A Special Week

Coronavirus has come, and it will go, but the natural world soldiers on. My dogs, Sammy and Daisy, are as happy as ever, oblivious to the pandemic. My garden will respond likewise, trucking forward and offering a centering point as the world around has its ups and downs.

This week is a very special one in my gardening year; it’s the week I plant peas. April 1st, to be specific. It’s sort of the official beginning of the vegetable garden. “Sort of” because actually have been planting and harvesting lettuce, mâche, arugula, claytonia, kale, bok choy, chard, and celery all winter in the greenhouse.Peas in pod

Not Too Early, Not Too Late

For some gardeners, St. Patrick’s Day is the date for sowing peas. Yes, that is the correct date for pea sowing — in Ireland, Virginia, and other places where I imagine soil temperatures reach about 40° F by that date. Above 40° F, and pea seeds become most likely to sprout rather than rot. On the other hand, waiting too long to plant pea seeds has the plant bearing during hot weather; peas don’t stand the heat well.

I mostly plant shelling peas, which are admittedly more trouble because they need shelling. To me, they’re worth it, for their flavor. (Then again, with the pandemic, more people are spending more time at home; gather ‘round and let’s shell peas.) I recommend the very tasty varieties Green Arrow and Lincoln.

My pea plants grow right up the center of 3-foot-wide beds. I make two furrows a couple of inches deep, one on either side of a bed’s center, and 4 inches apart. The seeds go in a couple of inches apart.
Pea seeds in furrows
Pea plants are sometimes available as transplants, or, as my neighbor used to call them, “starts,” in cell-packs. Don’t buy them. Peas are a vegetable for which you sow the seeds directly in the garden. The reason is that the yield from a single plant, even six plants in a cell-pack is too minuscule to be worth it. And pea seeds sprout readily. Have some faith.

Once seedlings poke up through the ground surface, I put a trellis up the middle of the row. My trellis is temporary, able to move around the garden, just as do the pea plants, to a different bed each season. I pound a metal post into the ground at each end of the row, and then weave 3 foot high poultry netting (“chicken wire”), inch-and-a-half mesh, onto the posts. I use fiberglass electric fence posts, but any thin stakes woven at intervals into the netting and pushed into the ground keeps the fence from being floppy. After the final harvest, I pull up the pea plants, pull up the thin stakes, remove and roll up the netting, and pull up the end posts for use next year.
Peas on trellis
A number of other seeds can be planted on that seminal (for here) April 1st pea planting date. Those would include, except celery, the vegetables I mentioned above that have been growing in the greenhouse all winter. Radishes could also be included here, and spinach. And potatoes, as 2 ounce, whole tubers or pieces of cut tubers.

Best Tomatoes For . . . ?

Also significant about April 1st on my gardening calendar is that it’s my date to sow tomato seeds, indoors in seed flats. It’s not that tomato is my favorite garden vegetable; it’s just that it’s such a popular vegetable and perhaps the most versatile.

For a cherry tomato to just pop right in my mouth or put in salads, I grow Sungold. That’s all they’re good for, but they’re really, really good for that.

Sungold, hands down the best tasting cherry tomato

I dry many varieties, especially Amish Paste and Anna Russian. Some of them also go into jars, along with San Marzano, arguably the best tasting tomato for canning. (In Italy, cans of tomato made with San Marzano tout that on the label.) Blue Beech is another variety, this one with a unique flavor, that I both can and dry.
Canned tomatoes
For good, fresh eating and very pretty tomatoes, I’m growing Nepal, Carmello, and, with a bright orange skin, Valencia. All three varieties are round tomatoes with smooth, crack-free skins.

Valencia tomato

Valencia tomato

For the very best in fresh eating tomatoes, there are many to choose from. I’m growing Paul Robeson and Pink Brandywine this year, although many others, such as Belgian Giant, Cherokee Purple, or others with “Brandywine” in their name could also fill the bill. Extras of these and the previous mentioned “good, fresh eating” varieties go into sauce, but not, of course, the dedicated San Marzano batches. Besides being good for cooking and drying, Amish Paste and Anna Russian are also good fresh. Not San Marzano, though; it’s awful raw.

As with pea planting, my tomato-sowing date is not for everyone; what is for everyone is to sow the seeds about 6 weeks before the local “average date of the last killing frost,” a date that is available online or from the local County Cooperative Extension Office. Sowing on this date strikes a nice balance between plants being small enough to make a smooth transition out to the garden and being sufficiently large for a timely first harvest.

April 1st isn’t the date to start all transplants. I sowed onion seeds way back in early February, and pepper and eggplant seeds in early March. For an early crop of cucumbers or melons, I’ll sow those in early May for transplanting at the end of the month. Or I’ll plant the seeds directly in the ground sometime soon after the “last killing frost” date. (I made a whole chart of vegetables and garden sowing, indoor sowing, and transplanting dates, keyed to whatever anyone’s “last frost date” is, in my book Weedless Gardening.)

Take Care

The garden marches smoothly forward, snubbing its nose at the pandemic. We can do likewise if we stay home if possible, wash our hands frequently and thoroughly and keep them away from our faces, and protect ourselves and others if we must go out. Consider that everything you touch off-site could be contaminated, or could be made so by you.

Summer Love

How Do I  . . .  er, Can Thee?

With apologies to E. B. Browning: “How do I store [as in ‘preserve’] thee? Let me count the ways. I store thee to the depth and breadth and height a Mason jar can reach . . . “ And in other ways.

Red, ripe tomatoes, the essence of summer. How to capture that essence for a dark, snowy winter day? A few ways: Let me count the ways.

Canning tomatoes can be a  complicated, drawn out process, or something quick and easy. In the heat of summer, I choose the latter, merely filling a large pot a half-inch of water and then whole tomatoes from which any diseased or unripened areas have been excised. Boiling down tomatoesNo de-skinning, de-seeding, or chopping. The pot is allowed to cool a bit after its volume has been reduced to one-half to two-thirds of the original volume.

Less than a minute with my immersion blender then homogenizes the works, readying the mix for canning jars that have been scrubbed clean — except for one more critical addition to each jar: 2 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice or 1⁄2 teaspoon of citric acid per quart of tomatoes. The reason for the lemon juice or citric acid is to make the mix more acidic. And the reason to make the mix more acidic is to prevent growth of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum which, you might guess from the name, causes botulism.

Tomatoes vary in their acidity. I actually bought a pH tester to test the acidity before adding the lemon juice or citric acid. The tomatoes tested at pH of 4.2. But tomatoes differ in their acidity, depending on variety (paste tomatoes are generally less acidic) and growing conditions; perhaps the next batch would not make the cut. So, just to make sure . . . 

Next, canning lids are put in a small pot and covered with water which was just brought to a boil. I fish out a lid with a pair of tongs and lay it in place atop a jar, then screw it down secure with the jar’s metal ring. The rings need to be tightened just enough to seat each lid against the glass but not so tight as to prevent escape of gases when the jar is heated, the next step.

I use a pressure canner, which speeds processing because less time is needed at the higher temperatures that can be achieved under pressure. Fifteen minutes at 10 pounds (which puts the temperature at 240°F) does the job. Forty-five minutes would be needed when canning with a boiling water bath, and that doesn’t include the time needed to get enough water boiling to be able to submerge all the jars.

I carefully remove jars after their allotted time and let them cool. Canned tomatoesOnce cool, pressing down on the the center of each lid lets me know whether that jar has sealed well. The lid should not move down when pressed.

Rich and Saucy

I failed to mention one more step early in my canning process, and that is the sorting out the San Marzano tomatoes. This variety makes the best-tasting sauce so we segregate it for single variety canning. In Italy, tomatoes canned with San Marzano variety tomatoes are specifically labelled as such. So are ours.

How Do I . . . er, Dry Thee?

As I wrote, with the help of E. B. Browning, “Let me count the ways,” plural. 

Years ago I pooh-poohed a friend’s suggestion to dry tomatoes, probably because he said eating them was “fun.” Then I tried drying some. They weren’t fun too eat but they sure taste good in winter, their intense flavor released as they are crumbled on salads or soaked in water and cooked with other vegetables. Not good on pizza, though; they burn.

Slices a quarter of an inch thick are good for drying. Layed on stacked trays in my dehydrator, with the temperature set at 130°F, the slices dry to leathery or brittle, depending on the ambient humidity, overnight.Drying tomatoes

Once dry, the slices are packed into canning jars with the lids screwed down tightly to prevent air from entering.

How Do I . . . er, Freeze Thee?

I haven’t yet finished “counting the ways.” One more way: freezing. All that’s needed is to cut any bad spots from the fruit and put them into a freezer bag.

The frozen tomatoes add yet another tomato-y flavor and texture for winter. To me, they’re more like fresh tomatoes than either the canned or the dried ones. Fresh-cooked, of course, not fresh raw. Fresh cooked or frozen fresh, cooked, lends a different flavor and texture than canned.

Just popping the fresh fruit into the freezer is also a way to preserve peppers. To me, though, the taste of frozen peppers are a far cry from the fresh summer ones no matter how they are used. But then, ripe, red peppers are one of my favorite garden vegetables, so the bar is high for them in any other form.

Picked At Peak Of Perfection

Tomatoes Vs. Sweet Corn

Some gardeners sit tapping their fingers waiting for the first tomato of the season to finally ripen. I don’t. I’m waiting to sink my teeth into my first-picked ear of sweet corn.

Not that my tomatoes don’t taste really good, but they’re also good all winter dried or canned, as is or as sauce. Or just frozen.

An ear of sweet corn, though, captures the essence of summer. Not just for flavor and texture. It’s the whole ritual of peeling back the husks and snapping them off at their bases, brushing away the silk before steaming the ears, and then, holding an ear at each end, biting off kernels from one end to the other like an old fashioned typewriter carriage. (An image perhaps unknown to readers below a certain age.)

An art to harvesting corn at the just-ripe stage, and anxiousness for that first taste, make harvesting, especially early in the season rather tenuous. I do early planning for that first taste by counting the days-to-maturity from when I planted. Problem is that the days listed on seed packets vary: One seed company lists days to maturity for Golden Bantam, the variety I grow, at 75 days; another lists it at 85 days; another at 78 days; and yet another, more realistically, at 70 to 85 days. It depends on where the variety is grown and how the season develops.

The real countdown begins when tassels first appear atop the stalks. Harvest will be about 3 weeks hence.

Then it’s time to keep an eye out for drying tassels at the end of an ear. Once that happens, the time is near. That right moment is critical because harvested too soon, and the kernels have little taste. And this is among those fruits — yes, corn is a fruit, botanically — that will not ripen at all following harvest. Harvested too late, and the kernels are tough and starchy.

That exact right moment for harvest is when the ear feels “full” when grasped in my hand and a kernel on the peeled-back husk, with the ear still attached to the stalk, oozes a milky fluid when pressed with the thumbnail. If all these systems are go, it’s time to snap off the ear and whisk it to the waiting pot of steaming water.Corn, testing for ripeness
Golden Bantam is a non-hybrid variety. Like other non-hybrids, a planting does not ripen all at once, which is not a good commercial characteristic. It’s fine for me, though, because between staggered plantings and a wide window for harvest for each planting, I intend to be eating Golden Bantam corn, a favorite for many gardeners since its introduction in 1906, for weeks to come.

Watermelon, Are You Ripe

Besides the first harvest of Golden Bantam, which I’ll be enjoying by the time you read this, I’m also eagerly awaiting the first harvest of watermelon, which, according to days-to-maturity listed on the seed packet, 65-75 days, I should have already been eating. (I sowed seeds indoors in pots in mid-May but it’s been a relatively cool growing season.)

While I’m confident in harvesting sweet corn at just the right moment, not so for harvesting watermelon, another fruit that will not ripen at all once harvested. Yes, I know all the published indicators of ripeness: drying up of the tendril closest where the fruit is attached to the vine; a dull thud, rather than a tighter, ringing or hollow sound, when rapped with my knuckles; and a yellow or cream-color of the fruit where it rests against the ground, and a toughening of the skin there, enough to resist indentation with a thumbnail. (The thumbnail is evidently a useful harvest tool.)

A ripe watermelon?

A ripe watermelon?

Still, I’m not confident about harvesting watermelons on time, and not even just the first ones to ripen. The trial and tribulation is worth it. I hope to be harvesting and eating ripe watermelon also by the time you read this. (Update: I did and it was.)

Tomatoes, You Are Ripe

In contrast to harvesting Golden Bantam corn and watermelon (I grow the variety Blacktail Mountain), tomatoes are cinch to harvest. Except for some green-ripe varieties, which I don’t grow, tomatoes turn their characteristic shade of red when ripe.

Tomatoes can even be harvested underripe to ripen off the vine. Research has shown that when a tomato is about half green and half pinkish-red on the vine, a layer of cells form across the stem of the tomato sealing it off from the main vine. Then nothing that can move from the plant into the fruit, so the fruit can ripen to perfection.Ripe tomatoes

I came across some older research (J. Amer. Hort. Soc. 102:724-731. 1977) showing that the best-tasting tomatoes are those thoroughly vine-ripened. Duh. I knew that, and will harvest only vine-ripened tomatoes.


My Discerning Ducks

    Every morning when I throw open the door to my Duckingham Palace (a name coined by vegetable farmer Elliot Coleman, for his duck house), my four ducks step out, lower their heads as if to reduce air resistance, and race to the persimmon tree. They trace a large circle around the base of the tree, scooping up any fallen persimmons and, still running, gulping them down quickly enough so no other member of the brood snatches it.Duck eyeing my persimmon fruits
    The circle is wide because of the low, temporary fence I’ve set up around the tree. Within the fenced area, I gather up most of the fallen fruit for myself. The ducks, can’t, or haven’t figured out how to, fly over an 18 inch high fence.
    My tree is an American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), native to eastern U.S. from Florida to northern Pennsylvania. Until they are dead ripe, most American persimmons taste awful, with an astringency that dries out your mouth. (As Captain John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, wrote, “When a persimmon is not ripe, it will draw a man’s mouth awrie with much torment.”) Some persimmons never lose that astringency, even when ripe, and here, in the northern reaches of persimmon growing, the season isn’t long enough to ripen most persimmons.Ducks not sharing persimmon fruits
    But good persimmons, when ripe, taste like dried apricots that have been soaked in water, dipped in honey, and given a dash of spice. Mine are selected varieties that ripen this far north, the first, Mohler, beginning in early September, and the second, Szukis, beginning in early October. (I grafted both varieties on one tree.) They also set fruit without the need for the separate male pollinator that most American persimmons require.
    I highly recommend planting an American persimmon tree. Besides bearing delicious fruit, the tree is attractive all season long and shows off its pretty bark in winter. All this, without the need for spraying or pruning. (I wrote about American persimmon in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)Persimmon fruits on tree

And the Winning Tomatoes Are . . .

    As of this writing, tomato plants have not been killed by cold. But with cool weather and disease, they’re pretty much done for the season, bearing few or no fruits. That is, except for Sungold, the most tasty variety of cherry tomato. It just keeps pumping out ropes of orange fruits.
    I grew over 20 varieties of tomatoes this year, all heirlooms, except for Sungold. My main criterion for planting any variety is flavor, which was very similar for certain varieties of tomato. They did differ in productivity, my second criterion for choosing a variety. So next year I plan to pare down the number of varieties I grow to the best tasting, most productive ones.
    Topping that list will be San Marzano. Right off the plant, eating one is like eating bland cotton. Thrown into pot with a little water to prevent burning and simmered till soft, and the flavor morphs to tart, tomato-y richness. No wonder, canned San Marzano tomatoes are labeled as such in Italy.
    Moving on to fresh eating tomatoes . . . Sungold, of course, with eight plants supplying enough for grazing outdoors and salads indoors. Anna Russian, Paul Robeson, and Red Brandywine all have excellent flavor and bore well and late into the season. Anna Russian is also quite good for paste.
    Carmello and Valencia are good-tasting tomatoes, although not as good as Anna Russian and company. I’ll grow these two because they’re also very productive, and their fruits are almost perfect spheres. Many heirloom fruits are interesting for their convoluted shapes but sometimes I want just a standard issue, round tomato (that also tastes good).
    One more possible variety is from seed a reader sent me a few years ago, a variety labeled Winterkeeper. The fruits allegedly store very well. The plants are still growing well; soon I’ll see how long into fall I’ll be eating tomato sandwiches. Ones I’ve already sampled have pretty good flavor.

Persistent, Young, and Vigorous

    Every time I walk back to the compost bin and see the volunteer tomato vine insinuating itself out of a gap in the slats of the bin, I’m reminded of the importance of crop rotation. This vine is still lush and green, and laden with perfect, red, pear-shaped tomatoes.
    Sure, the vine could be healthy because its roots are running through the rich, brown compost within the bin. Perhaps the vine is so healthy because, as a random seedling, its genetics, by lucky chance, makes it so.
    Most likely, this plant is so healthy and productive because it’s growing where no tomato has grown before. No disease spores linger there from previous crops of tomatoes. (The plant got a late start for the season, so its youthful vigor could also have a hand in its health.) Compost pile tomato
    I rotate my tomato beds every year, but that only puts them 10 feet or so from beds of the previous year. That’s the problem with home gardens; it’s hard to get plants far enough away from where they recently were. Thorough cleanup and mulching help, but go only so far.
    I have the luxury of two vegetable gardens separated by 50 feet of lawn, one of which hasn’t been home to tomatoes for over a year. Next year it will be.
    The flavor of the compost-grown tomato? Good enough, not great.


 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.


Springtown Farmden Health Spa

    In the past, I have written of rei-king and sie-thing as two of the many healthful exercises offered here at Springtown Farmden Health Spa. We now have a new offering at the spa: garden yoga or, more catchy, gardoga or yōgdening. I like the last one best.
    Yōgdening grew out of my respect for the soil, my desire to maintain and foster a healthy balance of life below ground. A healthy population of bacteria, fungi, worms, actinomycetes and other below-ground dwellers translates to healthy plants above ground. Those beneficial creatures need to breathe, which is why most gardeners and farmers till their soil. To aerate it.

Yogdening, for health and weedlessness

Yogdening, for health and weedlessness

    But tilling a soil also burns up valuable organic matter. This organic matter feeds soil organisms and, in turn, plants, makes nutrients already in the ground more accessible to plants, helps hold moisture for plants, and helps aerate the soil.
    I avoid the need to till my soil for aeration by almost never walking, rolling a wheel barrow, or allowing any other traffic where plants are growing. Plants in fields and forest grow well despite never being tilled except what earthworms and other small animals manage to do. (No small amount: Charles Darwin computed that earthworms completely turn over the upper six inches of a pasture soil every 10 to 20 years — in England, at least.)
    Getting back to yōgdening . . . Weeds are making inroads into certain parts of my gardens. Not my vegetable gardens, the 3-foot-wide plant beds of which I keep well weeded with my feet firmly planted in the 18-inch-wide paths bordering the beds. But the only way I can reach into some other planted areas, a bed of various flowers sprawling beneath some Asian pear espaliers, for example, is by stepping into them. To minimize foot traffic, after stepping into a planted area, I try to keep my foot anchored in place, from which I pull every weed I can reach.
    As you might imagine, reaching every weed possible with feet planted in one place calls for all sorts of contortions and stretches forwards, backwards, and sideways involving my legs, trunk, shoulders, arms, and neck. My guess is that after a half-hour of weeding, I’ve run through a close approximation of Utthia Trikonāsana (Triangle Pose), Vīrabhadrāsana (Warrior Pose), and Uttānāsana (Standing Forward Fold Pose), to name a few classic yoga poses — and cleared away weeds!
    Weeding (or, perhaps, I should write “we-ding,” another spa offering) is especially satisfying this time of year. Dry weather has slowed sprouting of new weeds so cleared areas remain clear.

Brown Rot Not (Too Much)

    Dry weather is also good for fruit ripening. That is, ripening rather than rotting. As sweetness develops in ripening fruits, they become more susceptible to rotting. Fungi, like humans, can make quicker use of simple sugars than more complex carbohydrates, such as a are found in unripe fruits. Fruits with thin skins are especially susceptible to attack from fungi.
    For a variety of reasons, known and unknown, this has been a good year for plums. In past years, late frosts in spring have snuffed out blossoms or plum curculio has caused many, if not all, plumlets to rain to the ground. This year, blossom buds were unscathed from winter cold or spring frosts, curculios were kept at bay by my spraying Surround, a commercial product that is nothing more than kaolin clay.

Shiro plum

Shiro plum

   Current dry weather should also limit plums’ other nemesis: brown rot, a fungal disease that turns ripening fruit gray and fuzzy and then, at the end of the season, into dark brown, shriveled mummies. (Of course, beautiful clear days are often followed by clear nights during which water, in the form of dew, condenses on fruits and leaves.) The mummies hang from the branches, along with cankers on branches, spread spores and infection the following year. Fallen mummies are also a source of the following season’s infection.
    Brown rot gets to work early in the season, around blossom time, and then later in the season, as fruits are ripening, which is now, for my Shiro plums. Early in the season, I added sulfur, a naturally mined mineral whose use as a fungicide goes back to the ancient Greeks, to the mix when I was spraying Surround.
    Supplementing that spraying was cleaning up hanging and fallen mummies at the end of the season, and promoting drying of branches and fruits with pruning and thinning out of excess fruits.
    The upshot is that some brown rot is showing up on ripening plums. But not all of them. And those that have been spared are delectable. Even the birds think so. Their peckings, unfortunately, like wounds inflicted by plum curculios, increase fruits’ susceptibility to brown rot.

Tomatoes, Where Are You?

    Tomatoes are growing like gangbusters, here and in other gardens I’ve seen locally. And the fruits are likewise growing very plump.
 Tomatoes, not yet ripe   But the scene is not as rosy as it should be, literally, because too many of the tomatoes are still green. Again, other local gardens mimic my experience. How are your tomatoes doing this year?
    Day after day of bright sunny, weather and moderate temperatures should have promoted ripening. Then again, day after day of rainy weather last month might have retarded it. At any rate, in gardening and farming, you can’t go wrong blaming the weather.

It’s Summertime, on a New Video

Would you like to be transported back to summer, for 4 minutes at least? Check out my newest video post, at a tomato plant at each leaf axil for a single-stemmed plant.


My Green Thumb, or Not?

I wish I could say that my ever-greener thumb is responsible for the baskets overflowing with tomatoes and ripe red peppers in the kitchen, and strings of fat, sweet onions hanging from garage rafters.  Ripe figs hang lax from branches, a drop of honeydew in each of their “eyes” telling me they want picking. The season has been bountiful. 

I can’t recall anything special that I did this season that would have boosted the harvest of so many different fruits and vegetables. The soil, as usual, got lathered with an inch deep layer of compost. Transplants and seeds got started with hand watering, then drip irrigation automatically quenched plants’ thirst from then on. I kept my usual eye out for insect or disease pests.

Sweet Italia peppers, like everything else, bore in abundance this season.

Sweet Italia peppers, like everything else, bore in abundance this season.

Further deflating my own gardening prowess is the fact that a lot of you readers also have experienced a season of bumper crops, right? (Not to wish ill upon your garden, but please tell me “no.”)

So let’s credit this season’s abundance on the weather. Rainfall was regular and sufficient up until August. Those periods of rain punctuated longer periods of intense sunlight in which plants no doubt reveled.

Temperatures also get credit. Very hot weather interfered with corn and pepper pollination last year; not so this year. Temperatures were neither too hot nor too cool all season long. Okra was the only vegetable complaining this year. Torrid weather is needed to keep those pods coming on. This summer, pods appeared on okra plants whenever the mercury soared, then the plants just sat, doing nothing, waiting out periods of cooler temperatures.

Good Show, Mustard

It’s time to render praise to a vegetable that has tasted and looked fresh and good all season long, every season, irrespective of the weather. That vegetable is mizuna, sometimes known as mustard cabbage or kaai ts’oi, or botanically as Brassica juncea or Brassica rapa nipponosica.

I sowed mizuna seeds along with lettuce and arugula seeds in the garden in April in a bed slated for corn planting later in June. Mizuna, lettuce, and arugula all provide greenery for early salads, enjoy cool spring weather, and are in and out of the garden quickly enough to be out of the way for a later crop such as corn. I pulled out these plants just before sowing corn — most of them. Arugula was anyway going to seed and the lettuce was soon to take a step in that direction.Mizuna kept bearing all season long.

Mizuna, though, was still looking fresh and green so I left it in place.

As corn stalks reached skyward, mizuna kept its fresh appearance and tenderness of spring. That corn bed is now ready for harvest and mizuna is still tender and tasty. Most kinds of mustard greens would have tough leaves and have gone to seed months ago. After the ears of corn are harvested, my plan is to dig out the corn plants, carry them off to the compost, and leave mizuna to carry on until really frigid weather turns its leaves to mush.

Mizuna flavor is mustardy, but only mildly so. Taste it and it seems to ooze vitamins and minerals, borne out by analyses showing it to be especially rich in pro-vitamin A and calcium.

Gardener’s Delight Unraveled

Did this season’s weather make for better-tasting tomatoes? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The main influences on tomato flavor are the amount of sunlight, the amount of water plants take up, probably plant nutrition, especially with respect to potassium and phosphorus, and — most importantly — the variety.

I’m happy with the taste of this season’s tomatoes but was eagerly awaiting ripening of the variety Gardener’s Delight. I grew Gardener’s Delight about 40 years ago and thought it was the best-tasting cherry tomato in the world. After not growing it for decades (other varieties got my attention), I grew it again last year, only to be disappointed in the flavor. That led me to wonder whether the apparent change in flavor was due to Fedco Seeds, the company from which I purchased the seeds, getting sloppy with their seed-saving, differing growing conditions (Wisconsin vs. New York), or whether I had become more discriminating in tasting my tomatoes.

As a test, this year I planted seeds of Gardener’s Delight from three sources: Fedco Seeds (, Botanical Interests (, a

Sungold, hands down the best tasting cherry tomato

Sungold, hands down the best tasting cherry tomato

nd Thompson & Morgan ( The latter is a British seed company, the source  of the seeds I planted 40 years ago. Last week, to a drum roll (in my head), I tasted Gardener’s Delight tomatoes from each of the three sources. They all tasted the same — and not very good. Fedco Seeds was exonerated.

Ruling out growing conditions since all my other tomato varieties taste as good as in seasons past, the verdict lies in my taste buds. Not that my taste buds themselves have become more discriminating. Instead, cherry tomato varieties have greatly improve over the past 40 years.

More specifically, the variety Sun Gold came on the scene more than 20 years ago (also introduced by Thompson & Morgan and now widely available). I think I speak for everyone in stating that Sun Gold is the best tasting cherry tomato ever. Gardener’s Delight may have been good in its day but it has been easily eclipsed by Sun Gold.

Whether the growing season is cloudy or sunny, or warm or cool (within reason), Sun Gold always offers a bounty of persimmon orange, delectable, sweet-tart tomatoes with bold flavor.

Holly Needs a Male, and Cold Peppers

Connecting the drip irrigation to the spigot behind my compost pile today, my eyes fell on five nearby Meserve holly bushes. Which brought my thoughts back to last fall, when I realized that I’ve never seen berries on those shrubs.
Hollies are dioecious plants (“two houses”): some are male, others are female. Only the female plants bear the bright, red fruits that, along with spiny, shiny leaves, are so essential a decoration for the winter solstice. To bear fruits (which are ripened ovaries, the female flowers must be dusted with pollen from male flowers.
Last fall, I reasoned that the lack of berries could be that the plants were too young (no, I planted them over 15 years ago), that the plants were too shaded (if so, there would have been at least a few berries), that late frosts were killing the blossoms (unlikely every year), or that the planting lacked a male stud. Except that I do remember making sure to plant one male holly for the harem of females.
A female holly flower
As luck would have it, coincidental with my connecting the drip irrigation, the hollies were in bloom. The blossoms are ornamentally insignificant but did provide the opportunity to confirm each plant’s sexual orientation. No magnifier was needed to see a swollen, green ovary at the base of the petals of each flower on all my plants. All my hollies are females. 
Right away, I started thinking of where, locally, I’ve seen hollies from which I could beg a few male blossoms, assuming other plantings have some males loitering about. Male flowers on a branch with its base in water would stay viable long enough for bees or me to effect pollination.
Once the drip irrigation was connected, I broke tradition, neglected my own advice, and planted out tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants transplants. The date was May 19th rather than my usual end of May planting date. These plants allegedly shudder at a temperature below 50°F., which was predicted and sure to occur again. I did offer them some protection in the form of light, air, and water-permeable “row covers” held up over the plants by double metal hoops (from or, as concrete block truss reinforcing wire, from a building supply store). A single hoop over the row cover at each double hoop holds the row cover in place while allowing it to slide up and down for access to the bed.
Like holly berries, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants are ripened ovaries — that is, fruits (botanically speaking; horticulturally and legally, they are considered vegetables. As fruits, they need pollination to develop. The flowers, in this case, are monoecious (“one house”), with male and female parts on the same plant. More than that, male and female parts are on the same flower; the flowers are all bisexual.
Pollen still has to move from the male parts of the flower to the female parts, and mostly, it’s bees that get that job done. Bees can’t get at plants within the row cover tunnels so once cold weather is reliably past I plan to uncover the rows and let bees work the blossoms.
Row covers can also offer protection from certain pests. Anyone who grows eggplant eventually becomes familiar with flea beetles and the holiness they impart to the plants’ leaves. New growth on vigorous plants can more than offset older leaves’ loss of greenery but flea beetles can kill weak plants.
So the tack here is to keep eggplant plants under row cover until their flowers begin to open. In addition to fending off flea beetles, the additional warmth and calmer environment beneath the covering spurs growth for earlier harvest and for a plant better able to fend off flea beetles once uncovered.
With peppers, it’s especially important to pull off the cover just as soon as plants blossom. The atmosphere within a row cover tunnel is a few degrees warmer than ambient, which is helpful now, when some protection from cold nights might be needed. Fruit set for peppers is poor at temperatures below 58°F., so a little extra heat can improve early season fruit set.
As days grow warmer, the even warmer environment beneath a row cover can have the opposite effect. Fruit set is also poor when daytime temperatures rise above 85°F.
Tomatoes could remain covered throughout the season because bees are not necessary for pollination. Abetted with just a little movement — from wind for example — the mere opening of the flowers effects pollination. Night temperatures from 59 to 68°F. are best for tomato fruit set. Once night temperatures go higher than 70°F., fruit set suffers, but that’s not going to happen for a long time, even beneath a row cover.

Graft, the Good Kind

My friend Sara had a question about graft, which made me immediately think of a recent news item stating that, for the first time, more than half of the members of Congress are millionaires. You rarely hear about graft these days, perhaps because dollars are so ubiquitous a lubricant for our political machinery. No need anymore to elevate the practice with a special word.
But Sara was talking about grafting, not graft, and it was for tomatoes. Apples, peaches, and other fruit trees have been grafted for centuries. Tomato grafting is relatively recent, at least in this country. Sara wanted to know my thoughts about grafting tomatoes and whether we should pool our resources to get some plants.
Grafted tomatoes might grow more vigorously, might be resistant to soil-borne diseases, and/or might be more tolerant of salty, wet, or cold soils. A grafted plant has a specially chosen rootstock — Maxifort, Beaufort, and Emperador are some common ones — upon which is grafted a good-eating variety, often an

heirloom variety. Whether or not, and which, positive traits the resulting composite plant possesses depends on the choice of rootstock. Grafted plants have allowed farmers to keep growing tomatoes in greenhouses and soils where the plants would have otherwise petered out from nutrient problems or buildup of disease.

With decades of grafting fruit trees under my belt, I’d feel confident grafting tomatoes. There are a few differences, of course: tomatoes are grafted when small (with 2 to 4 leaves); they are succulent and in leaf so need to be kept in high humidity until the graft heals; and, best of all, you see results quickly, within a week or two. You start by sowing seed of the rootstock variety followed, a week later, by sowing the scion (eating) variety. Once rootstock and scion plants are large enough to graft, you lay their stems side by side and make an angled cut into both at the same time with a straight-edge razor. Set the bottom cut of the scion atop the top cut of the rootstock and then hold the stems aligned with a tomato grafting clip or piece of tape. After a week or so of warmth, high humidity, and indirect light, the graft should be healed and the composite plant ready to acclimate to brighter light, cooler temperatures, and lower humidity and — eventually — outdoor growing conditions.
An easier but more expensive route would be to purchase grafted tomato plants. Sources such as and sell grafted plants as well as rootstock seeds and grafting clips.
Do I want to grow grafted tomatoes? Yes, I’d give the plants a try — if grafted plants of an heirloom variety landed in my lap. Which is to say that I’m not ready to spend much money or effort on grafted tomatoes.
One reason is vigor. Grafted tomatoes grow more vigorously, but my ungrafted, staked  tomatoes always start to grow out of reach by the end of August. More vigor? No thanks. Also, there’s often an inverse relationship between vigor and fruitfulness.
As far as diseases, I avoid planting tomatoes where they’ve grown for the past three years, clean up old stems, leaves, and fruit thoroughly at the end of the season, and mulch each year. In so doing, buildup of soil pests is avoided, overwintering inoculum at the beginning of each season is reduced, and spores of overlooked diseased tissue are buried.
When asking me about grafted tomatoes, Sara probably had in mind late blight disease, which has devastated tomatoes in recent years. Grafted tomatoes offer direct protection only against soil-borne diseases, such as verticillium and fusarium wilt. Around here, at least, early blight, septoria leaf spot, anthracnose, and late blight are what strip plants of leaves and pockmark the fruits. Grafted plants would not be resistant to these diseases.
Increased vigor might help a plant pump out extra fruits in spite of disease — or not. I’m not going to any special efforts to plant grafted tomatoes.
Apples are another story, one for which I am turning to rootstocks and grafting.
First, a little background: I have an especially poor site for growing apples. Cold or cool, moist air collects in this low spot, making plants prone to disease and frost, and the 6,000 acres of woods fifty feet away provide haven for insect pests. The site is also wetter than I realized. Still, when I do get to harvest apples, their delectable flavor makes them worth the effort.
As with tomatoes, an apple rootstock can impart certain desirable characteristics to the resulting composite tree. My present planting is a row of superdwarf trees. These small trees, although early bearing and productive, need codling with perfect soil. My plan is to make new trees that are more tolerant of less-than-perfect soil conditions and, being taller, might hold their heads in slightly more buoyant air to reduce disease pressure.
Apple has been grown so widely and for so long that many rootstocks have been developed. Thus far in

A young pear graft

my research, a rootstock named G.30 seems the best option, creating a mostly self-supporting (except with certain varieties and heavy crop load when young), medium-sized tree tolerant to wet soil and fire blight disease. Best of all, it promotes of early bearing of the scion variety grafted on it.


I’ll be lecturing at the NOFA-CT winter conference on March 1st in Danbury, CT. The topics? “Growing Figs in Cold Climates” and “Multi-Dimensional Vegetable Gardening/ Farming.”