Yew Love

Mundane as she may be, I love yew (not mispelled, but the common name for Taxus species, incidentally vocalized just like “you”). Hardy, green year ‘round, long-lived, and available in many shapes and sizes, what’s not to love? Perhaps that it’s so commonly planted, pruned in dot-dash designs to grace the foundations in front of so many homes.

Still, I love her. For one thing, Robin Hood’s bow was fashioned from a yew branch (English yew, T. baccata, in this case). Two other species — Pacific yew (T. brevifolia) and Canadian yew (T. canadensis) — are sources of taxol, and anti-cancer drug.
Yew berries
At a very young age, I became intimate with yew bushes surrounding our home’s front stoop, on which my brother and I would often play. Yew’s red berries, with an exposed dark seed in each of their centers, would give the effect of being stared at by so many eyes. Sometimes we’d squish out the red juice, carefully though, because we were repeatedly reminded that all parts of the plant are poisonous. (I’ve since learned that the red berries are not poisonous; but  other parts of the plant, including the seed within each red berry are poisonous.)

If yew has, for me, one major fault, it’s that deer eat it like candy. Interesting, since grazing on yew can kill a cow or a horse.

Mostly, I love yew because she takes to any and all types of pruning. My father once had a very overgrown yew hedge threatening to envelope his terrace. I suggested cutting the whole hedge down to stumps. Following an anxious few weeks when I thought my suggestion perhaps overly bold, green sprouts began to appear along the stump. A few years later the hedge was dense with leaves, and within bounds.

Although usually pruned as a bush, yew can be pruned as a tree. A trunk, once exposed and developed, has a pretty, reddish color. Deer sometimes take care of this job, chomping off all the stems they can reach to create a high-headed plant with a clear trunk. 

As an alternative to being pruned to dot-dash spheres and boxes, yew hedges can be pruned to fanciful shapes, including animals, or “cloud pruned” (niwaki, the Japanese method of pruning to cloud shapes). Many years ago, I followed the herd and planted some yews along the front foundation of my house, pruning them to one long dash. No dots.
Yew caterpillar
Since then, I’ve converted that hedge to a giant caterpillar and, more recently, tired of the caterpillar and attempted to cloud prune it, not with great success so far. (It’s my shortcoming as a sculptor, not the plant’s fault.) The goal in this case is not the kind of cloud pruning with clouds as balls of greenery perched on the ends of stems. My goal is to blend the four plants together as one billowy, soft cloud.

Facing my kitchen window is another yew, a large one that was planted way before I got here. Its previous caretaker, and up to recently I, have maintained it as a large, rounded cone. Last year I decided to make that rounded cone more interesting, copying a topiary in Britain. The design is in its early stages, awaiting some new growth this year to fill in bare stems now showing in interior of the bush.
Yew topiary in progress

Not Too Late for Peaches

Moving on to more pragmatic pruning . . . peaches. No, it’s not too late. In fact, the ideal time to prune a peach tree is around bloom time, when healing is quick. This limits the chance of stem diseases, to which peaches are susceptible.

Peach tree, before pruning

Peach tree, before pruning

Peach trees need to be pruned more severely than other fruit trees. As with other fruit trees, the goals are to avoid branch congestion so remaining branches can be bathed in light and air, to plan for future harvests, and to reduce the crop — yes, you read that right — so that more energy and better quality can be pumped into remaining fruits.

To begin, I approached my tree, loppers and pruning saw in hand, for some Sawing peach limbmajor cuts aimed at keeping the tree open to light and air.

Peaches bear each season’s fruits on stems that grew the previous season. So next, with pruning shears, possibly the lopper, in hand, I went over the tree and shortened some stems. This coaxes buds along those stems to grow into new stems on which to hang next year’s peaches.
Shortening peach branch
And finally, I went over the tree with pruning shears, clipping off dead twigs as well as weak, downward growing stems. They can’t support large, juicy, sweet fruits.

Done. I stepped back and admired my work.
Peach tree after pruningAnd, of course, for more about pruning, there’s my book, The Pruning Book.

Taste And Aroma

Old Peaches

The peaches on a friend’s tree were small, marred with bacterial spot disease, and still showed some green on their skins. So burdened with fruits was the tree that it had burst asunder from their weight, splitting one of the main limbs.

Still, the friend insisted that the peaches tasted good. As further enticement, the tree had a history, having sprouted on the grounds of a nearby 18th century house that had an orchard. The tree was evidently cold hardy also. So I twisted one fruit off and took a bite. In spite of being not quite ripe, the fruit was delicious, quite sweet — as is usual with white peaches such as these — and with an old-fashioned, intensely peachy flavor.Heirloom peach

I took up the offer to take a small bag of them home with me. And not only for eating. My plan is to save the seeds from many of them for planting and for making into new trees that should taste very much like their mother tree. Peaches are self-pollinating, in contrast to apples and pears, so progeny often resemble their parent. Peaches also bear within just a few years from seed so I could weed out some or all plants whose fruits were not up to snuff.

The first step to a peachy future was to crack open the shells surrounding each seed, and then drop the seeds into a plastic bag filled with potting soil on the workbench in my unheated garage.

In their natural environment, peach seeds ripen in summer but wouldn’t sprout until spring. If they sprouted immediately, winter cold would likely kill the very young seedling. Hormones within the seeds sense when winter has ended by the number of accumulated hours at cool (30 to 45°F) temperatures.

The number of hours depends on the genetics of the tree but for most hardy fruit trees, about 1000 hours, or about a month and a half, does the trick. And I do intend to trick them, to give them an early start on the season, indoors. The more they grow each season, the sooner they bear.

I’d like them to sprout in early March, so will put the bag of potting soil and peach seeds into my refrigerator in early December. Once they sprout, I’ll pot a few up and, once they emerge from the soil, move them to the sunniest window or the greenhouse, then, when weather warms, outdoors.

It’s a Weed, It’s a Garden Plant, It’s a . . .

Some plants straddle the fence of being defined as a weed. Case in point is Sweet Annie. On looks alone, the plant could easily fall to one side of the fence, qualifying only as a weed. It’s nothing more than a nondescript, upright plant — until it bends over from it’s own weight — that’s green, clumps of them sprouting all over the place. Despite being a member of the Daisy Family of plants, Sweet Annie’s flowers are small, pale green, and not notable.Sweet Annie

I, and many other gardeners, grow the plant for its rich, resiny aroma. Bundles of them are for sale from many farms at Maine’s Common Ground Fair; it’s the signature aroma there. So I also grow Sweet Annie to bring me back, olfactorily speaking, to my good times at the Fair.

As a sometime weed, Sweet Annie is, of course, easy to grow. I first planted it 3 years ago, sowing it, unnecessarily, in pots for later transplanting. No need to plant it again; it self-seeds enthusiastically, my job now being to contain that enthusiasm. 

Amazing how that plant can move around. It managed to find its way from the back of my house to the front of my house without going around either side. It manages to sprout in spaces between the bricks of my terraces holding the thinnest slivers of soil.

Sweet Annie is sometimes cultivated as a row crop for harvest and extraction of artemisinin, which has some medicinal uses. As for me, I just weed out plants in the wrong place (as defines a weed), and harvest a few bunches to hang near the door for an olfactory treat as I brush past it.  

How Pesky And Interesting

Snowflakes? No.

Gardening never ceases to be interesting, even if the current object of interest is a pest. Not just any pest, but a NEW pest! And not just for me.

I was alerted to this pest when pulling a few weeds near my Brussels sprouts plants. Brushing against their leaves brought a cloud of what looked like fine snowflakes. They were, in fact, whiteflies, tiny (1.5 mm) fluttering insects, immediately recognizable to me from their common occurrence on houseplants.

Cabbage whitefly

Cabbage whitefly

Whiteflies rarely show up on outdoor plants; in my experience, never. Easy enough to discover on the web, my whiteflies are appropriately named cabbage whiteflies (Aleyrodes protella). This native of Europe first turned up in the U.S. in 1993, but is rare in the Hudson Valley. It’s fond of all cabbages relatives, with a preference for kale. Not in my garden, though; kale, sharing the bed with the Brussels sprouts, is hardly attacked.

The attack seems mild, most evident, besides the snow clouds, as some black, sooty mold on the plants. Sooty mold is a fungus that feeds on the sweet exudate the insect drips on the plant. It’s only on the surface of the leaf so is harmless unless it becomes so dense that the leaf is shaded.

Cabbage whitefly isn’t easily controlled with chemical pesticides. I’m not worried, though, because the level of damage doesn’t warrant my lifting a finger against them.

If some control is needed before the season ends, sprays of either insecticidal soap or horticultural oils are effective — and won’t disrupt the whiteflies’ natural insect and fungal enemies, of which there are plenty. Cleaning up the bed at the end of the season also helps, for next year. Yellow-colored cards coated with something sticky, like Tangletrap, also could offer some control. For now, though, I’m just watching them flit about each time I draw near.

Peach Harvest

The peach crop got harvested a few days ago, all two of them. The tree is small, but not that small; it could have supported a couple of gallons of peaches.

This was a good season for peaches. Unfortunately, my farmden is not a good site for fruit. Insect pests can move in from the woods only 50 feet from the trees, and the low lying ground acts like a basin into which cold air can collect. That cold air brings late frosts (not this year), and moister air in which fungal diseases fester. Those are my excuses for my two-peach harvest.

On the other hand, my investment in the tree has been minimal. The tree grew from a peach pit. Sow an apple seed and the tree might take 10 years before it yields its first fruit. And then, after that long wait, the chance of that fruit tasting good is only about one in 10,000.Sprouting peach pit

Sow a peach seed, and the tree might bear in 4 years. The fruit on that tree is likely to taste quite good, perhaps great. Peaches are self-pollinating, so there’s no foreign genes introduced into the resulting pit. Not so for apples, which don’t bear fruit unless pollinated by a different variety.

My peaches, by the way, tasted great. And, with gracefully drooping leaves that retain their shiny green color all season long, the tree is very attractive. I am hoping for a larger crop next year.

Ladybugs to the Rescue

Aha. Checked back with the whiteflies on the Brussels sprouts, and what do I see? Some ladybugs dining, moving up and down the leaves. The young larvae are likewise at work along with their parents.Ladybug on cabbage leaf

(The “lady” in ladybug is, by the way, the virgin Mary. The German word for them, Marienkafer, translates also as Marybeetle.)

Among the many species of ladybug, all in the family Coccinellidae, are some that specialize in devouring mites, others specialize in mildews, still others on mealybugs (I mentioned last week purchasing and using them for fig mealybugs), some for scale insects, and so on. Some members of the family feed on plants: squash beetles and Mexican bean beetles, for instance.

I don’t know which species of ladybug is at work on my Brussels sprouts, but I’m happy to have them.

Cabbage whitefly & ladybug larvae

Cabbage whitefly & ladybug larvae