Training Sessions

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

Round Three, of Pruning Grape & Kiwi

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

Grapes, In the Bags

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

Hardy Kiwi, J’Accuse!

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

Plant Sale Saturday

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

A Jump on Spring

I got a jump on spring yesterday and started pruning hardy kiwifruit vines. The fruit is a kissing cousin of fuzzy, market kiwis, except, with smooth skins and small size, they can be popped whole in your mouth like grapes. Hardy kiwis are also cold-hardy, which their cousins are not.
The vines need yearly pruning to let light and air in among the stems for productivity and plant health, to keep fruiting stems within easy reach, and to stimulate new stem growth each year off which grow fruiting shoots the following year.
My plants are trained on 5 wires strung between T-trellises, one wire down the middle of the trellis flanked by 2 wires on either side of that central wire. Each plant’s trunk rises up to the middle wire and then divides into two cordons, or permanent arms, that run in opposite directions along the middle wire. Fruiting arms, which are 1-year-old stems, grow off perpendicularly to the cordon to drape down over the outside wires.
As I approached the vines with shears, lopper, and small saw in hand, the vines looked back at me like an intimidating, tangled mess. Three steps in pruning brought everything in order. I first cut back all fruiting arms to within a foot or so of the outside wire and shortened each cordon back to where it began growth last year. Arms bear fruiting shoots near their bases so don’t need the whole of their lanky stems. As to the cordons, if they were allowed to grow longer and longer, one plant would tangle into the next plant down the row.
Next, the hardest part: I reached into the remaining tangle to cut back fruiting arms that have, over the years, begun to originate further and further off the cordons. These got shortened so that new shoots, for fruit 2 years hence, would originate closer in to the cordons. Left to their own devices, as they are in the wild on the edges of Asian forests, the vines would be climbing 100 ft. high on anything on which they could grab hold.
Finally, I thinned out most of the remaining fruiting arms so that they are about a foot apart. I’ll do a final pruning in spring, thinning more where needed and shortening all fruiting arms to their final length of about 18 inches long.
I’m left now with a pile of prunings. Their intertwining stems make nice decoration. I could also save some for my cat. Kiwi stems have a pleasing effect on the cats, similar to catnip. In Asian zoos, they have been used to calm “large cats.”
What joy a mere sprout can foreshadow! Late last summer a gardening friend gave me some sprouts from her Maid of Orléans jasmine (Jasminum sambac). By the end of summer, a few of the cuttings had rooted and even flowered.  The plant or its flower wouldn’t win (or lose) any beauty contests, but is well worth growing for its unabashed fragrance. The aroma is sweet and rich and not at all cloying, even after the flowers fade.
What’s more, this jasmine flowers freely. As a matter of fact, it just finished its second round of flowering. Contrast this behavior with my two plants of common jasmine (Jasminium officinale). These latter plants occasionally cough forth a few flowers in late winter but nothing like the profusion of white blossoms they once did. I’ve tried everything, from starting new plants from cuttings to pinching shoots all summer until August to keeping them cool in until late winter to keeping them dryish until late winter to keeping them cool and dryish until late winter to keeping them in the greenhouse to . . .  you get the picture.
The only dark cloud hovering over my Maid of Orleans was the potting mix. Something seemed not quite right with it, having me worried that the plant might not grow or, worse, expire (as did the plant from the gardening friend from whom I got the cuttings). Not that this is a time of year to expect growth from any plant.
But now, that cloud has moved on. The new sprout looks happy and healthy and foretells of a fragrant future.
I mixed up a new batch of potting soil, which I’ll need anyway in a couple of months for indoor sowing of the first seeds of next season. Into a 5 gallon bucket went finished compost and soil, equal parts, sifted. Into another 5 gallon bucket went peat moss and perlite, equal parts, sifted. I tipped the contents of both buckets together into the garden cart, sprinkled on 1 cup of soybean meal and a handful of kelp, and repeatedly slid a flat-bladed shovel under the pile and turned it over and over. Once everything was thoroughly mixed, I shook and forced it again through the 1/2-inch sieve and packed it away into buckets.
This potting mix will be home to the roots of seedlings and houseplants, as well as large, potted fig trees, roses, and pomegranates. Also, to Maid of Orleans, as soon as she outgrows her present quarters.


Now is generally not a good time for pruning outdoor plants. Too bad. With the lawn nicely trimmed and vegetable and flower beds tidied up, it’s all the more difficult to resist the urge to lop back at least some misplaced or congested stems on trees, shrubs, and vines.
Redosier dogwood, neglected
I can’t resist. I figure little or no harm should come as long as I choose carefully what to cut. One reason not to prune now is that any wounding — and pruning does wound — stimulates a certain amount of cellular activity near the cut at a time when plants should be hunkering down for winter. Resulting cold injury can be minimized or nonexistent if pruning is restricted to the most cold-hardy plants. Also, gaping wounds won’t heal until spring so are open to pests. Here I rationalize that problems will be, again, minimal or nonexistent if only naturally tough plants are pruned now.
I’ve been eyeing an ungainly redosier dogwood since leaves have dropped. Redosiers are super-hardy, shrubby plants that liven up the winter scene with their bright red or yellow stems. The time to prune these plants is in early spring, after enjoying the plant’s colorful stems all winter.
The problem is that my redosier dogwood has been neglected for years. Only the one-year old stems are colorful and, with years of neglect, few are evident amongst the older wood. The right way to prune this plant is to lop the whole shebang to the ground every year or two in spring. Doing so coaxes a slew of vigorous, new sprouts near or just below ground level. Come autumn, these sprouts are officially one-year old (that is, they’ve completed a whole season of growth) and need only crisp weather to bring out their brightest color.
I’m lopping my whole plant to the ground this week (in addition to the boxelder and other weedy plants that have sprouted up among it). The plant is very hardy, has nothing to show for winter, and pruning now leaves one less thing to do in spring.
Black & red currants, pruned
Likewise very cold-hardy and likewise soon to feel the steel of my pruning shears are my currant and gooseberry plants. Gooseberries and red currants bear fruit on one-, two-, and three-year-old stems so I’ll be cutting down any stems older than three-years-old and thinning out the youngest stems so that they don’t crowd as they age. Black currants fruit best on one-year-old stems so I’ll cut down any stems that bore fruit this past summer and thin out young stems if they crowd too much. All these plants start growth very early in spring, which is one more reason to prune them now.
Redosier dogwood, pruned & very red
Stems don’t speak to me or bear age labels, so how do I know which ones are one- or two-years-old, or older? I look at them. With some plants, it’s very easy to tell. As I wrote, only the very youngest redosier dogwood stems turn red or yellow, with the help of cold weather. Kerria, also known as Japanese rose, blooms best on one-year-old wood, which broadcasts its age with its bright, green color; older stems are brown.
Other plants’ stems offer hints of their age even if they don’t colorfully broadcast it. Oldest stems generally are those that are the thickest. Stems also show their age in bark that starts to peel or gets bumpy or warty; that is, it looks old.
I’m not yet finished cutting. Lanky stems lash out and grab me as I pass across my terrace beneath the grape arbor, or walk down the field near the trellised kiwi vines. I’d like to prune them now, and I will, to some degree at least.
Kiwi expert Dave Jackson, who grows some of the best hardy kiwifruits I’ve ever tasted (, has 20 acres of the plants. He tells me that he prunes in autumn with no ill effect, so I’m tempted to do so also. Kiwis require more pruning that most plants and one reason he prunes in autumn could be because he wouldn’t have time to prune everything if he waited until spring.
Temperatures and airflow here at my farmden are not nearly as congenial for the plants as at Dave’s farm, which makes me wary of pruning my vines now. So I’ll prune a couple of my kiwi vines now and see how they fare. The rest will get pruned in spring. 

But I’m going to shorten lanky stems on all the kiwi plants, as well as those on my grapes. Plants pack away food for winter in stems, so cutting stems does remove some winter stores; still, many stems, trunks, and roots will be left intact. Right near pruning cuts is where plants are most susceptible to damage. Shortening stems partially, rather than to their full length, avoids  problems near the cuts. Final cuts can wait until spring.
Some plants needn’t feel even slightly threatened by my pruning shears — now, at least. Pruning butterfly bush in autumn, in my experience and that of many other gardeners, results in increased winter cold injury. Come spring, though, all their stems get lopped to the ground. I also won’t touch spring bloomers, such as lilac, forsythia, and mockorange bushes. Pruning would remove stems slated to bloom this spring. The time to prune these plants is right after they finish their flowery shows.
Want more on pruning? See my book, The Pruning Book (Taunton Press, 2010).