Book Giveaway, and Trees Large and Small

A book giveaway, a copy of my book GROW FRUIT NATURALLY. Reply to this post with what fruits are most and least successful in your garden or farmden. Also tell us what state you are in (as in NY, OH, CA, etc., not happiness, wistfulness, etc.). I’ll choose a winner randomly from all replies received by March 23rd.
A coming bout of colder weather notwithstanding, my weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) knows and shows that spring is around the corner. Buds along and at the tips of stems are stretching and showing some green of new leaves beneath their folds. I’m called to action.
The reason for this call is that my weeping fig, although it could soar to 75 feet outdoors in tropical climates, is in a small pot being trained as a bonsai. Now that the plant is just about ready to grow is the time to cut it back so that new growth remains proportional to the size of the pot, the roots, and the dictates of design.
At three and a half years old, my tree is only 6 inches high — and I want to keep it that small. Its pot, after all is only 4 inches long by 3 inches wide, and an inch deep.
Before I even get to the stems, I cut off all the leaves. True, this is not good for a plant, but my plant is healthy so can tolerate the stress. I go through the trouble of snipping off each leaf because that dwarfs, to some degree, new leaves that are about to emerge, keeping them more in proportion to the size of the plant.

Whoops, I just checked a book (The Pruning Book by Lee Reich) which states that the leaf pruning is best done after new leaves fully emerge. Oh well, I’ll leaf prune again as soon as the next flush of growth finishes. (Tropical plants, in contrast to plants of cold climates, typically have multiple growth flushes each year.)
With leaves pruned off, time to move on to the roots. Since the plant was last re-potted, a year ago, roots have thoroughly filled the soil in the small pot. There’s little or no room for new root growth, and new roots are the ones that drink in water and what few nutrients are left in the old soil.

The only way to make room for new soil and root growth is to get rid of some old soil and roots. I tease out old soil from among the roots and then prune away about a third of the old roots. With that done, I pack new soil into the pot, just enough to put the plant, with its surface mat of moss still in tow, sitting at the same level as before the root pruning.
The stems need little pruning. I snip off a crossing stem here, one reaching too far over the edge of the pot there, and another that threatens to extend too far skyward. Although stems made little growth over the past year, they, and especially the trunk, did thicken, helping to give the little tree an appearance venerable beyond its years.
I haven’t looked, but my guess is that my fruit trees are also beginning to feel the effects of impending spring. Bouts of warm weather are the driving force in this case. One week we have highs in the ‘teens or twenties, another week highs are in the 40s or 50s. Back and forth through winter.
Plants went into winter well able to resist enticements of warm weather. That’s because until they’ve experienced a certain number of hours at chilly, not frigid, temperatures, they remain dormant and unwilling to grow. Once reaching about 1,000 hours total accumulated exposure to temperatures between 30 and 45°F., they begin to de-harden, that is, become less resistant to cold and more ready to grow.
Plants vary in the number of hours they need to fill their “chilling” bank, some needing a couple of hundred hours, others needing over 1,000 hours. The gut reaction would be to surmise that plants from colder climates would naturally require more chilling hours before they would begin to grow. That’s generally

true, but it ain’t necessarily so. In some very cold regions, spring comes on quickly without looking back, and the growing season is short. Fruit plants adapted to such regions must be ready to grow at the first breath of spring if they’re going to have time to ripen their fruits within the growing season. Just a little chilling at the beginning and/or end of the season is all they need.

With most fruit trees, flowers are the first evidence of awakened growth. But if they open too early, subsequent cold turns their colorful petals to brown mush. Dead flowers also cannot go on to become fruits.
I admit to being somewhat foolish for planting an apricot tree, a tree native to Manchuria, a region that experiences those cold winters and quick, steadily warming springs. The climate here in the Hudson Valley (and over most of continental U.S.), and especially at my less than perfect site for fruit-growing, has a good chance of fooling apricot trees into acting as if cold weather is past long before it actually is. My foolishness won’t be in evidence this year, though, because the tree is still too young to flower.

A Visitation, Clematis, and a Workshop

Last minute notice: Come visit my farmden, in real life. As part of the Garden Conservancy Open Days program, I’ll be hosting visitors between 10am and 4pm. For more information about this visit or other sites, contact the Garden Conservancy (

Letting a few clematis plants grow is the closest I’ve come to playing the lottery. It looks like I’ve won, judging from the first flower that opened last week.
Let me explain. I have a half dozen or so clematis plants of named varieties that I got from nurseries. A few years ago, I started noticing small plants — seedlings of the named varieties, especially from near a Nelly Moser plant — sprouting near the mother plants. I meant to save a couple, I even transplanted some, but these first seedlings succumbed to neglect. More recently, I’ve paid closer attention to the seedlings, especially those that sprouted fortuitously near the fence around the vegetable garden.
The gamble was that some seedlings would be garden-worthy. (Not that big a gamble; if not garden-worthy, I could just dig them out and walk them to the compost pile.) Named varieties of clematis, such as

Seedling of Nelly Moser

my plant named Nelly Moser, are propagated by cloning. That is, every Nelly Moser plant is genetically identical to every other Nelly Moser plant. Clones of any plant are propagated by root, leaf, or stem cuttings, by grafting, or by some other method of asexual propagation.

My seedlings arose from seeds that dropped from a pollinated flower, that is, the seedlings are the result of the sexual union of pollen and egg cells. Whatever jumbling around of genes happened during that union will be reflected in the plants’ growth and flowers.
My first seedling flower spread open clear, blue petals — beautiful. It’s a keeper. If I deem it truly and uniquely spectacular, I could give it a name and multiply it asexually to spread the joy. Then it would become a named variety or, to use the more professionably acceptable term, “cultivar,” from the words “cultivated variety.” The word “cultivar” grates on my ears; I refuse to use it.
That unspeakable “c” word came about because the word “variety”was too general; it could mean two different things, plantwise. One meaning is a garden variety, as in Nelly Moser clematis. The other kind of “variety” is a botanical variety.
In the classification of plants, a botanical variety is a subclassification sometimes occurring within a

Nelly Moser clematis

species. That occurs if there are populations within the same species that are sufficiently similar to distinguish themselves from other populations within a species, and the differences are inheritable. (Both populations are, of course, sufficiently similar to be included within the same species.)

Botanists have not chosen to bastardize the English language with so ugly a word as “botanivar” tomean a “botanical variety.” Likewise, there’s no reason for horticulturalists to bastardize our language with the word “cultivar.” I’ll stick with “cultivated variety” or, if the sense is obvious, just “variety.”
The flowering habit of my clematis seedlings is also of interest. That is, when does it flower? Some clematis flower only on new growth, which means they flower later in the season. Some clematis flower only on old growth, which means they flower early in the season. And still other clematis flower on both new and old growth, which means they flower early and late, over a long season.
As I detail in my book, The Pruning Book, pruning technique varies depending on a clematis plant’s flowering habit. Early bloomers are best pruned right after they finish blooming. Late bloomers are pruned before growth begins for the season. And you do a little of both for plants that bloom early and late. (My book groups cultivars — whoops, I mean varieties — of clematis according to their flowering habits and pruning needs.)
My seedlings have mostly appeared near the “feet” of Nelly Moser, which flowers early in the season, so

Nelly Moser and its baby

presumably will be similarly inclined. That is the case with the seedling that recently unfolded its blossoms. But it could flower again this season.

For now, I’m enjoying the flowers of the first bloomer and looking forward to what unfolds on the stems of other seedlings.
“How to Grow a Lot of Vegetables with Little Space, Time, and Effort” is the topic for an upcoming workshop I’ll be holding here at my farmden in New Paltz on June 23rd, from 9 to 11:30 am. (The growing season is still young: It’s not too late to get more out of your garden; it’s not even too late to start a garden!) The cost is $50 and space is limited so registration is necessary. For questions or registration, contact me at garden[at]lee

Pruning, Not Too Late

Nicole, from near Madison, WI won the grow GROW FRUIT NATURALLY book giveaway. Congratulations Nicole! Contact me through my website, with your mailiing address so I can get the book out to you.

Time is running out to finish pruning my kiwi and grape vines, apple, pear, cornelian cherry, filbert, and chestnut trees, rose, gooseberry, currant, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, yew, and fothergilla bushes . . . now that I list most of them, it doesn’t really seem like too, too much still to prune. Some people worry that it’s too late to prune. Nope. Most pruning is done during the dormant season, that is, anytime plants are not growing or, if deciduous, leafless. (A notable exception is spring-blooming shrubs, which are best pruned right AFTER they finish flowering. For more on all aspects of pruning, see my book, THE PRUNING BOOK.)
Kiwi, before pruning
I’ll usually do a little pruning in autumn, after leaves fall, but mostly I’ll be grabbing pruning shears, loppers, and saw as I go out the back door in late February or March, after the coldest part of winter is over. Waiting is most important with plants that are least cold-hardy because these plants tolerate cold better if left alone and, by waiting, I can see what has been damaged during winter. Buds on damaged stems aren’t swelling up this time of year so those stems can be cut off.

A few plants warrant dragging out that waiting period even longer, until they are in bloom, which is when they heal quickest. Peaches are prone to infections at wounds, pruning or otherwise, making these trees good candidates for waiting.

Kiwi, after pruning

I may also wait to prune my grape vines until new shoot growth is underway because then they are less likely to bleed sap.
Bleeding sap worries many gardeners. Isn’t the plant suffering from that gaping wound oozing a watery fluid? No, bleeding does no harm to grape vines. But some of my grapevines climb along the arbor over my patio. It’s very pleasant to sit outdoors on that patio on warm, spring days; it’s very unpleasant to sit there with sap dripping on my head.
Kiwi vines also bleed. No matter. My kiwi vines climb a strictly functional trellis below which we don’t sit.
Root pressure of water being forced up the vines is what makes grape and kiwi vines bleed. Once leaves unfold, they take up that pressure and bleeding ceases.
Bleeding is most welcome from maple trees. What comes out this time of year is a dilute, sugary sap that, when boiled down to concentrate the sugars, yields maple syrup and, if boiled down still more, maple sugar. Sugar concentration in the sap can vary, depending on such factors as temperatures, age of tree, site, soil fertility, and moisture. Typically, the ratio of sap to finished syrup is 40 to 1.
It’s not root pressure that’s forcing sap out the spiles I’ve tapped into holes bored into two sugar maples. Maple sap runs best when temperatures fluctuate between 20-something degree nights and 40-something degree days. Cooling temperatures cause gas bubbles in the trees xylem cells (the inner ring of trees’ cells in which liquid is conducted upwards from the roots) to shrink and to dissolve. Something’s got to fill that newfound space, so more liquid is sucked up from the roots and into the cells. As temperatures drop further, ice forms and gases are locked within the developing ice.

Come morning, pressure builds in the cells as rising temperatures melt the ice and release the gases, forcing liquid out any holes in the bark. That liquid makes its way out the spiles, thence to buckets hanging beneath the stiles, and finally to a large pot that sits and steams on my woodstove through February and March. When the sap reaches 67% sugar, boils at 219° F., or tastes like maple syrup, it’s ready to be bottled up. For me, this has been a good year, with over 5 quarts of syrup already from only 4 taps.
Only a few trees can be tapped for their sap. Any maple can, as can black walnut and butternut. Each yields a syrup with a different flavor. Birch trees also release a sap that can be boiled down to make a tasty syrup; in this case, though, it is root pressure, as with grapes, that forces out the sap.

Pruning Begins

Just because I wrote The Pruning Book doesn’t mean that I always go forth boldly, pruning shears in hand, to prune with speed and with total confidence. This realization hit me right between the eyes as I was staring at and trying to figure out what to do with a row of St. Johnswort shrubs billowing like a wave over the edge of my terrace. Any more billowing and that mass of stems would become a tsunami; the hedge had to be reduced — attractively.
The problem is that the plants are a bit big for the site. I have excuses. There are 400 species of St. Johnswort, varying in stature, and I lost the tag to my original plant from which I propagated all the others in the hedge. The soil in the planting strip used to be weedy and poor. After enclosing the strip in a wall of hypertufa (a mix of cement, peat, and perlite that ends up like volcanic rock) and topping the bed with compost, plants grew better than expected. And the St. Johnsworts were supposed to mingle and compete with potentilla plants in the bed, each showing off its sunny, yellow flowers at various times through summer and keeping the other in check. The St. Johnsworts overgrew and snuffed out the potentillas, so, lacking competition from weeds or potentilla, grew too well.
Lopping all St. Johnswort stems back by half or more would not be a good idea. For the rest of winter, the hedge would look hacked back (which it would have been). Hardly the graceful, if oversized, tapering, arching branches presented now. Come spring, new shoots would burst forth mostly near the pruning cuts, the ungainly result, year after year, being wild, new growth sitting atop increasingly, fat stems.
After some chin scratching, I chose a different tack. First, I shortened everything to about 18 inches. Then I shortened some of those already shortened stems to various lengths, some to as short as a couple of inches long. Simple.
For now, largish wounds do stare out from the hedge, but next year, and in years to come, such wounds will be less plentiful and less evident. This pruning’s most dramatically shortened stems will sprout just a few, lanky shoots. A greater number, but each less vigorous, shoots will sprout from stems I shorten least severely. Moderately shortened stems will sprout a moderate number of new shoots of moderate vigor, how many and how vigorous related to how much the stem was shortened.
The end result — I’m hoping — will be a hedge with shoots of various size and vigor originating at various heights within each shrub. Just like a naturally growing plant. Pruning in subsequent years should be easier.
Although this pruning sounds formulaic, it was fraught with decision-making: whether or not to cut and how much to cut, both to achieve aesthetic results now and for the future. Shrubs readily sprout new shoots naturally and following pruning, so I at least am consoled that pruning rarely harms the plant and that mistakes are soon overgrown.
In contrast to pruning St. Johnswort, pruning red raspberries is a no-brainer. All you have to do is follow a 3 step recipe.
Step 1: Cut to the ground any stem that bore last summer. These stems look old, with peeling bark, and still hang on to a few remnants of fruit stalks.
Step 2: Cut down selected remaining canes. If the swathe of plants is wider than 1 foot, berries are harder to pick and, because of congestion, disease is more likely. I cut down any stems attempting escape beyond that swathe and then, within the swathe, remove enough canes so that none are closer than about 6 inches apart. Sturdiest stems are those most worth saving.
Step 3: Shorten remaining canes to about 5 feet in height. This pruning is just to keep stems from flopping around. The height could be more or less, depending on how and if plants are trellised. I leave mine longer and weave the canes together onto a trellis wire about 4 feet from the ground.


Cooler weather and moister conditions are keeping the lawn happily lush, and still growing. I figure we’ll need to do one or two more mowings before the season ends. That is, unless you count yourself a member of the anti-lawn movement.
The vendetta against lawns is two-fold. First, those lawn areas could be used for growing food. “Food not lawns” is the calling cry (and the website, for those who have repurposed their front and/or back yards for food production. And second, lawns often are ecological disasters, especially those maintained lush and weed-free no matter what the summer weather. But even a lackadaisical lawn needs regular mowing, or it becomes something other than lawn. One hour of mowing with a gasoline-powered mower spews as much fumes into the air as does driving a couple of hundred miles.
I choose a middle ground, and enjoy the appearance, the convenience, and feel of some well-placed turf. Many years ago I gave over some of that lawn to growing all our vegetables and much of our fruits.
My original property of 3/4 of an acre has grown to almost 2 and a half acres, much of it was once regularly mowed (by previous owners). I originally maintained it with a scythe but have since acquired a tractor for giving most of the fields once-a-year haircut, with more frequent cutting around orchard and vegetable gardens.
But just suppose I had a smaller property, a much smaller property, say 1/8 of an acre with a smooth lawn. An environmentally-friendly and pleasant option for this lawn would be a push mower. Newer materials and newer engineering bumped weighty, clunker push mowers of yore into modern sleek, lightweight grass eaters.
An excellent choice among the many push mowers offered today is one of Fiskars Reel Mowers. They’re relatively easy to push and sing a pleasant tappity-tap beat as they roll along spewing cut grass in front.
The only caveat with a push mower is that mowing grass that has grown too long is very difficult. The solution? Mow frequently enough. It’s also better for the grass.
No need for the roar of exploding gasoline for a bigger lawn. For three-quarters of an acre, perhaps more, I’d opt for an electric mower, a cordless one. Battery technology has greatly improved in recent years, giving contemporary cordless mowers a lot more power and longer running times.
My choice among these mowers is Stihl. The cutting width is a bit narrow but the mower is extremely light and very spry to push around. With a mere push of a button and squeeze of a bar needed to start it, this mower won’t make you give a second thought to stopping to move a lawn chair or dog bowl out of the way. This mower plows through even long grass. Run time is 25 minutes on a charge but charging (with the more expensive of the two chargers available) takes only 45 minutes. Take a break; have a cup of tea.
The Stihl mower has just one downside: price. The mower, the battery, the charger, and the mulching attachment (better for the lawn) require a hefty layout of hundreds of dollars. But think long term. When you consider the cost of running and repair, over the long term this mower is cheaper to run than a gasoline-powered mower. And it’s a lot quieter and lighter.
An even bigger lawn? A larger area, even a few acres, can be eco-friendly by converting it to what I call, in my book The Pruning Book (which has a chapter on “pruning” grass), “Lawn Nouveau.”
With Lawn Nouveau, you sculpt out two layers of grassy growth. The low grass is just like any other lawn, and kept that way with, depending on the expanse of low grass, either the push mower or the cordless electric mower. The taller portions are mowed infrequently — one to three times a year, depending on the desired look. “Clippings” from the tall grass portions are good material for mulch or compost.
A crisp boundary between tall and low grass keeps everything neat and avoids the appearance of an unmown lawn. That boundary itself becomes a landscape element. No need for straight edges and 90° corners; instead, carve out curves in bold sweeps that can carry you along, then pull you forward and push you backward, as you look upon them. Avenues of low grass cut into the tall grass invite exploration, and, like the broad sweeps, can be varied from year to year.
That tall grass portion could be mowed with a tractor, but more fun and better for the environment is to use a scythe. Not just any old scythe, though, surely not those heavy, dull ones you sometimes find at garage sales. I use a lightweight, European-style scythe with a razor-sharp “Austrian blade.” Scything in early morning (the swooshing of the blade doesn’t disturb neighbors) when the grass is dewy on the outside and plump with moisture inside, plant cells practically pop apart when touched by the sharp blade.
Quoting one-time Congressional candidate, homesteader, and swinger of a scythe into his nineties, Scott Nearing: “It is a first-class, fresh-air exercise, that stirs the blood and flexes the muscles, while it clears the meadows.” And helps maintain Lawn Nouveau.
So there you have it: Three expanses of grass to mow; three environmentally friendly tools for the job. The push mower (Fiskars), the cordless electric mower (Stihl), and the scythe (available from and


Who would look at a lilac bush, just leaves and flowers morphed to browning seed capsules, and even prune it this time of year? I would! Pruning a couple of months ago would have cut off many blossoms before they even unfolded. Pruning now, after enjoying the blossoms, is a way to keep the shrub shapely and queue up blossoms for next year. Next year’s flowers are formed on buds this summer so we can’t wait too long to prune or there won’t be enough time for the new flower buds to develop.

My lilac has suffered years of pruning neglect (quite an admission from the author of The Pruning Book, especially as relates to a plant that looks best with annual or at least biannual pruning). Every year my lilac has grown uglier and uglier, its flowers fewer and fewer, and the task of pruning it more and more daunting. On the flip side, the plant has been harder and harder to ignore.

So this week I attacked. A scythe made quick work of clearing old daffodil foliage, and weeds from around the base of the plant. Moving on to the bush itself, the most dramatic cuts came first, with a hand saw lopping a few of the thickest stems right down at or near ground level. Other thick stems got less severe treatment. Where branching was making parts of the shrub too dense, I cut off some of the branches. Down at the base of the plant, I thinned out some young sprouts so that those that remained could develop with sufficient elbow room. I also carefully unravelled and cut back as low as could be reached some poison ivy that had insinuated itself in amongst the lilac stems.

My lilac in bloom a few years ago.
The work was slow but worth it. Like building a stone wall, pruning a neglected, old lilac is a job that can’t be rushed. Trimmed, the lilac shrub now rises up from the soil like a graceful fountain of water. Increased light within the shrub and removal of much old wood and developing seedpods should make for a good show next May.

A friend told me that his wife was rather frantic about aphids on some of their shrubs. Yes, aphids are plant pests, but they also are so interesting. For instance, the females — which most aphids that you see are — give birth to live young that are clones of themselves. No males or sex is needed to make those babies. 

Unfettered, a single female could give rise to thousands of offspring over the course of a season, which could result in crowded conditions or having to settle for to poorer quality food. No problem. When that happens, Ms. Aphid gives birth to babies with wings so they can fly off in search of greener pastures. Come autumn, it’s time for some sex. Females then produce a few males, mating occurs, and eggs are laid that remain dormant until spring.

We’re not knee-deep in aphids, so something is keeping aphid populations in check. Cold, heat, and rain all take their toll. Aphids also have many natural predators, including fungi, lacewings, and, most familiarly, ladybird beetles. 

Outdoors, I sometimes see aphids on plants but usually just wait for them to naturally die out. Their most dramatic damage effect is the red puckering they leave on a few red currant leaves. Plants can compensate for some leaf damage; I do nothing and the red currants have always been none the worse for wear. Many pesticides are especially toxic to aphid predators and I credit much of my lack of aphid problems to my avoidance of pesticides.

But my friend said aphids were killing his shrubs. He sprayed horticultural oil, a light oil formulated to smother pests but not damage plants. That’s a reasonable and benign strategy, effective if the spray thoroughly coats the plant. Other environmentally sound sprays are insecticidal soap or — my favorite — strong blasts of water. On small plants, aphids, which mostly congregate on new growth, can be merely rubbed off with your fingers.

My friend asked about buying in some ladybird beetles. That works, if the ladybird beetles stick around. Green lacewings are another aphid predator that can be purchased. An often more effective and cheaper alternative to buying in aphid predators is to create habitats that attract them. At some points in their life cycles, many predators feed on plant nectar, which is especially abundant in small, wide-opening flowers such as cilantro, dill, coneflower, coreopsis, alyssum, goldenrod, cosmos, sunflower, and other members of the carrot or daisy family.

This year is the first year that I see no evidence of aphid attack on my red currants. My guess is that the late frosts did in the buggers.

I’d rather not have had those frosts and had more aphids because those frosts also knocked out some developing fruits. Hardest hit were apples, Asian pears, European pears, and hardy kiwifruits. Least affected were grapes and super-hardy kiwifruits, both of which fruit on secondary buds if primary buds are killed, persimmons, pawpaws, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, and black, clove, red, pink, and white currants. A variety of plants is a good hedge against bad weather and other calamities.

Another WORKSHOP: BACKYARD COMPOSTING. The why and the how of backyard composting, everything from designing an enclosure to what to add (and what not to add) to what can go wrong (and how to right it). Also, how to make best use of compost. Workshop will be held 9-11:30 on June 23rd at my farmden. Space is limited. Contact me for registration or other information.


One perk of writing a book about pruning (The Pruning Book) is that I get sent a lot of pruning tools to try out. The pruning shears hang on a row of wooden pegs near my back door, loppers hang on pegs in the garage, and hand saws fill a five gallon bucket. All the big-name brands are represented, from ARS to Bahco to Corona to Felco to Fiskars to Silky. With many models of each brand of tool at my fingertips, it’s easy to tell which ones I like the best. They are the ones for which I reach most frequently.
With the coldest part of winter behind us (and even that not very cold), it was time for me start pruning. Today’s sunny weather and temperatures in the 40s made pruning an enjoyable excuse to be outdoors. Into my leather holster went an ARS hand pruning shears. Sometimes, if I need to cut stems that are a bit beefier, I’ll grab instead my Felco shears. Or, for lighter pruning, my Pica shears. All are excellent although the ARS shears have the edge for me.
Into a back pocket went a small folding hand saw. Many manufacturers make hand saws, and if they have so-called turbo, Japanese, tri-edge, or three-angled blades, they’re all equally good.
In my hand, I carried my Fiskars PowerGear® 2 Bypass 17 inch Lopper. What’s nice about this tool, which can cut through stems up to an inch or so thick, is their light weight fiberglass composite handles and their gearing mechanism which triples the cutting power.
Carrying those three tools, I could cut just about anything needing to be pruned. 
Watching tiny, green leaves push up through the soil never ceases to amaze me, even after watching it happen for decades. And it’s all the more amazing with certain seeds, such as onions. It must be that I was scarred years ago by having a difficult time getting them to germinate. Well, I sowed them in the greenhouse a couple of weeks ago and they’re up and growing strongly. Most of them, at least.
My failure with onions years ago was due to old seed, and old for onion seed means anything more than a year old. Lettuce seed, in contrast, is one of the longest-lived of vegetable seeds and keeps up to 6 years. Here’s the life expectancy for other common vegetable seeds: 5 years for cucumber, endive, muskmelon, and radish; 4 years for beet, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, chard, eggplant, kale, mustard, pumpkin, tomato, turnip, and watermelon; 3 years for bean, broccoli, carrot, Chinese cabbage, pea, and spinach; 2 years for sweet corn, leek, okra, and pepper; and, along with onion, 1 year for parsley and parsnip. Under poor storage conditions — moist and warm, like my garage in summer — longevity is decreased.
Still, it seemed like such a shame to throw away good onion seed only a year old. So, in the seed flat a couple of weeks ago, a sowed one row of one-year-old onion seed alongside the rows of fresh onion seeds (and one row of leeks).
Confirmed: onion seed isn’t worth sowing after one year. In the seed flat are five neat rows of narrow, green sprouts and one barren row.
Few seeds have as short a life as onion. More astounding is the longevity of some seeds, such as the 10,000 year old lupine seed that germinated after being taken out of a leming burrow in the Yukon permafrost. Just think: This same species was up and growing when humans first crossed the Bering Land Bridge, and saber-toothed cats and woolly mammoths may have brushed up against its leaves. Except that the story of the 10,000 year old lupine seed turned out to be apocryphal, as confirmed by radiocarbon dating.
The record for seed longevity is, in fact, 2,000 years and held by a date palm grown from seed recovered from an ancient fortress in Israel. But a recent discovery, once confirmed, will break that record by a long shot.
A kind of campion seed (Silene stenophylla) found buried, this time in a squirrel burrow, in Siberian tundra could very well be 32,000 years old. The seed has been grown into a charming, white-flowered plant.
Some coaxing was needed to get that original, 32,000 year old seed to sprout. A few cells, removed from the placenta, were grown under sterile conditions on a specially concocted growth medium. Once cells had multiplied sufficiently, the growing medium was altered to induce leaves, stems, and roots, and eventually the plants were robust enough to be planted in soil. The plant flowered and set seed, which germinated readily to produce more seedlings.
I wonder what seed has the shortest longevity. It’s not onion. Seeds in the family Tillandsioideae, related to pineapple, probably hold the record, with a viability of 4-6 weeks.