Hello Vanessa

A few days ago was the perfect day for planting the Vanessa grape vine deposited here by the UPS guy. Not because the weather was warm and sunny or because working outdoors was made all the more pleasant with peach, pear, and plum trees in all their glory, awash in white or pink blossoms. And not because the plums were suffusing the air with a most delectable fragrance.

Vanessa grape

Vanessa grape

The day was perfect for planting because the soil was in such good tilth. With each shovelful, clumps of soil broke apart under their own weight. A far cry from decades ago in my first garden, around this time of year, when digging brought up clods of Wisconsin soil still sticky and wet.

In wet soil, digging drives air out of the soil; under such conditions, roots of trees, shrubs, vines, and seedlings suffer. Better to wait for the soil to dry before planting. But not too long. Soil that is too dry turns rock-hard, too hard to crumble into small pieces to sift amongst roots. All this is moot in sandy soils, which never hold enough water to make them too wet for planting. Firming soil around roots

My present ground is a clay loam, which could be poor for planting if too wet. It wasn’t, because, first of all, it hadn’t rained for a few days. Second, warm weather had warmed the soil, the warmth speeding downward movement of excess water. And third, years and years of mulching with leaves, hay, and compost had made the ground rich in organic matter whose goodness had worked its way down through the soil profile with the help of earthworms and other soil organisms, rain, and the action of alternate freezing and thawing. Organic matter, among other benefits, acts as a glue to aggregate soil particles into a crystalline-like structure that helps with holding both air and water.

Training And Pruning Plans

I can bank on Vanessa growing well her first season in the ground. Soon after she arrived, bare-root, I had her roots plumping up with a day-long soak in water. Her planting hole was just deep enough to let her sit at the same depth as in the nursery, and one-and-a-half to twice the spread of the roots across. I clipped back a couple of long, straggly roots.

Holding the stem with one hand, I pushed the soil I had dug out of the hole back in amongst the roots, working it in with my fingertips after initially sifting soil in among the smaller roots by bouncing the plant up and down a little. With the roots nestled into their planting hole, I sprinkled a couple of gallons of water to further settle the soil and get the plant off to a good start.

She arrived with five strong-looking canes jutting up just above where her roots splayed out. Too many, for my purposes. Like her established neighbors, Vanessa will be trained to a “high wire double cordon spur pruned” system, a mouthful that sounds more complicated than it is. Two trunks will rise, unbranched, to about 6 feet in height to the middle wire of a five-wire trellis. One trunk will continue its journey horizontally along the middle wire in one direction; the extension of the other trunk will do likewise in the opposite direction. These two horizontal growths are permanent fixtures, called cordons (same root as the word “cord”). High wire double cordon spur pruned grape

Grapes bear fruits on one-year old stems — these are the so-called “canes,” easily identified by their smooth, reddish brown bark and roughly pencil-thickness. New shoots growing from buds on canes bear bunches of grapes and can drape on the remaining wires on either side of the middle wire.

The following year, the new shoots become one-year-old canes. Without pruning (or with incorrect pruning), fruiting shoots and canes each year move further and further away from the cordon, so I cut each cane back to 2 buds in winter and, after a few years, cut them all the way back, to be replaced by new canes that are always popping out right from the cordon.New shoots bearing grapes

But all this is in Vanessa’s future. This year, all I want from her is two strong trunks.

Don’t Do What I Did

Rain fell, and I didn’t follow my own advice. Because I needed to convert a lumpy old garden area next door to lawn, and because lawngrass establishes best in cool weather, and because I had two helpers coming in a few days to help with ground preparation, I readied the area with a rototiller. I did so even though rain had been falling all day long. Rain fell even while I was tilling.

All in all, it was a horrible experience. Mud everywhere. Wrestling the tiller. Loud engine chugging away. (Now I remember one reason for my book, Weedless Gardening. Weed-less-ness comes, in part, from dispensing with tilling, which awakens buried weed seeds by exposing them to light. And there’s the added benefit of not having to till.)

Youthful, foolish Lee, tilling

Youthful, foolish Lee, tilling

With good drainage, the job finally got done without excessive destruction of soil structure. And anyway, I was only planting lawngrass.


Fruit for My Mouth, Flowers for My Eyes

As I write this, on December 1st, the Rabbi — that’s the Rabbi Samuel fig — is still ripening fruit in my barely heated greenhouse. That’s commendable. Not so commendable, however, is the flavor; cooler temperatures and sparse sunlight have taken their toll. The drooping fruits look ripe and ready to eat, inside and out, but they are no longer worth eating.

End of the fruiting season for Rabbi Samuel fig.

End of the fruiting season for Rabbi Samuel fig.

On the other hand, another fruit, Szukis American persimmons, hardly look edible but still have rich, sweet flavor. Outdoors, fruits of this variety of American persimmon cling to bare branches. Their orange skins once stretched almost to the point of breaking over the soft flesh within. Now, alternate freezing and thawing temperatures and drier air have sucked moisture and temper from the flesh, so the skins have shriveled and barely cling. Their darkening does nothing to increase the fruits’ visual appeal.

Szukis persimmons, starting to look ugly, but still honey sweet

Szukis persimmons, starting to look ugly, but still honey sweet

The ripe fruits are hard to distinguish, by eye, from the almost ripe fruits. The latter still retain some mouth-puckering astringency which has given American persimmons a bad name. An unripe persimmon “will draw a man’s mouth awrie with much torment” wrote Captain John Smith 400 years ago. I give Szukis’ branches a slight shake and only ripe fruits come raining to the ground, at which point the Captain’s further words ring true: “When [persimmon] is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricot.”

Can’t Help Wanting African Violets

New leaf cuttings

New leaf cuttings

Man can’t live by bread alone; a feast for the eyes is also in order. Well, maybe not a feast, but an appetizer, some winter flowers. Probably the easiest and most longlasting of winter blossoms are those of African violet. Okay, okay, I know that African violets have been mostly associated with doilies, lace curtains, and other appurtenances of old ladies (nothing against old ladies).

Generally, I don’t even like the color violet. But African violet’s flowers do brighten up a windowsill that looks out upon a gray and brown landscape.

Plantlets forming at bases of leaf cuttings

Plantlets forming at bases of leaf cuttings

Now that I’ve gotten my secret attraction to African violets off my chest, let’s talk horticulture. African violet’s whorl of leaves, like those of many low-growing perennial flowers, is actually a compressed stem, one that has been telescoped down so that each leaf and associated node originates just a fraction of an inch above the next lower leaf. But there is some distance between those nodes, so over time the stem does slowly elongate, rising higher and higher out of the ground. And side branches occasionally sprout forth from the leaf axils. The result of all this is that the potted plant becomes, over time, so overgrown with layer upon layer of leaves that the plant no longer can gather enough energy to flower well.

African Violet in all its glory.

African Violet in all its glory.

The solution to this problem is to make new plants and then chuck the old ones. All that’s needed to make a new plant is a leaf from an old plant and patience. So a few weeks ago I plucked a few leaves (a few, for insurance) from my old, overgrown African violet and plunged their stalks into a moist mix of peat moss and perlite. A plastic bag covering and held above the leaf cuttings by some twigs provided the needed humidity until roots could develop to keep the leaves turgid. Bright but indirect sunlight fueled, via photosynthesis, new root growth, and within a few weeks, resistance to a gentle tug on the leaves told me that roots had developed.

I removed the cover and now little plants are poking up through the ground alongside the leaf stalks. I’m going to transplant my rooted cuttings into larger pots and should, in a few weeks, be enjoying flowers. By then, I’ll have my knitting also ready.

11th Hour Apple Tree Planting

On to less gender stereotyped gardening: tree planting. Picture the day before Thanksgiving, November 26th. A wet snow is falling and beginning to whiten the ground. In my garage are two sturdy, bare root apple trees, a Hudson’s Golden Gem and an Ashmead’s Kernel, recently arrived from Cummins Nursery and needing planting.

Fortunately, I prepared the plantings site a couple of weeks previously with a 4-inch-deep, broad circle of leaf compost, the most immediate purpose of which was to keep the ground from freezing. Rushing to beat out the snow, I pulled enough compost aside to make space to dig holes, spread tree roots out in each hole, backfilled the soil, sifting it around the roots by pressing with my fingers and bouncing the tree up and down, and then settled all into place with a couple of gallons of water per plant.

I like autumn for tree planting. Roots have opportunity to grow in still warm soil (especially if mulched) while stems won’t grow and need water until spring. The soil is crumbly and soft, in good condition for digging and planting. And autumn planting leaves one less thing to do in the flurry of spring gardening.

However, winter temperatures and furry creatures can be a hazard to autumn-planted trees. The first line of defense, to fend off  mice and rabbits and moderate temperatures on the trunk, is a spiral plastic tree guard. An 18” high cylinder of 1/2” hardware cloth provides further defense against mice and rabbits. Beyond that, a higher and wider cylinder of 2×4 fencing should fend off deer and my puppy Sammy. (Past puppies considered newly planted trees as playthings, fun to tug out of the ground.) And finally, the well-furnished, new tree goes into winter with some perfume, a deer-repellant spray, any of which is effective if applied before the plant gets nibbled and renewed monthly.

I expect to harvest the first apples from the new apple trees expected in 3 years.