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. 

Blueberries & Cicadas, Mmmmm

“It takes a patient man to net an acre of blueberries.” The New England accent added weight to the declaration, as did the gentleman’s 80-something year old frame standing ramrod-straight and adorned with checkered jacket, a cap, and chinstrap beard. That was 30 years ago, and I was standing in the New Hampshire garden of Elwyn Meader, looking across the field at his acre of blueberries. Elwyn was a plant

breeder extraordinaire, then retired, who had developed new varieties of such plants as persimmons, chestnuts, lilacs, cucumbers, soybeans, watermelons, and everbearing strawberries. The honey-sweet Fallgold raspberry, my favorite, was Elwyn’s handiwork, incorporating genes from Korean raspberries he found while working there for the U. S. Army. 

Now, many years later, I think of Elwyn’s words as Deb and I rush to net our small plot, two-hundredths of an acre, of blueberries. (Not so small, though, to obviate a very respectable harvest of about 190 quarts of delectable, organic, sustainable, artisanal berries from 16 plants!) I append Elwyn’s words with “Covering two-hundredths of an acre of blueberries is a test of a marriage.” Nets can sag; tempers can thin; ladders can become unwieldy.
We survived. My latest incarnation of blueberry protection against birds starts with an enclosure of locust posts about 8 feet apart, with rebar running through holes a few inches from their tops. The sides, as my friend Bill calls it, my “Blueberry Temple,” are enclosed permanently in heavy duty, plastic bird netting ( Eighteen-inch-high chicken wire at the bottom keeps rabbits from chewing through the plastic. 
Now for the seasonal net, the one that tests our marriage and covers the planting while berries are

ripening, from late June until September. This net is of woven nylon, so is sturdy and drapes well (available from such sources as,, We spread the rolled up net on the ground near the entrance to the planting, then, each of us climbing a ladder at either side, lifts the roll up across the top, with either end of the roll resting on opposite sides of the rebar. Letting the free end drape a little over the entrance side, we each use a binder clip to fix the beginning of the roll near the entrance side. From then on, it’s a matter of unrolling the netting over the top, clipping and moving ladders as we go and — this is the part

that can get testy — making sure to keep the net even on both sides and sufficiently taught.

This year, the net was up in less than a half-hour, the blueberries were safe from birds, and the marriage was still intact.
Pruning tomatoes is such a pleasant garden “chore.” As I look over each plant for suckers — any shoot that originates at the upper part of juncture between a leaf and main stem — I get to monitor the swelling fruits, do a health check on the leaves and stems, and admire the plants’ neat growth habit. The latter comes from my weekly pruning off of the suckers followed by tying of the main stems to adjacent bamboo poles.
I can appreciate disorder in the garden but I also appreciate order. Disorder lends a pleasant, loosey-goosey atmosphere to the landscape. I find order more calming and an easier environment in which to satisfy the needs of each plant. For the tomatoes, pruning and staking them — which surely puts them in order — also gives greater yields (per square foot of garden space), and fruits that are cleaner and a bit earlier.
All this orderliness crumbles as August fades into September. By then, errant suckers get the best of me and the ever-elongating main stems reach the tops of their bamboo supports. Then where can they go? Sideways? Down? To an adjacent pole? No matter. By then, the end of tomato season is in sight and the plants pretty much do what they will as long as they keep pumping out juicy, red orbs.
The novelty of cicadas has worn thin. Their electronic cacophony whines in various pitches throughout the day without a moment’s respite. If you saw me walking past any one of my many infested trees or shrubs, you might see my arms flailing about to keep airborne ones at bay.
Thankfully, cicadas aren’t feeding on any plants. But their egg laying, beneath slits they make in bark, can cause damage. Young stems dying back do little damage to established trees and shrubs (gratuitous summer pruning of shoots?), but can kill young plants.
Here, the cicadas favor the lilac bush and pear trees and, to a lesser extent, the apple trees. I’ve gotten pretty good at snatching them by their wings. My chickens are very fond of the fresh, less so the frozen, catch of the day. This hand to hand combat feels good but makes but a small dent in the population.
The other afternoon I could no longer stand the sight of so many cicadas clustered on the trunks of my 8-year-old pear trees. I needed a bulk method, so ran indoors to grab a dust broom. The dust broom was quite effective, sending cicadas flying everywhere. And then back onto the trunks.
My last resort was to get out my sprayer and coat the trees and any resident cicadas with ‘Surround’, a commercially available,

organically approved pesticide made from kaolin clay. The coating makes for unpleasant footing and egg-laying for a variety of insects, and it clogs their spiracles.

The ‘Surround’, which I applied only to the apples and pears, had but little effect on the cicadas. Cicadas on plants became statuesque; a few fewer flew back on, for awhile. Of course, the incessant cacophony emanating from the woods continued. Only a couple of weeks or so to go, and then a 17 year hiatus.