Springtown Farmden Health Spa

    In the past, I have written of rei-king and sie-thing as two of the many healthful exercises offered here at Springtown Farmden Health Spa. We now have a new offering at the spa: garden yoga or, more catchy, gardoga or yōgdening. I like the last one best.
    Yōgdening grew out of my respect for the soil, my desire to maintain and foster a healthy balance of life below ground. A healthy population of bacteria, fungi, worms, actinomycetes and other below-ground dwellers translates to healthy plants above ground. Those beneficial creatures need to breathe, which is why most gardeners and farmers till their soil. To aerate it.

Yogdening, for health and weedlessness

Yogdening, for health and weedlessness

    But tilling a soil also burns up valuable organic matter. This organic matter feeds soil organisms and, in turn, plants, makes nutrients already in the ground more accessible to plants, helps hold moisture for plants, and helps aerate the soil.
    I avoid the need to till my soil for aeration by almost never walking, rolling a wheel barrow, or allowing any other traffic where plants are growing. Plants in fields and forest grow well despite never being tilled except what earthworms and other small animals manage to do. (No small amount: Charles Darwin computed that earthworms completely turn over the upper six inches of a pasture soil every 10 to 20 years — in England, at least.)
    Getting back to yōgdening . . . Weeds are making inroads into certain parts of my gardens. Not my vegetable gardens, the 3-foot-wide plant beds of which I keep well weeded with my feet firmly planted in the 18-inch-wide paths bordering the beds. But the only way I can reach into some other planted areas, a bed of various flowers sprawling beneath some Asian pear espaliers, for example, is by stepping into them. To minimize foot traffic, after stepping into a planted area, I try to keep my foot anchored in place, from which I pull every weed I can reach.
    As you might imagine, reaching every weed possible with feet planted in one place calls for all sorts of contortions and stretches forwards, backwards, and sideways involving my legs, trunk, shoulders, arms, and neck. My guess is that after a half-hour of weeding, I’ve run through a close approximation of Utthia Trikonāsana (Triangle Pose), Vīrabhadrāsana (Warrior Pose), and Uttānāsana (Standing Forward Fold Pose), to name a few classic yoga poses — and cleared away weeds!
    Weeding (or, perhaps, I should write “we-ding,” another spa offering) is especially satisfying this time of year. Dry weather has slowed sprouting of new weeds so cleared areas remain clear.

Brown Rot Not (Too Much)

    Dry weather is also good for fruit ripening. That is, ripening rather than rotting. As sweetness develops in ripening fruits, they become more susceptible to rotting. Fungi, like humans, can make quicker use of simple sugars than more complex carbohydrates, such as a are found in unripe fruits. Fruits with thin skins are especially susceptible to attack from fungi.
    For a variety of reasons, known and unknown, this has been a good year for plums. In past years, late frosts in spring have snuffed out blossoms or plum curculio has caused many, if not all, plumlets to rain to the ground. This year, blossom buds were unscathed from winter cold or spring frosts, curculios were kept at bay by my spraying Surround, a commercial product that is nothing more than kaolin clay.

Shiro plum

Shiro plum

   Current dry weather should also limit plums’ other nemesis: brown rot, a fungal disease that turns ripening fruit gray and fuzzy and then, at the end of the season, into dark brown, shriveled mummies. (Of course, beautiful clear days are often followed by clear nights during which water, in the form of dew, condenses on fruits and leaves.) The mummies hang from the branches, along with cankers on branches, spread spores and infection the following year. Fallen mummies are also a source of the following season’s infection.
    Brown rot gets to work early in the season, around blossom time, and then later in the season, as fruits are ripening, which is now, for my Shiro plums. Early in the season, I added sulfur, a naturally mined mineral whose use as a fungicide goes back to the ancient Greeks, to the mix when I was spraying Surround.
    Supplementing that spraying was cleaning up hanging and fallen mummies at the end of the season, and promoting drying of branches and fruits with pruning and thinning out of excess fruits.
    The upshot is that some brown rot is showing up on ripening plums. But not all of them. And those that have been spared are delectable. Even the birds think so. Their peckings, unfortunately, like wounds inflicted by plum curculios, increase fruits’ susceptibility to brown rot.

Tomatoes, Where Are You?

    Tomatoes are growing like gangbusters, here and in other gardens I’ve seen locally. And the fruits are likewise growing very plump.
 Tomatoes, not yet ripe   But the scene is not as rosy as it should be, literally, because too many of the tomatoes are still green. Again, other local gardens mimic my experience. How are your tomatoes doing this year?
    Day after day of bright sunny, weather and moderate temperatures should have promoted ripening. Then again, day after day of rainy weather last month might have retarded it. At any rate, in gardening and farming, you can’t go wrong blaming the weather.

A Moon Landing?

Anyone visiting my garden a few days ago might have thought they happened upon a moon landing or extraplanetary explorer. A two-legged creature was wandering around in bright blue pants and a bright blue, hooded jacket (actually, rain gear) with goggles and a respirator and 4 gallon tank strapped to its back. Periodically, an engine whine was accompanied by a cloud of mist (a jetpack)?
The creature was me and I was doing what was necessary to put myself on the road to a harvest of delicious apples (especially the variety Hudson’s Golden Gem) and plums (especially the variety Imperial Épineuse). I was dolled up for what looked like a moon landing because I was spraying pesticides on my

trees. In this part of the world, sad to say, that’s generally what’s necessary to get a decent — sometimes any — crop of apples or plums.

Some years I grow these fruits organically; some years I grow them, as some commercial growers say, ecologically or biologically. My organic approach is to spray a special formulation of kaolin clay, called ‘Surround’, and sulfur, a naturally occurring mineral. ‘Surround’ keeps insects at bay; sulfur does the same for some diseases. To be effective, ‘Surround’ must be maintained as a dust-like, white coating on the trees. This laid-back Mediterranean look to the trees necessitates a not very laid-back 3 sprays, before bloom, to build up a base layer, and followup sprays every week or following as little as 1/4 inch of rainfall. Even then, in my experience, control is marginal.
My ecological/biological approach is to spray the horrible sounding material, Imidan, with, again, sulfur. Imidan is a chemical pesticide, but one that has a relatively low toxicity both to humans and to beneficial insects. A perfect year would require only 2 to 3 sprays, the first right after petals drop and the others before mid-June. Re-spraying is usually not needed until after an inch of rainfall. Between rainfall washing off spray, sunlight degrading it, and dilution due to fruit growth,

‘Surround’ on apples

fruits are essentially squeaky clean by harvest time. (After the end of June, approaches other than sprays thwart remaining major pests.)

Back to my moon suit . . . The suit is necessary no matter what I spray. Getting doused with, or breathing, even something as benign as kaolin clay is not good.
And the jetpack? That’s my backpack sprayer. Spraying anything is no fun. Fortunately, except for the apples and the plums, spraying is almost never needed here on the farmden. Also fortunately, my sprayer makes easy work of the job. It’s a Stihl, gasoline-powered backpack sprayer that always starts right up, gives good coverage, and lets me, in less than a half an hour, mix the spray, apply it to about 2 dozen trees, and thoroughly clean it.
Spraying pesticides, organic or otherwise, is not the only approach to keeping plants healthy. Any insect or disease problem can gain a toehold only when there’s a plant susceptible to the problem, an organism that can cause the problem, and a suitable environment in which the problem can develop. So, I beef up my plants’ defenses by paying special attention to the soil, making sure drainage is perfect, and by applying

Good soil, organic matter added from the top down

mulches of compost, wood chips, hay, and other organic materials. The mulches feed the plants as well as worms, fungi, and other “good guys” in the soil. Above ground, pruning lets branches bathe in sunlight and air, both of which make for better fruit and conditions less conducive to insect and disease problems. If my plants are thirsty, they get water.

What I do not do to make my plants healthy is apply compost tea, biochar, or any other potions, or, along the same lines, click my heels together three times and repeat, “There’ll be no pest problems.”
For apples and plums in this part of the world, all three requirements for pest problems — pest presence, susceptible host plant, and environment suitable for the problem to develop — are generally fulfilled. Hence, the necessity of sprays. Still, using a minimum of carefully selected sprays and needing to “ship” my fruit no more than 200 feet from the trees to my mouth (or kitchen) makes for a minimum affront to the environment.
People too often equate “fruit growing” with growing apples. That should not be the case because there are plenty of other fruits, and plenty of them can be grown with hardly a thought to pest control. Pears, for instance. I have about 20 pear trees; none require spraying. The same could be said for blueberries, raspberries, persimmons, cornelian cherries, blackberries, pawpaws, hardy kiwifruits, gooseberries, currants . . . I could go on. In some cases, such as grapes, choosing a disease-resistant variety is the way to avoid having to spray.
As I emphasize in my recent book, Grow Fruit Naturally, choosing plants adapted to your site is a very important part of growing fruit naturally, as is providing optimum growing conditions. 


Every time I go near my apple and plum trees, I feel like my Nanking cherry, mulberry, pawpaw, and persimmon plants are laughing and flaunting their fruits at me. Nanking cherry and company are just a few of the fruits that I grow that require virtually no care.
Apples, on the other hand: If you wanted to come up with the most difficult fruit to grow east of the Rocky Mountains, it would be apple. Or plum, or apricot, peach, nectarine, or sweet cherry. The plants actually grow fine; getting fruit is another story. Organically grown fruit, that is.
Apple fruit, already damaged by plum curculio
The reason these common tree fruits are so difficult to grow around here is because of insect and disease problems (and, in the case of apricot, peach, and nectarine, winter cold and late spring frosts). For an insect or disease to cause a problem, three conditions need fulfillment: The presence of the insect or disease, a susceptible host plant, and an environment congenial to the insect or disease. I mulch my apples and plums with wood chips, prune away diseased stems, grow nectar-producing flowers to attract beneficial insects, spray organic concoctions such as kaolin clay, let chickens run loose beneath the plants, blah, blah, blah; and for all that effort, still often reap little or nothing. 
Problem is that the northeast is home to some serious insect and disease problems of apples and company and the environment is much to these pests’ liking, as are the plants. Resistant varieties might be resistant to diseases but not insects or to one disease but not another. No variety is resistant to all the insect and disease pests lurking in forest and field.
Nanking cherries, no need to spray or even prune!
Still, most people, when they consider growing fruit, think first of apples, and then plums, peaches, and other tree fruits familiar on supermarket shelves. In fact, though, there are a slew of other fruits, many of them, like Nanking cherry and company, very easy to grow. As I point out in my new book, GROW FRUIT NATURALLY (Taunton Press, 2011), the first step in growing fruits naturally/organically/holistically is to select those that are naturally well-adapted to the local climate and insect and disease pressures.
This all-important planning step does not preclude growing many common fruits. Pears, for example, both European and Asian varieties, are relatively easy to grow around here. The trees do need pruning but usually can be grown without the need for any sprays, organic or otherwise. With thousands of varieties, pears alone could round out your larder. I grow about 20 varieties.
Berries are also relatively easy to grow. Pruning is important both for good production and to help keep diseases and insects in check. My berry plantings include raspberries, blackberries, black raspberries, gooseberries (more than a dozen varieties!), red currants, black currants, clove currants, elderberries gumis, seaberries, lingonberries, lowbush blueberries, and, my favorite, highbush blueberries. Pest control? I spray insecticidal soap on my gooseberries once, just as the leaves unfold to kill any imported currantworms that may be starting their leafy feast. I mulch my blueberries late each fall to bury any infected berries that could spread mummy berry disease the following spring. And that’s about it for pest control on all my berries.
Still not enough fruit? Well, there are the mulberries. Not run-of-the-mill mulberries, such as grow wild all over the place. But named varieties — Illinois Everbearing, Oscar, and Geraldi Dwarf — selected for their high quality fruits. And cornelian cherries, an excellent stand-in for tart cherries, except much, much easier to grow. They bloom around the first day of spring yet never fail to set a good crop of fruit. The same can be said for Nanking cherries, a hedge of which lines my driveway and is now yielding many more sweet-tart cherries than I, birds, squirrels, and chipmunks could possibly eat. Total effort involved for all these fruits? None.
And the list goes on: pawpaws, persimmons, hardy kiwifruits, juneberries, grapes . . . so many fruits, so little space. The grapes get bagged to keep insects, diseases, and birds and bay.
(Actually, in my microenvironment, juneberries do not bear well because of various insect and disease problems. The solution? I don’t grow them. But as I wrote, that still leaves plenty of fruits that can be grown easily and without any significant pest problems.)
So why do I grow apples and plums? I grow them because I frequently write about fruit growing. I grow them to supplement my “book learning” with what I observe “in the field” (in other people’s “fields” also). I grow them because when I apply all the right sprays at just the right time and the weather cooperates and insect and disease pressures aren’t too, too bad and all the stars align just right, I harvest some very tasty apples.
My pawpaws and hardy kiwifruits
Would I suggest others to plant apples, plums, or possibly peaches, apricots, nectarines, or sweet cherries? Probably not, unless said person was interested in learning a lot about fruit pests, spending a lot of time and no small amount of money dealing with them, and then was willing to accept the fact, as Charles Dudley Warner wrote, tongue-in-cheek and over a hundred years ago in MY SUMMER IN THE GARDEN, that “the principle value of the garden . . . is to teach . . . patience and philosophy, and the higher virtue – hope deferred, and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation, and sometimes to alienation. The garden thus becomes a moral agent, a test of character, as it was in the beginning.” All well and good if that’s what you want from planting fruit.