As The World Turns…

Over the years, gardening has made me more and more aware of our planet’s annual track around the sun. How quaint. It gives me a certain kinship with the peasants at work in the 15th century painting for the month of September of Les Très Riches Heures de Duc de Berry.

Picking grapes, 15th and 21st century

Picking grapes, 15th and 21st century

As with those peasants, September is a month when I have abundant fruits for harvest. Like the peasants, I’m harvesting grapes; it’s been a bumper year. Unlike the peasants, my grapes are destined for fresh eating rather than being sullied by fermentation into wine. (Okay, okay, just kidding, although I am not a fan of drinking wine.)

First to ripen here were the varieties Somerset Seedless and Alden. With an abundance of varieties and fruits, I can afford to be picky, so this will be the last season here for Somerset Seedless. It’s too prone to pest problems and the fruit never loses enough of its tannin-y taste for my palate.

Alden grape

Alden grape

Alden is also threatened with my saw and shovel because it bears lightly and is also plagued with pest problems. But excellent taste and texture make it worth keeping.

Following on the heals of those earlier varieties are Swenson Red, Lorelei, Glenora, and Vanessa. The latter two are very good but would not be worth keeping if they weren’t seedless. In my experience, the most flavorful grapes are those with seeds. Swenson’s Red is a variety that pretty much everyone loves. They’d also love Lorelei if they got to taste this not very common variety.

Finally come Edelweiss, Wapanuka, Brianna, and, bearing for the first time, Cayuga White. The first three are not yet quite ripe. Even at this stage, they are delectable. Cayuga White is still proving itself, or not.

Edelweiss grape


Looking to the future, newly planted Bluebell, Alpenglow, and Dr. Goode should yield a few berries next year. Also an unknown variety that I propagated from an old vine growing at a friend’s Orchard.

With their bold flavors, you’re not likely to find any of the varieties I mentioned at a supermarket, possibly even a farmer’s market. Plant them!

Variety Choices

A few caveats: The Wallkill River Valley, site of my farmden, is far from ideal for fruit growing. As a valley, it’s colder than surrounding land (zone 5) and is laden with damper air that encourages disease. An abundance of wild grapevines in the bordering 6000 acres of forest provides a place for insects and disease to get their start.

Nonetheless, I get good crops without resorting to sprays. This is possible by providing a sunny site with good air circulation and making the best of it with trellises, and — very important — annual pruning. Also by choosing varieties to plant based on pest, disease, and cold resistance. 

Many grape varieties are hybrids of European and American species, the Europeans chosen for their flavor (flavor, that is, from a Eurocentric perspective), the Americans for their toughness to pests and more rigorous growing conditions. American varieties have a unique flavor, called foxiness and typified by that of Concord, as well as a slip skin. European varieties are sweet with a crunchy texture.

As far as flavor and texture, varieties span the spectrum from those that are more like European grapes to those more like American grapes. My final, but very important, consideration in choosing a variety is flavor, and I mostly prefer the flavors of varieties toward the American end of the spectrum.

Of course, the choice widens for grape enthusiasts in more Mediterranean climates, where European varieties can also be grown, and in the Southeast, where the native muscadine grapes grow wild and are cultivated.

Bagging, for Pests

Many birds and insects, especially yellow jackets and European hornets, also enjoy my grapes. They leave plenty for me, but crucial to harvesting the best of the best tasting grapes here is bagging.

Years ago I figured that the longer a bunch of grapes hangs on the plant, the tastier it gets (to a point), but also the more chance of attack by insects and birds. So I bought 1000 bakery bags that happened to have “Wholesome Fresh Delicious Baked Goods” printed on them. Paper bagged grapesPerhaps the label made the bags even less attractive to grape-hungry birds and insects; at any rate, they worked very well, usually yielding almost 100 late harvest, delectably sweet and flavorful, perfect bunches of bagged grapes each year.

This year, I thought organza bags might work well. Bagged grapes, organzaOrganza is an open weave fabric often made from synthetic fiber. Small organza bags typically enclose wedding favors; the bags come in many sizes. Organza bags have the advantage over paper bags of letting in more light. A mere pull of the two drawstrings makes bagging the fruit very easy; paper bags involve cutting, folding, and stapling. Organza bags also re-usable. (The bags also work well with apples which, in contrast to grapes, require sunlight to color up.)

In the15th century painting, peasants just pile bunches of their grapes into large, wooden tubs. I gently set only enough bunches for immediate consumption into a woven basket. Different methods, but we’re all tuned to the progress of our planet around its sun.

More details about growing grapes — and lots of other fruits — in my book Grow Fruit Naturally.Apples, bagged with organza

Grape Futures

My Rationale for Pruning so Late

Today I put the finishing touches on pruning my grapevines. Yes, it’s late: The buds have already swollen and expanded into clusters of small leaves. But there’s “method in my madness,” or, at least, my tardiness.

Vanessa grapes

Vanessa grapes

My vines often experience some winter damage, some varieties — New York Muscat, Reliance, and Vanessa, for instance — more than others. Waiting to prune until I see some green saves me from cutting off too many living canes and saving too many dead canes. In winter it’s not so easy to tell them apart.

So I do mostly rough pruning in winter, lopping back canes that have to go whether they’re living or dead. Canes also need to be shortened, even those that are to be eventually saved.

Which brings me to another reason I left the final pruning until today. Plants generally make their earliest growth in the season starting at the tips of shoots or canes. So when I shortened the remaining canes in winter, I didn’t cut them all the way back to their final length. Then if a late frost nips or kills early growth, it’s no problem. The canes are going to be shortened even further — today — to where buds were not as fully awake and susceptible to cold.

But waiting too, too long to prune can be problematic because those swollen buds flick off their resident canes with very little coaxing. Leave too much to prune this time of year and a lot of buds fly off as pruned canes are pulled down off the plant.

Why Prune? How?

A grapevine bears fruit near the bases of shoots that grow off one-year-old canes. Left to its own devices, the vine might grow 50 feet up into a tree, bear so heavily that it can’t provide sufficient energy to pump optimum flavor into each berry, and become a dark, dank, tangled mess of stems — perfect conditions for fungal diseases.
The goal of various methods of training and pruning grapes are the same: to leave a suitable number of canes conveniently positioned for harvest; to provide buds to grow into new, well-placed shoots for fruiting the following season; and to create a form that allows for good light and air circulation. As might be expected of a plant that’s been cultivated for thousands of years, many ways have been devised for training grapes.

The Four-arm Kniffin System is a kind of “cane pruning,” a traditional method of training in eastern U.S.. For support, a two-wire trellis, with one wire 6 feet and the other wire 3 feet above ground, is needed. The mature plant consists of a trunk with four canes growing from it, two trained in opposite directions along the upper wire and two similarly trained along the lower wire.

Pruning begins as four canes to carry the season’s fruits are selected. These canes should be moderately vigorous and originate close to the trunk and near the wires. With this year’s fruiting canes selected, plans for the following season’s crop are made by cutting back some stems to two buds each; these renewal spurs, as they are called, provide points of origin for new shoots (which will become fruiting canes in a year) near the two wires and on either side of the trunk.

Next, lop away all growth except for the four renewal spurs and the four saved canes. Finally, shorten each of the canes to about 6 ft. in length, leaving about 10 buds per cane (not counting bud clusters near the bases of the canes). This leaves ten times four, or 40, fruiting buds on the plant.

Many Methods with the Same Goal 

At the other extreme in pruning is “spur pruning,” where all that’s left is many 2-bud canes (now called “spurs”) from which grow fruiting shoots. “Head training” would be the most basic spur pruning, with the pruned vine left with nothing more than a trunk capped by a number of spurs.
A spur-pruned vine might instead sport a permanent trunk topped by two arms — permanent arms, called “cordons,” in this case — that run in opposite directions along a trellis wire.

Instead of leaving 4 long canes on which to bear fruit, many short, 2-bud canes are left along the cordons. To get the same number, 40, of fruiting shoots on a spur-pruned vine as on a Kniffen-pruned vine, twenty 2-bud spurs are left. All excess are cut away so that those that remain are 6 to 12 inches from their neighbors. Over time, some spurs will stretch, even after being shorted to 2 buds of one-year-old shoots, further away from the cordon. Lopping these back nearer the cordon puts them back in order.

Where to put all those fruiting shoots growing from the spurs? With “midwire” cordon training, cordons are trained along a wire at 3 foot height, and new shoots are trained upward by weaving them into 3 rows of wires strung at one foot above the cordon wire.
With “high-cordon” training, a trunk rising to about 6 feet is capped by two cordons trained in opposite directions along a wire. Fruiting shoots droop downward.High wire double cordon spur pruned grape
My grapes grow as high cordons, with a wrinkle; their fruiting shoots spread horizontally, rather than droop down. Wooden cross pieces provide this support on my arbor. Although this rigorous pruning puts off how soon the arbor offers relief from early summer sun, the arbor never becomes a tangled mess of stems and disease-ridden berries characteristic of many helter-skelter pruned grape arbors.

The trellis for my other high-cordons have two sets of wires running parallel on either side and one and three feet from the cordon’s wire. These wires provide a ledge on which fruiting shoots can rest, with clusters of grapes dangling just high enough for me to reach for easy harvest.



Bleeding Is Okay

Everyone wants to prune this time of year. And rightly so. It’s a good time to prune most trees, shrubs, and vines, as it was a couple of months ago and, looking forward, will be until about when these plants come into bloom.  Or, finished blooming, in the case of those plants whose pruning gets delayed until after we all get to enjoy their early blossoms.

A reader wrote me about her Japanese maple, which needed to have one of its multi-trunks cut off. Should she do it now or in autumn? If lopped back now, would the tree bleed to death? Would the gaping wound get infected, possibly leading to the demise of the whole tree?

Japanese maple in fall

Japanese maple in fall

Bleeding sap generally does more harm to gardeners’ psyches than to plants’ physiologies. My grape and hardy kiwi vines bleed when I prune them this time of year, with no harm done. So why worry about harm to a maple? 

(The bleeding of grapevines that climb the arbor over my patio does have one downside. It’s very pleasant to sit outdoors on that patio on warm, spring days; it’s very unpleasant to sit where sap drips on my head.)

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.Maple syrup buckets

Root pressure is not what forces sap (which sounds more benign than “bleeding”) out of wounds of maple trees. With maples, cooling temperatures cause gas bubbles in 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. The expanding liquid is forced out any holes in the bark, whether from a maple sap spile or from a pruning wound.

Although maples bleed for a different reason than do most other plants, the bleeding itself causes no harm to the plants. The reason small maple trees, with trunks narrower than 6 inches in diameter, should not be tapped is because the wound left by the tap hole extends within the trunk beyond the hole; sap will never again travel past the wounded area. A tap hole is large in relation to the size of a small tree’s trunk, so significantly restricts liquid flow.

Of course, there’s no need to conduct sap up a trunk that’s been lopped off. So, Barbara, go ahead and prune, now, when the gaping wound can soon begin to heal. Autumn, which leaves a gaping wound exposed to the elements and pests until spring, would be a very bad time to prune.

A Wabbit!!!!

I looked out the window awhile ago to see a rabbit crouched against a backdrop of pure, white snow. How cute. NOT! It’s the same old story. Farmer McGregor and Peter Rabbit, and now farmdener me and some other rabbit.

A few days previously I had noticed that some bark had been nibbled off the pencil-thick “trunks” of some young, grafted trees — the handiwork of those awful furballs. That nibbling probably won’t kill the small plants but will set them back a year, or more, if the nibbling kills the scion down to the graft.Rabbit damage to branches

As for the rabbit and its probable kin, I’m setting traps. Unfortunately, my Peter Rabbit seems to enjoy my plants more than anything I put in the trap.

Rabbit, At Bay

I’ve kept my Peter Rabbit at bay from all my older trees this winter with diligence and hardware cloth and or commercially available plastic spiral tree guards. The protection goes 2 feet above ground, or higher, not that a rabbit could reach that high — except when there’s snow to give it “a leg up.” The light-colored spirals also protect the thin barks of young trees from sunscald, which results when sunny, cold winter days warm the bark, whose temperature then plummets as the sun drops below the western horizon.rabbit

I remove all the spirals in spring so insects can’t find shelter from birds beneath the spirals.Tree protected with plastic spiral

Monthly, throughout winter and into early spring, I also sprayed plants with Bobbex, a mix of “putrescent whole egg solids,” garlic, and cloves that is repellant to rabbits, as well as deer (and me).

And finally, there’s Sammy, my trusty dog who would chase away any rabbits if he happened to be awake, happened to be on the right side of the house, and happened to see them.

Flowers and Grapes

I thought the reason for the bags was obvious, but the eyes of just about everyone who steps out on my terrace turn upwards and then a quizzical look comes on their face. “Why are those bags up there,” they

ask. The bags enclose bunches of grapes hanging from the vines, and their purpose is to fend off birds, bees and other insects, and disease.

The payoff for tediously fitting slit paper bags around individual bunches, then stapling the folded over opening down around the stem, has come. Usually, not always; sometimes I open a bag and find nothing inside. But while many unbagged bunches are marred with bird pecking and black rot, the bagged bunches, at their best, reveal perfect bunches of plump, juicy grapes. We bag about 100 bunches each spring.
The longer grapes hang on the vines, the more apt they are to have a run in with birds or other ills. Bagged grapes, on the other hand, can be left hanging until they are dead, dead ripe, at their flavorful best.
How about flowers? I seem to have been ignoring them. In fact, the longer I garden, the more I look upon flowers in the same way as icing on a cake. They are a nice addition, but they are not the main show. Center stage around here is given to stone walls, arbors, trellises, fencing, the bark and tracery of branches of trees, and leaf shapes, colors, and textures. Their statements are bolder, less frivolous, and endure throughout the year .
Still, every year I do try out a few new flowers, and three annuals brought both beauty and endurance (for a flower) here this summer. All three have been blooming nonstop since late spring, and should keep up the show until weather turns frosty.
First is petunia. Not just any old petunia but new hybrids called Supertunias. These hybrids come in a


number of pastel colors, just like traditional petunias. They part ways with traditional petunias in their profusion of nonstop blossom. The blossoms always have an attractive backdrop because they are self cleaning — spent blossoms disappear into nothingness.

The second floral winner for the season is Xerochrysum bracteatum, sometimes classified as a Bracteantha species and sometimes called golden everlasting, or strawflower. I am growing the hybrid called Sundaze Blaze.
Bracteantha is, in fact, closely related to, and resembles, the more familiar strawflower (Helichrysum), looking like one that’s spreads its wings (petals, in this case) wider and larger. This native of Australia grows in just about all habitats there, except those that are shaded, so, as you might imagine, it’s a tough plant.
One more plus for Bracteantha is that it provides food for various butterflies, hoverflies, and native bees. Hoverflies are beneficial insects, so the bracteanthas indirectly may have


offered some protection to my grape bunches that were not bagged.

And finally, there’s Begonia benariensis, the variety Surefire Rose. I’m not a big fan of begonias, except for the Mandarin series, with their elongated, lance-shaped flowers and leaves all drooping decoratively from their pots. Surefire Rose, in contrast, is rounded: the leaves are rounded, the flowers are rounded, and the overall shape of the plant is rounded. With little enthusiasm, I plopped a few small plants I had been sent to try out into holes I made beneath a witchhazel shrub on the north side of my house.
Sometime around midsummer a critical mass of blossoms was reached. The red color of these flowers spilling out from beneath the witchhazel and onto the wall containing that bed would stop me in my track as I walked by. The show has increased in the intervening weeks.
As good as the show was from these annuals, they are, after all, annuals, destined to collapse in death with the first hard frost.


The begonias are tender perennials, so could be carried through the winter indoors if I dug up the plants and potted them up, or rooted cuttings. Easiest to preserve, literally, would be the bracteantha; like strawflowers, bracteantha dries well. I’ll give it a try.

Observation and note-taking are crucial to good gardening. Some gardeners have the observation part down, fewer write them down. Observations are pretty much useless once forgotten or mixed up.
One benefit of my writing this “Gardener’s Notebook” is that it affords me the opportunity — sometimes forces me — to write things down. I’m always trying to get my timing right for planting the greenhouse to ensure a steady supply of fresh greenery all winter long. With that in mind, two notes to myself: 
•Sow parsley on July 7th for transplanting into the greenhouse on September 17th.
•Sow kale and Swiss chard in the greenhouse for transplanting in the greenhouse on September 17th.