to reliably brag about year in and year out should move to Britain or some other country of northern Europe. That’s where the climate is ideal for lawns, and where the fad originated.
A nice lawn, but not mine
Lawns had their beginnings in manor estates where the turf was shorn by livestock and the swing of the scythe. Things became more democratic beginning about 1830, when Edwin Budding conceived of the first incarnation of the lawn mower. In the decades that followed, a rising middle class, suburbanization, improvements in lawn mowers and water supplies, and more leisure time afforded by the 40 hour work week all contributed to the spread of lawn culture, which really took off in this country with the housing boom following World War II. Abraham Levitt, creator of Levittowns in that period, wrote “No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns.”
A lawn is a nice surface for children to play on and provides a homogeneous, calming backdrop to a garden and home. A lawn also can be a source of pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, provide food for grubs that become Japanese beetles, and can, if sufficiently expansive, be homogeneous backdrop to the point of boredom.
I choose a middle way with my lawn: Lawn Nouveau (as featured in my book The Pruning Book). The more civilized area, that is, the area around my home, is mowed regularly. Further out, the grass or whatever else pops up is allowed to grow unfettered, except for being mowed once a year with either scythe or tractor. Two paths into this meadow are mowed as regularly as is the shorn lawn to provide enticement to walk into the meadow to get to the other side or to appreciate it up close or from other vantage points. Depending on the time of year, the weather, and when it gets its yearly mowing, the meadow might be awash in such colors as yellow from goldenrods or buttercups, or pastel blue from bee balm.
My Lawn Nouveau

I’m wondering if the shorn part of my lawn appears any different to anyone this year than in years past. To me, the grass is neither greener nor less green than on the other side of any fence. It looks the same as every year at this time: thick and lush.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the imported currant worm, a bothersome pest that chomps all the leaves from gooseberry plants in spring. Oddly, it often ignores currants . . . but what’s in a name? I also wrote that one potential control for this pest might be to grow gooseberries as miniature trees. The worm lacks either the smarts or the energy to climb the leafless trunk to get at the leaves, or so my reasoning goes.
Thus far, my reasoning seems sound; nary a leaf has been touched on the “trees.”
My gooseberry tree in the making
I am training my tree gooseberry by pruning away all but the most vigorous, upright shoot and then pruning off the bottom-most two feet of leafy side-branches on that remaining trunk-to-be. I also pinched back the tip of that trunk-to-be at about 2-1/2 feet from ground level to stimulate branching, which has happened.
Over time, the plant will attempt to send up new shoots from near the ground and along the trunk; I’ll cut them off. The cluster of stems up high will need annual pruning, just the same as if they were all growing from ground level.
Another option would have been to graft a gooseberry variety onto the stem of a compatible plant that is more upright growing than gooseberry. European gardeners frequently grow their gooseberries as mini-trees, and create them by grafting on Ribes aureum, the golden currant, a native American plant. I grow golden currant and perhaps I’ll also try to make gooseberry trees by grafting.
Tree gooseberries have their downsides and upsides. On the downside, gooseberries really prefer to grow as bushes. As bushes, they naturally grow new shoots at or near ground level, and those stems tend not to be long-lived. However, a new trunk can quickly replace a dead or dying one.
The upsides to tree gooseberries are that the currant worm is thwarted, the fruit is held up off the ground, and — to me, at least — the plants look really cool.