The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (in my opinion)

For better or worse, every year nurseries and seed companies send me a few plants or seeds to try out and perhaps write about. The “for better” part is that I get to grow a lot of worthwhile plants. The “for worse part” is that I have to grow some garden “dogs.” (I use the word “dogs” disparagingly, with apologies to Sammy and Daisy, my good and true canines.) Before my memory fades, let me jot down impressions of a quartet of low, mounded annuals that I trialed this year.

Calibrachoa Superbells Blackberry Punch was billed as heat and drought tolerant, which it was. As billed, it also was smothered in flowers all summer long. It’s a petunia relative and look-alike. Still, I give it thumbs down. But that’s just me; I don’t particularly like purple flowers, and especially those that are purple with dark purple centers.

I’ll have to give Verbena Superbena Royale Chambray a similar thumbs down. superbena royale chambrayIt’s that purple again, light purple in this case. Also, the plants weren’t exactly smothered with flowers and most prominent, then, were the leaves which were not particularly attractive.

Golddust (Mecardonia hybrid) made tight mounds of small yellow flowers nestled among small yellow leaves. I give this one a partial thumbs up. The flowers were too small and there weren’t enough of them even if the leaves alone did make pleasant, lime green mounds.

And finally, a rousing thumbs up for Goldilocks Rocks (Bidens ferulifolia). This plant also was a low mound of tiny leaves, needle-shaped this time. Sprinkled generously on top of the leaves all summer long were sunny yellow blooms, each about an inch across and resembling single marigolds. Flowering was nonstop, even up through the many recent frosts here, right down to 24° F.
Goldilocks Rocks
Bidens in its botanical name caused me slight pause when I planted Goldilocks, not because of any displeasure with our president, but because the common name for this genus is sticktight, or beggartick. You know those half-inch, flat, 2-pronged burrs that attach to animals — and, inconveniently, your socks — when you walk through wild meadows? Bidens, sticktightsThose are Bidens, trying to spread. (Not to be confused with the round, marble-size burs of burdock.)

No problem with Goldilocks Rocks that lined my vegetable garden paths. The flowers were too low to reach any higher than my shoes.

Ugly, Beautiful, and Tasty

Despite the recent spate of cold temperatures, there’s still fruit out in the garden, hanging on and ready for picking at my leisure.

The first is medlar (Mespilus germanica), a fruit that was popular in the Middle Ages, but not now. Its unpopularity now is due mostly to its appearance. One writer described it as “a crabby-looking, brownish-green, truncated, little spheroid of unsympathetic appearance.” The fruits resemble small, russeted apples, tinged dull yellow or red, with their calyx ends (across from the stems) flared open. I happen to find that look attractive. Medlar fruit  in summer

The harvested fruit needs to sit on a counter a few days, like pears, before it’s ready to eat. Worse, from a commercial standpoint these days, when ready to eat the firm, white flesh turns to brown mush. Yechhh! Except that it’s delicious, with a refreshing briskness and winy overtones, like old-fashioned applesauce laced with cinnamon.Medlar ready to eat

The plant itself is quite beautiful, a small rustic-looking tree with elbowed limbs. In late spring individual white blossoms resembling wild roses festoon the branches. In autumn, medlar leaves turn warm, rich shades of yellow, orange, and russet. Medlar in fall

I would bill medlar as very easy to grow, except here on the farmden. A few years ago, a pest started attacking my fruits, turning the flesh dry, rust-colored, and inedible. I have yet to identify this pest (rust?) which is absent just about everywhere else. Do any other of you few medlar growers have anything to say about this pest, if you’ve seen it?Medlar pest

Beautiful and Tasty

Walking around my home to the bed supported by a low, stone wall along my front walkway, we come to lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea). This fruit never fails to stir a smile, a dreamy look, perhaps even a tear in the eye of Scandinavians away from their native land. Nonetheless, it’s actually is native throughout the colder zones of the northern hemisphere.

Lingonberry is an evergreen groundcover growing only a few inches high; I grow it both for its beauty and its fruit. In spring the cutest little white, urn-shaped blossoms dangle upside down (upside down for an urn, that is) singly or in clusters near the ends of thin, semi-woody stems. Lingonberry floweringThe bright red berries hang on the plants for a long time, well into winter, with their backdrop of holly-green, glossy leaves making a perfect holiday decoration in situ.Lingonberry fruiting

The key to success with lingonberries is suitable soil. Like blueberries, a close relative, they enjoy, they demand, a soil rich in organic matter, well aerated, consistently moist, and very acidic. I created these conditions with some peat moss in each planting hole, a year ‘round mulch of wood chips, leaves or sawdust, topped up annually, and sulfur applied to bring soil pH to between 4 and 5.5.

Lingonberries have been put to lots of culinary uses besides the usual lingonberry jam. I like to eat them straight from the plants. They’re not sweet, but they are delicious.

(I considered the two above-mentioned fruits so worthwhile that each warranted a chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden. This book’s out of print now, but is due to be revised and re-issued again in a couple of years. Some of the information in that book can be found in my currently available books Grow Fruit Naturally and Landscaping with Fruit.)



Fruit in Winter!


Snow Mulching

Only four inches of snow fell a a couple of weeks ago but I decided anyway to go outside and mulch. And shovel snow. And shovel snow and mulch.

What I was trying to do, besides clear snow from the driveway, the paths, and the doorway to the greenhouse, was to create a microclimate. A microclimate is a small area where the climate is slightly different from the general climate.

One group of plants in need of this special treatment are my maypops, Passiflora incarnata. Yes, Passiflora genus is that of passionflower, and maypop is a hardy species of passionflower, native to eastern U.S.. It bears the same breathtaking flowers, whose intricate arrangement of flower parts was used by Christian missionaries to teach native Americans about the “passion” of Christ, as the tropical species. White maypop flowerAnd, like the tropical species, flowers are followed by egg-shaped fruits filled with air and seeds around which clings a delectable gelatinous coating. You know the flavor if you’ve ever tasted Hawaiian punch.

Maypop parts ways with tropical passionflowers, which are woody vines, in being an herbaceous vine. The roots live year ‘round but the above ground portions of the plant die back each winter.

Besides creating a microclimate for the maypops, I also chose to plant them in an existing microclimate to their liking. That is on the south side of my woodshed, where the sun bears down to provide extra warmth in summer. (Another goal was to let the vines each summer cover a trellis that would give the woodshed some shade to prevent the firewood from drying out to much.) These plants of southeastern U.S. like their summers hot.

Soil moderates temperatures so never get as cold in winter as the air — or, in summer, as hot as the air. Five feet down, soils remain at a balmy 50°F year ‘round. Shallower depths are commensurately colder in winter and warmer in summer than deeper down.

Maypop is borderline hardy this far north. Insulating the ground around the plants will keep temperatures around the roots from dropping too low. Hence the snowy mulch.

As maypop grows through the summer, new flowers and then fruits appear. The longer the growing season, the more fruits the plants bear. Although I want to keep the ground from getting too cold in the depths of winter, I’d like it to warm up quickly in spring to get the plants going.

Wood chips, straw, snow, or any other mulch is going to put the brakes on soil warming, so, ideally, the mulch should be removed after the coldest part of winter is past. Except if that mulch is snow, which will melt.

Ugly but Delicious

Wandering through the snow to the other side of the farmden, I come upon another fruit, this one ready to pick and eat right now! Medlar. (Medlar and maypop each warranted a whole chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)

Medlar fruits resemble small, russeted apples (a relative), tinged dull yellow or red, with their calyx ends (across from the stems) flared open. Medlar, fruit in basketIt’s peak of popularity was in the Middle Ages. And though popular, it was made fun of for it’s appearance; Chaucer called it the “open-arse” fruit.

That old-fashioned look extends to the tree itself, which even this time of year is attractive with the elbowed contortions of its branches. In spring, the blossoms, which resemble wild roses, are borne singly at the ends of branches and, opening late so that each is cradled in already opened whorl of leaves.

But back to the fruit; its got another quirk, besides its appearance. It’s inedible when first harvested. But after the fruit has sat for a couple of weeks or more indoors, a process called bletting, the once-hard, white flesh turns to brown mush.

Medlar, after bletting

Medlar, after bletting

Yechhhh! The flavor, though, has a refreshing briskness with winy overtones, like old-fashioned applesauce laced with cinnamon.

Fruits left on the tree also blet, and my trees are loaded with fruits.

Uh oh. Although medlar is generally pest-free, I see that many of the fruits have what looks like some sort of pest damage. Instead of the smooth, brown mush, flesh of damaged fruits is drier, almost powdery. What is it?

(Almost?) Hardy Orange

More snow more recently fell, and with it came bitter cold, which made me fear for the survival of my hardy orange, Citrus trifoliata. This orange is allegedly hardy to zone 5, but still . . .

The plant is only about four feet tall and there was plenty of snow so I just started piling snow on top of it. The ends of some branches remained exposed, which is okay because they can tell me whether the plant is really hardy.

Hardy orange bears flowers and fruits very similar to sweet oranges except that hardy orange fruits are bitter and very seedy. They could be used — in moderation — for flavoring, though. Citrus, Flying DragonHardy orange fruitMostly I grow it for the novelty of an outdoor orange tree, for the sweetly fragrant blossoms, and for the decorative, green, swirling, recurved spiny stems.

Come spring, I;’ll know if just how hardy the hardy orange really is. Temperature the night after covering it dropped to minus 18° Fahrenheit.


Close Your Eyes, If Necessary

   “A crabby looking, brownish green truncated little spheroid of unsympathetic appearance.” That’s how a British writer of almost 75 years ago described one of my favorite fruits, medlar (Mespilus germanica). True, the fruit is no beauty to some eyes. To me, the fruit has an authentic, old-fashioned, unvarnished look to it, like that of a small, russeted apple whose calyx end (opposite the stem) is flared open.

Medlars, ready for harvest

Medlars, ready for harvest

    Medlar is truly an old-fashioned fruit, whose popularity peaked in the Middle Ages. Chaucer mentioned it, indecorously referring to it as “open arse.” Even Shakespeare got his digs in, more discretely call it “open et cetera.”
    This past season was a good season for fruits, including medlar. Yesterday, I harvested the crop from the leafless tree. But no, I couldn’t yet sink my teeth into one. Besides its odd appearance, medlar has one more quirk: The fruit needs to be bletted before being eaten. During the bletting process, at cool room temperatures for a couple of weeks, the white, rock-hard interior of the fruit turns to brown mush. A delectable brown mush, much like a very rich applesauce with wine-y overtones.
Harvesting medlars    Past writers have also gotten their digs in mocking the required bletting, as if it was akin to rotting. But banana, avocado, and European pears also require post-harvest softening before they are ready to eat. Admittedly, not softening AND browning, which might look like rot, but actually, with medlar, indicates an increase in sweetness and a decrease in acids and tannins. British wine connoisseur George Saintsbury considered medlar the ideal fruit to accompany wine; D. H. Lawrence considered medlars “wineskins of brown morbidity.”
    I like the fruit and look forward to drawing out the season by refrigerating portions to delay bletting.

Now Open Your Eyes

    Whether or not the fruit is considered ugly and uncouth, the medlar plant has much to recommend it. It’s the perfect multi-use tree for a small yard.
    Where space is limited, no need to choose between whether to plant an ornamental or a fruit tree, because medlar is both. The elbowed contortions of the branches, more evident now that the plant has dropped its leaves, lend an air of rusticity. Come spring, white blossoms, each a couple of inches across and every bit as showy as a wild rose, unfold after the plant has pushed out a few inches of growth. A whorl of dark green leaves behind each flower contrasts and frames the blossom.
    Each of those blossoms will generally morph into a fruit. No additional tree is needed for pollination — another plus for small yards.
    And this is a small tree, so fits well into a small yard. My tree, in rich soil and over ten years old, is only about eight feet high and wide.
    (For more on the history, cultivation, and varieties of medlar, see the chapter on this fruit in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden).

More Eye Candy

    As I walked back to my medlar tree, harvest basket in hand, other fruit plants, my blueberry bushes, caught my attention, these solely for their beauty. Blueberries offer some kind of “eye candy” in every season, with sprays of urn-shaped, white flowers in spring and slightly bluish, green leaves that look spry all season long.Fall color on blueberries
    Autumn is blueberry’s showiest season, when the leaves usually come alive with a crimson color that rivals that of burning bush, a shrub grown solely for its autumn show. This month, the blueberry bushes look finer than they ever have, with some of each bush sporting golden yellow leaves, some orange leaves, and some crimson leaves.
    I’m going to attribute this year’s blueberry spectacular to the weather. Leaves’ crimson color is due to anthocyanins, which need sugars to develop. Warm, sunny days foster photosynthesis and sugar production but the relatively warm night’s of this season burn up those sugars. Carotenoids are responsible for the oranges and yellows of leaves. They’re always present, and my theory is that, with warm nights, less anthocyanin was present to mask them.
    Even after leaf drop, blueberries have something to offer, visually, when cold weather turns the stems red (perhaps less this year because of less anthocyanins?). This winter, I’ll enjoy whatever the plants have to offer, along with last season’s berries, now in the freezer.



Popcorn Gets Bigger, But Medlar Is Still Ugly (Not To Me)

   A couple of weeks ago I wrote about increasing the poppability of my home-grown popcorn by exposing the kernels to the vapor of a saturated salt solution. Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavored popcorn, a variety that usually pops fairly well, popped to 1/3 greater volume.
    This week Pink Pearl, a variety that’s not usually a very good popper, underwent testing. The result: No effect of the treatment; both the treated and untreated batches popped pretty well. Was it the change in the weather, stronger hints of spring? Perhaps. (Previously, I pointed out how cold weather outside turns indoor air drier, perhaps too dry for good popcorn popping.) At any rate, Pink Pearl was tasty.

Medlar Teaches How To Prune A Fruit Plant

    The weather change also had the effect of drawing me outdoors more — for pruning. Looking at my medlar tree’s branches going every which way, I scratched my head (figuratively) wondering where to start, what to cut.
    Medlar is a fruit tree (more on medlar later), and the first step in pruning any fruit tree is attending to light. Light provides the energy for photosynthesis which translates into flavorful fruits. The goal is to let every branch bathe in sunlight, which also helps thwart potential disease problems.
    So I stopped scratching my head and started with a few dramatic pruning cuts, lopping some of the larger limbs back to their origins. Medlar has a naturally spreading growth habit, so cuts were aimed at removing limbs trying to fill in and shade the the center of the tree. I wanted a whorl of branches reaching up and out.

Medlar tree, after pruning

Medlar tree, after pruning

    Next to go were dead, diseased, and broken branches. I saw remnants of cicada damage from two years ago. Away with most of those stems also.
    For the next cuts, you have to know how a particular kind of fruit tree bears fruit. At one extreme are peaches. They bear only on one-year-old stems so need aggressive pruning each year to stimulate new shoots that become next year’s bearing, one-year-old stems. At the other extreme are apple and pear trees. They bear fruit on long-lived spurs, which are stumpy, branching stubs that develop on older limbs, so relatively little pruning is needed.
    Medlar’s bearing habit lies somewhere between those two extremes. I shortened a few very old branches to invigorate them with new growth.
    On most fruit trees, drooping branches make poorer fruit. Probably for medlar also. So off came the drooping branches, either back to non-droopy portions or to their origin.
    Finally, some detail work: shortening or removing those vigorous, vertical shoots called watersprouts; thinning out smaller areas of congested branches; removing stems growing too close to where major limbs exit the trunk; and lopping down root sprouts growing at or near ground level from the rootstock.
    Besides fruit, medlar offers beauty. Part of the beauty is the craggy shape of the tree, its muscular limbs clothed in golden brown bark. I stepped back to admire the tree and my work after pruning. If I’ve done a good job, the tree looks happily ready to bask in light and air and, because the major cuts removed limbs at the origin, hardly looks like it’s been pruned.

Medlar Teaches To Eat With Your Tongue, Not Your Eyes

    Medlar is a fruit whose popularity peaked in the Middle Ages. Charlemagne was a fan, a big fan who demanded the tree be planted in every town he conquered.

Medlar, fruit in summer

Medlar, fruit in summer

    Despite its popularity, even in the Middle Ages, the fruit has often been described disparagingly — for its appearance, though, not its flavor. The fruits resemble small, russeted apples, tinged dull yellow or red, with their calyx ends (across from the stems) flared open. “Open-arse” was the name Chaucer chose. A more recent writer described medlar as “a crabby-looking, brownish-green, truncated, little spheroid of unsympathetic appearance. “ (All recounted, along with information about growing, procuring, and eating medlars in the chapter on medlar in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)

Medlar, after bletting

Medlar, after bletting

    Oh, one more quirk about medlar: The fruit, rock hard at harvest, needs to be bletted before eating. This means gently setting it on a counter in a cool room for a couple of weeks, or more, depending to the temperature, during which time the fruit’s interior turns to brown mush. Ugly to look at, but the flavor has a refreshing briskness with winy overtones, like old-fashioned applesauce laced with cinnamon. Between the fruits’ appearance and their need for bletting, you’ll never find medlars for sale on a supermarket shelf.
    Perhaps the fruit is ugly. The tree is not. I already mentioned the attractive form and color of the limbs. The white flowers, opening here in May, are like those of a wild rose, each one enhanced because its late opening gets a backdrop of a whorl of already unfurled, dark, green leaves. The tree grows only 8 or 10 feet high and wide and will fruit without another pollinator, so is perfect for a small yard. No need to decide whether to plant a fruit tree or an ornamental tree; medlar is both trees in one.

Medlar, tree in bloom

Medlar, tree in bloom

Ugly, But Tasty, Old Fruit

Today’s fruit du jour is medlar (Mespilus germanica), one of the most-disgusting-looking fruits you could imagine. Don’t stop reading! Medlar was a popular fruit in the Middle Ages, and with good reason. Charlemagne was so taken by this fruit that he decreed that it be planted in every town he conquered. Medlar needs some contemporary pr.
Let’s get those bad looks out of the way. Picture a small apple with a rough, russeted skin and the calyx end — the end opposite the stem — flared open. Not very pretty, eh? That homely appearance gave rise to

some not-so-complimentary nicknames. “Open-arse” fruit, for example, by Chaucer. Or, from Shakespeare, more discretely, “open-etcetera.”

Ugliness, for medlars, is not just skin deep. When harvested, which was a few weeks ago here, the fruits are white and rock hard within, and not ready for eating. The fruit must be bletted, or ripened, a couple of weeks or more. I blet my medlars by setting them on the cool, north windowsill facing my kitchen sink. With the woodstove at full tilt, the air at the windowsill might still be too dry for best bletting, so I also have a few fruits bletting beneath a small bell jar in another cool part of the kitchen. A wrinkling, dark skin tells me that bletting is complete. At this point the flesh has experienced a dramatic transformation —  to brown mush.
I put all that ugliness behind me and taste that brown mush. Delicious! Something like very rich applesauce with hints of wine. I’ve only eaten them straight

up. They allegedly also cook up into delicious tarts, jellies, “fools,” and the like. Here’s a simple recipe for a tart, dating back to 1660, from Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook: “Take medlars that are rotten, strain them, and set them on a chaffing dish of coals, season them with sugar, cinamon and ginger, put some yolks of eggs to them, let it boil a little, and lay it in a cut tart; being baked scrape on sugar.”

(For a once popular fruit, medlar has had its share of pejoratives. “Rotten,” in the above recipe, means bletted. But many fruits, including European pears and avocados, need to be harvested unripe to ripen off the plant. Admittedly, few are brown mush when ready to eat.)
So much for medlar’s bad looks and good flavor. Let’s take a good look at the plant itself.
Those ugly fruits ripen on a very attractive, small tree that never reaches more than about eight feet high or a spread of equal width. It’s a year ‘round beauty, even now, leafless, with its craggy branches and light brown bark. In spring, in contrast to many other fruit trees, the leaves unfold before the blossoms; each

blossom, opening singly and with white petals like a wild rose (a relative), is then framed by a whorled backdrop of forest-green leaves.

The tree is also self-pollinating, so does not need a companion to set fruit. Small size, beauty, and ability to perform solo make a medlar tree perfect for a small yard. One tree, then, doubles as your ornamental plant and your fruit tree.
Pests can be a big bugaboo when growing tree fruits. The best way to deal with pests is to avoid them, and the best way to avoid them is to grow kinds or varieties of fruits naturally resistant to pests. That’s one reason I suggest against growing apples pretty much anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. (Two of apples most significant pests, plum curculio and apple maggot, are absent from many areas of the West.) Nectarines, peaches, apricots, and plums similarly suffer from serious insect and disease problems, again, especially east of the Rocky Mountains.
You may wonder, then: What’s left to grow? Pears, for one. Also, a slew of other tree fruits that are not well-known, fruits such as medlar, pawpaw, persimmon, cornelian cherry, raisin tree, mulberry, and Asian

Bletting medlars

pear.  These uncommon fruits all have excellent flavor and few or no pest problems (and play the leading roles in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden). They also demand little expertise or time in pruning as compared with some of the common tree fruits.

Not that biting into a fresh-picked, good variety of well-grown apple or peach isn’t a heavenly experience. And not that the occasional tree of such fruits some years bears a decent crop without trouble. But it pays to play the averages and proceed with eyes wide open. What are the chances for a good harvest and how much effort (and learning) will be devoted to upping the odds?