Pruning vs. Training?

A long time ago, when I first started growing fruit trees and vines, I read a lot about the all-important pruning and training they require. But I couldn’t get clear on my head what exactly the difference was between “pruning” and “training.” I went on to learn that and a whole lot more about pruning (through books, as an ag researcher for Cornell University, and with practical experience), and eventually wrote my own book about pruning, hoping to present the techniques with more clarity and completeness than all the books I had read. Perhaps my book, The Pruning Book, does that.
Grape vine in spring
Okay, to answer my question of yore. “Training” is developing the young plant to a permanent framework that is sturdy and will always have its limbs bathed in light and air, and whose fruits hang within easy reach.

Kiwifruit within easy reach

Kiwifruit within easy reach

Training involves some pruning as well as coaxing stems to grow in certain directions. Once a fruit tree or vine’s training period ends, it generally only needs annual pruning.

Vine-y Training

I thought of all this today as I pruned hardy kiwifruit and grape vines. Both fruiting vines have been trained and are pruned similarly, with one slight variation that I’ll soon mention.

The kiwi and grape vines are trained as “double cordons” which are permanent arms sitting atop a trunk. They run in opposite directions along the middle wire of a 5-wire trellis, the wires parallel and supported about 6 feet of the ground on the cross-arms of T-posts. Each young vine was planted next to a metal or wooden stake to which the plant’s most vigorous stem was tied.

Once that trunk-to-be reached up to the middle wire, I tied it there and cut off all other stems. That trunk-to-be does, of course, keep growing; that new growth gets bent over and tied along the middle wire. Bending coaxes new buds to burst just beneath the bend, one of which is also bent over and trained along the middle wire in opposite direction to the first stem. Both these horizontal stems became the cordons, permanent arms of the plant. Growing off at right angles to the cordons are the fruiting shoots which, weighed down with their weight of fruit, drape onto the other wires.

Vine Maintenance

Today I’m maintenance pruning vines whose training period ended years ago. Maintenance pruning a mature fruiting vine keeps it bearing high quality fruit within easy reach year after year, all accomplished with a renewal method. That is, except for the trunk and the cordon, the vine is completely renewed with each year’s pruning.

I’ll admit it: A vine looks like a tangled mess before being pruned. But step by step, it  begins to take shape and make sense. Kiwi before pruning

Knowing how a plant bears fruit is important in maintenance pruning. Kiwi and grape vines bear on new shoots growing off one-year-old stems. Kiwis bear best if those one-year-old stems are about 18 inches long. Grape one-year-old stems can be left long or short, but for my method of training, I want each one about two buds long, which is just a few inches.

Fruiting grape shoots emerge from 1-yr-old stem

Fruiting grape shoots emerge from 1-yr-old stem

Step one is a no-brainer. The outermost wires are 4 feet apart so I lop all growth back to just beyond those wires. My tool of choice for this is a battery-powered hedge trimmer although pruning shears would also do the trick, except at a snail’s pace.First step in pruning

Step two is to remove excess growth, which does two things. It removes potential fruits so that more of the plant’s flavor-rich goodness gets funneled into those that remain, and it decongests the plant. For this step, I cut back all stems 2 years or older.

But wait! Two-year-old stems have one-year-old stems, the stems needed for bearing shoots, growing off of them. So rather than cut a two-year-old stem all the way back to its cordon, I cut it back to a one-year-old stem originating near the cordon. Some one-year-old stems also grow right from the cordon. The best one-year-old stems are those that are moderately vigorous and, of course, look healthy. Moderately vigorous stems, for grape or kiwi, are about pencil thick (if you can remember what a pencil looks like; if not, about 1/4” thick).

Kiwi stem and pruning detail

Kiwi stem and pruning detail

There will always be too many one-year-old stems for the plant to make tasty fruit. So I reduce the number of potential fruits by removing some of the one-year-old stems, enough to leave six to ten inches between them on each side of a cordon.

Pruned grapevine

Pruned grape vine

Pruned kiwi

Not finished yet. The final step is to shorten the fruiting shoots. For hardy kiwis, I cut them back to 18 to 24 inches long. For grapes, to about 2 buds or a few inches long.

Oh, one more thing to do: I prune off any new growth rising up from ground level or along the trunk lower than the cordons.

And one more thing: I step back to admire my handiwork. (Here is a video of me pruning a kiwi vine.)  

But What About Bushes?

You might have noticed, early on, that I wrote about pruning and training “fruit trees and vines.” What about blueberries, currants, gooseberries, elderberries, and other FRUITING BUSHES. Yes, they need annual pruning also. No, they do not need training. Although the plants are perennial, their stems are evanescent, all with a limited life. They are pruned by a renewal method — at ground level. All this and much, much more (pruning ornamental plants, houseplants; creating and caring for an espalier; how to scythe; etc) in The Pruning Book, of course.


Hello Vanessa

A few days ago was the perfect day for planting the Vanessa grape vine deposited here by the UPS guy. Not because the weather was warm and sunny or because working outdoors was made all the more pleasant with peach, pear, and plum trees in all their glory, awash in white or pink blossoms. And not because the plums were suffusing the air with a most delectable fragrance.

Vanessa grape

Vanessa grape

The day was perfect for planting because the soil was in such good tilth. With each shovelful, clumps of soil broke apart under their own weight. A far cry from decades ago in my first garden, around this time of year, when digging brought up clods of Wisconsin soil still sticky and wet.

In wet soil, digging drives air out of the soil; under such conditions, roots of trees, shrubs, vines, and seedlings suffer. Better to wait for the soil to dry before planting. But not too long. Soil that is too dry turns rock-hard, too hard to crumble into small pieces to sift amongst roots. All this is moot in sandy soils, which never hold enough water to make them too wet for planting. Firming soil around roots

My present ground is a clay loam, which could be poor for planting if too wet. It wasn’t, because, first of all, it hadn’t rained for a few days. Second, warm weather had warmed the soil, the warmth speeding downward movement of excess water. And third, years and years of mulching with leaves, hay, and compost had made the ground rich in organic matter whose goodness had worked its way down through the soil profile with the help of earthworms and other soil organisms, rain, and the action of alternate freezing and thawing. Organic matter, among other benefits, acts as a glue to aggregate soil particles into a crystalline-like structure that helps with holding both air and water.

Training And Pruning Plans

I can bank on Vanessa growing well her first season in the ground. Soon after she arrived, bare-root, I had her roots plumping up with a day-long soak in water. Her planting hole was just deep enough to let her sit at the same depth as in the nursery, and one-and-a-half to twice the spread of the roots across. I clipped back a couple of long, straggly roots.

Holding the stem with one hand, I pushed the soil I had dug out of the hole back in amongst the roots, working it in with my fingertips after initially sifting soil in among the smaller roots by bouncing the plant up and down a little. With the roots nestled into their planting hole, I sprinkled a couple of gallons of water to further settle the soil and get the plant off to a good start.

She arrived with five strong-looking canes jutting up just above where her roots splayed out. Too many, for my purposes. Like her established neighbors, Vanessa will be trained to a “high wire double cordon spur pruned” system, a mouthful that sounds more complicated than it is. Two trunks will rise, unbranched, to about 6 feet in height to the middle wire of a five-wire trellis. One trunk will continue its journey horizontally along the middle wire in one direction; the extension of the other trunk will do likewise in the opposite direction. These two horizontal growths are permanent fixtures, called cordons (same root as the word “cord”). High wire double cordon spur pruned grape

Grapes bear fruits on one-year old stems — these are the so-called “canes,” easily identified by their smooth, reddish brown bark and roughly pencil-thickness. New shoots growing from buds on canes bear bunches of grapes and can drape on the remaining wires on either side of the middle wire.

The following year, the new shoots become one-year-old canes. Without pruning (or with incorrect pruning), fruiting shoots and canes each year move further and further away from the cordon, so I cut each cane back to 2 buds in winter and, after a few years, cut them all the way back, to be replaced by new canes that are always popping out right from the cordon.New shoots bearing grapes

But all this is in Vanessa’s future. This year, all I want from her is two strong trunks.

Don’t Do What I Did

Rain fell, and I didn’t follow my own advice. Because I needed to convert a lumpy old garden area next door to lawn, and because lawngrass establishes best in cool weather, and because I had two helpers coming in a few days to help with ground preparation, I readied the area with a rototiller. I did so even though rain had been falling all day long. Rain fell even while I was tilling.

All in all, it was a horrible experience. Mud everywhere. Wrestling the tiller. Loud engine chugging away. (Now I remember one reason for my book, Weedless Gardening. Weed-less-ness comes, in part, from dispensing with tilling, which awakens buried weed seeds by exposing them to light. And there’s the added benefit of not having to till.)

Youthful, foolish Lee, tilling

Youthful, foolish Lee, tilling

With good drainage, the job finally got done without excessive destruction of soil structure. And anyway, I was only planting lawngrass.


Annie Helps the World

    Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua): such an unassuming name. Likewise for the plant itself, with its ferny, but not distinctive, foliage, and flowers not worth a second look. You’d hardly peg this plant as a player in global health and global warming.
    But look within the leaves and you find artemisin, a biologically active compound that has contributed to Sweet Annie’s figuring into Chinese herbal medicine for the past 2,000 years. Artemisin was isolated from the plant in the 1970s by Chinese scientist Tu Youyou, for which she  shared a Nobel Prize. Sweet Annie’s uses in Chinese medicine — qinghao in Chinese — run from treating asthma to skin diseases to stomach pain to rheumatism to  . . . but not all such claims have been experimentally verified (and Sweet Annie could have bad side effects).Sweet Annie
    The most widespread and thoroughly documented use of Sweet Annie is, in combination with other drugs, in the treatment of malaria, a disease responsible for over a half a million deaths per year. One roadblock to the more widespread use of artemisin is its cost.
    Which brings us to global warming, or, more specifically, the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which is one cause for global warming. Carbon dioxide, for all its bad press, is one ingredient in the recipe for photosynthesis. The carbon in carbon dioxide is what becomes the organic carbon in a plant’s cellulose, starches, sugars, fats, proteins, and other essential building blocks that store energy and build a plant’s physical structure. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could translate into greater growth, although increased temperatures from global warming could have the opposite effect.
    In the case of Sweet Annie, research by the USDA indicates that a more carbon dioxide rich future would lead to more growth, which translates to greater yields of Sweet Annie and more artemisin for treating malaria.

Annie, for Sweet Aroma

    My two Sweet Annie plants aren’t destined for drug production. They’re for olfactory pleasure. Tied into bundles and hung in the mudroom alongside the front door, the bundle will effuse its camphor-sweet aroma each time a breeze or a person brushes past.

Annie’s a Weed?!

    Sweet Annie is a self-seeding annual that, like some other members of the wormwood family, can become weedy. Which makes it perhaps unwise that I planted it where I did.
 Sweet Annie iin terrace garden   Garden areas closest to my front, back, and side doors are the ones that get most care and that I look at the most; these considerations guide my plantings, both for aesthetics and for pragmatism. Things get wilder as you move further from the house, the most dramatic example of which is the meadow that begins where the lawn ends.
    So it was perhaps foolish to plant Sweet Annie, which is not much to look at and could become weedy, in the bed next to my terrace. Having the fragrant leaves close by was one rationale. But for some reason, that one bed is cared for the least, perhaps because or perhaps consequently it has become a dumping ground for miscellaneous plants for which there are no obvious homes.
    That bed is also home to chamomile. Again, one rationale was to have it nearby so I could conveniently pluck flower heads for tea — which I do. But really, no other home presented itself. I planted chamomile there many years ago and got scared of its seeding all over the place. With diligence, I was able to get rid of it — until this year, when I replanted it. I’ve been warned (by myself).
    I even planted mint in that bed, again, to have it handy for tea, but knowing how it could, and once did, knit the soil, just beneath the surface, with its lacework of stolons from which sprouts new stems. I did have the foresight, this time, to contain the roots by planting the mint into a chimney flue sunk into the ground. Constant attention will be needed to prevent the stems from flopping down over the sides of the flue to root — which they do very easily — where they touch soil.
    From today’s perspective, a handy little garden overflowing with sweet aromas is appealing. I’ll see how I feel next year at this time.

Sweet Ice Grapes

    Hanging from vines on the arbor over the terrace are remnants of the season’s grapes and the white paper bags that protected some of the bunches. I found a few bags still with unharvested clusters, frozen but still intact. “Ice grapes,” the precursor to “ice wine,” except that these are eating grapes. They were smooth, sweet, and flavorful.

Grapes, frozen but delicious

Grapes, frozen but delicious


Training Sessions

   Anyone appalled at the apparent brutality with which I approached my grape and kiwi vines a few weeks ago, pruning shears, saw, and lopper in hand, would have been further shocked today. But no harm done. (The kiwis are “hardy kiwis,” that is, Actinidia arguta and A. kolomikta; fuzzy kiwis are not cold-hardy here.)Well trained and  pruned grapes
    Left to their own devices, grape or kiwi vines would, every year, grow larger and larger, eventually, if once coming upon something to climb, sending their fruits further and further out of reach. Or, if not out of reach, then increasingly tangled in a mass of stems. In the dank interior of that mass of stems, many a grape would have rotted rather than ripened.
    Most importantly, though, grape or kiwi berries on untended vines don’t taste that good. Self-shading cuts down flavor-producing photosynthesis. And the plants’ energies must be spread among too many fruits; pruning limits yield but lets the plants pack more flavor into what fruit remains.
    The first thing I did, when I began pruning a few weeks ago, was re-organize the vines. Both bear fruits on new shoots growing off one-year-old canes. I train these plants on T-shaped trellises, with 5 wires stretched from T to T. A trunk rises to the height of the wires, at which point it bifurcates into cordons — permanent arms — each traveling in opposite directed up and down the middle wire. The one-year-old fruiting canes are splayed out perpendicularly to the cordons.
Fruiting shoot emerging from 1-year-old cane    Both vines grow prodigiously every year, the fruiting canes too long and too abundant. So I shortened all the canes to 3 to 4 feet long, which was just beyond the outer wires, and cut off those super-vigorous ones having stratospheric aspirations.
    Still too many canes: So I reduced their numbers. A couple of weeks ago, I went over the vines again, aiming (ideally) for one cane on either side of the cordon every 6 inches or so.

Round Three, of Pruning Grape & Kiwi

    The average date for the last killing frost here is around the third week in May. Evidently not so, this year, but I wanted to wait to do the final grape and kiwi pruning until after that date. The tips of the canes would be the first to grow and, hence, frosted, which is not a problem if the canes would anyway be shortened again.
    Now that frost is probably just a memory, I thinned out the canes one last time — to almost a foot apart — and further shortened those that remained. The grape canes got shortened to two buds each and the kiwi canes to about 18 inches long.

Grapes, In the Bags

    The next order of business, for just the grapes, will be bagging the bunches. I’ll wait until the berries have begun to swell and then partially slit the folds of delicatessen bags so that they can be slid over a bunch with the stem holding the bunch sliding into the slits. Each bunch has a leaf or a tendril opposite the bunch which needs to be clipped off so the top of the bag can be tightly folded over the stem, then stapled shut on either side, just below the slit.Bagging grapes
    To see rather than, or in addition to, read about bagging grapes, see my video.
    Why the bags? To keep diseases, birds, bees, and other insects at bay. With this protection, ripe bunches can be left hanging longer than usual to develop very rich, sweet flavor. Worst case scenario is that a bag is opened and there’s nothing inside. This sometimes happens. Best case scenario is peeling open a bag to reveal a perfect bunch of grapes with perfectly ambrosial flavor.

Hardy Kiwi, J’Accuse!

    I’m glad I planted the hardy kiwi vines many years ago because it may be illegal to do so in the future. Yes, illegal! No, not because you can smoke the plant, but because has raised eyebrows in certain invasive plant circles. Nonetheless, it’s a very attractive vine with very tasty fruits. And mine have remained well-behaved in the quarter of a century that they’ve been in the ground.
    In case fellow New Yorkers were not aware of this, as of March 10, 2015 it will no longer be legal to buy, sell or transport 126 species identified by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as invasive. Sixty-nine of these species are plants; hardy kiwi vines are not one of them — yet.
    I don’t doubt that there are plants that threaten to take over the world. Well, not the world, but certain ecosystems. Which is why garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, and autumn olive are on that most unwanted list, despite their qualities. Autumn olive, for example, enriches the soil with nitrogen garnered from the air by symbiotic microorganism at its roots. Its flowers sweetly perfume the air in spring. And the small berries that ripen in early fall, if harvested as soon as they have lost their astringency, are rich in flavor and super-rich in healthful phytochemicals known as lycopenes.
    Hardy kiwifruit has not been banned anywhere, but in 2012 Massachusetts Audubon Society published an Invasive Plant Pest Alert strongly urging people not to grow or propagate this plant. Their statement was based on apparently rampant growth that was documented at two sites in Massachusetts and one in New York.
    The findings don’t jive with the good behavior of numerous vines that have graced gardens, as ornamentals, in Eastern U.S. since the late 1800s. Perhaps most of those planting included only female or only male plants, in which case no viable seeds would be produced, although the vines could also have spread by climbing trees or rooting where they touch ground under the right conditions.
    Male and female kiwi vines do socialize when grown for fruit in commercial and research plantings. But again, plants hardly, if ever, have multiplied on their own at these locations, which concurs with my observations here on the farmden.
    As a general rule, only 10 percent of any introduced species are likely to become established on foreign ground, and only 10 percent of those plants are likely to become invasive. Let’s be very careful in our condemnations and not blow the threat of invasive species out of proportion.

Plant Sale Saturday

This Saturday, May 30, 2015,  Permaculturesque Plant Sale at my New Paltz, NY farmden, from 10 am until 2 pm. Ornamental plants, edible plants, and ornamental AND edible plants such as 2 crop figs, hardy oranges (Poncirus), rosemary, dessert gooseberries, delicious and nutritious black currants, and much more.


Apples a Bust, Pears a Success, Gooseberries a Bust, etc.

Early autumn is a good time for me to find a sunny spot on the terrace with a comfortable chair, pluck a bunch of grapes from the arbor overhead, and ponder the fruits of this year’s labors. And I mean “fruits,” literally: what were my successes, what were my failures, and what do future seasons hold?

In good years, my apples are very, very good; Hudson's Golden Gem here.

In good years, my apples are very, very good; Hudson’s Golden Gem here.

To many people, to too many people, “fruit” means apples, the equivalence having deep roots since pomum is Latin for both apple and fruit. My apple crop this year, whether measured in pounds or number of fruits, is zero. Among my excuses are the wrong rootstock for the site, trees still recovering from last year’s onslaught of 17-year cicada egg-laying, apples’ pest problems making them among the most difficult fruits to grow east of the Rocky Mountains, and my low-lying valley location and surrounding forests further exacerbating pest problems.

Still, the rich flavor of the apples — when I do get some — keeps me trying. Next year I’m replanting with five new trees: Hudson’s Golden Gem, Macoun, Ashmead’s Kernel, Pitmaston Pineapple, and Liberty, all on Geneva 30 rootstocks. This year, I welcomed the time not needed in caring for the trees.

Pears did surprisingly well considering the extensive cicada damage they also endured. But pears always do well, especially the Asian pears. The challenge with European pears is ripening them to perfection. They need to be picked before they are ripe, chilled for a couple of weeks if they are an early maturing variety, then ripened in a cool room. As soon as the first fruits drop, I keep an eye out for a slight change in skin color for those fruits still hanging from branches, then take them if they separate with an easy snap when lifted and twisted from the branch.

Despite being relatively easy to grow, pears are underappreciated as  garden fruit — these days, at least. One-hundred and fifty years ago, you might have perused 70 varieties in a nursery catalog; a hundred years ago, perhaps 30 varieties; in today’s catalogs, I count a dozen or so varieties. Not all my two dozen or so varieties are bearing yet. So far, the best of the lot are the buttery sweet Magness and spicy Seckel.

And More Failures

But let me get back to my failures; get them out of the way. Hardy kiwifruits, both Actinidia arguta and A. kolomikta had uncharacteristically light crops. The same goes for pawpaws, whose branches have, except for this fall, every year been weighted down with a heavy load of fruit, some branches even breaking. It’s most convenient to point my finger at the weather, the winter cold, for barren kiwi vines and pawpaw trees. Not that it was as cold as many past winters, but it did stay cold for longer periods.

The gooseberry crop looked very promising until late June, which is when my chickens discovered them (or remembered where they were). Gooseberries are usually very reliable so I’m optimistic about the future of eating berries from the two dozen or so dessert varieties I grow. I downsized my flock from seven to three chickens (and added two ducks), and plan to erect temporary fencing during the few weeks that the berries ripen in future years.

Big crops presented themselves, as usual, on various mulberry varieties and gumi. Birds swooped in to gobble them up. Last year, with all the cicadas to feed on, birds ignored both these fruits. Geraldi Dwarf mulberry grows only a few feet high so I’ll throw a net over it next year and let birds enjoy the other mulberry varieties, if they so choose.

The Very Sweet Taste of Success(es)

Enough talk about failures. On to successes . . . blueberries, my favorite and most reliable fruit, bore in abundance, as always. Sixteen bushes; about 150 quarts. Mmmmm.

Bagged grapes next to a bunch of grapes that weren't bagged

Bagged grapes next to a bunch of grapes that weren’t bagged

Rain earlier in the season threatened grapes with disease. I enclosed about 75 bunches in white bakery bags, stapled shut, to fend off bees and wasps, diseases, and birds. The crop was in such abundance that harvest has been aplenty even from unbagged bunches. Actually, too “aplenty” from the variety Swenson’s Red, causing individual berries in bunches to ripen unevenly. Next year, I’ll prune more severely, sacrificing total yield while increasing quality and even ripening of fruits that remain.

Once unbagged grapes of a given variety have been harvested and eaten, we move on to the bagged grapes of that variety. Peeling back the white paper has generally revealed bunches that look perfect and taste delectable. Particularly tasty this year have been Glenora Seedless, Somerset Seedless, Mars, Swenson’s White, and Brianna.

Szukis American persimmon ripe on branches

Szukis American persimmon ripe on branches

And finally, another of my no-fail, no-spray, no-prune fruits: American persimmon, specifically the varieties Mohler and Szukis. Mohler has been ripening for about a month, dropping a dozen or so fruits daily, which I pick up from the ground.  My ducks are especially fond of these fruits, and waddle, staring longingly within, around the outside perimeter of the low, temporary fence that keeps them at bay. (They do get to eat fruits that drop beyond the fence.)

Frustrated ducks admiring my persimmons.

Frustrated ducks admiring my persimmons.

The soft fruits taste like dried apricots that have been plumped in water, dipped in honey, and given a dash of spice. Mohler and Szukis are almost totally lacking in the puckery astringency common to many American persimmons. To remove any last traces of astringency, I subject fruits to a treatment used in Japan with Asian persimmons: alcohol. Freshly harvest fruits go into a bowl with a tablespoon of rye (locally made Coppersea Raw Rye), covered, for a day. The alcohol finishes ripening the fruits, keeps fruit flies at bay, and adds a nice punch to the flavor.

Grow Fruit, Many Kinds!

Too many people shy away from growing fruits because they are perceived as too difficult to grow. They can be; or not. Success comes from choosing the right fruits to grow, looking beyond apples, peaches, cherries, and the other usual fare. Success also comes from growing a wide variety fruits. (All this is covered in my newest book, Grow Fruit Naturally.) This year’s apple and gooseberry failures are hardly noticed with the abundance of blueberries, persimmons, and pears. And did I mention European black currants, red currants, and strawberries?

Loving Locust

With a bit over 2 acres of land to play around with, I could have a woodlot. But I don’t. (I do harvest a lot of sunlight, though.) Still, because this is what I call a farmden (more than a garden, less than a farm), trees, aside from fruit trees, have to fit into the picture. To wit, four sugar maples planted  in 1997 as a sugarbush for tapping in another 20 years and my locust mini-grove.
Locust — black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, that is — is a tree of many qualities. For starters, the roots can garner nitrogen from the air and put it into a form the tree can use, eventually putting it in the soil. Black locust also laughs off heat, drought, air pollution, and road salt. The tree’s craggy branches and deeply furrowed bark are fondly reminiscent of those trees that hugged Dorothy on the yellow brick road to Oz. Towards the end of next month, chains of pale lavender blossoms will be dangling from the branches. More than just pretty, these flowers fill the air with a sweet aroma that carries far.
What more could one ask from a tree? Wood! Some of which I was harvesting from my locust mini-grove last week. The grove is a stand of locusts of various ages popping up in a swathe about 15 feet wide by about 60 feet long. Forsythia shares that space as understory, new plants developing wherever canes arch to the ground to root. The locust grove formed naturally from a long-gone nearby grove on a neighbor’s property, felled by chainsaws, the new plants arising from dropped seeds as well as from root suckers.

Locust is one of the best woods for burning, but cutting trees from my mini-grove for firewood would hardly be worth it. One week in winter would decimate the small patch.
The locust I cut is destined for posts. Locust is one of the most rot-resistant woods, putting even cedar to shame. It can outlast pressure-treated wood, offering a nice rustic look to boot. Spring, before the leaves come out, is a perfect time for cutting locust for posts because that’s when the bark peels off easily in long strips.
The locust posts are for a new grape trellis. My grapes started out being trained to the traditional 4-arm Kniffen system, on two wires, one at 6 feet and the other at 3 feet from the ground. Two canes, originating near a central trunk, are trained horizontally in either direction along each wire to give a total of 4 canes each shortened to about 10 buds long. (A “cane” is a one-year-old stem.
The 4-arm Kniffen system has its limitations in terms of exposing the vine to maximum light, which translates into better-tasting grapes, and keeping foliage and berries dry, which translates into less disease.
So,a few years ago I morphed the vines to the high wire cordon system. A trunk about 6 feet high branched into two permanent arms (cordons) that travelled in opposite directions along a wire at trunk height. In this case, instead of being left with 4 long canes after pruning, the vine is left with many short canes drooping downwards right off the cordons.
We bag some of grape bunches to foil the birds and the bees, as well as other pests. Bagging also lets fruits hang on the vine longer without damage and so develop sweetness and aromatics that make for finest flavor. The problem with the 4-arm Kniffen and high wire cordon systems of training are that the fruiting shoots droop downwards, which makes bagging difficult and puts the bags at an angle that defies gravity, not a good thing. Which is why my grapes have morphed again, this time to a 5-wire trellis system.
The latest incarnation of grape support consists, then, of sturdy T-trellises spaced 10 feet apart. Running perpendicularly to the cross-arms of the T are 5 wires, the middle one to support 2 cordons growing off horizontally in opposite directions atop each vine’s 7 foot high trunk. The other wires will support the fruiting shoots that grow from short canes along the cordon perpendicularly to the outrigging wires. The more horizontal growth of the fruiting shoots should make bagging easier.
So it’s locust wood from my mini-grove that will deserve some thanks for luscious grapes.
Not everyone is as enamored with black locust as I am. Many classify it as an invasive plant; here in New York, I’ve seen it classified as a native invasive plant. It originated in southeastern U.S. but now ranges far and wide because of its fecundity and it’s tolerance for a wide range of conditions below and above ground. The tree’s beauty and utility have also contributed to its spread, by humans.
My only beef with black locust is with its thorns. Still, I like my black locusts and I like my grapes.

Pruning, Not Too Late

Nicole, from near Madison, WI won the grow GROW FRUIT NATURALLY book giveaway. Congratulations Nicole! Contact me through my website, with your mailiing address so I can get the book out to you.

Time is running out to finish pruning my kiwi and grape vines, apple, pear, cornelian cherry, filbert, and chestnut trees, rose, gooseberry, currant, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, yew, and fothergilla bushes . . . now that I list most of them, it doesn’t really seem like too, too much still to prune. Some people worry that it’s too late to prune. Nope. Most pruning is done during the dormant season, that is, anytime plants are not growing or, if deciduous, leafless. (A notable exception is spring-blooming shrubs, which are best pruned right AFTER they finish flowering. For more on all aspects of pruning, see my book, THE PRUNING BOOK.)
Kiwi, before pruning
I’ll usually do a little pruning in autumn, after leaves fall, but mostly I’ll be grabbing pruning shears, loppers, and saw as I go out the back door in late February or March, after the coldest part of winter is over. Waiting is most important with plants that are least cold-hardy because these plants tolerate cold better if left alone and, by waiting, I can see what has been damaged during winter. Buds on damaged stems aren’t swelling up this time of year so those stems can be cut off.

A few plants warrant dragging out that waiting period even longer, until they are in bloom, which is when they heal quickest. Peaches are prone to infections at wounds, pruning or otherwise, making these trees good candidates for waiting.

Kiwi, after pruning

I may also wait to prune my grape vines until new shoot growth is underway because then they are less likely to bleed sap.
Bleeding sap worries many gardeners. Isn’t the plant suffering from that gaping wound oozing a watery fluid? No, bleeding does no harm to grape vines. But some of my grapevines climb along the arbor over my patio. It’s very pleasant to sit outdoors on that patio on warm, spring days; it’s very unpleasant to sit there with sap dripping on my head.
Kiwi vines also bleed. No matter. My kiwi vines climb a strictly functional trellis below which we don’t sit.
Root pressure of water being forced up the vines is what makes grape and kiwi vines bleed. Once leaves unfold, they take up that pressure and bleeding ceases.
Bleeding is most welcome from maple trees. What comes out this time of year is a dilute, sugary sap that, when boiled down to concentrate the sugars, yields maple syrup and, if boiled down still more, maple sugar. Sugar concentration in the sap can vary, depending on such factors as temperatures, age of tree, site, soil fertility, and moisture. Typically, the ratio of sap to finished syrup is 40 to 1.
It’s not root pressure that’s forcing sap out the spiles I’ve tapped into holes bored into two sugar maples. Maple sap runs best when temperatures fluctuate between 20-something degree nights and 40-something degree days. Cooling temperatures cause gas bubbles in the trees xylem cells (the inner ring of trees’ cells in which liquid is conducted upwards from the roots) to shrink and to dissolve. Something’s got to fill that newfound space, so more liquid is sucked up from the roots and into the cells. As temperatures drop further, ice forms and gases are locked within the developing ice.

Come morning, pressure builds in the cells as rising temperatures melt the ice and release the gases, forcing liquid out any holes in the bark. That liquid makes its way out the spiles, thence to buckets hanging beneath the stiles, and finally to a large pot that sits and steams on my woodstove through February and March. When the sap reaches 67% sugar, boils at 219° F., or tastes like maple syrup, it’s ready to be bottled up. For me, this has been a good year, with over 5 quarts of syrup already from only 4 taps.
Only a few trees can be tapped for their sap. Any maple can, as can black walnut and butternut. Each yields a syrup with a different flavor. Birch trees also release a sap that can be boiled down to make a tasty syrup; in this case, though, it is root pressure, as with grapes, that forces out the sap.