As flaming red petals drop to the ground beneath my pomegranate bush, I’m not hopeful. Sure, the flowers are beautiful, but the plant is here to give me fruit.

To survive winters here in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley (Zone 5), my plant’s home is in a large flowerpot which I cart into cold storage in late December and back outdoors or into the greenhouse in late winter or early spring. Even my cold-hardy variety, Salatavski, from western Asia, would die to ground level if planted outdoors. The roots would survive that much cold because of moderated below ground temperatures, but new stems that would rise from ground level would need to be more than a year old before flowering.

Potted pomegranate, but NOT mine

Potted pomegranate, but NOT mine

Growing in a pot, my pomegranate (and other potted fruit plants) need regular pruning and repotting. To prune the pomegranate, I snip off young suckers growing from ground level, shorten lanky stems, and thin out stems where congested. I repot the plant every 2 or 3 years, cutting off roots and potting soil from around the root ball to make room for new potting soil.

When flowers do appear, which they do over the course of a few weeks, I dab their faces with an artists’ brush. Going from flower to flower spreads the pollen from male flowers to the female parts (stigmas) of the  hermaphroditic flowers.

Male pomegranate flowers

Male pomegranate flowers

Hermaphroditic pomegranate flower

Hermaphroditic pomegranate flower

Then I wait, my eyes concentrating on each flower and hoping to see the base swelling. Problem is most, some year all, the flowers open and then drop. Occasionally, in past years, a flower or two has swelled into a mini-pomegranate. Then also dropped.

Swelling pomegranate fruitlet

Swelling pomegranate fruitlet

I’ve ministered to this plant for years and it has never rewarded me with a single fruit. Help! Any suggestions?

Not So Idle Threats

Every summer, as my pomegranate drops its last flowers, I’ve threatened it with the same fate I wrought upon another of my subtropical fruit plants, pineapple guava. Beneath the thin, green skin of this torpedo-shaped fruit lies a gelatinous center with a minty pineapple flavor.

Pollinating pineapple guava

Pollinating pineapple guava

Over the course of growing this fruit for many years, I did harvest a few, small fruits from this plant, but not enough to keep me from reincarnating it as compost. (The flowers, however, reliably produced, sport the most delicious, fleshy petals of any that I’ve taste, with a strong, sweet minty flavor.)

A Most Delicious Fruit

Not all has been failure with my growing subtropical fruits. 

My most recent success has been with Pakistani mulberry, Morus macroura, native to Tibet, the Himalayas, and mountainous regions of Indochina. I first tasted this fruit a few years ago at a nursery in Washington State and was swept away by the delicious flavor, sweet with enough tartness to make it interesting, and a strong berry undertone. (Yes, mulberry does have “berry” in its name, but botanically, it’s not a berry; it’s a “multiple fruit.”)

Besides having great flavor, Pakistani fruit is also notable for its enormous size, each one elongating, when ripe, to between three and five inches!Pakistani mulberry fruit

Pakistani mulberry is easy to grow and needs no particular coaxing to bear plenty of fruit, which it does over the course of a few weeks. Mine grows in a pot measuring a little over a foot wide, with the tree rising about four feet high. Fruits are borne on new shoots that grow off older stems, which keeps the tree very manageable. Shortening those older stems each year makes it easier to muscle the plant through doorways to move it indoors for winter and then back outdoors when weather warms a little.

Very Easy, Very Successful, Very Delicious

My longest term and greatest success with subtropical plants has been, of course, with figs. (I write “of course” because I’ve written a whole book whose content is described by its title, Growing Figs in Cold Climates, and now is available as a video of a webinar I have presented on that topic.)Fig book cover

Like mulberries, to which they are related, figs — most varieties — can bear fruit on new shoots that grow off older branches. Figlets on new shootSo, like mulberry, the plants can be pruned back some so they’re more manageable to be protected from bitter winter cold. An in-ground plant, then, could be protected from bitter winter cold by being swaddled upright or lowered to the ground, even trained to grow along the ground; a potted plant is more easily maneuvered into a garage, unheated basement, or other cool location for its winter rest.

Right now, there’s nothing for me to do with my figs except watch them grow. Small figlets now sit in the plants’ leaf nodes. They’ll just sit there, doing nothing, for a seemingly long time. Once ripening time draws near, the figs suddenly puff up, becoming soft and juicy and developing a honey sweet, rich flavor.Bowl of figs


Olives Galore

Now I feel foolish buying olives. I recently returned from visiting Israel where there were olive trees everywhere. Irrigated plots of greenery thrived in the broad expanses of the otherwise grays and browns of the desert. Trees popped up here and there in backyards and front yards of homes in streets lined with apartment buildings as well as along cobblestone streets in rural areas. Trees were even prominent in city parks, either as self-sown wildings in less tended areas or as formal plantings.
Woman harvesting olives in Jerusalem park
And oodles of ripe or ripening olives were clinging to branches or littering the ground. Need some hand lotion? Just pluck a ripe olive, squeeze it gently, and spread out the fresh oil that drips onto your hand. 

Want some olives for eating? Not so fast. Fresh-picked ripe or green olives are extremely bitter (due to oleuropein). That bitterness is removed with brine, multiple changes of water or lye solution followed by fermentation. My favorite olives are “naturally, sun-cured,” which, I imagine, means left hanging on the tree a long, long time. The dried, ripe olives I found still-clinging to branches tasted awful!
Green olive fruits
I was tempted to harvest some olives to bring home. A few other people had similar ideas, as evidenced by one woman on a ladder in a park in Jerusalem. Of course, these people were only miles or less from home; I was 5,000 plus miles from home. I let the olives be.

I actually grow olives here in the Hudson Valley, in a large container that spends summers outdoors basking in sunlight and winters in my cold basement near a large window. I should say that I grow an olive tree, rather than olives. My maximum harvest has been a half-dozen olives — which I did let hang for a long, long time, at which point they tasted delicious.
My potted olive treeMy olive harest-3 fruits
Olive fruits are borne on one-year-old shoots. This year, before moving my tree to the basement, I pruned more severely than usual. That should stimulate more one-year-old shoots this spring, to, I hope, yield more fruit.


Another of my favorite Mediterranean fruits also growing in abundance in as many guises as olive in Israel was pomegranate. Unfortunately, I just missed the harvest of this fruit. All that remained on wild plants were a few red arils still clinging to darkened portions of skins.  Fruits must have been ripe somewhere because ripe fruits and fresh squeezed juice were available in markets and and street carts everywhere. 
Pomegranate espalier, IsraelPomegranate display, Israel
I, of course, also grow pomegranate, similarly to olive except that, being deciduous, this plant does not need light in winter. It spends those months in a dark, walk-in cooler. 

Sad to admit, my yields of pomegranate fruits have been even less than my yields of olive. As in zip, zilch, zero. The plants flower every spring and with a small brush I’ve transferred pollen from the anthers of male blossoms to the stigmas of female blossoms. (Plants each have separate male and female blossoms.) Bases of female blossoms begin to swell hopefully. Then they drop.

Every year I threaten my plant with a walk to the compost pile — to no avail.


The third plant of the triumvirate of my favorite Mediterranean fruits is, of course, figs, which I saw in abundance in Israel mostly in wild settings. The plants lacked fruit, except for a few with small, green figlets that will either drop or ripen next spring. Fig is rather unique in its fruiting habit, able to bear fruit on one-year-old wood as well as on new, growing shoots, and the latter crop just keeps forming and ripening as long as growing conditions are to its liking.
Wild olive tree in Israel
One old tree growing in a courtyard in charming town of Sfad was hosting an old friend  — or, rather, enemy — of mine, fig scale insects. I’ve battled it one my greenhouse figs.

Figs were available in the markets but I was reluctant to even try them knowing that figs must be dead ripe to taste good. At that, stage they can hardly be transported more than arm’s length from hand to mouth.
Figs for sale, Israel
Figs are one Mediterranean fruit that I grow with great success, both in my greenhouse (minimum winter temperature 37°F) and, wintering in my walk-in cooler and summering outdoors, in pots like my pomegranate. Figs are generally easy to grow because of their unique bearing habit, their lack of need for pollination, and their general tolerance for abuse.

My last day I broke down and, against my better judgement, bought some figs. Mine are better.
Me eating one of my figs


 Ginger on the Way

   Now that summer-y weather has blown in and is here to stay, it’s time to plant the greenhouse. Plant the greenhouse?! This time of year? Yes. No reason to let all that real estate go to waste through summer.
    Ginger plants that I started from supermarket tubers a couple of months ago were crying out to be released from the confines of their 4-inch pots. Warming their bottoms on the seed-starting heating mat pushed them along even when early spring skies were overcast and the greenhouse relatively cool. Ginger is a tropical plant that shivers even when temperatures drop below 55°F.Planting ginger
    I never could see the rationale for the current interest in growing ginger in northern regions. That is, until I tasted freshly harvested, baby ginger. This far north, ginger rarely has time to develop the mature, tan-skinned roots you see in supermarkets. No matter, because immature, or “baby,” ginger, which is ginger harvested before it matures, is better — a white, tender, tasty tuber. It doesn’t keep or ship as well as mature ginger, which is no problem for backyard growing or local sales.
    So 4 ginger plants went into two greenhouse beds. I’ll dig up the ginger in September, freeing up space for lettuce, celery, kale, and other cool weather salad makings that will inhabit the winter greenhouse.

Early Curcurbits

    One can eat only just so much ginger. (We’re still using last year’s harvest which, for long term storage, was sliced thin and put into jars with vinegar.) What about other greenhouse beds that are being vacated as the last of winter’s lettuce, celery, kale, and chard get harvested and cleared away?
 Greenhouse in June   Cucumbers and melons love heat, so a few extra plants that I started back in early May went into beds.
    The permanent fixtures in the greenhouse, the plants that really help the greenhouse earn its keep, are the four fig trees — Bethlehem Black, San Piero, Brown Turkey, and Rabbi Samuel — planted right in the ground. The largest of these has a trunk 7 inches in diameter. All yield bountiful crops daily in August and September, and less bountiful ones going into October.Figs growing, last of greenhouse lettuces

Tropicals and Subtropicals Summer Vacation

    In a reversal of fall, tropical and subtropical plants that had been moved into the greenhouse and house are now lined up outdoors, ready to offer fresh black mulberries, Pakistan mulberries, pineapple guavas, pomegranates, Golden Nugget mandarins, olives, dwarf Cavendish bananas (probably no fruit from this one, just a very tropical look), and a few other varieties of figs, in pots.
    (My black mulberry is the species Morus nigra, one of the best-tasting of all fruits, but is not cold hardy here. Black-colored mulberries that grow all over the place outdoors here are, despite black fruits, species of red or white mulberries, or their hybrids.)
    Any of my tropical and subtropical plants, given their druthers, would reach 8 feet, 10 feet, or even more feet skyward, and spread their roots many feet in all directions. Here, they can’t do that or they would be too big to move or to house in winter.
    So I mixed up a batch of potting soil, and started root pruning. It sounds brutal, and it is, but plants recover nicely and then happily have new soil to explore. Basically, I slide a plant out of its pot, stand it upright, and then start slicing off the outer edges of the root ball. Pruning shears take care of any roots too large to slice with a knife.
    The finished root ball is an inch or two smaller in diameter than it started out. How much to remove depends on the initial size of the root ball — larger plants get more removed — and, to a lesser degree, the kind of plant. Figs, for instance, tolerate especially brutal treatment.
 Root pruning   So much for the roots. To keep it manageable, the plant also needs stem reduction. Some stems get shortened, some are removed in toto, and some are left untouched. Who gets what treatment depends, for fruiting plants, on their fruiting habit — just where and how they bear fruit. Figs that bear on new shoots can be pruned rather severely; pineapple guavas bear on new shoots growing off older stems, so only moderate pruning is tolerated so that some older stems are preserved, etc.
    After root and shoot pruning a thorough watering, plants are ready for a year or two of good growth before they will again feel constrained.


 Beds Ready for Spring Planting, Figs and Lettuces Readied for Cold

Much colder weather has been sneaking in and out of the garden but leaving traces of its presence with some blackened leaves on frost-sensitive plants and threatening to brazenly show itself in full force sometime soon. This fall I vow to put all in order before that event rather than, on some very cold night, running around, flashlight in hand, gathering and protecting plants.

Before even getting to the plants, drip irrigation must be readied for winter. Main lines and drip lines can remain outdoors but right near the spigot, the timer, the filter, and pressure reducer must be brought indoors where they won’t freeze. I plug the inlet for the drip’s main line to keep out curious insects. At the far end of the line is a cap that I loosen enough to let water drain out. Opening all other valves along the line leaves no dead ends in which freezing water could expand to break lines.

Begonia, amaryllis, Maid of Orleans jasmine (Jasminium sambac), and other topical plants are next in importance. Being near the radiating warmth of the house has spared them recent slightly frosty nights. Colder temperatures would not be so kind. I snap the stems off the begonias right at ground level and put the pots in the basement where cool temperatures will keep the tubers dormant to wait out winter. Amaryllis plants also go into the basement. Cool temperatures and lack of water for a couple of months give these plants the rest period they need so that, brought upstairs to a warm, sunny window, their blossoms can show off their bright, red color against the achromatic winter landscape beyond.

Maid of Orleans jasmine right away gets a prominent place in a sunny window to share its nonstop, sweet fragrant blossoms.

Figs, Pomegranates, & Subtropicals Readied for Cold, But Not Too Much

Fig, pineapple guava, Chilean guava, and pomegranate are subtropical plants that tolerate temperatures down into the ‘teens so can remain outdoors for weeks to come. Still, many of these plants are in large pots, not something I want to be lugging around following at last minute threat of frigid temperatures. So I’ll gather them together in a convenient location for quick dispatch indoors when needed.

Potted subtropical plants are getting ready for colder -- but not too cold -- weather

Potted subtropical plants are getting ready for colder — but not too cold — weather

The guavas, as well as kumquat and common jasmine (Jasminium officinale), are evergreen subtropical plants. The leaves are important to these plants both for beauty and for function so they’ll make the move indoors before the other subtropicals to make sure their leaves go into winter undamaged.

Common jasmine stays out longest because some exposure to cold is needed to get blossoms in winter.

Cold Weather Vegetables for Weeks to Come

The vegetable garden is still green with endive, kale, lettuce, turnips, Brussels sprouts, arugula, and other cold-hardy vegetables. Soon, though, their cold tolerances will be tested. I’ll pre-empt that testing by covering some of the beds with tunnels of fabric (“fleece” to the Brits, “floating row covers” to us colonists) or clear plastic. No need yet to cover the plants but better to have the metal hoops which support the fleece or plastic in place and ready for the covering before that frigid night to come.

Metal hoops readied to support covers for lettuce.

Metal hoops readied to support covers for lettuce.

Not all hardy vegetables get covered; just the leafy ones — lettuce, mustard, arugula, and endive — for fresh salads in the weeks to come. Brussels sprouts and kale are so cold hardy that they can go for weeks without protection, and, anyway, they’re too tall to cover. Leeks also can stay outdoors unprotected until December, or later, then get dug up and packed together in a box or large pot to store in the basement and use as needed.

Carrots, beets, turnips, and winter radishes enjoy the protection of the earth. With a deep mulch of leaves or straw, they could remain tender and unfrozen all winter. More convenient for eating is to dig them up just before really frigid weather descends on the garden and pack them in boxes with dry leaves to store in the cool temperatures of the basement. I’m putting off deciding which option to choose.

Fresh Lettuce ‘Til When?

Someone recently told me that they gardened maniacally all summer and now they are finished for the season  . . . which reminds me of some more things that I still have to do. Plant garlic. I planted cloves back in early September; a second planting, now, will give some indication if early or late planting is better. Mulch blueberries as soon as their leaves all drop. Sift compost and garden soil into buckets to store for making potting soil in late winter. Cut down asparagus plants after the tops yellow, and mulch the bed. Clean up spent vegetable beds of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants and spread them with an inch depth of compost. Mow hayfield and lawn to expose rodents to predators and, in the hayfield, to keep blackberry, sumac, and autumn olive from taking over. Plant bulbs (a large, naturalized planting of alliums; more on that some other time).

Metal hoops readied to support covers for lettuce.

Beds readied for spring, and lettuce readied for winter

I’d also like to divide older plants in a flower bed and dig out weeds that are starting to think they’re home. And build a rustic fence to hid the propane tank for the greenhouse.

I’m not yet ready to throw in the trowel for this season.

Springtime, In My Basement

Spring is here, in my basement. Allow me to set the scene. My basement is barely heated and I replaced what once was a south-facing Bilco door with a wooden frame supporting two clear polycarbonate panels. Plants that need light and tolerate or need a winter cold period, down to near freezing, have their wishes fulfilled out there in that old Bilco entranceway.
Temperatures are more moderate there than outdoors, generally warmer except later in spring when the basement’s mass of concrete keeps things cooler than hot, sunny days outdoors. Through winter, though, the non-frigid temperatures kept pots of Welsh onions, pansies, oregano, kumquat seedlings, hellebore, olive, pineapple guavas, and bay laurel green and happy. It’s  cool Mediterranean climate down there, in winter, at least.
As would be happening in parts of the Mediterranean, some of the plants in my basement feel spring in the air and are starting to grow; the most exciting of the plants down there are some ramps that I was gifted last spring and potted up. Ramps, sometimes called wild leeks, are a kind of wild onion much in demand in spring. They’re one of the first greens of spring, enthusiastically welcomed in with ramps festivals in some parts of the country.
I too became enthusiastic about ramps after tasting them last spring so, of course, I decided to try to grow them — no easy proposition. Ramps grow wild on the leafy floor of hardwood forests, their green leaves appearing early in the season and for only a few weeks to feed the bulbs, after which they die back to the ground and flower stalks appear. Little is known about growing them.
My ramp bulbs have sprouted! Last week I wrote about onions and their sensitivity to photoperiod; long days make northern-types stop growing leaves and channel their energy into fattening up bulbs. The more leaves plants have before the critical photoperiod that triggers that changeover, the bigger the bulbs. Methinks: Why not apply the theory to growing ramps? By starting early, the bulbs have more time for leaf growth before whatever critical photoperiod brings it to a screeching stop. The bulbs also enjoy cool conditions, which should endure in the basement window for weeks and weeks. 

If my reasoning is sound, I could get even better growth by looking to more northerly locales for ramp bulbs or seeds for planting. Because ramps originating in those parts would have to begin growth later in spring, they might need to experience even longer days before leaf growth stops. Down here, then, they’d get extra growing time before those longer days arrested leaf growth.
Ramps, now sprouting
In fact, it is short nights rather than long days that trigger that halt in leaf growth. Under natural conditions, short days and long nights go hand in hand. I could change that by throwing a light-blocking blanket over the plants for a couple of hours at the beginning or end of the lengthening days, tricking the plants into thinking the days are still short enough to keep growing leaves.
I need to build up a stock of ramps, by bulb or by seed, to get enough plants to fool around with. Ramp seeds or bulbs are available mail order from
Sitting, waiting in darker areas of my basement away from the light are fig, pomegranate, mulberry, and che plants, also enjoying the Mediterranean winter. These plants lose their leaves for winter, and light generally isn’t needed by leafless, dormant plants. In contrast to my hopes for the ramps, I’m hoping for a late spring for these plants.
If fig and company get wind of spring in the air, their buds are apt to start swelling and then growing into new shoots. Which gives rise to two problems: First, that the plants then need light; and second, that the relatively wan indoor light leads to overly succulent shoots that will “burn” once plants are moved outdoors when the weather reliably warms. Most of these plants are in large pots and there just isn’t enough space in the Bilco opening for all them, even if light there was sufficient, which it isn’t.
My tack with these large, potted plants is to hold back growth as long as possible by keeping them on the dry side. And then, when outdoor temperatures warm up just a bit — with lows in the mid twenties — I’ll move them outside to, I hope, begin growth in synch with our spring temperatures. Of course, I can only do that if the plants have remained dormant when I move them out. And if temperatures plummet one or more nights, I’ll have to lug all the plants into the garage, keeping exposure to cold commensurate with growth stage of the plants.