Arnold’s Promise?

I miss the bees. No, they’re not gone from here because of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), widely responsible for the loss of bees. Most years, they would have been here and perhaps gone on to greener pastures by now.
Honeybee on witchhazel
The bees come for my witchhazel, and the reason for their absence this year is because my witchhazel didn’t bloom. It usually blooms in late winter or very early spring. And it won’t bloom this season at all. The reason is because it bloomed last fall.

It’s not uncommon for an early spring bloomer such as witchhazel to jump the gun and bloom in fall. And the cause for this behavior is growing conditions through summer that send the plant into a kind of sleep, then fall conditions that all of a sudden shake the plant awake. My guess is that the plant considered the very dry weather last summer an ersatz winter, and cooler and moister conditions in fall were an ersatz spring.

Witchhazel, spent bloom from August

Witchhazel, spent blooms from past autumn

I’d prefer, and the bees also might prefer, for the plant — Arnold’s Promise variety of witchhazel — to bloom on its usual, this side, of the calendar. We’re all much hungrier now for all that visual and aromatic glory. The bees seem happiest with the spring blooms, making the bush all a-buzz with their frenzied flitting moving from flower to flower. These early blossoms provide the nectar and the pollen they need to get going in spring.

Witchhazel in full bloom in past years

Witchhazel in full bloom in past years

What’s So Good About Honeybees?

Honeybees are much more valuable for their pollination services than for the honey and beeswax we sneak from them. Many crops – almost all those with showy flowers – need the pollination services of bees in order to set seeds or make fruits.

I once kept bees, so can attest to the fact that they make very interesting pets. Their social organization rivals that of any other creature. (Humans are not even in this running.) Each bee knows and does his or her job. The hive’s sole queen leaves the hive but once in her life to get fertilized by males, after which the latter, their genitals ripped from their bodies, die. Guard bees protect the entrance from interlopers. 

On calm, balmy days, workers spend their days seeking out and gathering nectar and pollen from flowers. A worker, upon finding a good source of nectar and pollen, returns to the hive and does a dance that communicates to other workers the location of that bounty. This bee “language” is so evolved that different varieties of bees have different “dialects.”

For a fascinating description of the experiments that led to the discovery of those “bee dances,” take a look at the book The Dancing Bees by Karl Von Frisch, who, in 1973, received the Nobel Prize for his work with bees.

Luckily, There are Other Bees

Looking at those ecstatic bees on my witch hazel bush years ago, it struck me that perhaps what I was looking at were not, in fact, honeybees. My personal observations here on the farmden notwithstanding, honeybees are, in fact, on the decline. But they’re not the only bees on the block. Honeybees weren’t even “on the block” a few hundred years ago because they’re not native to North America.

North America has plenty of wild bees, though, almost 4000 species of them! Our wild bees – including, for example, carpenter bees, bumblebees, orchard mason bees, and hornfaced bees — are very efficient pollinators, going outside to work during weather in which honeybees remain huddled in their hives. These native bees get up earlier in spring and earlier each day, and don’t need the calm weather (wind less than 15 mph) and warm temperatures (greater than 55 degrees F) demanded by honeybees. Native bees also are more gentle than honeybees, rarely stinging. They don’t, however, make honey or beeswax.

Bumblebee on blueberry plant

Bumblebee on blueberry plant

Unfortunately, native bee populations are also on the decline these days, due mostly to habitat destruction and pesticide poisoning. Some people build special nestboxes for these helpful insects, which require nothing more than tubes in which to lay eggs, anything from bundles of straws to wooden blocks into which holes have been drilled.

Whatever I’m doing that has kept those bees on my witchhazel happy will have similar effect whether the bees are honeybees or native bees. Because some native bees nest in the ground, our gardening practices can influence their well-being. The website of the Xerces Society details the effects of a number of gardening practices on native bees. Tillage, for example, can be detrimental, as are the pesticides copper sulfate, sulfur, and rotenone. Maintaining wild habitats is also important to their survival.

I’m hoping next winter or spring to see my Arnold’s Promise awash in fragrant, yellow blossoms and all abuzz with bees, whether honeybees or native bees.


Arnold, You’re Too Big

Witchhazel, a few weeks ago

Witchhazel, a few weeks ago

Over the years, my Arnold’s Promise variety of witchhazel has earned its keep with branches showered in fragrant, golden flowers late each winter. Some years, like last year, part of the bush would blossom in autumn, then put on a repeat performance in late winter. (Branches that blossom in autumn don’t blossom again in later winter, but other branches, which hold off in autumn, do.)

I should have read the fine print more carefully before I selected this variety of witchhazel. My plan was for the plant to visually smooth the transition from the corner of the house to an upright stewartia tree to a moderate-sized shrub (Arnold’s Promise) to some subshrubs (lowbush blueberry) to ground level. Except that Arnold’s Promise has grown to 15 feet high. Which it’s supposed to do, according to the fine print. Which I didn’t read.

My job, now, is to bring the shrub to more comely proportions for the site, by pruning. Like other shrubs, witchhazels can be pruned by a renewal method, cutting to the ground the oldest stems and thinning out the number of youngest stems. The pruned plant, then, always has a spectrum of various aged stems, none of them too old or too overcrowded.

What makes an “old” stem for a shrub depends on its growth habit. For raspberries, two year old stems are “old,” so old that they die. And they make lots of young stems that need ruthless thinning out.

Witchhazels are at the other extreme. Very old stems keep sporting flowers, and the shrubs typically send up very few young stems. So witchhazels need very little pruning.

Witchhazel, partially pruned

Witchhazel, partially pruned

At first, I was going to renew Arnold’s Promise over the course of a few years, removing some of the oldest stems each year and hoping for younger replacements. That would let the shrub put on a nice show each year.

But once I get started pruning, restraint is difficult. I was tempted to  cut every stem, young and old, to the ground, then decide, as growth began, which young stems to save to build up the shrub again. I mostly did that, but saved a couple of small stems for a few blossoms this autumn or late next winter.

Especially this time of year, no matter what you do, you’re unlikely to kill a shrub by pruning. And, since they’re always growing new stems from ground level, even mistakes can be eventually corrected. (More about all this in my book, The Pruning Book).

A Reprieve For Arnold

Of course, I could kill Arnold’s Promise and plant a smaller variety of witchhazel, such as Little Suzie or Pallida. The latter’s flowers are reputedly especially fragrant. Then again, it reputedly grows 10 feet high — not that much smaller than Arnold’s Promise. Little Suzie, though, is billed at reaching only 5 or 6 feet tall.

For now, I’ll try pruning to cut Arnold’s Promise down to size.

Breba Figs are Swell(ing)

I can’t leave pruning yet. Figs. These plants have a most interesting and unique flowering and fruiting habit. Some varieties bear on one-year-old stems; some on new stems; and some on both.

I was pleasantly reminded of all this as I stepped into the greenhouse and looked up at the couple of full-length stems I had left after last autumn’s pruning of San Piero fig. San Piero is one of those varieties that bears on both one-year-old and new stems. New figs, the size of a quarter were already getting plump way up at at the tippy top of the full-length stems. If all goes well, these figs — called the breba crop — will ripen in midsummer.San Piero breba figs forming

To reap that breba crop, one-year-old stems must survive winter weather. Which they do in my cool-temperature greenhouse, as well as where winter temperatures hardly dip below freezing. Where winters are cold, breba figs can be harvested from plants grown in pots and moved to a cool, but not frigid, location for winter, such as a barely heated garage or a mudroom (no light necessary). Or, in late autumn, stems can be bent to the ground and covered with plastic, to shed excess moisture, and then leaves, straw, or some other insulating material. Or, in even colder climates, bent down into a covered trench. (Fig trees are very flexible, literally and figuratively.) 

My non-breba-forming figs and all except those few long stems I left on San Piero get drastic pruning. Everything, except for those one-year-old stems to save, gets pruned down to about 3 feet high. This pruning stimulates lots of new, vigorous shoots which bear the “main” crop, in late summer and on into autumn. Unlike apples, peaches, and other familiar fruits, main crop figs keep ripening over a long period, as long as the new shoots have enough light and warmth to keep growing.


 Cells Beget Plants, or Animals

   As I strode out to the garden today, the word “totipotency” was forefront in my mind. No, I wasn’t thinking of myself as “all powerful,” which is what totipotent (Latin totus=whole, potent=powerful) might seem to mean.
    Totipotency is the ability of any cell in an organism — you, me, my dog Sammy, my rose bush — to potentially give rise to any other kind of cell of that organism, or to a whole new organism, a clone of the original. Under the right conditions, you could put one of your skin cells in the right environment, and have those cells grow into new skin, toes, eyes — even a whole new you. Fortunately, nobody has yet figured out how to do that with a human.
    (What I wrote is not exactly true. Not every cell within an organism is totipotent. In organisms that reproduce sexually, egg and sperm cells — the germ cells — have only half their complement of genes, so these particular cells can’t be cloned to reproduce non-germ cells or whole organisms.)
    Back to the garden and totipotence . . . Using random plant parts to make whole new plants is nothing new to most gardeners. With stem cuttings, for example, you put a stem into a suitable environment, and it’s induced to grow roots at its base and new shoots, followed by flowers and, perhaps, fruits, above ground. With leaf cuttings, all these new parts spring from a mere leaf.
    Stems and leaves are more than just a few cells. More specialized, but still feasible, is cloning with just a few cells: so-called micropropagation or tissue culture. A few cells are removed, usually from a growing point, and then, under sterile conditions, put into a petri dish containing a medium to supply nutrients and a balance of plant growth hormones. The cells multiply without differentiation into anything special until they are transferred to another medium, this one with an altered balance of hormones, that induces cells to differentiate into leaves and roots. After a period of growth, the plantlets graduate to real soil.
    Micropropagation is a way to create many new, pest-free clones quickly and from a minimum of amount of mother plant.

Apolitical Graft

    My foray into “totipotencing” plants today required pretty much nothing more than pruning shears. I was cutting scion wood, which are stems for grafting onto growing plants. In this case, the growing plants — the rootstocks — provide roots to the clone; the completed plant, from the graft upwards, is the clone, in this case various varieties of pears.

Watersprouts on old apple tree

Watersprouts on old apple tree

    In the past, I’ve done a “Henry IVth” on pear trees whose fruits were not up to snuff, then grafted a more desirable scion on to the decapitated trees. Today’s scions are for grafting onto one-year-old pear seedlings, to make new pear trees. (Not that I need that many pear trees. The grafting will be done by participants at a couple of grafting workshops I’ll be holding this spring. Stay tuned to my website for when, where, and other details.)
    Grafts are most successful with young scions — one-year-old stems, those that grew last season. They come in various sizes, depending on their vigor; pencil-thick is about right. I cut them into foot-long lengths. Watersprouts, those vigorous, vertical branches often appearing in the upper parts of a tree, are good for scionwood, and most, anyway, should be removed.

Pear scions

Pear scions

  The odds for success are also increased if grafting takes place with dormant scions grafted on rootstocks that are either dormant or awakening. That’s why I collected scions today; they’re still dormant, but not for long, outdoors.
    I’ll keep those scions dormant with cold, in the refrigerator or my mudroom (north side of the house, tile floor over concrete).
    Drying out would spell death to the scions, as it would to any living plant or plant part. They need to be kept hydrated, but not in so moist an environment as to cause rotting. So I store them in a plastic bag, around which I wrap a moist towel, and then put the towel-wrapped bag into another plastic bag, well-sealed.

I Was Wrong About Arnold

    I was wrong. Back in December, I wrote, “My Arnold’s Promise witchhazel usually flowers in March. This year’s October flowering means no flowers this coming spring.” Well, it’s March 1st as I write this, and Arnold’s Promise is showered with strappy, yellow blossoms.

Witchhazel's winter flowers and remains of fall flowers

Witchhazel’s winter flowers and remains of fall flowers

    Evidently, not all flower buds slated to open this month opened prematurely, last October. Some did as they are supposed to do: waited. Why? Good question. Looking at the shrub, a location effect does not seem to come into play. Late winter blossoms seem randomly distributed rather than concentrated on older, younger, lower, higher, southern, or northern stems.
    With no explanation coming to mind (yet!), I’ll just relax and enjoy the unexpected show.

Beans, Beans, . . . and Blueberries

Deb and David gather around the kitchen table as the contenders are brought forth, each steeped in its own cooking juice in a custard cup. The event is the long-awaited bean test, home-grown Cannellini beans vs. store-bought Cannellini beans vs. home-grown Calypso (Yin Yang) beans. Mostly, we are interested in

whether the home-grown Cannellini’s would be better than the store bought, a possible reason being that stored, dry beans get tougher with age.

I planted a very short row of the Cannellini and of Calypso beans back in the middle of May. I do mean short, only about 5 feet each. After all, this planting was for testing, not for production.
The beans I planted, as well as kidney beans, pinto beans, and some other dry beans, and green beans, share the same botanical lineage, Phaseolus vulgaris. All can be grown just like green beans except that for dry beans, the harvest is of mature seeds, so a longer season is required, typically around 90 days or so.
After my dry bean harvest, I transferred an aliquot of each variety into its own glass custard cup, did the same with an aliquot of store-bought Cannellini beans, and filled the custard cups with water. The cups went into a larger pot with an inch of water and the whole setup went onto the woodstove to simmer for a couple of days. Retrieval and cooling bring us to this moment.
No need for a blindfold test because the differences were dramatic. The results? All three of us gave the home-grown Cannellini’s the highest marks in terms of creamy texture and good flavor. Second best was Calypso. It appears that I’ll be devoting more space next year to growing Cannellini beans.
In addition to mouth-watering flavor and creamy texture, Cannellini beans (and other white beans) are rich in phosphatidylserine. The thinnest thread of evidence suggests that phosphatidylserine might — just might — improve memory and cognition, as well as confer other health benefits. Cow brains are among the richest sources of phosphatidylserine, but I’d rather be forgetful than get mad cow disease.
Lowbush blueberries abound in the woods around here but are conspicuously absent from gardens and landscapes — except in my front yard. I grow them for “luscious landscaping,” that is, for both beauty and

good eating. Plants recently shed their crimson leaves, which is how they show off in autumn. In spring, they show off their nodding, bell-shaped, white flowers, and all summer long, the ground is blanketed with healthy, bluish-green leaves on stems a foot and a half high.

Next summer, I know my plants won’t fruit because yesterday I cut all the stems right down to the ground. Best yields come from stems that are one-year-old and two-years-old, so stems have to grow at least a year before they can flower and fruit.
Traditionally, and under natural conditions, periodic pruning of lowbush blueberries was done with fire. Fire had the additional advantage of knocking out some potential weed and pest problems. Of course, burning also has its hazards and I’m not seeking any excitement in the blueberry bed along the east side of my house beyond a big crop of berries. So I went at the plants this week with hedge shears and hand shears, cutting the stems as low as possible. The lower to the ground plants are lopped back, the fewer the resulting stems next summer, and the more energy the plants can channel into fruit buds for the following year’s harvest.
I don’t really want to sacrifice all of next year’s lowbush blueberry crop so I lopped to the ground only half the planting. Next year, that half that was spared my shears will bear and next autumn I’ll cut those stems down. The summer after next, this year’s lopped down plants will bear fruit, and next year’s lopped down plants won’t. And so the harvest can continue hopscotching merrily along, keeping the plants productive and me in berries every year.

Sharing the lowbush blueberry bed is an Arnold’s Promise witchhazel shrub getting its digs in to offer what is perhaps the final oddity for a generally odd growing season. Year after year it has reliably flowered in March. This year it’s flowering right now, probably because of cool weather followed by extended warm weather duping the shrub into acting as if it was, in fact, March.
One problem with November flowering is that fewer or no flowers will open this coming March. Another problem is that I’d rather see the flowers in March, coming in other heels of winter’s relatively achromatic landscape.

Philahortica & Yet Another Giveaway!!

The High Mowing Seeds giveaway is over and the seeds are on their way to the winner; but let’s have another giveaway! This time it’s a copy of my newest book, Grow Fruit Naturally. I’ll select randomly from all the comments offered by everyone who writes in as to what state they live in and what fruits they grow successfully and unsuccessfully, and what their favorite fruits are. The deadline for getting comments in will be Wednesday, April 3rd, at noon.


Philadelphia should not be called the “city of brotherly love.” No, I didn’t get mugged on a recent trip there. It’s just that more evident — to me, at least — is Philadelphia’s greenery. The city is oozing greenery, with over 10,000 acres of park land and hundreds of community gardens and small orchards right within city limits.
Weeping cherries, Bryn Mawr, PA
Philly’s more formal garden traditions harken back at least to the early 18th century. It was then, along the banks of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, that John Bartram, America’s first botanist, planted a garden from which notable American plants were distributed across the Atlantic. John traveled with his son William throughout the colonies studying and collecting plants, including Franklinia, a rare species that the father and son team came upon in the Altamaha River valley in Georgia. They brought seeds back to their nursery, trees of which are the source of all Franklinias in existence today. Franklinias have never been seen again in the wild since the Bartram’s last sighting.

Stewartia monophylla at the Barnes Foundation, PA

But let’s get back to today’s city of horticultural love (Philahortica?). Trees seem to like it there. I’ve come upon majestic specimens of sycamores and weeping cherries, Korean mountain ash from which drooped fiery, orange fruits, and stewartia trees with sculptural, copper-red trunks. Last week, the weather there was warm yet the ground seemed to be covered with broad, thin expanses of lingering snow. No, not snow! Closer inspection revealed sweeps of pale blue crocus flowers just unfolding. This self-seeding, deer-resistant crocus species — Crocus tommasinianus, with the appropriate common name of snow crocus — seemed to be coming up everywhere.
During my three days in Philahortica, the plant that really blew me away was sarcococca, also known as sweet box. And how sweet it is. Walking down a sidewalk, I all of a sudden started sniffing the air like a dog. No flowers were in sight, but my nose brought me closer to a thick, green groundcover with tiny, cream-colored flowers tucked into the leaf axils. The aggregate effect of all those tiny flowers was a sweet scent barreling down from the bank of plants to the portion of sidewalk I was approaching. I have to admit that I was not at all familiar with the plant, having learned my plants in Wisconsin where Sarcococca and other evergreens are not cold-hardy, at least back when I lived there.
Stewartia japonica
Already I’ve sited, in my mind, a home here for Sarcococca. This evergreen plant enjoys partial shade with moist, well-drained soils that are rich in organic matter, which are the same conditions enjoyed by many plants in the heath family (Ericaceae). I have a whole bed of heath family plants — including mountain laurel, rhododendron, lowbush blueberry, and lingonberry — along the east and north sides of my home. Sarcococca will look right at home sharing the bed with these plants when tucked right up to the brick wall of my house.
Among the species of Sarcococca, the one I’ll be seeking out in the coming weeks is the botanical variety humilis of S. Hookerana. Sarcocca is borderline cold-hardy in my relatively cold garden, and the variety humilis is a bit more cold-hardy than digyna, another botanical variety of the species. The brick wall should offer extra heat in winter and protection from drying winter sun and wind.
The path to the front door runs right along that bed and if everything goes as planned, I and others will be enjoying the sweet, sarcococcal fragrance as we walk along the path in two March’s hence.

Witchhazel, here at the farmden

Not that there’s any lack of fragrance around here this time of year. Outside, near that front walkway, witchhazel is in full bloom. Indoors, jasmine is coming to the end of its bloom period but the fragrant orchid, Ondontoglossum pulchellum is still going strong. Gardenia flower buds are fattening up next to my desk and, back outdoors, a whole bed of hyacinths are pushing up through the soil.