Roses, Oh Yes

I bake really good bread, but “man can’t live by bread alone.” Sometimes, you’ve got to “stop to smell the roses.” Enough with the quotations! But back to the roses.
Roses in a vase
A love of roses has crept up on me over the years, due mostly to changes in kinds of roses available. Up until about 30 years ago, hybrid teas were pretty much the only roses on the block. These plants’ gangly stems are each capped by a vividly colored, fairly stiff, formal blossom whose petals wrap together into a pointy peak. You see where I’m going: hybrid teas are ugly, to me at least. 

Also available were grandiflora and floribunda roses. Grandifloras are like hybrid teas, except their stems end with clusters of a few, but smaller, blossoms. Floribunda roses have even larger flower clusters of even smaller flowers. Despite being bushes more full with flowers than hybrid teas, grandiflora and floribunda flowers are still rather prim and proper except for their traffic-stopping colors.

  Then so-called species and old-fashioned roses entered the scene, roses that are as nature made them or only slightly hybridized. These roses constitute broad groups, but generally, what they have going for them are more subdued — think pastel — colors and more blowsy blossoms on more heavily branching, fuller-bodied, shrubs. 

The downside to species and old-fashioned roses, even if you like their blossoms and their growth habits, is that many bloom only in the spring. Hybrid teas pump out blossom after blossom all summer long.

Rose d'Ipsahan blossom

Rose d’Ipsahan

Enter Rose de Rescht, my first old-fashioned rose, given to me by a local, fellow gardener. Ann told me that this rose variety had soft pink flowers and heavenly scent. She was right about the appearance and fragrance, wrong about the name. After years of sleuthing, I’ve identified the rose as Rose d’Ispahan, probably originating in Persia but first discovered in a garden in Isfahan, Iran, renowned for its gardens and roses.

If I had to grow only one variety of rose, Rose d’Ispahan would be the one, for the beauty of its flowers, for its intense fragrance, for its cold-hardiness, for its lack of large thorns, and for its pest resistance. And that’s even though it blossoms only in spring. (It does so over a long period, though.)

Rose d'Ipsahan

Rose d’Ipsahan

But I don’t have to grow only one variety of rose. My other favorites are some of rose breeder David Austin’s varieties which combine the pest resistance and repeat blooming of modern roses with the blowsy, fragrant, pastel colored blossoms and full-bodied shrubs of old fashioned roses. My currant, and perhaps all-time, favorites are Lady of Shallot and, in my opinion needing a more euphonious name, Golden Celebration.

Golden Celebration rose

Golden Celebration rose

Both sport yellow — no, Golden! — blossoms, some apricot in those of Lady of Shallot, and a rich yellow, all contained in a petal-filled cup-shape in those of Golden Celebration. Another of my favorites, Lady Judi Dench, never woke up in spring a year ago; perhaps it was the cold, perhaps something else.

 Lady of Shallot rose

Lady of Shallot rose

I also grow another David Austin Rose, LD Braithewaite, with deep red blossoms and dark green, slightly reddish leaves. Not my favorite as far as appearance but this rose is very cold hardy and pumps out tons of blossoms almost all season long.

LD Braithewaite rose

LD Braithewaite rose

And Strawberries, Oh Yes

Strawberries and rosesOn to strawberries. I’m growing three kinds: the Pineapple Crush variety of white alpine strawberries; the Earliglow variety of garden strawberry; and a few varieties of vescana strawberries, which are hybrids of garden and alpine strawberries. This also is the order, starting with the best, of flavor for the three types.

Why do I grow anything but the best? Because alpines are so small that it’s hard to fill a bowl with them. I grow vescanas, for the first time this year, because I never grew them before.

The Earliglow berries taste good and do quickly fill a bowl, ideally yielding one quart of berries per plant over the course of the season. Except this year, a problem has surfaced. Leather rot is a fungal disease (Phytophthora cactorum) that rears its ugly head — infected berries that taste bitter and have white patches that turn brown — usually following excessively wet periods from late spring to early summer, which is odd because weather has been on the dry side. Also odd because I’ve never seen the problem here before.
Strawberry leather rot1
Which brings me back to vescana and Pineapple Crush. Both are very disease resistant, and vescana berries are almost as big as garden strawberries, so I’m thankful to have them, even if they do taste like canned strawberries.

And Honeyberries, Oh NO!

After three weeks of hanging on (the berries, not me), honeyberries, which are edible honeysuckles, are ready for a fair tasting. I wrote previously about the awful flavor of this new fruit and was instructed to let the berries hang till dead ripe.
The berries sampled this year were so ripe that each had to be plucked from the branch with my palm facing upwards beneath the berry; a mere touch would cause ripe ones to drop.

Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat (a drum roll). First to be tasted was the variety Solo. Reaction: spit it out quickly. Tart with bad flavor. Second fruit tasted was Sugar Mountain Blue. Also spit out, but not quite as quickly. And finally, Sugar Mountain Eisbär. Although retained in the mouth and having a hint of sweetness, this one, like the others, had bad flavor.

The flavor of honeyberries is allegedly like a mix of blueberry and raspberry. Not so! If you have space, plant blueberries or raspberries instead.


First Good-Tasting Berries of the Season

Strawberries, the aptly named variety Earliglow, are ripe, which means it’s time to start crawling for fruit. That’s one thing I don’t like about strawberries.

Strawberries, clockwise from left, vescana, garden, and alpine

Strawberries, garden, vescana, and alpine

Another thing I don’t like about strawberries is that, although they’re perennial plants, a bed needs replanting after about 5 years. By then, viruses, fungal diseases, weeds, and just plain aging have finally taken their toll. The decline creeps up slowly so is not all that obvious. And no, you shouldn’t replant in the same spot where the now pest-ridden bed was, but in a new location. And don’t replant with rooted runners from those old plants, but with new, certified disease free plants.

Any bad feelings I had dissolved away as I tasted my first berry of the season. I almost agreed with Izaak Walton, in the 16th century, “Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.” (He had never tasted our native highbush blueberries.) Aside from good flavor, strawberries bear quickly, their first or second season in the ground, and are the first good-tasting, fresh berries of the season.

I planned ahead, this being my planting’s fifth year, ordering plants for spring planting and setting them in a relatively weed free bed in my vegetable garden, two rows running up and down a three-foot-wide bed with a foot between plants in the rows. Right after harvest, out goes the old bed, to be given an inch dressing of compost and then in go leek and/or fall cabbage and cauliflower plants.

Strawberries, new and old bed

Strawberries, new and old bed

I’ll keep the new bed productive for its five years with annual renovation, a brutal affair that begins with, right after berries have been harvested, lopping off and raking up all the leaves, etc., etc. No need to dwell on this now, while enjoying berries from the old bed.

A Strawberry Better than a Strawberry

Conventional garden strawberries (Fragaria X ananassa) aren’t the only strawberries on the block. I’ve written previously about another kind of strawberry, alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca), which is a totally different species than garden strawberries. Sure, they also have their downsides: they’re small, typically dime size; they’re very soft and perishable; and after two or three years, plants get old at their center so either need to be divided, or chucked, and new plants started.

Pineapple Crush alpine strawberries

Pineapple Crush alpine strawberries

On the plus side, new plants are fairly easy to start from seed, similar to growing tomato transplants except needing more patience. And the plants bear their first season. Not only bear their first season, but bear more or less continuously all season long.

Alpine strawberries are very resistant to pest problems. And birds? No problem if you grow Pineapple Crush, the white ones. The birds ignore them. Pineapple Crush berries also have the best flavor, with more than a hint of pineapple.

I’ve been testing people’s reactions to tasting my white alpine strawberries. Without fail, within seconds of putting one in their mouth, a person’s eyes light up and they exclaim “Wow.”

Trying for the Best of Both Worlds

Okay, alpine strawberries are small. You’re not going to fill your freezer with these strawberries. Hmm, how about combining the best of garden strawberries and the best of alpine strawberries? It’s been done. The hybrids are called vescanas, botanically Fragaria X vescana, a combining of their parents’ botanical names.

As a fan of alpine strawberries, how could I resist searching for these hybrids? I found some and, last spring, planted them, the varieties Annelie, Rebecka, Sara, Florika, and, not sounding very appetizing in name, S-228. The alpine genes express themselves in disease resistance and bearing fruit more or less continuously through summer and into fall. Garden strawberry struts its genes in the hybrids’ fruit size which, for the hybrids is much larger than the alpine strawberries but smaller than the garden strawberries. 

The fruits are red but red alpine strawberries, which are more common than white alpine strawberries, might have been used in the breeding.

Most evident in coming upon my small patch of these vescanas is how fast they are spreading. There are runners all over the place! I usually frown on such a habit because keeping my strawberry bed from becoming overcrowded necessitates pinching off all runners except for those needed to put rooted plants in place to replace old plants.

Vescana strawberries

Vescana strawberries

Making lots of runners is billed as an asset for the vescanas, allowing them to be grown as so-called meadow strawberries, the meadow needing neither renovation nor mulching. I’ll let my plants wander off somewhere by themselves and see how they fare.

You may have noticed that there’s an elephant in the room; up till now there’s been no mention of flavor. I was saving that. Quoting from a journal article by the breeders of Rebecka, this variety has “fine aroma.” Perhaps in Sweden where that variety was bred. Or, quoting from the patent for Florika, “The variety is a vescana-type strawberry plant characterized by its capability of developing exceptionally rich and fine flavor of medium sized fruits.” Perhaps in Germany, where this variety was bred.

Here in New York’s Hudson Valley, I thought the fruits were good, but nothing special, and surely not as especially good as my Pineapple Crush white alpine strawberries.

Now that I think of it, Izaak Walton’s very high praise of strawberries might have been more warranted than I first noted. So-called garden strawberries are relative newcomers on the garden scene, originating as a chance hybrid in the 18th century. Prior to its arrival, the strawberries that were grown or harvested from the wild were mostly the musk strawberries (Fragaria moschata, very delicious) and alpine strawberries.

I haven’t said “wow” upon tasting any of my vescana strawberries. 

Earliglow strawberries

Earliglow strawberries

(For more about growing strawberries, see my book Grow Fruit Naturally).


Chips, Not Hay, In This Case

“Make hay while the sun shines.” Good advice, literally in agriculture and figuratively in life. And I’m following it these days, in agriculture. Not making hay of course, because that sunshine is only effective in summer and fall, partnered with heat.

The “hay that I’m making” is actually mulch that I’m spreading. A few weeks ago I put my “WOOD CHIPS WANTED” sign out along the road in front of my house. In a short time, an arborist was kind enough deposit a truckload of chips. Wood chipsI figured I could spread it on the ground beneath some of my trees and shrubs, especially the youngest ones. There, next summer, the mulch would keep weeds at bay, slow evaporation of water from the ground, and feed soil life, in so doing enriching the soil with nutrients and organic matter.

Usually, by this time of year, my piles of wood chips have frozen solid or are white mounds beneath snowy blankets. Not so this year.

So I’ve been loading up garden cart after garden cart with chips to haul over to the garden. (Once the ground disappears beneath a heavy, white layer of snow, moving heavy cartloads becomes nearly impossible.) 

Since the most important trees and shrubs had already been mulched earlier in autumn, I decided it was a good time to add a layer of chips to the paths in the vegetable garden.Mulching chestnut trees Chips there are mostly to suppress weeds which thrived with last season’s unusually abundant rainfall and to soften, by spreading out, the impact of footfall on the paths. I generally “chip the paths” every couple of years at a minimum if for nothing more so that the height of the paths keeps up with the rising height of the vegetable beds which get — and already got, at the end of this season — a one-inch deep blanket of compost annually. (Besides the usual benefits of mulches, the compost provides enough nutrients for the intensively planted vegetables for the whole season. No fertilizer per se is needed.)

After decades of my adding an inch or more of wood chips to the paths and compost to the beds, you might suppose that the whole vegetable garden has risen a few feet above the surrounding area like a giant stage. Nope. The goodness of organic materials, such as the compost and wood chips, comes from soil organisms chewing them up and breaking them down. As decomposition takes place, the bulk of these materials, which are mostly carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, is released into the air as carbon dioxide and water. The minerals that remain feed the plants.

Pine Berries?

One bed in the vegetable garden is home to strawberries. That bed also needs mulching, for different reasons and with different materials than the other beds, and needs it every year about now.

A strawberry plant is mostly nothing more than a stem, a stem whose distance from leaf to leaf has been telescoped down to create a stubby plant. Drawing of strawberry plantLike the stems of any other plant, a strawberry stem each year grows longer from its tip and also grows side shoots. So a strawberry stem rises ever so slowly higher up out of the soil each year.

Strawberry stems are not super cold-hardy. As a stem slowly rises higher in the ground, it’s exposed to more and more cold, and more apt to dry out.

What’s needed is to protect the stems with an insulating blanket of some loose organic material. Straw is traditional — and one possible root of the name “strawberry” — but good straw reliably free of weed seeds is hard to find. Instead of straw, I often use wood shavings, conveniently available in bagged bales. This year I decided that the giant pine tree here could spare a few pine needles, raked up to share with the strawberries.

The goal of mulching strawberries isn’t to keep cold out, just to moderate the bitterest cold. Strawberry bed mulched with pine needlesMulching too early might cause the stems to rot. I typically wait until the ground has frozen about an inch deep which usually occurs towards the end of December here, and then cover the plants with about an inch depth of wood shavings.

Come spring, the mulch needs to be pulled back before the plants start growing. Tucking the mulch in among the plants provides the usual benefits of mulch, especially important for strawberries because of their shallow roots, and provides a nice, clean bed on which the ripening berries can lie.

(More about growing strawberries can be found in my book GROW FRUIT NATURALLY.)

Hey, Good Looking

I admire the look of my vegetable gardens this time of year. With the chipped paths and compost lathered beds, some also with a tan cover of winter-killed oat plants, they look very tidy and ready to welcome new seeds and transplants in the months ahead. The look doesn’t compare with the lush greenery and colorful fruits of the summer garden, all of which is nothing more than a memory.
View of garden

Berries Begin

Green Thumb Not Necessary

Every day, for some time now, my strawberry bed has yielded about five cups, or almost 2 pounds of strawberries daily. And that from a bed only ten feet long and three feet wide, with a double row of plants set a foot apart in the row.Strawberry harvest
Good yield from a strawberry bed has nothing to do with green thumbs. I just did what’s required to keep the plants happy and healthy. To whit . . .

I planted the bed last spring to replace my five-year-old bed. About five years is about how long it takes for a strawberry bed to peter out due to inroads of weeds and diseases, including some viruses whose symptoms are not all that evident.

To keep my new plants removed from any problems lurking in the old soil, I located the new bed in a different place from the old one. Further forestalling problems, plants came not from a generous neighbor and not from my old bed, but from a nursery selling “certified disease-free” plants.

I chose to grow them in a “spaced plant” system (which does not involve getting plants high, ha, ha) but allows each plant a square foot of space. Throughout the growing season, I clipped off any runners and daughter plants attempting to establish themselves and crowd into the mother plant’s space.

Other growing systems allow for runners, which makes for more economical planting of a bed but reduced initial yield. Given free rein, though, new plants eventually become the worst weed in any strawberry bed; they must be dealt with in some way.

Did I mention that the new bed, like the old one, was in the vegetable garden, where the soil is rich in nutrients and organic matter, with plants’ thirst quenched daily via drip irrigation? 

In late December, when the ground had frozen about an inch deep, plants were snuggled beneath mulch as protection from winter cold. Straw, pine needles, wood shavings — any loose organic material will do.

Come spring, just as soon as plants began to awaken, I pulled back new growth beneath the mulch and tucked it under the plants’ leaves. I also trimmed off any dead leaves. The new job for the mulch was then to keep the soil moist and the soon-to-form ripening berries clean of soil.

That’s it, for all those berries, fresh picked every morning. Every morning for a little while longer, that is. I planted a “junebearing” variety of strawberry, Earliglow, known for earliness and good flavor, but bearing only for a few weeks in June. Other varieties, so called “everbearing” and ”day neutral” varieties, bear repeatedly through the season.
Netted strawberriesOnce Earliglow stops bearing for the season, the bed will need renovation and, through the season, its runners pinched off weekly to keep each plant “spacey.”

Better Berries

You might wonder: Why such a relatively small planting of strawberries, and why only junebearers? This admission may be sacrilege: I’m not a big fan of strawberries. I like the fruit well enough, but mostly because they are the first fresh fruit of the season.

(One other fruit does beat out strawberries as the first fruit of the season. They are honey berries, a kind of edible honeysuckle. Their flavor, thus far, has not impressed me. Breeding and cultivating honeyberries is in its infancy. They’re perhaps where apple was 2000 years ago, and the future might bring more flavorful ones.)

Back to strawberries . . . another of their deficiencies, in my view, is that you have to crawl for the fruit. And, as mentioned previously, although technically perennial, beds should replanted in a new location every 5 years or so.

The Best Berries

The fresh strawberries came on the scene on the tails of last year’s frozen blueberries, one of my favorite fruits. Perfect. (The loss of frozen blueberries is softened by the freshness of the strawberries.)

Last frozen blueberries, fresh picked strawberries

Last frozen blueberries, fresh picked strawberries

And just as the fresh strawberries fade out for the season, fresh blueberries will begin yielding this season’s bounty. Also, at the same time, black currants and red currants. And then black raspberries, and then  . . . and on and on.

All You Need To Know About Blueberries

Interested in growing your own blueberries? It’s easy, if you meet their basic needs, all of which, including varieties, harvest, and other pressing questions about growing blueberries, will be covered at my upcoming BLUEBERRY GROWING WORKSHOP. The workshop will take place on my New Paltz farmden on July 22, 2018 from 9:30-11:30am, at a cost of $48. Registration is a must. For more information and registration, go to