Future Hopes

 Totipotentiality (Is This a Word?)

I was so excited one day a few years back to receive a box full of leafless sticks by mail. The exciting thing about those sticks was that each one of them could grow into a whole new plant from whose branches would eventually hang luscious apples and grapes.Grape cuttings

  And how did I know the fruits will be luscious? Because a year prior I was at an experimental orchard getting fruit photos for a book I was working on. Of course, I couldn’t help but also taste the fruits, and that’s why Chestnut Crab, Honeygold, Mollie’s Delicious, and King of the Pippins joined the two dozen or so other varieties of apples I already grew. Cayuga White, Bertille Seyve 2758, Steuben, Lakemont, Wapanuka, Himrod, Romulus, and Venus joined my grapes.

  It was “totipotence” – of the plants, not me – that allowed me to unlock potential treasures within those mailed sticks. Within a plant, every cell except for reproductive cells has the potential to become a root, a shoot, a flower, a thorn, a fruit, or any other part of a plant. For that matter, the same is true for humans and other animals. All that’s needed are the right conditions to get the various parts to grow – and there’s the rub.

  A little art and science puts totipotence to work. In the case of the apples, I grafted those stems onto my existing trees or onto small rootstocks. Existing trees or rootstocks provide nothing more than roots to nourish shoots that will eventually sprout from the sticks. The plant beyond the graft remains genetically that of whatever variety is grafted upon the rootstock. Bark graftGrape sticks got plunged into the ground where they grew their own roots, shoots, and everything else. Apples aren’t so amenable to growing their own roots.

  I generally wait to graft or set cuttings until early spring. Warmth awakens those sticks. Until then, they’re kept cool and dormant.

  I planned on tasting the first fruits of my labors within about 3 years.

Out With the New, In With the Newer

None of those varieties I received as leafless sticks are still with me.

Because of pests, apples are especially problematic to grow here so I subsequently narrowed down my apple holdings to trees of my few very favorite varieties: Macoun, Liberty, Ashmeads Kernel, Pitmaston Pineapple, and Hudson’s Golden Gem.Cleft graft one year old

Except for Wapanuka, the grapes never tasted as good here as they did at that experimental orchard. Is it because of terroir? Was it the setting that influenced my tastebuds? Anyway, they’ve been replaced by other “sticks” — Somerset Seedless, Glenora, and Vanessa — that now bear fruit in the rows with my older, established vines..

Murphy’s Law, Amendments

Although I have gardened for decades, I still consider myself a relative newbie to greenhouse gardening. Sure, I’ve dabbled in various greenhouses over the years but I’ve only experienced the intimate vagaries of my own greenhouse for the last 18 years. It took time for it to finally dawn on me that Murphy’s Law – “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” – also applies in the greenhouse. In retrospect, why wouldn’t it?Greenhouse, March 1st

  I’ve had my brushes with the law. For instance, one winter evening a few years ago when I went to pick some lettuce for a salad; methinks, “Hmmm, quite nippy in here.” But then, except from when sunlight is beaming through the plastic covering, it’s always nippy in there in winter. Salad greens, kale, chard, and celery thrive in those cool temperatures, which dip into the mid-30s before the propane heater kicks on. (The in-ground figs stay dormant and leafless.)

  Still, temperatures felt nippier than normal so I checked the thermometer to confirm and, yes, it was getting down to the high 20s. I then checked the propane heater; it ignored me as I twisted the dial on the thermostat clockwise.

  Right then and there, I proposed an amendment to Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong — at the worst possible time!” Temperatures the night before had plummeted below zero. No wonder a water line had burst that morning. I had assumed that frigid temperatures had made only that corner of the greenhouse too cold. Fortunately, after a lot of nail biting, the gas man and I determined that the pilot light had blown out in the heater. Most plants survived the cold.

  One event does not a Law make. Thinking back to another Murphy event, I remember an even more serious freeze in the greenhouse. One day everything looked verdant; the next day mush. (The gas company had forgotten to re-fill the propane tank.) After that event, I rigged up a backup electric heater, just in case temperatures dropped below freezing.

  Perhaps yet another Murphy’s Law Amendment is needed. On the night of a more recent freeze, the electric heater was, of course, hooked up. Except it wasn’t poised for warmth. The thermostat was directing it to wake up, but I had forgotten to flip the heater’s “on-off” switch to “on.” My bad.

  Live and learn: The sun is now setting, the mercury is now plummeting, but no fear of high winds blowing out the pilot light again. I subsequently upgraded the heater for a pilot light-less one. But when I go out to pick some lettuce, celery, and parsley, I will: Check propane heater, check electric heater, check that the water line is off. And remember to latch the door closed on my way out — really!

Greenhouse Happenings, Figs and Lettuce and . . .

Darkness Descending

Plant growth has come screeching (almost) to a halt. Lettuces just sit, hardly growing. No wonder, you are no doubt thinking. It’s getting colder and colder outside. I know that, but I’m writing about lettuces in my greenhouse. The issue isn’t lack of heat. It’s lack of light.Planting greenhouse lettuce

For more evidence that light is the issue, look to good vegetable gardens in southern Europe. In that mild climate, harvest from a well-planned vegetable garden continues year ‘round. But year ‘round harvest there takes planning — lack of light also makes for very slow growth over there in these darkest months. Unprotected plants survive because the winter weather never gets that cold over there. (And cool-season vegetables, such as spinach, radish, and turnips, that we plan for sprig or fall, are what do well in Mediterranean winters.)

My garden here in the Hudson Valley, at about the 42nd parallel, experiences winter day lengths the same as Rome, Italy or the island of Corsica — all on about the same 42nd degree of latitude. If lettuce plants grow slowly in Rome and Corsica, then the slow growth of lettuce in my greenhouse should come as no surprise. But it always does surprise me, and the brakes seem to start getting applied back in October, with full pressure about now.

All this came to the forefront of my attention back in 1992, when I read Eliot Coleman’s excellent book Four-Season Harvest. After highlighting the similar insolation of much of our “northern regions” with much of balmy Europe, he went on to describe various ways of protecting winter vegetable from our winter cold, which would kill most of them. Keeping the plants a bit warmer also gets them growing sooner once days become longer and brighter.

My goal, in the greenhouse, is to get a good share of the plants almost fully grown going into December. With lettuces, I try to plan to have enough of them to fill salad bowls through January and February, after which smaller plants are starting to grow fast enough to fill those bowls.

The 42nd Parallel

The reason Corsica and Rome remain relatively balmy all winter while winters here, with both locations at the 42nd parallel, get so frigid is that Corsica is bathed by the Gulf Stream, that warm mass of air that flows up from the Caribbean and across the Atlantic to wash over western Europe.

The warm touch of the Gulf Stream is lost as you move further east across Europe and into western Asia. Kazakhstan, parts of which also lie at the 42nd parallel, experience average annual temperatures from -60°F to 104°F!! The climate of nearby Turkey, whose north end touches that latitude, is moderated by the Caspian Sea. Moving further east to parts of Inner Mongolia, still within the 42nd parallel, winter temperatures might dip to -90°F.

A Greenhouse is not a Hothouse

If you were to join me in my greenhouse today, don’t forget your hat and gloves. The greenhouse is heated, but only minimally, enough to keep the temperature from falling below 37°F. That temperature provides a nice balance between energy use and reasonable year ‘round harvest. (Expotentially more energy is needed for incrementally increasing temperatures.)

Today is rainy and very cool, but not cool enough to kick on the greenhouse heater. So it’s pretty much the same temperature inside the greenhouse as outside the greenhouse — in the 40s. Most of what’s growing — kale, celery, mâche, claytonia, Swiss chard, mustard greens, parsley, and arugula — do fine with these conditions.

Leafy vegetables require less energy (i.e. sunlight) than do fruiting vegetables, so the low light is also fine to keep them happy even if only slowly growing, just as they would be planted (outdoors) in a garden in Corsica or Rome.

That’s also home to my baby, hardy cyclamens (about which I recently wrote), in a seed flat, until they decide to lose their leaves and go dormant. And two cardoon plants, also native to Mediterranean regions.

One Mediterranean plant that is very unhappy this year, even in the greenhouse, is fig. Figs are still ripening but, with the high humidity and low light, each is soon covered with fuzzy, gray mold. Figs rotting in greenhouseSplitting figRoots of Rabbi Samuel fig, near the endwall, spread under the wall and outside the greenhouse, soaking up so much water that the figs split before ripening. Yet, a few fig fruits escape both afflictions and ripen to juicy sweetness.

I wonder if fig gardeners in the Mediterranean share my fig problems.Eating a fig


The Kindest Cuts

    In years past, when I went outdoors this time of year, it was usually with skis strapped to my feet. Or wearing snow boots. Or snowshoes. With this snowless, warm winter, I’m mostly going outdoors these days armed with pruning shears, a lopper, and a pruning saw. Mostly, my feet trod a path to the hardy kiwifruit vines and the blueberry bushes.
    At first glance, the blueberries seem nothing more than a jumbled mass of stems of various ages. How to make order out of this jumble? Quicker to answer is why go to the trouble of making order out of this jumble. The same could be asked for my lilac bush, mockorange, hazelnuts, gooseberries, and currants.

Sammy & me, pruning blueberries

Sammy & me, pruning blueberries

    Then I remind myself that my goal is to reduce the crop — yes! reduce the potential crop — so that more of the each fruit or nut bush’s resources get channeled into fewer fruits or nuts so those that remain taste better. I also prune for future years’ harvests or, for flowering bushes, future years’ flowers. And I prune to let the stems of all bushes bathe in light and air, which reduces pest problems.
    Bushes are bushes because they are bushy, that is, they’re constantly growing new stems at or near ground level and never develop permanent trunks. (Except for daphne, fothergilla, witch hazel, PeeGee hydrangea, tree peony, and other plants of bushy stature with long-lived stems.) Blueberries and most other bushes, ornamental and fruiting, are pruned by a renewal method. As stems age, they grow decrepit, producing less flowers or fruits; pruning away these oldsters, right to the ground makes way for younger, replacement stems.

3 Steps, and Blueberries are Pruned

    My first cuts on any of my blueberry bushes are the most dramatic ones: I cut down a couple or so of the oldest stems using a lopper or pruning saw. Blueberry stems are typically worth keeping until they are about 7 years old, or about an inch in diameter. These most dramatic cuts also remove the tallest stems in one fell swoop, so the bushes never grow so tall that the berries are out of reach.
     The kind of shrub, the variety of shrub, and the previous season’s growing conditions all conspire to determine how many new stems, called suckers, grow from or near ground level. Often, it’s so many that as they mature, the bush becomes congested. So now I take pruning shears in hand, and reduce their numbers to, in the case of blueberry bushes, four or five.

Blueberry bush, before & after pruning

Blueberry bush, before & after pruning

The finished bush then — in theory — has about 4 six-year-old stems, 4 five-year-old stems, and so on, down to 4 one-year-old stems. By this time next year, each of those stems will have moved up a year in age. I’ll remove the 4 now seven-year-old stems and excess one-year-old stems, which are those that will have grown this season.
    Oh, one more step: I go over each bush with my pruning shears, removing small or dead twigs and shortening stems that are out of bounds. With 16 bushes cramped into 900 square feet, “out of bounds” is pretty close.

Early Cukes, One the Way

    As so often happens in late winter and early spring, and especially this year, weather is very variable. Today was sunny and, by winter standards, balmy — perfect for crawling in among the blueberry bushes to prune them. But no need to twiddle my thumbs on sunless days raw with cold. There are seeds to be sown.
    Some people spend the first part of summer hankering to bite into their first ripe tomato. Even more than tomato, I eagerly await my first fresh cucumbers and peppers. Like tomatoes, both get a head start indoors.Cucumber seedlings
    This year, after seeing the very early cucumber crop at Evolutionary Organics farm down the road from me, I thought I would give early cukes a try here at the farmden. On Kira, the farmer’s advice, I planted seeds a couple of weeks ago into potting soil in 4” plastic flower pots.
    Cucumbers revel in heat, both for seed germination and for growing. So, after being watered, the seeded pots went onto the greenhouse’s electrically heated seed mat that’ll keep the seeds at a cozy 80°F. Seedlings are up, their roots still still in pots and still being warmed by the heating mat.
    Within a couple of weeks, the cuke seedlings will start to outgrow their pots and need planting in the ground  — not outdoors, though, but in the greenhouse. As I wrote, I’m hankering for a very early harvest. I’ll take the soil temperature which, I hope, will stay steadily above 65°F by then.

Luxuriating in my Greenhouse

How Cool is That (Greenhouse)?

    Having a greenhouse is a much-appreciated luxury. To avoid being profligate, I eke all that I can from its every square inch in every season.
    For starters, it’s a cool greenhouse — temperature-wise “cool,” not “ain’t this a cool greenhouse” cool. Winter temperatures are permitted inside drop to 35°F. before the propane heater kicks on. And in summer, roll-up sidewalls let in plenty of cooler, outside air to save energy (and noise) in running the cooling fan. Demands on the cooling fan are also minimized by letting summer temperatures reach almost 100°F. before the fan awakens.
    I have to choose my plants carefully for them to tolerate such conditions.Grennhouse beds in October
    Right now, lettuce, arugula, mâche, celery, parsley, kale, and Swiss chard seedlings and small transplants trace green lines up and down ground beds in the greenhouse. I sowed seed of most of these cold-loving vegetables about a month ago. They’re too small to harvest now. No matter: The outdoor vegetable garden is still replete with greenery available for harvest through November and, probably, on into December. By then, greenhouse greenery will have grown to harvest size, then continue to do so very slowly through the dark, cold days.
    And the 100° summers in the greenhouse? Above the beds spread the branches of three large fig trees, planted right into the ground (rather than pots). From those branches dangle ripe and ripening figs, as they have since July. Figs originated in the searing heat of summers in Western Asia; they can take the 100° heat of my greenhouse. Soon, cooler temperatures and lowering sun will drive the trees to stop ripening fruits, and lose their leaves and enter dormancy. (Figs are subtropical, rather than tropical, trees, so enjoy a cool — but not frigid — winter rest.) The few, leafless branches, most of them pruned back, will cast little shade to let the cool weather greenery in the ground beds below bask in what little sunlight fall and winter have to offer.
    Starting in February, my greenhouse does triple duty, becoming also a home for transplants for the upcoming season’s vegetable and flower gardens. I plant the first seeds — onions, lettuce, celery, and leek — in early February, sowing them in seed flats on the narrow bench along the greenhouse’s north wall.

(Hot) Beds in Summer

    As each spring morphs into summer in the greenhouse, fig growth begins anew and winter’s cool weather vegetables wane and are cleared away.
    How about putting the ground beds beneath the awakening fig trees to some good use? In the past, I’ve tried growing melons and cucumbers, all of which originated in hot regions of Africa and Asia, in those beds. Neither the melons nor the cucumbers did particularly well — yet.

Ginger Loved the Heat

    Which brings us to this week’s ginger harvest. Greenhouse beds this summer provide a warm, moist home in which to grow ginger, a plant indigenous to the hot, muggy climate of south China. Ginger would be hardly worth growing if all I wanted was the khaki-skinned rhizomes that I could pick off a supermarket shelf. Those tough-hided roots are mature ginger, which has a fibrous flesh.
 Digging up ginger   What I was shooting for was baby ginger, whose pink-tinged, white skin, encloses flesh that is tender, lily-white, and free of fibre.  The flavor is a little different than mature ginger, cleaner. This tropical plant I figured could — and it did — thrive in my hot greenhouse all summer.
    To get started, way back in March, I purchased a single root of mature ginger at the supermarket, broke it into four sections, and potted each section into a 4 inch pot. As I said, the plant needs heat, so I set the pots on my seed-starting mat to maintain a temperature of about 70°F. Still, it took awhile for green sprouts to show.
    The potted ginger plants were ready to plant out in a greenhouse bed just as the last of winter’s vegetables were being cleared away there. After planting, I refurbished the soil with a mulch of compost. Cool soil got the plants off to a slow start but once summer heat kicked in outdoors, and then really kicked in within the greenhouse, the ginger thrived.Harvested ginger
    The goal was to let ginger linger to eke maximum yield but not so long that the rhizome would begin to mature. I also needed space for this winter’s plantings. As it turns out, the first objective, maximum yield, was moot. Yields were prodigious, four plants yielding much more than we could possibly eat.

Pickle It

    The first order of business with the harvested baby ginger was to pickle it. All that was needed was to slice it thinly with a carrot peeler then pour boiling vinegar sweetened with a bit of maple syrup over it.


Greenhouse, Coldframe, Hotbed = Fresh Lettuce, Mâche, & other Salad Fixings 

You can’t beat the luxuriousness of entering a greenhouse on a sunny, cold winter day, and hitting that welcome wall of moist, warm air. Once you get through that soft wall, you drink in the redolence and visual vibrancy of green, growing plants. All this is possible even with a relatively inexpensive greenhouse, such as mine, which is, basically, 2 layers of plastic film supported by sturdy, steel hoops (plus thermostats, a propane heater, a cooling fan, and a “squirrel cage” fan to inflate the space between the layers of plastic for better insulating value).

Fresh greens in the greenhouse

Fresh greens in the greenhouse

Still, a greenhouse — my greenhouse, at least — isn’t for virtual trips to Puerto Rico; It’s for growing edible plants, mostly fresh lettuce, celery, mâche, claytonia, and arugula to fill the salad bowl every day from late fall through early spring.

This same benefit, though, can almost be achieved much more simply and much more cheaply with a coldframe. A coldframe, in its most basic incarnation, is a box frame covered with glass or some other transparent material and within which plants are grown or protected through the coldest months.

I have both a greenhouse and a coldframe. The coldframe came first. With a greenhouse full of greenery, I admit to usually neglecting the coldframe, which is unheated and only 25 square feet in contrast to the greenhouse’s heated 750 square feet. Still, last fall I had an extra 25 lettuce transplants and lacked even a square foot of extra space in which to plant them in the greenhouse. So I spread an inch of compost in the coldframe, firmed the transplants into holes there, and then gave the whole bed a good watering before replacing the cover.

Cold frame with cover closed, and Sammy

Cold frame with cover closed, and Sammy

Except for one subsequent watering, I’ve pretty much ignored the coldframe. The polycarbonate (‘Exolite’) cover is translucent so the coldframe’s innards are hidden from view unless the cover is lifted. Today, mostly out of curiosity, I lifted the cover to see what was going on inside. The lettuce was alive and had grown. Fall weather was admittedly relatively mild although temperatures here did drop below 10°F at least one night — pretty good survival for plants growing in little more than a covered box outdoors.

With short days and cold weather, lettuce is growing very slowly. Individual leaves, perhaps whole heads, probably will not ready for harvest until towards the end of February. That’s if the lettuce survives that long, which it might not even in the coldframe, depending on the length and depth of winter cold. Spinach would more likely make it through winter; mâche and claytonia would definitely weather the coldest days and nights.

Beefing Up the Coldframe

In the absence of a greenhouse, I would beef up coldframe salad production to yield more  and for more of the winter. I would, first of all, construct more coldframes because, with slow growth inside in winter, one harvest could decimate the crop, for a period at least, from just one coldframe.

Anything that helps the coldframe fend off cold and retain heat would also help increase the amount and duration of harvest. Insulating the sides helps, and said insulation need be nothing more than wood chips or straw piled up against the sides. Or make the box itself out of whole bales of straw!

Cover open, Sammy on guard

Cover open, Sammy on guard

Heat rises and glass and plastic are poor insulators, so most of the heat is lost through the translucent or clear covering. The Exolite cover on my coldframe is actually 2 layers of polycarbonate plastic sandwiching polycarbonate ribs that hold the layers 1/4” apart, proving better insulating value than a single layer. On really cold nights, an insulating mat, even just a blanket could be thrown over the cover. In Europe a hundred years ago, cold frames were used extensively for commercial vegetable production, and mats of woven straw covered the glass to keep out the coldest weather.

A few feet down into the earth, temperatures remain constantly in the 50s. That earth is a source of heat, tapped into by sinking the floor of the coldframe a couple of feet deeper, which also allows head space for taller vegetables, such as Romaine lettuce. Too deep, of course, makes harvesting very inconvenient.

And finally, winter production can be beefed up by actually heating a coldframe, in which case it’s no longer a “coldframe” but what’s called a “hotbed.” The traditional heat source for a hotbed is horse manure, layered into the bottom of the bed after a foot or so of soil has been dug out. A certain art is involved in getting the right amount and moisture content of manure, packed in just right and then covered with soil for a steady even heat. I made my coldframe into a hot bed a couple of years ago, or, rather, tried to. I didn’t get it just right; will have to try again.

True, you can’t climb into a coldframe for a tropical junket, but the coldframe, with care, can become a hotbed of tasty, fresh, organic, very locally-grown vegetables from fall to spring.


Who Says I Can’t Grow Figs? A Mouse?

Crisp weather notwithstanding, almost every day I can reach up into the branches of my fig trees and walk away clutching a handful of soft, dead-ripe fruits. That’s because the trees, the ones bearing fruit, are in the greenhouse, where nights are chilly but daytime temperatures, especially on sunny days, are balmy or hot.

I’m not gloating. Those greenhouse figs take some work beyond normal routines of keeping heating, cooling, and watering systems chugging along harmoniously in the greenhouse. Earlier in the season I battled cottony cushion scale insects with toothbrush and soapy water, with oil sprays, and with sticky band traps (for ants, which “farm” scale insects) on trunks. Now I see the insects are staging a comeback at a time when the trees are too big to scrub with a toothbrush and too big, too laden with fruit, and surrounded too closely by lettuce, celery, and other winter edibles to spray oil. I’m hoping natural conditions keep scale insects in check until cold weather and lack of leaves or fruit finally puts them asleep for a few months.

A few weeks ago, some creature — a mouse is my guess — discovered the figs, and liked them. He, or she, chewed the bottoms of some fruits as they hung from branches and gathered others to cache in shallow tunnels. Traps, poison bait, and wide girths of sticky Tangle-Trap returned fruits to their rightful owner, me.

All this effort is worthwhile. Especially on sunny days, the figs are delectable, soft and sweet like dollops of jam hanging from the branches.

So Many Varieties, So Little Space

A bowl of figs, Rabbi Samuel, Millrock, San Piero, & Black Bethlehem

A bowl of figs, Rabbi Samuel, Millrock, San Piero, & Black Bethlehem

Growing a few varieties of figs makes fig-eating even more pleasurable. People wonder, on hearing that I grow figs, whether I grow “brown figs or white figs,” at which point I bring attention to the fact that there are hundreds of varieties of figs, with many of each color.

I keep trying to pare down my collection to the best. Instead, I seem to be adding varieties either deliberately or gifted. It’s hard, virtually impossible, to tell what variety you have until it fruits. Figs have been cultivated for thousands of years, along the way of which an older variety may have picked up many names. For instance, I have a variety I purchased as Verte (syn. Green Ischia); with brown fruit, I knew it was mislabeled. Its bearing habit and the appearance of the fruit nailed it down as San Piero, also known as Negro Largo, Douro Black, Aubique Noir, Large Blue, Lee’s Perpetual, and California Brown Turkey, among other names. The name California Brown Turkey distinguishes it from Eastern Brown Turkey, a totally different variety that I also grow and which itself is also known as English Brown Turkey, Everbearing, and Texas Everbearing,.

Espalier fig in greenhouse in July

Espalier fig in greenhouse in July

A few years ago, a woman on Millrock Road here in town, offered me her potted fig tree; she was moving and didn’t want to take it with her. (Understandable: I also didn’t take all my 35 varieties of fig from my garden in Maryland when I moved up here to the Hudson Valley.) Still hers was an offer I could not refuse; perhaps that potted plant would bear the best fig ever. In a pot in the greenhouse this year, the tree finally bore fruit, greenish yellow and round, with the insides bursting to split the skin. It’s a keeper, and I’m adding to the nomenclature confusion by calling it Millrock fig until I learn otherwise.

Another fig, this one named by Jack Algiere, the farmer at Stone Barns farm, is bearing heavily and looks to keep doing so for weeks to come. I have espaliered this tree, Rabbi Samuel, against a greenhouse wall in the form of a permanent, low T. Fruiting shoots rise vertically about 6 inches apart from the upper side of each arm. This variety bears best on new shoots so my plan is to each winter cut all vertical stems down near the arms and then thin out new growth so vertical shoots are no closer that 6 inches apart. The Rabbi’s fruits are humongous, as big as small apples.

Subtropical, But Thankfully Adaptable

What makes figs so popular a fruit, even in climates far removed from the hot summers and mild winters it calls home? Perhaps a love for this ancient fruit, whose provenance is in one cradle of civilization, is coded into our DNA. And, of course, the flavor, sweet and juicy without being cloying.

Espalier fig in October, with ripe fruits

Espalier fig in October, with ripe fruits

Although a subtropical plant, fig is accommodating to colder climates. You can hack back its roots — useful when providing new potting soil for pot-grown plants. It’s deciduous, so doesn’t need light in winter — useful in northern climates when looking for a cold, but not too cold, place to store the dormant plant. Most varieties do not need pollination to set fruit. And figs bear quickly and propagate easily.

Most important, in contrast to most temperate-zone fruits, fig plants can bear on new wood. Some varieties bear on one-year-old wood and some bear on both old and new wood. Bearing on new wood — as does Rabbi Samuel — makes it convenient to cut back a potted plant when maneuvering it indoors for winter. Or if winter cold kills part of the top of an outdoor plant. In either case, a plant that loses too much of its top requires a longer growing season before fruits start ripening.

Fruits keep ripening along new shoots, as they grow, until arrested by cold. Hence, my prediction for a few more weeks of fruit from Rabbi Samuel in the greenhouse. Those fruits hang in stark contrast to the scene outdoors, where leaves of tomato, pepper, and other tender plants have been blackened by the first killing frost here of 25°F, on October 19th.

Better than a Boxer and Goodbye to Mac

Check it out! New video up at showing step-by-step preparation of weedless beds in autumn.
Some people consider owning a Porsche Boxer to be a luxury; I consider crunching through winter snow to the greenhouse and picking a fresh head of lettuce to be a luxury. This lettuce-y luxury must be earned at a price that is more than monetary. It was a couple of weeks ago that I started paying for part of this year and next.
The goal is to harvest a head of lettuce every day from now through winter and on into next spring. That takes planning.

So at the end of August I filled a 4 by 6 inch seed flat with potting soil and sprinkled a different variety of lettuce into each of four mini-furrows. Covered with a pane of glass and watered, the seeds soon sprouted,

and after the sprouts grew for a week or two I delicately lifted individual seedlings out of the flat by their tiny leaves. Each sprout went into a waiting hole dibbled into a larger flat filled with potting soil, this time a flat where each sprout got its own cell.

Another payment: Today I spread an inch depth of compost in each permanent planting bed in the greenhouse. (Excepted were two beds, one awaiting the ripening of two more melons and the other that will be ripening cucumbers for the next few weeks.) Into the beds went seeds of various cool weather greens — mâche, arugula, mustard, minutina (also known as erba stella), and baby bok choi — as well as a few different varieties of lettuce.
Yet another payment: Towards the end of the month, I’ll lift out the lettuce seedlings that I transplanted into seed flats and plant them about 8 inches apart in any remaining beds.
All this planting may seem hectic or redundant but there is method to the madness. These greens tend to bolt (go to seed) when the weather is warm and days are sufficiently long. Sown too soon for winter, and they do just that. They’re ruined. On the other hand, autumn and early winter days are short and temperatures are cool to cold which makes for very slow growth. If plants are too small going to autumn, they don’t grow large enough to amount to anything until February or March.
So plants have to be big enough, but not too big going into autumn. How big is best depends on the plant, in some cases even the variety of plant. Plants grown from seed planted directly in the ground seem to bolt less readily than plants grown from transplants. All of which is why I grow a little of everything every which way at various times.
Although I’ve gardened for decades, my greenhouse experience spans only 13 years; perhaps after another 10 years I’ll know just when to sow everything to ensure a steady supply of fresh salads all winter.
“Payment” for my lettuce-y luxuries is too strong a term. All this ground preparation, sowing, and transplanting really just extends the fun of gardening into the winter months. And, did I mention weeding. What fun it is in winter. Really!

It is with regret that I thinned out excess turnip seedlings this morning. Not that I regretted tossing away the green tops. What I regretted was not being able to share the tops with Mac, my old neighbor. He died late last year.
Mac grew up in the South and wended his way north harvesting fruits and vegetables. He eventually

settled in the north, in a small house that practically butted right up against my garage.

You couldn’t conjure up a more disparate pairing: me, a short, white guy from the suburbs of New York City, and Mac, a tall, black guy from deep in the South. We were drawn together by our love for gardening. Perhaps I have some roots in the South (doubtful) because he and I also shared our love for okra and greens. A frequent summer refrain over the hedge separating our yards was, “How many bags of okra you got in the freezer so far?”
Mac and I always got along. When a pin oak on our property line was threatening to shade my plum trees, I hadn’t even finished my question before Mac answered, “Just take it down.” Some visitors here thought the ramshackle sheds and assorted objects scattered over his yard were an eyesore. I looked upon them as nothing more than “different strokes for different folks.”
Mac eventually moved into an apartment in town and, as he aged, his gardening capabilities diminished. But not his love for gardening, being in the garden, and eating from the garden. Each spring, he would bring me some seeds that he thought were worth growing and I would raise “starts,” as he called them, for both of us.
Because I’m partial  to the turnip varieties Purple Top White Globe and Oasis, I always got my own turnip seeds. The seeds are small and no matter how thinly they’re sown, they always come up crowding each other. So the only way to get nice, plump turnip roots is to thin out the plants when they are still young.
I like turnip greens but Mac liked them more. Every year, I’d collect the thinnings into a bushel basket, then hand them over to Mac who would sit outside his front door washing them, then cook and freeze them.

After he moved to an apartment, he started washing them here to bring home. As he aged, I started washing them while he watched. And finally, I started bringing him bags of washed, boiled, frozen turnip greens.

This year, I’ll just compost most of the greens. Bye, Mac.

Tomato Sowing, and More

Sowing tomatoes was the big moment in the garden last week. The sowing was actually indoors and it was on April 1st, which is 6 weeks before the “average date of the last killing frost,” or, to those in the know, ADLKF.
I’m finicky about what varieties to grow because good tomatoes just waste garden space, never getting eaten if great-tasting tomatoes, are also to be had. But look at tomato variety descriptions in seed catalogues and on seed packets, and you’d think that every tomato variety tastes great and is worth growing. 
I read those descriptors carefully to narrow the field. For starters, I avoid any tomato listed as “determinate.” Determinate varieties grow by branching repeatedly because each stem ends in a cluster of fruits. The plants are compact and ripen their fruits over a short season, which appeals to commercial growers. Downsides are that their lower leaf to fruit ratio results in poor flavor and concentrated ripening causes more stress and, hence, susceptibility to diseases.
So I grow only “indeterminate” varieties, whose clusters of fruits hang from along their ever elongating (indeterminate in length) stems. These are the varieties that can be pruned for staking.
Short of tasting a particular variety of tomato, the next descriptor that would guide me is whether or not it’s a “potato leaf” variety. Yes, their leaves look like those of potatoes (a close relative), that is, thicker and with smooth, rather than serrated edges. Still, a lot of great-tasting tomatoes are not potato-leaved.
Pink, heart-shaped tomatoes also have the edge on flavor. Same goes for tomatoes that don’t ripen to a

Two great tomatoes: Cherokee Purple & Amish Paste

uniform red color. Or tomatoes that don’t ripen to perfectly round orbs. I also happen to like dark colored — so-called “black” — varieties. You could almost say that the uglier the tomato (by commercial standards) the better the flavor. Which is not to say that every tomato variety bearing ugly fruits is great-tasting; but it’s a start.

A man (or woman, or child) can grow only so many tomatoes. This year I narrowed my lineup to 16 varieties, some old favorites and a few new ones, the new ones chosen on the basis of being indeterminate, perhaps potato-leaved, etc.
The old favorites are Belgian Giant, Anna Russian (good cooked and fresh), San Marzano (good cooked, bad fresh), Cherokee Purple, Blue Beech (good fresh and with unique, good flavor cooked), Amish Paste (good

Some of last year’s tomatoes

cooked and fresh), Rose de Berne, Valencia (orange fruit), and Nepal. Also two cherry tomatoes, Sungold and Gardener’s Delight. The latter was my favorite decades ago and I’m curious now how it compares with the incomparable Sungold.

New varieties for this year are Brandywine Black, Black Prince, Cherokee Chocolate, German Giant, and Black Krim.
Whew! That’s a lotta’ tomatoes.
Even with a greenhouse, indoor planting space is at a premium. Besides those 16 varieties of tomatoes, with plans for at least 4 plants of each variety, I have dozens of other vegetable seedlings — broccoli, lettuce, kale, Brussels sprouts, pepper, eggplant, and more — growing or in the works. And multiple varieties of each.
I’m managing all this by starting out sowing seeds in what look like miniature fields. These “fields” are 4 by 6 inch seed flats, filled with potting soil into which I press 4 furrows with my MFT (my “mini-furrowing tool”). MFT is a 4 by 6 piece of plywood with a handle on its upper side and four, spaced out, 1/4 inch diameter dowels glued to its underside. Into the furrows impressed by the dowels I sprinkle the seeds, cover the furrows, and then smooth the “field” with a similar plywood rectangle lacking the dowel underbelly. The seedlings, when they sprout, look like miniature fields of plants.
Once sprouts unfold their second sets of leaves, they’re ready to be “pricked out” and given their own home. That home could be a pot or a cell in a plastic tray of multiple cells. Sliding a small, blunt knife into the potting soil beneath a seedling lets me gingerly grab its leaves and lift it out with roots intact to be dropped

A lot of seedlings in a little space.

into a waiting hole I’ve dibbled with my cone shaped “dibbler.” As each seedling is in place I tuck potting soil in around its roots. Without delay, once a tray of seedlings has been pricked out, I spray a gentle but thorough mist of water to moisten the soil and settle the little sprouts into place without knocking them down.

Seeds and very young sprouts spend one or more weeks — four in the case of slow-germinating and growing celery — in the seed flats, and then another four weeks or so in their cells. That translates to 50 or more seedling in an area 4 by 6 inches for a couple of weeks and then about 20 older seedlings growing up in a space of about a square foot for the next four weeks.
All this not only squeezes oodles of seedlings into relatively small space; it also keeps me intimate with them in their youth. I’ll be planting tomato seedlings out in the garden one week after the ADLKF.
Fig scale


Lest anyone believe that everything is always rosy here on the farmden, it ain’t so. True, right now, vegetable beds are brimming over with crisp, tender heads of delicious lettuce, broccoli, endive, and cabbage, and upright stalks of aromatic celery and leek. And, yes, the floor of the greenhouse is verdant with developing, young lettuce, large, leafy kale and Swiss chard plants, and 10 foot tall fig trees bearing fruits
But let’s start with those figs, three different varieties of which live with their roots right in the ground in the greenhouse. Green Ischia has been bearing large, copper-colored, firm, sweet fruits for weeks and weeks. No problem here.
About 8 feet from the Green Ischia grows a Brown Turkey fig. It kicked off the season as usual, loaded with fruit that started ripening in early September. Then scale insects moved in, dotting stems and eventually the fruits with their gray bodies, and sucking the life out of everything until the harvest petered away to almost nothing
About 8 feet from the Brown Turkey tree grows another fig tree, Kadota, with fruits lined up along its stems also. From past experience, I expected problems with Kadota. It’s a delectable and heavy yielder that thrives in hot, dry climates. The greenhouse is hot but hardly dry. With the high humidity in there, almost every Kadota fig has turned to a fuzzy, white ball just before ripening.
The Kadota problem is the one most easily solved. That white fuzz is fungal, and the fungal culprit is probably Botrytis cinerea, a cosmopolitan fungus boasting a slew of host plants. Botrytis claims credit, for example, for a wet spring’s fuzzy, gray strawberries, for a wet summer’s fuzzy, gray raspberries, and, in a more benevolent form, for “noble rot” of grapes, which makes for a sought-after wine. All sorts of ominous chemicals can control botrytis. More benignly, on stored fruits at least, it has been controlled with a 1% solution of baking soda, or an atmosphere of either 15 ppm acetic acid (i.e. vinegar) or 75 ppm cinnamaldehyde, the natural flavoring of cinnamon
Trying to control disease on my Kadota figs with sprays would be an uphill battle considering the perfect conditions for botrytis: a very susceptible variety of fig, a very humid environment, and presence of the fungus. My approach is straightforward, and that is to dig up Kadota and plant a more disease-resistant variety in its place
On to Brown Turkey . . . Scale insects get up into plants and move around with the help of ants. Stopping the ants goes a long way to putting the brakes on scale. Stopping the ants is easy: Masking tape wrapped around the trunk and coated with a continuous ring of sticky Tanglefoot Tangle-Trap Insect Trap Coating. I also, of course, have to make sure there are no leafy, stemmy, or other bridges around which ants can detour. Next year
One other possibility for reining in scale insects is to spray “summer oil” in spring after the plants have leafed out and greenhouse beds are clear of lettuce, kale, and other vegetables. Summer oil is highly refined so as not to damage plants while it’s smothering the scale insects.
Another problem I notice in the greenhouse is that developing lettuce heads have some hole-y leaves and a few gobs of insect poop. Slugs are the usual, occasional problem in my greenhouse, but they don’t leave green, gobby, poopy calling cards. (No less unpleasant are the silvery trails they do leave, from their dried slime.) With more than usual grasshoppers this year, that was also a possibility. Nix on that. I just haven’t seen enough of them for all that poop, and they chew beginning at the edges of leaves. Attacked lettuce leaves were pocked with holes
The feeding resembles the handiwork of cabbageworms or cabbage loopers. They’ve never before indicated a liking for my lettuce but are known to include lettuce in their diet. Yet another possibility is another caterpillar, armyworm. This one feeds at night and, because I haven’t seen any caterpillars, is now the most likely culprit
The natural insecticide, Bt (sold under such trade names as Dipel and Thuricide), that I mentioned last week is very effective against the cabbageworms and loopers, as well as young armyworms. Larger armyworms are finished or just about finished feeding anyway.
These few problems notwithstanding, things are still rose-y, or at least carnation-y, in the greenhouse. The big, fat, fragrant ‘Enfant de Nice’ carnations that I grew this summer . . . well, I couldn’t just leave them out to die from cold. So I dug up some plants to grow in the greenhouse. They add a nice spot of red, white, or pink color, and the fragrance is, as billed, “intoxicating spicy-sweet clove.”