Next Year’s ‘Chokes

Ahh, such a leisurely time of year to sow seeds. And for some of them, I don’t care if they don’t sprout for months. You might wonder: Why sow now; why so laid back?

I’ll start with artichoke, from whose seeds I did want to see sprouts soon. And I did. The seeds germinate readily. Right now, a few small seedlings are growing, each in its own “cell” of a seed flat, enjoying the cool, sunny weather.
Cynara, artichoke seedlings
Artichoke is a perennial whose natural life cycle is (usually) to grow leaves its first year, then edible buds its second year and for a few years hence. Especially in colder regions, artichokes can sometimes grown from seed like annuals, with a wrinkle.

To make that transition from growing only leaves to growing flower buds, the plants need to get vernalized, that is, to experience some winter cold. Except that winter cold here in the Hudson Valley (and everywhere else colder than Hardiness Zone 7) will do the plants in. So we cold-climate gardeners need to trick the plants into feeling like they experienced winter cold, just not our winters’ depth of cold.

When growing artichokes like annuals, from seed sown in spring, you make “winter” by exposing the young, growing seedlings to cool, but not frigid, temperatures (32-50°F) for a couple of weeks. The problem with this method is that the plants are fairly small when they get this signal that “winter” is over. In my experience, these small plants make commensurately small buds for harvest.

I’m lucky enough to have a greenhouse that gets very cool in winter, but not below freezing. My young artichoke plants will continue to grow very large though the very extended “autumn” weather in the greenhouse. In midwinter, they should get plenty of chilling. Come spring, after frost danger is past, I’ll plant out the large plants to, I hope, make large, fat buds.

I got this idea from growing cardoon, which is essentially the same as artichoke, except it’s grown for its large leaf stalks.
Large cardoon plant
Or it’s grown as a flower, in which case it would require the same conditions as artichoke to make flowers. I don’t like cardoon as a vegetable but do like it as a flower, so last year, around now, I sowed cardoon seeds and grew the seedlings in the greenhouse just as I’ve described for artichoke. The result was big, fat, beautiful, blue flowers. I expect the same, except I’ll harvest the artichoke buds before they open.

Actually, I grew two cardoon plants, and for some reason one of them grew only leaves all summer, and is still growing them, the olive-green leaves each rising from ground level in a four-foot-high-whorl.

More Hucks’

A couple of months ago I collected huckleberry seeds from my huckleberry plant and sowed them. As expected, they still haven’t sprouted. They weren’t expected to sprout, at least not until they were “stratified.”

Like artichoke, huckleberry (Gaylussaccia baccata) needs to feel that winter is over, in this case before its seeds will sprout. Stratification, as this cold exposure is called, prevents small seedlings from being killed by winter cold after sprouting in late summer or autumn.

My huckleberry plant in fall

My huckleberry plant in fall

Again, it’s a certain duration of cool (32-50°F) temperatures that do the trick. Under natural conditions, these chilling requirements are fulfilled in late autumn and/or in spring. In this case, colder temperatures would do no harm, but would not put any hours into the “chilling bank.” Once the “chilling bank” has been filled, the seeds await warm enough temperatures to sprout.

(For more details and wrinkles about seed germination, see my latest book, The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden.)

The pot of huckleberry seeds has been sitting outdoors, covered, since they were sown. If I want earlier sprouting, I’ll bring the pot into the greenhouse in winter. 

Ramping Up

I collected seeds from my ramp plants about a month ago with an eye to increasing my holdings. You guessed it: Ramps also need cold. But given mere stratification, the seed will not germinate. The behavior of ramp seeds is a little different from huckleberry seeds in that ramp seeds have a double dormancy.
Ramps seed heads
Roots need to grow before the shoots will sprout. That first stage requires a couple of months or so of warmth. Only after then can the second stage, shoot growth, begin, except that won’t occur until after a stratification period, with cool temperatures, again between 32-50°F. 

Under natural conditions, ripe ramp seeds get their warm period before winter sets in and then are ready to sprout in spring. But further north, where seeds ripen later, that first stage, to get root growth underway, is delayed until the summer after the seeds drop. In that case, sprouts don’t poke above ground until their second spring.

I don’t want to wait that long so I sowed my ramp seeds in a seed flat which I’m keeping in a warm place for a couple of months. After that, I’ll move the flat to cooler temperatures. And then, come spring, sprouts — I hope.

My ramps planting

My ramps mother plants

An Onion Relative and a Cabbage Relative


Wild Leeks, Cultivated

I got pretty excited seeing rows of scrappy, green leaves emerging from the ground between a couple of my pawpaw trees. The leaves were those of ramps (Allium tricoccum, also commonly known as wild leeks) that I had first planted there two years ago, with an additional planting last year.Ramps

There’s no reason that ramps shouldn’t thrive here on the farmden; they’re native from Canada down to North Carolina and from the east coast as far west as Missouri. They’ve been best known in the southern Appalachian region, where festivals have long been held to celebrate the harvest.

Ramps became more widely known in the 1990s when, with the publication of a ramp recipe in Martha Stewart Living Magazine, the wilding became a foodie-food. Ramps are now threatened with being over harvested. Which, along with a desire to have this fresh-picked delicacy near the kitchen door, is the reason I planted them.

Large patches of ground in a forest preserve in New Jersey near to where a friend lives are blanketed each April with ramp greenery. We had dug up a few — very few — of the ramps, leaves and bulbs, which I transplanted here. Our harvest was not a threat to the ramp population. No one else has ever been seen harvesting there, and we dug up less than 1% of what was there. Research has shown that harvests are sustainable if no more than a different 5-10% of a planting are harvested yearly.

In the wild, ramps thrive in damp soil rich in organic matter in the shade of deciduous trees. My pawpaws provide the deciduous shade. The ground beneath those trees has been enriched each year for 20 years with a thick mulch of autumn leaves. To give the ground a further boost as far as organic matter and nutrients, I lay down a couple of inch thick blanket of compost over the bed last summer.

Over time, the bulbs should multiply and the plants further spread by self-seeding. I plan to harvest some seeds when they ripen in late summer to grow the seedlings under more controlled conditions.

The seeds have a double dormancy so they often don’t sprout until the second spring after ripening. The root dormancy, the result of immature embryos, is overcome with warmth and moisture. A warm autumn might be sufficient; if not, the next growing season. I plan to hurry the process along by potting up the seeds and keeping them warm (about 70°F) and moist for a couple of months. Then I’ll whisk the pot into the refrigerator to overcome the shoot dormancy, which requires a couple of months of cool, moist conditions, to jolt them awake. (More about natural blocks to seed germination in my new book The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Lot Better Garden.) The seedlings, as might be expected given their natural habitat, grow best with some shade — 30% shade to be exact, according to research.

Ramps are among the few perennial vegetables I grow. They are spring ephemerals, so in just a few weeks, their leaves will dissolve into the ground as the plants go dormant, to return again each spring for my dining pleasure.

A Different “Kale”

Seakale (Crambe maritima) is yet another perennial vegetable that I grow. It’s a cabbage relative that just now is sending up sprouts from its thickened roots. As soon as I noticed the sprouts, I covered the plants with an overturned, clay flowerpot, covering the drainage hole with a saucer to prevent light from reaching the plant.

Seakale tastes best blanched, that is, with its shoots grown in darkness. Under such conditions, leaves stretch out and grow pale and tender. In light, the taste of the leaves is too sharp. Or so I’ve read: Although I’ve grown seakale for many years, I wanted the roots to build up enough energy reserves to fuel new growth in the dark. This year, I will taste seakale.

Seakale will continue to earn a place in my garden even if its flavor falls flat (or sharp) because it’s a beautiful plant. Once released from the dark, new leaves emerge silvery green, large, and wavy. And then, later on in summer, foaming sprays of small white flowers emerge from within the whorl of leaves.

Expect a report on my take of seakale flavor in a couple of weeks, which is the time required for blanching. Like other perennial vegetables, once the harvest period ends, plants need to grow unfettered for the rest of summer to replenish the stored energy they spent fueling spring growth. 



 Appreciated but not Touched

   “Flower in the crannied wall, I pluck you out of the crannies, I hold you here, root and all, in my hand, Little flower . . . “ Whoa! Hold on there Lord Tennyson! Relax, little flower. I’m not doing any plucking.
    I had hardly a hand in some of my best plantings, and that little flower is one of them.
    There’s a small, moss-covered ledge at the base of the brick wall next to my front door, an east-facing spot that enjoys some morning sun in summer but shade from the nearby north wall the rest of the year. In short, it’s a perfect place for a summer vacation for my orchids, bonsai, and cyclamen.

Cyclamen flower in a crannied wall

Cyclamen flower in a crannied wall

    The cyclamen is Cyclamen hederifolium, sometimes commonly called Persian violet (though a violet it is not; hence the need for botanical names). Although the flowers and leaves resemble those of the better known florist’s cyclamen (C. persicum), the two cyclamen species part company in some ways. Both the flowers and the leaves of Persian violet are much smaller than those of florist’s cyclamen, and the leaves of this diminutive species have decorative patterning. They resemble those of English ivy; hence the specific epithet “hederifolium.” Hedera is the botanical genus of English ivy. Flowers hover a few inches above the leaves on thin stalks, much like small, pink butterflies.
    Best of all, Persian violet is cold-hardy where winter lows plummet as low as minus 20° F. Florist’s cyclamen must be grown as a houseplant.
    Decades ago, I purchased seeds of Persian violet, and managed to raise a small stable of plants. They are ideal for naturalizing in partially shaded areas. While naturalizing the cyclamens seemed like a good idea, the dainty cyclamens would be gobbled up by the exuberant growth coaxed in the rich soil here. So my carefully nurtured cyclamens remained in their pots, wintering in a very cold spot in my basement and summering on that ledge near my front door.
    Lo and behold, this year I’ve noticed two little plants that have seeded themselves in the bit of soil where the flagstone terrace butts up again the ledge. The effect is subtle, to say the least, but the flowers are all the more charming for their shyness. I can appreciate the second half of Lord Tennyson’s poem — “Little flower—but if I could understand, What you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what God and man is” — but feel no need to, an aversion, in fact, to plucking the flower from its crannied wall.

Slow Cyclamen

    Years ago, I learned three things about growing cyclamen from seed. Fresh seed is best. Keep the growing medium consistently cool and moist. Be patient; germination could take many weeks, and keep plants growing well for at least two years to allow the tuber to develop.
    After that, plants can begin their spring dormancy, flowering and sprouting new leaves in late summer, the latter lasting well into winter, depending on temperatures.

Slow Ramps

    Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are all the rage; here also, and my plan is to expand my ramp planting of two potted plants into a passel of ramps by growing them from seed. My experience in growing cyclamen from seed might come in handy here.
    Although both plants enjoy similar growing condition, at least as far as the need for part shade in spring, the life cycle of ramps is different from cyclamens. Ramps sprout leaves in spring, send up a flower stalk, and then the leaves fade away as the plant goes dormant. The flowers talk remains, developing a head full of seeds — which I collected last week.
 Ramp seedlings    I planted the small seeds in potting soil in a flower pot. The journey begins. Those seeds could take anywhere from 6 to 18 months to sprout. When just ripe, ramp seeds have an under-developed embryo, a situation that inhibits germination. Keeping the seed warm and moist permits development of the embryo and, eventually, root growth.
    Once root dormancy has been broken, there’s still shoot dormancy to contend with. Shoots won’t grow until the seeds, with their root sprouts, have experienced a period of cool, moist conditions — that is, they recognize that winter is over and it’s safe to send a green shoot aboveground.
    If root dormancy isn’t completed before winter sets in, it has to finish the following year, with shoot dormancy needing fulfilling after that: 18 months after sowing. Fulfilling root dormancy before winter allows shoot growth the following spring: 6 months after sowing.  I’m making sure of root dormancy being fulfilled before cold weather sets in by keeping the pot of seeds moist and in the greenhouse. Temperatures are cool in the greenhouse in winter, so I’m expecting — hoping — for sprouts to appear by late winter.
    Growing ramps and cyclamen from seed is similar in that a prime ingredient for success is patience. In the case of ramps, if everything goes right, I could be harvesting my first home grown ramps in 5 to 7 years.

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.

Ramps, Colonial Williamsburg

A friend of a friend who was helping me turn compost stopped by the farmden and presented me with a fistful of greenery. Ramps. Although I’ve known of ramps and ramp festivals  for years, the plant never appealed to me. I foolishly figured it was one of those edibles whose main appeal was their wildness rather than their flavor.

But ramps right in your face demand attention, so I cooked and ate them that evening. The flavor was delicious, yes, onion-y but not with an overpowering aroma that’s often advertised as oozing from the bodies of attendees at ramps festivals; and they were sweet. As I have done with many other wild edibles — blueberries, pawpaws, and persimmons, to name a few — I right away wanted to cultivate ramps, both for the challenge and to have them available close at hand. The friend of the friend said she would bring me some rooted plants in a couple of days, which she kindly did.

The starting point in cultivating any wild plant is, of course, to look to its natural habitat. Ramps grow in moist, humus-y soil in the dappled shade of deciduous forests. To get my ramps off to a good start, I decided to grow them for a season in pots. There, soil, moisture, and light could be adjusted as needed. The potting mix was leaf mold (just like the forest floor) with some perlite for drainage (a necessity for roots in the confines of a pot). I set the pots on a capillary mat which, with one end dangling in a reservoir of water, would keep the potting mix consistently moist. For the couple of weeks that the roots are exploring new soil, moisture loss through the leaves will be minimized by keeping the plants in deep shade. After a couple of weeks, the plants should be ready for dappled sunlight.

Ramps have a short season. The green leaves emerge in spring, then die back as days grow longer and temperatures rise in June. After the leaves die back, seedstalks emerge.

Many wild plants that naturally grow in shade actually grow even better in full sun — as long as their roots have adequate moisture. This is true for pawpaw and blueberry, and perhaps is also the case with ramps. I have enough plants to, next year, try different exposures and see which gives best results.

The goal is to eventually plant out the ramps so they can multiply as the bulbs divide to form clumps and as the plants self-seed. The shaded, wet soil beneath my persimmon trees is one place I have in mind that might provide just right conditions for “ramp-ant” growth.
Dateline Colonial Williamsburg: A magical place I first visited over 50 years ago, and here I am today for a lecture at their 66th Garden Symposium. (No lecture was involved at my first visit; I hadn’t even been talking for that long!) Strolling in and out of the many gardens — from the functional “four-square” kitchen garden behind Shield’s Tavern to the maze and clipped evergreens of the Governor’s Palace — Colonial Williamsburg is a reminder of America’s gardening heritage. 

What goes around comes around. Colonists, even those with small, village plots of land, grew at least some of their own vegetables and fruits. They had to. Today, even with the  panoply of fresh produce that lines our market shelves, more and more of us are planting at least some fruits and vegetables that we can reach for right outside our back doors. Now we’re doing it to avoid commercial food products too often tainted with pathogens or pesticides, to avoid the environment toll of a tomato or a head of lettuce shipped hundreds of miles, and because we want to eat fruits and vegetables with real flavor.
We’re now even using some gardening techniques of those colonial gardeners. Tunnels of wire draped with clear plastic have replaced wooden hoops of yore covered with oiled paper held in place with horsehide glue. Colonial gardeners covered other hoops with cheesecloth to screen out insects; I do likewise, using spun-bonded polyester, a more modern mesh material, to keep flea beetles off eggplants. Raising beds for better drainage and early soil warming were popular then and now.

The formality of Williamsburg’s symmetrical ornamental plantings have their place now also. Especially if today we keep those formal planting to a size that can be maintained with the same meticulousness as modern Williamsburg’s skilled gardeners. My only objection to all that symmetry and evergreens is that, along with the brick buildings, the formal plantings take on a certain sameness; it looks pretty but makes it easy to lose your way.

Okay, I’ll admit it; Williamsburg did make me jealous. Of their towering southern magnolia trees with large, leathery, glossy leaves. Such trees either don’t thrive or don’t survive this far north. (The cold limit for hardier varieties, such as Bracken’s Brown Beauty, is 5-10° F.) I also was envious of the many fig trees and pomegranate bushes growing freely outdoors in ornamental and vegetable gardens. I also grow these plants, but in the greenhouse or large pots.

Colonial Williamsburg is an enchanting place. The gardens. The quiet of car-less streets. The subdued light at night. The chirping birds on spring mornings, a prominent memory from my first visit and each visit since. With Spring’s early arrival throughout the East, an added plus was the heavy blooms of black locust trees that suffused the air with their intoxicatingly sweet fragrance. I should experience that pleasure again, back home at the farmden, within a couple of weeks.