Rose Fan: No, Yes?

   I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not a big fan of roses. But I can’t help myself. The garden is awash in golden yellow, crimson red, soft pink, apricot pink, and plain old pink blossoms. Almost all of this is thanks to David Austin, breeder of roses.
    My father was a big fan of roses, so I was exposed to them at an early age. Pre-dating Mr. Austin’s creations, my father’s roses were the ever popular — except with me — hybrid tea roses which everyone — except me — liked and likes for their pointy, formal blossoms, their bold colors, and their repeat bloom. Nobody mentions their gawky stature, general lack of strong or interesting fragrance, and attraction to pests.

L. D. Braithewaite rose, cold-hardy and just keeps blooming

L. D. Braithewaite rose, cold-hardy and just keeps blooming

    David Austin roses won me over with their softer colors, fuller blossoms borne on more full-bodied bushes, delicious fragrance, disease resistance, and repeat bloom. Not all have all of these qualities, of course.
    L. D. Braithewaite has been the most florific of my David Austin roses, even weathering two very cold winters unscathed. The crimson, red petals made their first appearance a few weeks ago, and are still going strong. They’re not my favorite color, though. Least successful of my roses has been Bibi Mazoon,  which is my favorite of the David Austin roses, in its blossoms, at least. Cup-shaped and apricot pink, the blossoms are admittedly few and far between, and can hardly be held up by the weak stalks. The rich yellow color of Golden Celebration is another of my favorites; this variety blooms fairly well and also pulled through winter unscathed.
    I grow a few pink David Austin roses, including Charlotte, Brother Cadfael, Sharifa Asma, and they’re all looking pretty and growing well.
    Of all the roses I grow, my favorite is . . .  well, I’m not one hundred percent sure of its name. It started life here many years ago as a cutting of Rose de Rescht, given to me by local herbalist Anne Solomon. Except that, reading descriptions of Rose de Rescht, I came to realize that mine wasn’t it. Whatever the name (after all, “a rose is a rose is a rose . . .”), the attractive crumpled, crêpe-paper blossoms fill the air with a delectable, heady fragrance, more than that of any of the roses I grow. The bush, robust, armed with prickles and clothed in leaves having having a bluish cast, has never been fazed by pests or cold.
    With the help of some rosarians (especially those at, Rose de Rescht was assigned its probable proper name: Ispahan. The alluring name, the blossoms, and the toughness of the plant more than offset the plant’s one deficiency, that of blossoming only in spring.

Hoe, Hoe, Hoe, But It’s Not Xmas

    I can’t just stop and smell the roses all day long; there’s work to be done. Time to grab a hoe and hoe, hoe, hoe. How retro, you may think. What with all sorts of mulches and tillers and tilthers available, the hoe is an under appreciated and underused garden tool these days.

My favorite hoes: wire weeder and winged weeder

My favorite hoes: wire weeder and winged weeder

   But a hoe does good work — if you use the right hoe in the right manner. The best hoes, which include the scuffle hoe, the stirrup hoe, and the colinear hoe, have sharp blades that, in use, run parallel to the surface of the ground. Among these types of hoes, my personal preference has always been for the winged weeder, which looks like an airplane wing, sharpened fore and aft, attached at an angle to a long handle.
    I’ve recently taken up with another hoe, the wire weeder (from, whose head is a stiff wire cleverly bent to be easily worked amongst plants. Rotated 90 degrees puts its short edge to work, which is very useful for wending the head in amongst closely spaced plants. The lightweight aluminum handle doesn’t look  traditional but makes the tool very light and spry in use.
    Ideally, I’m out in the garden with my winged weeder or wire hoe on sunny mornings following rains. (I’m not sure which hoe I like better, so I alternate between them.) The goal is to loosen the soil, uprooting weed seedlings before they establish, and leaving a rough surface to welcome in the next bit of rain. The work, if it could be called that, is quick and easy if done before weeds grow large.
    Only when weeds get out of hand is it necessary to get out the tool that most people associate with the word “hoe,” the traditional garden hoe with the large blade at 90 degrees to the handle. This hoe is also the one Charles Dudley Warner was referencing when he stated (My Summer in a Garden, 1870), “what a [gardener] needs is a cast-iron back, with a hinge in it.” I reserve mine for mixing concrete.

Hoe or Mulch

    Not that mulching doesn’t also have its place in the battle with weeds`. Mostly, though, you have to do one or the other — mulching or hoeing — thoroughly. It’s impossible to hoe even thinly mulched ground.

Vegetable garden, kept "weed-free" and fed by compost mulch

Vegetable garden, kept “weed-free” and fed by compost mulch

    Unless, that is, the mulch is compost. Given that mulch is anything that covers the ground, compost qualifies as mulch, except that you can plant right in, or hoe, a compost mulch just as if it was soil.
    Weeds occasionally poke up through or sprout within the inch of compost with which I blanket my vegetable garden beds each year. I pull large weeds individually. Periodically, or where small weeds are starting to show, I’m out in the garden, sliding the business end of either my winged weeder or wire hoe back and forth, or just pulling it along, just beneath the surface of the ground.



I Battle Weeds and Birds, but Currants are Care-free

Part of my weedless gardening technique (which I thoroughly fleshed out in my book Weedless Gardening) involves — sad to say, for some people — weeding. After all, no garden can ever be truly weedless. Even people who spray Roundup eventually get weeds as they inadvertently “breed” for Roundup-resistant weeds, which now exist. My techniques are weed-less rather than weedless.

Which brings me to hoeing. Most years my hoe rests on its designated hook in the garage. This year, it’s hardly made it back to garage, mostly just leaning up against the garden fence alongside the gate. “And why is this?” you might ask. The answer is rain. This season, rainfall has been dropping in sufficient amounts at regular intervals, all of which has coaxed good plant growth, including that of weeds.

More importantly, the rainfall has promoted plant growth in paths and between widely spaced plants. One leg of my 4-legged “weedless gardening” stool calls for drip irrigation, which pinpoints water near plants. In a normal year, or a dry year, there’s little moisture to spur on weed growth elsewhere. This year, rainfall has democratically spurred weed growth everywhere.Comparison of the winged weeder with a conventional garden hoe.

Hence the hoe. The best hoes to snuff out young weeds without unduly disturbing the ground are ones with thin, sharp blades that lie parallel to the ground. All that’s needed is to slide such hoes back and forth a quarter of an inch or so beneath the surface, cutting the stems of hopeful, young interlopers. The work, if can be called that, is quick and easy, not calling for the “iron back with a hinge in it” recommended for a gardener by Charles Dudley Warner in his 19th century classic My Summer in the Garden. Too many people use a pull or draw hoe, whose blade lies perpendicular to the handle, to try to conquer weeds. 

The hoes I’m recommending are so-called push or thrust hoes. Some examples include the collinear hoe, the scuffle hoe, the stirrup hoe, and, my favorite, the wingèd weeder. With any of these hoes, roots aren’t damaged and lower depths of soil remain at lower depths so that inevitable weeds seeds buried there are not awakened as they are exposed to light. (Minimal soil disturbance is another leg of my 4-legged “weedless gardening” stool.)

Still, my wingèd weeder is not effective unless it is used — frequently this season, ideally once a week or within a couple of days after a rain. Used in a timely manner, the wingèd weeder does a quick, effective, and satisfying job.

Currants are an Old-Fashioned Fruit Easy to Grow

“The currant takes the same place among fruits that the mule occupies among draught animals—being modest in its demands as to feed, shelter, and care, yet doing good service,” wrote a nineteenth-century horticulturalist. Hoeing takes time, especially this year, so it’s nice to balance that with something — currants, in this case — that is “modest in its demands.”

One of my currant bushes, a Perfection (that’s the variety name) red currant, splays its stems upward and outward in an ornamental bed in front of my house. Sharing that bed, for beauty and for good eating, are huckleberries, lowbush blueberries, and lingonberries, and, for beauty alone, mountain laurels and dwarf rhododendrons.

Redcurrant espalier w-poppyThe only care my currant gets is, anytime from November until late March, pruning. The plant bears best on 2- and 3-year-old stems so I cut away anything older than 3 years old and reduce the number of new, 1-year-old stems to the half dozen or so most vigorous ones. The whole bed gets a sprinkling of either soybean meal (1# per hundred square feet) or alfalfa meal (3# per hundred square feet) in late fall, topped with a mulch of leaves or wood chips. 

The bush began bearing towards the end of June and a few clusters of the plump, jewel-like fruits still hang from the branches. Most people use red currant for jelly or sauce. I like to eat them straight up, with my morning cereal, for instance. The flavor is tart early on but has mellowed by now.

Currants were once a more popular fruit in America, and especially here in the Hudson Valley. They are one of the few fruits that tolerate shade (and deer!), and were often grown in the shade of large, old apple trees. Local folk, including children, would ride out to the orchards in hay wagons for communal picking.

Currant is, truly, among the uncommon fruits for every garden (good book title, that).

I Reluctantly Share Some Blueberries with Birds

Just a quick note about my blueberries, which are also relatively carefree. Last year’s abundance of cicadas may have upped bird populations, or at least made birds believe that lots of food would always be in the offing. Not so, birds. Perhaps, then, that’s why so many bird are fluttering all around my blueberries, mostly on the outside of the net that encloses my Blueberry Temple of 16 plants.Cardboard hawk, dangling from a string, protects my blueberries, maybe.

Right now a hawk — a cardboard one, swooping in breezes as it hangs from a string fixed to the end of an long, inclined bamboo pole — is meant to dissuade birds from even approaching the net. Calm mornings keep the hawk still enough so an occasional bird find their way through the net (where?) to venture into the Temple.