Blackcaps All Season (Almost)

It’s a bumper year for blackcaps (also know as black raspberries or, botanically, Rubus occidentalis), at least here on the farmden. Up to last year, we harvested wild blackcaps from plants that pop up at the edges of woods. The current bountiful harvest is from blackcaps that I planted a couple of years ago. Last year’s harvest was unimpressive because the plants were still settling into their new home.Black raspberry fruit

Most blackcaps, like many other bramble fruits, have biennial canes that grow stems and leaves their first year, fruit in early summer of their second year, then die back to the ground. (Annual harvests are possible because while those second year canes are fruiting and then dying, the perennial roots are pushing up new canes, which will bear the following year.)

Niwot and Ohio’s Treasure, the two varieties I planted, stand out from the crowd in bearing on new, growing canes as well as on two-year-old canes. Their two-year-old canes, like those of run-of-the-mill blackcaps, bear now, in early summer. Berries are borne on new, growing canes towards the end of the growing season, until stopped by cold. The next season’s summer crop is borne lower down on those same canes. The upshot of all this is that I get to eat fresh blackcaps in early summer and then again in late summer.

I knew I could expect two crops each season from these varieties when I planted them. That’s why I planted them. What I didn’t know is how abundant and flavorful the berries would be. Unfortunately, for the purposes of evaluation, the two varieties are growing in separate locations that differ markedly from each other. The one in the better location — a humus-rich soil basking in abundant sunlight — yields oodles of large berries. The other variety — planted in a weedy bed shaded from the east by a greenhouse wall — yields less and smaller berries, with perhaps a tad better flavor.

Pruning Recipes

Pruning Niwot and Ohio’s Treasure is as important for ease of picking and pest control as it is for other brambles. And it’s easy.

Right after the current crop grinds to a halt, I’ll cut every cane that bore fruit right to the ground. These two-year-old canes are going to be starting to die anyway. I could cut them down in winter, but cutting them sooner gets the thorny canes out of the way of late summer harvest.Blackcaps on plant

All summer long, I’ll also pinch out the growing tip of any new canes when they reach about four feet in height. Pinching induces side shoots, on which fruits are borne.

That’s it for summer pruning. Sometime next winter I’ll reduce each clump of canes to the six healthiest and shorten each side shoot on remaining canes to about 18 inches long.

All in all, Niwot and Ohio’s Treasure yield a lot of delicious fruit over a long period of time for minimal effort. Now, if only the canes were thornless.

And More Pruning

Whoa, I can’t yet put away the pruning shears. I need the shears for some rose bushes. With the rose “crop” subsided, pruning will get varieties that bear only in June ready for next season, and those that bear again and again through summer to bear again and again.

For roses that bear only once each season, such as the heavenly scented Rose D’Ipsahan, or the cheery, lemon-colored blossoming Father Hugo’s Rose, I cut back some very old stems right to or near ground level, and shorten the remaining stems, some by a quarter of their length, others by three quarters of their length. Then I go over the bush to thin out any crowded stems. This pruning makes room for and stimulates growth of new shoots with ample time for them to initiate flower buds this summer that will unfold next spring.

Repeat blooming roses get pruned differently. The goal is to cut off stems with spent flowers and coax new growth that will flower this season. Instructions for pruning hybrid tea roses are very specific; and I quote: “. . . . cut the stem back to a five-leaflet leaf. Retain at least two five-leaflet leaves on each shoot.”

I don’t grow hybrid teas, which generally are finicky roses, preferring tougher roses such as some of the David Austin varieties, such as L. D. Braithewaite

Braithewaite rose

Braithewaite rose

and Charlotte. Pruning is very simple. I just lop stems or groups of stems laden with spent blossoms as far back as I feel like to keep the shrubs from growing too large. They both get another pruning in late winter.
Rugosa rose blossomAnother rose I grow, rugosa rose, won’t get any pruning this summer. Besides its nonstop, fragrant flowers, rugosa rose also bears nice hips, that is, fruits. The hips make excellent jam and are rich in vitamin C. Pruning in summer would remove spent flowers which then couldn’t go on to swell into fat hips.Rugosa rose hips


Imperfect Lawn

I’m no devotee of the perfect lawn, but I did recently suggest, for the bare palette of ground on which W wanted to plan for a variety of fruits, a patch of lawn. W protested that she hated mowing and wanted a “permaculture planting” that would take little care.

Visitors to my garden have occasionally complimented me on my lawn. The only care I give it is mowing with a mulching mower that lets clippings rain back down. By not cutting the lawn I avoid “mining” the soil for nutrients by repeated harvest of clippings. The clippings also enrich the ground with humus.

Pawpaw tree in my cousin's lawn

Pawpaw tree in my cousin’s lawn

Still, I’d rather grow trees, shrubs, vines, especially fruiting ones, and vegetables and flowers, than lawngrass. But I have plenty of ground devoted to these plants. And the easiest way to care for a plot of ground, short of sealing it in asphalt or just letting weeds grow (some of which would undoubtedly be edible or attractive) is by mowing. Visually, lawngrass also provide a calm backdrop for the scene out my back and front door. Plus, it’s nice to walk and play on.

A lawn need not be the environmental disaster inadvertently promoted by purveyors of fertilizers, and pesticides. As stated above, by letting clippings fall where they may, ground is not drained of its fertility, so fertilizer may not be needed. Especially if you let a little clover invade the lawn to add nitrogen, the most evanescent of plant nutrients.

That nitrogen highlights another approach to an easier lawn: Not striving for the uniform look of artificial turf. My lawn has its share of dandelions and clover and, later in the season, crabgrass, especially if the weather turns dry. I tolerate all this, with a refocussing of my aesthetic lens to celebrate a certain amount of diversity in the lawn.

Lawn care is even more environmentally sound these days with cordless electric lawnmowers not spewing noise, carbon dioxide, and other byproducts of gasoline consumption into the air. Periodic scything is a very pleasant way to get by with less mowing and sheep may be a way to get by with no mowing (but you do have to fence and do whatever else is necessary to care for the sheep).


Eco-mowers: Fiskars push, Stihl battery, and Scythe Supply Co. mowers

Fruits To (And Not To) Grow

Now for W’s permaculture fruit trees, shrubs, and vines — with some lawn, of course. (I think I convinced her.) For starters, I suggested steering clear of apples, peaches, plums, cherries, nectarines, and apricots. All are relatively high maintenance and, even with all that maintenance, still are iffy crops in this part of the world because of our extreme and variable climate and the plants’ susceptibilities to insects and diseases.

Nanking cherry hedge

Nanking cherry hedge

So what’s there left to grow??!! Berries, for one. Most berries don’t stand up well to commercial handling so are picked underripe even though they don’t ripen at all once harvested — all the more reason to grow berries in the backyard where the best tasting varieties can be planted and the harvest need not be shipped much further than arms’ length.

Redcurrant espalier

Redcurrant espalier

Summer's berries

Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries are all easy to grow without much care beyond pruning, which is very important for keeping the plants disease free and convenient to harvest.

And no need to restrict the berry bowl to these most common berries. Also easy to grow are seaberries, elderberries, lingonberries, mulberries, and hardy kiwifruit (which are, botanically, berries). An added plus for these latter berries, as well as the aforementioned blueberries, is that the plants are also ornamental.

There is one common tree fruit that’s easy to grow: pears.  And even easier than European pears, such as Bartlett, Anjou, and Bosc, are Asian pears, such as Chojuro, Yoinashi, Hosui, and scores of other varieties. Asian pears also bear more quickly and prolifically, and are a little more decorative than the also decorative European pears.

Asian pear, comfrey, and lawn

Asian pear, comfrey, and lawn

Avoiding Nightmares

The main problem that I’ve seen with many permaculture plantings is that they look great on paper as well as when first planted. Mouths water at the prospects of all those ornamental, fruiting plants cozied together, fruit on creeping plants beneath trees whose branches strain downward with their weight of fruit. And perhaps a nearby grape or kiwifruit plant insinuating its berried vines in among the trees’ branches.

I’ve seen such plans and such plantings. What a nightmare of management they are or will be, mostly because of the need for relentless, extensive, judicious pruning to keep some plants from overtaking the landscape and starving others for nutrients or light. The result is less fruit of lower quality and difficulty in finding the fruit and getting to it.

A little lawn is good to give the fruiting plants some elbow room and to make them easier to care for.


Don’t wait for dry weather to learn about an easy and better (for you and plants) way to water. On June 24, 1-4:30 pm, I’ll be holding DRIP IRRIGATION WORKSHOP at the garden of Margaret Roach in Copake Falls, NY.  Learn how to design a system, and participate in a hands-on installation. For more information and registration,



Hey Bud, ‘Sup?

Nothing like winter to force me to take a closer look at my trees and shrubs. “To see what, you may ask?” To look at their buds, within which lie the makings of this season’s flowers and shoots. Not only are the buds quite distinctive, but they also offer a crystal ball into the future, which is very important to me as a fruit grower.

Trees’ and shrubs’ fruit and shoot buds look different from each other. It’s the fatter ones that open to become flowers and then, barring damage from late frosts, insects, diseases, or hail, fruits.

Last year, perhaps because of dry weather or a late spring freeze, my pawpaw crop was a failure. This explains why I now see so many distinctive plush, velvety, fat, brown buds — flower buds — lining the stems. For any fruiting plant, a light crop of fruit one year generally makes for a bumper crop the following year.

Pawpaw buds

Pawpaw buds

Cornelian cherry buds

Cornelian cherry buds

My cornelian cherry tree also prognosticates a bumper crop, even more obviously, because its flower buds stand prominently proud of the stems like buttons on the ends of short stalks.

On peach trees, flower buds develop only on one-year-old stems. The flower buds aren’t that distinctive except for being fat. The buds at some nodes, the junction where leaves met stems last summer, come in triplets, one single, small shoot bud wedged practically into hiding between two big, fat flower buds. The buds tell of a good crop of, at least, flowers.

Peach buds

Peach buds

Apple buds are different still. Their flower buds are mostly on spurs, which are short, stubby growths that elongate only a half and inch or so each season. Not all buds on these spurs will open to flowers, though. Some — again, those that are less fat — will open to shoots that will grow only a fraction of an inch longer and then flower the following year.

Apple buds

Apple buds

Pear buds are very similar to apple buds, the main difference being that I find it harder to differentiate, especially now, between their shoot from flower buds. As spring inches closer, these and other buds will all begin to swell to let their plans be better known.

A Bud Is Like A Crystal Ball


All this staring at buds is not just for winter entertainment. It also guides me in pruning.

To ripen a fruit demands a lot of a plant’s energy. If a tree or shrub bears too many fruits, it will, once danger from frosts and many other hazards are behind it, naturally shed some of the excess. But what’s left might still be more than it could ripen to perfect size and flavor for us humans.

One reason I’m stomping around among my trees and shrubs outside is to prune them, and one of many reasons that I prune them is to remove some of the fruits before they even begin to form. Cutting back some stems cuts off some flower buds, which makes for less fruits.

With all their fat flower buds, my pawpaw trees will get a severe pruning. The same for my peach tree, but not quite so severe. I’ll wait on the apples and pears until it becomes more evident what’s what.

Not that my sole purpose in pruning is to cut back fruit production. Some kinds of pruning cuts also are meant to stimulate vigorous shoot growth to reinvigorate a plant or provide flower buds for the following year. I’ll also prune to let branches bathe in light and air, keeping photosynthesis chugging along this summer and limiting pest problems. My cuts will also be directed towards maintaining strong limbs able to support a good crop. (Interested in more about pruning? See my book, THE PRUNING BOOK.)

Nice Bark, Woof, Woof


Looking at buds isn’t the only winter entertainment provided by my plants. How about checking out their bark?

Among the trees and shrubs I’ve planted, my three favorites barks are those of hackberry, river birch, and stewartia. Hackberry has a gray bark with ridges on it that, when struck by low winter sun, have a distinct, achromatic light and shadows that remind me of photos of the lunar landscape. My tree still have some years to grow before their bark is notable; for now, I enjoy looking at he bark on some wild plants I know.

Hackberry bark

Hackberry bark

River birch bark has a cinnamon-colored bark that naturally curls and peels off up and down the trunk to create a colorful mix of creamy white, pink, and brown colors.

River birch

River birch

My Japanese stewartia has the bark that would stop traffic, if there was traffic here. This bark is mottled with dark brown, light brown, and silvery patches. In a few months, leaves will mostly hide the bark, but then white blossoms that look much like camellias will continue the show.

Stewartia bark

Stewartia bark


Reader Alert: Invasive Plant

    The sweet scent practically bowled me over. My friend, walking with me along the nearby rail trail, characterized the aroma as citrus-y rather than sweet. Either way, the aroma was delicious and welcome. Too bad the source of the scent, autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), is a plant so reviled.Autumn olive blossoms
    “Too bad” because the plant also has other qualities. The olive-green leaves lend a Mediterranean feel to any setting. Microorganisms associated with the shrub’s roots garner nitrogen from the air to enrich the soil. And come early fall, the plants are loaded with delicious and nutritious, small, red (sometimes yellow) berries.
    Alas, this non-native plant grows too easily, frequenting fields and waysides. It’s deemed invasive, which it is . . .  but?
  Autumn olive fruit  (Autumn olive is often confused with Russian olive, E. angustifolium, a close relative that is more tree-like, less invasive, and with sweet, olive-green fruits. Another equally attractive, fragrant, tasty, and soil-building plant is gumi, E. multiflora, not well known but closely related to the other “olives.”)

And Yet Another Invasive

    Soon, by the time you read this, the rail trail and elsewhere will be suffused by another pleasant aroma, that of honeysuckle. These flowers are also followed by red berries, but they’re not edible. (Other honeysuckle species do yield edible berries, an up and coming fruit called haskaps.)Honeysuckle flower
    How could anyone not like a plant with a name like “honeysuckle?” A lot of people don’t like honeysuckle because it too, despite its qualities, is invasive.

You Call This Renovation

    Before anyone attacks me for heaping praise on invasive plants, let’s sidle off the rail trail and back to the home front, where yet another delicious scent fills the air. This one wafts from a plant that, unlike autumn olive, Russian olive, and gumi, is not invasive and is truly in the olive family: lilac (Syringa vulgaris).
    Actually, for years now, my lilac bush has not been perfuming the air as much as it should. The plant is old, my guess is over 50 years old. Not that age alone is responsible for its poor showing. Lilac, like other shrubs, have long-lived root systems. No stem ever develops into a permanent, long-lived trunk and — important for all flowering and fruiting shrubs — after a certain age stems can’t keep up the flower production of its youth.
    The way to prune any flowering or fruiting shrub is by a renewal method. You cut down some of the oldest stems that are no longer performing well. And then you thin out — that is, reduce the number of — some of the youngest stems so that each can develop to its fullest potential without being crowded.
    How long an old stem is worth keeping and how many new stems spring up each year from ground level depends on the kind of shrub and the growing conditions. A highbush blueberry stem, for example, retains its youthful fecundity for about 6 years; a raspberry, for two years.

Young lilac, old lilac, renovated lilac

Young lilac, old lilac, renovated lilac

    I’ve pruned my lilac over the years, but — I have to admit — never cut the old stems close enough to the ground nor thinned out the many young stems sufficiently. (My excuse is that the dense crowding of 5-inch-diameter stems made cutting difficult, the difficulty made more so by the haven they provided for poison ivy vines.)
    A non-blooming lilac shrub isn’t worth keeping, so drastic renovation was in order. This treatment can be applied to any old, decrepit shrub. It’s easy. All that’s needed is to cut everything to the ground. Which I did.
    My lilac’s stumps gave evidence to the shrub’s poor showings over the years with their many thick yet half-rotten, old stubs. Shrubby stems, as I wrote, just aren’t meant to live that long, and over time can’t support good flowering.
    If all goes well, new sprouts should soon poke up from ground level, vigorous new sprouts because they’ll be fueled by a large, old root system. It’ll be a few years before any of those sprouts get old enough to start flowering. But I’ll make sure to thin them out so each has room to develop. I promise.

Win a Copy of My Book

A few weeks ago my plum tree was in full bloom, actually only part of it was in full bloom. Winter’s wacky weather? Spring’s wacky weather? Plum, blossoming branchOffer an explanation and, if correct, you’ll be in the pool of readers, one of whom, randomly selected, gets sent a free copy of my book Grow Fruit Naturally. Respond by midnight, May 31st.
GFN Front Cover


The Kindest Cuts

    In years past, when I went outdoors this time of year, it was usually with skis strapped to my feet. Or wearing snow boots. Or snowshoes. With this snowless, warm winter, I’m mostly going outdoors these days armed with pruning shears, a lopper, and a pruning saw. Mostly, my feet trod a path to the hardy kiwifruit vines and the blueberry bushes.
    At first glance, the blueberries seem nothing more than a jumbled mass of stems of various ages. How to make order out of this jumble? Quicker to answer is why go to the trouble of making order out of this jumble. The same could be asked for my lilac bush, mockorange, hazelnuts, gooseberries, and currants.

Sammy & me, pruning blueberries

Sammy & me, pruning blueberries

    Then I remind myself that my goal is to reduce the crop — yes! reduce the potential crop — so that more of the each fruit or nut bush’s resources get channeled into fewer fruits or nuts so those that remain taste better. I also prune for future years’ harvests or, for flowering bushes, future years’ flowers. And I prune to let the stems of all bushes bathe in light and air, which reduces pest problems.
    Bushes are bushes because they are bushy, that is, they’re constantly growing new stems at or near ground level and never develop permanent trunks. (Except for daphne, fothergilla, witch hazel, PeeGee hydrangea, tree peony, and other plants of bushy stature with long-lived stems.) Blueberries and most other bushes, ornamental and fruiting, are pruned by a renewal method. As stems age, they grow decrepit, producing less flowers or fruits; pruning away these oldsters, right to the ground makes way for younger, replacement stems.

3 Steps, and Blueberries are Pruned

    My first cuts on any of my blueberry bushes are the most dramatic ones: I cut down a couple or so of the oldest stems using a lopper or pruning saw. Blueberry stems are typically worth keeping until they are about 7 years old, or about an inch in diameter. These most dramatic cuts also remove the tallest stems in one fell swoop, so the bushes never grow so tall that the berries are out of reach.
     The kind of shrub, the variety of shrub, and the previous season’s growing conditions all conspire to determine how many new stems, called suckers, grow from or near ground level. Often, it’s so many that as they mature, the bush becomes congested. So now I take pruning shears in hand, and reduce their numbers to, in the case of blueberry bushes, four or five.

Blueberry bush, before & after pruning

Blueberry bush, before & after pruning

The finished bush then — in theory — has about 4 six-year-old stems, 4 five-year-old stems, and so on, down to 4 one-year-old stems. By this time next year, each of those stems will have moved up a year in age. I’ll remove the 4 now seven-year-old stems and excess one-year-old stems, which are those that will have grown this season.
    Oh, one more step: I go over each bush with my pruning shears, removing small or dead twigs and shortening stems that are out of bounds. With 16 bushes cramped into 900 square feet, “out of bounds” is pretty close.

Early Cukes, One the Way

    As so often happens in late winter and early spring, and especially this year, weather is very variable. Today was sunny and, by winter standards, balmy — perfect for crawling in among the blueberry bushes to prune them. But no need to twiddle my thumbs on sunless days raw with cold. There are seeds to be sown.
    Some people spend the first part of summer hankering to bite into their first ripe tomato. Even more than tomato, I eagerly await my first fresh cucumbers and peppers. Like tomatoes, both get a head start indoors.Cucumber seedlings
    This year, after seeing the very early cucumber crop at Evolutionary Organics farm down the road from me, I thought I would give early cukes a try here at the farmden. On Kira, the farmer’s advice, I planted seeds a couple of weeks ago into potting soil in 4” plastic flower pots.
    Cucumbers revel in heat, both for seed germination and for growing. So, after being watered, the seeded pots went onto the greenhouse’s electrically heated seed mat that’ll keep the seeds at a cozy 80°F. Seedlings are up, their roots still still in pots and still being warmed by the heating mat.
    Within a couple of weeks, the cuke seedlings will start to outgrow their pots and need planting in the ground  — not outdoors, though, but in the greenhouse. As I wrote, I’m hankering for a very early harvest. I’ll take the soil temperature which, I hope, will stay steadily above 65°F by then.


 Curing my Olive Harvest

   My olive harvest, about which I recently wrote, was such a success that I want to up my production beyond this year’s bountiful 6 fruits. Those 6 fruits, once cured, were truly delicious. (Yes, the halo effect — my assessment of them veiled by my having grown them — could come into play.)
    Part of the reason for the fruits’ high quality was how I cured them. Not very complicated: I just let them sit and dry out. After about two weeks, they had lost their bitterness, and, without the distraction of salt, oil, or spices, their rich, olive flavor shined through.

New Roots, New Shoots

    Part one of my twofold plan to increase production is to put the plant into a larger pot. A larger pot makes for a larger plant; a larger plant has more branches on which to hang more fruit.
    Looking more closely at the plant told me that re-potting was necessary immediately! New flower buds are already beginning for the next crop. Because the plant is moving up to a larger pot, no root pruning is necessary. I put some potting soil in the bottom of a pot, set the exposed root ball on top of the soil, loosened some roots along the outside of the root ball, and packed new soil in the space between the root ball the the side of the pot.My potted olive tree, pruned
    With soil firmed and a thorough watering, the roots have a happy home — for a year or two, when root pruning and re-potting become necessary. If moved up to a yet larger pot, the plant would be too unwieldy to muscle indoors and out.
    Part two of my plan to increase production is pruning. To prune any fruit plant for best yield and quality, you  have to know something about how the particular plant bears its fruits. For instance, peaches are pruned very differently from apples because peaches bear only on one-year-old wood and apples bear on wood a couple of years old on up to a decade or older. One of the goals in pruning peaches is to coax enough new growth this year for a good crop next year.
    To figure out how to best prune an olive, I referred back to The Pruning Book (which I wrote, and also details pruning of apples, peaches, and just about every other plant). “Fruits form in leaf axils along, but not to the end of, the previous year’s stems (and sometimes from dormant buds in one- or two-year-old wood).”
    So olive fruits something like a peach, on young wood. Actually more like an apricot, which bears fruit on wood from one to three years old.
    My ploy was too shorten some stems, focussing on those making the plant look gawky. Without sacrificing yield, shortening stems has the benefit of encouraging new, branching growth. More branching will make the plant look prettier and provide more young stems on which to hang fruit next year.

Sleep, Sweet Fig

    Going from the sun-drenched window, in front of which my olive tree basks, all the way down to the basement, I check out another Mediterranean fruit, my potted fig trees. What’s happening with them? Nothing, I hope.
    Now is a crucial time of year for a potted fig tree. The goal is to keep them dormant. Unfortunately, just a bit more warmth or a bit more light and they’ll start to awaken. If awakened, new growth will be soft and sappy, even if the plants sit in front of a sunny window. Then, when the plants finally go outdoors, intense sunlight, wind, and cooler temperatures are apt to burn back such growth.
  Figs buds, still dormant in basement  Temperatures stay relatively consistent and cool (40-45°F.) in my basement and it’s dark down there, so the plants generally stay dormant until sometime, probably next month, when I can set them outside. Keeping the plants slightly on the dry side also helps hold back growth.
    Last year was perfect. I moved the dormant figs outdoors while the weather was still cool without temperatures dropping too low below freezing. (Dormant figs tolerate temperatures down to the low 20s.) Growth began in synch with increasing temperatures, culminating in branches draped with soft, ripe figs by summer’s end. I’m planning for a repeat performance.


 Last Tomatoes & Peppers

   Late fall, and my thoughts turn naturally to . . . ethylene! You remember ethylene from high school chemistry. A simple hydrocarbon with 2 carbon atoms double-bonded together with 2 hydrogen atoms attached to each of the carbon’s remaining two free bonds. C2H4. It’s a gas, literally, and an important industrial chemical transmuted into such products as polyethylene trash bags, PVC plumbing pipes, and polystyrene packing “peanuts.”
    Oh, I forgot, this is supposed to be about plants. Ethylene is synthesized in plants and is a plant hormone with — as is characteristic of hormones — dramatic effects in small amounts.
    I think of ethylene as I sliced the last of the season’s fresh garden tomatoes for a sandwich a couple of weeks ago. Note that I wrote “fresh,” not “fresh-picked.” The tomatoes had been picked almost two months prior from vines I was cutting down and gathering up for composting. They sat on a tray in the kitchen, very gradually, over the weeks, morphing in color from light green to pale pink to deep red.

Tomatoes & peppers in November

Tomatoes & peppers in November

    Ethylene is responsible for this transformation from pale and insipid to red and flavorful (flavorful as compared with the pale green or pink stages, not as compared to vine-ripened summer tomatoes). It’s produced naturally in ripening fruits, and its very presence — even at concentrations as low as 0.001 percent — stimulates further ripening.
    The tomatoes shared the kitchen tray with peppers, peppers that also were green when laid on the tray. All ripening fruits produce ethylene, peppers included. So let a green pepper sit long enough and — as long as it is sufficiently mature and does not dry out too much, or rot — it will ripen red, or yellow or purple, whatever is its ripe color. Which mine did.

Yes, One Rotten Apple Does . . .

    The ethylene given off by a ripe apple or banana can be put to use in speeding up ripening of tomatoes. Just put either of these fruits into the bag with tomatoes. Apples and bananas are climacteric fruits which, instead of emanating a steady stream of ethylene, ramp up production dramatically as full ripeness nears.
    Among other effects, ethylene production itself stimulates further ethylene production. So if ripening fruits are left too long in a bag, ethylene stimulates ripening which stimulates more ethylene which stimulates more ripening, ad infinitum, until what is left is a bag of mushy, overripe fruit. Hence, one rotten apple really can spoil the whole barrel.

It’s a Gas for Fruiting Also

    Ripening isn’t the only prod to ethylene production in a plant. Stress also can do it, whether from the nibble of an insect, a disease spore wending its way through a plant’s cuticle, wind or snow bending a branch, or pruning shears trimming a wayward branch.
    Exogeneous ethylene leaves its mark on more than just promoting ripening. A century and a half ago, pineapple growers in the Azores saw that plants nearer outdoor fires flowered soonest. Plants that flower sooner, fruit sooner.
    If you’ve rooted a pineapple crown — relatively easy, just twist it off, plant in pot of well-drained potting soil, and water only when soil dries out — you can speed flowering and fruiting by setting an apple in the crown for a few days, then covering the plant with a bag.

And for Not Staking (Too Much)

    Soon, I’ll be going outside, pruning shears in hand, to put ethylene to use again. Ethylene also slows growth, in so doing coaxing flowering.

Flowers on bent pear branch

Flowers on bent pear branch

   Pear trees are famous for being slow to settle down to flowering and bearing fruit. No, I’m not planning to hang apples in the pear trees and enclose them in plastic bags! I am planning, after I finish working on the trees with my shears, to bend some well-placed branches to a near horizontal position, using weights, string, and pieces of wire to hold bent branches in place. The stress of bending — compression on one side of a stem, expansion on the opposite side — steps up ethylene production (30-300%), slowing growth, inducing flower bud formation, and shortening the time till I bite into my first pears from young trees.
Young tree, staked    I’m not yet finished with you ethylene. I planted a few new apple trees this year. They need staking, but not too much. Stakes should allow some movement of the developing trunks, and free movement of the top third of the plants. Movement causes the same stresses as branch bending, likewise inducing ethylene production. Ethylene, as you now know, slows growth but also, as you might not know, increases the thickness of the moving part; i.e. makes for a sturdier trunk. That’s what I want for my young trees.


Goodbye to Figs (For Now)

   With yellowing leaves and dropping leaves, my greenhouse figs are looking sickly. But all is well in figdom. A common misconception is that figs are tropical trees. They’re not. They’re subtropical, generally tolerating cold down to near 20°F.. And their leaves are deciduous, naturally yellowing and dropping this time of year, just like maples, ashes, and other deciduous trees.The last of figs ripening
    My greenhouse thermostat kicks on when the temperature inside drops to about 35°F. Daytime temperatures depend on sunlight; they might soar to 80° before awakening the exhaust fan on a sunny day in January, or hover around 35°F. on an overcast day that month. All of which is to say that the weather inside my greenhouse matches pretty well that of Barcelona and Rome, with hot dry summers and cool, moist winters. And figs grow very well in those Mediterranean climates. And go dormant.
    I harvested my last good fig — from the variety ‘Rabbi Samuel’ — around the middle of this month. Can figophiles enjoy the fruits that late in the season in Barcelona and Rome, I wonder? Many apparently ripe fruits were still hanging from the stems after that date. With cool weather and/or less sunshine from shorter days, the fruits developed an overripe, off flavor. I can’t complain; harvest began in July and I picked enough to periodically have to dry the excess.

Next Year: Go Fig(ure)

    I didn’t turn my back on my plants after harvesting my last fig. I jumped right into readying the plants for next year’s harvest.
    The first step was hurrying the plants along into dormancy by actually pulling off all remaining leaves.
 Pruning Rabbi Samuel espalier   Next, pruning. Two of my varieties, Bethlehem Black and Brown Turkey, bear fruit only on new shoots of the current season. Unpruned, new shoots would originate further and further up and out from the trunk — a problem in the limited confines of my greenhouse. Severity of pruning needs to be balanced against when ripening begins. More severe pruning would be more dramatic in its effect, but delays ripening. (Which is why fig trees — their roots, at least — might survive outdoors here under mulch or snow, but when the plant dies back that close to the ground, new sprouts don’t have time to ripen their fruits the following season.)Rabbi Samuel, pruned
    Pruning these trees back to stubs between 3 and 4 feet from the ground keeps them to size and stimulates plenty of new shoots next spring on which fruit ripens from late summer on.
    Rabbi Samuel and San Piero fig varieties ripen a July crop on one-year-old stems as well as a second crop, onward from September, on new shoots. So with these varieties, I pruned some stems severely and others enough to leave some year-old wood for the early crop.
    Easiest was Rabbi Samuel because it’s trained as an espalier in the form of a T, with a permanent short trunk and two permanent arms emanating in opposite directions from atop the trunk.
    Fruiting shoots grow vertically 6 to 12 inches apart from the arms. Today I cut every other fruiting shoot to a stub from which I’ll allow just one new, vertical shoot, for the September crop. I cut each of the other shoots down to about a foot long; they’ll bear the early crop and then, if fruiting stems are crowding each other, can be cut back right after the early harvest. If not crowded, I’ll allow one side shoot to grow on to bear the September crop.
    It’s all simpler that it reads, and looks very tidy in the greenhouse now overcrowded with lettuce, celery, arugula, mâche, claytonia, parsley, and Swiss chard. All of which are staples of the Mediterranean vegetable garden in winter.

And More form the Mediterranean

    Like figs, citrus also are subtropical plants. Depending on the kind of citrus fruit, they’ll tolerate winter cold into the ‘teens (kumquat) or just below freezing (lime). The plants neither grow as vigorously nor bear as heavily as do figs, so you don’t get much bang for your buck with a potted citrus without choosing carefully what to grow. I grow mine in pots: kumquat, because you can eat the whole fruit, sweet skin and tart flesh, wasting nothing; and, the newest addition to my citrus family (genus, actually), Meyer lemon.
 Meyer lemon, rooted and flowering already   A squeeze of lemon goes a long way in flavoring a salad, livening a cup of tea, and adding pizazz to a cobbler. Growing my own lemons lets me make use also of a rind, for zest, that is free of pesticides.
    Meyer lemon is an orange x lemon hybrid, so is somewhat sweeter than lemon. This variety roots readily from cuttings, so I could have an indoor orchard in short order if I wanted, and bears quickly. A recently-rooted 3-inch-high cutting has already flowered and set a fruit.
    Citrus are evergreen and much prettier and more fragrant, when in bloom, than figs. Mine spend winter in sunny windows in a cool room rather than in the greenhouse.

Finally, Chill

    A friend recently gave me a lawn chair. My plan is, on sunny winter days, to take my post-prandial siesta on that chair, basking in warm, winter light on the shores of the Mediterranean; that is, in my greenhouse. “…and fair Italia’s sunny shores, where the Mediterranean sea roars…”


Henry IV Method of Pruning

   Deb get’s a little nervous every time a go into the garage for some pruning tools this time of year. Not because she’s afraid I might hurt myself but for what I might do to the plants. Today it was so-called “renovative pruning” of the St. Johnswort ‘Sunny Boulevard’ shrubs that line the western edge of the brick terrace. I approached the shrub with some unconventional pruning tools.
    Let’s first backtrack and put everyone at ease. A shrub is a shrub because it’s shrubby; that is, it’s always growing new shoots at or near ground level rather than developing a permanent, upright trunk off which permanent limbs and new shoots grow. Some shrubs — most shrubs, in fact — get congested with too many new and older shoots rising from their base and too many old shoots that no longer perform well, in this case performance meaning a good show of flowers. An old stem can put on a good show for only so many years before becoming decrepit.

St. Johnswort, pruned

St. Johnswort, pruned

    The obvious solution to the above two problems with shrubs is to, first, limit the number of new shoots arising low in or around the plant. It’s a matter of judgement for how many to leave. (Pruning is art and science, and my book, The Pruning Book, attempts to make readers better artists and scientists, when pruning, at least.) As far as those old stems, they should be cut down near ground level once they’ve overstayed their welcome.
    So much for maintenance pruning. Sometimes a shrub has gotten too out of hand for all this detail work. Enter renovative pruning. It’s very easy: You just lop everything down to the ground, which is what I did to ‘Sunny Boulevard.’ I started out using a chain saw, my Stihl pole chain saw. This saw has a smaller blade and a long reach, which allowed me to get to the base of the plant without battling all the arching stems. After that, I sawed back stems arching over the hypertufa wall edge of the terrace with a Porter Cable sawzall powered by a 20 volt battery. Final cleanup was with my Fiskars Powergear lopper and Felco pruning shears. (That’s a lot of product recommendations, but I highly recommend all of them.)

All’s Well That Ends Well (in Pruning)

    So what was I left with when I was done pruning? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Well, not really; the roots were still alive and in the ground. And I’m banking on those roots sending up new sprouts. And because ‘Sunny Boulevard’ is slated to start blossoming in July on buds that form on new shoots, I’m also banking on blossoms on those new shoots. Because they’re beginning growth way down at ground level, blossoming might begin a bit later than usual.
    Shrubs that blossom early in the season, such as forsythia, lilac, and mockorange, form their flower buds a year before they actually open. Hence, the best time to prune these shrubs, if you want a full show of blossoms, is right after the blossoms fade. Prune them before blossoming and you cut off potential blooms.
    Still, having a clean slate after a dramatic renovative pruning is appealing, sometimes even with a sacrifice of blooms. Deb is now nervous about the lilac bush, which also needs some renovation. I’m planning to do a less dramatic renovative pruning on it, and I’ll probably wait until after it blossoms.

Onions’ Size Matters

    Big onions or medium-sized onions or small onions, what to grow? The choice is mine (and yours). Much depends on planting distances.
    I’m opting for medium-sized onions, about 3 inches in diameter. Yesterday I set out about 250 transplants grown from seed I sowed in early February in a tub of potting soil: Three varieties: Ailsa Craig, an heirloom from 1887, for sweet, mild onions that need to be used early because they don’t store well; New York Early, a nonhybrid variety selected over the years by New York onion growers, for medium term storage; and Copra, a rock-hard, hybrid onion that stores very well, all the while maintaining some sweetness.  In a 3-foot-wide bed, I planted 5 rows of onions, with about 4 inches between rows and about 4 inches between onions in each row.
Onions, planted    Planting distances are not the end-all for onion size. Variety also figures in; given enough space, In northern areas, such as around here, long-day varieties, which form bulbs when daylength is 14 hours or more, get largest because they grow the most leaves before bulbing begins. More leaves means bigger bulbs, which also a reason to plant as early as possible. (Note to myself: Plant onions earlier next year, in mid-April.)
    Even among northern varieties of onions, potential sizes vary. Ailsa Craig onions have the potential grow quite large, which is why they’re grown for exhibition at state fairs and the like. I’m banking on the close spacing keeping them from growing too big, 5 pounds or more by some accounts.
    Of course, good growing conditions also make for more leaves sooner. Got that. I spread compost an inch deep over the already mellow soil and drip irrigation lines are poised to quench the plants’ thirst.


Horse Manure: Not Guilty, So On To Pruning

    A dark cloud no longer hangs over my horse manure, that is, the horse manure that I occasionally truck over here to add to my compost piles. I wrote a few weeks ago about the possibility of herbicide that, when applied to hay, retains its toxic effect when an animal eats the hay and even, for a long time, after that animal’s manure has been composted or spread on the ground.
    My herbicide residue concerns were soothed with a simple assay that showed satisfactory growth from bean seeds in both hay that was suspect and hay of known integrity. Also, the bedding in the horse manure is mostly wood shavings rather than hay.
    But another ugly dragon kept raising its head above the manure. Another chemical, this time, Ivermectin, a de-worming medication given to horses (and other animals). Ivermectin or its metabolites might pass through the animal and injure soil dwelling creatures such as beneficial nematodes and earthworms. Past studies have shown negative effects on, for example, “dung fauna and degradation of faeces” (to quote a research paper from 2006).
    Ivermectin is, admittedly, a very useful material, even useful in humans to combat lice, bedbugs, and some more frightening tropical afflictions such as river blindness and elephantiasis. Agriculture is always a balancing act, but I like to keep my soil-dwelling partners happy.
    So I was gladdened when a veterinarian recently directed me to a Stanford University publication that summarized research findings on the environmental effects of Ivermectin. To whit: Ivermectin is excreted and it can affect earthworms, springtails, and other fauna. But it degrades quickly at summer temperatures (1-2 weeks, but much longer in winter) and within a day or two of exposure to bright sunlight. With temperatures within my compost bins reaching 150°F., or more, with the compost sitting many months before use, and with the compost being spread on top of the ground, little Ivermectin would end up in the soil. And soil anyway naturally has low levels of this compound.

Snow Makes Me Taller

    Let’s look aboveground, at stems; there’s pruning to be started. With well over a foot of snow on the ground, I turn my attention to taller plants. The snow is actually an advantage because, with snowshoes on, I can reach more than a foot higher into the branches without a ladder.

Sammy (the dog) and I pruning pawpaws

Sammy (the dog) and I pruning pawpaws

    For now, I’m going to start with the easiest pruning, mostly with plants that don’t need regular pruning beyond removing dead, diseased, broken, and grossly misplaced branches. Right here, such plants include pawpaws, plums, cornelian cherries, and a teenage honeylocust tree. Light is important for fruit production from the fruit trees and, generally, to keep diseases and insects at bay, so I also prune away enough branches to let remaining branches bathe in sunlight.
    I go at the pawpaws with one more goal in mind, to keep fruit from forming either too high in the tree or two far out on the limbs. Pawpaw trees will grow 15 to 25 feet high but I harvest fallen fruit from the ground. By my estimation, fruit can make a soft landing, undamaged, from a height of about 10 feet onto mulched ground. So I lop back the tops to weak side branches at about that height.
    Each pawpaw flower is a multiple ovary, potentially spawning up to nine fruits, each of which can weigh more than half a pound. That’s a lot of weight perched onto the end of a branch, so I shorten long branches to decrease leverage of that fruit load.
    (More about all types of pruning on all kinds of plants in my book, The Pruning Book.)

A Beautiful Climber

    I actually did begin pruning a few weeks ago, before the first snow fall. The plant was hydrangea — no, not the common bigleaf hydrangea which has many people scratching their heads about how to prune, but climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris).

Climbing hydrangea in summer

Climbing hydrangea in summer

   Climbing hydrangea is one of the most beautiful vines, even right now as the peeling, pale cinnamon, bark is in focus among the leafless stems. All summer long, the stems are clothed in lustrous green foliage and, in early, summer clusters of white flowers twinkle against that backdrop like stars in the dark sky.
    As expected, the vine took a few years to get firmly established. Now it threatens to engulf my brick home except that I want to restrict it to only the north wall. Every year now, I prune back stems creeping like groping fingers around the east and west walls. And each year the flower stems reach further directly out from the wall, so I also shortened them.

Climbing hydrangea, partially pruned

Climbing hydrangea, partially pruned

    The present pruning doesn’t permanently subdue the plant. This summer, I’ll again shorten the wandering stems, and I’ll be back at it again next winter and for winters to come.