Playing Around With Stems

Top Doggery

My pear trees look as if a giant spider went on a drunken frolic among the branches. Rather than fine silk spun in an orderly web, strings run vertically from branch to branch and branch to ground. Yet there is method in this madness. Mine.
As I spell out in my new book, The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden, plants produce a natural hormone, called auxin, at the tips of their stems or at high points along a downward curving stems. This hormone suppresses growth of side branches along the stem, allowing growth from a bud at the stem tip or high point be the “top dog,” that is, the most vigorous shoot.

Within any plant a push and pull goes on between fruiting an stem growth. Both require energy, which the plant has to apportion between the two. The more vigorously growing a stem, the less fruitful it is.

All this talk of hormones and inherent stem vigor is more than academic; it can translate into delicious fruits.

Pear trees tend to grow very vigorously, especially in their youth, with many vertically oriented branches. A certain amount of stem growth is, of course, desirable; leaves are needed for harvesting sunlight for energy and stems are needed on which to hang fruit.
Tied branches in British orchard

Tied branches in British orchard

But pear trees, especially in the youth, tend to put too much of their energies, too much for me, at least, into stem growth. The result is that they can take long time to settle down and begin bearing fruit.

Hence, the strings. I can change my pear trees’ habits by merely tying down branches, reducing the effect of that auxin so that growth is more uniform along a length of the stem. And, as important, slowing growth nudges the energy balance in the direction of fruiting.

Branch bending

The one branch on each young tree that I do not tie down is the main vertical stem, which is the still developing trunk off which grow the main side branches. I want this stem to keep growing upward. Also, I have to be careful not to create a downward arch when tying down any stem. You know why: a very vigorous shoot pops up from the high point in that arch.

More Fruit or More Growth?

Branch bending is not only for coaxing a tree into fruiting. On young branches, it creates a wide angle between a branch and the developing trunk. Wide angles here have been shown to result in good anchorage, sturdy side branches that can carry a weight of fruit.

Suppressing the vigor of side branches also ensures that they won’t compete with the developing trunk, which needs to be top dog.

And using string to play around with plant hormones isn’t needed on every fruit tree. At the other extreme from pear in its growth and fruiting habits is peach. Peach is naturally very fecund, and becomes naturally so at a very young age.

One reason for peach’s fecundity is that it bears all its flowers and fruits along stems that grew the previous season. Every year new stems grow that bear flowers and fruits.             

Beauty, Fruit, and Fun

All this concern with auxin, vigor, and fruiting comes most prominently into play with espalier, which is the training of a tree to an orderly, often two dimensional form. The tracery of the branches themselves adds to the decorative value of the plant.Pear espalier

Fruiting espaliers, besides being decorative, produce very high quality fruit. Pruning and branch bending maintain a  careful balance between yield and stem growth, and the form of the plant allows leaves and fruits to bathe in sunlight and air.

Asian pear espalier flowering

SANS (fr.) / SIN (sp.) SOIL

Clarabel And Abbe Fetel

The UPS guy delivered two large, long boxes last week. Laid out in each box as in a coffin was what looked like a sturdy, 4-foot long stick. You wouldn’t think that either stick, one labelled Clarabel quince and the other labelled Abbe Fetal pear, could ever become a tree, could ever even come to life! Unpacking, then holding one of the sticks up, its bare roots dangling in the air, I had my doubts about the plant’s viability, even though I’ve planted many bare root trees over many years.

Bare root tree soaking

Bare root tree soaking

Bare root trees are grown at a nursery and, sometime between fall and spring while still leafless and dormant, are dug up, their roots shaken free of soil, and shipped. Before shipping a tree, a good nursery will  tuck moist sphagnum moss, shredded newspaper, or other water retaining material in among the roots, then swaddle the  roots and moist packaging all in plastic.

Some loss of large roots is unavoidable when digging a bare root tree.  Less obvious is loss of tender root hairs. And roots don’t ever like being out of the soil. So why didn’t I just order a potted tree, which hardly need know that it’s been moved, rather than a bare root tree?

The main reason for buying a bare root Claribel quince or Abbe Fetel is because there’s not much chance of finding a potted one locally or, probably, anywhere. Bare root trees and shrubs are cheaper to buy and cheaper to mail than potted trees and shrubs, and are available in much greater variety.

Treated well, growth of bare root trees and shrubs will match that of their potted counterparts. Good treatment doesn’t end at the nursery. Soon after unpacking Claribel and Abbe Fetel, their roots were in a bucket of water, to soak for a few hours. Planting holes were dug just deep enough to set each tree at the same depth as at the nursery (as evidenced by the soil line on the trunk) and twice as wide as the spread of the roots. Abbe Fetal had a couple of straggly roots; I clipped them back to the same length as the other roots.

Holding a tree in place with one hand, I sifted soil back in among the spread roots in the planting hole, working the soil in amongst roots by poking with my fingers and occasionally bouncing the plant up and down slightly. After planting, a thorough watering further settled soil in amongst the roots. An icing of mulch — I used wood chips — and the plant, still looking like nothing more than a stick, was ready to go, as far as I was concerned.

Daphne . . . Alive

Last year I bought a potted Daphne bush at a local garden center. As I tipped the plant out of the pot to nestle into its waiting planting hole, all the potting soil fell away from the roots.Daphne in bloom

It’s not uncommon for a garden center to buy in bare root trees and shrubs, just as I did with Clarabel and Abbe Fetal, then pot them up for sale. Roots in some soil are ready to take in nutrients and water as soon as when warm weather coaxes out new leaves and shoots. Some weeks must pass before the roots actually grow out into the potting soil, though.

The Daphne was leafed out but hardly rooted when I tipped it out of the pot, making it again bare root. I had doubts about its survival. But it did survive. Still, it was an expensive bare-root plant.

Annuals In Cells

A hundred or so years ago, even tender, annual vegetable transplants were re-located to their new homes bare root. Tomatoes would be grown in cold-frames, hot beds, or greenhouses, then gingerly lifted free of the soil. Kept out of the sun and with their roots moist in a bucket of water, the plants were moved to the field or garden and planted, preferably on an overcast day. If the day was dry and sunny, a cedar shingle might be shoved into the ground to shade the plant for a day or two.

Transplant in Orto pot

Transplant in Orto pot

These days, as you know, vegetable transplants come in plastic cell packs, each plant in its own mini-pot. For tender, small annual plants, potted is much better than bare-root.

Clarabel Has Risen

Resurrection! Only a few days after planting Clarabel and Abbe Fetel, and, like magic, green buds have swollen along the once dead-looking stems.Clarabel starting to grow

A Seedy Time of Year

Around here, eating fruit isn’t always just about eating fruit. Following my last bite of this Macoun apple I’m eating, I flick out the seeds with a paring knife into a cup. Same goes for pears and their seeds. Early in summer, I spit out Nanking cherry seeds into a waiting vessel. All these seeds are for planting,
Seeds of these cold hardy plants won’t sprout as soon as they hit moist, warm dirt. If they did, the young seedlings would be snuffed out by winter cold. It is after a period of exposure to cool, moist conditions that they — thinking winter over — sprout. Seeds in dropping fruits, of course, enjoy this experience naturally and poke up through the ground first thing next spring,
Wanting to keep a close eye on my seedlings, I plant them in pots and seed flats rather than let them do what they would do naturally. After I had collected the seeds, I kept them dry, and now am ready to plant

them. This week I am sowing the seeds in potting soil in flats and in pots. Once given a good watering, the seed flats and pots get covered with a pane of glass to hold in moisture. Tucked against the north wall of my house, the seeds will sprout in spring,

Sometimes I cozy such seeds into plastic bags of moist potting soil in the refrigerator. The problem is that the seeds then  sprout in the bags in midwinter. Cool, not cold, temperatures are what fool the seeds into behaving as if winter’s over. About 1,000 hours, depending on the species and variety of plant, usually does the trick. In the refrigerator, temperatures are always cool; outdoors, only sometimes, and there, it’s not until late winter that the required 1,000 hours of cool temperatures have been fulfilled. It’s hard to provide ample light for an enthusiastic seedling growing in midwinter,
Unless a plant self-pollinates and has been grown in isolation, with desirable plants selected each generation for many generations, seedlings are unlike their parents. So none of the fruits on the seedlings that grow from the seeds taken from Macoun, Golden Delicious, Liberty, Bosc, Maxine, and Clapp’s Favorite apples and pears will match the parents; they will most likely be inferior,
No problem; these seedlings are for rootstocks on which to graft stems of good-tasting varieties of apples and pears. Rootstocks are ready to graft after growing for one season,
Nanking cherries are an exception; no varieties are available. The seedlings, which show some variation, are all good-tasting, so no need anyway to graft,
Another batch of seeds I’m sowing is of more tropical-like plants: passionfruit and hardy orange. I write

“tropical-like” because the passionfruit I’m planting is maypop (Passiflora incarnata) and the hardy orange is Poncirus trifoliata. Both should survive winter cold here. Both are also northern members of tropical or subtropical families, and their seed behavior reflects their tropical “roots.”

Hardy orange seeds, like citrus seeds, lose their viability if allowed to dry out. Things are not so clearcut with the best way to grow maypop from seed. I sowed the seeds as soon as I removed the delectable, gel coating each seed (by eating it),
Hardy orange is a nice ornamental plant; my hardy orange is the variety Flying Dragon, which is a spectacular ornamental plant,
In contrast to apple and pear seedlings, hardy orange seedlings often resemble their moms. Seeds of hardy orange, like those of citrus, look like any old seeds that result from the union of male pollen with

female eggs. In fact, many are apomyctic, that is, derived solely from mother plant tissue. No jumbling around of chromosomes to produce variable seedlings here. Apomyctic seedlings are clones, Flying Dragon in the case of my hardy orange seedlings,

A citrus or hardy orange fruit yields some apomyctic and some sexual seedlings, about 50% of each in the case of hardy orange,
As I admired Flying Dragon over the past few months, one way or another I had to make more plants. Cuttings taken a few months ago weren’t rooting and although the plant flowered, no fruits were evident. Then, last week, as leaves dropped from my plant — hardy orange parts ways with real oranges in being deciduous — I caught sight of a single orange orb perched on a stem. One fruit is plenty because they are very seedy. That single fruit, smaller than a golf ball, yielded 20 seeds,
I didn’t eat any of that Flying Dragon fruit. A bit of juice from hardy orange adds a citrus-y tang to a recipe but the fruit itself is too robust and bitter for eating straight up,

Plums and Pears

New video now up: See
Whoosh! Summer is speeding past. Cicadas have come and gone. Same goes for Japanese beetles. Temperatures have cooled dramatically.
And now it’s raining plums. That’s a good thing, and something not easily achieved in this part of the world without, at least, some sprays. The main threats come from plum curculio, Oriental fruit moth, black knot, and brown knot. The first and the last are my most serious plum pests, curculio causing young fruits to plummet to the ground early in the season and brown rot turning nearly ripe fruit into masses of gray fuzz.
Although a few early season sprays, the last in June, knocked out many curculios and reduced inoculum for later infections of brown rot, pruning is all-important in my arsenal against pests. In late winter, I clipped off or partially back enough branches so that remaining ones would be bathed in light and air for quick drying

— and less diseases — following rain or dew. While pruning, I also kept my eyes out for any thick, tarry coatings (black knot) or dark, sunken areas (valsa canker) on stems; such stems got lopped back 6 inches into healthy wood.

I do all this every year and some years I still get no plums; this year, as I wrote, it’s raining plums. Raining??!! Yes. That’s because we harvest daily by giving branches a slight shake, which brings ripe plums raining down. Once we’ve gathered the good drops into a basket and infested and infected ones into a compost bucket, the chickens move in to clean up any missed drops, which also helps keep pests in check.
The variety is Imperial Épineuse, which originated in France about 1870 and made it stateside in 1883. It’s a prune plum, so can also be dried. The fresh flavor is so good that I’m more than willing to accept a crop 2 out of every 5 years.
A certain amount of luck is involved, especially here, in getting a plum crop because my site is less than ideal as far as temperatures and humidity. I credit this past spring’s perfect temperatures for my current luscious harvest. Fingers crossed for next year.
As I was harvesting the first pears of the season (also a very nice crop this year, thank you) — the variety Harrow Delight — I noticed a lot of columbine plants colonizing the mulched ground beneath the pear trees. As a matter of fact, columbine and an occasional thistle are the main weeds there. These columbines aren’t our dainty, native columbines but, rather, hybrids of cultivated columbines. They’re not flowering now, but the robust leaves are telling.
My columbines aren’t necessarily weeds. They started out as cultivated hybrids that I planted many years ago. Year after year of cross-pollination has jumbled the genes to create new hybrids, natural ones. They’re somewhat different from the originals and from each other but I’ve never seen one that wasn’t attractive. The flowers are long past, of course, having morphed into dry seed heads that rattle down seeds every time I brush them, sowing more plants. The whorl of leaves are still green and lush with the delicate look of maidenhair fern.
At some point, the number of columbines tips the scales into weediness. Some, I see, have the audacity to be edging their way into the vegetable garden. My plan is to maintain a fluid and, hopefully, not too tenuous balance between columbine-the-flower and columbine-the-weed. I can’t imagine ever having to plant columbine again.
Looking up from the columbines, I continue to pick pears — not an easy job. The difficulty comes from trying to figure out when to do it. Pears must be harvested underripe because they ripen from the inside outward. Allowed to fully ripen on the tree, their insides become brown mush. The fruit must, however, be sufficiently along on the road to maturity before harvest if it is to ripen well.
A few clues help tell when to pick: A lightening of the skin’s background color; the raised pores on the skin becoming brown and corky; the stalk separating easily from the stem when the fruit is lifted and twisted. These changes are subtle and require judgement. Last year I harvested too late so this year I’m scrapping judgement and picking by calendar date gleaned from various sources after taking into account their locations.
The story doesn’t end with harvest, though. Before the early pears are ready to eat, they need a few days refrigeration. (Outdoor temperatures are sufficiently cool to chill late-ripening pears.) After that, small batches can be sequentially taken from the refrigerator to finish ripening at  room temperature. A short window, then, presents itself when flavor is at its best. “There are only 10 minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. But what a sensuous 10 minutes.

A new book: Grow Fruit Naturally, pear excerpt

Now is a good time to plan and plant for some home-grown fruits — pears, for example. Here’s an excerpt from the pear section of my NEW book, Grow Fruit Naturally (Taunton Press, 2012, signed copies available from my website, listed at right):
My ‘Yoinashi’ Asian pear, now in bloom
Pears come in two “flavors:” European and Asian. European pears, which are most familiar in American markets, are typically buttery, sweet, and richly aromatic — and pear-shaped. Asian pears are typically round with crisp flesh that, when you take a bite, explode in your mouth with juice. Their flavors are sweet with a delicate, floral aroma and sometimes a hint of walnut or butterscotch. Both kinds of pears have been cultivated for thousands of years, and within each type exists thousands of varieties.
Pears of either “flavor” are easy to grow. But growing and ripening a European pear to its highest state of perfection is an art. The best one I ever tasted was at a horticultural conference at the venerable East Malling Research Station in England. At the conclusion of the conference we were led into an elegant, large, wood-paneled room, up the center of which ran a hulking, oak banquet table on which sat nothing more than a few bowls of perfectly ripened ‘Comice’ pears, ours for the tasting. I reached for a pear, took a bite, and quickly had to make my way to the conveniently opened French doors at the far end of the room to keep the ambrosial juice dripping with each bite from marring the staid surroundings.
Cultivation of European and Asian pears is essentially the same, with just a few subtle differences. Both need full sun and soil that is at least reasonably well-drained. Pears can tolerate wetter soils than many other tree fruits. Among my favorite varieties are ‘Magness’ and ‘Seckel’ European pears, and ‘Yoinashi’ and ‘Chojuro’ Asian pears.
A pear spur
Once a tree reaches bearing age, prune lightly every year. Completely remove some  of the overly vigorous stems, which mostly originate higher in the tree, and merely shorten weak twigs, which mostly arise lower in the tree. Fruits are borne on spurs, which are short stems elongating only a half-inch each year. Periodically, shorten old branches more aggressively to stimulate growth of new shoots and spurs. Asian pears need more aggressive pruning than European pears, although European pears, especially, are prone to growing many overly vigorous, vertical growing shoots, which shade the plant, are not fruitful, and are more prone to disease. Cut them back when pruning or, even better, grab them in your hand and rip them off with a quick downward jerk while they are still green and growing during summer.
Each flower bud on a pear tree opens to a cluster of flowers, so pear trees, left to their own devices, usually will overbear. Thin fruits to about 5 in. apart. Thinning Asian pears is very important, spelling the difference between a harvest of ho-hum pears and ones that elicit a “wow!”
In most yards, pears can be grown successfully without any attention to pest control. Occasionally, a few pests warrant attention and action.
The main bugaboo in pear growing is the bacterial disease fire blight, readily identified by stems whose ends curl in shepherd’s crooks with seemingly singed, blackened leaves still attached. Diligent pruning out of blighted stems, cutting a few inches below damage, keeps the disease in check. Fire blight has never appeared on any of my more than a dozen trees.
Now for the reward: harvest. Asian pears are precocious, sometimes fruiting in their third season, while European pears are slower to come into bearing. 
First, the easy harvest. Asian pears. Harvest them when they are fully colored and detach easily when you roll them upward with a twist. Taste is the final test: If flavor is not up to snuff, let the fruits hang longer.
European pears must be harvested underripe. Left to fully ripen on the tree, the flesh is brown mush. The fruit must, however, be mature before it is picked and the first clue to fruit maturity is a subtle lightening of the skin’s background color. Look more closely, at the lenticels, or raised pores on the skin; they will become brown and corky at harvest time. Lift and twist the fruit. If the stalk separates easily from the stem, the fruits are ready for harvest.
‘Magness’ pear – mmmm, one of the best!
You’re not yet in pear heaven. European pears need to be kept cool for awhile — a few days for early ripening varieties, a few weeks for late ripening varieties — before they can begin ripening. Keep them cool longer if you intend to store them.
Take some pears out of cold storage a few days before you want them for eating and put them in a cool room. They are ready to enjoy when they give slightly with pressure from your finger near the stem end. If you’ve mastered the art of pear growing, harvesting, and ripening, your reward is fruits that are neither “sleepy” nor the other extreme, “grassy,” but juicy and sweet with characteristic aromas that might include varying proportions of almond, rose, honey, and musk. Still, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat.” But what sensuous ten minutes!
Perry is fermented pear juice, an old-fashioned beverage whose origin lies in France but reached its heyday in 16th and 17th century England. The juice was not your mother’s – or grandmother’s – pear juice. Pears for perry, a different species from European or Asian pears, are mostly too astringent for fresh eating. They’re also very long-lived: an avenue of perry pears planted in England in 1710 were reportedly still alive and fruitful in the mid-20th century. 
Perry is made like hard cider, except that perry pears need to sit for a few days after harvest for their flavors to develop. And again, after crushing, the pomace needs to sit for about a day to reduce the tannins. The end product is quite different from cider because perry pears have more fermentable and nonfermentable sugars, more citric acid, and different kinds of tannins. And because, of course, the raw material is pears.
Traditionally, perry has been a very variable product, reflecting what varieties of perry pears went into the mix, how the mix was fermented, how the fruits were grown, and the vagaries of a particular season. The drink was very much a home- or farm-made beverage, varying as much in alcohol concentration as in flavor. After experiencing a lapse in interest and various attempts to industrialize the product in the 20th century, perry is undergoing a renaissance.
Part of that renaissance lies in the re-discovery of some of the traditional perry pear varieties. ‘Arlingham Squash’, ‘Green Horse’, ‘Moorcroft’, ‘Rock’, and ‘Taynton Squash’ are among the varieties that have contributed to vintage quality perries for over three centuries. One problem with these old varieties is that their nomenclature is as muddled as the finished product can be in some years. Hundred of names exist for a much less number of varieties. Which isn’t all bad, because some of those names are worth having just because: ‘Mumblehead’, ‘Merrylegs’, ‘Devildrink’, ‘Lumberskull’, and, the longest one on record, ‘A drop of that which hangs over the wall’.
Two gardening workshops in the offing:
On April 22nd, I’ll be hold ing a pruning workshop, covering the why, when, with what, and how of pruning.
On April 28th, I’ll be holding a grafting workshop, covering the how, why, and when of grafting. In addition to a hands-on demonstration, participants will graft and take home their own pear tree.
Both workshops will be held at my “farmden,” run from 2-5:50 pm, and cost $55. Pre-registration is necessary. For information or registration, contact me at garden@leereich dot com.