Next Year’s ‘Chokes

Ahh, such a leisurely time of year to sow seeds. And for some of them, I don’t care if they don’t sprout for months. You might wonder: Why sow now; why so laid back?

I’ll start with artichoke, from whose seeds I did want to see sprouts soon. And I did. The seeds germinate readily. Right now, a few small seedlings are growing, each in its own “cell” of a seed flat, enjoying the cool, sunny weather.
Cynara, artichoke seedlings
Artichoke is a perennial whose natural life cycle is (usually) to grow leaves its first year, then edible buds its second year and for a few years hence. Especially in colder regions, artichokes can sometimes grown from seed like annuals, with a wrinkle.

To make that transition from growing only leaves to growing flower buds, the plants need to get vernalized, that is, to experience some winter cold. Except that winter cold here in the Hudson Valley (and everywhere else colder than Hardiness Zone 7) will do the plants in. So we cold-climate gardeners need to trick the plants into feeling like they experienced winter cold, just not our winters’ depth of cold.

When growing artichokes like annuals, from seed sown in spring, you make “winter” by exposing the young, growing seedlings to cool, but not frigid, temperatures (32-50°F) for a couple of weeks. The problem with this method is that the plants are fairly small when they get this signal that “winter” is over. In my experience, these small plants make commensurately small buds for harvest.

I’m lucky enough to have a greenhouse that gets very cool in winter, but not below freezing. My young artichoke plants will continue to grow very large though the very extended “autumn” weather in the greenhouse. In midwinter, they should get plenty of chilling. Come spring, after frost danger is past, I’ll plant out the large plants to, I hope, make large, fat buds.

I got this idea from growing cardoon, which is essentially the same as artichoke, except it’s grown for its large leaf stalks.
Large cardoon plant
Or it’s grown as a flower, in which case it would require the same conditions as artichoke to make flowers. I don’t like cardoon as a vegetable but do like it as a flower, so last year, around now, I sowed cardoon seeds and grew the seedlings in the greenhouse just as I’ve described for artichoke. The result was big, fat, beautiful, blue flowers. I expect the same, except I’ll harvest the artichoke buds before they open.

Actually, I grew two cardoon plants, and for some reason one of them grew only leaves all summer, and is still growing them, the olive-green leaves each rising from ground level in a four-foot-high-whorl.

More Hucks’

A couple of months ago I collected huckleberry seeds from my huckleberry plant and sowed them. As expected, they still haven’t sprouted. They weren’t expected to sprout, at least not until they were “stratified.”

Like artichoke, huckleberry (Gaylussaccia baccata) needs to feel that winter is over, in this case before its seeds will sprout. Stratification, as this cold exposure is called, prevents small seedlings from being killed by winter cold after sprouting in late summer or autumn.

My huckleberry plant in fall

My huckleberry plant in fall

Again, it’s a certain duration of cool (32-50°F) temperatures that do the trick. Under natural conditions, these chilling requirements are fulfilled in late autumn and/or in spring. In this case, colder temperatures would do no harm, but would not put any hours into the “chilling bank.” Once the “chilling bank” has been filled, the seeds await warm enough temperatures to sprout.

(For more details and wrinkles about seed germination, see my latest book, The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden.)

The pot of huckleberry seeds has been sitting outdoors, covered, since they were sown. If I want earlier sprouting, I’ll bring the pot into the greenhouse in winter. 

Ramping Up

I collected seeds from my ramp plants about a month ago with an eye to increasing my holdings. You guessed it: Ramps also need cold. But given mere stratification, the seed will not germinate. The behavior of ramp seeds is a little different from huckleberry seeds in that ramp seeds have a double dormancy.
Ramps seed heads
Roots need to grow before the shoots will sprout. That first stage requires a couple of months or so of warmth. Only after then can the second stage, shoot growth, begin, except that won’t occur until after a stratification period, with cool temperatures, again between 32-50°F. 

Under natural conditions, ripe ramp seeds get their warm period before winter sets in and then are ready to sprout in spring. But further north, where seeds ripen later, that first stage, to get root growth underway, is delayed until the summer after the seeds drop. In that case, sprouts don’t poke above ground until their second spring.

I don’t want to wait that long so I sowed my ramp seeds in a seed flat which I’m keeping in a warm place for a couple of months. After that, I’ll move the flat to cooler temperatures. And then, come spring, sprouts — I hope.

My ramps planting

My ramps mother plants


Fruit Nuts, Including Me, Nurseries, & Wild Blueberries

Are there organizations for people who make and eat cheese; build and ride motorcycles; write and read books; grow and savor fruits? All I know is that the answer to the existence of the last-named organization is a rowsing “yes!” I know because I recently returned from Oregon, where I converged with other fruit nuts  for the annual meeting of North American Fruit Explorers (, and nuts, incidentally, are also covered under the organization’s umbrella).

No need to don a pith helmet and traipse off to Borneo to be a fruit explorer. Not that you couldn’t, and be one. No, this fun meeting brought together everyone from backyard growers with a few fruit plants to AN 88-year-old guy who grows over 3,000 varieties of apples. Fruits represented ranged from apples and pears to pawpaws and persimmons and, even more rare, haskaps and gumis. These people, we, realize that there’s a lot more to enjoy in the world of nature’s desserts — fruits, that is — than what you see on display in the supermarket, even farmers’ market.

What appeared to be a roomful of normal people was actually a roomful of fruit nuts, among which I count myself. NAFEX members are as varied as the fruits they grow, with all ages, genders, home towns, and “real jobs” represented. Members can share their trials, tribulations, and rewards of fruit growing (the title of my lecture there), ask questions, and exchange plants in their quarterly publication.

Me, staring through espalier pear at Mt. Vernon, WA research station

Me, staring through espalier pear at Mt. Vernon, WA research station

Each year’s annual meeting is at a “fruitful” location. Last week’s meeting took in tours of the USDA germplasm repository, which houses the USDA collection of pears, gooseberries, currants, and bramble fruits, and of research centers on hazelnuts and brambles. All accompanied, of course, by tastings. If you love fruit, grow some . . . and join NAFEX.

Branching Off to Pakistani Mulberries, Delectable Crabs, and More

I branched off (pardon the pun) from the group to visit a few nurseries. First stop was Whitman Farms (, at which I made a beeline to Lucille Whitman’s black mulberry (Morus nigra) tree, an offshoot of which I’ve grown for many years. I grow it in a pot because it’s a subtropical species, not cold-hardy here. It’s worth the effort because it is among the most delectable of fruits. It’s hard to imagine that such a small berry can pack such a wallop of rich, sweet-tart flavor, much better than the wild mulberries around here. Lucille also grows a slew of gooseberry and currant varieties, another group of fruits that worthy of wider attention.

Black Pakistani mulberry

Black Pakistani mulberry

From there it was on to Burnt Ridge Nursery (, worth visiting also for its panoramic view of the Cascade Mountains, including Mount Saint Helens. I soon realized, driving down the gravel nursery road, that we were passing through a virtual Garden of Eatin’, with apples and pear trees,  grapes, and hardy kiwi vines. The forest of large trees turned out to be a nursery owner Michael Dolan’s extensive collection of chestnuts. It was too early in the season to taste any chestnuts but I did get to taste his Black Pakistani mulberry, which had a chewy texture and perhaps even richer flavor than black mulberry. (Black Pakistani is a variety of M. alba, white mulberry.) Another plus for Black Pakistani is that its fruit is two or more inches long. (Lucille Whitman also sells Black Pakistani. Note to myself: Get a Black Pakistani tree to grow in a pot, like a fig.)

Finally, I motored along with Sam Benowitz north to Washington state, to his nursery, Raintree Nursery ( We were greeted at the nursery entrance by espaliered apple trees, then plum trees whose branches bowed

Centennial crabapple tastes good and looks good.

Centennial crab apple rates great; a crab is any small apple.

low from their load of fruit. A Centennial crabapple tree splayed out its small but ripe fruits, which were delicious, especially for a summer apple. Another note to myself: Purchase or make a Centennial crabapple. Pots of lingonberries were lush with their shiny evergreen leaves, the size of mouse ears; persimmons leaves hung languidly from the trees’ branches; and hardy kiwifruit brightened up the scene with silvery variegation, blushed with pink. Alas, these fruits were not yet ripe so for the time being provided only eye candy.

They Call Them Huckleberries

Fruit nuts are a friendly fraternity, ready to share experiences and fruit. Blueberries are among my favorite fruits, and my newfound, northwestern friends were anxious to introduce me to some western blueberry species. First was red huckleberry (V. parvifolium). Not to be an ingrate, but . . . yuk! A very small, very tart, red blueberry. Perhaps the red color threw me off. Next came evergreen huckleberry (V. ovatum), much tastier, and evergreen, but still not holding a candle to our eastern blueberry species.

Finally, though, I had a taste of mountain huckleberry (V. membranaceum). Delicious. Different but as good as our east coast species.

I was given some leafy stems of mountain huckleberry packed for travel with their bases in water tubes and their leaves wrapped in moist tissue. As soon as I got

Blueberry cuttings in my clear plastic propagator.

Blueberry cuttings in my clear plastic propagator.

home I stripped all but the upper two leaves from the stems and inserted their bases into the mix of moist peat and perlite in my makeshift propagator. The propagator sits on the north side of my house, its clear plastic cover maintaining sufficient humidity while letting in sufficient light until the cuttings root — I hope. Blueberry species are not particularly easy to root, although one of the main ingredients needed is patience. I’ll also sow seeds of the few fruits I brought home.

In a few years, my memories of last week’s journey may also live on in my taste buds.

Grass and Blueberries and Kin

The plants I grow best are generally the ones that I like the most. I’m not good at growing grass (lawngrass, that is; more on the other “grass” when it becomes legal). That’s why most of my farmden is given over to wild plants, cultivated plants, and meadow. Still, grass definitely has it’s place, in my view, as long as that place is not too expansive. It’s nice underfoot, provides a soothing expanse of background greenery, and is easy to care for.
I’ll admit that some of my previous attempts to grow grass have been failures. The seedlings dried out or never sprouted, birds ate the seed, the soil wasn’t receptive . . . all sorts of glitches exist on the road between bare ground and a nice bit of lawn.
Recent removal of a two-foot diameter rotted stump of boxelder and renovation of a deck with steps that led down to that vacated spot necessitated a patch of lawn. Thickly and quickly, so the new steps could

be used.

The soil was moderately fertile and well drained but had been compacted by my constant footsteps during stair construction. I loosened the ground by, every few inches over the thankfully small area (8 by 8 feet, approximately), sliding the tines of a garden fork straight down into the dirt and wiggling the handle. Then I raked the surface smooth, sprinkled on some grass seed, and raked again.
That was the easy part. The next job was to keep the ground moist and to keep birds, especially my chickens, at bay. For moisture retention, I covered the prepared, planted ground with a thin layer of hay. For even more moisture retention and to keep birds at bay, I covered the hay with a single layer of cheesecloth, weighted down at edges and corners. The grass will grow up through the cheesecloth which, being cotton, can be left in place to rot away. For even more bird protection, I enclosed the area with a temporary, chicken-wire fence.
Daily watering has already brought on patches of bright green, thin sprouts. Once seedlings are growing in earnest, I’ll taper off on watering to every few days.
The delicate, young grass sprouts evoke such fond memories, not of large lawns but of a toy I had as a child. It was a miniature farm, a couple of square feet, with a little barn, silo, coral, and house. The farmette came with soil, which, as directed, I spread on the field, and grass seed, which I planted and watered. I was awed and delighted by the small sprouts greening the brown field.
I don’t remember ever mowing (with a scissors?) that field, but once my new grass gets firm footing, I will be mowing it — not one of my favorite activities, although I do like the result.
In contrast to my horticultural skill with lawn, I am very good at growing blueberries. And this is an especially good year for me and other blueberry growers. Our 16 plants have yielded, as of July 22nd, about 80 quarts. Bushes are still going strong and others have yet to begin ripening their berries.
One can only guess at the reasons for such a good year. Lack of any late spring frosts could be a factor, except that my blueberries have never been damaged by late frosts. Abundant rain in June — to say the

least, with 12 inches rather than the usual 4 inches — could be a factor, but every year my blueberries’ thirst is quenched automatically with drip irrigation. (Note to myself: Consider irrigating more in the future.) Heat in July? Who knows?

Blueberry plants do have an odd growth habit this year, with branches arching down low to the ground. A heavier than usual crop could be the cause. Or, perhaps, overly succulent new shoots because of abundant rain and limited sunlight in June, and excessive heat in July. Except that many of those recumbent branches are of older wood, from previous seasons. So many questions; so few definitive answers.
A recent bike ride in the Shawangunk Mountains, where blueberries and their relatives are abundant, revealed a relatively sparse crop there. With all the berries at home, it was no great loss for me. I did slam on my brakes for some ripe huckleberries, though.
Many people use the words “blueberry” and “huckleberry” interchangeably. In fact, they are different, but closely related, fruits. Put simply, blueberries are species of Vaccinium, and huckleberries are species of Gaylussacia. Put even more simply, if, when you eat the berry, you feel the small seeds crackling between your teeth, you’ve got a huckleberry in your mouth.
I didn’t screech to a stop just to eat huckleberries. I also wanted seeds to plant and increase my current huckleberry “plantation” of two plants. The berries not only taste good, very similar to blueberries, but also are very pretty, especially in autumn with their fiery, red leaves.

Back home, I mashed the berries in a glass of water, then let the mix sit for a day. The small seeds settled to the bottom of the glass. Stirring, then pouring off whatever floated most easily, cleaned the seed.
What’s needed next is patience. Reports indicate that huckleberry seeds germinate poorly and that germination is slow. And that’s after giving them a warm, moist stratification for about a month, to soften the tough seed coat, followed by a couple of months of cool, moist stratification, to let the plants know that “winter” is over. This is what you might expect for a seed from a berry ripening in cold climates in midsummer; if the seed germinated immediately, the small seedling — and huckleberry seedlings grow very slowly — would succumb to winter cold.
My plan is to sprinkle the tiny seeds on some potting soil in a pot, water, cover, with a pane of glass, and leave the covered pot outdoors in partial shade. When and if seedlings appear, I’ll uncover the pot. I like huckleberries. Perhaps I’ll get them to grow.