Fresh Veggies

When I was a child, it seemed that winter vegetables were mostly peas and diced carrots, conveniently poured frozen out of plastic bags into pots of boiling water. Yuk! Winter notwithstanding, my backyard garden still offers plenty of fresh winter vegetables. Let’s have a look. Kale, of course, looks unfazed by snow and plummeting temperatures. Not only does it look unfazed; it also tastes very delicious.

More surprising is the endive that I planted back in August, then covered beneath a “tunnel” of clear plastic and slightly insulating row cover held aloft by metal hoops in late October. Temperatures about a week ago went as low as -8° Fahrenheit! Thanks to the additional insulation from almost a foot of snow, now melted, the endive is still lush and tasty.

The rest of winter’s fresh garden vegetables are not in the garden. Most are in plywood boxes in cold storage, first in my mudroom, then moved out to my cooler. vegetables of winter(The cooler is an insulated room cooled with an air conditioner that has been tricked, with a device called CoolBot, into bringing the temperature down just below 40° F.) One box houses Hakurei turnips, Watermelon radishes, and Daikon radishes picked around the middle of December.

The same day I pulled the turnips and radishes, I also dug up leeks, now nestled into another box. With snow cover, both leeks and turnips probably would survive winter out in the garden, but reaching into a box is easier than chopping through ice and snow out in the garden to get at these vegetables.

Yet another box has a few heads of cabbage, also harvested that day in December. Lopping off the outer leaves, which anyway were looking ragged and slug-eaten, cuts water loss from the tight heads and keeps them fresh. One more box is packed full of napa type Chinese cabbages, good for “Asian slaw” or stir fry.

Most years I would have braids of onions also. Not this year. Crop failure. All the onions, both direct-seeded and grown from my transplants, didn’t grow large enough to bother storing. The problem was a clog, too long undetected, in the water line to the seasonal irrigation pump at, evidently, a critical time in onion bulb development.

(I also have a 400 square foot greenhouse packed full of fresh, growing lettuce, mustard greens, arugula, celery, claytonia, kale, chard, and mâche, with a little fresh dill, cilantro, and parsley. But that’s a whole other story.)

Summer Berries

I may be addicted to blueberries. I now eat them pretty much every morning year ‘round. That’s fresh blueberries beginning at the end of June, and frozen ones from mid-September on. I pace myself. The frozen blueberry season opens with about 70 bags (each bag about 5 cups) in the freezer, enough to keep us “berry happy” on into June.
Blueberries, frozen and defrosted
I highly recommend planting blueberries. They are easy to grow organically, the plants are beautiful, and the berries are very healthful and taste great. They’re also easy to freeze: Just spread them on a tray until frozen, then pack them into bags. Their two main requirements are suitable soil, easily made so, and protection from birds, with netting. Each bush will net you 8 pounds, or more, of berries.

Thawed in the refrigerator, the berries taste as good as fresh ones. Or maybe I believe that only because in late December it’s been so long since I’ve had a fresh blueberry.

Olfactory Romance

Man cannot, of course, live by bread alone. I could use some fragrance, some olfactory hint of spring — or summer, or fall. Years ago, I grew “many-flowered jasmine” (Jasminium polyantha). A misnomer for my plant. Its fragrance was heavenly but it only coughed up a few blossoms each winter, despite my subjecting it to a period of temperatures below 60 degrees F. and some drought to give it a rest before it (was supposed to) burst  into flowering abundance.

Gardenia was another one of my plants for winter fragrance. It did bloom in winter, late winter, and its fragrance was heavenly. But it proved to be a magnet for scale insects, one of the most difficult house plant pests to control organically. Both plants have long ago been composted.

I’m now eagerly awaiting blossoms on my Meyer lemon plant. The plant is easy to bring into bloom, and there’s the added bonus of delicious lemons. Being a hybrid of lemon and sweet orange, Meyer lemon has a slightly different flavor from that of lemons.
Meyer lemon tree in pot
The other plant to — reliably, I hope — blossom now, in early winter is sweet osmanthus (Osmanthus fragrans), specifically the variety Goshiki. Why Goshiki? Because it has variegated leaves, green and white with splashes of pink, spiny like those of holly. Sweet osmanthusIt’s cold-hardy to Zone 6. My plan is to grow it in a pot to bring indoors to a cool sunny window in late fall to spend the winter.

This is all a pipe dream so far because all I have is a spindly stem I cut to root from a plant beckoning me from a sidewalk near Philadelphia. The cutting doesn’t look hopeful. The quest begins.



A Big, Fat, Red Flower; Perfect For Now

One spring day many years ago, my friend Bill looked out upon the daffodils blooming and other stirrings, and summed up the scene with the statement that “It’s spring and everything is wigglin’.” We haven’t yet come that far along, but things are wigglin’ — indoors. (Little did I know that 2 days after writing this, all would be buried under two feet of snow!)

Most dramatic among the wigglins is the big, fat flower bud pushing up from the big, fat amaryllis bulb. True, the goal of most people is to have the flamboyant, red blossoms open for Christmas, which requires beginning a bulb’s dormant period in the middle of August. It’s cool temperatures, around 55°F., and dry soil that puts an amaryllis bulb to sleep. Then, in early November, warm temperatures and just a little water wakens the bulb out of its slumber, with increasing watering, commensurate with its growth, bringing the bulb fully awake and ready to burst forth in bloom 6 weeks later.Amaryllis late last winter

In mid-August, I’m more focussed on harvesting tomatoes and peppers, readying endive for October harvests, making compost, and other garden goings-on than on the amaryllis bulb that I tipped out of its pot and planted in the ground in late spring. And anyway, a few red flowers, even flamboyant ones, do little to counteract December’s grayness.

So I let my amaryllis flower in its time, which should be within a couple of weeks or so, and add to the indoor late winter wrigglin.

Citruses Come Awake

Much more exciting are the less dramatic signs of growth on some of my potted subtropical trees.

As subtropical plants, citrus trees push out multiple flushes of growth through the year. The first flush is about to begin on Meyer lemon, Golden Nugget mandarin, and Meiwa kumquat.

One or more of those citrus flushes also bears flowers, which lead to fruits. The kumquat typically flowers late. My Golden Nugget mandarin hasn’t yet ever flowered for me, so I’m not sure when to expect those blossoms. Wait! Do I see the tiny beginnings of a flower bud on that nascent stem?

Golden Nugget awakening

Golden Nugget awakening

Meyer lemon is notorious for its free flowering. Looking closely, I see that some of the new growth includes flower buds. At the same time, I see that the lemon fruits that had their beginnings last year are now swelling more rapidly. I’m predicting to have new lemons forming even as I am harvesting ripe ones.Meyer lemon flower buds

Fresh-picked Avocados, in New York?

Most exciting are the fat buds expanding on my potted avocado tree, grown from a seed I planted a couple of years ago. I grafted this seedling with a stem of the Marcus Pumpkin variety of avocado that I got about this time last year from a friend in Florida.

An avocado tree grown from seed would take many years — if ever, as a houseplant this far north — to reach maturity, that is, to be old enough to be able to flower and fruit. A stem taken from a fruiting plant is already mature, though, and remains so even if grafted on a young seedling. The grafted stem of Marcus Pumpkin on my avocado tree is, in fact, about to burst into bloom.

Avocado flower buds

Avocado flower buds


Much can happen ‘twixt the bloom and the mouth; I’m guardedly hopeful to be guacamole-ing freshly plucked avocados in a few months. The problem is synchronous dichogamy, which may end up being more of a mouthful than my avocado fruit. The upshot of this mouthful is that each of an avocado plant’s gazillion flowers stays open for 2 days. When the flower first opens it is in the female phase, receptive to pollen; this phase lasts 2 to 4 hours. Day 2 has the flower in its male phase, shedding pollen. The male and female flower parts being out of synch is good for avocado evolution but bad for me as far as home-grown gucamole.

Depending on the variety, avocado flowers might be Type A or Type B. Type A flowers are not ambitious, competitive, or impatient like Type A humans. Or maybe they are, because the female parts are open and receptive only in the morning of the first day; these same flowers open as males in the afternoon of the second day. Type B flowers aren’t ready for action until the afternoon of their first day; then they open a males the next morning.

The upshot of all this is that it’s best to have two different avocado varieties, a Type A and a Type B. The morning phase of Type B, as males, can pollinate the morning phase of Type A, which are females. And vice versa.

Marcus Pumpkin is a Type B avocado. When I grafted it, I also grafted Lula, a Type A avocado, on another seedling. Although Lula failed to take, all may not be lost. My plan is to dab the Marcus Pumpkin flowers in the afternoon with an artist’s brush, tap the pollen into a petri dish, cover it, and the next morning dab the brush from the collected pollen to the Marcus Pumpkin flowers in their female phase.

Perhaps I’ll be harvesting fresh avocados in a few months. Perhaps I’ll be just buying fresh avocados in a few months. At any rate, as a northern gardener, it’s very exciting to have my avocado tree about to flower.

And Even Hints Of Spring Outdoors

All is not so quiescent outside. After a couple of warm days, I see that winter aconites have spread their cheery, yellow petals. (But not for long.)Winter aconite


A Scented Wave

    For the past couple of weeks, every time I walk upstairs to my home office, a sweet aroma hits me like a wave a few steps before I reach the top stair. This wave pulls me forward, a room and a half away, to the Meyer lemon plant sitting in my office’s sunny, south-facing window.Meyer lemon tree in pot
    The wave began when only a single Meyer lemon flower had opened. Now, the plant, only a foot and a half high, is decked out with more than 20 flowers.
    This “tree” started life as a cutting I took from a friend’s old tree that anyway needed some pruning. With their bottom leaves stripped off, the 6 inch long stems rooted reliably in a few weeks after their bottom portions were plunged into a moist mix of equal parts peat and perlite, and transpiration was reduced with a clear plastic overhead. Bright, but indirect, light allowed for photosynthesis without cooking the plants in their “mini-greenhouse.”
    My most important job now is to keep an eye out for scale insects, which show up as either brown bumps (armored scale) or cottony tufts (cottony cushion scale) on leaves and stems. Rubbing off these insects or dabbing them with a Q-tip soaked in alcohol deals with them unless the population gets out of hand. Repeated sprays with horticultural oil can be the next line of defense.Pollinating Meyer lemon
    Every couple of days I pick up the artist’s brush lying next to the potted plant, and dab it on the tips of some of the flowers. I’m not painting; I’m picking up the yellow pollen from each flower’s male anthers and dusting it onto each flower’s, and neighboring flower’s, female stigmas.
    A good proportion of those pollinated flowers should go on to provide the next treat from Meyer lemon, fruit, which this plant usually bears prolifically. Meyer lemon is actually a hybrid of lemon and sweet orange, with both parents reflected in the flavor. A final plus for this plant is, in contrast to many other citrus plants, is that its stems lack thorns.

Another Fig Option

    Greenhouse figs still bear fruit; with low light and cool temperatures, they’re not worth eating. I did recently harvest a few figs from a Kadota fig plant that had been planted outdoors.
    “Had been planted outdoors?” So where is it now? It’s still outdoors, but not planted. It’s in a pot. Like my few other potted figs, the potted Kadota plant will move down to the basement before temperatures drop below 20°F.Potted Kadota fig in ground
    Unlike my other potted figs, the Kadota plant did not require daily watering all summer. Or yearly root pruning and repotting to give the roots new room to grow and explore. The reason is because Kadota is in an 18” diameter plastic pot with some holes I drilled in its side. In spring, I sunk the pot up to its rim into a waiting hole in a bed on the sunny, south side of my house. The plant’s roots wandered outside the pot into the surrounding soil through the existing opening in the bottom of the pot, as well as through the side openings. Once outside the pot, roots were able to fend for themselves garnering water and nutrients for the small tree.Potted Kadota, out of ground
    Kadota, like many other fig varieties (but few other kinds of fruits), bears fruit on new shoots. Very convenient. Rather than having to squeeze spreading limbs down my narrow basement stairs, I can cut back all the stems rather drastically, which also has the benefit of stimulating vigorous, new shoots at the cut stub, new shoots that will bear fruit next year. Not too drastically, though, or too long a time might be required for the fruit to develop and ripen. And Kadota is already a late ripening variety.
    Of all my figs, Kadota is my favorite, both for its almost chewy skin and the rich, sweet flavor lying within. Even those recently harvested ones.

Comely, Fragrant, and Poisonous

    Another sensory treat slated for winter comes compliments of Angels’ Trumpets (Brugmansia spp.). The flowers of these poisonous(!), subtropical trees are giant, 6 inch long trumpets in pale colors and from which wafts a delicious aroma, especially at night. These subtropical plants can grow into trees but are easily kept much small, in pots, in cold climates.

Angels Trumpets, in past years

Angels Trumpets, in past years

    I neglected my plant all summer and on into fall; when I retrieved it to protect it from coldest nights, it was just about leafless and ready for the compost pile. Then I noticed some small leaves beginning to develop along its almost bare stems. And some stems had the beginnings of flowers on them.
    So I brought Angels’ Trumpet indoors, next to a sunny window (and next to the Meyer lemon). It looks sad now but should revive and, judging from my previous experiences with this plant, flower well most of winter. In summer, with long days, it takes a rest from flowering — which is why I ignored the plant.