I’m stepping outside this sunny afternoon for a walk around the farmden, pad and pen in hand to evaluate some of this season’s goings on to make notes for next season. Not that the season is anywhere near over yet. I expect to be out and about with pitchfork, harvest basket, and garden cart at least into December. But no surprises are expected at this point.
Starting in the north vegetable garden: tomatoes. Over the years I’ve honed the number of varieties here from too many to our half-dozen or so favorites.
The goal is top-notch flavor and reasonable productivity. San Marzano, which is very productive, might taste like cotton fresh but it’s a must for the best-tasting cooked tomatoes. The San Marzanos get their dedicated canning jars, but also good canned is Blue Beech and, great for fresh eating also, are Amish Paste and Anna Russian.
I once grew a rose, Bibi Maizoon, that I considered to be as close to perfection as any rose could be. Its blooms, that is. They were cup-shaped and filled with loosely defined row upon row of pastel pink petals, nothing like the pointed, stiff blossoms of hybrid tea roses. Completing the old-fashioned feel of Bibi Maizoon blossoms is the flowers’ strong, fruity fragrance.
(In case you don’t know who Bibi Maizoon was, she was a member of the royal family of Oman. The Bibi Maizoon rose was bred by British rose breeder David Austin.)
The bush itself was as imperfect as the blossom were perfect. Where to begin? For starters, the thin stems could hardly support the corpulent blossoms. Couldn’t, in fact, so the blossoms usually dangle upside down. Upside down blossoms were not that bad because I considered Bibi best when cut for vases indoors to …
As I led my nephew Jeff, his wife, and their two kids around the garden a couple of days ago, I plucked fruits and vegetables here and there for them to sample. They could compare them with what New York City, where they live, has to offer. They were blown away by the flavors here.
Okay, I cheated a little. They got to sample some of the best of the best: figs so soft they were drooping from their stems, white alpine strawberries, Sungold cherry tomatoes, Golden Bantam sweet corn, and Kentucky Wonder green beans, all picked on the spot and at their peak of perfection. The Golden Bantam corn, you won’t find that offered for sale pretty much anywhere these days although it was the standard of excellence in sweet corn 100 years ago. The white alpine strawberries (Pineapple Crush) are too small and too soft …
For many gardeners, spring is the critical gardening season, what with preparing the soil, starting seedlings, setting out transplants, pruning, watching and staying prepared for late frosts and . . . In my view, right now is just as crucial, and for an equal number of reasons.
True, a 90 degree day with high humidity doesn’t exactly pull you out to the garden to putter around in blazing sunlight. But early mornings around here are mostly cool, calm, and beautiful.
Much of what needs to be done is regular maintenance. Pruning tomatoes, for instance. I train my tomato plants to stakes and single stems, which allows me to set plants only 18 inches apart and harvest lots of fruit by utilizing the third dimension: up. At least weekly, I snap (if early morning, when shoots are turgid) or prune (later in the day, when shoots are flaccid) off all suckers and tie …
I once grew a beautiful, red rose known as Dark Lady. For all her beauty, she was borderline cold-hardy here. Many stems would die back to the graft, and the rootstock, which was cold-hardy, would send up long sprouts. Problem is that rootstocks are good for just that, their roots; their flowers, if allowed to develop, are nothing special.After a few years of watching the weakened plant recover each season, I made cuttings from some of the stems. The cuttings rooted and the new plants, rather than being grafted, were then growing on their own roots. Even a cold winter wouldn’t kill the roots, living in soil where temperatures are moderated. If the stems died back to ground level, new sprouts would still sport those dark, red blossoms.
I planted my new Dark Lady in a bed on the south side of my house. There, with the brick …
Awhile ago I plucked some ripe strawberries and handed them to Rachel for a taste. Her ho-hum reaction told me that I hadn’t picked carefully enough. Yes, the berries were white, but that’s their color when ripe — and also when not ripe.You should be scratching your head by now. Strawberries that are white when ripe? Strawberries perhaps ready for harvest in early May here in the Hudson Valley?
The berries I handed Rachel were alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca), a different species from our usual garden strawberries (F. X ananassa). They are a kind of “wood strawberry” (often going under their more upscale-sounding French moniker fraises de bois) first encountered about 300 years ago near Grenoble, France. These strawberries are different from garden strawberries in many ways.
For one thing, alpine strawberries are everbearing. They’ll pump out fresh berries as long as given sufficient warmth, water, and nutrients. Mine …
Today I put the finishing touches on pruning my grapevines. Yes, it’s late: The buds have already swollen and expanded into clusters of small leaves. But there’s “method in my madness,” or, at least, my tardiness.
My vines often experience some winter damage, some varieties — New York Muscat, Reliance, and Vanessa, for instance — more than others. Waiting to prune until I see some green saves me from cutting off too many living canes and saving too many dead canes. In winter it’s not so easy to tell them apart.
So I do mostly rough pruning in winter, lopping back canes that have to go whether they’re living or dead. Canes also need to be shortened, even those that are to be eventually saved.
Which brings me to another reason I left the final pruning until today. Plants generally make their earliest growth in …
I just returned from time travel one month forward and a couple hundred years backward. Both at the same time! I did this with a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, where black locust trees were in full bloom, which is about a month ahead of when they will be blooming up here in New York’s Hudson Valley.
The impetus for this time travel was Colonial Williamsburg’s Annual Garden Symposium, at which I was one of the presenters. (I did presentations on espalier fruit plants and on growing fruits in small gardens.)
Williamsburg is a magical place anytime of year, and especially so, for me, in spring. (I first fell in love with the place on a family trip when I was 7 years old; on subsequent visits, I’ve forgone the three-cornered hat I wore on that first trip.)
Following last week’s missive about pruning fruiting shrubs, I now move on to pruning my fruiting trees. Again, this is “dormant pruning.” Yes, even though the trees’ flower buds are about to burst or have already done so, their response will still, for a while longer, be that to dormant pruning.I mentioned flower buds, so these plants I’m pruning are mature, bearing plants. The objectives and, hence, pruning of a young tree are another ball game. As is renovative pruning, which is the pruning of long-neglected trees.
Most fruit trees need to be pruned (correctly) every year. Annual pruning keeps these trees healthy and keeps fruit within reach. This pruning also promotes year after year of good harvests (some fruit trees gravitate toward alternating years of feast and famine) and — most important — makes for the most luscious fruits.
Most of the pruning I do is “dormant pruning,” that is, pruning while plants are leafless. A few weeks ago, pruning was a relaxed affair with still-cold temperatures keeping the buds only slowly swelling in anticipation of upcoming growth. Then a few warm days kicked them into gear, making pruning more hectic.
Hecticness is little problem with those plants that are the easiest to prune because the work can be quick; other plants require my standing back with arms folded for some study before every few cuts.
Here on my farmden, easiest to prune plants include mature ornamental trees, shrubs, and vines, and even some fruits. Those fruits are American persimmon, pawpaw, and mulberry. They’re so easy because they can get by with little or no pruning.
Mostly what I do with the three fruit trees, every year or so, is to take a lopper or a …