The Eternal (Fruit) Optimist

   We fruit growers get especially excited this time of year. On the one hand, there’s the anticipation of the upcoming season. And on the other hand, we don’t want to rush things along at all.
    Ideally, late winter segues into the middle of spring with gradually warming days and nights. Unfortunately, here, as in most of continental U.S., temperatures fluctuate wildly this time of year. Warm weather accelerates development of flower buds and flowers. While early blossoms are a welcome sight after winter’s achromatic landscapes, late frosts can snuff them out. Except for with everbearing strawberries, figs, and a couple of other fruits that bloom more than once each season, we fruit lovers get only one shot at a successful crop each season.Some berries of summer
    How did all these fruits ever survive in the wild? They did so by not growing here — in the wild. Apples, peaches, cherries — most of our familiar fruits — were never wild here, but come from climates with more equable temperatures, mostly eastern Europe and western Asia. We favor them because they are part of our mostly European heritage.
    The fruits that I never worry about here are the few that are native: pawpaw, persimmon, grape, mulberry, lingonberry, and blueberry, to name a few. (Also raspberry, gooseberry, and currants, cultivated varieties of which are hybrids of native and European species.) After decades of fruit growing, I’ve hardly missed a harvest, no matter what the weather, from any of these native fruits. (I cover native, non-native, common, and uncommon fruits in my books Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden and Grow Fruit Naturally.)
 Some fruits of fall   Still, I can’t deny the delicious flavor of apples, peaches, and other non-native fruits, especially those I grow myself. So I do grow them, do what I can for them, and hope for the best. I may even put a thin coat of white kaolin spray on these trees to reflect the sun’s warmth and further delay awakening of the buds.
    Last year was a very poor year for many tree fruits, and I’m not sure why. (Recovery from the previous years cicada attacks could be part of the reason.) Nonetheless, every year about this time I’m bursting with optimism for a bountiful fruit harvest.

Veggies, As Usual, Chugging Along Nicely

    I consider vegetables relatively easy to grow because most are annuals and because, with most of them, I can sow and harvest repeatedly throughout the growing season. Let cold or some pest snuff them out, and I can just replant.
    The first of my lettuces, sown early last month in little seed trays, are up and growing strongly, each seedling transplanted into its own APS cell (available from Ninety-six seedlings take up little more than a couple of square feet and, with capillary watering from a reservoir beneath the APS trays, I need check the water only about every week.Seedlings in APS trays
    My next wave of indoor seed-sowing will take place in the middle of this month. That’s when I’ll sprinkle pepper, eggplant, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage seeds into the miniature furrows of miniature fields of my seed flats.
    I’ll also sow another batch of lettuce seeds indoors, this batch for eventual transplanting outdoors. The first batch is soon to be transplanted into greenhouse beds.

Fig Prophylaxis

    Buds on fig trees planted in the ground in the greenhouse are showing hints of green and swelling ever so slightly in spite of the cool night temperatures in there. The scale insects that I battled last year  are undoubtedly also coming to life on those plants. In the past, I’ve kept these insects at bay by scrubbing the bark in winter with soapy water or by spraying it with insecticidal soap, or, during the growing season, wrapping the trunk with a sticky Tanglefoot barrier to stop travel of ants that herd the insects.
    I’ve never gotten rid of scale insects, only kept them from gaining the upper hand. And some years it’s been a neck and neck race as to who would win out before the end of the season.
  Spraying oil on dormant fig tree  I’ve already begun this season with prophylactic sprays of oil. Oil has a long history of controlling insects and some diseases, with the advantage of causing little collateral damage to the environment, including beneficial insects. Because it’s main effect is to clog insect breathing ports (spiracles), there’s little danger of insects developing resistance.
    Oil’s major hazard is its potential to injure plants, mitigated by spraying when temperatures aren’t too hot or below freezing, or when rain is likely, all easily avoided in a greenhouse. Various kinds and formulations of oil — kinds include vegetable, mineral, and neem oils — differ in their hazard to plants. I’m using a high-purity mineral oil (Sunspray) from which I expect no damage, especially since the plants are still leafless.
    Scale insect eggs should be hatching about now. Brutal as it may sound, I hope to suffocate the crawlers before they settle down to one spot to cover themselves with their protective armor and literally suck the life from the plants. Weekly sprays should cover successive hatches.

New Video

Check out my new video on “pricking out” seedlings!

Free Book!

Book giveaway! Write a comment here telling us which is the most difficult fruit you grow, and why, and why you grow it, and you’ll be entered in a drawing to get a free copy of my most recent book Grow Fruit Naturally. Comments must be submitted no later than noon, March 23rd.Grow Fruit Naturally, front cover of book

Upcoming Lectures

Check out the “Lectures” page of my website for some lectures I’ll be giving in the next few weeks.

Book Giveaway, and Trees Large and Small

A book giveaway, a copy of my book GROW FRUIT NATURALLY. Reply to this post with what fruits are most and least successful in your garden or farmden. Also tell us what state you are in (as in NY, OH, CA, etc., not happiness, wistfulness, etc.). I’ll choose a winner randomly from all replies received by March 23rd.
A coming bout of colder weather notwithstanding, my weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) knows and shows that spring is around the corner. Buds along and at the tips of stems are stretching and showing some green of new leaves beneath their folds. I’m called to action.
The reason for this call is that my weeping fig, although it could soar to 75 feet outdoors in tropical climates, is in a small pot being trained as a bonsai. Now that the plant is just about ready to grow is the time to cut it back so that new growth remains proportional to the size of the pot, the roots, and the dictates of design.
At three and a half years old, my tree is only 6 inches high — and I want to keep it that small. Its pot, after all is only 4 inches long by 3 inches wide, and an inch deep.
Before I even get to the stems, I cut off all the leaves. True, this is not good for a plant, but my plant is healthy so can tolerate the stress. I go through the trouble of snipping off each leaf because that dwarfs, to some degree, new leaves that are about to emerge, keeping them more in proportion to the size of the plant.

Whoops, I just checked a book (The Pruning Book by Lee Reich) which states that the leaf pruning is best done after new leaves fully emerge. Oh well, I’ll leaf prune again as soon as the next flush of growth finishes. (Tropical plants, in contrast to plants of cold climates, typically have multiple growth flushes each year.)
With leaves pruned off, time to move on to the roots. Since the plant was last re-potted, a year ago, roots have thoroughly filled the soil in the small pot. There’s little or no room for new root growth, and new roots are the ones that drink in water and what few nutrients are left in the old soil.

The only way to make room for new soil and root growth is to get rid of some old soil and roots. I tease out old soil from among the roots and then prune away about a third of the old roots. With that done, I pack new soil into the pot, just enough to put the plant, with its surface mat of moss still in tow, sitting at the same level as before the root pruning.
The stems need little pruning. I snip off a crossing stem here, one reaching too far over the edge of the pot there, and another that threatens to extend too far skyward. Although stems made little growth over the past year, they, and especially the trunk, did thicken, helping to give the little tree an appearance venerable beyond its years.
I haven’t looked, but my guess is that my fruit trees are also beginning to feel the effects of impending spring. Bouts of warm weather are the driving force in this case. One week we have highs in the ‘teens or twenties, another week highs are in the 40s or 50s. Back and forth through winter.
Plants went into winter well able to resist enticements of warm weather. That’s because until they’ve experienced a certain number of hours at chilly, not frigid, temperatures, they remain dormant and unwilling to grow. Once reaching about 1,000 hours total accumulated exposure to temperatures between 30 and 45°F., they begin to de-harden, that is, become less resistant to cold and more ready to grow.
Plants vary in the number of hours they need to fill their “chilling” bank, some needing a couple of hundred hours, others needing over 1,000 hours. The gut reaction would be to surmise that plants from colder climates would naturally require more chilling hours before they would begin to grow. That’s generally

true, but it ain’t necessarily so. In some very cold regions, spring comes on quickly without looking back, and the growing season is short. Fruit plants adapted to such regions must be ready to grow at the first breath of spring if they’re going to have time to ripen their fruits within the growing season. Just a little chilling at the beginning and/or end of the season is all they need.

With most fruit trees, flowers are the first evidence of awakened growth. But if they open too early, subsequent cold turns their colorful petals to brown mush. Dead flowers also cannot go on to become fruits.
I admit to being somewhat foolish for planting an apricot tree, a tree native to Manchuria, a region that experiences those cold winters and quick, steadily warming springs. The climate here in the Hudson Valley (and over most of continental U.S.), and especially at my less than perfect site for fruit-growing, has a good chance of fooling apricot trees into acting as if cold weather is past long before it actually is. My foolishness won’t be in evidence this year, though, because the tree is still too young to flower.

A Moon Landing?

Anyone visiting my garden a few days ago might have thought they happened upon a moon landing or extraplanetary explorer. A two-legged creature was wandering around in bright blue pants and a bright blue, hooded jacket (actually, rain gear) with goggles and a respirator and 4 gallon tank strapped to its back. Periodically, an engine whine was accompanied by a cloud of mist (a jetpack)?
The creature was me and I was doing what was necessary to put myself on the road to a harvest of delicious apples (especially the variety Hudson’s Golden Gem) and plums (especially the variety Imperial Épineuse). I was dolled up for what looked like a moon landing because I was spraying pesticides on my

trees. In this part of the world, sad to say, that’s generally what’s necessary to get a decent — sometimes any — crop of apples or plums.

Some years I grow these fruits organically; some years I grow them, as some commercial growers say, ecologically or biologically. My organic approach is to spray a special formulation of kaolin clay, called ‘Surround’, and sulfur, a naturally occurring mineral. ‘Surround’ keeps insects at bay; sulfur does the same for some diseases. To be effective, ‘Surround’ must be maintained as a dust-like, white coating on the trees. This laid-back Mediterranean look to the trees necessitates a not very laid-back 3 sprays, before bloom, to build up a base layer, and followup sprays every week or following as little as 1/4 inch of rainfall. Even then, in my experience, control is marginal.
My ecological/biological approach is to spray the horrible sounding material, Imidan, with, again, sulfur. Imidan is a chemical pesticide, but one that has a relatively low toxicity both to humans and to beneficial insects. A perfect year would require only 2 to 3 sprays, the first right after petals drop and the others before mid-June. Re-spraying is usually not needed until after an inch of rainfall. Between rainfall washing off spray, sunlight degrading it, and dilution due to fruit growth,

‘Surround’ on apples

fruits are essentially squeaky clean by harvest time. (After the end of June, approaches other than sprays thwart remaining major pests.)

Back to my moon suit . . . The suit is necessary no matter what I spray. Getting doused with, or breathing, even something as benign as kaolin clay is not good.
And the jetpack? That’s my backpack sprayer. Spraying anything is no fun. Fortunately, except for the apples and the plums, spraying is almost never needed here on the farmden. Also fortunately, my sprayer makes easy work of the job. It’s a Stihl, gasoline-powered backpack sprayer that always starts right up, gives good coverage, and lets me, in less than a half an hour, mix the spray, apply it to about 2 dozen trees, and thoroughly clean it.
Spraying pesticides, organic or otherwise, is not the only approach to keeping plants healthy. Any insect or disease problem can gain a toehold only when there’s a plant susceptible to the problem, an organism that can cause the problem, and a suitable environment in which the problem can develop. So, I beef up my plants’ defenses by paying special attention to the soil, making sure drainage is perfect, and by applying

Good soil, organic matter added from the top down

mulches of compost, wood chips, hay, and other organic materials. The mulches feed the plants as well as worms, fungi, and other “good guys” in the soil. Above ground, pruning lets branches bathe in sunlight and air, both of which make for better fruit and conditions less conducive to insect and disease problems. If my plants are thirsty, they get water.

What I do not do to make my plants healthy is apply compost tea, biochar, or any other potions, or, along the same lines, click my heels together three times and repeat, “There’ll be no pest problems.”
For apples and plums in this part of the world, all three requirements for pest problems — pest presence, susceptible host plant, and environment suitable for the problem to develop — are generally fulfilled. Hence, the necessity of sprays. Still, using a minimum of carefully selected sprays and needing to “ship” my fruit no more than 200 feet from the trees to my mouth (or kitchen) makes for a minimum affront to the environment.
People too often equate “fruit growing” with growing apples. That should not be the case because there are plenty of other fruits, and plenty of them can be grown with hardly a thought to pest control. Pears, for instance. I have about 20 pear trees; none require spraying. The same could be said for blueberries, raspberries, persimmons, cornelian cherries, blackberries, pawpaws, hardy kiwifruits, gooseberries, currants . . . I could go on. In some cases, such as grapes, choosing a disease-resistant variety is the way to avoid having to spray.
As I emphasize in my recent book, Grow Fruit Naturally, choosing plants adapted to your site is a very important part of growing fruit naturally, as is providing optimum growing conditions. 


Every time I go near my apple and plum trees, I feel like my Nanking cherry, mulberry, pawpaw, and persimmon plants are laughing and flaunting their fruits at me. Nanking cherry and company are just a few of the fruits that I grow that require virtually no care.
Apples, on the other hand: If you wanted to come up with the most difficult fruit to grow east of the Rocky Mountains, it would be apple. Or plum, or apricot, peach, nectarine, or sweet cherry. The plants actually grow fine; getting fruit is another story. Organically grown fruit, that is.
Apple fruit, already damaged by plum curculio
The reason these common tree fruits are so difficult to grow around here is because of insect and disease problems (and, in the case of apricot, peach, and nectarine, winter cold and late spring frosts). For an insect or disease to cause a problem, three conditions need fulfillment: The presence of the insect or disease, a susceptible host plant, and an environment congenial to the insect or disease. I mulch my apples and plums with wood chips, prune away diseased stems, grow nectar-producing flowers to attract beneficial insects, spray organic concoctions such as kaolin clay, let chickens run loose beneath the plants, blah, blah, blah; and for all that effort, still often reap little or nothing. 
Problem is that the northeast is home to some serious insect and disease problems of apples and company and the environment is much to these pests’ liking, as are the plants. Resistant varieties might be resistant to diseases but not insects or to one disease but not another. No variety is resistant to all the insect and disease pests lurking in forest and field.
Nanking cherries, no need to spray or even prune!
Still, most people, when they consider growing fruit, think first of apples, and then plums, peaches, and other tree fruits familiar on supermarket shelves. In fact, though, there are a slew of other fruits, many of them, like Nanking cherry and company, very easy to grow. As I point out in my new book, GROW FRUIT NATURALLY (Taunton Press, 2011), the first step in growing fruits naturally/organically/holistically is to select those that are naturally well-adapted to the local climate and insect and disease pressures.
This all-important planning step does not preclude growing many common fruits. Pears, for example, both European and Asian varieties, are relatively easy to grow around here. The trees do need pruning but usually can be grown without the need for any sprays, organic or otherwise. With thousands of varieties, pears alone could round out your larder. I grow about 20 varieties.
Berries are also relatively easy to grow. Pruning is important both for good production and to help keep diseases and insects in check. My berry plantings include raspberries, blackberries, black raspberries, gooseberries (more than a dozen varieties!), red currants, black currants, clove currants, elderberries gumis, seaberries, lingonberries, lowbush blueberries, and, my favorite, highbush blueberries. Pest control? I spray insecticidal soap on my gooseberries once, just as the leaves unfold to kill any imported currantworms that may be starting their leafy feast. I mulch my blueberries late each fall to bury any infected berries that could spread mummy berry disease the following spring. And that’s about it for pest control on all my berries.
Still not enough fruit? Well, there are the mulberries. Not run-of-the-mill mulberries, such as grow wild all over the place. But named varieties — Illinois Everbearing, Oscar, and Geraldi Dwarf — selected for their high quality fruits. And cornelian cherries, an excellent stand-in for tart cherries, except much, much easier to grow. They bloom around the first day of spring yet never fail to set a good crop of fruit. The same can be said for Nanking cherries, a hedge of which lines my driveway and is now yielding many more sweet-tart cherries than I, birds, squirrels, and chipmunks could possibly eat. Total effort involved for all these fruits? None.
And the list goes on: pawpaws, persimmons, hardy kiwifruits, juneberries, grapes . . . so many fruits, so little space. The grapes get bagged to keep insects, diseases, and birds and bay.
(Actually, in my microenvironment, juneberries do not bear well because of various insect and disease problems. The solution? I don’t grow them. But as I wrote, that still leaves plenty of fruits that can be grown easily and without any significant pest problems.)
So why do I grow apples and plums? I grow them because I frequently write about fruit growing. I grow them to supplement my “book learning” with what I observe “in the field” (in other people’s “fields” also). I grow them because when I apply all the right sprays at just the right time and the weather cooperates and insect and disease pressures aren’t too, too bad and all the stars align just right, I harvest some very tasty apples.
My pawpaws and hardy kiwifruits
Would I suggest others to plant apples, plums, or possibly peaches, apricots, nectarines, or sweet cherries? Probably not, unless said person was interested in learning a lot about fruit pests, spending a lot of time and no small amount of money dealing with them, and then was willing to accept the fact, as Charles Dudley Warner wrote, tongue-in-cheek and over a hundred years ago in MY SUMMER IN THE GARDEN, that “the principle value of the garden . . . is to teach . . . patience and philosophy, and the higher virtue – hope deferred, and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation, and sometimes to alienation. The garden thus becomes a moral agent, a test of character, as it was in the beginning.” All well and good if that’s what you want from planting fruit.

A new book: Grow Fruit Naturally, pear excerpt

Now is a good time to plan and plant for some home-grown fruits — pears, for example. Here’s an excerpt from the pear section of my NEW book, Grow Fruit Naturally (Taunton Press, 2012, signed copies available from my website, listed at right):
My ‘Yoinashi’ Asian pear, now in bloom
Pears come in two “flavors:” European and Asian. European pears, which are most familiar in American markets, are typically buttery, sweet, and richly aromatic — and pear-shaped. Asian pears are typically round with crisp flesh that, when you take a bite, explode in your mouth with juice. Their flavors are sweet with a delicate, floral aroma and sometimes a hint of walnut or butterscotch. Both kinds of pears have been cultivated for thousands of years, and within each type exists thousands of varieties.
Pears of either “flavor” are easy to grow. But growing and ripening a European pear to its highest state of perfection is an art. The best one I ever tasted was at a horticultural conference at the venerable East Malling Research Station in England. At the conclusion of the conference we were led into an elegant, large, wood-paneled room, up the center of which ran a hulking, oak banquet table on which sat nothing more than a few bowls of perfectly ripened ‘Comice’ pears, ours for the tasting. I reached for a pear, took a bite, and quickly had to make my way to the conveniently opened French doors at the far end of the room to keep the ambrosial juice dripping with each bite from marring the staid surroundings.
Cultivation of European and Asian pears is essentially the same, with just a few subtle differences. Both need full sun and soil that is at least reasonably well-drained. Pears can tolerate wetter soils than many other tree fruits. Among my favorite varieties are ‘Magness’ and ‘Seckel’ European pears, and ‘Yoinashi’ and ‘Chojuro’ Asian pears.
A pear spur
Once a tree reaches bearing age, prune lightly every year. Completely remove some  of the overly vigorous stems, which mostly originate higher in the tree, and merely shorten weak twigs, which mostly arise lower in the tree. Fruits are borne on spurs, which are short stems elongating only a half-inch each year. Periodically, shorten old branches more aggressively to stimulate growth of new shoots and spurs. Asian pears need more aggressive pruning than European pears, although European pears, especially, are prone to growing many overly vigorous, vertical growing shoots, which shade the plant, are not fruitful, and are more prone to disease. Cut them back when pruning or, even better, grab them in your hand and rip them off with a quick downward jerk while they are still green and growing during summer.
Each flower bud on a pear tree opens to a cluster of flowers, so pear trees, left to their own devices, usually will overbear. Thin fruits to about 5 in. apart. Thinning Asian pears is very important, spelling the difference between a harvest of ho-hum pears and ones that elicit a “wow!”
In most yards, pears can be grown successfully without any attention to pest control. Occasionally, a few pests warrant attention and action.
The main bugaboo in pear growing is the bacterial disease fire blight, readily identified by stems whose ends curl in shepherd’s crooks with seemingly singed, blackened leaves still attached. Diligent pruning out of blighted stems, cutting a few inches below damage, keeps the disease in check. Fire blight has never appeared on any of my more than a dozen trees.
Now for the reward: harvest. Asian pears are precocious, sometimes fruiting in their third season, while European pears are slower to come into bearing. 
First, the easy harvest. Asian pears. Harvest them when they are fully colored and detach easily when you roll them upward with a twist. Taste is the final test: If flavor is not up to snuff, let the fruits hang longer.
European pears must be harvested underripe. Left to fully ripen on the tree, the flesh is brown mush. The fruit must, however, be mature before it is picked and the first clue to fruit maturity is a subtle lightening of the skin’s background color. Look more closely, at the lenticels, or raised pores on the skin; they will become brown and corky at harvest time. Lift and twist the fruit. If the stalk separates easily from the stem, the fruits are ready for harvest.
‘Magness’ pear – mmmm, one of the best!
You’re not yet in pear heaven. European pears need to be kept cool for awhile — a few days for early ripening varieties, a few weeks for late ripening varieties — before they can begin ripening. Keep them cool longer if you intend to store them.
Take some pears out of cold storage a few days before you want them for eating and put them in a cool room. They are ready to enjoy when they give slightly with pressure from your finger near the stem end. If you’ve mastered the art of pear growing, harvesting, and ripening, your reward is fruits that are neither “sleepy” nor the other extreme, “grassy,” but juicy and sweet with characteristic aromas that might include varying proportions of almond, rose, honey, and musk. Still, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat.” But what sensuous ten minutes!
Perry is fermented pear juice, an old-fashioned beverage whose origin lies in France but reached its heyday in 16th and 17th century England. The juice was not your mother’s – or grandmother’s – pear juice. Pears for perry, a different species from European or Asian pears, are mostly too astringent for fresh eating. They’re also very long-lived: an avenue of perry pears planted in England in 1710 were reportedly still alive and fruitful in the mid-20th century. 
Perry is made like hard cider, except that perry pears need to sit for a few days after harvest for their flavors to develop. And again, after crushing, the pomace needs to sit for about a day to reduce the tannins. The end product is quite different from cider because perry pears have more fermentable and nonfermentable sugars, more citric acid, and different kinds of tannins. And because, of course, the raw material is pears.
Traditionally, perry has been a very variable product, reflecting what varieties of perry pears went into the mix, how the mix was fermented, how the fruits were grown, and the vagaries of a particular season. The drink was very much a home- or farm-made beverage, varying as much in alcohol concentration as in flavor. After experiencing a lapse in interest and various attempts to industrialize the product in the 20th century, perry is undergoing a renaissance.
Part of that renaissance lies in the re-discovery of some of the traditional perry pear varieties. ‘Arlingham Squash’, ‘Green Horse’, ‘Moorcroft’, ‘Rock’, and ‘Taynton Squash’ are among the varieties that have contributed to vintage quality perries for over three centuries. One problem with these old varieties is that their nomenclature is as muddled as the finished product can be in some years. Hundred of names exist for a much less number of varieties. Which isn’t all bad, because some of those names are worth having just because: ‘Mumblehead’, ‘Merrylegs’, ‘Devildrink’, ‘Lumberskull’, and, the longest one on record, ‘A drop of that which hangs over the wall’.
Two gardening workshops in the offing:
On April 22nd, I’ll be hold ing a pruning workshop, covering the why, when, with what, and how of pruning.
On April 28th, I’ll be holding a grafting workshop, covering the how, why, and when of grafting. In addition to a hands-on demonstration, participants will graft and take home their own pear tree.
Both workshops will be held at my “farmden,” run from 2-5:50 pm, and cost $55. Pre-registration is necessary. For information or registration, contact me at garden@leereich dot com.


  Hot off the press!!! My new book, Grow Fruit Naturally: A Hands-On Guide to Luscious, Homegrown Fruit (The Taunton Press). The book for anyone who wants to pick luscious fruit right from their own sunny balcony, suburban lot, or farmden. Sure, growing your own fruit will save money but — even better — your home-grown apples, blueberries, peaches, or oranges will be the best you’ve ever tasted and won’t be doused with toxic sprays. Available (signed copies) at
Gardening’s newest wunderkind is biochar, touted as being able to preserve soil fertility almost indefinitely while, at the same time, making a dent in carbon dioxide production that leads to global warming. Biochar’s origins go deep into the Amazon, where soils are naturally low in fertility. There, explorers recently discovered regions of dark, fertile soil that were deliberately created through the addition of charred wood. Such soils are also found where vegetation was naturally or deliberately burned over.
Let’s go back to high school chemistry for some understanding of biochar. Biochar is, essentially, charcoal that is made by partial burning of wood, straw, corn stalks, or other organic materials. Charcoal, especially the activated charcoal used in chemistry, is riddled with tiny holes that can adsorb nutrients. (A single gram of activated charcoal has enough internal surface area to cover a tenth of a football field!) In the soil, biochar, similar to activated charcoal, can adsorb nutrients, provide habitat for soil microbes, and increase aeration.
Biochar is very resistant to decomposition, which leads to its other touted benefit, carbon sequestration. It locks up organic carbon, formed when plants take in carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, so that it’s not re-released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when dead plants decompose. 
Let’s say you had a pile of wood that you could grind up and make into compost, or that you could burn to make biochar. Which use is better? In soil, both compost and biochar would cling to nutrients. Compost would enrich the soil with nitrogen and, very important, provide food for beneficial soil microbes which would, in turn, feed plants. Microbial byproducts also help give soils that crumbly structure loved by plants and sought after by good gardeners. Many of the benefits of compost accrue as it decomposes, which is why it needs constant replenishment. Biochar has the leg up on longevity, some kinds lasting hundreds of years.
Compost offers little in the way of carbon sequestration, with the bulk of its carbon eventually turning to carbon dioxide that puffs up into the atmosphere. But, to repeat, many benefits of compost accrue precisely because it does decompose and eventually turn to mostly carbon dioxide and water. Decomposition of wood, straw, or any other organic material reflects microbial feeding. (What we eat also eventually turns mostly to carbon dioxide and water.)
So which is the better use of organic wastes? Compost is definitely good for the soil. Ongoing research will tell whether also using a bit of biochar is also worth the trouble. For more about biochar, see
Turning to more immediate concerns . . . My hopes to be eventually and happily drowning in fragrant lilies were dashed by the blue flowers recently brightening the sunny window “greenhouse” in my basement. 
For explanation, let’s backtrack to last autumn. Summer’s lily flowers — intoxicatingly fragrant, large white trumpets of the variety Casablanca — were long gone but the plants’ tawny flower stalks and seed capsules were still evident. Wouldn’t it be awesome, methinks to myself, to make every August a heady month by overrunning part of the garden with Casablanca? 
Digging into the dirt around those tawny, old lily flowerstalks easily turned up a slew of healthy little bulbs, which I potted into cell packs and put near that cool, basement window. Leaves appeared a few weeks ago, foreshadowing oodles of lily flowers a couple of years hence. 
It was not to be: Those small bulbs at the base of the lily stalks were NOT lily bulbs; they were chionodoxa (glory-of-the-snow) bulbs.
Not that chionodoxa isn’t a pleasant little flower, and it appears at a time of year when any flower is most welcome. But it ain’t no lily.
I should also explain about that sunny window “greenhouse” mentioned above. Like many older homes, mine used to have a metal Bilco door that opened into the barely heated basement. Much of the heat in the basement was lost due to the conductivity of and small openings in the Bilco door. Those openings also provided entryway for an occasional snake or other small or thin creature.
Many years ago I decided to make use of the southern exposure of that Bilco door. So I ripped out the door, enlarged the opening with additional concrete blocks and a (semi-)waterproof coating of ThoroSeal. I then built a cedar frame into which I slid two large sheets of Exolite, a double-walled polycarbonate plastic material used for greenhouses.
Voila! I had a place to keep plants cold, but not frigid, and sunny. Temperatures in that old doorway hover near freezing on cold winter days and nights. The location has proved ideal for overwintering geraniums, semi-hardy cyclamens, subtropical pineapple guavas and an olive tree, and various other plants that need light and need or tolerate cool winter temperatures. Chionodoxa also does very well there.