(The following is adapted from my book, A Northeast Gardener’s Year.)

It’s Not All in a Name

With only a name to go on, which tomato would you choose to grow: Supersonic or Oxheart? If the name Oxheart seems a bit too gruesome, make the choice between Supersonic and Ponderosa. My guess is that most gardeners would choose Oxheart or Ponderosa for a tomato, Supersonic for an airline. What compels a contemporary plant breeder to give a tomato a name like Supersonic?
Heirloom tomatoes
Many old-time names of vegetables – Oxheart and Ponderosa tomatoes are examples — were a lot more appealing than some of the newer names. It could even be that a good name is part of the reason a vegetable of yore still appears in today’s catalogues amongst all the new hybrids.

What’s the Difference?

These names I am talking about are “cultivar” names, or what were once called “variety” names. Problem is that the word “variety” can have two meanings with respect to plants, referring either to a horticultural variety or a botanical variety. To avoid confusion between the two meanings, the word “cultivar” was written into the International Code of Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants in 1958.

A botanical variety is a naturally occurring population of plants one subdivision below the species level. A cultivar is a cultivated variety of plant. All cabbages are Brassica oleraceae var. capitata; all broccolis are Brassica oleraceae var. italica. Early Jersey Wakefield is one cultivated variety, or cultivar, of cabbage, designated, in full, as Brassica oleraceae var. capitata cv. Early Jersey Wakefield. No need to rattle off this whole name when you’re looking for a pack of this seed. Just ask for “Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage.”
Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage

Why That Name?

Many old-time cultivars have interesting names, interesting sometimes for no other reason than because the rationale behind the name is not immediately obvious. As I thumb through a catalogue of vegetable cultivars, I can’t help but wonder why anyone would name a parsnip cultivar The Student. The same goes for Old Bloody Butcher corn and the Missing Link apple. Such names surely were not chosen as marketing ploys. In the case of the string bean cultivar Lazy Wife, the rationale behind the (sexist) name is not at all obscure (old-fashioned string beans had to be de-stringed). Compare such clever names with those of some of today’s cultivars — Superhybrid eggplant, Green Duke broccoli, or Bounty green bean.

Some of the old cultivar names have a nice ring to them. Who can resist growing a corn called Country Gentleman, or a bean called Red Valentine? Such names are more appealing than cutesy names like Kandy Korn corn or Tasty Hybrid pepper. Well, at least the pepper is Tasty Hybrid, rather than Tastee Hybrid.

Popcorn: Old Dutch Buttered and Pink Pearl

Popcorn: Old Dutch Buttered and Pink Pearl

Which cultivar name sounds more appealing to you: Red-Cored Chantenay carrot or Six-Pack carrot? Calabrese broccoli or Packman (or is it Pac-Man?) broccoli?

Some of the old names might have had appeal in their day, but just would not fly today. With metropolitan New York City looming closer than ever, Hackensack melon can’t evoke the bucolic tang it did back in 1929. And I doubt that any plant breeder today would name a beet cultivar Detroit Dark Red. Nothing against Detroit, but it is a name better applied to an automobile or a kind of music than to a beet cultivar.

Calm Down

Before you lovers of Supersonic, Jetstar, and Ultra-Boy tomatoes get your hackles up, remember that I’m not knocking the quality of these varieties — whoops, cultivars — but only their names.

In fact, appealing names often were assigned to cultivars of dubious merit in the past. The name Sops of Wine makes my mouth water more than did the actual apple. The same goes for Maiden Blush apple – beautiful name (and beautiful fruit), but mediocre eating quality. On the other hand, how about the luscious, relatively modern apple with the vapid name of Jonagold. The appellation was derived simply by combining the names of its parents, Jonathan and Golden Delicious.

As you peruse seed racks, garden catalogues, and websites in the coming weeks, think about what makes you choose one cultivar over another. By the way, for flavor, I highly recommend Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage.

Get Ready For Spring, With a Webinar

I will be hosting a WEEDLESS GARDENING webinar on Monday, February 22nd for $35.  It will run from 7-8:30 pm EST and there will be plenty of opportunity to ask questions. For details, go to Or trust me, and go right to registration (required) at .

Blackberries Galore!

Philadelphia Orchard Project, 8/22,
Fruit Growing Simplified

The following is adapted from my new book GROW FRUIT NATURALLY:

If your fingers aren’t stained after you’ve picked blackberries, you’re not eating them at their very best. And this is the year — my year, at least — for blackberries. Spring weather threw a curve ball that pretty much wiped out my developing apples, hardy kiwifruits, and pears, but blackberries are among a number of other fruits that waited patiently in spring, and whose branches are now bowed to the ground under a heavy load of fruit. An especially heavy load due to a mild winter? abundant rain (to say the least, from hurricane Irene and tropical storm Lee) late last summer? my green thumb? Who knows?

After succumbing to temptation and plucking a few of the first blackberries of the season underripe, I can wait for finger-staining ripeness. Coming upon a fully colored blackberry, I give it a gentle pull. A dead ripe berry should drop into your hand with only the slightest coaxing. Eat.
Chester blackberry ripening

In the wild, blackberries are found growing almost everywhere. Some of these wild plants creep along the ground, while others grow upright like small trees. These growth habits have been bred into cultivated blackberries, so you can choose from erect varieties, which are the most cold-hardy and heat tolerant, as well as semi-trailing and trailing varieties. Trailing varieties, with lanky, flexible canes, are sometimes called “dewberries.” Western trailing blackberries yield large, wine-colored to black fruits having distinctive flavors. Varieties also have even been selected or developed that lack those ominous thorns. 

Blackberries have perennial roots and biennial canes. With most varieties, a cane bears fruits in its second season, then dies. In any growing season, as older canes are fruiting, then dying, new ones are making their first season of growth. Any planting, then, has both one and two-year old canes, so offers an annual harvest. The plants spread by tip layering, that is, by hopscotching along as arching or trailing canes root at their tips and make whole new plants which go on to tip layer and make more plants, as so on. Unfettered, blackberries grow to become a tangled patch of canes.

Although wild blackberries often grow along the partially shaded edges of woods, the plants fruit best and are healthiest in full sunlight. As with most cultivated plants, well-drained soil rich in organic matter is the ideal.

Spacing, which may be as close as 3 ft. apart to more than 6 ft. apart, depends on the type of blackberry and the training system. Erect blackberries are self-supporting, but other types are easier to manage if trained by being tied up to a sturdy pole, on a trellis of wires strung between sturdy posts, or on a fence. 

Blackberrys’ biennial canes and their aggressive spread make a case for annual pruning. On all but the trailing or trellised semi-erect types, prune twice each year. The first pruning takes place during summer; the tip of each new cane needs to be nipped off just as it reaches a height of 3 ft. Pinching causes branching and helps keep plants upright.

The second round of pruning, for all types of blackberries, takes place in late winter, just before growth begins. Any cane that bore fruit the previous season is cut down to the ground and the number of new canes is reduced to about 6 per clump. Finally, those lateral induced by summer nipping: They are shortened to about 18 in.

A convenient way to manage the long canes of trailing types is to let new canes trail on the ground, which they are anyway wont to do, lifting the second year canes, which will fruit, up to the wire of a trellis. If winter cold is a potential problem, those reclining canes can be left on the ground where they are easily protected for winter with a blanket of straw or leaves. Late the following winter, the old canes that fruited are cut away, the younger canes are lifted up onto the trellis, for fruiting, and new canes that season are allowed to trail on the ground. And so on year after year – all much more fun if canes are thornless.

The nice thing about blackberries is that they have few debilitating pest or disease problems. Start with healthy plants from a nursery; neighbors’ plants could harbor latent diseases, especially with age (the plants’, not the neighbors’). Prune regularly so branches can bathe in light and air, and remove any canes harboring insects or diseases. And pick berries when fully ripe.

In the cold pocket, where I live and garden, I’m somewhat restricted in the spectrum of blackberry varieties I can grow. I also have an aversion to blackberries’ intimidating thorns, which arm even the leaves, all with reverse barbs to really grab you. Years ago, I traded in the delectable, but thorny, Darrow plants for my present Chester blackberries, which are the most cold-hardy of the thornless varieties. I also grow Doyle thornless, which makes long, trailing canes that I can sometimes lay on the ground to be covered by mulch or snow for winter protection.
The thornlessness of thornless blackberries is, in my opinion, beauty in of itself. It’s not just that these plants are non-intimidating; the smooth, greenish stems and lush green leaves really are quite ornamental, and made more so as a background for spring’s large white blossoms.

See my book GROW FRUIT NATURALLY for more detail on varieties and cultivation of blackberries, which can be grown just about everywhere with appropriate choice of varieties.


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.