Day off

I have today off from work which means quick – prune the fruit trees! No company, no huge dinner to make (our hot water heater quit after >10 years so dinners lately have been sandwiches on paper plates), and it’s not quite raining yet, so off we go.

I’ve heard complaints about how complicated it is to prune a fruit tree. It’s not complicated. It’s a lot of work, especially if the tree has been badly pruned at the start or neglected, but it’s not complicated. Our forebears managed fine and many of mine weren’t particularly bright, so there you go.

Here are the rules.

  • Wait for a nice day. I’ll tell you right off that I break this one all the time. My day job takes most of the sunny dry days with only a light breeze because that’s the way things happen. Today the weather is foggy, damp, and humid with thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon. If you have a bad fungus infestation or a lot of larvae, pruning under those conditions might spread the bad stuff around. If that’s the only day you have to work, I’d argue that a good pruning might get rid of the problem, or at least limit the damage.
  • Prune out branches that cross each other. Choose the best candidate to leave (healthiest growth, best direction, most fruit) and cut the conflicting branch. You want sunlight and air movement to the very center of the tree. The old Maine standard is to “prune until you can throw a cat through the branches”, presumably without injuring the cat.
  • Try for horizontal growth, for stability and best fruiting. Different trees have different growth habits, so we try to influence rather than dictate this one.
  • For most trees, and assuming a healthy amount of growth in an average year, try to prune lightly one year and heavily the next. You should be able to tell from the condition of the tree if it needs more than a light grooming in an off year.
  • Keep your Felcos in your pocket. Maybe that damp day when the sap is running high in March is a bad day to make cuts, but if you see a small problem it’s a good idea to nip it in the bud. There’s a reason that’s a cliche.
  • If you make a mistake, it will grow back. Better to make a bad decision or two during the learning process than have a garden full of trees with snarled branches and no fruit.

Here’s a photo of the Seckel pear that I’m pruning heavily today. I can never seem to get a good shot of a tree’s structure, but I’ll let the pile of prunings (destined for hugelkultur) speak for itself.

As a bonus, if you use only passive controls on your fruit trees, such as Tanglefoot and Surround, you can safely grow crops right up to the canopy. That’s some happy lettuce in the foreground.

Pruning for problems

Over the last three years I’ve really let the Stanley plum tree get out of hand. It is normally a well-behaved, productive tree that doesn’t require a lot of urgent care. I have other trees that are real divas by comparison. Unfortunately it has been in close contact with the cherry tree which has a chronic case of black rot. I thought cutting down the big spruce at the front of the lot would help both trees overcome the disease, and perhaps it has, but they are still showing symptoms. We had a wet, cool spring and the plum tree put on a lot of new growth that began to show stress and damage as soon as the weather turned hot and dry.

As you can see, there are areas of the tree that have grown thick and dark and there is a great deal of vertical growth in the middle top section. Vertical branches are a problem on a fruit tree: the ripening fruit hangs against the branch and is easily damaged or loosened.

My priorities were to remove anything that had been affected by rot, open up the interior of the tree to sunlight, and save as many of this season’s plums while still making the tree MUCH smaller. I hate picking fruit from ladders. This is the result.

Below are the same photos side by side. Three days and a rainstorm later the tree is putting out new leaves and the remaining fruit is still developing. We’ll see what the rest of the season brings. .



A color tour of the garden

We have rain in the forecast for the next three weeks, East Coast people. The corn is only 4″ tall but the lettuce – I could sell lettuce in gross tonnage. I took these photos last night and each one seemed to make a statement about the colors coming out in all this moisture and darkness.

Permanent violet deep – one of my least favorite colors in a tube of paint, but it looks good on the Purple Royalty smokebush growing by the driveway. Winter 2010-11 was the first year this shrub wasn’t mangled down to 3′ by being run over by the plow truck. Evidently the fix was to put a giant slap of granite in front of it.

Soon the orange honeysuckle will be in bloom and ruin the monochrome effect, but for now violet Dame’s Rocket, chives, and the bluer of the two pink tree peonies fill the dooryard to the northeast.

The little flame azalea is nearly engulfed in sweetgrass. Truly wonderful neighbors gave me this for babysitting their wonderful child, and I think of them every time I see it.

And green – very in with gardens in the area this summer. Even the weedy grass along the roadside is verdant right now, but we’ll see what July will bring.

Cumulative gardening

This is a view of the south side of the garden circa 1994. We built the house in ’93 and by June of 94 I had portioned out the land that we cleared to put in a well into garden space. My four-year-old son and I built the little compost bin out of scrap pieces of boarding boards from the house construction, and that’s the same wheelbarrow I used this afternoon, albeit a brighter blue back then. Those are our neighbor’s geese running into the woods that we took down in 2010.

I took this photo earlier today trying to find a like vantage point but not quite getting there because now there’s a cherry tree in the way. I’ve accumulated some plant life over the years but the path is almost in the same place it was twenty years ago. It won’t be there in 2013 – I plan to do that part of the garden over into keyhole beds using Hugelkultur.


Good, bad, beautiful

I’m trying to take Wednesdays off from my day job over the course of the growing season this year. Yesterday was damp but not raining, warm but not too hot to do the heavy work of hauling soil by wheelbarrow to the potato boxes.  At the close of day I got a cup of tea and recorded the results for 2011 to date:

Potato boxes are in the “good” column so far. Summer 2010 was hot and dry with a drought for the whole month of August.  Per instructions, I had filled the boxes with soil as the vines grew and when the soil dried out and heated up it actually cooked the vines. Instead of heavy yields the boxes produced about a dozen potatoes – one of my worst disappointments in all the years I’ve gardened. In 2011 I’ve planted the seed potatoes in plenty of soil and will use hay to fill the boxes as they grow. Perhaps the mulching effect will hold more moisture (but not too much) and be gentler on the vines. We’re having a nice steady rain today to water them in.

Bergenia is in the “beautiful” column. It has no pests to speak of (the deer nibble the blossoms sometimes but it’s not one of their favorites), it grows in odd shady nooks and spreads slowly, flowering before anything but the bulbs. Twenty years ago this grouping at the NW corner of the house was one plant from my parent’s garden. Growing in gravel and mulched only with its own leaves, it is a welcome patch of green all year round and spectacular in early spring, when the pink hyacinth-like blooms rise above the foliage.

Bad. The lower garden is host to several variaties of borer and here I may have lost the battle for the “Westfield Seek-no-Further”. The apple borers are gone, driven out by white latex paint with “Surround CP” mixed in and epoxy injected into the holes, but the damage is fairly extensive. My plan is to remove the trunk on the right and prune the other parts of the tree rigorously to distribute the weight. Perhaps the remaining parts will survive.

Back in the “good” column, this row has been seeded for three years running with a “Beneficials Mix” from Fedco Seeds.  Every year my local climate kills off a few varieties, but some come back and help hold the soil for a new packet of seed. On a hot summer day I’ve counted 30 species of insect life hanging out in this little hedgerow. I can’t sum it up any better than Fedco’s catalog:

6333BM Beneficials Mix “When you increase the diversity of an ecosystem you enhance its ability to maintain itself and to resist perturbation.” Frank Morton inspired 75 seed growers with his talk on Whole Farm Cropping Systems at a Restoring Our Seed seminar. One way to increase the diversity of your ecosystem is to sow this mix of annuals, biennials and perennials that will attract and maintain a diverse population of beneficial insects to help manage pests in the garden. Instead of resorting to toxic sprays, attract hover flies, ladybugs, lacewings, parasitic wasps, tachnids, spiders, minute pirate bugs, damsel flies and big-eyed bugs and let them devour the “bad” bugs! Something in the mix will be blooming from spring through fall. Comprised of alyssum, bachelor’s button, borage, gem marigold, dill, fennel, Phacelia tanacetifolia or fiddleneck, caraway, parsley, golden marguerite, ajuga, basket of gold alyssum, and Rocky Mountain penstemon.  Sow as a hedgerow in a well-prepared weed-free seedbed close to the garden in spring in full sun. Easily our best-selling perennial selection.

I expect that the Maine spring combo of 65 degrees and mist will have worked its magic, and everything will be 10% larger when I get home. I’m looking forward to wandering around out there tonight and admiring the garden working on its own.


Incontrovertible Proof of Gardening

There goes my month-long experiment with one-word titles.

Yesterday was a beautiful day. I’m not going to bother comparing it to today, because I’m at work and my narrow view of the railroad tracks isn’t that informative. Yesterday, though, yesterday rocked.

I worked on the seed beds first. The far corner cinderblock plot had produced wonderful tomatoes last year, so this year I planted beets, lettuce, and my new favorite green, Maruba Santos.  I have been reading Gaia’s Garden, 2nd Edition: A Guide to Homescale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway on Kindle and learning quite a bit that is directly applicable to this garden. I’m employing the very basic ideas of the book, such as planting three varieties of “depth” together so that nutrients are rotated through the soil structure. Lettuce (surface), a substantial “cabbagey” green (mid-level), and beets (deep), are a standard combination. Some ideas are new to me: Mr. Hemenway mentions cardoon as a good plant for root depth as well as using its huge leaves as mulch. My season is far too short for cardoon to mature, but using it to improve soil vitality would be a good opportunity to have this interesting plant in my garden (without having to eat it).

I put out the leeks in the next bed to the left (Brussels sprouts and cabbage in 2010) and  interplanted it with more lettuce: Pablo, Majestic Red, and Tom Thumb bibb, which is a house favorite. The next bed to the left was squash last year. I’ve planted it with haricot vert and Provider bush beans (mid-level), white alyssum (surface), and daikon radish (deep). I’m probably getting ahead of schedule by planting beans; we’ll see if the row cover mitigates the temperature enough for them to progress. It was 28 F at 5:30 a.m. but predicted to be warmer overnight as we go through the week.

Up closer to the house is a large, old bed that has been peas two years running. This year it will be 3 varieties of carrots in lengths from 5″ – 8″ and heliopsis.

Tomorrow is forecast to be solid rain with 20 knot winds. Maybe sometime next week I can spray dormant oil on the fruit trees and burn last year’s brush, but there’s no telling with the Maine spring.





Last year I planted a little Garfield Plantation sour cherry tree a little too close to the road. It probably would have been just fine in any other winter but there was too much snow in 2011, plowed up and over our driveway, down the hill and over the little tree.

I’ve been researching possible repairs since the snow melted enough to expose the break. Finally I came across a reference book  at a local library (crumbling tissue paper pages smeared with dirty fingerprints, the spine folded almost in half) with instructions for splinting a young tree. As long as there is still a strip of green cambium (the inner, living layer of bark that transmits nutrients and water up the trunk), this should work.

First, splint the trunk with a thin, flexible piece of wood or metal. I happened to have a scrap piece of ebony down cellar that would do. Thanks John and Ruth! Place the splint on the opposite side of the trunk from the intact layer and tie it in place at the top and bottom. Form a layer of clean melted beeswax around the break. (I melted about an oz of beeswax in a piece of foi, over a double boiler. It hardened into a paste on the way out to the tree – perfect.) Dip a strip of muslin in the wax and wrap the trunk, avoiding buds.

I finished this three days ago, and bud swell has continued on the upper branches. High hopes!


Today, one of my co-workers  asked me what I grow in my garden. We got silly after a few minutes of listing vegetables, flowers, herbs, berries, and on and on. I told her I’d try to do the entire list tonight, so here goes. I’ve only included the variety if it’s important, or spectacular enough to be the only kind I grow.

Broccoli, broccoli rabe, green beans, yellow and soup beans, pole beans, snow peas, pod peas and soup peas, sweet peas, perennial sweet peas, sweet grass,  Genovese basil, sacred basil, thyme, sage, peppermint, spearmint, pennyroyal, milk thistle, and oregano.

Carrots, parsnips, onions, shallots, leeks (lots of leeks), turnips, rutabaga,  Bull’s Blood Beets, potatoes, tomatoes (Paul Robeson, Peacevine, and Juliet), acorn squash, New England Pie Pumpkins, cantaloupe, muskmelons, Silver Queen Sweet Corn, cucumbers, radishes, spinach, letttuce (Tom Thumb, Bronze Mignonette, Majestic Red, Pablo), mesclun, broad-leaved sorrel, maruba santoh, tatsoi, piracicaba, savoy cabbage, kale.

Alyssum, cosmos, Mexican sunflowers, zinnias, dyer’s broom, coreopsis, heliopsis, batchelor’s buttons, stock, roses (Morden Sunset, Mdm. Isaac Pierre, William Lobb and Hansa), Siberian iris, Japanese buckwheat, Queen of the Meadow, hops, Blue Angel hosta, iberis, daylilies (Dear Dad, Ice Palace, Desert Sun), asiatic lilies (Stargazer, Strawberry Shortcake), elecampne, Chinese forget-me-not, flowering quince, angelica, alpine strawberries, Seafoam strawberries and Jewel, mallow, begonia, ground sand cherry, grapes (Beta, Somerset), blackberries, purple and red raspberries, blueberries (Patriot, Earliblue, several others, wild highbush and lowbush varieties), hydrangea, zucchini, hullless barley, cranberries and lingonberries.

Pinks, pears (Clapp and Seckle), plums, pie cherries, apples (Westfield Seek-no-Further, Golden Russet, Russian Crab, Liberty, Blue Permain), crabapples, elderberry, sorghum, flowering quince, flowering tobacco, snowberry, monarda, heath, heather, sea lavender, herbal lavender, calendula, azalea, peach, Dutch iris, echinopsis, aster, daisy, coral bells, geranium, calendula, cactus, seedum, sedge, feverfew, mullien, digitalis, Joe Pye weed, and columbine.

To be continued. . .

Grape juice

Grapes grow very well in the poor soil and harsh climate of coastal Maine. Our season is too short to ripen some of the classics, like the real Concord grape that made huge hedgerows of  fragrant fruit at my parent’s home in Connecticut.  Fortunately, there’s Beta. From the Fedco catalog:

Originated by Louis Suelter (pronounced Sool-ter) in Minn, 1881. Beta was named after his wife and is pronounced Bett-uh not Bay-tuh. Old standby, excellent for juice, jelly and jam. Decent eating off the vine when completely ripe. Medium-sized black berries in moderately compact to loose clusters. Early to bloom, early to ripen. Vigorous healthy productive vines extremely hardy to zone 3.

Our Beta vine is almost 20 years old and the multiple trunks are as big around as my wrist at the base. Last year I bought two more Beta and a Somerset seedless with “medium-sized loose clusters with small sweet ruddy reddish-golden fruit” for variety. I’ve been making grape jelly all these years, but the vines produced so much fruit in 2010 that I made a dozen quart jars of juice for variety. (As a bonus, the juice is much easier to can.) We broke it out for the first time last night and that’s it for me – all future grape harvests are going to juice. It’s AMAZING.

From the Blue Book:

Wash, crush and measure grapes. Add 1 C water* to each gallon of grape mash. Heat mixture 10 minutes at 190 degrees – do not boil. Strain through a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth. For a greater yield (if you don’t mind a little cloudiness or sediment) twist the bag to squeeze all the juice out.

Now the BB instructs you to let the juice stand 24 hours in the refrigerator, ladle it out into another pan (being careful not to disturb the sediment) and strain it again. If you, like me, are short on refrigerator space, big pans, and patience during harvest season you can skip this step. The juice will still be incredible and probably have even more nutrients. On the other hand, if you’re looking to enter your flawless grape juice at the Blue Hill Fair, by all means strain away.

Measure juice. Add 1 – 2 C sugar to each gallon. Reheat to 190. Ladle hot juice into hot jars leaving 1/4″ headspace. Adjust two piece caps. Process pints and quarts 15 minutes in a boiling water canner.

This makes a concentrated juice and we cut it half and half with seltzer.

* The BB always assumes you have clean fresh well water available. If you’re using chlorinated water you may get a better result if you let the water stand in an open pitcher for a day before using.

Fedco tree order for the 2011 season

The main reason I started this blog three years ago was its value as a personal gardening record. I’ve made many failed attempts at keeping track of plant varieties, dates and success/failure rates: spreadsheets, journals, copies of correspondence (I write to other gardeners every chance I get) and odd scraps of paper in the pockets of my out-door clothes, smudged with ink that turned out not so waterproof.

Nothing works as well as posting my experiences online in this little forum, listening to the comments down the line, and being able to search my own writing for information I’ve forgotten or decided willfully to ignore. For example, how many times have I decided NO MORE ROSE BUSHES because given my soil, climate and ability to pamper them they are nothing but expensive annuals? Six times, including the ones in this order for 2011. Oh well.

Quoted text is from the searchable Fedco Tree catalog.

2562 – Anne Raspberry

I am a new convert to “all season” varieties of small fruits. The Seascape strawberries that we planted in spring 2010 bore fruit after six weeks and continued until Thanksgiving. That might have been enough (strawberries! at Thanksgiving!) but they were also delicious. That experience led me to order “Anne” raspberries:

Late. JEF-b1 (Amity x Glen Garry) Flavorful everbearing yellow raspberry, ripens earlier than Kiwigold and is actually yellow, not a washed-out pink. Large cohesive fruit with good flavor. Tall rangy productive plant may sucker less than other everbearing types. Mulching or adding organic matter to the soil will encourage more suckering which should, of course, improve yield. Like other everbearing types, you may cut it right down to the ground after the season. Z4.

2700 – Royalty Purple Raspberry   My first set of Royalty canes produced beautifully for 10 years. This summer I dug them all out along with the Killarney Red, which were fine but not spectacular and are therefore not being replaced. We’ll go with the yellow Anne and purple Royalty and see if the resulting color jam is beautiful, or disgusting. Either way it will taste great.

2787 – Seascape Strawberry  We tried this variety in 2010 and have been delighted with it. Fifty more plants, please.

3485 – Pinus koraiensis Korean Stone Pine  For bonsai. And many decades hence, for pine nuts.

4927 – Abelia mosanensis Fragrant Abelia  For the bees, and the swampy, acidic parts of the garden:

4-6′ x same. Delicate showy exceedingly fragrant pink campanulate (bell-shaped tubular) white-centered flowers. Somewhat loose plant with graceful arching stems. Best as a specimen or hedge planting. Blooms in late spring. As fragrant as hyacinth or even Korean spicebush. Glossy green foliage turns orange-red in fall. Full sun to partial shade. Easy to grow. Prune after flowering. Tolerates most average soils but prefers acid, moist and well-drained. Native to Korea.

5204 – Itea virginica Henrys Garnet Virginia Sweetspire

3-5′ x 5-6′ Swarthmore College, PA. Spreading shrub with an erect clustered branching habit. Fragrant white flowers on upright racemes up to 6″ long in early summer. Bright green foliage, brilliant reddish-purple fall color. Will form colonies. Henry’s Garnet has both superior flowers and fall color. Winner of the prestigious Styer award and the 1999 Michigan Growers’ Choice award. Recommended for moist or wet areas although quite drought tolerant as well. Sun or shade, pH adaptable. Species native to eastern U.S.

5474 – Rosa Magnifica Rose  Here I go again. . .

4×5′ R. rugosa x Ards Rover. Dr. Walter Van Fleet introduction, U.S., 1905. Large clusters of 3–5″ loose double deep fuchsia-purple-red flowers with showy bright golden stamens, spicy fragrance, and 30 petals per bloom. Dense shrub with large glossy dark green foliage and a vigorous wide-spreading habit. Orange-red hips. Very disease-resistant. Walter Van Fleet (1858-1922) was a physician who dropped out of medicine at age 35 to follow his passion for plants. Twelve years later he introduced Magnifica, an unusual cross between a rugosa and Ards Rover (a fragrant red pillar rose from Ireland just introduced in 1898). From 1910 until his death, Van Fleet worked as a breeder for the USDA.

5723 – Symphoricarpos orbiculatus Coralberry  It has four common names, which is a sign I should have a specimen. Also, a bit of Devil’s Shoestring over the door keeps out zombies.

3-5′ x 4-8′ Also called Red Snowberry, Buckbrush, Indian Currant and Devil’s Shoestring. Low-growing spreading arching shrub. A good wildlife plant for banks and hillsides. Dense clusters of small pinkish or purplish-green flowers in early summer followed by clusters of small purple-red berries that persist into winter. Will attract insects, bees and birds. Some say unattractive to deer, but others say otherwise (hence the name Buckbrush.) Red fall foliage. Adaptable to most soils, moist or dry. Shade or sun. Native eastern U.S., west to OK and north into parts of Canada.

6741 – Perovskia atriplicifolia Russian Sage  This plant has only increased in popularity over the last five years – it’s everywhere but in my garden, until now. The bees will love it.

6871 – Verbascum Caribbean Crush    You can’t have too many giant, towering, gaudy variaties of verbascum.

6972 – Scrophularia nodosa Figwort  This plant sounds like something I must have – although I had never heard of it before.

A slim stalk studded with many small waxy dark maroon flowers with yellowish centers. The flowers look like little open mouths singing in unison. Toothed leaves and square stems. Aerial portions infused to make a massage oil that benefits the lymphatic system. We do not recommend internal usage without consulting a seasoned herbalist or naturopathic doctor. Also an excellent plant to attract pollinators. Lauren says, “I have never seen any plant more covered in bees when it is in bloom.” Holly has seen these lovely European natives growing wild in the woods near Sand Beach on Mount Desert Island.

7022 – Verbena hastata Blue Vervain A beautiful bee plant.

North American native with tall branching flower spikes of a deep green-grey hue. Tiny bright purple-blue flowers whorl around the spikes one ring at a time. It will re-seed readily in the garden and around your yard. Commonly used as a nervous system tonic, mild sedative, for a variety of menstrual problems, neck tension, and many other complaints. 5–7′ tall.