Fire Cherries

Walking across my hill top in Western Pennsylvania today the single flowering plant that stands out the best is the fire cherry. The young plants in particular have a bright red bark that announces itself in every sense except perhaps for taste. This plant, botanically Prunus pensylvanica, was one we shied away from when cutting hotdog and marshmallow sticks as kids. Supposedly this cherry in particular contains more cyanic compounds than most.

Right now these trees are easy to spot from a distance by their bright white floral displays. They are never difficult to identify though. Even in winter the red color of the bark will give them away.

I’m also seeing a few clove currant blooms and some gooseberry and black currants in bloom right now as well. Dandelions have been blooming for the last day or two as well. Those in particular I usually expect to see in force starting around the end of the first week in May.

Fun with Fruit Trees in the Spring

Plants that are both decorative and fruitful are near and dear to my heart. Apple and pear trees fit that slot perfectly.

This past week I found myself rather belatedly pruning some fruit trees on the family farm. Normally winter pruning is something done on apples in late winter or very early spring. This spring has been rather warm and everything seems a bit ahead of itself. I would have liked to have been out there doing the pruning in early March. Still the leaves are still young and the flower buds hadn’t started to break just yet, so when I found myself on the farm with a bow saw, pruning shears, and a little spare time, I made the best of it.

Pruning of the pome fruits, apples, pears, and the lesser known quince, is one of those things that is both easy to get started on, yet can look like magic from the outside. The ultimate goal is to help balance the tree with regards to new growth and older, fruiting wood. Without new growth each year, the tree can stagnate or become cyclic in its fruiting cycle. When it goes cyclic, it will often bear very heavily every second or third year, and bear next to nothing the other years.

Pome fruit trees fruit best on second year growth, fruiting spurs (short branchlet looking things a few inches long at most), or in some cases the shoot tips. Watching where fruit forms on your tree will provide clues as to how to prune in the future.

Another goal of pruning is to contain the size of the fruit tree. It isn’t an accident that fruit is often borne most heavily on the highest branches. Those branches get the most sun, and are the farthest away from ground dwelling herbivores that might consume the fruit before it is ripe and falls down to their level. By pruning upwards pointing branches, you can guide the tree into an easier to harvest form. By clipping the tip of a young, unbranched tree you stimulate more growth in the side branches. Clipping a newly planted fruit tree at about 4 to 5 feet in height will typically guarantee a fork in the tree at that height.

Another important goal in pruning fruit trees is to improve their health. This might be the simplest approach to start learning as well. When branches cross, literally grow across each other and touching, they will rub against each other and wear holes in the bark of the branches. Because the branches are rubbing in the wind, these injuries tend not to heal properly. By clipping out branches that are crossing and rubbing, you help keep the bark intact, and disease out.

You can also clip out blighted branches. Cut the branch at least 5 to 6 inches back into healthy looking wood, ideally back at a joint so that you remove an entire diseased branch cleanly. A solution of 10% bleach or 70% rubbing alcohol can be used to sanitize the shears or saw between cuts, and this is particularly important when trying to remove an infection from a tree.

This week I planted out an asiatic pear tree. In October of 2008 a co-worker passed me a pile of very excellent asiatic pears, and I started the tree from a seed from that batch. In mid April of 2012 the tree was over 7 feet tall, in a 5 gallon bucket of soil, and the roots were grown through the drain holes into the bottom of the greenhouse.

I pried up the roots as best as I could with a broadfork, carted the tree out into the back, and planted it firmly into the ground. I pruned it down to about 5 feet, clipped off several large branches that were growing in the wrong direction, and staked it straight. Pruning the tree at planting helps balance damage done to the roots, fewer roots, fewer branches for the roots to support.

At the same time I tied down a couple of the side branches. Pear trees tend to produce heavily, and large branches can snap off under the weight of the fruit. By training the branches to grow at a wider angle, there is less chance of the branch breaking later in life.

I piled on several inches of undyed, double ground mulch to a circle about 4 feet across. This helps hold in moisture, provides a buffer zone for when the lawn mower passes by, and the double ground wood mulch provides an excellent base for proper soil microbes to form a symbiotic relationship with the tree. The red, black, or brown dyed mulch all work great as well. I find that away from the house, the undyed mulch forms an aesthetic framing for a fruit tree without drawing attention away from the tree.

Happy Gardening out there!

Spring Planting for Perennials

One of my co-workers caught me off guard a week ago when she asked me what she could plant in her garden right now.

My mind started running through the early crops, beets, peas, onion sets, lettuce can all go in very early in the spring. Before I could organize a suggestion she asked me about leeks.


Perennial veggies are an excellent addition to a garden. Food that doesn’t have to be replanted years after year appeals to me. I double checked to make sure she meant leeks, and not the ramps that will be available a few weeks from now. Either one can be grown in the garden, but regular garden leeks are probably a little more tolerant of cultivation. Their wikipedia entry suggests that they have been cultivated for at least the last 4,000 years.

Leeks, ramps, scallions, onions and garlic all have a lot in common. They tend to grow best in cool, moist conditions, usually benefit from a fertile soil, and are generally perennial. Top setting for garlic, setting seed for non-garlic plants, or for some onions very cold temperatures might bring an end to the plant. Leeks and ramps can be planted most any time of the year, but right now with cool temperatures and lots of moisture is a great time to get them into the ground.

One of my favorite seed dealers, J.L. Hudson, advertises four varieties of leek seed this year. Hudson is also offering a selection of onion seed, some of which will overwinter nicely here in Pennsylvania. Seed can be planted outdoors in tilled soil, or lay down 8-10 layers of newsprint covered with several inches good fine mulch, and place the seed on top of the mulch. The seed doesn’t need to be covered, or cover it very lightly. Rows 8 inches apart are fine.

Leek plants can also be purchased locally, Classifieds lists a number of people selling garden leeks right now. They can be planted right now along with onion sets, and in much the same fashion as onion sets.

In addition to members of the onion family, this is a perfect time to get fruit trees and bushes into the ground. There are lots of local nurseries that carry an abundance of fruiting plants. One of the advantages of shopping at a local nursery is that they tend to stock plants they’ve found to do well in the local area. It doesn’t work well for them to have people bringing them back dead plants over the next couple of months, and so they’ve got a lot of trial and error in offering plants that are likely to do well right out of the gate.

This spring I’ve worked in a number of raspberry bushes, gooseberries, currants, and some edible honeysuckles. As you move further out into lesser known plants, the advantages of mail order nurseries kick in. Where as the local nurseries are going to take pains to offer error-proof options, they are not going to want to expend valuable stock space into plants that will have a limited following. Most nurseries will carry heritage, bristol, and lathram raspberries, but if you want a Fall Gold, Anne’s Gold, or KiwiGold you might have to mail order them. Yellow Delicious apples and D’Anjou pears can be found at most nurseries, but Arkansas Black apples and Korean Giant pear are likely going to be mail order plants.

I planted raspberries for the first time last year, and decided to expand a little this year. I dropped this year’s plants in 10′ away from last year’s row, and put the plants 2′ apart in the row. I hope in a couple of years to have a solid hedgerow of Fall Gold.

Edible honeysuckle can also be known as haskap or honeyberry. Edible honeysuckle, at its best, is said to resemble blueberries. The advantage is that they barely care what sort of soil they grow in, compared to blueberries being fairly particular about a low nutrient, acidic and moist environment. Honeysuckle also tends to be faster fruiting, faster growing, and far more tolerant of shade and competition from other plants.

The down side is that honeysuckle has been bred for ornamental purposes as much or more than for eating, and it can be a gamble getting plants with berries that are tolerable, much less comparable to blueberries. Another gotcha lies in the fact that even eating quality honeysuckle really needs to completely ripen on the plant before harvest. Blueberries picked a day or two early won’t have quite the depth of flavor and sweetness, but honeysuckle berries picked a day or two early are hardly worth eating.

Edible honeysuckle, like blueberries, is not self pollinating and you need to plant at least two varieties for fruit.

I found edible honeysuckle plants labeled as “Lonicera caerulea ‘kamtschatica'” at a local nursery for $50 each. The ‘kamtschatica’ branding only means that the plants may or may not have had their origin in northeastern asia. Online I’ve found St Lawrence nurseries is now carrying several named, patented varieties from the University of Saskatchewan for $15 each, or not-named-but-bred-for-eating plants for $10 each. To me, this is a win for mail order.

St. Larwence requires orders for spring delivery be postmarked no later than April 10, so if you are thinking of ordering, now is the time.

I’ve also put in some hops within the last week. This is another a seasonally available plant. The obvious purpose of hops is for brewing your own beer. However non-brewers might also find interest in hops. The hops are used in crafting for making pillows. They also produce an absolutely amazing vine. Within the first year they are capable of growing up to six feet, making them an excellent privacy screen. The second year if they are properly cared for they can reach up to 20 feet.

For the plants I’ve mentioned, getting them in early in the spring is a key to success. Cool air helps slow top growth while ample spring moisture and bright sun on the soil warms the roots and helps the plant grow into its new location. The later into spring we go, the less time the roots have to dig in before dealing with the stress of providing moisture for early summer’s growth. Early fall can be just as good, with a cool moist fall, and a cool moist spring before summer hits. The disadvantage is that winter sits between the two, and might cull a plant that didn’t grow in quite fast enough.

Most berry bushes will do well to be planted just a little deeper than they were grown, but raspberries and grafted fruit trees need to be planted at the same level or just a touch shallower. Raspberry crown can rot if planted too deeply, and the graft of the fruit tree needs to be above ground. If you don’t know that the tree is not grafted, it is safe to assume that it is grafted. Berry bushes usually need to have any branch older than 4 years pruned, and having the base of the bush below soil level will help encourage it to send up new shoots on a regular basis. Planting a bit on the deeper side also helps encourage their roots to be a little deeper. For berry bushes with their shallow roots, this can be the difference between skating along through a hot dry summer, and producing a bountiful harvest.

Suppressing weed growth is important. Many fruit bearing bushes and trees don’t handle competition well. Two to four inches of mulch over top with either a commercial weed barrier, a layer of cardboard, or 8-10 sheets of newsprint works great. This also helps make sure that the shallow roots of berry bushes don’t dry out. The double ground style mulch is just about perfect for this. Being an aged, finely ground mulch it tends resist wind and stay in place, hold its color well, and it provides both mild nutrition and healthy building soil materials. Call Scotty here at Snyder Excavating and tell him you want to try some of the double ground mulch this season.

Have a Happy Easter!