The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for ‘Growing fruit & nuts’ category

Pruning grapes

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

grapes on the rocks

If you are looking for good advice from me about pruning grapes, forget about it. I don’t know what I’m doing. When we originally planted our Swenson’s Red grapes, we provided a fairly normal kind of wood and wire trellis, which served its purpose for a while. However, there were a few chaotic years which included graduate school and heavy equipment to install a modern septic system. A large pile of very large stones, salvaged from the foundation of what was once a barn, ended up next to Swenson’s Red.

With the combination of my neglect and its exuberance for the extra heat held by the rocks, it covered the rock pile; and it started bearing quantities of grapes that would actually get ripe, and are nice to eat.

Grape blossoms

So, I hack away at it a few times a year as time allows to try to keep it in bounds, and to get more sun on the fruits as they ripen. Recently I was clipping away at the new growth, lost in my recurring grape pruning fantasy.

Kemosabe in ginseng

Kemosabe in the Siberian ginseng

My recurring fantasy is this: I am wantonly snipping away at the vines, when suddenly a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Gerard Depardieu yells “MERDE!!! Stoopeed woman! Zat ees no way to treat a grape!!” and he whisks me off to the south of France to show me how it should be done…

Lost in this revery, I was working my way around the grape behemoth. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I noticed Kemosabe, one of our loyal and trusty cats, who likes to spy on me from the shrubbery. Black and white fur, right?

Kemosabe in grapes?

Kemosabe in the grapes???
NOT Kemosabe in grapes

NOT Kemosabe in grapes. Time to go, folks!!!

Nut trees, good news/bad news

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

The good news is I found a really nice flush of oyster mushrooms. The bad news is they’re on a buartnut tree we planted nearly 30 years ago.

Oyster mushrooms on a nut tree

This tree was a seedling hybrid cross of a butternut with a heartnut (Juglans cinerea x J. ailantifolia), the idea being that the heartnut would contribute disease resistance and better nut characteristics – easier cracking and more abundance – to the butternut.

We have quite a few wild butternut trees all around us, but the nuts themselves are a rare find indeed. Same with hazel. The wild trees do bear nuts, I see them unripe on the trees. The thing is, there are all these professional nut gatherers (red squirrels) who have nothing better to do than snatch all the nuts the second they’re ripe and stash them away. A human doesn’t stand much of a chance at this wild harvest. And, if one should be so lucky as to find a couple of wild butternuts, well, let’s just say, they are a hard-won delicacy. The ratio of nut meat to shell (after you get the outer hull off) is about 1:4 in favor of the shell, and the shell does not open easily or cleanly. It’s hammer and pick work – a project for long winter nights around the wood stove.

So, the possibility of an improved butternut had great appeal to me. Inspired by reading Bill Mollison’s permaculture books in the 1970s, I made sure to plant and graft a few fruit and nut trees every year, no matter how tight money was. St. Lawrence Nursery in Potsdam NY was one of my major resources for planting material. It was founded in the 1920s by Fred Ashworth, who is probably the best known breeder of nut trees for cold climates. His work is being carried on by Bill Mackently, the present proprieter of St. Lawrence Nursery.

Whenever I think of people breeding nut trees (especially the old-fashioned way), I pause in a moment of deep respect for the fortitude involved in such an undertaking. In most cases it is a good ten years at least before one gets to literally harvest the fruit of one’s labor. In my mind, nut breeders are the epitome of patience.

The buartnut that out-grew its bark

And, not too far behind that are those of us who plant nut trees.

I planted a few of St. Lawrence’s Pierce selection of buartnut seedlings. Looking back, I wish I had been able to get grafted trees, but grafted nut trees hardy enough for us were just about impossible to find at that time. (Insert cheap advice – planting any seedling fruit or nut tree is a big gamble, and you don’t get too many chances to roll the dice again if you have a failure. If you’re planting nut trees, get grafted trees if at all possible.)

Of the first plantings, two seedlings tended to die back to the ground each year, whether from winter-kill or the disease that is afflicting the local wild butternuts, or something else, I don’t know. (I do know it wasn’t an issue of the quality of the nursery stock: when first planted they grew very well.)

One of these trees is still doing this annual die-back after 30 years, and out of curiousity, I’ve left it alone. However, one tree from the first planting of buartnuts grew like it was on steroids – a great example of hybrid vigor. The only problem was, it seemed to outgrow its own bark, causing splitting at intervals all the way around and up and down the trunk and branches. The splits were vectors for rot, and for many years the tree would lose branches and vigorously replace them. It had several good sized crops of nuts, borne at a relatively early age for nut trees. They were pretty similar to our butternuts, VERY hard work to crack with not much reward – and likely to vanish if you blink.

New buartnut, old buartnut

New buartnut, foreground; old buartnut background.

Here’s another Pierce buartnut seedling planted about 15 years or so after the first buartnut plantings. This one seems to be a much more well adjusted individual – good vigor, but not out of balance with growing hardy, solid wood and bark. It just started bearing 2 years ago, so it’s too early to evaluate it for the abundance of nuts. For nut quality, they’re a bit better than the nuts from the now dead tree, maybe 3:1 shell to meat.

nuts from the new tree

Nuts from the new tree.

Just about the same time the new tree had its first nuts, the old tree finally gave up the ghost. We haven’t gotten around to cutting it down, and now I’m glad about that.

A summer flush of oysters.

A summer flush of oyster mushrooms

The wet summer of 2009 brought out the first big flush of oyster mushrooms, and we had another this past November, which was a great treat. In the cold weather there was absolutely no insect damage. They were delicious.

Perhaps the buartnut tree on steroids made a lasting genetic contribution to our wild butternut population. I’ve been finding seedlings, scattered around our woods from squirrels’ forgotten underground caches, probably from the tree I planted, or maybe from the wild butternuts.

squirrel planted seedling

A butternut X seedling planted by squirrels amongst the tamaracks

Either way, there has likely been cross pollination here, and I’m hoping that some of the seedlings will have some resistance to the disease that is threatening to wipe out our wild butternuts. Another roll of the dice…

2009 Melon Torture Test

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

OK, I had my rant about how hard it is to grow a decent melon here. Despite the difficulties, and all my whining, I keep trying very early ripening melons.

Last winter I discovered the Homegrown Goodness forum, an amazing little nook on the internet populated by gardeners as extreme as I am, and even more so! There, I was seduced into trialing way more melons than I usually do by CanadaMike, who gardens in Ontario in a similar (zone 4) climate and is also melon compulsive… He sent me seed for some very interesting varieties from the former Soviet Union, and a French one he has been growing with some success.

Alas, the constant wet and cold we had here for June, July and August was pretty much a disaster for melons, the second very bad season in a row. It was impossible to evaluate flavor for the varieties trialed: no sun equals no sugar. Still, it was possible to observe and compare how the different varieties responded to bad conditions, the Extreme Gardener Melon Torture Test.

All varieties were started in paper pots inside and moved on May 14 to a shelf outside along a sunny wall of the house. (That is to say, where, if the sun ever were to shine, it might shine there… theoretically…).

The first challenge was a night that dipped into the low 30s. There was no frost, and no signs of frost damage, but over the course of the next few days that followed, a large number of the seedlings seemed to faint away, collapsing at the soil level and expiring. I suspect some kind of fungal disease, perhaps, or maybe it was simply the cold.

    The varieties sown and their status on June 10, the last day of transplanting into the garden:

  • 12 Piel de Sapo – survived with some damage
  • 3 Apelsinnaja (Russia) – 1 pot barely survived
  • 3 CUM 304 (Russia) – 1 pot survived
  • 3 Luneville – 1 plant in 1 pot barely survived
  • 3 Altajskaja Ulucsennaja (USSR) – survived well
  • 4 Sary-Guljabi – wiped out
  • 6 Gnadenfeld – 2 pots survived
  • 6 Zatta – robust, survived well

As soon as the female blossoms were ready, I tried hand pollinating, but they all aborted, probably because I was molesting them in cold wet conditions, which is asking for rot. I don’t like to touch plants at all when they’re wet, but last summer everything was always wet, so I had no choice. Anyway, none of my hand pollination of melons was successful, and I was kind of surprised that any set fruit at all. Possibly if I had left them alone, they would have set more fruit.

Altajskaja Ulucsennaja, first week of October

Altajskaja Ulucsennaja was quite impressive. It started blooming (males) on July 11, with females starting 2 days later, and it bloomed heavily compared to the others. Zatta and CUM 304 were soon to follow a few days later, followed by Gnadenfeld, and Piel de Sapo at the beginning of August.

Left, Gnadenfeld, September 13; and Zatta, October 10, right

Gnadenfeld is a Manitoba heirloom variety. It managed to set several fruit, and was the first to ripen, slipping on September 11. Near the end of September I threw clear plastic over the melons that were still out there for a little frost protection, though by then the vines were pretty well gone. In a warmer garden, the other melons probably would have ripened much sooner after Gnadenfeld – when the cool weather sets in, heat lovers like melons slow down, and are prone to rot, as you can see in Zatta.

Altajskaja Ulucsennaja was next to ripen on October 5. It set 3 fruits, and 2 of those, brought inside to ripen, kept fairly well (a couple of weeks). I want to try this one again – it seems very cold tolerant and disease resistant, and the fruit is quite large, even though the vines are not rangy. The plant seems to put a lot of its energy into the fruit. Texture is nice – medium firm, and no rot.

Zatta set 3 fruit, with the first ripe on October 7. It had some rot, but the flesh is firm and dense with a very dark reddish orange color, and a nice melon fragrance.

The one lone vine of Luneville set one fruit, which I cut up on October 29 when it showed some rot. The rot was easily cut away. The fruit weighed about 1#, and had a very dense, smooth texture and nice fragrance.

This last one was a surprise. No name, only an accession number, CUM304, from the former Soviet Union. There was only one little vine, but it set two small round fruits. They were not ripe when I picked them and brought them insde in mid October, and I was skeptical that they would do anything. However, they sat on a warm windowsill, and actually ripened at the end of December. They got a blush of yellow on the skin, and when I cut into them, the seed was matured. Now, as with the rest of the melons in this trial, there was no sugar to speak of, but at the end of December they looked to me like exotic cucumbers. Cabin fever can do that to you, but hey, it works for me. I made them into salsa and they were REALLY good with chili. In fact, I think I’ve discovered another good winter storage vegetable that I can grow. And who knows, maybe if they got a little sun…

Growing melons in Vermont

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

I have no business trying to grow melons “au natural” here on a high hill side in northeastern Vermont. This is what I keep telling myself, and yet every year I’m at it again. I can’t rationally justify the amount of effort it takes in proportion to the actual harvest. It’s a compulsion, like gambling I guess. It would definitely be cheaper to buy a melon at the supermarket, and I’d have a good chance of getting a nice sweet one there since I know what to look for.

Besides, I crave sweet ripe melons in hot weather, the week or so of it we sometimes get in July here. There will never be ripe melons found in our garden in July. The thing is, by the time a melon is mature enough to ripen, we are into September and nights with threats of frost. Sugars just don’t form well (or at all) in melons at such cool temperatures, and somehow the crisp cold mornings of September and October just don’t have that “Wow, a slice of melon would taste just perfect right now…” quality.

A hoop house, plastic mulch, anything to provide a temperature increase would help a lot, but I don’t like to use stuff that I have to buy and then send to the landfill after a few seasons. Hence my stubborn insistance on trying to grow melons “au natural”. The concessions I do make are starting the seedlings early (about May 1, no greenhouse or grow lights) and then protecting them when they are transplanted in June with some plastic cloches recycled from translucent 5 gallon vegetable oil containers.

I have had just enough success to keep me tantalized, but not enough to keep me from grumbling. We do sometimes have adequate sunny warm weather in the summer to get nice results from some very early varieties. Two that have done well here in the past are muskmelons Melba (a Polish variety), and Sweet Granite, bred for northen New England by Elwyn Meader (UNH).

Autumn equinox. Piel de Sapo ready to be picked for storage.

However, there is a whole class of melons that seem to be able to ripen off the vine, and I’m finding that this is a quality I like very much in our short growing season. These are “keeping” or winter melons and are better known in Europe than this side of the Atlantic. Anyway, a few years ago I thought I’d try my luck with a winter melon called Piel de Sapo, aka Toadskin, from the Valencia region of Spain. I thought it was a long shot since Spain has a considerably warmer climate than northern Vermont, but I was pleasantly surprised, and am now a devotee.

November 30. Nicely ripe and fragrant.

Piel de Sapo grows vigorously and quickly sets a good amount of fruit, each the size of a football, even here. I have grown it the past three seasons, the last two of which were totally the worst conditions for melons – cold, wet and no sun. In such lousy conditions, the typical early melons that slip from the vine when ripe have no flavor to speak of, and are extremely prone to rot. Whatever you’ve got for flavor when they slip is all you’re going to get. Although winter melons also need sun and heat on the vines to develop sugars and bouquet, if picked slightly immature they can continue to form sugars in storage. I still have one last Piel de Sapo left from this year’s harvest, and it is mid-January. It’s sitting in the kitchen on a sunny (theoretically sunny) window sill and I’m waiting for the tell-tale melon fragrance the fruits exude when ripe.

Right, slightly underripe; left, slightly overripe. Both tasty.

I hope my wait is not in vain. Even if it ends up being not quite ambrosial on its own, some raspberries from the freezer and homemade yogurt will make it a nice winter treat. Here’s one that ripened in late September, and was very delicious paired with some of our Swenson’s Red grapes:

Next, the results of my 2009 melon trials…

Don’t share your pears and why I’d gladly give up moose turd pie.

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

A little over a week ago, I was picking the last of our pears off the trees, and thinking about what a really worthwhile fruit pears are for us. Unlike apples, which we have in extreme abundance, pears seem to have no insect or disease problems, a big plus since we do not spray. Unlike plums, they are very long lived trees, and even self-pollinate pretty well.

We have two pear trees, a Nova we planted about 25 years ago, and a Luscious planted about 15 years ago. The Nova has been bearing pretty well for more than 10 years, the yield increasing nearly every year. The fruit is good enough to eat out of hand, the skin is a little thick, and it goes from delicious ripeness to mush really fast. Some grit cells, but not bad at all.

Nova, left; Luscious, right

The Luscious tree has been bedeviled by deer. It was chewed down nearly to the ground twice, fortunately not below the graft. It took nearly 10 years for it to build up enough of a root system to send up a tall strong shoot to above deer reach in one season. I pruned it lightly to encourage height for many years, and finally last year we had our first crop, about a dozen pears… and they were indeed luscious! Almost no grit cells, a nice red blush, thin skin, sweet and fairly firm textured.

This year, Luscious fruited amazingly well, considering the size of the tree. Nova had a moderate crop (I think it may tend toward biennial bearing). We like to hold the pears in cold storage, then bring them into room temperature for a day or two to come to full ripeness. Theoretically we should be able to hold some into December like this, but up to this point we’ve eaten them all well before that time. Figuring out when to pick is tricky because if you wait too long, when a lot of the fruit is showing ripeness, you’ll have to do something with all the fruit at once (or compost). But, if they are picked too green, they’ll never ripen.

So, daily I did the ripeness watch, and noticed someone else was doing the same thing. I wasn’t finding many ripe drops, only a handful, max, on a given day… and I found some very large teeth marks in some green fruits, which evidently had not passed this someone else’s ripeness test.

We have been living with a moose in our yard on a regular basis for 2 years now. A few weeks ago, she came up to the kitchen window while we were preparing dinner. She has tromped through the newly planted garlic beds, but usually keeps to the paths when she strolls through the gardens, and hasn’t been eating out of them. She has even contributed to the compost pile. However, she evidently discovered the pears this year, and got quite a few of them.

Moose damage to Luscious

Damage to Luscious

Under this pressure, I picked all the pears a tad earlier than I would have preferred to. I don’t mind sharing a little, but, hey, it’s been a lot of years of care and waiting to get to this point. These are MY PEARS. Anyhow, we got about 3/4 bushel from the two trees, and they are good. And they’re MY PEARS…

Next morning when I went out to hang up the laundry, I noticed a, well, severely broken Luscious pear tree. This was hard for me to grok immediately. I first thought “wind??”, but there had been none… and then I knew. Ms. Moose had showed up for pears, there were none, so she mauled the trees trying to find them.

Only one, albeit large, branch was broken off Nova. Luscious was badly damaged, but will survive.

My husband’s electronics fetish has come in handy. We’ve posted infrared detectors at the trees, and whenever the signal goes off in the house, we run out and blast ultrasound squeals towards the pear trees.

Moose damage to Nova

Damage to Nova

For three nights after the mauling she returned to the scene of the crime, but we screeched at her each time and she seems to be staying away from the trees now. We’re not so concerned about her totally destroying Luscious at the moment; however, this is not a long term solution. My experience with deer and bear is that once an individual discovers a particularly delectable food source, they will return for it year after year, and normal deterrents won’t work when they can smell the pears/carrots/honey ripening.

Now, I’ve been a vegetarian most of my life, but I’m ready to shoot her myself. Unfortunately we don’t have a high enough caliber firearm to do this. Instead, I’m calling in a hit on her. I spoke to the game warden, and asked him to point someone with a moose permit in our direction. She’ll be easy to track…

MY PEARS!

The doomed romance of a pair of plums

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

two plum trees

Plum trees: Alderman on the right and
La Crescent, fallen over, on the left.

Earlier this week we had some high winds, and our La Crescent plum tree came down. This event was overdue, but the tree had made it through the winter to our surprise, and we hoped to get maybe one last hurrah out of it (fruit trees under stress will sometimes give a good crop of fruit), or at least get a good bloom that might pollinate its mate, Alderman. This was not to be. It was the usual “almost but not quite” that goes with plum trees in these parts.

We planted the two trees about 25 years ago. Since then we have had two really abundant harvests from the La Crescent of small meltingly sweet peach blushed yellow fruits; several years with fewer than a dozen ripe La Crescent; and at most six ripe fruits in all that time from the Alderman. As a result, I have to say I can’t recommend planting plum trees that are not self-pollinating in northeastern Vermont if you need reliable fruit from them.

If you consult reputable nursery catalogs, you will find these two varieties listed as pollen type A (for American), and thus recommended as pollinators for one another. But, alas, as with human relationships, there is so much more to it than that.

Alderman plum blooming

Alderman blooming

Plums are insect pollinated. If it’s windy or raining or too cold, bees can’t fly and pollen doesn’t get transferred. And guess what – here in May more days than not are either windy, raining or cold or all three. We hoped that planting the plums on the leeward side of the barn would shelter them somewhat from the prevailing winds, and improve conditions for pollination flights. I don’t know whether it made a difference or not. You see, the thing is, La Crescent would come into bloom, and then just before the petals started dropping, the first blooms would open on Alderman. Some years there was a window of a day or two when both would have a decent amount of open flowers, and some years not even that. The two were simply out of sync.

So a threesome, maybe? After several years of this, we sought another type A to spice it up and increase our odds. During a visit to a local nursery, I asked which variety would be a good candidate.

“Toka is a good pollinator” said the helpful nursery person.

“Why?” said the customer who asks questions nursery people don’t want to hear. “Is it because it has a lot of flowers, or because it blooms over a long period of time, or because the pollen is particularly good at pollinating, or is it particularly attractive to insects, or…?”

“I don’t know, it’s listed as a good pollinator,” says bewildered nursery person.

OK, sorry, not in the script. We bought a Toka anyway, and made a triangle of plum trees.

Toka lasted about five or six years, was bedeviled by aphids and a woodchuck (I suspect), and simply gave up the ghost. It did bloom copiously for its size a few years and may have been responsible for the two excellent harvests we got from La Crescent. I don’t remember exactly.

Plum tree down

Plum tree down

Plum trees are very brittle, and even with wind shelter from the barn, La Crescent had split down the trunk in high winds many years ago. As a mature tree it has also been barraged by snow sliding off the barn roof. (Note to myself – twelve feet is just too close.)

Above or below the graft?The new shoot

After all this breakage, a couple of years ago I left a shoot coming up from about ground level, knowing the mature tree’s years were numbered. Now, if I had really been on the ball, several weeks ago I would have cut some shoots from the top of the tree to graft back onto this shoot, but somehow over the years plum trees have slipped low on the list of April priorities. Too late now, La Crescent is all leafed out, and it’s chainsaw time. I can’t tell whether the shoot is coming from above or below the graft line (if there was a graft line) of the old tree, so we’ll just wait about 5 more years and see if it’s still a La Crescent …and if Alderman is still hanging around when the new one, whatever it is, blooms again. Stay tuned folks…

Meanwhile, I’m glad most of our fruit trees are apples and pears – they are a lot more rewarding as food sources. Still, our Alderman is a beautiful yard tree and I adore the scent of plum blossoms in May.

This year’s pruning tool investment

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

quinte apple

One of my gardening resolutions for this year was to get more of our approximately 20 fruit trees into better trim. Our trees range from several venerable specimens with girth I can’t reach around to a few 6 year olds, and everything in between, mostly apples grafted onto wild stock over 20 years ago. I’ve not been as good about pruning as I should have been, and now am suffering the consequences. There is a lot of out-of-reach vertical growth, several inches thick in some cases. What pruning I had been doing was with a good pair of professional quality bypass loppers, a folding pruning saw, hand pruning shears, and occasionally a regular bow saw. The bow saw we had mostly wouldn’t fit to make the needed cuts.

I had envisioned getting either some kind of pole pruners or a hand held chain saw (a cutting chain with rope on either end), essentially something that would permit me to make cuts from the ground. I do my homework now when purchasing tools, because I have learned the hard way that cheap tools are usually more expensive in the long run, and I get very aggravated by tools that don’t perform well, or only last a season or two.

I contacted a professional tree pruner, Padma at Earthwise Harmonies, and queried him about his favorite tools:

For pruning fruit trees: I generally don’t favor the heavier long pole pruning tools with exterior string mechanism which I find gets caught in the trees, yet their advantage is that they, like loppers, can cut up to 3 inch wood. Mostly I’ve come to depend upon ARS long arm (lighter=aluminum-stainless steel) pruners. For yearly maintenance work, I use the 4 feet and 7 feet with heavy duty razor edges, saws can be attached. (ARS makes an 8 feet one but I’m told it can’t be mailed.) I supplement with a telescopic (unfortunately not heavy duty) 6′ extends to 12′, but although it is a good tool, it depends on mechanisms that will eventually fail (I’ve replaced several). So the telescopic should be secondary, for places hard to reach; and if you planted and upkeep your trees yourself, you probably didn’t let them get so far out of reach to need a telescopic. The long arm ARS pruners can be got from: Pruning Tools and Harvest Equipment for Professional Fruit Industry: web: www.sfequip.com or also at www.wood-avenue.com

For slightly thicker sprouts or two year twigs I use a 10 feet long pole lever pruner made in Vermont by the Allen Bros Inc: 6023 US Route 5 Westminster, VT www. allenpolepruner.com . I’ve had one for almost 20 years but it eventually broke, I replaced it and also bought a shorter one, which I hardly ever use. They cut through a hook that also is handy for helping to pull down rotten branches.

As far as hand clippers, I go to places like Big Lots because what matters to me is that they be light weight since repetitive motion takes a toll on my hands, and I end up losing many, surprisingly some of these cheaper lighter plastic clippers are not junky.

For a chainsaw, I mostly use the smallest lightest ECHO, unless I need to make bigger cuts; I love it because at times I literally swing off a branch with one hand while using the chainsaw with the other. I found the telescopic chainsaws too heavy and inconvenient for precise side cuts. So instead I use the lightest 24 feet aluminum ladder (I prune a lot of older tall trees). I have a motorized extended 8 feet ECHO articulated hedge trimmer, the head of which I can interchange into a 6 or 7 inch jig type saws with a pruning blade with which I find I can manage to cut difficult to reach branches up to 5 or 6 inches in diameter.

orchard saw

The Allen pole pruner sounded like what I wanted, and I really liked that it is Vermont made. I phoned to get more info, and got to speak with Tim Allen, who was very helpful. From our conversation and Padma’s suggestions I realized that for the bulk of the pruning I need to do this year (high vertical shoots 3″ and thicker), what I really needed was a good ladder and an agressive hand saw. Tim suggested an orchard band saw that they carry. We just got a suitable ladder last summer, so we purchased the saw (see the photo) and have been really pleased . We decided to wait on the pole pruner until next year – it’s not cheap, but once I get the bulk of the big bad stuff cut out, the pole pruners should be good for annual maintenance.

Ground Cherry – Cossack Pineapple

Friday, February 27th, 2009

OK, here’s another installment about my issues with plant names. Did I hear somebody say “Get a life!”?

The ground cherry Cossack Pineapple came to me through the Seed Savers Exchange in 1987 from Bill Ellis (PA EL B). It was put into the SSE by seed-saver super-hero Will Bonsall (ME BO W), who has the god-like power (in my eyes) to get seed directly out of the USDA National Plant Germplasm System. This particular Cossack Pineapple is the USDA’s PI285705, and came to them from Warsaw, Poland.

Cossack Pineapple Groundcherry

I can say for sure it is a member of the genus Physalis, which makes it a close relative of tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) and the ornamental Chinese Lantern (Physalis alkekengi). All of these plants have calyxes that form a papery envelope around each fruit, and are members of the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.

There is a lot of confusion about Physalis species. My Cossack Pineapple is either P. peruviana (aka P. edulis) or P. pruinosa (aka P. pubescens). The USDA lists this accession as P. peruviana, and calls it an annual. However, Taylor’s Gardening Encyclopedia calls P. peruviana a tender perennial, and P. pruinosa a hardy annual. In his booklet Ground Cherries, Husk Tomatoes and Tomatillos Craig Dremann has wisely avoided the annual/perennial issue, except to say that the genus includes annuals and perennials. I have been growing this plant for more than 20 years, and I don’t know. Doesn’t make much difference to me – even if it is a tender perennial, in my climate I have to treat it as an annual. Google Cossack Pineapple and you’ll find this cultivar name attributed to either species. Some of the photos and descriptions match my plants, some don’t.

Cultivation is the same as for tomatoes: start them early inside, transplant after frost danger, feed well. I usually have volunteers, but they bear a lot less fruit than the transplants. The plants are upright (2-3 feet) and spreading. The fruit ripens and forms sugars well even in cool temperatures, which is probably why it became quite popular as a commercial crop in the Ukraine and Poland. This strain has really delicious, sweet subacid fruit with none of the off-flavors often associated with ground cherries. We eat them raw out-of-hand, in salads, and they make fantastic salsa. I love the combination of Cossack Pineapple with cilantro and fresh hot peppers. The trick is to be sure they are completely ripe, which is easy to discern because the husk turns brown and the fruit falls to the ground. They also keep really well. The plants will survive a light frost, so at first frost, I pick all the fruit into a basket, hulls and all, and keep them in the pantry (65 degrees F). Most of the unripe will ripen in the basket, and if you aren’t keeping up with eating them as they ripen, they will dry very nicely. We ate the last of ours this year in early February, but if the harvest had been bigger, we would still be eating them out of the basket.

I think the name Cossack Pineapple may be one of those very generic variety names, which frequently happens with off-the-beaten track species. I do wonder if this plant’s wild origins were in the Andes (if it is P. peruviana), or in eastern Europe. Could it have been collected on a Vavilov expedition to South America, and introduced into the agriculture of the USSR in the twentieth century? I’d love to know more.

Black currant vinegar

Monday, July 28th, 2008

currant Black Consort

Our black currants are ripening, so I have been making sure to get them before the wandering gangs of marauding wild turkeys do. This variety is Consort. Eating them fresh and raw is an acquired taste, and I haven’t quite acquired it yet, especially when there are blueberries and raspberries ripening at the same time. These currants would be probably be great for jam or jelly, but better yet, I figured out the “killer app,” at least for us: black currant vinegar. This is really easy. I pick the currants, fill a canning jar about halfway with currants and then top the jar off with homemade cider vinegar. Screw on the lid and leave it in the sun until the vinegar has taken on a deep ruby color. We have a flat black rock in front of the house for this purpose, but a sunny window would be fine. That’s it.

Making black currant vinegar

When we’re ready to use it, I open a jar, run it through the blender and use it seeds, pulp and all. It’s my favorite salad dressing – all you have to add is a bit of tamari or something salty – it doesn’t need oil (my opinion). It’s also great on steamed winter squash. I made four quarts of it last year, which got us through the winter and into May.

Pruning apple trees

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

I never seem to accomplish all the pruning work I should on our fruit trees. Some of the older ones are dishearteningly out of control. I’m comfortable climbing trees and using the chain saw, but not at the same time. Call me a wimp, I don’t care.

Beacon apple tree

Anyway, last week I pretty much finished up pruning for this year. Pictured is one of my victims, a Beacon apple we planted about 20 years ago. 3 or 4 years ago it was severely damaged in a wind storm and split in half, so it has needed some TLC. It’s a robust grower and is recovering well. It bears lots of large apples which has been cause for concern because the storm damage left all the branches on one side, and the weight of the fruit pulls on an already leaning tree. This year it will be quite a bit better balanced.

Over the winter I discovered an inspiring and informative web site about pruning apple trees, which is connected to a really fun talk radio show. The website belongs to Padma, who is co-host of Sniggling Eels along with a market gardener named Alan LePage. The station is WGDR, a community radio station based in Plainfield, Vermont, and streaming on the web. The conversations are lively and intelligent, and range from practical homesteading and gardening (how to train a dog not to eat the chickens) to philosophy and politics (mostly left of center). The Sniggling Eels time slot is Friday, 8-10am (US eastern time) , though I believe they will be changing to Sunday mornings soon. Check it out!